Tuesday 27 December 2022

The Believing Sceptic

Today, the debate about the Loch Ness Monster is to be found scattered across various websites and forums, but particularly on the various discussion groups set up on Facebook over recent years. Gone are the days when books from recognised experts or occasional updates from newsletters plus some headlines on TV or newspapers shaped the debate. I use the word "shaped" as there would not have been much in the way of open debate unless newsletters published readers' letters several months later - a bit slow by any measure.

Who shapes or controls the debate is important as that can influence sufficient followers of the mystery down one path or the other. Back in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s, the plesiosaur believing cadre more or less held sway with the odd side path down to invertebrates, the paranormal and scepticism. The number of believers swelled as the plesiosaur meme took hold in society and even the unconvinced thought it at least bore further study.

Then came the sceptical times and the narrative shifted the other way as those who did not think there were any exotic beasts in Loch Ness took control of the debate. I would symbolically place the start of this era with Tim Dinsdale's final edition of "Loch Ness Monster" and Ronald Binns' "The Loch Ness Mystery Solved" about 1982-83. This was kept going by the publications of people like Adrian Shine, Steuart Campbell, Tony Harmsworth and Boyd/Martin. By the turn of the century and the coming of social media, the debate became democratic as anyone could enter and have their say, thus both sides lost control.

The ensuing melee led to a certain degree of uncertainty when the difference between speculation, deduction and empirical facts could become blurred, depending on who you are reading. The well defined channels of control warp as more heat than light can be generated, the inane and ridiculous enter, repetition is indulged and anonymous trollers seek to disrupt and deceive. In the midst of all this, reasonable people ask reasonable questions and may get reasonable answers, but the innate bias in all of us to push our own agendas is never far away.

Having watched the debates ebb and flow over the years in various Facebook groups, and participated in not a few of them, there was one underlying theme which was evident to me, perhaps to others as well and it regarded the matter of purported photographs of the Loch Ness Monster. If you're going to have a debate, then you need a subject. If you wish to offer speculations and opinions, you need the raw data and nothing adds grist to the mill like a digital or silver nitrate image showing something unusual somewhere on Loch Ness.

Which brings me to the tentative title of this piece. The classic photographs of the monster turn up frequently in group discussions. In fact, they tend to turn up too frequently sometimes. One thread of debate finishes and before you know it another turns up a few weeks later asking the same questions, perhaps an FAQ archive of appropriate discussions would be appropriate. That is mainly down to the way discussions can quickly disappear from the top page and scroll out of sight once the last comment is made. Another reason is multiple groups not knowing what the other is doing. 

But whatever the reason, I wondered how the modern brand of monster believer differed from the ones that frequented the scene in the 1930s or the 1970s? One main difference for me is the fact that they have been exposed to a level of sceptical rhetoric not seen by the two previously mentioned generations. They have seen the writings of Shine, Campbell and Binns plus the various websites of other sceptics which dot the digital landscape. The general sceptical arguments and the specific arguments against cryptids are posted, read and processed on the forums, they have an effect, seen and unseen. But that is the way of it, multiple opinions on all sides are read and we all process, filter and file them in our own particular ways.

Let me get to the centre of the argument here and I am concentrating on the photographs here. Imagine for a moment that there are no cine films, videos, sonar or whatever else - only still images. This genre gets panned regularly by the sceptics on the forums, but also by various people who believe in the Loch Ness Monster. Well, that is okay you might say, we're not going to be the gullible believers of the 1930s and 1970s, we are going to be enquiring and critical believers who don't jump at the latest evidence without having a good look at it.

Now, I do not have trouble with people assessing the latest item of evidence and putting it through some stress tests (though some of the stress tests need stress testing themselves). After all, there is some rubbish out there passing for evidence of the Loch Ness Monster.  However, it is the approach to retro-analysis of evidence going all the way back to 1933 that bears thinking here. Some people are digging themselves into a hole they will not get out of.

What do I mean by that? In such debates, it is usually the case that a sceptic will turn up with their prepared arguments about why this photograph and that photograph should be rejected as evidence. Their motive here is not to apply the fine sieve of logic in the search for the best evidence. Their motive is to trash all and every piece of evidence by fair means or foul. People say we need sceptics to keep us on our toes and grounded in some kind of reality. I can see the reasoning there but I do not think they think they are there to keep you on your toes. Since day one, they have been there for one reason only and that is to turn you into one of them.

Maybe you think you are nimble enough to outwit them with a bit of ducking and diving? Perhaps like those crowds on the Pamplona bull runs of Spain, you think running alongside will sharpen your reactions and fitness - until they stick their horns in you and you become an ex-runner. But let me now list most of the photographs presented as evidence for the Loch Ness Monster since the media story began.

N. Dundas, Hugh Gray - 1933

Kenneth Wilson, Alistair Cummings, Anonymous (Daily Express), Mountain Expedition - 1934

Gordon Powell - 1936

John King (?) - 1938

Lachlan Stuart - 1951

Peter MacNab - 1955

Herman Cockrell - 1958

R. Lowrie, Peter O'Connor - 1960

Peter Hodge - 1964

Frank Searle - 1972 to 1976

Tony Shiels - 1977

Jennifer Bruce - 1982

Alex Crosbie - 1987

Anonymous (Daily Mail) - 1992

Helen Cowers, Andrew Wallace - 1993

Richard White - 1997

Alex Crosbie - 2000

James Gray - 2001

Roy Johnson - 2002

William Jobes - 2010

John Rowe, Jonathan Bright - 2011

Kate Powell - 2016

This is not a complete list of still photographs as some are not known to me such as those only seen in physical newspapers which were too late for the pro-Nessie books of the 1970s and too early for the Internet of the 2000s. Others are the masses of mobile phone pictures of distant objects which are not even worth marking as inconclusive. To be clear, I am not suggesting every photo listed here genuinely shows one of these creatures. I am saying this is the entire list as I can best create it totaling at least twenty nine pictures over eighty three years.

So, the best known of these pictures have been dismissed with various explanations. Dogs, swans, dolphins, windrows, hay bales, boat wakes, sticks, hoax models, birds and debris. Looking over the Internet discussions on such pictures over the years, it became apparent that some people who believed in the Loch Ness Monster were accepting these sceptical explanations. The appropriate description may be the oxymoronic tag of sceptical believers, a tension between two positions. Are some on the road to becoming believing sceptics?

You may have noticed I did not include the underwater photographs of 1972 and 1975 produced by the AAS team of Robert Rines in the list above. The reason for that was because I am only considering surface photographs here which leads me to the main statement here. If you do not believe any of the above photographs you know about portray the Loch Ness Monster, then you have implicitly admitted there is no Loch Ness Monster. You may well be a dead man walking, going through the motions and the hole you have dug for yourself will become a grave as you finally move into full blown scepticism.

Are these harsh words, exaggerated sentiments or something closer to the truth? This brings us to the central question. Statistically speaking, how many surface photographs would you expect to have been  taken of the Loch Ness Monster since 1933? The answer is of course not calculable since we are not in full possession of all the required facts. There are over 1000 eyewitness reports of which we can say certain things:

  1. A proportion are misidentification or hoax.
  2. A proportion have witnesses with a camera to hand.
  3. A proportion use it and take some snaps.
  4. A proportion do not come out due to distance or malfunction.
  5. A proportion do not publish them.

You can play around with these numbers and come out with a varying number of photographs, but what proportions do you use to arrive at zero? Perhaps you decide 50% of these 1000 reports are real, 30% had a camera, 50% used them, 70% turned out and 80% published. That gives you forty two pictures over eighty three years. Or maybe you turn the screws and decide only 10% of sightings are viable, 20% had a camera, 50% were used, 30% turned out and 90% published. That gives you about three pictures. However, the more one turns the screws on the accounts to justify their position that no still photos have ever been taken, the more they diminish their own reasons to believe in the monster.

But then you may name the Taylor, Dinsdale, Raynor, Smith or Holmes films as your particular favourite piece of evidence. But how can that position be justified? If you think all of the pictures ever presented are inadmissible as evidence, how can you expect zero photos but any number of films? Since still cameras have been more abundant that cine cameras over this period, statistically we should expect more photographs that film or video footage. 

Finally, you may retreat to the underwater photos, the various sonar contacts or maybe just the best of the verbal eyewitness accounts which had no recording device. But again, it does not matter how good these are since the way eyewitnesses describe what they see on the surface demands that such scenes are photographable. You cannot escape the conclusion - if you cannot in good faith name some good photographs from nearly ninety years as positive evidence, you have implicitly said there is no monster.

I do not know who is or is not on the edge of this as I do not know anyone who would confess that none of those twenty nine photos are of the Loch Ness Monster - apart from sceptics of course. I know my position on that list and it is at least sixteen out of the twenty nine. Where do you stand? Shoulder to shoulder with every sceptical attempt to erase such history or on the side of the testimony of the cameras as well as the eyewitnesses?

Comments can also be made at the Loch Ness Mystery Blog Facebook group.

The author can be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com