British broadcaster Channel 5 televised the next in their series "Missing Evidence" on Monday, and Nessie was the subject of choice for their investigation. I have seen many a documentary over the years and the trend has, not surprisingly, been towards the sceptical. This programme very much continued that trend.
The program followed several threads of enquiry which were designed to lead the viewer to the conclusion that there's no such thing as the Loch Ness Monster.
Well, not quite. Arrayed against a line up of sceptically minded guests was Gordon Holmes, the one person who held out that a large creature of some description inhabited Loch Ness. Gordon's 2007 video naturally featured, but he was also filmed pursuing his latest hunting ideas. That meant a foray along the shores of the loch at night time. I like that idea, I have promoted it on this blog many a time.
Gordon trained a high powered lamp onto the loch in the hope of catching a sight of the creature. Quite how he planned to deploy the device and capture evidence was not made clear, but more power to his elbow, I say. His well known video was discussed, with the theory that it (and a nearby, similar disturbance) was the now ubiquitous seal.
However, the main narration thread involved well known sceptic, Adrian Shine, as we were taken through a brief history of the phenomenon and Adrian's theories on it. Cue a whistle stop tour starting at St. Columba and spending an inordinate amount of time at the "Plesiosaur" and "Surgeon's Photo" stations.
Perhaps it is just my well worn familiarity with the subject, but it was a bit tedious watching the plesiosaur being trotted out again and being shot down to the exclusion of all other potential candidates. Again, no mention of the other alternatives, giving the unseasoned viewer the impression that if you disprove plesiosaurs, you disproved everything animal.
I hesitate to mention the Atlantic Sturgeon which inevitably gets mentioned when Adrian is around. But, you bet, it got the mandatory mention, but there is no evidence that such a creature has ever been in Loch Ness, and even if it had, Adrian himself admits it only forms a tiny part of the sightings database.
So, of all the various pieces of film and photo evidence that have passed our eyes, which ones were analysed? Only those which suited the sceptical theme and that meant the Surgeon's Photo and the 1972 Flipper Photo. I don't doubt this story is of interest to those unfamiliar with the subject, so I guess they are always going to turn up. My only wish is that the main man who actually exposed the photograph, Alastair Boyd, got the credit or, better still, did the talking himself.
One thing I did find interesting about the flipper analysis (by Mike Hartshorne), was his attempts to enhance the original photo using modern image processing software. Even this could not match the retouched flipper photo, which is not surprising.
ANALYSIS OF SIGHTINGS
Speaking of databases, Charles Paxton's ongoing work on a comprehensive sightings analysis was featured, and this was new to Nessie documentaries. The program promised some breakthrough evidence, which I shall come to later. I had attended Charles' recent talk on the same database work, so some of what was said was interesting, but Charles had already told me he planned to publish his findings in an appropriate science journal.
In other words, this documentary was probably not the prime place for full disclosure. Either way, Charles said his work neither proves or disproves the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. However, the multi-hump genre was mentioned as one statistical cluster than predominates in calm weather.
One may assume that was the case because multiple humps are harder to spot in rough, choppy waters, but this was taken to be a sign that all such cases were boat wakes. A seeming contradiction then ensued. The documentary switched to the FloWave machine run by Edinburgh University which can reproduce various wave effects. This mechanical tank allowed waves of various forms to be driven against each other to produce standing waves.
We were told that the topology of Loch Ness allowed for boat wakes to reflect off the loch sides to produce these effects. But I don't think that is the case, more likely the waves just dissipate as they reach the shores. Any standing wave effects are more likely to come from interacting boat wakes.
Those seals got a mention again when Charles told us the average reported length of a sighted object was 16 feet. This seemed good enough for Adrian to raise the matter of seals as a source of single hump reports and even the odd land sighting. He mentioned the creature moving in front of pony carts, which I take to be a reference to the 1919 Jock Forbes story. He had estimated the creature slithering past them to be at least 12 feet long. But seals are only a few feet long, so we are assured he was way out in his estimate - despite having the width of the road as a ruler!
A MENAGERIE OF EXPLANATIONS
Adrian then declared there was one or more seals in Loch Ness during the manic year of 1934 to keep the story going. Again, there is no evidence that seals were in Loch Ness during that period. These inquisitive, frequent surfacers would have most surely been seen and photographed while Loch Ness was under intense scrutiny. Adrian states there were reports of seals but does not mention who and where.
But I suspect one of them was the claimed sighting by notorious hoaxer, Marmaduke Wetherell, creator of the dubious hippo tracks and the Surgeon's photograph. I would not trust his account any further than I could throw him and the seal theory was a tactic of his employer, the Daily Mail, to gracefully opt out of the hunt after the debacle of the hippopotamus tracks.
I'll tell you what though, Loch Ness seemed to be host to all manner of creatures between 1933 and 1934. We have Adrian's sturgeon and seals on patrol but we also had Albert Jack's swimming elephants.
Why this theory was included in the program was beyond me, it is so daft that even the narrator felt compelled to argue against it. The theory was that Bertram Mills would take his circus elephants for dips in Loch Ness and fool a lot of people into thinking the back and trunk were the classic head-neck.
It's a pity they didn't try and argue against the other sceptical theories to add some balance to the program. In fact, it would have been better to edit out Albert Jack's ramblings and get Gordon Holmes (or someone else) to have a go!
That brings us to a fellow called Chris French. He is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London and he is a vocal, ardent and prestigious sceptic. I have seen him before on other programs debunking other mysteries, so I presume the Loch Ness Monster is not his specialist subject. His assignment was to go beyond the seals, waves and elephants to add the "icing" of misperception.
First of all, he went through the expectations of our brains, false memories, the suggestibility of memory and the influence of cultural imagery. The implication of this was that the brain is not a perfect recording device and will fill in any gaps with preconceived notions about the Loch Ness Monster.
In an attempt to demonstrate how memories can be manipulated, French set up an experiment where pairs of volunteers watched a staged robbery, discussed the contents of the video and were then tested on their recall.
As it turned out, one of the pair was a "stooge" who would suggest false information to the other person. As a result, the majority of volunteers got some things wrong. They thought a gun was there when it was not, likewise somebody stacking shelves and a certain type of jacket were not there.
What was then attempted looked like a sceptic's version of "bait and switch". The robbery video was replaced by an object on Loch Ness. The stooge feeding false information was replaced by the plesiosaur imagery witnesses allegedly carry in their minds. We were then invited to accept that this is how birds, logs and waves become dinosaurs.
But in a narrative twist, Charles Paxton revealed that comparisons of retold eyewitness testimonies, often decades apart, were unexpectedly consistent and did not grow with the telling. Charles regarded this as a "mystery" and we did not get the pleasure of seeing Mr. French trying to explain this away.
My own view of this is simple. Dramatic events, such as seeing a real, large creature will burn into the memory more readily and have a greater permanence. You will know this yourselves, memorable events, be they good or bad, are retained better in our memories. Why Mr. French did not address this as a real aspect of eyewitness perception is also a "mystery" to me.
As for the attempt to reframe the experiment in a Loch Ness setting, I am far from convinced. A dark object against the back drop of uncomplicated, homogeneous water is not going to tax the memory as much as a complex robbery scene in a shop. A supposed idea of a dinosaur is a far cry from someone beside you feeding misinformation. Moreover, this theory does not explain close up sightings where opportunities for memory gaps are at a minimum. And, lastly, the theory is unfalsifiable, which is not where objective, critical thinking should end up.
But Chris French left his most dubious theory to the end and this was our supposed revelation from Charles Paxton's database. Using an annual chart of sightings since 1933, he claimed that the number of sightings rose and fell with various monster films. The obvious one is King Kong from 1933, but I have covered that canard in a previous article.
The other mentioned film was one I had never heard of called "The Giant Behemoth" which was released in 1959. Now sightings subsequently increased into the 1960s, but we don't need a little watched B-movie to explain that coincidence. The Dinsdale film of 1960 and the arrival of the LNIB in 1962 to improve the collecting of sightings is all you need to know.
It was also mentioned that the much watched "X-Files" was responsible for an uptick in Nessie sightings. However, this run of 202 episodes ran from 1993 to 2002, which is a pretty broad spread for making any comparisons. Moreover, not many of these episodes dealt with lake cryptids. Ultimately, I would like to see his graph of supposed correlations and particularly how well it stacks against monster films which see no increase in sightings.
So, after an hour of trying to convince me that Nessie did not exist, I still believe Nessie exists. Then again, I am a diehard who will fight his corner. The man on the Clapham Omnibus may come to a different conclusion, especially if the argument was as imbalanced as it was on Channel 5.
As the program drew to a close, Adrian Shine reminded us of those three sonar contacts obtained during Operation Deepscan. He said he still did not know what they were, but that this did not mean they were monsters. This was probably the nearest admission from "Missing Evidence" that there is yet a mystery to be solved in Loch Ness.