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A Remarkably Weak Nessie Video Case

by Daniel Loxton, Oct 15 2013

This post was written at the beginning of September as a commission for a daily tabloid newspaper in the UK, which wanted a short response to a then-current “Loch Ness monster video” story that briefly made headlines around the world…for some reason. (I’m obligated to say, “That’s the real mystery!” although the timing was excellent for promoting a new book that collects Nessie and other mystery material from The Mirror archives.) By the time the rush piece was completed, the news cycle had moved on, and the piece was never run. I present it here essentially unaltered.

Elder-video-thumb

Click through to a Daily Mail story to watch Elder’s video footage

Much ink and many pixels have been spilled over a new [publicized late August, 2013] video notable for not showing any part of a Loch Ness monster. Everyone agrees that the video shot by East Kilbride photographer David Elder instead shows a wave. Nonetheless, as Elder told the Mirror, “I’m convinced this was caused by a solid black object under the water. The water was very still at the time and there were no ripples coming off the wave and no other activity on the water. … It is something I just can’t explain.”1

Seems weird; therefore, monster! Media rushed to craft headlines asking, could this unremarkable footage finally be “proof” of Nessie? (A useful rule of thumb warns that headlines ending with question marks should always be answered, “No.”)

The heaving of primeval water monsters presumably could make waves, if any monsters should ever surface. But other, less newsworthy things can create waves as well. Decades of Nessie hunters have known, for example, that the v-shaped wakes left behind by watercraft radiate for long distances outwards, sometimes reflect off the steep shores of the loch, and intersect and amplify each other in strange and serpentine ways as “standing waves”—long after the boats that made them are gone. Such man-made waves have often generated mistaken monster reports, especially in calm water conditions. “The standing wave is the most ubiquitous of all Loch Ness mirages,” warned Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau head Roy Mackal in 1976. “Quite early, the Bureau began keeping a record of any and all boats passing through the lake, so as more readily to discount sightings that were really reports of the standing waves.”2 But a generation has passed since the golden days of the Nessie hunt. Many lessons from the search have been forgotten.

Since the birth of the Nessie legend in 1933, all imaginable search strategies have been tried and re-tried—sonar dragnets, dredges, submarines, years of systematic observation campaigns, and more.3 After eighty long years of failure, the case for Nessie has all but closed. Mackal—a scientist—knew this must happen if the search went on too long. He wrote, “continued and total failure would be equivalent to disproof. One would eventually become tired and discouraged, funding would be unavailable, and the effort would come to an end.”4 There’s every reason to think this was inevitable. My co-author Don Prothero and I make the case in our book Abominable Science! that Nessie is a modern cultural creation whose origins and evolution are traceable through hoaxes, mistakes, and popular culture (including the influence of the 1933 film King Kong). A paleontologist, Prothero points out that no trace of plesiosaurs—the long-necked, paddle-finned marine reptiles associated with Nessie in the popular imagination—exists anywhere in the fossil record after the end of the age of the dinosaurs. Even more discouraging is the loch’s recent geologic history: just a few thousand years ago, Loch Ness was frozen solid, crushed under a mile-thick sheet of ice. Hardly a cosy “lost world” oasis for relict plesiosaurs.

Like Nessie, many legendary monsters such as Bigfoot, the Yeti, or the Great Sea Serpent enjoyed a period of legitimate scientific interest that eventually faded when no monsters ever turned up. But the pseudoscientific quest for these beasts can go on forever! Why not? There are always new eyes to look over the water, new headlines to be written—always a new generation to be seduced by the tantalizing question, What if…?

Few can deny the romance of the creatures that stomp and swim in legend. We love a contrarian mystery. For all the beauty of science, who does not want to see know-it-all skeptics confounded now and again? “The sceptics by their teachings and writings have made this life of ours drab and dreary enough,” wrote parliamentarian Edward Cadogan in a 1933 letter to The Times. “It is time the faithful rebelled, and if we can prove that the sea serpent exists there is no limit to the discomfiture that can be inflicted upon those who doubt.”5 I’m a skeptic myself—a writer for Skeptic magazine (US)—and even I would love to see such a day.

References

  1. Paul Byrne and Rebecca Younger. “Loch Ness Monster sighting: Was this freakish wave caused by mystery underwater creature?” Mirror. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/loch-ness-monster-sighting-freakish-2224269 (Accessed Oct 15, 2013.)
  2. Roy P. Mackal. The Monsters of Loch Ness. (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976.) p. 29
  3. See for a quick discussion, Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero. Abominable Science! (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.) pp. 164–173
  4. Mackal. p. 25
  5. Edward Cadogan. Letter to the Editor. The Times (of London). Dec 20, 1933; pg. 8

Note to Commenters: I invite and encourage civil discussion, scholarly debate, and open exchanges of ideas on this thread. At the same time, I expect all commenters to keep these useful principles firmly in mind. As on my other posts, I will delete posts that seem to me to be abusive. It’s not that kind of blog.

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6 Responses to “A Remarkably Weak Nessie Video Case”

  1. Liam says:

    It is amazing how much time, effort, money, etc… has been wasted due to hoaxes such as these. I read the wiki page on the Loch Ness Monster after reading this post and was disappointed to find it was riddled with the False Equivalence fallacy where cryptozoologists comments routinely followed studies and evidence showing it to be a hoax “disputing” the findings. Also, the article consistently used so-called evidence from believers who did investigations as a possibility for it’s existence: no similarity in sound recordings to any known aquatic animal, subjected the sonar data to scrutiny and determined it had dimensions of 20 feet, etc… “Seems weird; therefore, monster!”

  2. Max says:

    This just in
    “18-foot-long sea creature found off California coast”
    http://news.yahoo.com/18-foot-long-sea-creature-found-off-calif-173812100.html
    “The oarfish, which can grow to more than 50 feet, is a deep-water pelagic fish — the longest bony fish in the world, according to CIMI.
    They are likely responsible for sea serpent legends throughout history.”

    • Luara says:

      The ocean might be a better place for giant creatures than a lake.

    • Oarfish are seemingly obvious candidates for “the real sea serpent,” but it’s not at all clear what they may have contributed to sea serpent mythology—unambiguous oarfish sightings are not common in the sea serpent lore (which is not surprising, as oarfish are exceedingly rare in the North Sea / North Atlantic waters where the sea serpent legend was born in the 1700s).

      Similarly, while early modern (European) sightings of dugongs, manatees, and giant squids were immediately linked to (respectively) the legends of the mermaid and the kraken, it’s not clear what role these real animals may have played in the origins of these myths. The kraken is a much clearer descendent of the purely legendary island-that-is-a-monster—a cultural creation that may or may not have sometimes had a cephalopod-y-aspect.

  3. spectator says:

    ” The kraken is a much clearer descendent of the purely legendary island-that-is-a-monster—a cultural creation that may or may not have sometimes had a cephalopod-y-aspect.”
    Oh dear! I was afraid I was on Pharyngula by mistake. That’s almost as frightening as mythological monsters;)
    Very well-written article. Your friendly tone is a rare gem among skeptical bloggers. Actually most of the bloggers on this network have a refreshingly upbeat tone (somebody has to cheer up your partner, Donald, though. He gets way too upset over the creationists attempting to do “science”). A condescending tone is something I am making an effort to avoid. Like many, when I first discovered skepticism was a “thing”, I let my passion influence the conversation. Then people often drop the subject or get defensive. Not productive. I also didn’t like the way I sounded.
    On the web, it’s even easier to get on a soap box and be “right.” That doesn’t seem to be very convincing either and can evolve into pwnage. The only way to win the internet is move a conversation forward. Not an easy task.
    But you’ve done an excellent job with this article.

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