New Loch Ness Photo: a disappointing reaction from the skeptical community

The latest photo of the Loch Ness monster has caused much discussion among skeptics, but their initial reactions are dismissive and cynical – but is it really justified?

It was March, and as we walked along the shore of the lake in Bowness I was telling Joe Nickell about the most popular theories about what had caused the ‘monster’ photographed by Tom Pickles and Sarah Harrington. I told him that most people believed it was a tyre, or a bunch of tyres tied together and floating in the water and how, days after the photo hit the newspapers, a sliced up tyre was found on the shore of the lake (pictured right).

Joe asked ‘does a tyre float upright when sliced up?’ and the answer was of course ‘I don’t know, nobody has tested it’. He then gave me that look, the look that says ‘I know you already know the answer to this so I’m not going to patronise you’. So many people had speculated about the cause of the Pickles photo without taking the time to ask the right questions or to speak to the people involved, myself included. Most people concluded it was a tyre in the lake but nobody had checked to see if it was possible for a tyre to look like that. We were making a claim but not providing the evidence to back it up.

The realisation that so many people had been so eager to be the first to comment on the story that they’d overlooked the basic principles of good research stunned me into realising that I needed to change the way I behaved when it came to research. It is more important to be correct and last to comment than it is to be first to comment while lacking facts.

Yesterday various news sources covered the latest Loch Ness monster photo taken by the skipper of a boat called The Nessie Hunter – various people tweeted and emailed the story to me to see what I thought. Click here to see the full photo. The story made me chuckle because just days before it broke I had been speaking to an audience of about Forty children at Camp Quest UK about paranormal research and one child in the audience had asked about the likely hood of there being a dinosaur in Loch Ness. Another child had responded by explaining he thought the Loch Ness monster was a commercial enterprise which I agree with. I don’t personally think it’s a travesty though, especially when the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre is slap bang in the centre of it all in Drumnadrochit and is the best example of educational outreach I’ve ever seen when it comes to a paranormal myth.

When the media report on something paranormal like this latest Loch Ness photo I never trust their coverage, having been misquoted myself more times than I can remember. The first thing I did was email the people I knew on the ground around Loch Ness to ask for their opinions and what they know about the photo and I also contacted the man who took the photo himself to ask him some questions about it, about the boat he was on, and his thoughts on the Loch Ness Monster. I’m still waiting for a response, which I shall do patiently. I am in no rush to reach a conclusion about the photo, unlike many others.

Within hours of the story spreading around social networking sites many skeptics were dismissing it as a hoax despite there being very little to suggest it is a hoax photo. I had posted the story on the Facebook page of the brilliant Monster Talk podcast in the hopes that their US audience might know of anyone in the US referring to themselves as ‘US military monster experts’, as referred to in news coverage. The conversation turned to how the ripples and wake surrounding the object in the water didn’t look as though the thing was moving towards Urquhart castle as suggested in the news coverage by the eye witness. One comment surprised and annoyed me, here is part of the conversation that took place:

Hayley Stevens: Doesn’t the wake look a bit weird for it to be heading towards the castle?
S: I didn’t get the impression that it was even moving, the way he described it
Hayley Stevens: It looks like something in the process of diving. “It was slowly moving up the Loch towards Urquhart Castle and it was a dark grey colour.It was quite a fair way from the boat, probably about half a mile away but it’s difficult to tell in water.”
M: Looks like a log to me or a branch. I’ve seen floating debris in the Loch and that looks just like one of them. It isn’t a monster, obviously.
A: The wake is all wonky, that looks shopped to me.
Hayley Stevens: because the wake is wonky? It could be an animal twisting and turning. It’s more likely to be a misidentification than a hoax, and suggesting a hoax straight off like that is extremely cynical and, with no other evidence of a hoax, illogical.
A: There was no twisting and turning. I’m thinking either it’s a prop on a string behind the boat, or it’s photo shopped.
Hayley Stevens: Where is your evidence?
A: Where is the evidence that it is a Giant Unclassified Aquatic Monster, that lives in a lake that until 15,000 years ago, was covered with 1.5 miles of Ice? Provide some of that, and then I’ll provide some evidence for my opinion that it is shopped. Deal? Do I need to provide evidence that The famous Bigfoot film is really a guy in a costume? Sorry.
Hayley Stevens: I’m not claiming it is a monster so the burden of proof for that claim doesn’t fall to me. I don’t know what it is in the photo, but I’m not claiming to know either. On the other hand, you are claiming it is a hoax photo. You can’t just dismiss things as hoaxes without evidence to back up such a claim even if it seems a more likely explanation. Also yes, if the Patterson and Gimlin film was new and you were claiming it was a hoax you would need to be able to demonstrate how or why you thought it was a hoax. You can’t just make or dismiss claims based on hunches or past cases. That’s irrational behaviour. ‘There was no twisting and turning’… if you were there I’m willing to accept that information from you. If not, then I don’t understand how on earth you could know that.

Defining yourself as a rational thinker and dismissing something as a hoax without good reason is irrational and unhelpful. Using newspapers such as the Daily Mail as the source for the information you base your conclusion on is NOT good research practice and provides weak conclusions. The media are the middle man, retelling an eyewitnesses story to you – given the fact that eye witness testimony is untrustworthy in itself, why on earth would any rational person trust this retelling as a source to base their research from?

Many people have also picked up on the part of the news coverage in which the skipper of the boat says the oddity in the water was half a mile away from him when he took the photo despite it appearing to be much nearer to him in the photo, as though this demonstates it is a hoax. Yet the eyewitness said himself that it is difficult to judge distance in water so he wasn’t sure

“It was quite a fair way from the boat, probably about half a mile away but it’s difficult to tell in water.” – George Edward (source)

It is also important to remember that the photo was taken nearly ten months ago and that it is easy to misremember experiences you’ve had in the past,which is why it is hard to rely upon eye witness testimony alone when it comes to reports of paranormal phenomenon.

It’s an interesting photo and poses many questions, and it would be good to find an answer to those questions. It’s fine to hypothesise about the photo and to discuss and suggest ideas regarding its origin and to make comparisons to previous lake monster photos and their causes. However many skeptics are quick to reach conclusions about these sorts of stories without having evidence to back themselves up – this is behaviour that goes against the very thing that skepticism is about – assessing claims for their supporting evidence. Stating that ‘it is a hoax’ or that ‘tourist numbers must be down’ or that ‘it is a log in the water’ are claims, and when you make a claim like this you need to have evidence to back it up. It could possibly be a hoax (though I don’t have any reason to believe it is right now), it could possibly be a log in the water, or perhaps a seal diving back under the water – but these suggestions are merely speculation. Presenting them as anything else is irrational and deserving of skeptical scrutiny.

Accusing a man of hoaxing a photo without having any good evidence to base that accusation on is disrespectful and intellectually dishonest.

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31 Comments on New Loch Ness Photo: a disappointing reaction from the skeptical community

  1. I find the photographer’s comment about the distance to be the most curious detail of the report. Since he knows where he was positioned, and knows or can find out the focal length, it would be trivial to calculate the distance and size of the object.

    • We’re all irrational creatures. As Blake said on my FB wall we’re literally fighting against human nature when we are skeptical.

    • Sure. I just think this obviates any need for counter suggestions beyond “why don’t you show us it’s bigger than a hat before convincing us it’s a lake monster”?

  2. I’m not sure how long A has been in the skeptical circles but it’s not really uncommon to come to a monster discussion KNOWING that most examples of “evidence” are really poor or have been deliberate hoaxed. I’d say A was playing the odds. Lots of people do take this position on the spectrum of skeptical to believer.

    Also, the majority of the public don’t make an effort to really pause and think carefully and critically about stuff like this. We rely on heuristics, short cuts, to make our decisions about these stories.

    I’d say you confronted A pretty well with his misstep there. But, we can all use some practice in evaluating these things. I appreciate a gentle reminder that jumping to conclusions isn’t the way to go.

  3. Travis English // 4 August, 2012 at 5:37 pm // Reply

    There are a lot of armchair skeptics that have not developed a good set of tools for evaluating claims. It seems they think that because an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, that the lack of that evidence “proves” the claim false. Unproven and unlikely do not equal untrue. The categories for claims aren’t binary. They are true, untrue, not proven/disproved, and unfalsifiable.

  4. While I agree with your ire over them jumping to conclusions, I can see where they’re coming from.

    First, the history of the Loch Ness Monster photos and is not exactly positive towards it’s existence. The most famous picture has been proven to be a hoax, and most of the others turned out to be misidentifications or hoaxes themselves. So the history supports this being, at best, a misidentification.

    Second, I’ve got little, if any, expertise at judging photos, but the explanation of what it was doing does not match what the photo shows. To me, it looks like the item in photo is not moving by any other force than the water itself… that is, it looks like something being carried by the water. And based on that, I’d venture that, whatever it is, it’s not very big. Which also suggests it was actually closer to the boat than the skipper thought.

    I agree with Björn that it’s a bit suspect that the skipper would be unable to judge the distance, as the vast majority of boats (at least here in the States) come equipped with instruments that can help with that as standard items… unless it’s a canoe. Granted, I’m assuming the same would be true for boats in Scotland, but I can’t think of any reason such a thing is true.

    I know you aren’t suggesting that this could actually be Nessie.

    I agree that outright declaring it to be a hoax without proper testing is wrong. I notice that some skeptics seem to forget that positive claims *have* to be proven, no matter *who* makes them. “This photo is a hoax” is as much a positive claim as “this is a photo of Nessie” is. Thus, both claims have the burden of proof.

    I, for one, simply do not believe the claim that this is Nessie. There’s too much evidence *against* Nessie existing for this to be Nessie. So whatever it is, I’d say it’s most likely *not* a dinosaur.

    • Has anyone said this photo shows a dinosaur? Not everyone believes that explanation for the monster.

    • I know. That’s why I said “I know you aren’t suggesting that this could actually be Nessie.” and everything else after it.

      My point was simply to show where those declaring it to be a hoax were coming from.

    • And wait… I thought the Loch Ness Monster was supposed to be a plesiosaur. Everything I have ever read about it has said or at least suggested as much.

      Is this not the case?

    • Some people think it is, but some simply don’t know what they think it is.

    • So for some people, Nessie could be… I don’t know… a lost seal or something?

    • Some say it is a Sturgeon fish, others a Wels catfish. Yes and there are those who believe it is a seal, and others just don’t know.

    • Oh.

      That I did not know. I had always been led to believe that it was said to be a dinosaur…

      Fair enough, then. I take my whole post back.

      I guess I still need to learn that things are *always* more complicated…

      I apologize.

    • No need to apologise. I think the most wide spread idea is that people think it’s a dinosaur, which people do. However, when you speak to people on the ground and the people who research the sightings etc. you realise there’s a plethora of hypotheses floating around. Like you said, things are always more complicated.

  5. Thanks for the comments re proper skepticism and burden of proof.
    I would like to know whether the published photo had been cropped to remove water between the object and the boat, because at present it looks much closer than half a mile.
    And if Edwards ever responds, I’d be curious why he didn’t take more photos.
    On the other hand, it looks nothing like the log implied by “skeptic” Benjamin Radford at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48496067/ns/technology_and_science-science/#.UB03-exgySH
    The ripples look quite natural for something that has just stopped moving. The object looks like nothing known to be in the Loch. The apparent texture of teh surface corresponds to typical eyewitness accounts of hide rather than scales.
    But if there was no cropping, and the object was not so far away from the boat, then it was quite small

  6. Who only takes 1 picture in this digital age ? Particularly when you see something that may be the “monster” and you are a believer In a boat called “Nessie Hunter” Oh you then wait 10 months before letting the public know!

  7. David Cohen // 6 August, 2012 at 2:00 pm // Reply

    Björn suggest that if you knew the focal length of the lens then you would be able calculate both the distance to, and also the size of, an object. I don’t think is true.

    Certainly, if you knew what the object was (say a double-decker bus) then you could possibly work out the distance from the camera. However if you see, or photograph an unknown object all you can state is what solid angle it subtends to the viewer. The best way to estimate the solid angle is to hold out a coin (or something similar) at arm’s length. Try covering the sun or the moon with a coin …. you will be surprised how small (subtended solid angle) they actually are!

    All accounts of the type “it looked the size of X and was about Y miles away” are invalid unless the unidentified object is known to be close to several objects of known size/distance. For instance if a flying object travelled along the a road between two rows of houses.

    Similarly, if you have no measure of size or distance of an object sighted in the sky, the only true estimate of speed of travel can be that of how many degrees of arc the object travelled through in a certain time.

    I agree with Tekken that the obvious thing would have been to take several photos. Some of these wouldn’t need to contain the object but, if they overlapped, could be pieced together to form a panorama that would certainly be more useful than a single photo.

    • nablator // 8 August, 2012 at 3:59 pm //

      If the camera’s height above the water is H, and the angle between the horizon and the object is A, the distance between the camera and the object is H/sin(A).

    • David Cohen // 8 August, 2012 at 10:38 pm //

      @Nablator I’m quite aware of simple geometry/trigonometry.

      Perhaps you would like to tell me what “the angle between the horizon and the object is” in the photo at the top of this page.

      Draw some diagrams and review your application of The Theory of Similar Triangles. It isn’t as simple as you think. Even presented with an uncropped photo there are too many unknowns.

    • Agreed.

  8. “It is more important to be correct and last to comment than it is to be first to comment while lacking facts.”

    That’d be true in an ideal world Hayley but the reason so many’re quick to comment first’s because they know most people skim things for the key headers or quotes that’ll confirms their biases and preconceptions.

    “Most people concluded it was a tyre in the lake but nobody had checked to see if it was possible for a tyre to look like that. We were making a claim but not providing the evidence to back it up.”

    Your honesty and self deprecation don’t only commend you Hayley but show you’ve the true instincts of a true scientist.

    When I was at university I was getting told to take down all these notes about how rocks supposedly behaved in rivers but it was only when I on my own initiative gathered different kinds and sizes of rocks together and subjected them to different strengths of jets of water that I actually saw with my own eyes it was possible for very large rocks to tumble along a bed of smaller stones.

    And this’s the point many skeptics keep missing.

    They invoke ‘science’ to explain things away but they’ve only the word of others they’ve ‘proved’ the things they claim to’ve proved whereas the scientific method requires you to prove them for yourself or it’s not science.

    A case in point as an artist I’ve been pointing out for decades if the moon’s really a sphere and as far as I’m concerned it is then why does it look so flat?

    It should look something like a billiard ball would as it changes its position in relation to the light source – even when one side’s exposed to extreme darkness and the other to extreme light – and aboveall should have an area of reflective intensity – a gleam – somewhat akin to the dot of light painters give eyes. We should even see a hint of the reflection of the Earth itself.

    And for decades I’ve rooted through astronomy manuals for acknowledgement of and explanations for oddities like that yet whenever I’ve pointed this out to various Bad Science types I’d be told bollocks you obviously don’t understand!

    But now they’ve discovered these nano structures in the moon’s dust and suddenly we’re hearing how their effect’s to spread the light evenly across the moon’s surface giving it it’s flat appearance.

    What’s unclear to me though is was this effect known all along and ignored for fear of the possible implications (in the eyes of creationists and the like) or in the same way they dismissed water detected on the moon in the SixtiesŚeventies simply because they were convinced there couldn’t be any? Or thanks to the nano structures’ve they finally noticed it?

    The main thing I’d like to say though’s why is there this need to denigrate and supposedly disprove each others’ opinions (and in the past I haven’t been totally innocent in this regard myself)?

    Why can’t the scientific community admit with good grace there’s a lot of truth in the flaws in their theories pointed out by say Creationists (and indeed those pointed out by their own less politically influential scientific colleagues) and maybe then the likes of the Creationists’ll lighten up and admit there’s flaws in their world views too?

    • I didn’t intend to come across as though I was denigrating other peoples opinions. I was using my own assumptive behaviour from the past to demonstrate bad thinking in the hope it would make others stop and think as it had done me.

  9. We see that in our lake in Minnesota now and then. We see stranger things than that, in fact I keep my fishing gear handy at all times.

    alanborky: Try looking at the moon through a glass of some sort (binocs, telescope, etc) it might look less flat.

  10. Mike Franklin // 6 September, 2012 at 2:55 pm // Reply

    Whenever one deals with a hardcore skeptic, it’s good to bear in mind the old saying, ‘Closed minds get lost in open spaces.’

    Comfort comes in small, empty boxes that don’t ever have to be opened. Everything beyond the line of sight ceases to exist; all other possibility is strictly non sequitur.

    • David Cohen // 6 September, 2012 at 4:29 pm //

      Not so! I have experienced several events in my life that can’t be explained by accepted scientific principles. I have an open but skeptical mind. What annoys me, however, is that research into the paranormal is being continually clouded by people who produce fake ‘evidence’ and the gullible, non-questioning people that surround and support them.

    • Mike Franklin // 6 September, 2012 at 9:09 pm //

      David,

      There is a difference between keeping an open mind and then, diving headlong into the ridiculous, no?

    • David Cohen // 7 September, 2012 at 12:43 am //

      Yes Mike, there is a difference. It’s just that I don’t like the use of the phrase “hardcore skeptic” as this suggests that a skeptical view point is always a closed-minded one.

      There is a subtle line between a critical, and perhaps sometimes cynical, response and that of a habitual naysayer.

      Lack of evidence against something, however, is not support for it’s existence: whether that be a deity, bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

      Unfortunately some people’s idea of the ridiculous is not as ridiculous as it should be.

  11. Hmmm pretty good thinking, apply that logic to ALL your paranormal work and you will be promoted from closed-minded cynic to a open-minded skeptic.

    Well done.

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