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.