Book Review: Abominable Science

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abominable scienceAbominable Science! authored by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero is one of those books that comes along and makes the world a better place. A rare treat that you didn’t know you needed until you had it in your hands.

The combination of good research, good references and an honest, open-minded yet critical outlook turns Abominable Science! into a must-have for anybody with a passing interest in monsters and strange creatures. There is no doubt in my mind that this book will help people understand how to critically assess claims that they come across and the numerous detailed references mean that you don’t have to take the authors at their word and can explore each subject further for yourself.

There is still a general lack of respect for skeptical inquiry within paranormal research, including ghost investigations, monster investigations and more. Headline stories in the media about monsters are not rare even today in 2015, and a quick flick through the numerous available television channels will reveal shows like Finding Bigfoot or Destination Truth where unconventional and, at times, pseudo-scientific methodologies are championed in the quest to find evidence of legendary monsters. These programmes sacrifice a factual approach in order to provide so-called evidence of that which they hunt for.

A great time, then, for a book like Abominable Science! to be available. This is an engrossing read and it’s a must have for any self-identifying Skeptic, Cryptozoologist or Monster Hunter. There is a lot to learn about Cryptozoology in the modern world and this book is where you’ll find it.

Someone buy Matt Moneymaker a copy quick, and make sure he reads it. Or better yet sack the entire crew of the awful, awful Finding Bigfoot and use the funds to get Loxton and Prothero their own show! Fact is that people who are heavily invested in their belief in these cryptids won’t be convinced by a book, even one as detailed as Abominable Science! but it’s there if they ever decide to change their minds.

If this book had been published fifteen-years earlier I might have read it as I went on my first road trip to Loch Ness, but would it have stolen some of the magic of the experience from 13-year-old me who was fascinated by the weird and wonderful ghost and monster lore?

No. I would have been better for it. Skeptics are often accused of ruining the magic or stealing the fun from fanciful ideas and although this is a charge levelled at this book by some true-believers I don’t think it is an accurate criticism. The book embodies the kind of skepticism that I hope that I champion (even a little bit) in my own approach to paranormal research.

In 2012 I visited Loch Ness again, this time joined by Joe Nickell and we visited the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, a guided tour that introduces you to the story of the Loch Ness Monster and critically analyses every single aspect of the legend in an educational manner that not only debunks most of the nonsense but also introduces you to the geology, history and ecology of the area. It is so engaging and fascinating that you don’t even realise it is a lesson until you leave with a newly installed sense of the wonder of the scientific approach (how the Centre hasn’t won any awards from skeptic organisations I do not know.) In my opinion Abominable Science! is right up there with the Loch Ness Centre. A wonderful read and a wonderful resource for future generations.

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero. 2013. Abominable Science! Columbia University Press, New York. Available from the Columbia University Press, on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk

The Loch Ness Monster In Windermere? It’s More Complicated Than That…

Many people don’t know that Windermere has a lake monster “mystery” all of its own. I’ve been investigating Bownessie for years and even took CSIcop investigator Joe Nickell there for a few days in 2012 to get his thoughts on the situation surrounding the alleged beast of Bowness, Windermere. You can read about the investigation and also about my thoughts on the mystery as whole and you can even listen to me on the awesome Monster Talk podcast discussing Bownessie too, but in summary it’s fair to say that it is unlikely that there is anything weird swimming in the waters of Windermere.

There are already some pretty big species of fish in those waters that belong there and it is thought that it is these that are being seen and mistaken for a monster by people who have read about Bownessie in the press. Some of the eyewitness experiences are compelling and, having spoken to numerous people involved in the mystery, I have no reason to believe that everything witnessed was made up. I’m just not convinced that those experiences were caused by some unknown creature… and it might surprise some to know what not everyone who has had a strange encounter in those waters is completely bought by the idea that it was a monster they saw or felt… just “something” that they couldn’t necessarily explain.

As is often the case with these sorts of subjects, it is often the media that put the paranormal spin on things and the reports of eyewitnesses are taken out of context for sensational headlines.

…and then you get something like this

Is this the Loch Ness Monster 150 miles from home?

No. It isn’t. It is a fake photo, but I didn’t need to tell anyone that.

I don’t know the reasons behind this photo. Perhaps it is just a laugh, perhaps it is part of a publicity drive? Perhaps it is just attention seeking from people who know that anything Scotland related will currently get coverage because of the independence referendum gripping the United Kingdom right now?

I’m not going to research the background of this photo because it’s a waste of my time, but my few initial observations are this:

– no wake in the water other than that caused naturally by the breeze (as seen in the foreground of the photo)
– the “reflection” is not disturbed or rippled like the water it is reflected in
– this “creature” is in shallow water at the side of the lake, throwing its huge body out of proportion
– The ecology of Windermere is observed very closely by the Centre of Ecology & Hydrology. They’d know if this was in that water.

I believe in the Loch Ness Monster

LOCH NESS

‘The water in there is like looking through a glass of coca cola” Steve Feltham told us, rolling the clay between his hands as he created another of his much loved Nessie models to sell to tourists. I was sitting in the cosy van he calls home that is parked on Dores Beach, overlooking Loch Ness from where Steve maintains his twenty-year-long vigil for Nessie whom he believes does exist. 

From my position perched on the piano stool (for yes, there is a piano in that van) I could see through the windscreen that has a great view of the wild, choppy waters of Loch Ness where tourist boats make regular journeys up and down, trailing dark waves behind them that roll around mysteriously for minutes after the boat is out of view. My dad wandered along the beach outside, battered by the wild winds, taking in the stunning views of the Loch, and sitting to my side on another stool was Joe Nickell who was visiting from the US. We had travelled directly from the 2012 QEDcon conference in Manchester where Joe had delivered the closing talk and I had been a panellist alongside him and Deborah Hyde, talking about Cryptozoology. 

We were in Loch Ness to take in the atmosphere that surrounded Nessie and during our visit we watched the waters from various sites, including near Urquhart Castle where some of the best historic sightings have been made, and also from The Clansman hotel restaurant where we ate lunch before boarding a tour boat on which we watched sonar scans as we sailed over the choppy Loch. We also visited the Loch Ness Visitor Centre at Drumnadrochit, where we talked over a cup of tea with naturalist and Nessie researcher Adrian Shine, and we interviewed the world’s only full-time Nessie Hunter, Steve Feltham as mentioned above. 

Do I think there is a monster in those waters? No, I don’t, and neither do most of those who do good business from the legend. Joe asked the man who sold us out boat tickets if he thought we would see the monster while out there, and his response was ‘you’ve got a better chance of seeing the monster in here than you have out there’ while gesturing at the Nessie toys on the shelves.

As I write this post there are two Nessie’s looking down at me. One made by Steve Feltham and the other the TY Beanie toy sold at the visitor centre. I do love a good folklore story, and the Loch Ness Monster is one of the best there is. I secretly look forward to the annual newspaper stories about the latest sightings of Nessie. Most of it is good natured, and those bits that are more sinister are usually shot down instantly by those who live in the heart of the legend of Nessie. Steve Feltham himself, for example, exposed one of the biggest recent hoaxes.

At the Loch Ness Visitor Centre Adrian Shine has created an incredible educational resource that centres around the legend. As you walk through the exhibit you are taught about the history, geology and the environment of the area. The Loch Ness Monster story is pulled apart piece by piece and examined rationally. It is absolutely fascinating. 

There is not enough food in the water for a monster…
Those strange photos? This is what they probably were…
Those eye-witness testimonies? Probably faulty, here’s why…

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Operation Deepscan. photo: loch-ness.org

Yet, despite this deconstruction of the myth you leave the centre with your sense of wonder still intact and you leave having learned about all the research that has been done in the hunt for Nessie, like Operation Deep Scan. The visitor centre is a great example of skeptical outreach at its best, and it’s reaching hundreds of thousands of people every single year. That’s why I’m a little bit forgiving about those silly Loch Ness headlines.   

The black and white photos of men stood on the shore of Loch Ness with binoculars and the photos of Operation DeepScan in progress all serve as reminders that this is a folklore story that, though long in its roots, is still forming around us. We are all part of the story.

I’m not going to write paragraphs defending the use of folklore to drum up business as I honestly do not think it is as sinister as many people believe. I don’t believe that most tourists who visit Loch Ness really believe there is some large beasty lurking beneath the cola-esque waters of Loch Ness. The story is what lures people in regardless of whether the monster at the heart of those stories is real or not.

I believe in the Loch Ness Monster – not as a monster, but as a cultural phenomenon. There is no feeling like that you feel standing on the edge of the wild Loch where so many have stood before you, looking out, and thinking just imagine… 

The internet hasn’t killed the Loch Ness Monster.

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I’ve just read a really interesting opinion piece on The Guardian website by Philip Hoare that questions if the internet has killed the Loch Ness Monster. I can somewhat identify with Hoare’s feelings that the mystery and wonder brought forth by monster stories gracing the headlines has disappeared. A memory that always stands out strongly for me was being a young child when a monster scare broke out in the village I lived in. I can remember being at Primary School but I forget my exact age, but I do know that it was before the internet was a thing in my house. The local paper was (and still is) The Wiltshire Times and they ran a story on a Big Cat that had been seen prowling the fields near my house and right next to the warehouse that my mother worked in. I will filled with pure fascination and terror that can never be replicated by a story breaking on the internet.

However I’m not so keen to consider this a terrible thing. I believe that any decent Paranormal researcher, Fortean, Cryptozoologist or whatever they identify as wants to know what is really causing what is or has been witnessed, whether it be a ghost, monster or UFO sighting they are dealing with. There are, of course, those who revel in the pseudo-scientific and the answers they fancy that aren’t necessarily logical, but don’t be mistaken in thinking that they represent every researcher out there. The majority of researchers I know are rational thinkers who aren’t led by their biases.

When a new monster sighting occurs we now have masses of information at our finger tips. More than that even… we have the experience of so many others at our finger tips too. I have witnessed the buzz of activity borne when it is reported somewhere in the world that a strange beast has been spotted, caught on film or captured. Communities of people who were never connected before the internet swap notes and speculations, the reporters and eye-witnesses are easy to track down, experts around the world – biologists, marine biologists, ecologists – are contactable immediately, and we can examine what happened and where it happened in great detail because all the details we need are often online. More often than not researchers can discover what it is that has really happened – whether it be hoax, misidentification or the next new discovery of a real monster that has never been seen before! If it’s going to happen, then I truly believe that now is the time.

Before the internet made it possible to connect to the bigger world I was a young girl who clung to mystery as though it were essential, not because I loved the mystery but because I loved the ‘what if?’. Today modern technology and social media make that ‘what if?’ easier to answer. Before, there were ‘what if?‘s that went unanswered and led me down the path to becoming a pseudo-scientific ghost hunter, and as a result I wasted so much money and time on the wrong questions. So yes, although it is a shame that a lot of the mystery in these stories is now lost by the instant media that our world has come to know, I feel it has been replaced with something much more valuable and important – the ability to answer the mystery once and for all. I know of nothing more wondrous that resolved curiosity.

On a parting note – I visited Drumnadrochit last year, and Nessie is looking as well as she ever did 😉

photo credit: Artist unknown (if you know, let me know)

James May & the shark that never was

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James May should be in my bad books right now, but the fact that he is responsible for the Skegness Sea Monster is both baffling and beautiful at the same time. You couldn’t make it up… unless you are May, in which case you probably already have. James May is best known for his presenting role on the Television Show ‘Top Gear’, but he also hosts a show called ‘Man Lab’ in which he ‘helps modern man relearn some vital skills that are in danger of being lost.‘ Such as faking Lake Monsters. What? Bear with me…

In August of 2012 many news sources reported on video footage (which you can view below) that was captured from Skegness beach by alleged tourists. Many – including me – concluded that it was a basking shark, because that seemed the most sensible option. The Daily Mail quoted Senior biologist Marcus Williams from the National Aquarium in Portsmouth as suggesting it could be two sharks feeding together.

He was wrong however, as during this weeks episode of ‘Man Lab’ James May revealed that it was a hoax perpetrated by the cast and crew of the show in a bid to boost the resort’s economy by giving it a monster to rival Loch Ness’ Nessie. A hoax that they didn’t think had worked after things went wrong and the fake monster lost its head. May said

“It was a devastating turn of events [when Susan’s head fell off]. With Susan lost to Davy Jones our hopes of a monster-led Skegness-related economic miracle seemed sunk without trace. And that seemed to be the end of that; but actually, it wasn’t, you see, in a heart-felt tribute to our tragically lost monster one of our beach crew decided to upload the only existing footage we had of Susan in action; shortly before her head fell off. The crew weren’t prepared and, as a result, the footage was shaky, blurry and indistinct. In short, it was perfect. Slowly views started to increase and before we knew it was well into the hundreds… and then we hit the headlines. The local Skegness paper picked up on the story and suddenly Susan was front-page news. The views leaped into the thousands.”

He added that other websites started linking to their video of Susan and, after the nationals picked up on the story, the monster went global, with news organisations and websites across the planet covering the tale.

“What we had just about written off as a colossal failure had somehow become one of the biggest successes we have had on Man Lab,” [source]

So we were wrong and it wasn’t basking sharks at all, but instead a headless fake monster. Is it bad that the majority of people reached the wrong conclusion? I don’t think so. It’s how a rational mind should work because the logical solution to the question of ‘what is that?’ in this case is that it’s either something misplaced in the later (a log, for example) or it’s an animal you’d expect to see in the water – such as a basking shark. To not cry “HOAX!” when there’s no evidence of a hoax is a good thing, I think.

So James May isn’t quite in my bad books yet because I think this is a lovely monster story, however if it turns out he’s been anywhere near Windermere with his sodding fake monster then things might change…

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The monster used by the show being tested in a pool

h/t to Mike Hall & Shaun Sellars for this story.