A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the verdict on the Loch Ness monster?

September 20, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

I can't count how many shows and specials relating to the Loch Ness monster I've seen on The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and old In Search Of … episodes. Scientists have spent large amounts of money, and employed elaborate equipment in attempts to put this mystery to rest. Yet, in spite of all their failed attempts at locating the beast, many people swear to their death that the driftwood and trailing boat wakes they see are indeed the prehistoric beast. So, what's the "official" word these days? Are there any reputable scientists who actually believe in its existence? Thanks for your insight.

SDStaff DavidB replies:

Well, Mr./Ms. H. (can I just call you "J."?), these days one of the prerequisites for being a "reputable scientist" is that you don't believe in the Loch Ness monster. Scientists rely on evidence, and there isn't any for Nessie, even after all of the attempts you mention.

Many paranormalists like the saying, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." In general this is true. For example, we have no evidence that intelligent life exists outside of Earth (heck, sometimes I wonder about Earth), but that doesn't mean there isn't such life out there.

However, Loch Ness is a finite area. The fact that all these years of poking and prodding around the lake, looking for Nessie, studying the area, etc., has gotten us exactly zilch suggests that perhaps in this case absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Not only are we missing a live specimen, we don't even have a dead one — no remains, no skeleton, toenail clippings, monster poop, nothing. Where do the dead monsters disappear to? Or are we to believe that there is only one monster there, and it's been there since the first sighting some 1,500 years ago?

But, believers would likely counter, we have lots of sightings of the beast!

Yes, we do. A lot of people say they have seen things that are supposedly the Loch Ness monster. But as with so many other areas of paranormal and fringe claims, the monster only seems to come out when the scientists aren't around.

What of the photos? We've all seen them. Surely they must be evidence, right?

Well, yes, but evidence of what? Like UFO photos, most of them don't really show much. The best-known photo, taken in 1934 by Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London physician, was revealed as a fake in a 1993 deathbed confession by a relative of the hoaxer. (Wilson had not actually taken the photo himself, it turns out.) As an example of how deceiving a photo can be, the monster shown was described as huge, with the photo having been taken from far away. In reality the modified toy submarine used in the hoax was all of 14 inches long, with the photo taken from a much shorter distance to give the illusion of great size.

Other photos have other problems. As the Skeptic's Dictionary notes (www.skepdic.com/nessie.html), "Not all photos of Nessie are fakes. Some are genuine photos of the lake. These photos are always very gray and grainy, taken of murky waters with lots of shadows and outlines. There is no question that in some of these there does appear to be a form which could be taken for a sea serpent. The form could also be taken for a log, a shadow on a wave, a wave itself, driftwood or flotsam." In other words, they don't really tell us anything.

Getting back to the most recent word, in July of this year researcher Adrian Shine put forth a theory that at least Nessie sightings have been caused by "underwater waves." In an ABCNews.com article, he said that friction between different "layers" of water in the lake have caused unusual water patterns which might make people think they see something. If they're at Loch Ness, of course they're going to think it's Nessie.

Loch Ness isn,t the only location in Europe to claim monsters. In early August, believers in "Selma," a Nessie-like monster, set a trap in Seljord lake in south Norway. If you see this answer as it's written right now, that means they didn't catch anything (the trap was supposed to be in place for two weeks). Color me surprised.

Some scientists who have done serious studies of Loch Ness have estimated how many monsters there would have to be to make up a viable breeding population, or how much food creatures that size would have to eat, or whatever. The results almost always argue against the existence of monsters in Loch Ness, but the believers aren't going to be swayed by mathematical calculations. (OK, so they won't likely be swayed by a lack of evidence, either, but play along with me here.) To me, it all comes down to the fact that there is an astounding lack of evidence for these claims, even though the search has gone on for years.

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