What does it mean to say that someone believes in the theory of evolution, or the existence of flying saucers or that genetically modified crops are safe? Should we accept evidence for cold fusion or black holes? How far can we trust an expert? The formation of belief systems is an interesting area of philosophy in its own right, but has important practical applications. Indeed, it is relevant to some of the most difficult decisions to be taken by policy makers. The nature of evidence and what constitutes proof is at the heart of science and its history.
The existence of the Loch Ness Monster is an interesting example for discussion in the context of philosophy, religion or the history of science. It has the advantage that it is relatively free of ethical considerations or religious pronouncements. Most people in the Europe and North America will be aware of it, in at least some way. Books and some websites are available for students or others wishing to gather data. There are occasional television programmes (e.g. on the Discovery Channel). It therefore has possibilities as a student group exercise, or for individuals reflecting on their own beliefs.
It must be stressed that the point of this exercise is the process, not the conclusion. It is the formation of belief which is being examined, not the belief itself.
- The Formation of Belief:
Le us say the proposition is put that “the Loch Ness Monster exists”. The response of some individuals is immediate and negative. We may then ask, how can you be certain of its non-existence? More fundamentally, what is it that you know does not exist? Thinking reflectively, have you had the necessary information and have you defined the problem sufficiently to come to such a certain conclusion? If not (and this is probably the case) have you made similar judgments about other more important matters, where you are equally ill informed?
Some individuals may be equally positive. Again, we may ask on what basis they make the judgement. Typically this is an accumulated feeling based upon media coverage and a liking for such matters. This latter should not be dismissed, but recognized as part of human nature. People who would like something to be true are more likely to interpret ambiguous evidence in that way. Likewise people (including scientists) tend to be more critical of unwelcome data.
Some individuals will claim to have an open mind. Very well, we may ask what would enable them to come to a definite belief? If this was a grave matter of public health or of great financial risk, and you had to go one way or another, how would you choose?
- What is to be Believed (or not)?
Firstly it is necessary to decide what it is that we are trying to conclude. The following is suggested as a rational and minimal basis for discussion.
“That in the 20th Century there has been a number of large animals living in the waters of Loch Ness.”
Thus we are concerned with natural history rather than supernatural, but we should include the possibility that a small breeding herd has died out. Present non-existence would not disprove reports from earlier years. By large, we may say ‘more than 2 metres in length’. Although witnesses have claimed much larger (20 m) all that is required is something significantly larger than the otters and eels known to be in the lake. (Would you accept a giant otter?)
It is not necessary to include all the features which have been reported (head, neck, flippers, humps etc.) since some of these could be mistakes or embellishments. It is probably reasonable (or is it?) to say that the minimum requirement is a large aquatic animal.
- What is the Evidence?
Sorting through the books and films, the actual evidence (as opposed to opinion) seems to be largely made up of the following:
- A large number of vague reports by people not specially qualified. (Which does not make them necessarily untrue.)
- A few more detailed and sometimes impressive reports by people not specially qualified.
(An example from history is the existence of meteorites. Ignorant peasants occasionally reported that stones had fallen out of the sky. Intellectuals dismissed these reports.)
- A modest number of credible reports by witnesses with relevant knowledge (e.g. the Water Bailiff).
- A small number of photographs and cine film.
- Sonar evidence of large moving objects.
- False Evidence
The data probably includes, but is not necessarily limited to, the following:
- Deliberate fraud
- Wishful thinking
- Unconscious embellishment
(Students could consider these how these occur in the case of the Loch Ness Monster and also other cases perhaps of some importance, such as witnesses identifying criminals.)
And what is the expert opinion? Here are four sources:
Dinsdale, T. (1961) Loch Ness Monster, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul
the classic text, carefully researched, by a credible witness
Burton, M. (1961) The Elusive Monster, London, Rupert Hart-Davis
a sceptical view by a scientist from the Natural History Museum
Mackal, R. P. (1976) The Monsters of Loch Ness, London, Macdonald & Jane’s
careful scientific proof by a Biology Professor, following a major study
Binns, R. (1984) The Loch Ness Mystery Solved, Somerset, Open Books
a sceptical view by a journalist
Before asking which (if any) is right, we should ask ourselves which we would like to be right. How will we react to the message, depending on the messenger and context?
Tim Dinsdale has actually seen the monster several times, and filmed it. He is an engineer and seems a trustworthy, careful man who has gathered together the evidence. Though we may doubt some of it, how could there be such a body of data if there was never a monster?
(But he is not a scientist, and perhaps he is biased by his own experience.)
Maurice Burton has not seen the monster, but he has studied the evidence and finds it unconvincing. He is a scientist from an august institution who understands natural history and the nature of evidence. Surely we can trust his judgement that there is no monster and the eyewitness reports are at best mistakes? (But he is part of the scientific establishment who do not like to admit such things.)
Roy Mackal is a biology professor who brings not only the reports but also experimental data and a comprehensive view of the environment. He clearly shows that a family of large animals can and do exist in Loch Ness. (But he is an American.)
Robert Binns is a journalist who exposes the mistakes and frauds which make up the evidence. Obviously the Loch Ness Monster is a fiction. (But he is not a scientist, just a cynical journalist assuming the worst of human behaviour.)
There are other books, and related ones on other lake monsters. Some may be similar to the categories given above. Most commonly the author appears to be an amiable eccentric describing the hardships of an expedition which eventually produced encouraging but inconclusive results. (But perhaps there are monsters in other lakes around the world. Perhaps they are only reported by eccentrics because anyone reporting them is counted eccentric.)
There are books describing ape-men in the Himalayas (the Yeti) and North America (the Sasquatch). Should evidence for or against these animals affect one’s belief in the Loch Ness Monster, or vice versa?
Given that in most cases we do not have the time, resources or specialist knowledge to weigh the evidence directly, how can we recognize an expert? And what happens if two apparent experts disagree? (Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen J. Gould were undoubtedly major authorities with major disagreements on evolutionary biology.)
- A Personal Odyssey
It may be of interest to describe my own formation of belief in this topic. It was reflecting on this process which led me to consider my more general beliefs and prompted this article.
At the age of 18, with limited anecdotal evidence, no expertise and certainly no deep thought on the subject, my opinion was definitely mild disbelief.
At university, I met someone involved with a group called the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau. By thinking (but very little more information) I changed to open-minded. More precisely, I reasoned
(1) it was possible that there were large animals in Loch Ness;
(2) this was something capable of simple proof;
(3) I did not know of any reason why they could not exist;
(4) however, I did not know if the evidence in favour was particularly strong.
Over each of the next few Summers I spent several weeks by Loch Ness with the Bureau, eventually becoming Group Commander for a week. (This was useful personal development!) I talked with people who had seen the monster, read books and examined the Bureau records. I looked at films and photographs again and again. I came to the rational conclusion that the evidence as a whole was in favour. By this, I mean that it was sufficiently strong to justify the investigation.
At the same time, there was doubt. Some of the most praised evidence I found less than convincing. In particular, Tim Dinsdale’s cine film just looked to me like a boat, with a clear propeller wash. (This film had almost religious significance: it was an article of faith that it was not and could not be a boat, because there was no propeller wash. It did not do to express a contrary opinion in polite company.) There were relatively few still photographs. Some seemed to me so much like flotsam that they were scarcely worth considering. It was possible the remaining couple could be fakes.
As for eyewitness observations, I personally saw floating debris, swimming otters, patches of calm water appearing like dark ovals, the wakes of vessels reflecting off the sides of the loch and making interference patterns. It was likely that a significant portion of reports were honest misinterpretations of things like this. However, it was unlikely that local residents who made their living from the loch (such as the Water Bailiff) would make such a mistake.
As the years went on, the Bureau diligently watched the lake with cine cameras and tremendously powerful lenses. Though the champagne was broken out sometimes, the conclusive film was never produced. My opinion changed to disbelief as follows.
On the basis of the evidence, I believe that I was originally right to conclude that the Loch Ness Monster was possible, and sufficiently probable to justify a search. There had been various expeditions from the 1930’s onwards (some of which had positive evidence) but each was so short and limited that it could not be counted conclusive.
It is my judgment that the work of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau, though largely the work of amateur volunteers (such as myself) was sufficiently broad in its coverage of the lake, and prolonged in time to constitute a proper search.
Therefore, if there had been large animals living in the lake at that time, predating on fish, then they should have been seen and filmed. This was a proper experiment, with negative results which can be trusted. A valid hypothesis has therefore been tested with a valid negative result.
However, as pointed out before, non-existence during the search does not mean non-existence at any time. Perhaps the herd died out in the late 20th century?
I doubt this, because a careful study convinced me that the amount of solid evidence was only a very few instances which could be accounted for by error or fraud. Large living creatures would have provided more evidence.
I now conclude that the Loch Ness Monster does not and did not ever exist, and that I have good grounds for this belief. However, I have held other opinions, which were equally rational given the state of my knowledge and experience at the time.
What is more important to me, is how thinking this process through has enabled me to be more critical and reflective of other beliefs I may form.