Q: What's the difference between the Loch Ness monster and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
A: They're still looking for the Loch Ness monster.
The whole saga dates basically from 1933, when the most famous photograph, apparently showing the head and neck of the alleged beast, was taken by one Colonel Wilson. Sightings, dim photographs and echo-soundings have continued ever since, but the story still has the status of myth rather than anything else in both the popular and the scientific view. Loch Ness is the largest and deepest of a chain of ribbon lochs, connected by the Caledonian Canal, stretching along the geological fault-line between Inverness and the Atlantic across the width of the Scottish highlands. At its deepest it may be a full 1000 feet, and its lower regions are almost impenetrably murky owing to saturation of the water with particles of peat. Nicholas Witchell is a BBC journalist who has taken an interest in the issue from his teens, and his book is an admirably thorough, balanced and honest account of the history of the investigations from 1933 to at least 1989, the date of my edition.
Is there or isn't there some colony of strange creatures down there? It really comes down to who and what we are prepared to believe. If they exist, the creatures are shy of human beings. They appear to be frightened off by noise, for instance, and of course the area has great attractions for tourists as well as investigators. However if they do exist, it seems certain that they have to come up for air at times. Reports indicate beasts of up to 30' in length, which I gather is over the maximum theoretical size for anything that can breathe with gills. Witchell assembles the evidence with great thoroughness. Hoaxes there have been, and in particular one exceptionally determined investigation in 1975 seems to have made an honest but serious mistake that did nothing to assuage scepticism. Sightings are reported by people that one would not normally think of as over-impressionable or over-bibulous, such as a local headmistress and a Benedictine monk from the abbey at Fort Augustus at the western end of the loch. Even if we discount the majority of reports as intrinsically untrustworthy, to reject them all involves the belief that a very large number of independent reports by pillars of the community are either deluded or mendacious.
Witchell discusses, as of course he must, the attitudes among the scientific community, and he makes an important and valid point. This is that scientists are terrified of unorthodoxy, fearful for their reputations and of their colleagues who will crucify them unmercifully if they associate themselves with any point of view lacking the imprimatur of the scientific thought-police. How well founded this anxiety is can be seen from the way an established and reputable zoologist, Denys W Tucker, was treated for so much as declaring an open mind on the issue. What is also quite indisputably true is that scientific sceptics, who will demand the highest rigour when operating on established matters, can be almost incredibly slovenly and amateurish when they think they can safely refute an unorthodox hypothesis from what they perceive to be safe high ground. There is no possibility, for instance, that any sightings can be written off to islands of floating vegetation, as Loch Ness has no aquatic vegetation. Equally, Scottish highlanders know a seal when they see one, and will have seen many more of them than most scientists in London. It also seems to be acceptable in this case to dismiss evidence unread.
The jury is still out so far as I'm concerned. One week from writing this notice I shall actually have been to Loch Ness for the first time in my life, and I shall be traversing its entire length, half by road and half by boat, in broad daylight. I shall have my camera and my binoculars with me, in the belief that it is not impossible that I may see something important, just as it's not impossible that I can win the national lottery. When I'm inclined to think the story improbable, I reflect that some of its refutations, from sources that one would expect better of, are something far worse - they are impossible.