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Nessie Hoax Redux II

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 6.3, September 1996

This is a follow-up to Investigative Files in the March 1996 issue. It consists of a letter to the editor from Richard D. Smith, whose article in Fate magazine (November 1995) served as a basis for rebuttal by skeptics, including Ronald Binns (The Loch Ness Mystery Solved, 1984). Smith’s letter is followed by my reply.

To the Editor:

In “Nessie Hoax Redux” (March 1996), Joe Nickell ignores the greater issue raised in my November 1995 article in Fate magazine — the unacceptable double standard applied during debates over cryptozoology.

Self-proclaimed conspirator Christian Spurling waited more than a half century before claiming to have helped stepfather M. A. Wetherell use a modified toy submarine to fake a “Nessie” image in 1934; he never presented a shred of corroborating evidence to support his allegations; he was suspiciously vague when asked about a second, lesser-known photo; and he even failed to identify the bay where the hoax supposedly took place.

What if Spurling had claimed to have really seen and photographed a large unknown animal? Would this level of “proof” still be acceptable? Of course not. But because he was debunking Lt. Col. R. Kenneth Wilson’s famous photo the rules are very loose indeed. His mere say-so is okay. Ronald Binns excuses lapses and contradictions in Spurling’s story by suggesting that he was an old man when he finally gave his account and “maybe just confused.” (Of course, scientific studies have shown that it is short term, not long term, memory that typically fades with age.) Worse still, Binns and other apologists are ready to blithely modify Spurling’s account whenever problems arise — “Maybe he was right about how the model was made but wrong about the dimensions,” Binns hypothesizes — until what should be consistent, definitive testimony becomes conveniently malleable.

Spurling’s supporters allow no such excuses for Col. Wilson, who denied on occasion late in life that he ever photographed a Loch Ness monster; not allowing that this was likely his way of getting rid of pesky reporters. (In fact, Wilson stuck by his original story when interviewed in the 1960s by Member of Parliament Sir David James.)

Nickell calls Binns’ The Loch Ness Mystery Solved “the definitive skeptical book on the subject.” That honor should go to Steuart Campbell’s The Loch Ness Monster (Aquarian Press, 1986). Campbell is the best and most thorough of the Nessie debunkers — therefore it is highly significant that he too rejects Spurling’s toy submarine story. In a letter to the CSICOP magazine Skeptical Inquirer (“Nessie ‘model’ explanation suspect,” March/April 1995), Campbell notes: “In their eagerness to undermine paranormal claims, writers in SI exhibit a tendency to accept any normal explanation, whether or not there is adequate evidence.”

How true. There have certainly been many hoaxes at Loch Ness, and we must all remain vigilant against bunkum. But rationality demands that we have one stringent standard of evidence for proponent and debunker alike, and that we never abandon a healthy skepticism to embrace stories as flimsy and unsubstantiated as the one told by the late Christian Spurling.

Sincerely,

Richard D. Smith

Joe Nickell replies:

What Richard Smith sees as an “unacceptable double standard” is simply the necessary implementation of the maxim, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” This means one must have considerably more proof for the sighting of a sea monster than for that of a fish — or a sea-serpent model.

While Smith attempts to cast doubt on details of the photo affair, the arguments of Binns and others are persuasive that the famous photograph is indeed a hoax (as related in the March 1996 column). The points Smith raises range from the untrue to the dubious, as we have seen, and he is merely repeating himself. In response, I will repeat again what Simon Hoggart and Mike Hutchinson so aptly state in their Bizarre Beliefs (1995, pp. 198-99): “...given an explanation which fits virtually all the facts, and meshes in so neatly with what are known of Duke Wetherell [a previous Nessie hoaxer] (and the gullibility of tabloid newspaper editors) it seems positively perverse not to accept the Spurling account.”

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.