Yesterday, we had lots of news headlines concerning the Loch Ness monster, proving that the silly season is still a thing. (After all, it’s not as though there is actually anything important going on in the world right now.)
Virtually all the headlines focused on the same catchy notion:
It is safe to say the term “plausible” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here.
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Of course, the research that prompted all this media coverage did not support any claims that the Loch Ness monster actually exists. Nor that its existence is plausible in any real sense.
For one thing, the research was based on an archaeological dig conducted in the Tafilalt region of Morocco, an oasis at the cusp of the Sahara desert. This area is renowned among archaeologists because of the sheer abundance of fossils of dinosaurs and other vertebrates that are to be found there. Suffice to say, it is nowhere near Loch Ness, which lies deep in the Scottish Highlands.
Secondly, the particular fossils studied in this research dated back to the Cretaceous Period, and belonged to an animal that would have become extinct at least 66 million years ago. The first alleged sightings of the Loch Ness monster were in the 19th century, suggesting little by way of a likely genetic link between Nessie and the Moroccan bones.
All that we have here is an archaeological survey that found plesiosaur bones in an area where we would expect to find fossils of freshwater animals. This implies that plesiosaurs, which were previously thought to be sea-dwelling reptiles, might also have lived in inland rivers and lakes. Around 66 million years ago, that is.
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So why all the talk of Loch Ness?
In the past, we might have blamed the media for such narrative extravagance. Commentators have long bemoaned a tendency among many newspaper and TV journalists to sensationalise the banalities of research by spuriously linking findings to some or other topic of popular fascination.
Over time, we have become wise to the fact that scientists themselves often try to grab the headlines with carefree speculations of their own. In this case, however, we cannot blame the researchers. The 53-page paper describing the study contains over 10,000 words, but precisely none of these words are either “Loch” or “Ness”. An accompanying blog post by the corresponding author discusses Mesozoic marine reptiles in depth, but does not mention the Loch Ness monster even once.
Nor should we blame the media for this Loch Ness silliness. The sub-editors did not come up with the Nessie angle on their own. They were fed it by the Press Release issued by the University of Bath:
But what does this all mean for the Loch Ness Monster? On one level, it’s plausible. Plesiosaurs weren’t confined to the seas, they did inhabit freshwater. But the fossil record also suggests that after almost a hundred and fifty million years, the last plesiosaurs finally died out at the same time as the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago.
I’m sure the press officer feels they included enough of a caveat there. But they knew what they were doing when they chose to bring the Loch Ness monster into the discussion. “On one level, it’s plausible” was all they needed to say; and lo and behold, a thousand headlines were born.
There was once a time when universities pursued a mission of expanding knowledge for its own sake.
These days it’s all about the clicks.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.