As we sat, waiting for the lovely and always intriguing Charles Paxton to begin his talk on the stats of Nessie, we were treated to a man in an old fashioned diving suit handing out rum. As you do. So an interesting start.
Charles then dove into Loch Ness Monster stats with a tray of free sample rums nearby, but he showed great restraint! His talk was an interesting diversion from our other talks which for the most part have focused on psychology, secularism and other more mainstream sciences. Charles spoke about Cryptozoology and tried, and I believe succeeded, in pointing out to the audience that cryptozoology is not automatically woo that tries to find bigfoot.
Cryptozoology is the study of hidden animals, or unfound as of yet animals and according to statistics we would expect there to be many, many unknown at present sea creatures.
But is Nessie one of those unknowns? well, no. Charles is not a cryptozoologist of the pseudoscience variety but a biologist with a specialty in aquatic life, and he looked at how you can address the claims made from a statistical point of view.
Great stuff that went swimmingly well.
Turning Anecdotes into Data
On Friday August 17th Charles Paxton delivered an interesting overview of the vital statistics of Loch Ness Monster sightings and their implications.
Paxton’s statics included such factors as frequency of sightings by year, what month of the year, time of day, estimated distances, as well as a colourful list of descriptions used to identify the shape, colour, and texture of the sighted creature: black, grey, green, pink (yes, really), swan-like, horse-like, eel-like, tadpole-like, hedgehog-like, smooth-skinned, slimy, rough, elephant-skinned, shiny, polished-but-rough, etc.
Most interesting than the statistics themselves, however, was Paxton’s discussion on how we should treat anecdotal evidence. Though often wrong in its assumptions and interpretations, anecdotal evidence has historically been useful in identifying previously unknown phenomena, thus establishing itself as potential data which should be treated critically. Paxton highlighted how bias and precision play key roles in the quality of anecdotal evidence and help determine what level of interpretation they justify. Even if the conclusion is deemed nonsense (like most people in the room, Paxton is not a believer in the Loch Ness Monster), to dismiss the corresponding sightings as equally nonsense can put us in danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. Reported sightings, though perhaps biased and imprecise, may yet point us towards something still of scientific interest when treated critically.
As a member of the Skeptics community I found Paxton’s treatment of a widely disregarded phenomenon refreshing. It’s a potent reminder to us that, in our quest to expose frauds and falsehoods, we do not allow our own acquired prejudices to dismiss the prerogative for a critical and unbiased treatment of all data being presented.