Science, media, and Loch Ness “monsters”
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2009/12/24
In memoriam, Robert H. Rines
Long ago — in the 1930s— “The Loch Ness Monster” became an icon of foolishness, hoax, tourist-trapping by canny Scots Highlanders, and the like. And so it has remained for some 7 decades for everyone whose knowledge comes only from media sound-bites and shibboleths. The opportunity to become better informed, a potential stimulus to trying to become better informed, is afforded by the article by Charles Siebert in the New York Times Magazine for 27 December, “The Lives They Lived — Robert Rines: Monster Hunter, 1922-2009”.
I had the privilege of knowing Robert Rines, an extraordinarily accomplished individual; he held patents for inventions in sonar and radar, among other things; first a physicist, later a patent attorney, he was also a musician and composer. He founded the Academy of Applied Science which supported inventors and novel investigations and managed for a federal agency a program to interest young people in science. He founded the Franklin Pierce Law Center. Perhaps above all, he enthused and stimulated untold numbers of people. The many tributes to his life in a range of publications, and the many respectful obituaries after he died on 1 November, attest Rines’s remarkable record of achievements; see for example “Robert H. Rines ’42 — Patent attorney and inventor started MIT the bumpy way” by Sharron Kahn Luttrell, Technology Review, Dec. 2005/Jan. 2006; “Robert H. Rines, Esq. — Pierce Law Founder: A True Renaissance Man”; “Pioneering Loch Ness Monster researcher dies”; obituaries in the Daily Telegraph (UK); in Physics World; in Huffington Post.
As a potential cure for closed minds, I recommend in particular that last one, by Ben H. Winters, coauthor of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters:
“Sure, the mainstream scientific community felt (and feels) there’s no plesiosaur in Loch Ness; but Rines had seen the damn thing with his own eyes, he trusted his own mind, and by God he was going to get to the bottom of it.
So, yeah, maybe there’s no Loch Ness monster.
Okay, probably there’s no Loch Ness monster.
But it’s worth pausing for a moment to celebrate Robert H. Rines, and the one in a million chance that there is.”
It’s the one in a million chances that have brought genuine progress. Pre-Einstein, for instance, the chances were one in a million or less that Newton’s long-confirmed, long “proved” laws would ever be found wanting. To paraphrase Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, you can spend your life catching and dining on minnows, or you can go after the really big fish, knowing your chances are low but that any success would be a feast for all humanity. Having the courage to risk being wrong makes for progress; as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, progress depends on the unreasonable man. As Jack Good liked to point out, geniuses are cranks who happen to be right and cranks are geniuses who happen to be wrong — they all follow their muse despite the disdain of the multitudes who are too afraid to venture outside what “everyone” believes.
The cranks who happen to be right are often honored only posthumously, for a mainstream consensus defends itself vigorously; as Max Planck pointed out, new ideas take hold only as their opponents die off — science progresses funeral by funeral.
In some part, a mainstream consensus is able to persist so long because media and public seem afraid to look at the evidence for themselves. Once the media have labeled something, that label is likely to stick for a long time; in preparing new stories, time-pressured reporters check newspaper archives and they hesitate to diverge from the received wisdom of the past. So with Loch Ness monsters, the media do not remind the general public that Robert Rines was accomplished enough that he should not have been written off when he became interested in the possible existence of Nessies; the media do not remind the general public that other highly accomplished people had joined in Rines’s searches at Loch Ness, people like Harold Edgerton, inventor of strobe photography and recipient of a Medal of Freedom; Marty Klein, successful entrepreneur, expert in side-scan sonar; Charles Wyckoff, photographic guru at Kodak. The media do not usually accompany mentions of “The Loch Ness Monster” with reference to the underwater photos of flippers and a long-necked creature that Rines obtained, and which led Nature — at the joint instigation of Rines and the renowned wildlife activist Peter Scott — to publish a scientific name (Rhombopteryx nessiteras) for the creatures.
Nor do the media accompany standard sneers about “cold fusion” with reference to the 15 or so international conferences at which a variety of confirmations of and extrapolations from the Fleischmann-Pons effect have been reported by researchers employed at such places as Los Alamos, the Navy Research Establishment, White Sands, SRI, and official as well as private research institutions in Israel, Italy, Japan, and many other countries as well.
Nor, of course, do the media mention that HIV/AIDS theory has disproved itself in countless ways and has maintained itself only through vested interests and not scientific evidence. I think there really are “Loch Ness monsters” — a reproducing population of large and unidentified critters of some sort in Loch Ness, with cousins probably in Loch Morar and in the oceans; but I’m not quite, 100% sure about it, because you can never prove anything like that 100% unless you have captured a living specimen or found a carcass. But you can definitively, 100%, disprove a theory, and HIV/AIDS theory has been definitively, 100% disproved in a variety of ways. There are innumerable observations that do not fit the concept of a sexually transmitted, immune-system-destroying retrovirus. That evidence is seen, however, only by people not blinded by a mainstream consensus.
Robert Rines is sorely missed, even as we celebrate his achievements and feel grateful for having known him, for the excitement he brought to everything he turned to and the encouragement he gave unstintingly to all who wanted to try something new.