Data Analytics and the Loch Ness Monster

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As many of the regular readers of our blog probably know, I sometimes like to write about the off-beat uses for data analytics. Remember the Geico Gecko? And what about this post where I have some fun with big data and data analytics?

Nessie-picI don’t always go looking for this stuff – well, OK, maybe I do. I guess I’m always looking for answers to the strange and the mysterious. I’m a reporter, it’s in my blood.

So I decide to check around to see if there’s anybody out there using big data analytics to solve some of the world’s unexplained phenomenon.

Like many people, I’ve always wondered about the Loch Ness Monster, known affectionately as Nessie. You know, is it live or is it Memorex?

But most people never really do much of anything to get to the truth about Nessie.

Enter Dr. Charles Paxton, an ecologist and statistician at St Andrews University in Scotland.

For the first time, Paxton has complied a comprehensive database of all the reported sightings of Nessie – about 1,000 reports in the past 80 years – and he has analyzed about 853 of these sightings.

Paxton is conducting a statistical analysis of the report data and analyzing it for clusters or patterns. His goal is to figure out if Nessie sightings can be explained by natural phenomena. For example, have people reported seeing this serpent-like beast at a site where unusual waves frequently form.

“I am looking at the last 80 years’ worth of Loch Ness sightings report data and asking the question: does it form into any natural clusters, in terms of what is seen? Other people have catalogued some of the reports, but I am trying to get everything that has ever been written down, so it is a pretty comprehensive database,” he tells the Herald Scotland News.

Paxton’s statistics also include such factors as the frequency of sightings by year, what month of the year, time of day, and estimated distances.

The statistics also include a colorful list of descriptions used to identify the shape, color, and texture of the creature: black, grey, green, pink, swan-like, horse-like, eel-like, tadpole-like, hedgehog-like, smooth-skinned, slimy, rough, elephant-skinned, shiny, polished-but-rough, etc., according to a review of a talk Paxton gave to an organization called the Edinburgh Skeptics last August.

“Most interesting than the statistics themselves, however, was Paxton’s discussion on how we should treat anecdotal evidence,” according to Skeptic Sheridyn Woodward.

“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,” Woodward notes.

Although Paxton doesn’t believe there’s some exotic beast swimming around at the bottom of Loch Ness, he does believe that the anecdotal “data” is amenable to statistical analysis.

And it’s his opinion that the reported sightings, although biased and not very precise, might still reveal something of scientific interest if these sightings are treated critically.

“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,” notes Woodward.

In April, Paxton, who ultimately plans to publish a scientific paper on his research, discussed his findings to date at the Edinburgh International Science Festival to mark the 80th anniversary of the first “modern” sighting of the monster.

Half of the speakers who participated in the conference were skeptics who didn’t believe the monster was a physical, living being, while the other half were believers, according to Gordon Rutter, a co-organizer of the conference.

“There is the romantic in all of us, I suspect – a monster living nowadays relatively close to a major population is just a cool idea – a bit out of the ordinary from our everyday lives,” Rutter notes. “People claim [to have seen it] and we can’t just dismiss the claims out of hand.”

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