What has more water in it than in the whole of England and Wales combined, is deeper in places than the North Sea and, if it were drained, could encompass the entire population of the world five times over?  Answer:  Scotland’s Loch Ness.  At thirty-seven kilometers long and twelve kilometers wide, it’s gigantic.

But that’s not the main reason Loch Ness is famous, of course.  In the saga of Nessie, many experts say it’s impossible for there to be a colony of unknown animals living in the loch, not least because there wouldn’t be enough food for them.  Some of these same people have spent many, many years trying themselves to find evidence of such  creatures and have drawn a blank.

But talk to a few of the crews of the tourist boats offering cruises on Loch Ness and you may hear something different.  ‘Well’, you say, ‘you would, wouldn’t you?  It’s their job to drum up business.’  Okay, but they will tell you that they pick up sonar traces of large objects at the bottom of the loch from time to time.  Not only that but they will also show you photographs of those traces.

A big surprise

A few years ago one of these boats detected something very big in  the depths beneath it.  Its sonar trace was sent for interpretation by experts who estimated its length as between eight and ten meters and said it was probably a small whale.  They asked where the trace was from.  Apparently they expected to be given the name of a sea and were more than surprised when told the trace came from Loch Ness.   A lot of media attention followed.  As I say, it seems that other unusual sonar echoes have also been spotted and publicized.

A curious lack of interest

Now, I haven’t got a clue whether or not there’s anything strange lurking at the bottom of Loch Ness and I don’t think I’ve got an axe to grind either way.  It also appears that it’s very difficult – even impossible – for anyone at all to be sure what’s going on in the loch.  For example, owing to exceptionally high peat content the visibility beneath the surface is dreadful.  Submersibles with powerful lights have merely seen the watery equivalent of your car headlights bouncing back at you off snowflakes.  Surprisingly perhaps, we simply don’t yet have the technology to properly explore the loch. Even in the twenty-first century.

But it would still seem that there’s enough sonar evidence to suggest there just could be fairly large creatures in Loch Ness.  Another sonar not long ago detected a big trace moving against the current of the water, which would imply an animal.  Yet sometimes the boat crews will say that experts living in the area are not always that impressed by their experiences as they operate vessels on the water each day.

Why do we cling to cherished beliefs?

If that is the case, why would that be?  Which leads me more generally to ask why people will sometimes cling to a belief or an opinion if there’s evidence that could potentially undermine it?

Science works by creating hypotheses and then testing them.  But if there are enough facts to raise questions about the hypothesis, then the theory may need to change, not the facts.

Some possible reasons

There are many reasons why people could prefer to stick with an existing theory or viewpoint rather than alter it in the face of new evidence.  Among them are possible detrimental financial consequences if new information were to alter things radically.  Or a person may feel threatened if, for instance, they have spent years trying and failing to discover something and then somebody else finds it.

Linked to any sense of threat may be two other emotions – envy and shame.  Envy wants what someone else has and if that’s not possible it may simply ignore the importance of what the other person has or even attempt to spoil or destroy it.  Shame hardly needs an explanation.  It’s about some kind of failure or deficiency being seen by other people with a resultant loss of face and fear of social exclusion.

The unfamiliar

Another possible reason for wanting to hold fast to a theory rather than allowing for the possibility of it being wrong is that to take the leap of abandoning it would be a huge thing to do and would involve going into an unfamiliar world.

At the time of writing, the new James Webb space telescope has sent back the earliest views we have of the infant universe.  Without going into all the details, it seems that they don’t show what scientists were expecting them to show.  One reads of astronomers saying they’re lying in bed awake at 3.00am asking themselves if all the work they’ve done throughout their careers could be wrong.  Could paradigms involving the speed of light have to be altered?  Could it even be – and this would be vast – that the Big Bang might need to be re-thought?

An existing theory may be comfortable whereas an alternative theory may take one into unfamiliar new territory where many well-known landmarks have gone.  And we human beings often don’t like the unfamiliar one bit.

Fear of the unfamiliar in therapy

You see this a lot in psychotherapy.  People often come to therapy with difficulties they say they want to resolve and that’s sincerely meant.  But sometimes when change begins to become possible  they shy away from it and are reluctant to walk through a door that is now opening.  To do so would be to enter a wholly unfamiliar world, one where their identity is, for example, no longer as a person with problems or who is unhappy but one where some of the more serious problems are less significant and where happiness may now beckon.

But that may also mean they no longer have excuses to fall back on for not achieving their potential.  They can now go for success but that will mean putting themselves on the line and finding out if they have what it takes to get there.  Hence the paradox that individuals sometimes prefer to remain stuck and unhappy than to risk the possibility of freedom and happiness.  The pull of the familiar and the fear of the unfamiliar are too strong.

‘Nothing in Loch Ness’ – the Achilles eel?

All these reasons for clinging to beloved theories rather than being genuinely open to alternatives go, as I’ve indicated, much wider than just Loch Ness but they may have some bearing, at least some of the time, on that situation too.  Incidentally, I once asked the captain of a boat on the loch – a boat which itself had picked up curious sonar traces – what his best guess was as to what the traces were.  ‘If you really pushed me’, he said, ‘I’d say giant eels.’

But then again that theory might need challenging.