Monsters of the Abyss and the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle

Purely by chance, the other day, I caught the start of a television show on the Travel Channel called Monsters of the Abyss. This Amazon Prime description does a decent job of summarizing the show’s content.

Richie Kohler and Evan Kovacs are deep ocean technical divers and marine investigators on the hunt for sea monsters in the British Isles. They are drawn to the North Channel by the recent discovery of a German U-boat wreck that may be the legendary UB-85, long-rumored to have been attacked by a sea monster in the waning days of WW1.

This is a nice example of Alberto Brandolini’s bullshit asymmetry principle that “the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

For example, was UB-85 “long-rumored to have been attacked by sea monster”? Well, yes, if by “long-rumored,” you mean “completely made up on the Internet in 2005.”

According to a 2016 Live Science report on the discovery of a sunken World War I U-Boat,

If the latest wreck does turn out to be UB-85, it’s a vessel that has already found its way into legend — on the internet, at least.

McCartney explained that a story had circulated on the internet for several years that the captain and crew of UB-85 reported their submarine was attacked by a sea monster, which damaged the vessel and forced it to stay on the surface, where it was spotted by the HMS Coreopsis.

But McCartney’s research has found no historic basis for the story, which first appeared online, without any provenance, around 2005. He noted that neither the captain of UB-85 nor any of the crew mentioned a sea monster when they were interrogated by British naval intelligence after their rescue.

The story of UB-85 and the sea monster “falls into a longer trend going back at least to the 1930s of these outlandish sea tales being appended to First World War German submarines,” McCartney said. “I don’t know why it is, but the first U-boat war just attracts these stories — you get haunted submarines, like UB-65 which [supposedly] had a dead crewmember who haunted the boat, and then UB-28 — another sea monster is supposed to have attacked that one.”

This is especially the case with UB-85 since a 2002 book on World War I U-Boat sinkings actually describes what really caused the submarine’s loss.

The Daily Mail dug up the 2002 book (they actually did research–who knew that was even possible?) and summarized its description of the UB-85’s sinking,

At the end of the Second World War, the Allies captured the entire records of the German Navy from 1850 to 1945, and copied them on to 4,317 rolls of microfilm, now stored at NARA’s site in Maryland. Hopefully, somewhere among them would be accounts given by the U-boat’s crew members after the war.

Spooling through hundreds of miles of microfilm was clearly an investigative step too far. Fortunately an American naval historian and retired detective from the San Jose Police Department in California called Dwight R. Messimer had already done all the hard work, and had presented it in an obscure 2002 tome called Verschollen [Missing]: World War I U-boat Losses. The files contain at least four interviews with crew members, including Krech himself.

But did any of them mention a monster? And if they did not, did any of them report anything strange or outlandish?

In his account, Krech recalled how he decided to crash-dive the U-boat after he spotted Royal Navy patrol boats. ‘The navigator reported the conning tower hatch closed,’ he said, ‘but as we went under, heavy flooding occurred through the hatch.’

Now unable to close the hatch, the submarine was clearly in trouble. Water poured from the conning tower into the U-boat, causing the pumps, batteries and electric motors to fail. To make matters even more dangerous, the air was starting to fill up with chlorine gas emitted by the flooded batteries, which meant the crew were either going to drown or be poisoned to death.

The only option was to surface, and quickly. Krech ordered the ballast tanks to be blown, and the U-boat rose slowly. However, that did not mean the crew was safe.

Senior stoker Julius Göttschammer reported: ‘We opened the watertight door into the control room and managed to make our way against the in-rushing water into the control room and exit the boat through the conning tower.’

In fact, it is Göttschammer who held the key as to why water had managed to enter the boat from the conning tower – and he laid the blame squarely on Krech.

Göttschammer said Krech had insisted on the installation of a heater in the officers’ compartment. He said the cables to power it had to be run into the control room through the conning tower, compromising its ability to be completely sealed. ‘The result was that the new cables allowed water to flow unhindered from the conning tower,’ said Göttschammer.

Had these new cables not been in place, only the conning tower would have flooded, which would have posed no danger to the submarine.

Unfortunately, that sort of explanation is unlikely to garner the sort of ratings and funding that Kohler and Kovacs can get by visiting Loch Ness and speculating whether some cryptid species there may have sunk the UB-85.