THE new 10p coin with the Loch Ness Monster on the back, one of a new alphabetical series, sits between K for King Arthur and M for Mackintosh (the rain-proof variety).

That’s appropriate. Since her birth, Nessie has split the difference between mist-wreathed history and technical ingenuity. She lurks beneath those choppy, peaty waters, daring all manner of scientific probes to uncover her ancient (or mutated) monstrousness.

For a nation that invented the idea of epistemology – the study of how we frame and define what’s “true” – the Loch Ness Monster is the shadow that haunts our pretensions to rational enlightenment.

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Scotland doesn’t lack for mythic national animals. We’re fond of our selkies and kelpies and unicorns, erecting them as monuments and motifs all over the place. But we keep them strictly separated from the scientific method.

Yet Nessie still attracts bearded nerds in boats, dangling complicated kit over the side, hopefully sweeping the murky depths. Last month, a games company offered £50k to researchers who can prove her (or Bigfoot’s, or the Mongolian Death Worm’s) existence. How can something so evidently untenable still incite interest?

There is a clue in the year that Nessie was created. (Let’s set aside the 5th-century stories of St. Columba encountering a beast at the Loch – this was a standard medieval trope, primarily intended to ward children away from dangerous waters). 1933 was when the sightings and blurry photographs began.

You could say infrastructure was immediately to blame. A road was built alongside the loch earlier that year, affording easy views of the waters. Camera culture was also at a mature stage, with portable devices and film clubs putting skills in many hands.

But culturally, 1933 was also a year in which monstrousness was all too evident. Well before the first Nessie sighting in July, Adolf Hitler had been installed as a dictator in Germany, with book-burnings and anti-Jewish laws thoroughly underway.

The movie King Kong had been massively successful with UK audiences in the Spring of that year. Kong was part of a wave of “monster” movies and early science-fiction, which had included Frankenstein in 1931, and the Invisible Man later in 1933.

So collectively, the mood in the Anglosphere was ripe. Eruptions of strange, violent otherness from below the surface of everyday life would be no surprise. Up till 1938, there were yearly stories of Nessie sightings, where camera-wielding enthusiasts presented their footage to sceptical (though increasingly interested) scientists.

The most famous Nessie picture – the 1934 “surgeon’s photograph”, with the dinosaur-like neck stretching up out of the water – was revealed in the nineties to be an elaborate stunt. It involved clay, toy submarines and a prank on the Daily Mail.

But it set the post-War template for how science would be applied to the quest for the monster. These viscous waters, hundreds of meters deep, harboured some creature that had either defied extinction, or opened up a new evolutionary branch.

Never mind that otters or large eels could be easily misrecognised from a distance. Or gas-filled tree logs often bobbed up through the waters. Or seiches (oscillating waves on a loch) rolled visibly from one side to the other. No, there had to be something else there – something that defied basic ecological common sense (where would they breed? Doesn’t that require a population size? And wouldn’t those numbers be evidently noticeable?).

Some Nessie scholars – yes, there are a few – suggest this tenacious grip on scientific method, in the face of much of the evidence, indicates a mild “people’s revolt” against official science.

Many of the investigators are either amateurs with a science background, or maverick researchers, applying every tricksy combination of scanning or probing technology. The BBC’s 2003 show In Search Of The Loch Ness Monster definitively proved (using 600 sonar beams and satellite tracking) that nothing bigger than a sunken lifebuoy roamed around in the depths. But the expeditions still go on.

The political theorist Tom Nairn used to speak about the “debased romanticism” of Scottish cultural heritage, the kitsch of Tartanry and Scotch Myst. I guess we would have to say that the Ness obsession is an example of “debased scientism” too.

But neither of these debasements present any problems to the Scottish tourist industry, which estimates it makes about £150m a year from the monster myth. (Visit Scotland once even ran classes called “Monster Marketing”). Every once a decade Hollywood tends to revive the old machinery again. Ted Danson stroked his lantern jaw in 1996’s Loch Ness. While Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (2007) dives straight into Celtic fantasy territory.

The Scottish film academic David Martin-Jones has written of how neatly these films fit into the tourism agenda. “In Loch Ness, Ted Danson’s university scientist is integrated into a seemingly more ‘authentic’ community in Scotland by his encounter with the monster, providing US audiences with a dream of a return to a lifestyle that existed before today’s stressful world.

“This repeats the oldest of cinematic myths (Scotland as Brigadoon). It also repackages US visions of the monster and sells them back to the potential US tourist in a more positive light.”

However, someone in the Disney Corporation has evidently been reading Tom Nairn. The 2011 short animation Ballad Of Nessie (easily available on the net) is enthusiastically voiced by Billy Connolly.

It shows Nessie being turfed from her neat wee pond by an arrogant property developer called Tycoon Macfroogal – who levels her habitat and builds a golf course (“Macfroogolf”).

Nessie’s tears are so prodigious they fill up the surrounding countryside, constituting the waters of Loch Ness and entirely swamping the evil mogul’s course. It’s hardly “the poor had no lawyers”. But it’s at least something (even if it’s only California’s liberal, anti-corporate, maybe even anti-Trump bias).

The Loch Ness Monster on the new 10p coin is a cheery, goofy sea-serpent. I would like to officially register my deep embarrassment at all the shoddy science. But I can’t deny that, as mythic monsters go, Nessie could develop into quite a useful symbol.

Of what? Well, that not everything in nature can be anticipated, engineered and mastered. She’s certainly more comely than Godzilla, stomping furiously all over Japan, forever expiating the trauma of Hiroshima. But should Nessie get less winsome, even angrier in her future incarnations, as climate change wreaks disaster everywhere? Does she need to become properly monstrous again?

I’ll leave that to the imagineers in Hollywood. Meantime, watch out for those gaseous logs.