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Friday, 22 February 2019

How to spot palaeontological crankery

Pterosaurs, such as the newly described Jurassic species Klobiodon rochei, are magnets for palaeontological cranks: those individuals who harbour and promote idiosyncratic and problematic ideas about palaeobiological topics. Some cranks are a genuine nuisance for educators, but they are easy enough to spot and avoid if you know their characteristics. Say, that sounds like a good idea for a blog post.
Like many popular sciences, palaeontology attracts individuals harbouring what can kindly be called ‘alternative’ or ‘fringe’ ideas: interpretations of evolutionary relationships, animal biomechanics or other facets of palaeobiology that contrast with ‘mainstream’ science. Such individuals are generally referred to as "cranks" - a term defined at Wikipedia as "a person who holds an unshakable belief that most of his or her contemporaries consider to be false". While most crank palaeontology is confined to obscure literature or forgotten corners of the internet, and is therefore pretty harmless, some cranks are major sources of misinformation thanks to their prominent, professional-looking websites, deals with mainstream book publishers, or careers in public outreach exercises.

Cranks are thus a real issue for palaeontological educators and science communicators. Students, teachers and naive members of the public are all potential victims of crankery, and many of us have witnessed crank media being embraced or shared by well-meaning individuals. Among those of us interested in science and outreach, cranks are a semi-regular topic of conversation: how do we combat their miseducation? Ignore them? Engage them on social media? Take them on in public debates? I don't know that there's a right answer, but one approach we can use is helping less experienced individuals recognise crankery when they find it. As with most peddlers of alternative ideas and pseudoscience, palaeontological cranks have characteristic behaviours and interests that stand out quickly once you learn what they are, and this can only help us avoid being hoodwinked by their unique brand of miseducation.

This, then, is my attempt to prime readers for recognising palaeontological crankery. In the interests of making this article as accessible as possible I've attempted to use easily understood, plain-English throughout. I'm dividing the post in two: first, we'll outline the commonest subjects of palaeontological crankery, so as to let readers know when to be extra alert for crank output; and in the second section, we'll look at some crank red flags which should set our sceptical systems to maximum alert. It's worth noting before we dive in that I'm only concerned with 'true' palaeontological cranks here, and will not be tackling young earth creationism, evolution deniers or palaeo-themed cryptozoology. Those are all worthy topics but are well beyond our scope today. I'm also going to generally avoid naming and linking to specific cranks or sources in this article, on grounds that any publicity is good publicity.

The favoured subjects of palaeontological cranks


Claims of remarkable fossil discoveries
Probably the commonest form of palaeontological crankery is the claim of having a significant fossil discovery, yet to be recognised by science. This might be an amazing new fossil, such as a complete pterosaur head in amber, or it could be the identification of overlooked extra bones, soft-tissues or other features on an existing specimen. Cranks making these claims vary as to whether or not they've actually seen the specimens they're discussing, and sometimes they work only from images found in papers, books or on websites. These 'discoveries' are often the crux of all subsequent output from that individual, whether they are simply showing off their specimens on a website or using them to inform ideas about evolution and biomechanics.

Most fossils don't escape some damage en route to discovery by humans: cracks, breaks, distortion of other kinds are common, as shown here on the broken holotype skull of the pterosaur Lacusovagus magnificens. But some individuals will not see these as artefacts of preservation and instead assume that they represent overlooked structures such as teeth, bone divisions or vestigial elements. Given that this work is often based on photos alone, this implies that the experts who spent hours or days studying the actual specimens have missed obvious structures, but that the crank is able to see them without difficulty in a photograph.
A phrase tossed about lots when talking about these claims is 'pareidolia' - the phenomenon of seeing significant patterns or forms in what is actually random visual data. Like perceiving a face on Mars or Jesus on a slice of toast, these individuals 'find' significance in rock structures, cracks on fossils, detritus in amber, or even artefacts of image reproduction. Overwhelmingly, the response from people who've experienced the fossils in question is that these claims represent major over-interpretation of specimens.

Rearranging evolutionary trees
Most would agree that determining the relationships of species with one another is a challenging endeavour, but that generations of anatomical and genetic-based investigations have created a reasonable insight into the broad outline of life's evolution. Not so, according to many cranks, several of whom argue that major branches of evolution (mostly certain charismatic tetrapods) are misplaced in 'mainstream' takes on life's evolutionary tree. Oddly, few cranks agree on exactly which relationships are incorrect. Are birds pterosaurs? Are mammals archosauromorphs? Are pangolins late-surviving stegosaurs? There are lots of alternatives out there, leaving only a smattering of die-hard BAND ("Birds Are Not Dinosaurs") supporters agreeing over where we've got our interpretation wrong.

These contrary opinions are mostly informed by nothing but intuition or cherry-picked data. On rare occasions, actual phylogenetic software is used to predict non-standard evolutionary trees, but it's well documented that these analyses are so broken and misinformed by problematic anatomical data that their results are meaningless. Darren Naish's article on the claims made at the infamous website ReptileEvolution.com offers a great insight into a particularly egregious example of this, and is recommended reading for anyone researching paleontological subjects online.

Amazingly, there are still people out there who doubt the bird-dinosaur link, despite the literal thousands of fossils and hundreds of studies that evidence the origin of birds among theropod dinosaurs. Even relatively non-birdy theropods, like Gorgosaurus libratus, shown here, have skeletons littered with features that are otherwise only seen in bird-line tetrapods.
The lifestyles of fossil reptiles
The great size and peculiar anatomy of many fossil animals - but especially certain Mesozoic reptiles - draws crank attention when they don't buy into accepted modern interpretations of their lifestyles. How could large dinosaurs support their great weight on land? How did plane-sized pterosaurs fly? How could an animal the size and shape of a giant theropod be hidden from prey? Rather than deriving answers from disciplines that have a genuine bearing on these issues, such as biomechanics, fossil trackways, palaeoenvironmental interpretations, or the ecology of living predators, cranks instead propose radical solutions. Perhaps all dinosaurs were aquatic? Maybe Earth's atmosphere was thicker, or gravity was radically different from how we know it today?

Each of these 'solutions' is actually a rabbit hole of problems, errors and logical fallacies that we could disappear into for some time. It's common for cranks to cite something from their background that makes them uniquely able to see biomechanical problems where others can't. My favourite example is a high-school physics teacher who argues that they understand giant dinosaurs and pterosaurs better than anyone because of a particularly formidable understanding of square-cube law. What we're really seeing in these cases is Dunning-Kruger effect: a cognitive bias where individuals rank their cognition of a topic much higher than anyone else, even if they have only a slight or even problematic understanding of the subject in question. I can give no better example of this than the recent and public debate over Too Big to Walk, a book by microbiologist Brian Ford (published in 2018) which proposes that dinosaurs were incapable of supporting themselves on land and must have been confined to aquatic habits. Ford's thesis is outlined here and in other articles online, with responses by palaeontologist and dinosaur specialist Darren Naish here, here and here. All palaeontological crankery is reliant on Dunning-Kruger to a certain extent, but crank arguments about the lifestyles or biomechanics of prehistoric reptiles are particularly good examples.

10 Red flags and pointers for spotting crank palaeontology

If these are the current hot topics in palaeontolgical crankery, how do we distinguish genuine scientific discussions of these matters from crank nonsense? Given that most cranks seem to regard themselves as somehow 'special' - being of unique abilities and insight, or at least due respect for authoring some critical scientific breakthrough - it must pain them to learn that they are actually extremely similar and predictable in how they present their work, talk about themselves and interact with others. This is to our benefit, as it gives us excellent means to guauge the general reliability of whatever it is we're reading or listening to. Some of these checks and tells are listed below. This list is not exhaustive, but if an article, presentation or book hits a number of these marks you probably want to treat their content with extra scepticism.

1. The creation of a problem to solve
Our first red flag is the prediction of cranks to manufacture problems that need solving. They confidently make grand claims like "scientists have never explained this" or "subject X has never been satisfactorily investigated". Such statements are an essential foundation of crank thinking because if these 'problems' didn't exist, the crank would have nothing to 'solve'. While many palaeontologically savvy readers will smell these rats immediately, such claims stand a chance of duping naive readers. Be cautious when reading any sweeping, unreferenced suggestion that we're entirely wrong or misinformed about a particular facet of palaeontology. It's actually very difficult to think of a major palaeontological area where all previous work is totally useless, and such claims are more likely to be someone sidestepping science in order to create space for a pseudoscientific approach.

2. Avoidance of conflicting data or fields of study
A sure-fire crank giveaway is the dismissal of data contradicting with their ideas, even if that means rejecting an entire scientific discipline. Science works by testing ideas using different methods, not through cherry picking the results and methods that best support our preferred ideas. If someone states that DNA-based methods for reconstructing evolutionary trees are bogus, or that fossil footprints have no bearing on the habitat preferences of giant extinct animals, there's a good chance that they're attempting to deflect data that conflicts with their ideas.

3. Over-confidence
One of the most defining features of cranks is their confidence. Genuine palaeontologists, like all scientists, learn early in their careers to be careful about overstating certainty. Outside of describing raw data (e.g. reporting measurements or the outcomes of analyses) they use cautious phraseology like "this infers", "our findings indicate", and "we were unable to replicate Author X's findings". This accepts that interpreting fossil life is always a work in progress and that our work is rarely the last word on a given topic. Cranks, on the other hand, tend to write boldly and without reserve: "this is", "I have shown" and "Author X is blinkered and wrong". This level of confidence is not only misplaced (cranks revise their ideas as often as legitimate scientists, often without documenting why) but characterises a dangerous level of self-belief for someone purporting to conduct legitimate science.

Cranks are drawn to large dinosaurs like Dreadnoughtus schrani when they cannot, or will not, accept that they were capable of walking on land, which leads to ideas of dinosaurs living largely in water, in denser atmospheres, or under reduced gravity. Huge swathes of data from anatomy, geology and dinosaur trackways show that none of these concepts are correct. It also seems lost on cranks that plenty of non-dinosaurian Mesozoic organisms would struggle to live in denser atmospheres, low gravity or waterlogged habitats. It's almost like these ideas are not well thought through.
4. An embarrassment of scientific riches
It's rare for cranks to make one bold claim. Instead, they frequently have a slew of amazing, game-changing discoveries. They don't have one amazing fossil, they have many. Palaeontologists have not got the anatomy of one species wrong, they've overlooked major anatomical characteristics across huge groups. And it's common for cranks to suggest that their work has a significant bearing on all manner of palaeontological mysteries: that their idea on dinosaur locomotion also explains giant pterosaur flight, that their anatomical criteria for understanding the evolution of reptiles can be applied, without modification, to mammals or birds. It's a hallmark of crankery to have all the answers - or at least more answers than 'mainstream' scientists.

Claims for so many ground-breaking discoveries should immediately trigger our scepticism. Yes, there are skilled and prolific scientists who make numerous significant contributions to our collective knowledge, but they do not make them every week. Good science takes time: time to collect and analyse data, time to document and report the findings, time for peers to check the work, and time to publish it in a suitable venue. While the crank may view their churning out of game-changing revelations as the inevitable consequence of a self-led scientific revolution, they're actually exposing their lack of rigour, willingness or ability to have their work vetted by relevant experts.

5. An abundance of self-citation
Does the article you're reading extensively cite the work of the author, and almost always in an affirming light? It would be wrong to say that genuine scientists do not self-cite, or even that some do not over cite their own work (scientists have egos too, many have rather big ones), but if you're reading a work that is extensively citing and complementing the author's own work, be wary: this is often a sign of crankery. This red flag flies especially high if the author is demeaning the work of others while holding their own work in high regard (see below).

6. Knowing your authors
In science, what is said matters more than who says it, but when a questionable claim is made the integrity of the author can be a useful indicator of credibility. Whether we like it or not, reputation matters. We should be extra sceptical with proposals made by those with a history of quackery or no background in the field they're claiming expertise in. This is not to say that amateur or non-professional individuals can't or won't have insights on palaeontolgical matters overlooked by experienced researchers, but folks without experience or training in a relevant field are more prone to making mistakes and overlooking data. It’s quite easy to research scientists and educators nowadays by simply Googling their names, or by asking around in the right internet venues. Sometimes this very quickly reveals whether you should be taking that individual seriously, or if you need to take a more cautious approach to their ideas.

7. Misleading credentials and other trickery
While some cranks decry academic titles, others flaunt their credentials to add support to their claims. But simply having a high-level qualification does not make someone an expert in all subjects. If someone is making questionable claims, check out what their qualifications are actually in: having a postgraduate qualification in microbiology or graphic design does not automatically equate to an equivalent understanding of dinosaurian biomechanics. Similarly, be wary of cranks making up official-sounding institutions as their place of research. There's no restriction on naming your own institution or society so cranks can create 'scientific' or 'educational' bodies as easily as I can call my garden shed the "Mark Witton Institute of Natural History". A quick round of Googling will quickly expose these institutions and credentials for what they really are. Needless to say, if someone is distorting their credentials in order to seem more authoritative, you've got an excellent reason to question pretty much everything they say.

That most cranks have only a superficial knowledge of palaeontology is demonstrated by their focus on well-known and charismatic species such as big dinosaurs and pterosaurs. It's rare to see cranks applying their ideas to more routine, less exciting species like extinct fish, invertebrates or even crocodyliforms like Hulkeopholis willetti. My hunch is that most cranks learn about palaeontology largely through popular media and if so, this explains why their ideas are so easily dismissed. Even basic training in palaeontology is enough to expose major holes in their ideas.
8. A predilection for criticism and personal attacks of scientists
Because cranks believe they have a superior scientific insight they are often extremely critical of other researchers. This seems to get worse as the crank gets older and has faced long-term rejection from the scientific community, and it can manifest itself in particularly nasty and underhand ways: obsessive and ultra-detailed 'criticisms' of published works; personal attacks and harassment of scientists; accusations of institutions being dogmatic, blinkered or even fundamentalist in their adherence to 'mainstream' views; and even attempts to dissuade prospective PhD students from legitimate postgraduate programmes. You don't see comments like this in legitimate research because genuine science is concerned with hypotheses and ideas, not venting frustrations at individuals or institutions. Crank hostility can be especially obvious if they have a comment field on their websites: when challenged, they are often quick to vent their frustrations.

9. The Galileo Gambit
Another major red flag common to all cranks is their frequent comparison between themselves and scientists who received establishment pushback against their ideas - Wegner, Galileo, Darwin and so on. The folly of the Galileo Gambit is well established and we needn't outline it in detail here, it will suffice to point out that invoking these big names is clear evidence of self-belief in their own abilities against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Note that scientists making genuine research contributions never use this defence when proposing ideas they know will cause upset or controversy. If you see someone comparing themselves in this way to a historically persecuted scientific figure, there's a very good chance they're a dyed-in-the-wool crank.

10. Beware of Big Palaeo!
Saving the best until last: yes, unbelievable as it is, there are individuals who suggest mainstream scientists are somehow organising against them to suppress their work. While maybe not imagining something as sinister as the Big Pharma conspiracy, some cranks infer that palaeontology is governed by individuals who dictate what is and what isn't acceptable science, and who forbid the publication of work that challenges the status quo. The plot thickens with universities not simply training scientists, but actually indoctrinating them into this way of thinking. This casts PhDs not as experts in their subject, but as brainwashed members of the Big Palaeo cult. In controlling the ebb and flow of palaeontological science these individuals are able to maintain lofty academic positions and secure grant money. In my experience, this claim tends to follow the crank's papers being rejected from academic journals or finding that no palaeontologists will agree with their interpretation of an (allegedly) amazing fossil.

As someone with academic experience myself, I find this mindset genuinely fascinating. It gives a real insight into how some cranks see the world: so convinced are they of their own findings and significance that their rejection from academia can only reflect a global, organised conspiracy. In reality, their lack of academic recognition reflects the fact that any average scientist can spot fatal errors in their proposals. Moreover, the idea that palaeontologists, or any scientists, suppress controversial new ideas is ludicrous. Within the well-publicised realm of dinosaur science, just some recently published contentious ideas include the recovery of soft, unlithified proteinaceous tissues in 80 million year old fossil bones (Schweitzer et al. 2005), that Spinosaurus was a weirdly proportioned, archaeocete-like quadruped (Ibrahim et al. 2014), and that major branches of the dinosaur evolutionary tree have been incorrectly arranged for a century (Baron et al. 2017). These are bold claims that remain debated, but they were published nonetheless. The difference between these papers and crank ideas is simply the evidence and methodologies used to justify their conclusions - that's all there is to it. We could write a whole essay on how flawed the idea of a Big Palaeo conspiracy is but, in short, if you encounter anybody claiming their work is being silenced by a conspiracy of palaeontologists they are, without doubt, an embittered crank of the highest order.

These are just a few giveaways that you're dealing with a palaeontological crank, hopefully they're of use to folks less familiar with the more questionable parts of palaeontological outreach. Some readers may have identified some parts of the above list as common hallmarks of more general crankery, and that's no coincidence: as mentioned above, although crank subjects change, their behaviour and public presentation is remarkably consistent. There are longer, more detailed discussions of crank detection available online, but what we've outlined here should be enough to equip most readers with an early warning system for crankery. We've not, of course, answered the question about what to do with cranks when we identify them. Should we ignore them? Alert others about them? Contact them about their bad science? That's another long discussion (and a much murkier one) however, so that'll have to wait for another time.

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References

  • Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B., & Barrett, P. M. (2017). A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature, 543(7646), 501.
  • Ford, B. J. (2018). Too Big to Walk: The New Science of Dinosaurs. HarperCollins UK.
  • Ibrahim, N., Sereno, P. C., Dal Sasso, C., Maganuco, S., Fabbri, M., Martill, D. M., ... & Iurino, D. A. (2014). Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur. Science, 345(6204), 1613-1616.
  • Schweitzer, M. H., Wittmeyer, J. L., Horner, J. R., & Toporski, J. K. (2005). Soft-tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex. Science, 307(5717), 1952-1955.