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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.

34 comments:

  1. You say: "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." I'm particularly interested in your comment that "non-dinosaurian Mesozoic organisms would struggle to live in ... low gravity". Why would they struggle in low gravity?

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    1. Gravity affects all sorts of things - how our bodies are constructed, where we can live, how our environments function etc. Because fossil organisms seem similarly adapted to modern species (i.e. suited to live in a gravity akin to the modern day), many aspects of their anatomy are maladapted for low G. For example, extinct fliers would be slower and less agile than modern ones. This could be advantageous, but would also make them more vulnerable, less suited to living in cluttered settings etc. Because gravity influences fluid dynamics, organisms small enough to exploit small-scale phenomena in air or water flow are going to be affected. Marine detrital feeders are also going to suffer as their nutrients flow at reduced rates from surface waters. Animals or plants reinforcing their skeletons for weight support or as protection from sediment abrasion are also wasting a lot of effort and energy. Nutrient flow from the land to sea might be affected as sediment flow energy is lessened. It's not that low gravity is a problem for life per sae, it's that life adapted something like modern gravity - i.e. all our fossil species - would find life more difficult.

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    2. You're thinking way too small here. If gravity changed, the Earth would either zoom off into space or spiral into the sun. We are living proof that the gravitation constant is constant over billions of years.

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    3. Thanks for trying to clarify your thoughts Mark. Perhaps the most interesting aspect for me is to try and clarify when the concept of a reduced gravity becomes a “crank idea”. You seem to accept that gravity affects our bodies. That is a commonly held view that is widely accepted. It even seems to be widely accepted that a reduced gravity would greatly affect the scale of life. Take for example the comments of Professor Brain Cox (2013) "Any structure scaled upwards on Earth will eventually fail under its own weight ... because the force of gravity acts in proportion to its mass." (p135) Ultimately, then, the size of animals on land is restricted by the strength of bone and the mass of the Earth. On a planet such as Mars, given the same bone strength, animals could be more massive because Mars's gravitational pull is around a third of the Earth. This would permit, in principle, larger animals to roam the red planet." (p139), "It is not the availability of food or the outcomes of evolution that ultimately decide the size of the largest land-based animal - it is gravity." (p138), "... there is a maximum size, which on land is set by the size and mass of our planet, because the force of gravity restricts the emergence of giants." (p161).

      Of course Brian Cox isn’t suggesting that gravity was less during the dinosaurs time, he’s just pointing out that a reduced gravity would increase the relative scale of life. So presumably he avoids being labelled a “crank”.

      There is no doubt that the relative scale of life is controlled by the strength of gravity. The “crank” label seems to be applied when anyone dares to points out that the dinosaurs’ larger scale could be explained by a reduced surface gravity.

      It’s very interesting trying look into other people’s minds to see why other people can’t see what I see. Bone strength is interesting. Some palaeontologists advised abandoning the use of leg bone weight calculation entirely since they cannot get dinosaurs’ mass small enough to agree with the bone weight calculations. The differences are so great for large bipeds that Hutchinson et al (2007) concluded that: “...it is almost certain that these scaling equations greatly underestimate dinosaur body masses... Hence, we recommend abandonment of their usage for large dinosaurs.”

      So one argument is we can simply ignore these bone strength results. They can be discarded since they conflict with our beliefs about the ancient Earth. However, once we accept that surface gravity could change these ignored results can be used to calculate palaeogravity.

      Cox, B (2013). Wonders of Life. Collins; First Edition 2013. ISBN-13: 978-0007452675

      Hutchinson, J. R., Ng-Thow-Hing, V., & Anderson, F. C. (2007). A 3D interactive method for estimating body segmental parameters in animals: application to the turning and running performance of Tyrannosaurus rex. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 246(4), 660-680.

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    4. This is highly entertaining, this mixture of pseudo-sincerity ("Thanks for trying to clarify your thoughts Mark") with absolute scientific nonsense: Reconstructing the palaeogravity using bone strength/impossible huge dinosaur body weights. Hilarious.

      Well, I won't go into detail regarding change in Earth's gravity in the last 3-4 billion years, David pretty much made the point and there's a simple reason Mars has a very thin atmosphere being no that smaller than Earth and within the habitable zone.

      But let's take the idea, for fun of it. Maybe I get the logic wrong (being an actual scientist; didn't thought there are still Earth expansionists around).

      A modern-day Sequoia can reach 1000 tons, the counterpart of 10 blue whales. Old Sherman had 1100 ton living mass in 1930s; the total is 2000 tons.

      ThoughCo gives in his 10 facts about Brachiosaurus a weight of 40-50t, i.e. a modern-day Sequoia equals 20+ Brachiosauri.

      The largest modern land animal is the elephant with a mere 5-6 t.
      I.e. a Sequoia equals 200+ elephants and 10 elephants equal one Brachiosaurus. Let's assume modern-day gravity doesn't allow for bigger land animals.

      So, if I get the "science" right here, Earth's gravity was 10-times lower in the Mesozoic, because Earth is still shrinking, right? (That's so funny).

      Let aside that this would have meant, it would have lost pretty much its entire atmosphere. But, given the much lower gravity, the Sequoias (their direct ancestors were already around) accordingly could grew to 10,000 tons living mass. What a mighty forest that was shadowing the dinosaurs.

      And shouldn't we go a step further: the biggest modern-day tree is the Coast Redwood, the other Sequoia, who can easily reach 100 m with a basis of 7 m (PS for a long people wonder how the trees exist; also the bumblebee can't possibly fly). With the Mesosoic "light earth" that allowed dinosaurs to become much bigger than under today "heavy earth" situation, conifers could have easily grew up to 300-400 m.

      And none of those tremendously great plant giants left any fossil record. Odd, isn't it?

      What wonderful fairy tale!

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  2. The idea that there is a 'big paleo' conspiracy seems even more ludicrous than similar suggestions about 'big pharma'. After all, in pharmacology there actually ARE multi-billion dollar companies that control millions in research funding and who have demonstrably acted in nefarious ways on occasion. I don't think this means that there really is a 'big pharma' conspiracy, but I can see how people might find the idea plausible.

    [Sarcasm] In paleontology there is similarly a huge abundance of research funding available from companies who stand to make billions, but only if research findings reach a particular conclusion. Every paleontology academic, despite openly disagreeing with and debating the conclusions of fellow researchers, nevertheless clandestinely agrees with ALL his/her professional colleagues that certain findings and interpretations must ALWAYS be suppressed. [sarcasm]

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  3. Some of your red flags are not so straightforward, because these issues are found in professional peer-reviewed science
    1 to 3 are no uncommon, and even positively encouraged in the science business.
    4 any palaeontologist not dealing in the big bones (or hominids), might tell you that this is a general feat of big animals vertrebrate palaeozoologists, making "a dinosaur out of every bone" (to over-exaggerate a little)
    5 is a very poor criterion. Show me a single paper of a famous palaeontologist not packed with self-citations. On the other side you have the (last) specialists on a group, who have to cite themselves because no-one else is working on that particular group.
    6 a double-edged sword. It matters a lot who said what. Palaeontology is probably the softest of the natural sciences.
    7–9 are pretty safe indicators.
    10 there's no "big palaeo", but like in the case of "mainstream media", there is, of course, a mainstream bias. It's easier to publish along the beaten path than when you stray from it or criticise an accepted view. So you have to check who cries: when the "alt-right" cries "fake news", it's a good indication it's fact; and when similar-minded groups cry "liberal science", it's good, reliable science.
    (for details, I just posted my full comment, more than the allowed 4096 letters)

    I would add a Flag no. 11: Data documentation: Is the data open (freely available)?. Even when you lack the means or competence to check the data, when a scientist makes his/her primary data publicly available, (s)he obviously doesn't fear that somebody may look into it.
    E.g. any evolutionary tree where the authors don't publish the data matrix should be ignored.

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    1. I wouldn't consider all points on my list 100% foolproof, but if someone ticks multiple entries then they're more than likely a crank. The fact that some of these issues crop up in peer-reviewed studies doesn't necessarily make those authors cranks. It's the broad picture that I'm looking at here.

      On point 5: there's a distinction between self-citing (which we all do) and the extensive (and often exclusive) self-citing and associated self-aggrandizing of cranks. They don't just link back to their papers, but will use it as an excuse to denounce other scientists, highlight how they worked something out first etc. There's a spirit of one-upmanship and bitterness to crank self-citation that I've not encountered in peer-reviewed publications.

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    2. I do agree, it's the number of hissing flags.

      0–1: No worries (I included 1, because we are all human and not infallible)

      2–3: Biased (somewhat) science (kind of industry standard in palaeontology)

      4–5: Poor science for the trash bin

      6–7: Pseudo-science

      8+: Fraud and madness



      I really would call them frauds, not cranks. Hilgendorf, and Wegner mentioned by Hoyacoder, were cranks per definition. Especially Wegner quickly went down the path of one-upmanship, and the only thing that saved him from going crazy was possible that he found a circle of likeminded cranks and married the daughter of Wladimir Köppen, another crank of his time, and probably the most brilliant mind in climate research that ever lived. We still use the generic i.e. intutive, climate classification he "made up" (so the consensus at the time, especially the U.S. science community rejected it entirely, some till today).

      I see a strong parallel here with "intelligental design", which is not a crank anymore. Although it lacks any scientific basis, it is taught in schools of 14 U.S. states, much favoured in neo-Osman Turkey and state dioctrine in Saudi Arabia, and propagated by a not small minority of Members of Congress and including the Secretary of Education and the VP.

      In case of Tennessee, still taught, keeping in mind the trial of John Scopes.

      Climate change denying has some, formerly high-merited, now pretty cranky figure heads (e.g. Claude Allegre, once the absolute Nr. 1 of French isotope geochemistry (see e.g. this 1993 paper in Nature, cited 610-times on GoogleScholar) and is widely accepted by the U.S. government.

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  4. Great article, Mark!

    This all reminds me of that user (won't mention his name here) who went around on various sites claiming that Velociraptor was capable of full-on soaring like a vulture and that a group of Mesozoic mammals were powered flyers based on some teeth and nothing else. The user treated these ideas like fact despite the lack of evidence, to the point where he would vandalize Wikipedia and TV Tropes, and he insulted, harassed, and threatened to sue anyone who disagreed with or criticized his hypotheses, making hundreds of fake accounts to upvote himself on Reddit. I kid you not, he literally made a blog post titled "Why I am always right".

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  5. Regarding your statement: "the idea that palaeontologists, or any scientists, suppress controversial new ideas is ludicrous," consider the following two quotes from Warren B. Hamilton, who has challenged geological orthodoxy his entire career.

    (1) "My own acceptance of a mobilistic view of the Earth came with reading in graduate school, about 1949, Du Toit's 'Our wandering continents.' I began writing and lecturing on pro-drift topics after my first field season in Antarctica, in 1958, when I realized that the geology predicted by Du Toit's reconstructions was indeed being discovered there. Peer review then, as now, was often used to block dissemination of concepts contrary to beliefs held by reviewers, and it was often difficult in those stabilist years to get pro-drift materials published outside the rare mobilistic symposia, whereas it was easy and commendable to publish anti-drift papers. A 1962 manuscript by L.W. Morley, correctly interpreting seafloor magnetic lineations as due to seafloor spreading during alternating periods of normal and reverse geomagnetic fields, was rejected by both 'Nature' and the 'Journal of Geophysical Research,' whereas Stehli published in major journals many repetitive anti-drift misinterpretations of the distribution of Permian fossils indicative of water temperatures. Axelrod [1963] published in Journal of Geophysical Research a stabilist rationalization of paleofloras (he later provided important biogeographic evidence for drift). I wrote a detailed refutation which the editor insisted be severely abbreviated. A review of global paleontologic, biogeographic, paleoclimatic, and paleomagnetic evidence for continental drift and aggregation, which I prepared in the early 1960s for U.S. Geological Survey monographic publication, was cycled to stabilist reviewers until I gave up on it, although excerpts from it were published."

    -- Hamilton, 2002, "The Closed Upper-Mantle Circulation of Plate Tectonics"

    (2) "My take on the peer-review system is not sanguine. In my geologic youth, conventional wisdom, and accordingly peer reviewers, strongly favored permanent and stable continents and oceans, whereas nowadays collective hunches stretch plate-tectonic models (and mythical plumes) to cover all occasions. I have run the peer-review gauntlet a hundred times or so. My papers describing and interpreting geology in conventional terms have moved smoothly through, whereas my manuscripts challenging consensus concepts often have had heavy going. I gave up on several manuscripts that I still regard as among my best after a year or so each of sequential nitpicking by consensus-supporting reviewers. Other geoscientists for whose work I have a very high regard, and who have challenged groupthink assumptions, report similar experiences.

    "'There are times when the working definition of truth is taken to be the consensus of one's scientific intimates, the 'good old boys.' Anything outside that limited horizon is discomforting and improper and is to be barred from consideration.' Parker (1997)"

    -- Hamilton, 1998, "Archean magmatism and deformation were not products of plate tectonics"

    Would you consider Warren Hamilton a crank?

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    1. When you dig a bit, you can find Ph.D. theses that challenged some accepted view at the time or a well-running science machine and, hence, didn't made it into a published paper. Not because the analysis lacked vigour, but because the conflict of interests hiding behind confidential peer review prevented the publication.
      It happens. And some give up, also advisable: as a young scientist without a fixed position, you cannot afford to piss off future employers; why only people of a certain status or at the end of their career come out with such stories. Others are more persistent. See e.g. this paper which acknowledges "14 anonymous reviewers" for their comments, i.e., has been rejected by at at least seven other journals. Likely including unfair reviews by members of what we call the "hominid mafia" (not an organised cartel, but influential groups centred around few researchers who decide what is published and who gets access to the material). But just because something struggles, it's not necessarily good science. This paper was possibly also rejected by researchers without conflict of interest simply because the main conclusion is complete nonsense and the data basis a joke. The savannah theory rebooted in this paper is a long-comported, easy to invalidate idea, ironically, members of the "hominid mafia". Aside being refuted by all palaeobotanical evidence; other highly-merited palaeozoologists, who can tell you adventurous stories of their encounters with the "hominid mafia", termed it simply the "Pikermi Myth". All involved sides will reject each other’s papers. But they all get their papers published, eventually. Just pick the right editor in Springer-Natures bin Scientific Reports or PLoS' PLoS ONE. In the worst-case scenario, you just invest the 200-300 $ for an Indian or Chinese (but U.S.-registered) (semi-)predatory publisher.

      If you have good data, and run into the peer-wall, just choose a journal with peer review transparency. This will keep the many beasts at bay.

      PS Palaeontology has a long tradition of trying to suppress or delay circulation of new ideas: a very classic example is Franz Martin Hilgendorf. He was quickly evicted from the University of Tübingen ("notdoktoriert") because his Ph.D. thesis manuscript (1863) included a very heretic (back then) reconstruction (an idea and result he shared with Charles Darwin): an early phylogenetic tree. His heretic tree was eventually published in 1867, and Hilgendorf became one of the founders of fish systematics in Japan. He also published the possibly first phylogenetic network trying to solve a dilemma most palaeontologists ignore till this very day, namely that signal in morphological data is not treelike. Just try publishing a phylogenetic network in a palaeontological journal of flawless reputation, you will get very interesting comments from the reviewers, since most of them still adhere to the outdated thought school of parsimony-based cladistics established by Farris in the 1980s. See also this anecdote from Dan Gaur being invited by the Willi-Hennig Society, the cladist's science cartel.

      There is a profound grey zone in professional palaeontology (not including the obvious pseudo-research addressed by Mark's post) between proper science and open-minded scientific exchange and stubborn propagation of believes.

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    2. I have to agree with Das Grimm here. There's a difference between expressing frustration with peer review and suggesting that no-one publishes controversial or different ideas, or that some individuals are being suppressed for personal gain, which is what cranks infer.

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    3. I agree, which calls into question Mark's use of the term "crank." Using the Wikipedia definition that Mark cited, Alfred Wegener would have qualified as a crank, because he certainly had "an unshakable belief that most of his... contemporaries consider[ed] to be false." Worse still, Wegener was not even a geologist but a mere meterologist, so he was dabbling in a subject that was outside his field of expertise.

      Although I agree with some of what Mark wrote," I think he painted with much too broad a brush because the criteria he used would cast several important historical figures, such as Wegener, into the "crank" category. J Harlan Bretz also comes to mind.

      PS -- Warren Hamilton referred to the USGS overlords who thwarted his early drift papers as "the Menlo Mafia." (The western region of the USGS is headquartered in Menlo Park, CA.)

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    4. This is actually an interesting thing. Only Wegener could have come up with this theory, because he was no geologist, hence, not aware of what geologists believed at the time, but an engineer with a background in meteorology. This brought him into contact with Wladimir Köppen, and Köppen's knowledge about plant vegetation patterns (the basis for the Köppen-Geiger climate classification) helped Wegner to round up his ideas. Which resulted in a brilliant (for the time and five/six decades to come) and fairly ignored work:
      The Climates of the Geological Past.

      For a similar reason, I quickly turned to networks instead of parsimony-based cladograms for phylogenetics (the industry standard in palaeontology). Although I'm an educated geologist-palaeontologist (Dipl.-Geol., Ph.D. in palaeontology; by U.S. standards I could claim a master in biology and a bachelor in chemistry as well, the German university system used to be very different and very free), I specialised early in genetics, and never had to attend a university course in phylogenetics. Where they teach you usually that a parsimony cladogram is a good depiction of evolution but it's not (as can be shown using also Hilgendorf's evolutionary tree).

      Coming from the outside, can give a fresh perspective. BUT (and this is a very big "but"): science is very fragmented and complex now, so stories like Wegner's are nigh-on unlikely these days. You can't become an expert anymore with no background in at least closely related fields (like in my case: genetics of modern-day species, which gives me a different perspective on evolutionary processes than a geologist has). So if somebody boosting his M.D. from some mid-west state and claiming expertise in e.g. climatology or palaeontology, he's likely a fraud.

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    5. As men age they are more likely to become cranks. Bitterness plays a key factor. I can think of people in different fields who were brilliant when they were young. As they aged they segued into crankdom as many of their old beliefs became obsolete. There's quite a few writers, scientists, historians, etc. that had fine careers but ended up senile cranks.

      Not as many female cranks but a big part of it has been exclusion from male society. There's certainly a few, my grandmother's best friend included. There's a tendency to say females are more submissive, less likely to stick to their entrenched beliefs because they're used to caving into male dominance. This is more likely a result of sexism but I think lowering testosterone and sexual impotence play a role in driving men to crankdom.

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    6. Flag No. 12: Age, and time span to last first-authored publication in a good journal could be indeed another Red Flag.

      In the fields that I got in direct touch with, the fiery Protectors of Ancient Truth were all men; the women (too few as usual), even the opinionated ones, could drop a long-cherished believe when it was refuted by new scientific evidence or at least tolerate your diverging opinion.

      Since most of peer review is confidential, there is little statistic data but to my experience (two decades of scientific publishing in low- to very high impact journals) the incompetent and unprofessional reviews were usually by the biped dinosaurs, the old grey-backs. Women, not all but much more often than men, think more about what they do, the consequences, also in science – but I may not be objective, all my bosses and senior co-authors were well-aged women. Never teamed up with just a grey-back, probably couldn't have.

      And when you roam the net for the science frauds and pseudo-scientists – like the fine examples criticizing tiniest details of Mark's post without being able to avoid only a single of his red flags – ever crossed a woman's site?

      Flag No. 13: extreme monodisciplinarity – arguing from a tiny detail to draw conclusions going much beyond or being completely unrelated, e.g. using dinosaurs to argue against plate tectonics and all astrophysical knowledge about planetory bodies and the formation of the solar system or criticising general comments/concepts because an artist uses his artistic freedom. Compelling logic: "Some bit of your animal drawing may be wrong, hence, I'm not a fraud. Even though you didn't even mention me in person, but I felt being addressed." (because you collect red flags, maybe?)

      Another co-incidence regarding sex and anti-science movements spreading their "alternative, so far supressed, facts" in the world-wide web: political parties that reject science in particular (there is a nice correlation between votes for right-wing/ -populist parties and the proportion of people rejecting evolutionary theory) or in general, are those with a substantially high men to women ratio.

      U.S. Congress being proof of point, but also our nice little "Alternative für Deutschland", the only German party close to Trumpians or True Conservatives (i.e. those not suffering from any sort of "liberal denial") including the one or other worried about "chemtrails" and "manufactured facts" (i.e. what normal people call science). In France, it's the Rassemblement national who collects the enemies of science, except for Marine, all male. In Sweden it's mostly the Sverigedemokraterna, again male as male can be.

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  6. As the author of one of Witton’s targets (www.ReptileEvolution.com) it is appropriate to mount a defense.

    Witton’s blogpost is copied verbatim and answered online here: https://pterosaurheresies.wordpress.com/2019/02/24/how-to-spot-palaeontological-crankery/

    There you can also see the mismatch between the fossil Klobiodon pterosaur and Witton’s freehand illustration of it.

    A few of those defenses are supplied below.

    Witton starts by defining his subject with a derogatory label. Paleontologists should not condemn or label one another.

    Witton further defines ‘naive members of the public’ as ‘victims.’ He lumps ‘alternative ideas‘ with ‘pseudoscience. Alternative ideas with evidence should be welcomed, debated, confirmed and/or refuted.

    Witton black-washes alternative ideas. No doubt, some for good reason, but given Witton’s mistakes on his own pterosaur illustration we can no longer trust his authority – or should we just encourage him to make the correction? Even so, in science ‘trust’ is always a bad thing. Evidence is a good thing. On that note, it sure would be nice if we could see a few specific examples from Witton here. It’s bad form to accuse without evidence.

    On that note, Witton provides some (perhaps rhetorical) questions here, but does not answer them. I’ll take the blame for “Are mammals archosauromorphs?” because the large reptile tree nests mammals in the archosauromorph (closer to archosaurs than to lepidosaurs) first dichotomy in the large reptile tree, appearing just after the amphibian-like reptiles of the Viséan that nest as last common ancestors of all amniotes. Anyone can do the same with a similar taxon list, but no one, so far, has wanted to do so, including Witton.

    Witton is also misinformed about genetic-based investigations. They don’t match any trait-based investigations and do not provide a gradual accumulation of derived traits in deep time taxa, although genes do work pretty well in extant criminal studies.

    Quoting Witton, “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."

    Using the same evidence and methodologies for the last twenty years, I have had letters and papers published in Nature, Science, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Ichnos, Historical Biology and other peer-reviewed international academic publications…but not lately. What changed in the minds of the referees and editors or this author? Is it because I changed from naive to critical?

    If what I recover in the LRT is not correct in whole or in part, then the mistakes should be obvious and able to be corrected. It’s Witton’s job to refute or confirm, not condemn.


    If what I identify in Cosesaurus is not correct in whole or in part, then the mistakes should be obvious and able to be corrected. It’s Witton’s job to refute or confirm, not condemn.

    Finally, I quote and agree with Witton: “A sure-fire crank giveaway is the dismissal of data contradicting with their ideas”.

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    2. There's cranks and then there's trolls right? A crank believes in what they're selling. A troll doesn't have to, the idea is to carry it as far as you can carry it. To get his name mentioned as much as possible, maybe get back at some scientists who didn't take one of his ideas seriously or stiffed him for his drawing fees.

      How long has this Peters guy been at it, 20 years now? And he's still taken seriously, people actually think his website and ideas are real and and then there's the paleontologists he's always trolling.

      I find it a bit hilarious that a guy with no credentials, just an artist, gets his jokes written up in newspapers (vampire bat pterosaurs!! That one cracked me up!), gets to debate real paleontologists, when it's obvious he's doing it all for a laugh.

      He can come on serious websites like this one and question people who have worked in, say whale evolution and paleontology and say whales are tenrecs without bating an eye. Call you all idiots and amateurs, then you try to seriously debate him. When it's obvious he's having the time of his life.

      God Bless the internet where anyone can become a world famous paleontologist with a popular website where they cite themselves and the same three or four people (and a couple of the paleontologists they go out of their way too annoy) and actual followers by drawing lines all over pictures.

      A paleontologist had a website about Pterosaurs, 'We don't understand this and this about Pterosaurs', Peters comes in and says 'I understand it completely and know exactly why. For your next paper you can come ask me and I'd love to explain it to you.'

      The paleontologist must have turned beet red, here he's (and many others) had spent all this time and energy, years and years, and Peters probably spent a couple hours on it and says, yeah I can explain it to you, like the paleontologist was a little kid!! You tried hard little boy now let the adult sort things out for you!

      Don't tell me I'm the only one who finds this stuff humorous, and I know I shouldn't. Hell boils with laughter. This is the same paradigm where you end up with a President Trump, a guy completely unqualified, a career real estate swindler. With no idea what he's doing but with money and the internet and people's inability to differentiate between what's real and what's imagined. The fake fake news. He's a Democrat until 10 years ago and now he's the Republican Knight of the free conservative world! It's either laugh or go crazy..

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    3. Oh man I should have done this before I hit publish on my post, it's too good so it's forcing me to make a second post.

      One of Peter's primary arguments in his post is that we can't trust Witton's ideas about cranks because of Mark's 'freehand' drawing of the pterosaur at the top of the page. This disqualifies him as an expert because he isn't as good of an artist as the amazing Peters!

      So I went to Peters' website to see what the errors are when compared to the fossil. Peters blows up a picture of the Klobiodon's fossil's jawbone on top of Peter's drawing so it fills the entire space of the animal's jawline. It's obvious Witton has shrank the fossil's dimensions down so there's room for soft tissue, cartilage, keratin at the end of the bone, muscles, skin, gums, and such. Around the bone and skin.

      Peters makes it look like the jaw is all bone so it looks like Witton had no idea what the dimensions were! Plus the fossil jawbone seems much shorter because there's no keratin on the end! It reminds me of Mark's crazy drawing of the sharks leaping 12 feet out of the water to snatch a pterosaur! Well, at least the newspapers' reactions to it. Clueless.

      Another hilarious thing I noticed, when I read Witton's article it looked like he was making up ridiculous claims by cranks. Pterosaurs are birds, mammals are archosaurimorphs, Pangolins descended from stegosaurs, it sounds ridiculous. Peters points out, all hurt, that in his 'giant tree of silly reptiles' that mammals ARE archosaurimorphs in his scheme. He owned it!

      I love this guy. Another thing he says, instead of writing this article about determining who is a crank and insulting Peters ideas, Witton should have spent his time CORRECTING Peters, going through detail by detail how his Giant Dumb Reptile Tree is right or wrong, beast by prehistoric beast! Sit down, put on your dunce cap and do your homework Witton! You've been spanked by the TEACHER!! I swear if I had that kind of confidence I'd be king.. I could go on more but I need to stop myself. This level of trolling gets me excited.

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    4. I'm afraid "Witton is also misinformed about genetic-based investigations. They don’t match any trait-based investigations and do not provide a gradual accumulation of derived traits in deep time taxa, although genes do work pretty well in extant criminal studies." demonstrates Mark Witton's hit the right target.

      Genes work very well at all levels, from intra-species differentiation patterns till the investigating the partly reticulate origin of life (evolution of mitochondrial and plastid DNA from bacterial DNA and its occassional reorganisation in the nucleome of metazoans) and the basic processes can be proven real-time using e.g. observing the evolution of viral DNA or the long history of studying mutants (by e.g. knocking out a gene) and generation-shift in fruit flies.

      A molecular tree not necessarily depict the true tree (all data can be misleading), but this holds even more for any morphology-based tree because form doesn't necessarily reflect common origin, much less than genes. At the leaves of the Tree of Life we have an endless number of examples showing either congruence between morphological traits and genetics or incongruence because of epigenetic processes (the same genetic code is differently expressed in individuals), reticulation (keep in mind that even we are always a combination of a paternal and maternal lineage), convergence and parallelism, i.e. the evolution of similar or identical morphological traits in non-/distantly related organisms or of the same lineage, often related to positive selection.

      Finding a catch-phrase like "... although genes do work pretty well in extant criminal studies" is a bullet-proof indication that you are on a pseudo-scientific site.

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    5. Ha ha yes 'works pretty well in extant criminal studies'. Pretty well, not great, but when you use DNA for anything else it falls apart, totally useless.

      I like when Peters pretends to take the criticism personally, 'you're attacking my character'. Well, he is a character but I don't see any character whatsoever. He's a manipulative lying fraud, somewhere between the person(s) who made up Piltdown Man and the guy who froze a plastic caveman in a block of ice and charged the public four bits a gander at strip malls and bowling alleys.

      I had to look it up, see if he still sticks by his Jeholopterus, the Pterosaur vampire he made up. Yep he still owns it, has a ridiculous drawing on his website. Of the pterosaur with two fangs, just like a Halloween costume vampire.

      It makes perfect sense pterosaurs with their creepy leathery wings and furry bodies, hanging upside down in caves at night. And everyone knows vampire bats have two prominent fangs to do their dirty disgusting blood sucking.

      Only vampire bats don't have fangs, they have specialized incisors that carve a hole out of the skin which fills with blood. Which the vampire bat laps up. Having fangs like a sabre tooth cat is as useful for a hematophage as tits on a bull. Peters was too lazy to look at a vampire bat skull before he created his fake blood sucking Pterosaur!

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    6. KMichael: While you're making up your own stories about the vampire pterosaur, Jeholopterus, and projecting your own insecurities (name-calling), let me remind you of the 2003 abstract in which Jeholopterus used its teeth and surgery-needle-like claws to hang on to its prey while scraping the skin with its short dentary teeth in that hypothesis. With regard to your earlier musings, I invite you to create your own trait-based cladogram of tetrapod relationships and see how it compares with the various DNA analyses. Like Witton, you seem to be too quick to condemn, and too slow to confirm or refute. Mark, I wonder what you think of your fan boys? This is your opportunity to step up.

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    7. "If what I recover in the LRT is not correct in whole or in part, then the mistakes should be obvious and able to be corrected."

      Mickey Mortimer has dedicated several posts over the years to this very endeavor.

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    9. Ho ho Peters, I'm not here because I'm Witton's fanboy I'm here because I'm a Peters fanboy. I'm here because of you bud!

      My primary interest lies not with science but with what you call 'alternative ideas', stuff like Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, extinct animals, the violet flame, Edgar Cayce, clairvoyance, Shambala, telepathy, bigfoots, fakirs, yetis, ashrams, Bob Dobbs, Lobsang Rampa, flying saucers in Mt Shasta, shrunken heads, knocks on walls from the spirit world that tap out little messages in the night.

      There's some who look at Peter's images and think this guy must be inhaling something, cannabis, yohimbe, toad secretions, grain alcohol, salvia, airduster, canned heat.(I know I could use a drink after looking at them) I think it could be all Peters, all natural. But I'm guessing when he's creating he enters a state of ecstacy or excitement?

      When did you realize you had a gift Peters? The ability to see something special when you look at a picture of a flattened fossil matrix? Were you astonished when the Pterosaurs sprang into 3D revealing their dark vampire legends?

      I can't imagine what it would be like to see all the tiny Ptweety Pterosaurs, both full grown and newborn, flapping to life out of their rocky matrix just for you to examine. (oh man you and all your Ptweeties..) All I see is a jumble of bones, but you see the truth, a prophecy. I imagine someday we'll all see your famous world renowned 2003 April Fools joke, I mean abstract, as what it really is, and i mean what it REALLY is..

      When I was searching for an image of your goofy bucktooth blood sucker I came across a creationist's blog in which the guy said 'Dracula could very well be a folk story by people who saw a modern day Pterosaur from Hateg Island that lives on in Romania, with it's leathery wings wrapped around it's body.' Oh man..

      You seem to be genuinely hurt by the name calling but the definition of a crank is: 'a person who holds an unshakable belief that most of his or her contemporaries consider to be false. A crank belief is so wildly at variance with those commonly held that it is considered ludicrous.'

      If you object are you admitting that you're not a crank? That you made all this up for fame and to make a fool of the people who published you and the paleontologists who took your hoaxes seriously? Do you believe in your psychic fossil matrix picture vision! Your fans want to know!

      Almost forgot to add, I'd like to remind Peters that Wikipedia helpfully has a skeletal reconstruction of Jehelopterus that is far more accurate then the one on your website. I'm assuming it's based on the actual fossil instead of one divined out of a picture because it's lacking fangs and short dentary teeth. In fact the teeth look nothing like those possessed by a vampire bat.

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    10. Because Peters said I was making up stories I should say a bit more about a vampire bat's specializations as compared to Jeholopterus. Peter's says 'surgery-needle-like-claws'. If it was stabbing an animal with sharp needle claws the animal would become instantly aware of it's presence. Look at a picture of a vampire bat feeding, you'll see it does not pierce the animal with it's clawed thumb, rather uses it to stabilize it's balance. It holds on with the pads of it's hands and feet so as not to be noticed.

      If you examine a vampire bat's skull you see several different types of teeth for different jobs. It uses it's canine and cheek teeth like a straight razor, to shave off the feathers or hair. Then it uses it's upper incisors, which lack enamel to keep them razor sharp, to create an incision.

      Jeholopterus doesn't have any of these specializations. It's claws are not surgery-like needles. They are long and curved. It's teeth are all quite similar. Most of them are peg-like and small, some are longer re-curved. They look nothing like a vampire bat's, they are not razor-sharp. They look like they're adapted to grasping small struggling prey. Maybe small fish, small animals, and insects. They could not shave feathers, I doubt they could pierce a sauropod's or other large dinosaur's thick hide. They certainly weren't razor sharp.

      As to why Peters abstract and his other hoaxes were published and taken seriously at one time. Very few people had seen the holotypes and they didn't expect someone to lie about what they saw. They trusted Peters, believed in him and didn't expect him to be dishonest. This was probably the case with many of the people who were tricked by Piltdown Man.

      Peters has betrayed these peoples' trust, taken advantage of them. He knows his silly vampire pterosaur is phony, this is obvious he can look at wikipedia articles as easily as I can. This is how you burn bridges, destroy friendships, lose credibility. It is not name calling to call Peters a fraud, a liar, and a rascal. This is what he is by definition. Far worse then a crank. He's certainly the most dishonest person in paleontology so far in the 21st century. And this is why I am a fan, for the infamy!

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    11. Others have covered everything else better than I could frankly be bothered to find the time to do, but I thought I would take a few moments to correct you on one assertion.

      Genetic evidence is arguably more relevant in paleontology than it is in forensic science, as DNA evidence has been proven to sometimes identify incorrect persons. There are more cases of incorrect DNA identification than there are of incorrect fingerprint identification, just to run that home.

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  7. "Whenever I read Kuhn, I am troubled by the following question: are we here presented with methodologicical prescriptions which tell the scientist how to proceed; or are we given a description, void of any evaluative element, of those activities that are generally called 'scientific'? Kuhn's writing, it seems to me, do not lead to a straightforward answer. They are ambiguous in the sense that they are compatible with, and lend support to, both interpretations. Now this ambiguity (whose stylistic expression and mental impact has much in common with similar ambiguities in Hegel and Wittgenstein) is not at all a side issue. It has had quite a definite effect on Kuhn's readers and has made them look at, and deal with, their subject in a manner not at all advantageous. More than one social scientist has pointed out to me that now at last he had learned how to turn his field into a 'science', by which of course he meant that he had learned how to improve it. The recipe, according to those people, is to restrict criticism, to reduce the number of comprehensive theories to one, and to create a normal science that has this one as its paradigm. Students must be prevented from speculating along different lines and the more restless colleagues must be made to conform and 'to do serious work.' But is this what Kuhn wants to achieve? Is it his intention to provide a historico-scientific justification for the ever-growing need to identify with some group? Does he want every subject to imitate the monolithic character of, say, the quantum theory of 1930? Does he think that a discipline that has been constructed in this manner is in some ways better off? That it will lead to better, to more numerous, to more interesting results? Or are his followers among sociologists an unintended side effect of a work whose sole purrpose is to report wie es werklich gewesen' [trans: 'how it really was'] without implying that the reported features are worthy of imitation? And if this is the sole purpose of the work, then why the constant misunderstanding, and why the ambiguous and occasionally highly moralizing style?"

    -- Paul K. Feyerabend, 1981, "Consolations for the Specialist", p. 132-133

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  8. This is a very informative and insightful article. I'm from China and lots of palaeontological crankeries also exist on the Chinese internet.
    Mark, if you agree, I'd like to translate this post to Chinese and repost on my social network.

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  9. Whatever Witton, you're just mad that your cabal of whining ivory tower cultists no longer have a monopoly on the world's most amazing fossils these days.

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