How to spot palaeontological crankery
February 22, 2019
delivered an exposé entitled, “How to spot palaeontological crankery.” Odd title, given the novel last word, which keeps turning into ‘cranberry’ whenever I try to put it in my online dictionary. No matter. We all know what Witton means. Here is the text of the Witton blogpost, verbatim in blue italic. My comments are indented.

Witton’s Caption:
“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.”

Unfortunately Witton illustrated his blogpost on cranks with an inaccurate rendition of Klobiodon, as shown by the evidence presented here (Fig. 1, not a good way to start):

Figure 1. Mark Witton painting of Klobiodon, based on the mandible on the overlay. Note the dental mismatch, the rotation of the lateral digit to the medial border of invalid uropatagia fused medially beneath the tail following the invalidated Sordes model. Not a good way to start if attempting to pride oneself in scientific accuracy leading a blogpost on cranks. Copyright law permits criticism and science under Fair Usage in the USA and UK, if anyone is concerned.

Figure 1. Mark Witton painting of Klobiodon, based on the mandible on the overlay. Note the dental mismatch, the rotation of the lateral digit to the medial border of invalid uropatagia fused medially beneath the tail following the invalidated Sordes model. Not a good way to start if attempting to pride oneself in scientific accuracy leading a blogpost on cranks. Copyright law permits criticism and science under Fair Usage in the USA and UK, if anyone is concerned. Good to see that the wing membrane is reduced to near invisibility here, something I encouraged Witton and other artists  to do earlier based on the evidence in fossils.

Witton’s text begins with a definition:
“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.”

Witton starts by defining his subject with a derogatory label. When my kids were growing up, I told them that other kids who called them names were usually projecting what they felt about themselves. Details on ‘projection’ here.

“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.”

Witton further defines ‘naive members of the public’ as ‘victims.’ He lumps ‘alternative ideas‘ with ‘pseudoscience.’

“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.”

Witton restricts his upcoming notes to a subset of the complete set of cranks.

Witton’s text continues:
“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.”

Witton’s blogpost comes a few days after our two-day look at Cosesaurus, a transitional taxon linking Macrocnemus to Sharovipteryx, Longisquama and pterosaurs, a hypothesis first published in the peer-reviewed academic literature in Peters 2000 and in several similar peer-reviewed papers that followed. In that blogpost there was ‘the identification of overlooked extra bones, soft tissues.’ There’s always an impetus for every blogpost and op-ed.

“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.”

Witton reports on a specific cracked, broke and distorted specimen. Evidently someone presented a second opinion (= an alternative idea) that was not appreciated. Publishing scientific observations invites confirmation, refutation and discussion, but evidently not from those who Witton describes as ‘cranks.’

Witton’s text continues
“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.”

Witton is blackwashing alternative ideas here. No doubt, some for good reason, but given Witton’s mistakes on the pterosaur illustration above, we can no longer trust his authority on all subjects. Or should we just encourage him to make the correction? Even so, in science ‘trust’ is a bad thing. Evidence is a good thing. Gosh, it sure would be nice if we could see a few specific examples from Witton here. It’s bad form to accuse without evidence. For the time being, we’re just going to have to trust and follow Witton’s rhetoric.

Witton’s text continues
“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.”

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. Anyone can do the same with a similar taxon list, but no one, so far, has wanted to do so. Witton is also misinformed about genetic-based investigations. They don’t match any trait-based investigations off deep time taxa and do not provide a gradual accumulation of derived traits in deep time taxa, although they work pretty well in extant criminal studies.

“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 offers a great insight into a particularly egregious example of this, and is recommended reading for anyone researching paleontological subjects online.”

Finally, Witton pops the pimple! Speaking on behalf of the LRT, these results are the opposite of opinion, intuition or cherry-picked taxa. The software recovers the relationships. 1400+ taxa on one tree alone is the opposite of ‘cherry-picked.’ Other trees include dozens of specimens within several traditional genera. So Witton is, I have to say it, lying on that matter. On the same note, Darren Naish’s article was presented in toto and debunked here, if anyone is interested. Naish was likewise trying to foil a competitor with labels. When Witton writes, ‘their results are meaningless’ that should imply that the results are wrong in part and in toto. Yet all taxa in the LRT demonstrate a gradual accumulation of derived traits. That’s the ideal! Other workers confirm earlier findings in the LRT. That means the findings are possibly valid. Remember Chilesaurus! A good scientist gives credit where credit is due. Someone who is projecting blackwashes their competition in toto. One wonders why the long-sought wide gamut analysis of the Tetrapoda (aka: the LRT), is being denigrated instead of being used as it was meant to be used: as a place to find taxa for smaller inclusion sets.

“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.”

Here I agree with Witton’s rant, but hate being lumped into this undesirable company. Phylogenetic analysis in the LRT recovers birds with dinosaurs.

Witton’s text continues
“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?”

Again, I hate being lumped in with some of these questions, but I am the source of one. The largest pterosaurs share with much smaller flightless forms vestigial distal wing phalanges…and that becoming flightless at the height of a human enabled them to become giraffe-sized giants. Since this is, by analogy, what happens with the largest flying birds, it cannot be labeled, ‘a radical solution.’

Witton’s text continues
“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.”

Again I hate that my observations and analyses have being swept up with all these other hypotheses.

“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 gauge 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 skepticism.”

Okay, let’s see how Witton distinguishes genuine from crank.

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.

Here I will quote and agree with Witton:Be cautious when reading any sweeping, unreferenced suggestion that we’re entirely wrong or misinformed about a particular facet of palaeontology.”

“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.”

Here I will quote and agree with Witton: “A sure-fire crank giveaway is the dismissal of data contradicting with their ideas”. Doggone it, Dr. Witton, have you noticed, you’re dismissing my data because it contradicts with your ideas? I have stated that DNA-based methods for reconstructing evolutionary trees are bogus because trait-based analyses, like the LRT, do not agree with them. DNA-based analyses nest dissimilar taxa together (like flamingoes and grebes) and that cannot be defended. If one reports such a problem, that does not make them a crank.

“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.”

Here I will quote and agree with Witton: Cranks, on the other hand, tend to write boldly and without reserve: “Author X is blinkered and wrong”. If ‘blinkered’ = ‘crank’ then Dr. Witton is doing the name-calling today and may not be aware of it. If someone could show him this blogpost, it might be helpful.

Often evidence either ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’. When it ‘is’ that’s okay to say so. That’s the same thing as saying, ‘Our findings indicate”, to quote Dr. Witton.

“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.” 

Again I hate that my observations and analyses have being swept up with all these hypotheses.

“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.”

Since the LRT includes a wide gamut of taxa, I’ll assume this mantle, although not to dinosaur/pterosaur locomotion analogies. The LRT uses the same set of traits for traditional reptiles, birds and mammals and is somehow able to lump and split them all. That some previously untested taxa now nest with other taxa was not meant to happen, but when it did happen, it was reported. I see a hint of envy here in Witton’s phrase, ‘a slew of amazing, game-changing discoveries.’ After all, Witton got into paleontology in order to make at least a few amazing, game-changing discoveries. Great time and treasure went into earning Witton’s PhD. That someone without those credentials is making any discoveries or is refuting any of his discoveries must be a source of irritation.

“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.”

Skepticism is good for science. Every discovery should be confirmed or refuted. However, if a discovery is ignored, as typically happens in the LRT, or in anything I have had peer-reviewed in academic publications, actually points the finger back at Witton and his PhD colleagues. They need to challenge published observations and hypotheses. Let’s have a dialog. Let’s have a debate. Let’s show evidence. Let’s not resort to vague, denigrating and blackwashing rhetoric while ignoring new ideas.

“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).”

This sounds like defending one hypothesis while attacking another. That is what science is all about! When Witton wrote his dissertation, he had to defend it as part of the process. Perhaps those without a PhD are not considered peers in Witton’s world? That could be an ad hominem problem, when the focus should be on the work. I am guilty of self-citation (see below). That shows that I have had work peer-reviewed and published, even though it has been generally ignored otherwise. Evidently those several publications did not make me a paleontologist. I’m still a crank in Dr. Witton’s opinion.

“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.”

Witton spills the beans here. I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier, “Perhaps those without a PhD are not considered peers in Witton’s world? That could be an ad hominem problem, when the focus should be on the work.” I once thought that some referees anxiously looked forward to judging my manuscripts so they could quickly reject them. It seemed so after receiving no comments after earlier works showed the referees vigorous marks, suggestions and attempts at helping the work get published.

“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.”

I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier, “Perhaps those without a PhD are not considered peers in Witton’s world? The focus should be on the work. My background is in graphic design, so Witton’s finger is pointed at me in this instance. The LRT has recovered results that solve problems, nest enigmas and rearranges tree topologies based on unprecedented taxon inclusion. Such results are not in current textbooks, nor are they in university lectures. These are current discoveries that should be confirmed or refuted, not denigrated, ignored or labeled.

“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.”

When I googledHulkeopholis willetti’ only four results came up, and one was in Witton’s blog. One more will appear when this blogpost PUBLISH button is pushed. So this is such a new and/or obscure taxon that nobody, including the cranks, have had time or notion to read about and comment on this taxon.

On to other matters, the LRT includes 1400+ taxa. The LPT includes 238 taxa. The therapsid skull tree has 59 taxa. Most of those taxa I had never heard of before studying and scoring them, so very few are ‘charismatic.’

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.”

Does Witton realize the present blogpost is a critical and personal attack on all those Witton considers to be cranks?  So does that make him, by his own definition, a crank?

I disagree with Witton on one point,ultra-detailed ‘criticisms’ of published works”. This is how everyone builds a case that a published work contains errors. In my case almost always errors are discovered due to taxon exclusion. Everyone does this, cranks and non-cranks. Such debate is good for science. We’d all rather see the ultra-details, so corrections can be made. The opposite would be the litany of finger-pointing that Witton provides above without specific accusations or avenues of redemption. Does Witton defend and support invalid ideas? It’s worth talking about.

“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.”

I’ll venture a hypothesis here, since I’m guilty of it invoking these historic gents. Perhaps Witton has never felt pushback, except from a ‘crank’ or two, like yours truly. Any pushback should come in the form of a discussion of the evidence, not name calling, like ‘dyed-in-the-wool crank.’ (See discussion on ‘name-calling’ and ‘projection’ above). One of the reasons why has been published online for the last seven years is because Dr. Witton and his friend, Dr. Naish, have no problem labeling me as a crank and letting that label bias the data I present. That’s not appropriate.

“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.”

By publishing the content of this blogpost, Witton is sending out the alert to all paleo workers that read his blog that is produced by a crank and nothing in it is worthy of confirmation or refutation. That, by definition, is an attempt at ‘organising against them to suppress their work.’ Apparently Witton does not see the irony here. Referees and editors in the paleo community may read this and judge submissions not on their merit, but on the reputation Witton is painting here. Everyone understands that paleontology changes its mind at a snail’s pace. John Ostrom’s experience again comes to mind:

“With the announcement of the first dinosaurs with feathers from China, Ostrom (then age 73) was in no mood to celebrate. He is quoted as saying, ‘I’ve been saying the same damn thing since 1973, `I said, `Look at Archaeopteryx!’” 

I accept that ideas take time to become accepted. In the meantime, being blackwashed in a blogpost or two and labeled as a crank for following the scientific method of observation, analysis, conclusion and showing your work is not appropriate. PhDs should be know better. We’re all students here.

Witton continues:
“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.”

Quoting Witton,the idea that palaeontologists, or any scientists, suppress controversial new ideas is ludicrous.” Once again, Professor Bennett’s threat to my work comes to mind, “You won’t get published, and if you do get published, you won’t get cited.” 

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 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.

When I read condemnations like this, you should wonder no more why I have stopped submitting manuscripts that don’t get refereed, published or cited. As Ostrom noted above, in paleo the status-quo does not like to change.

Witton concludes:
“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.”

Actually Witton did a pretty good job of identifying the cranks, alerting others about them and labeling their work ‘bad science’. So Witton’s questions were rhetorical.


5 thoughts on “How to spot palaeontological crankery

  1. I’ve so far only read a little way into this blogpost, yet it seems to me that this fellow has never taken a course in the history and philosophy of science, (sadly few scientists do!) Progress in science comes about from competing ideas and interpretations leading to revolutions great and small. And as someone once put it, “without a few cranks you’ll never start a revolution” :-)

  2. David Peters! Mark Witton once again confuses science with a football game in which only he and a few cronies can play, because they own the ball. I’ve never seen you throw out all other hypotheses because you disagreed with the author. I’ve never seen you try to wholesale tell as many people as possible a particular author knows nothing.

    You’ve done the opposite of organizing a posse to harass those who either support you and/or have questions concerning your ideas and methodologies. The “people” mentioned in your post have done so many times, as I can and do attest here and now from personal experiences having taken place over a period of years.

    I follow a number of what Witton defines as cranks. The people whose theories interest me have yet to try and stifle discussion, stifle other peoples’ ideas, or forbid reasoned and polite discussion, agreed or disagreed, It’s hilarious to me that they are unafraid of criticism while too many scientists HATE even minor disagreements with their pet theories.

    One phenomenon I’ve seen very often is this: people who cry out in hatred against something very often are very often guilty of the lacunae they point out in others, Maybe they are trying to hide that fact? Even from themselves?

    Keep up your good work. Witton, Naish, and more than a few of their colleagues have crank ideas of their own, untested, unreviewed through proper channels, and with no fossil evidence at all, that they spew out in the media as gospel truth. “cough” pterosaurs launching themselves off the ground with virtually only their arms like they were living rail-guns”cough” <—– No proof, no evidence and no sense, going by the methodologies shown. David Peters has shown many objections and possibilities, all of which I find valid.

    If anyone reading this wishes to discuss the points, I am ready and waiting.

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