In science, we call non-expert people who push pseudoscientific ideas ‘cranks’. These folks are usually engaging in something Feynman insightfully labeled ‘cargo cult science’. The cargo cults of Pacific islands typically worship the military air transports that brought resources to the islands during WW2. The islanders have no context for the events that brought the planes, so they try to bring them back by duplicating the rituals they saw around the original landings. They build landing strips and construct air traffic control towers from local materials. Some even build radios with coconut headphones with which to call the airplanes and have men stand on the runway with torches ‘directing’ flights to their destinations.

They are mixing the ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ of the events they want to invoke: the rituals they saw were necessary for planes to land but not sufficient. With science, the rituals (white lab coats, obsessively  measuring everything, writing in notebooks, using jargon) are necessary for the events we want: figuring out the way the world works. The rituals are not, however, sufficient, and, to paraphrase Feynman, without the constructive skepticism that lets us actually figure things out, you won’t actually get any science. The planes won’t land and there won’t be any cargo.

I first found out about cranks when I was in high school and I read books on squaring the circle and trisecting the angle. These are two problems that classical geometry (accomplished with only an unmarked straightedge and compass) could never solve. To square the circle, you start with any arbitrary circle and then, using your compass and straightedge, you construct a square with equal area. To trisect the angle, you draw any angle and then, using your compass and straightedge, you neatly divide it into three parts.

It turns out that with trigonometry these problems become not only trivial to accomplish, but one can also prove (in the way only mathematics can) that it is impossible to do either one with only a compass and straightedge. These two problems have no classical geometric solution: it has been proven so. No additional work need be done. However, many, many amateur mathematicians do not believe these to be impossible problems and insist on sending their newly discovered proofs to the math professors of the world.

The cranks in paleontology have their own flavor, shaped by the tools and specimens we use in my field. I’m certain that physics, chemistry, and all the other sciences have their own cranks. If you know of any examples, please share them in the comments.

I’ve seen three main kinds of cranks in paleontology: 1) ‘Ideators’, 2) Alternative adaptive explanations, and 3) Alternative geologic histories. You might also count the young-earth and old-earth creationists as cranks, but I’m not going to. I’m going to limit my discussion of cranks to folks who are looking for naturalistic explanations of the world, but have not adopted the constructive skepticism of the scientific method. Perhaps I’ll have a later post on creationism, but in some ways I find it easier to talk to creationists (who have consciously chosen a non-scientific path) than to cranks (who are committing cargo-cult science and do not understand my argument).

First, the ‘Ideators’.

In common parlance, ideation has come to be a buzz word for what I used to call brainstorming (also called blue-skying now, sigh). I use ‘ideators’ as a short name for folks in the throes of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon of seeing patterns where none actually exist. Pareidolia is equivalent to what statisticians call a Type I error: incorrectly rejecting the null hypothesis. Simply, it’s thinking somehing’s up when nothing is, in fact, up. Imagine the example of hanging an innocent man: that’s Type I error and, in a way, pareidolia. Most of us commit this error from time to time, seeing patterns in the clouds, or a face in the pattern of spilled milk. The human mind is honed to find patterns, to protect its owner from potential harm; however, we often see these patterns where none exist. Scientists have to gird themselves against this possibility by constructing careful hypothesis tests. Interestingly, pareidolia is the source of most paleontological crankisms, unlike other science and math cranking, which are more commonly akin to my second and third categories.

The most common paleontology ideators are the ‘dinosaur egg’ folks. I rarely make it through a quarter without someone emailing me about their dinosaur eggs. Most of the time, these folks have found beautiful, interesting, egg-shaped rocks. But not dinosaur eggs. Because dinosaurs have such a strong position in our popular culture, some folks are ready to find a connection to them, and a nice egg-shaped rock provides that opportunity. In the end, most actual fossil eggs aren’t really that egg-shaped, and the folks I meet are typically bringing in nodules and river rocks they’ve found in Oregon, which has few rocks of appropriate age and environmental setting to potentially preserve dinosaur eggs.

Many of these folks are ready to learn about dinosaurs, egg fossils, and the geologic history of the area of the world where they found their rocks, and I welcome their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. I don’t count them as cranks, just enthusiastic amateurs who need additional education to hone their participation in science.

Some of the ‘dinosaur egg’ folks aren’t ready to learn, though. These folks know what they have: a valuable dinosaur egg. Any attempt to dissuade them will lead quickly to an explanation of the (sometimes long) history of the scientific establishment preventing their world-shaking discoveries from reaching the light of day. I get frustrated and sad when meeting with folks like this, and their fundamental refusal to change their minds is what makes them cranks.

The third class of ‘dinosaur egg’ folks are the rare ones who actually have a dinosaur egg… I almost missed one this year at our museum’s Identification Day, because I’ve become so inured to dinosaur eggs over the years. Fortunately, my colleague Greg Retallack spotted my error quickly and, after he convinced me of my mistake, we congratulated the visitors for their specimen and thanked them for bringing it in to share. The key science point here: I was willing to admit my mistake once I had adequate evidence to support the hypothesis of ‘eggness’. The provenance, color, and texture of the specimen all served to support the identification as dinosaur egg. A good scientist will admit when she or he is wrong and move forward. Cranks will never admit to mistakes.

We occasionally get some really creative ideators, including the fellow with the fossil banana (a banana-shaped rock) and the fellow with the fossil miniature elephants (deer vertebrae), and the many folks who have dinosaur body fossils (mostly rocks that look like bones).

Infrequently, we get folks who don’t understand the distinction between paleontology and archaeology, and they bring me ‘fossil’ human hands or feet. Very occasionally, we get ‘fossil’ aliens or alien artifacts…. In those cases, I direct the ideators to the archaeologists at the museum. It’s fair play, because the archaeologists happily send the dinosaur egg folks to me.

Second, the folks with alternative adaptive explanations.

These are folks who aren’t bringing in rocks and claiming they’re fossils. Instead, they either have their own actual fossil or biological specimens and are interpreting them in unexpected new ways, or they have new hypotheses of adaptive significance for (often famous) animals or plants.

These folks are much rarer, but their crankism is more closely aligned to that of other sciences. They believe they have had some important insight into the process under study that the experts cannot make because of excessive indoctrination into the dominant paradigm.

An example here is the ‘tree as hunting blind for T. rex hypothesis. The suggestion is that T. rex had very small arms to allow it to hug up to giant conifers and hide its presence from potential prey animals.

I suppose to be fair, I should include the fellow with the miniature elephants here instead. He had found a deer skeleton in his back yard, and interpreted the many bleached vertebrae as the complete skeletons of tiny, tiny elephants. He was absolutely convinced, and any attempt to persuade him otherwise was met with charges of trying to steal his thunder.

Finally, folks with alternative geologic histories.

This category is similar to the last, but the focus is on geologic processes instead of adaptive evolutionary processes. That is, the crank is convinced that some aspect of the evolution of the physical earth has been misunderstood by geologists, and his or her new insight will create a complete reevaluation of evidence in the same way as plate tectonics.

One example is the suggestion that earth’s continents have moved apart because the planet has grown over time, dramatically affecting the angular momentum of the planet and changing the rotational period like a spinning figure-skater extending her arms.

The most spectacular example of this category is also a strong example of specimen pareidolia. The Halletstoneion Sea Zoria… I suggest you visit and experience the ideas yourself. He has a distinctly different interpretation of the geologic history of the Salt Lake City region than any of the geologists I’ve spoken with, and his specimens seem to me to be rocks, but I leave it for you to decide.

How to be sure you aren’t a crank.

OK, so how do you know you aren’t a crank? We can go back to Feynman’s great cargo-cult science speech for the answer: you have to have scientific integrity. You have to be willing to bend over backwards to check your assumptions, to be completely honest and accept whatever your results show you, even if they contradict your pet theory.

Don’t get me wrong here: I love amateur scientists. Paleontology is unusual as a science because of the many contributions amateurs have made and continue to make. I personally work with about a dozen amateur paleontologists, a combination of retirees, active career folks, and many students (undergraduate and high-school). Amateurs are so important to paleontology that the Paleontological Society gives The Strimple Award each year to an amateur paleontologist who has made an outstanding contribution to the field. The important commonality for all of these folks is that they are amateur scientists: they respect the constructive skepticism that drives science forward. If you’re ready to learn and to engage in productive debate, I’m happy for your help. If you already know the answer and just want to shout at me for my closed-mindedness, I know some archaeologists I think would be much better able to appreciate your discoveries…