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Octopus’ Garden in the Shale?

by Donald Prothero, Nov 02 2011

Even before the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA)  in Minneapolis started on October 9, there was a huge buzz among my colleagues about this remarkable abstract that claimed evidence of a giant squid, or “Kraken”, that had arranged the bones of the whale-sized ichthyosaurs (marine reptiles shaped like dolphins) from Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada. There was a post on the October 10 page of, and also one on Brian Switek’s Laelaps blog, “The Giant Prehistoric Squid that Ate Common Sense”. The only things geologists and paleontologists could evaluate was a short abstract, but it made such a sensational claim that the press was buzzing and the story was all over the internet.

Image of the ichthyosaur bones, showing the "alignment" of the disk-shaped vertebral centra that are alleged evidence of cephalopods arranging the bones.

Based on the abstract and the GSA press release, the argument seemed to be absurd. The only positive evidence presented before the talk occurred was the claim that the bones were arranged in a pattern that resembled the alternating pattern of suckers on the arm of a giant squid. No actual physical evidence of the squid itself—no soft parts, no tentacle hooks, not even the hard “pen” that holds up the back of the animal, or its horny beak. The only “evidence” given in the press release was the alternating pattern of the vertebral centra (the large disk-shaped bones in the photograph). According to the author, this was evidence of a conscious effort on the part of a large cephalopod to “arrange” them that way! There was no mention of the possibility that any string of disks connected in the vertebral column would settle in that pattern once the tissues rotted and fell away from the backbone. No suggestion that the entire premise of the talk was just speculation based on a “pattern” of bone distribution, or “seeing patterns” where there are none, known as pareidolia (such as seeing the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich, or reading “patterns” in tea leaves and clouds). PZ Myers of immediately got very suspicious, as did Brian Switek, and so everyone was itching to find out if there was more to this story than just a press release.

Unfortunately, my own talk at GSA was scheduled in a different room just 15 minutes before the Kraken talk. As soon as I was done, I raced to the scheduled venue, but the crowd was already spilling out through the doorway and  into the hall, and the room was too packed to squeeze in. I stuck my head in and managed to catch part of the talk, and then after it was over, talked to my friends who were in the room. In essence, the talk was exactly the same stuff as the press release. Nothing new that was not already reported, and the author ran so long that there was no time to challenge him or ask any questions.  So the crowd immediately poured back out of the room again (pity the poor speaker who had to follow him!), shaking their heads and laughing at the stupidity of the whole thing. I’ve checked the program of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Las Vegas Nov.  2-5, and he’s not speaking there. That would be the proper place for a talk on ichthyosaurs where true experts could question him. As Switek put it: “I guess a giant, ichthyosaur-eating ‘kraken’ wasn’t enough. A squid with a stroke of artistic genius was clearly the simplest explanation for the formation of the bonebeds”. *facepalm*

The first question that came to mind was: how did this crap get on the program? The answer to that is easy: unless there are gross mistakes in the abstract or it clearly is defective, the program committee won’t reject it. They err on the side of the author, assuming that there might be more to the story than the minimum provided by an abstract. I’ve been on the Program Committee of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP)  for more than 11 years (5 years as Chair), and we tried to weed out the obviously defective abstracts, but there are enormous pressures to accept anything that isn’t grossly bad at first glance. We had to keep telling ourselves that “It’s just an abstract.” Anyone can get their 15 minutes on the program to present their ideas, unless they’re transparently bad or unscientific, but no one takes abstracts that seriously.

I never cite my own abstracts if the work has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and neither do most other people, because abstracts are not peer-reviewed science! For every 20 abstracts one might see at a professional meeting, probably only 1 or 2 will make it through peer review and be published. I have no expectation that this “Kraken” story will ever make it through peer review since it is so clearly absurd and unscientific. In my 35 years of attending professional meetings, we’ve all learned to take abstracts with a grain of salt, because we know that some are not up to snuff, and some are just excuses to get funding to attend and amount to nothing more than “what I did with my summer vacation.”  Then there is the person who games the system, submitting abstracts to several meetings per year but not showing up to defend any of them, so he looks like he’s doing research, but has sent nothing to peer review. Those of us with a long history in our fields know who these cheaters are, and know what to expect when we see their name on the program. When I was on th Program Committee of SVP, we used that knowledge to routinely reject those who had abused the system for so long.

That leads to the second question: who was this guy who got up and gave this bizarre talk? His name is Mark McMenamin, and he’s an invertebrate paleontologist (but not a specialist in cephalopods nor ichthyosaurs) teaching at Mt. Holyoke College. The minute I saw the press release, I suspected something like this was going to happen. McMenamin is well known for his, shall we say, bizarre ideas or unorthodox ways of thinking. Early in his career he made a name for himself by claiming to  have found the oldest multicellular fossil known (in Mexico), but that was quickly debunked. He published a book on his “Garden  of Ediacara” hypothesis about the earliest multicellular fossils, which was controversial but not impossible for these poorly preserved and  hard-to-understand  impressions in sandstone from 600 million years ago that have puzzled paleontologists for decades now. He wrote a book called “Hypersea” that is full of stuff that is either obvious or inconsequential. Those of us with a history in this profession know better than to take his wild ideas too seriously, but unfortunately most people do not have decades of experience as paleontologists and so were expecting something really important. P.Z. Myers noticed that McMenamin has endorsed the weird morphogenetic ideas of Stuart Pivar, and claims “that mariners of ancient Carthage made it to America long before Eriksson and Columbus, some time around 350 BC.” With a track record like that, most paleontologists who know Mark (and I do, pretty well) always take his claims with a grain of salt.

And that leads to the final point: if the entire idea was garbage, why the heck did it swallow up all the attention when there were literally thousands of abstracts at this meeting, 95% of which were solid science? As Brian Switek noted, this is the biggest scandal of all. The press loves  any wild and bizarre story that will capture the public’s imagination (“if it bleeds, it leads”) and they do not realize that a simple abstract is no evidence that the claim has passed any scientific scrutiny, let alone the gantlet of peer review. Frankly, I don’t think they care. As long as it grabs attention and has some semblance of legitimacy from being presented at a major professional meeting, they will run with the story. This story was recycled and repeated among all the high-profile science sites on the web, including LiveScience (then repeated verbatim on Fox and CBS news) to the HuffingtonPost, with no effort to get a dissenting or critical opinion, just straight dope from the author only. At least when Nature or Science writes a commentary on a recent science development, expert science reporters like Richard Kerr of Science know who the best minds in a given field are, and always check the critics before they run the article verbatim from the author. But you won’t find that level of balance or expertise in most science reporting today, especially on the web, since almost none of the “reporters” have any relevant science training, and even worse, there is no incentive to do more than parrot the press release and send the story to cyberspace. No time or incentive to dig further, to call other scientists for opinions, to get at least one critic to speak out. Any crap that makes it onto a scientific program gets reported as final truth, with no caveats.

As Switek put it:

But what really kills me about this story is the fact that no reporter went to get a second opinion. Each and every story appears to be based directly off the press release and uses quotes directly from that document. No outside expert was contacted for another opinion in any of the stories—standard practice in science journalism—and, frankly, all the stories reek of churnalism. What does it say about the general quality of science reporting when major news sources are content to repackage sensationalist, evidence-lite speculations and print them without further thought or comment? Whether you think the “kraken” story should have been reported or ignored due to lack of evidence, the fact remains that journalists should have actually done their jobs rather than act as facilitators of hype. You don’t have to be a paleontologist to realize that there’s something fishy about claims that there was a giant, ichthyosaur-crunching squid when there is no body to be seen.

The irony is that even if this study had passed through peer review and been published in a scientific journal, it’s only step one. There may be several years of scrutiny and testing by the scientific community before the idea reaches widespread acceptance, and a good percentage of the flashy ideas that make the “science news” feed turn out not to pass muster. Yet when the final paper comes out to debunk the idea, does the press report it? No! It’s not newsworthy to find out that a exciting flashy story was false, and that Humpty Dumpty didn’t survive his great fall.

You wonder why the public is so science illiterate? A good start would be to improve the scientific training and journalistic skills of “science reporters”!


9 Responses to “Octopus’ Garden in the Shale?”

  1. Sharon Hill says:

    Don: Why did the GSA do a press release on it? Shouldn’t they bear some responsibility for the attention and the fact that it actually got the press they wanted?

    • Andrew says:

      That is the core question, Sharon: Who at GSA decided to write this up? In my take on the great kraken fracas (link on my name), I thought that the talk was just a bit of fun. If what went on at GSA had stayed at GSA, Mssrs. Prothero, Switek, Myers et al. wouldn’t be wringing their hands and denigrating the author like this. But GSA chose this one talk and spun off an anonymous press release under a bizarrely inappropriate title, “Giant Kraken Lair Discovered.”

    • GSA has PR staff which are not scientists, just good at getting press releases written and circulated. They take for granted that everything is scientific, even though we know that it is not…

  2. Kevin Alexander says:

    If it’s on Fox, it’s true! Ten thousand climate scam scientists can’t fool them but one giant Kraken tiling his bathroom must be true.

  3. Richard Smith says:

    Alternate title: “Octopus’ Garden With Woo”.

  4. MadScientist says:

    So – was McMenamin’s kraaken made of baloons or is he having a huge disagreement with Pivar?

  5. d brown says:

    Peoples brains look for patterns. I think its hardwired into us.

  6. Somite says:

    I was surprised the author of the “paper” was invited to Science Friday. It didn’t make sense even over radio.