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Andrew Alden

The Great Kraken Fracas

By October 14, 2011

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Nine thousand geoscientists of the Geological Society of America just finished their annual get-together, held in Minneapolis this year, and out of all the thousands of talks and poster presentations they delivered, only one exploded in the press. The fast-food news sites ran away with it under wildly wrong headlines, geology bloggers exploded in exasperation, and almost everyone missed the point.

The whole thing arose from a wild surmise that gripped paleontologist Mark McMenamin, vacationing with his young daughter this summer, at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in remote Nevada. He stared at a long-standing puzzle—a neat row of nine fossilized Shonisaurus skeletons—and came up with a story to explain them: maybe the nine skeletons represent the bone pile, or midden, of a truly giant squid. That's how science begins. Next the story became a hypothesis—a story critiqued to exhaustion. McMenamin couldn't argue himself out of the notion, so he worked up a little 12-minute talk about the "Triassic kraken" for the upcoming GSA meeting.

A particularly far-fetched sentence noted apparent patterns in the scattered ichthyosaur bones—lines of backbone discs meandering among the broken ribs—and speculated, "The arranged vertebrae resemble the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each amphicoelous vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker. Thus the tessellated vertebral disc pavement may represent the earliest known self‑portrait." When you consider that squids and octopuses are considered the most intelligent invertebrates, sure, why not? To me, the most out-there part of his idea is its most valuable contribution: why should we rule out intelligence in the distant past? And what would the signs of it be?

The talk was surely an afterthought, because his poster presentation the day before, on Ediacaran chitons, was solid and deadly serious. I spent a stimulating 20 minutes at the poster with him (and his daughter), neither of us with an inkling of what was to come. His "kraken" talk was clearly on the lighter side, the kind of scientific long shot that many people bring to GSA meetings.

The "kraken" talk ended up in the general-purpose Monday afternoon session on "Paleontology and Behavior," between a talk on Cretaceous lungfish burrows in Madagascar and another on three Jurassic lobsters found huddled in an ammonite shell in "a spectacular slab of Posidonia Shale." Looking at the session listing, I feel a bit bad that I missed it (at least up to 4:15), but I was instead at the GSA Gold Medal Lectures enjoying three fine addresses by scientists I admire. I heard later that people at McMenamin's talk had argued against him vigorously. That's why he was there, to have his idea tested in ways he hadn't come up with on his own.

Among geologists, that's considered a rollicking good time. Talks like this are the scientific equivalent of a great witticism, or a bone thrown to a pack of dogs. If your idea flames out, at least you got in a good line. If your idea catches on, you're a genius. This is how science is played.

If only what went on at GSA had stayed at GSA. Instead, an unsigned news release about the talk was issued on GSA's site: "Giant Kraken Lair Discovered." Right there in the headline, the point of the thing was lost. Naturally, the first flush of news items was thinly disguised rewrites. So was the second flush, for that matter. Bloggers wrung their hands at the sensation-seeking coverage. And outward the story spread: "Descubren la madriguera de un monstruo marino prehistórico." "Fakta kraken mistis terungkap." "Did an ancient kraken create its own friends?" My goodness, writers were having fun!

Brian Switek's reaction ("The giant, prehistoric squid that ate common sense") was typical among geology writers with blogs, and also worth reading for the comments and his followup post "The revenge of the imaginary kraken." He correctly points out the widespread practice of "churnalism," whereby news outlets rewrite news releases and pretend it's real reporting. He correctly notes that McMenamin made a thin case—but misses the context of the talk that I've just laid out.

"But what really kills me about this story," he says, "is the fact that no reporter went to get a second opinion." That didn't happen until pros on the scene like Sid Perkins caught up with the story for Nature News. As far as I know, he was alone. GSA issued only 13 press passes for the whole conference—one was for Sid and another was for me—and none of us thought the talk was worth covering. Sid told me it wasn't on his agenda until Nature begged him for an item about it. We knew the context. So don't blame science journalists. Blame empty-headed media if you must.

Related:
Geological attractions of Nevada
About ichthyosaurs
About science writers
The "arsenic-life" science news bubble
How the press gives hypotheses a bad reputation
A press release uses the "D-word"

Comments

October 15, 2011 at 12:11 am
(1) j a higginbotham says:

“The talk was surely an afterthought”
Is most of his research also “clearly on the lighter side”?

When i first read about this, i went to his website at mt holyoke:

In 1994, McMenamin introduced the theory that life forms that moved from the sea to the land diversified to a far greater extent than marine life did. Explained in Hypersea: Life on Land, the “hypersea” theory was called one of “seven ideas that could change the world” by Discover magazine. Later that year, McMenamin again challenged the scientific community. He proposed that the 600-million-year-old fossils he discovered in Mexico—the oldest large fossil organisms found in this part of the world—didn’t merely push back the timeline for the earliest animals but indicated an entirely new division of life, a division (now extinct) that was evolving heads and nervous systems apart from animals through a process called convergent evolution. The contemporary implications of his hypothesis are profound, providing evidence that the potential for development of humanlike brains is not a unique occurrence in our universe. In 1996, McMenamin presented groundbreaking evidence—that mariners of ancient Carthage made it to America long before Eriksson and Columbus, some time around 350 BC.

October 15, 2011 at 12:15 am
(2) Geology Guide says:

I would say not. What would you say?

October 15, 2011 at 1:20 pm
(3) mining engineer says:

I’ve been to the Berlin site and I remember seeing the patterns displayed in recent news pics. I was looking at the Diana Mine as much as the fossils. I found an outstanding ore sample in the mine dump (as a member of UNR evaluation team).
McMenamin’s hypothesis is outstanding and I raise a glass of Ichthyosaur IPA in his honor.
“It’s not yucky, it’s Icky” Great Basin Brewery, Reno, NV

October 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm
(4) Karen says:

So McMenamin is kind of out there — he’s not the only one. Geologists can take or leave his work with a shrug. What galls me is that this type of thing gets out to the general press, who obviously have no clue as to how to deal with it. (Apparently checking one’s references — which I was taught to do in high school — is out of fashion.) This ultimately always looks bad for us.

October 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm
(5) Kea says:

Hi, the number of meeting attendees was about 6,300, not 9.000, though that sure would have been nice!

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