The Kraken sleeps on…

Posted on December 19, 2011

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Colossal octopus by Pierre Denys de Montfort

Dateline: 10 October 2011 // Posted by: Chelsea Gruenwald
SourceScience News, LiveScience, The Huffington Post, Daily Mail, Geological Society of America, National Geographic, Wired

Story: “Giant ‘Kraken’ Lair Discovered: Cunning Sea Monster That Preyed on Ichthyosaurs”

Summary: A group of mysteriously arranged fossils in Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, Nevada has baffled paleontologists for nearly a century. Why these fossils, the vertebral discs of nine ichthyosaurs, a Late Triassic reptile, were found in such abundance is still debated. Paleontologist Mark McMenamin proposes a new explanation: this ancient graveyard is actually a collection of bones deliberately collected and arranged by the mythical giant squid-like creature, the Kraken.

In a press release, entitled “Giant Kraken Lair Discovered,” McMenamin asserts that this site bears proof of the mythical creature’s existence. He claims that during a family trip, he noticed the peculiar arrangement of the vertebral discs into linear patterns. The kraken, he claims, arranged the bones to purposefully resemble its own tentacle, creating what “may represent the earliest known self portrait.”

McMenamin disregards two leading hypotheses explaining the cause of the ichthyosaurs death because they lack supporting evidence. He suggests the ichthyosaurs were buried someplace other than where they were killed. Like modern octopi, the Kraken would have brought its food back to its lair. Evidence for this phenomenon, McMenamin claims, can be found within the several degrees of etchings on the vertebrae.

There is currently no direct evidence to support these claims. McMenamin proposes that, like their modern relatives, the Kraken were soft-bodied and did not fossilize. Aware that much of his evidence is circumstantial and likely to evoke criticism, McMenamin remains confident, stating, “We have a very good case.”

Why is this PseudoNews? The Kraken is a mythological sea creature appearing in Norse legends as early as the twelfth century. While stories of the Kraken still exist, they are generally regarded as mythical in nature. McMenamin fails to provide a convincing case for the Kraken because his explanation is based solely on circumstantial evidence. There is no direct evidence that supports the existence of the Kraken. No ancient giant squid-like creature was found preserved. Nor were any beak or tentacle hook fossils discovered. McMenamin chalks up the lack of conclusive evidence to their gelatinous bodies.

Not only is there no evidence that a Triassic Kraken ever existed, what killed the ichthyosaurs remains unknown. McMenamin’s assertion that these reptiles were killed by the giant squid-like Kraken is based on his comparison to modern octopi behaviors. Using an example of a modern octopus killing a shark, McMenamin claims that the Kraken would have similarly attacked and killed the ichthyosaurs by “drowning them or breaking their necks.” As no evidence for the Kraken exists, let alone one that is related to the modern-day octopus, this comparison is invalid.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? First and foremost, McMenamin’s hypothesis lacks parsimony. He himself acknowledges the extensive use of circumstantial evidence. This suggests that he had the option of choosing from at least two different explanations for the phenomenon at Berlin-Ichthyosaurus Park: that the unusual arrangement of these fossils was due to natural decay processes or it was the work of a mythical giant squid that artistically played with its food. McMenamin’s explanation involving the mythical Kraken lacks parsimony because it is dependent on the assumption that such a creature does exist, although, such a claim is not supported by evidence. The other (unchosen) explanation is more parsimonious because it relies not on a fabled creature, but on the much researched and supported notion that fossils form in a variety of ways.

McMenamin’s explanation is fundamentally an argument from ignorance. His hypothesis is not founded on evidence to support his claims, but rather, the lack of evidence in support of previous claims. One hypothesis suggests that these fossils are a result of a mass stranding of the ichthyosaurs in shallow water, but McMenamin claims there is “zero evidence for shallow water.” McMenamin claims that because there is no evidence in favor of ocean currents forming the pattern, it must have been “some kind of intentional process.” McMenamin erred in reasoning that because these hypotheses lacked evidence, they were not true. The lack of evidence does not make one hypothesis more or less true; it only means that such hypotheses remain unproven.

When McMenamin presented his hypothesis to the Geological Society of America (GSA), he failed to publish any of his data. All information regarding McMenamin’s hypothesis was not based on a scientific publication, but rather from the same press release document, thereby constituting a case of science by press conference. No data was made available to the GSA or the public. Had McMenamin’s theory been scientifically published, it would have been subject to peer review. In scientific journalism, peer review is a method used to improve the credibility of a researcher’s claims. However, in McMenamin’s case, no such process occurred. No outside experts were interviewed and data was not evaluated. Without the publication of data, it is impossible for other scientists to evaluate McMenamin’s claims and to validate or discredit them.

The moral of the story: Just because the fossils found at Berlin-Ichthyosaurs State Park may appear to be the work of legendary sea creatures, it does not mean they are. Even scientists can have over-active imaginations.

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