First, it was the over-exaggerated claims of the Yeti in Russia. Now,a pair of scientists are really reaching, without any physical evidence, to say that a giant unknown cephalopod existed AND (it gets better) that it was so intelligent that it had artistic abilities. The media has gobbled up these stories and spit them back out to the public, completely without critical evaluation or a little bit of background work. Here is a summary of the hubbub created by this news event…
McMenamin and Schulte-McMenamin of Mount Holyoke College were studying a mass mortality event of ichthyosaurs. That is, a group of bones from many animals were found in one place. Several alternative hypotheses have been proposed about how the animals died and ended up together. These authors propose the animals were prey and transported there to be eaten. They imagined a squid, a colossal-sized creature that they call a “kraken”, 30 m long has been the villain. Then, they noticed that the vertebrae from the dead animals are “arranged in curious linear patterns with almost geometric regularity”. From the abstract:
The proposed Triassic kraken, which could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever, arranged the vertebral discs in biserial patterns, with individual pieces nesting in a fitted fashion as if they were part of a puzzle. 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.
This story made the media very happy. It even made Entertainment Weekly! Announced at a scientific conference, the reporters thought it was great for the news feed. Spectacular! Real monsters and really smart ones too! But it stunk up the scientific community. Here are some examples of their reaction.
…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.
and a witty reply An Open Letter to Brian Switek
Unfortunately, this insane story isn’t a tale from a science-fiction novel. It was actually stated in a news release from the Geological Society of America and credulously regurgitated by many news sources covering it, taking the, uh, not entirely rock-solid claims made by Mount Holyoke College paleontologist Mark McMenamin at face value.
Ahem. Let’s be clear: there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a creature. It doesn’t even pass the most basic tests of common sense: where is the proof? There is none.
Gosh, I hate to see what’s next to out-do that!