Cladism Goes To The Chair 01: “And This Lie Is Your Path”

“What do you do if you’re not a scientist, but there’s a field of science you want to knock around in? Say you’ve been interested in animals since before you started collecting them on tea cards but you’ve never designed, run or written-up an experiment all by yourself, you’ve never written a computer program so you can’t design or even run a simulation, you gained no science qualifications relevant to animal studies after you were fifteen, you don’t know any maths or statistics, and you’ve certainly never read a philosophy of science book?

“Well, there’s a field you can step straight into, they’ll be happy to have you, and none of your ignorance will matter: Palaeontology!

People love joining something.  Groups love to induct them.  From time to time I’ve watched the process of recruitment into cladism over the course of a brief message exchange on the internet (little is involved).  There’s a strong whiff of awe and incense.  But as with an addiction or obsession, illustrated here by Kate Bush’s Red Shoes film, it can sometimes be a lot easier getting in than getting out.

People love joining something. Groups love to induct them. From time to time I’ve watched the process of recruitment into cladism over the course of a brief message exchange on the internet (little is involved). There’s a strong whiff of awe and incense. But as with an addiction or obsession, illustrated here by Kate Bush’s Red Shoes film, it can be a lot easier getting in to some groups than getting out.

“After a few years you’ll even be allowed to teach science at university even though you might still not know how to do an experiment, use computers properly in science or have learned any maths or statistics. And even though you still won’t have opened a philosophy book you’ll be given degrees with titles suggesting you have. You’ll violate the basic principles professed by the true world experts but that won’t matter as you’ll have these three vital points in your favour:

“First, most people see science as a list of observations. Even other scientists often make the mistake of seeing a good scientist as one who reels off such lists at the drop of a hat. And though you can’t offer real scientific nous, you can at least offer that.

“And this cross is your heart!” As in any social group, cladists are bound by their simple core beliefs, which act as a mind set, mantra, and indeed membership card. Some seem willing to sacrifice their own thinking for these.

“And this cross is your heart!” As in any social group, cladists are bound by their simple core beliefs, which act as a mind set, mantra, and indeed membership card. Some are willing to sacrifice their mind for these.

“Second, in palaeontology, experiments are impossible for anyone unless they have a good understanding of the principles of science (as opposed to the habits of palaeontologists). But you won’t be meeting anyone like that in palaeontology so you’re unlikely to get caught out by putting your trust in an unjustifiable belief.

“And this curve is your smile!” You can be happy once your ideas are fixed, and you know others with the same fixed ideas will support you.

“And this curve is your smile!” You can be happy once your ideas are fixed, and you know others with the same fixed ideas will support you.

“Finally, real scientists who challenge you will not only be presenting their ideas unpretentiously and without spin (at least at first), but they’ll use concepts unfamiliar to you and the many others like you. Just imitate a patient headmaster trying not to roll his eyes. Take advantage of loaded words and your group identity shared with others like yourself, to imply or state that your critic is a crank, no matter how much more relevant expertise they actually have.”

“And this Line is your path!” Now you are free from the worry of uncertainty or choice!  Don’t even think about doing anything differently! Even if the line is a lie. [This actress? Think “Queenie”]

“And this Line is your path!” Now you are free from the worry of uncertainty or choice! Don’t even think about doing anything differently! Even if the line is a lie. [This actress? Think “Queenie”]


Bad memes can parasitise academia for decades. Cladism (see post 2 below) has infected science by its simple social appeal, by its weak academic requirements, and by not involving profit, life or limb. I’m releasing a book introducing the post-cladist age of true vertebrate palaeontology – a Ver Sacrum perhaps – but in this blog sequence I take a shovel to the cladean stables, and finally deal with the culture of casual insults, denigration and censorship that cladism perpetually throws up against quality science…

It’s so easy to look at any number of dinosaur enthusiasts, indeed professionals, and imagine them getting into the field by taking the advice in the first five paragraphs. While there is some good science done in the field, over the years I’ve seen dinobird specialists in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology violate so many scientific principles it’s clear they’re not doing science anymore: not during those lapses, and in areas like relationships of the animals (phylogeny), not even overall. We shouldn’t be surprised – they base much of their intellectual work on computerised algorithms but I’ve never known a vertebrate palaeontologist who runs such a program to have a degree in anything relevant to algorithms, statistics, knowledge engineering etc. In fact, those palaeontology enthusiasts with relevant qualifications even in writing software, never mind understanding information science, steer clear of cladograms.

Endless churning is part of arguing with cladists since they never learn (see the Monty Python reference in a later posting), and to simplify identifying their purely scientific procedural errors I distilled the principles in 2010. But because cladism also involves buttloads of not just unscientific but immoral and unprofessional rhetoric, it’s also worthwhile to address a representative sample in one place, which I do in this series of postings, so they can be simply referred to in future.

I’ll illustrate each problem they present with some of their quotes, but first a hint of what they can do, what they aren’t doing, why they can’t, and who ‘they’ are:

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