Warning: long ranty post to follow.
Taxonomy is an unusual discipline in the balance it strikes between legal and scientific concepts. There’s the obvious biology bit about discovering and defining taxa, but unlike any other science there’s a backbone of legalistic code that regulates the dynamics of names. If you’re the sort who really digs dry legal documents, you can read the zoological code here and the botanical code here. The codes are largely concerned with nomenclature, dealing with issues such as the proper hierarchy of ranks, and resolving conflict among competing names. For instance, the code decides what happens when two people independently describe the same biological species with different names. The short of it is that taxonomists, like courts, must deal with precedent. They are bound by the code to consider all relevant previous publications.
Because of the importance of precedent, taxonomy is uniquely vulnerable to crackpots. When such a person surfaces, the schlop he produces cannot just be dismissed as the rantings of some hare-brained loner.
Physicists can have a good laugh at the guy who disproved Einstein with his basement typewriter, but at the end of the day they just ignore him without consequence. Taxonomists can’t do that. If the minimal requirements for establishing new taxon names are met (and they really are minimal- you only need to scrawl a few sentences of the appropriate kind, designate a type specimen, and distribute a few copies to libraries- there’s no peer-review requirement in the code)- then anything that person does ends up in the permanent taxonomic record and has to be dealt with by every subsequent researcher. It wastes a lot of time.
I bring this up because a notoriously bad taxonomist has recently moved from beetles into ants. Mr. Dewanand Makhan’s three opening papers on ants (here, here, and here) are a real tour-de-force of bad taxonomy. He commits too many errors to mention them all, but they include an ignorance of the vast existing literature, taxonomic descriptions so short as to be effectively useless (but long enough to probably count, so far as the code is concerned), and the odd notion that a taxonomic key is really just a numbered list.
Fortunately, Makhan’s papers contain grainy photos of the beasts, and these allow us to more accurately assess the work. Where relevant traits are visible, his “new species” are not new at all, but existing species- usually common- that he’s misidentified. We can also see that he mistakes a queen ant for a worker and places several ants in the wrong genus.
In spite of the errors, I hesitate to call Makhan himself a crackpot. He is not properly trained, and may just be in well over his head.
Instead, the crackpot title belongs to the editor of the small journal that published the papers. A reputable journal might wish to protect its reputation by looking into reports that it is producing sub-standard work. Not so with “Calodema“, a non-reviewed Australian journal. The editor, when confronted with the problems, produced quite an intriguing defense. Here’s an excerpt:
“It seems that a lot of you are simply jealous that Dr Makhan didn’t name any new species after yourselves.
“Science is a really dirty evil set up controlled by people who took their lessons from Adolf and Joseph. Calodema is a journal which will “keep the bastards honest” because there is so much dishonesty and corruption in science, most of it coming from the USA and Germany.
“So, Dr Makhan will continue to publish as I believe he has something to say and should be allowed to. The Calodema journal will succeed and will eventually be a force to be reckoned with, even though Zootaxa appears be threatened by Calodema, because Calodema is a faster journal than them and there is only one editor! . There will be many who dont like us or our researches, but 100-200 years down the line (if mankind does survive global warming) we will be proven correct.
I score that with a Crackpot Index of 167. In other words, better to not expect any reasonable scientific judgement to prevail.
I think it’s time to add a peer-review requirement to the taxonomic codes. All the other sciences are comfortable with peer-review as a quality-control measure. Why not taxonomy?