One occupational hazard of being a palaeontologist is that it’s quite a rare field to be in and yet fossils animals and especially dinosaurs are familiar to the public. Thus odd rocks and cattle bones can, to the untrained eye, look very exciting. With a regular feed on media stories along the lines of “Sam Smith found an odd bone on the beach and it turned out to be a new dinosaur” it’s no great surprise that people are eager to push these to the nearest palaeontologist or geologist, no matter how far fetched the idea or unlikely the interpretation. Pseudofossils cause particular problems, but any old chunk of rock or bone can be prized as a shell, dinosaur bone, mammoth tusk or usual shell.
It’s a common enough problem that people in the past have had to take action. I got hold of this recently from one of the curators at the Natural History Museum in London. It’s rather old (the fact that it has a telegram address is rather a give away, as is the style of the phone number) and shows that even what was (I’d guess) 70 years ago or more, that it was considered an important time saver to have these printed up with the most obvious candidates prelisted and ready to be checked off.
This is true of other fields as well. Archaeology perhaps unsurprisingly suffers from a near identical syndrome (prompting this piece of humour) but others get it too. I recall in Simon Singh’s superb book on Fermat’s Last Theorum that so many mad and bad attempted proofs of the theorum were sent to a university professor who was supposed to assess them that he had thousands of cards printed similar to that above that ran along the lines of “Dear…., the first error in your proof is on page….. line….., thus the proof is flawed”. It’s an ongoing struggle and one we cannot win. But in the meantime it can at least be fun.