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In 1888, inspired by fieldwork in what has become known as the Moine Thrust Belt, NW Scotland, Henry Cadell conducted a pioneering series of analogue deformation experiments to investigate the structural evolution of fold–thrust belts. Some experiments showed that imbricate thrusts build up thrust wedges of variable form, without requiring precursor folding. Others demonstrated a variety of fold–thrust structures and how heterogeneities in basement can localize thrust structures. These experiments are described here and used to draw lessons on how analogue deformation experiments are used to inform the interpretation of fold–thrust structures. Early adopters used Cadell's results as guides to structural styles when constructing cross-sections in thrust belts. His models and the host of others created since serve to illustrate part of the range of structural geometries in thrust belts. However, as with much subsequent work, Cadell's use of a deformation apparatus, with a fixed basal slip surface, biases perceptions of fold–thrust belts to be necessarily ‘thin-skinned’ (experimental design bias) and can simply reinforce established interpretations of natural systems (confirmation bias). So analogue deformation experiments may be unreliable guides to the deterministic interpretations of specific fold–thrust structures in the sub surface of the real world.

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