Friday, September 7, 2012

Tarbosaurus and Logical Fallacies: the "debate" continues

I always hope that, while in the field and in relative solitude from humanity, that people in general will find a way to not be greedy selfish Homo sapiens and gain a better appreciation for the planet's natural and cultural heritage. I always make the mistake of checking the news on my reentry into society, and my vain hopes are dashed to pieces on the rocky shores of pseudoreasoning and small-mindedness.

This batch of musings is a follow-up piece to my previous post on the auction of the skeleton of Tarbosaurus by fossil dealer Eric Prokopi through Heritage Auctions. Despite protest from the paleontology community and from the government of Mongolia, whose fossil heritage often falls victim to fossil poachers, the auction proceeded. There are many reasons why this auction should have been halted. One, there is strong evidence that the specimen was illegally imported into the United States, as described by the blog "Dinosaur Tracking." Second, the government of Mongolia has not approved the removal of rare fossils such as Tarbosaurus for many decades, making this an illegal removal. The fossil, on examination by paleontologists with years of experience working with Mongolian fossils, was indeed found to be from Mongolia. Third, and for me and likely many other vertebrate paleontologists, fossils that are auctioned are in danger of being lost to the scientific and educational community, as they are often purchased by wealthy private individuals. As I wrote about in my previous post, no one person has the right to sell a piece of the entire world's heritage. Fossils simultaneously belong to everyone and no one.

Unfortunately for this piece of Mongolia's vertebrate paleontological heritage, the legal lunacy has only just begun. The Florida fossil dealer has lawyered up and is seeking to have the federal seizure of the specimen of Tarbosaurus dismissed. Take a moment and read this news article from NBCNews regarding the legal reasoning of Mr. Prokopi's legal team.

Finished? Did any part of the reasoning of the legal team strike you as a bit off or odd? If it did, congratulations! You have a sensitive Logical Fallacy Detector! Chances are you already have a link to this wonderful reference poster.

Let's go through the reported reasoning of Mr. Prokopi's legal team. Now, I am aware that, sometimes, the media misquotes or misreports on stories, so it is possible that these reported statements are gross oversimplifications. For the lawyers' sakes I hope this is the case, because a competent legal opponent will vaporize them in a puff of logic.

First, the legal team claims there is no conclusive proof the specimen in question actually came from Mongolia. Welcome to the logical fallacy of "Burden of Proof", which is the attempt to shift the burden of proving the specimen came from Mongolia to the exclusion of other localities. Sorry guys, but if you are going to claim that a fossil could have come from anywhere, let us hope you are not attempting this with Tarbosaurus. To date, Tarbosaurus has not been reported from anywhere other than Mongolia. Not only that, but the preservation type of the fossil was indicative to the paleontologists conducting the examination of a Mongolian origin. Also, they claim that there is no evidence that the specimen was acquired from Mongolia around a decade ago. Again, they really shouldn't try to dispute claims that are already well supported, such as the origin of the fossil. They could attempt to accuse the paleontologists of the logical fallacy of "Appeal to Authority", but, in the case of gathering information on the origin and identity of a fossil, I am going to trust the training of a paleontologist over the training of a lawyer. They have lost this argument before it has even started.

Second, and this is my personal favorite, is the lawyers are claiming Mongolia has no authority to say that Mongolian fossils can be sold because of an unsourced photo showing a tooth in a gift shop. Here's the quote from the NBCNews article:

"Tompa and McCullough [Prokopi's lawyers] released a photo showing what appears to be a fossilized dinosaur tooth. This photo, they said, undercuts the Mongolian claim on the dinosaur because it shows a fossil from the same species of dinosaur, a Tarbosaurus bataar, on sale for tourists in a Mongolian-run museum. (Mongolian law does not allow private ownership of its fossils, so they cannot be sold legally within the country.)

"If it is illegal to sell fossils in Mongolia, then why are fossils being sold in the Natural History Museum? We plan to introduce the photograph, along with other evidence, as this case goes forward," McCullough told LiveScience in an email." 

There are so many fallacies at work here I don't know where to begin. Since I have to begin somewhere, let's go with the fallacy duo of "No True Scotsman" and "Ad Hominem." The first fallacy attacks the purity of the argument of the Mongolian government, essentially saying that the Mongolian government cannot claim to hold anyone else to a standard they are not themselves supporting. The "Ad Hominem" fallacy joins in by attacking the character of the Mongolian government in their treatment of their own fossil heritage. 

First, there is no evidence as of yet that the photo in question came from a museum in Mongolia, as stated by the NBCNews article:

"However, as of yet, they have not revealed who took the photo or provided a sworn statement verifying what it shows and other details that would allow the photo to be entered as evidence in the case."

By using this photo as "evidence" the lawyers are utilizing the ever-popular "Anecdote," where an isolated incident is used to disprove a case with a great deal of documented supporting evidence. For a fourth fallacy, the legal team also dips their toes oh-so-subtly into the pool of the "Bandwagon", which attempts to support one action because "everyone else is doing it." How many times as kids did you hear your mother say "If everyone jumped off a bridge/pierced their eyelids/drank gasoline/played chicken with cars on the highway, would you?" As annoying and frustrating as it was to listen to back then, our parents were trying, in their own way, to teach us to avoid this particular logical fallacy. Just because one, two, or many places in Mongolia may or may not sell fossils, that does not make it legally correct to do so.

Finally, the legal team makes the point of saying it is not in the US's jurisdiction to enforce the export laws of other countries:

"McCullough maintained that the recent Mongolian seizures of fossils were not sufficient evidence to allow the United States to seize the dinosaur and give it to Mongolia. The issue is whether or not Mongolia has an ownership interest in the fossils, which it does not, he said. Mongolia may seek to stop the export of fossils, but the United States does not enforce other countries' export laws without a treaty, which in this case does not exist, he said."

This, in my mind, is the only valid-sounding point the legal team has made publicly. However, this is not a case of enforcing another country's export laws, but returning another person's/country's stolen property. In an earlier article, the lawyers also claim there is a difference between the original specimen and the finished prepared "display piece." Simple reasoning would show that if you remove the original specimen from the "display piece", there is nothing but some glue, a bit of reconstruction, and support beams left behind. The original specimen IS the only item under dispute. 

In the same article, the fossil dealer also tries out the old fallacy of "Appeal to Emotion" by claiming he's "just a guy in Gainesville, Florida, trying to support [his] family, not some international bone smuggler". This is one of the most pathetic ways to gain support this person could use. The same claim could be made by anyone attempting to make a living by engaging in legally/ethically questionable activities. The specimen was removed from Mongolia without the knowledge or permission of the Mongolian government. The Mongolian government wants their country's fossil back, regardless of how much time/money/effort the dealer put in to the preparation of the fossil. If you put time and money into an activity that is discovered to be illegal, or at best legally and ethically dodgy, you lose out on that time and money. Simple.

There is one large benefit to this case going to trial, and that is public awareness. The more information is publicly presented on the plight of Mongolia's fossil heritage at the hands of thieves, the ethical considerations of fossil "ownership" and sale, the better off the heritage, scientific, and educational world is going to be. Through all this discussion and debate perhaps we, as a fossil enthused society, will come across alternative ways to support our love of our planet's past without having to do it at the expense of the past. 

If you love fossils and have the means to make million dollar purchases, don't just simply buy fossils. You might be inadvertently supporting a legally and ethically unsound activity. Instead, support the institutions and people that bring these fossils to the public light. Fund a research chair in paleontology. Help upgrade a wing or collections facility in your local museum. There are many creative ways to be directly and positively involved in paleontology. 

Strange Woman


  1. I was flabbergasted that the lawyers would even attempt to submit a photo of the supposed Tarbosaurus tooth as evidence. The illogical basis of their argument aside, how on earth could anyone tell from that photograph whether the tooth was a fossil or a replica?

    I know lots of museum artists that can create replicas that are indistinguishable from fossils without a physical examination of the specimen.

    This whole case is a house of cards.

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