Thursday, January 24, 2013

Speakers for the Dead: Tarbosaurus and More Logical Fallacies.

(With no disrespect to Orson Scott Card.)

Positive change can come out of any bad or difficult situation, no matter how large or small that change may be. A great deal of changes have been swirling around our fossil friend Tarbosaurus bataar, the skeleton that was set to be auctioned by Heritage Auctions, even though evidence had come to light that the specimen may have been illegally imported from Mongolia by commercial fossil dealer Eric Prokopi. Prokopi has since withdrawn his supposed claim to the specimen, and the specimen is destined to be displayed in Mongolia. Brian Switek gives a detailed assessment of the situation, as well as the price we all pay for the illegal collection and sale of fossils.

Recently, Paige Williams of the New Yorker wrote a lengthy piece on the evolution of Prokopi's current situation, detailing his entrance into the commercial fossil world and his (and his wife's) views on the situation and on fossils in general.

It's not hard to imagine the position put forth by this now confessed fossil smuggler and the people involved with the attempted purchase and sale of the specimen. Here are some of the quotes from the article that raised my ire:

“ 'It can fit in all rooms ten feet high,' the auctioneer added. 'So it’s also a great decorative piece.' Auctioneer for Heritage Auctions."

"Amanda [Prokopi's wife]...jumped in: 'People come around at the shows and want to trade for stuff, just like baseball cards. So your inventory evolves that way.' "

" 'There’s always a lot of unprepared stuff available,' Eric said. 'I was getting better at mounting specimens and doing big projects, and that’s where a lot of the money is. When you buy it, it’s not necessarily worth that much. It’s the work that you put into it that creates the value.' "

And, my personal favorites from the article:

"Burke [the potential buyer of the specimen] told [Williams], 'People say, ‘How’s the archeology going?,’ and I say, ‘Oh, that’s not my bag.’ If it’s not a hundred million years old, I don’t do it. I call it the ultimate antiquing.' ”

"Eric asked a surprising question: 'One thing I was wondering is if any of these paleontologists you’ve talked to have given their argument of why paleontology is important.' Fossils are “just basically rocks,” he said. 'It’s not like antiquities, where it’s somebody’s heritage and culture and all that'... Eric persisted 'Where do you draw the line?' he said. 'I don’t think it can ever be black and white. You can’t legislate every single species or fossil.' "

This is the situation academic paleontologists have to counter: a combination of the people who view fossils as nothing more than a collectable, and the people who justify their actions by claiming paleontology, and the fossils that make up the backbone of the science, are not any more special than a Pokemon card (which are cool in their own right).

There is no way that Prokopi can ever claim he is any kind of paleontologist. He only views fossils as a commodity, as items to be traded, repaired, bought and sold. He may as well describe restoring old cars in his statements to the New Yorker in what I assume is an attempt to defend his actions. Prokopi, the fossil dealers like him, and the people who purchase fossils, do not see how an item can be worth anything other than a dollar value. He does not see fossils as an irreplaceable heritage resource.

This is something we, as paleontologists, hear more than you think we would in a scientifically advanced society. What good are fossils? How does this help society? What's in it for me?

When faced with statements like this, some paleontologists might feel the urge to take the apologetic approach to why paleontology is important. In other words, taking the "OK, so it won't fix the economy/cure disease" approach.

It is quite a sad state of affairs when science is viewed through the filter of profit. This is the unfortunate battle cry that the Canadian government is currently crying in terms of federal funding for sciences: the focus is more on strengthening the economy rather than promoting scientific advancement. When governments make statements such as these, all it does is reinforce the "What's in it for me?" mentality in the non-science public. And here's the kicker: just because someone personally may not see the immediate benefit of a scientific study or discipline does not mean there is no future benefit. Pseudoplocephalus defends why science doesn't have to always be profitable.

This is the base from where people of the likes of Prokopi hope to retain support. Unfortunately, this stance is the classic logical fallacy of Personal Incredulity. It is easy to dismiss a topic with which one is not familiar, but just because one finds it easy to dismiss does not mean one is correct. Prokopi follows his usual pattern (and the one set by his lawyers during his trial) of piling one logical fallacy on another by using Special Pleading and reversing criticism on to the paleontology community. We, apparently, have not done enough to convince fossil smugglers why they shouldn't smuggle fossils.

As was deftly pointed out in the comments section of Pseudoplocephalus (I imagine the intention of the post was to stimulate the discussion), fossils are the only concrete record we have of the ecology and environment of this planet BEFORE scientists were around to collect real-time data. The presence, absence, and abundance of fossil flora and fauna is directly related to the environmental conditions of that time. Fossils provide the baseline data for all of the environmental conditions and changes that would naturally occur on the planet. We can decipher the natural rise and fall of major animal and plant groups. We need a baseline so that scientists can compare what happened then to what is happening NOW with anthropogenic climate change, and what could potentially happen to our species if trends continue the way they are projected to continue.

Any claims that the fossil record is too incomplete to use it for reconstructing paleoenvironmental conditions only serve to support why ALL fossils are important to preserve and have available for science. Not only are they part of the planet's common heritage (which I argue that no one person has the right to buy or sell), scientists need all the data possible to make accurate interpretations of our past ecosystems.

Prokopi will continue to try to defend his position and paint himself as just some poor guy trying to make a living. A subsection of the public will continue to question the "use" of the science whose value they view is only in entertainment.

I will never be apologetic in defending the "use"of paleontology and why fossils are special. I wholly reject the premise of the question, and yet I know I will spend the rest of my career defending this branch of science to funding agencies, government bodies, and the incredulous portion of the general public.

All I or any paleontologist can do is continue to educate the public as much as possible. We are the advocates for the science, and no matter what asinine statements we might hear from the "What's in it for me?" crowd, we cannot waver in our message.

Fossils have no voice. Fossils cannot advocate for their protection or their importance as part of the history of our planet and an invaluable source of information. They represent our past, present, and future. Fossils provide the answers to the questions we ask about the success and extinction of species, including our own species. Fossils have no voice, so we speak on their behalf. We will continue to tell of their successes and failures, their unique nature and their similarities to life today. We reveal these stories because they are the stories of lives worth sharing. In turn, someone will share our story. We are Speakers for the Dead.

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