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 Prokopi has since withdrawn his supposed claim to the specimen, and the specimen is destined to be displayed in Mongolia.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.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Public Encounters of the Pleasant and Frustrating Kind

I am a nervous public speaker, but I have come to terms with it and use that nervous energy to ramp up before a talk rather than let it reduce me to a puddle of babbling goo. I prefer speaking to small groups or having one-on-one conversations with people. Through my work and being part of a small community, a great deal of my conversations are with people who are not directly involved in the sciences. Most of these follow the usual conversational patterns, but every so often science-related topics come up. This usually starts with someone asking "So, how's work?" I usually reply "Bloody awesome!" (or, "These paper revisions will be the death of me!") and then proceed to regale the person on all the cool paleontology projects on the burners.

My paleontology training means that I am sometimes called on in conversation as the "expert." I can't speak for all scientists, but many of the paleontologists I know are natural educators. We love talking about the latest finds, our own research, and science in general. Paleontology training involves a heck of a lot of training in general science, so paleontologists are fairly well versed in biology, geology, anatomy, physiology, evolution, taxonomy, ecology, geography, and other disciplines depending on that paleontologist's area of specialization. Any time we get to spread some of that information around and increase the general understanding of the natural world is a good time.

However, sometimes these conversations with non-scientists become mind-bending exercises in patience. After many of these interactions, I have started to see groupings into which non-specialists fall. I will be speaking from my personal experiences, although I know from conversations with friends who are also in the sciences that these types of interactions are common. I will list these self-designed categories in the order of pleasant to tearing-my-hair-out frustrating.

Category 1: The Investigator

People in this category provide the most enjoyable experience. In fact, I do them a disservice by even including them in this category scheme, but these interactions deserve special mention because they are what should happen when a specialist and a non-specialist exchange information. The interaction usually begins with someone asking me "Hey, did you see the latest dinosaur show on the Discovery/History/National Geographic Channel?" Then the questions become more specific: "So, do paleontologists really know that dinosaurs could do [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE DINOSAUR BEHAVIOR HERE], or did they just add that for the show?"

I enjoy these questions. They show that a) the Investigator knows there is a difference between data and the speculative padding that is added to many documentertainment programs, b) the person is genuinely curious and wants to add to their knowledge base, and c) they have no problem asking a question. It opens the door for us to talk about all the cool facts we actually DO know about the lives of fossil organisms.

There are side benefits to these conversations. Not only do I get an opportunity to talk about supporting evidence for, say, colors on avian theropod feathers or parental care and group behavior in dinosaurs, I might get an opportunity to explain how the information is collected and analyzed. Documentertainment programs also provide opportunities to point out the differences among speculation, hypotheses, and theories. In short, I get to sneak in an explanation of the scientific method. My educator friends call these events "teachable moments."

Long live the Investigators: their drive to learn fuels our drive to seek and answer!

Category 2: The Fallacy Flinger

Perhaps the Fallacy Flinger is using doctrine, religious faith, conspiracy, or anecdotal stories as their  "evidence." Perhaps the Fallacy Flinger believes that dinosaurs did not originate on planet Earth (believe me, THAT was a frustrating conversation). Perhaps the Fallacy Flinger just enjoys an argument. Whatever the motivation, the theme of an interaction between a scientist and a Fallacy Flinger is contradiction. Unlike the Investigator, there is no desire to learn on the part of the Fallacy Flinger. They are not entering the encounter with ANY intention of incorporating new information into their knowledge base. They know ALL the answers. I become the "so-called expert", the "secular scientist", or the "shaman of the atheistic sciences." Any answer or supporting evidence that I provide will not have any impact. The Fallacy Flinger has a misconception about how science operates and does not want to be corrected. Opinion becomes fact in their world. This error is a double-edged sword, because Fallacy Flingers treat scientific data and observations as merely the opinion of the scientist.

Fallacy Flingers rely on the logical fallacies of personal incredulity, black-and-white and false dilemma arguments, cherry-picking, burden of proof, begging the question, and middle ground arguments. If the conversation takes a turn for the worse, the ad hominem attacks come out. The Fallacy Flinger truly believes these fallacious arguments are valid counters to a well supported observation, either due to a lack critical thinking skills, or because of their desire to win the argument at any cost.

These are the conversations (if you can call them such) that leave me wanting to repeatedly bang my head against the wall. I can't speak for any paleontologist other than myself, but "frustrated" does not begin to describe the feeling I am left with after interacting with a Fallacy Flinger. These interactions always leave me wondering "Is it worth my time interacting with Fallacy Flingers?" As mentally painful as these encounters are, many paleontologists still try to educate the Fallacy Flingers. Many of us are educators at heart: we can't help it. We believe that people want to learn accurate information. I have friends whose natural educator instinct is so strong that they attempt to make logical inroads at every possibility (usually unsuccessfully). I have friends who also enjoy an argument once in awhile: the one benefit of a conversation with a Fallacy Flinger is that it sharpens those critical thinking skills. If there are bystanders, then I will argue until the mountains erode in the hopes that at least someone within earshot will absorb at least one piece of factual information.

Category 3: The Rejector

I will take on an infinite number of Fallacy Flingers before I will willingly enter into a conversation with a Rejector. Rejectors and Fallacy Flingers have one trait in common: they are not willing to take on new information. However, the Rejector does not claim to have all the answers. The Rejector will announce with pride that they neither NEED nor WANT the answers. They have absolutely no use for anything remotely resembling science. It doesn't matter that most of the modern conveniences enjoyed by society are the direct result of science: the Rejector will proclaim that "I made it this far without knowing any science. I have no use for it." Why should anyone take pride in choosing to remain ignorant?

[NOTE: My definition of ignorant is "lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact." I am not using it in an insulting context. Everyone starts out ignorant until we gain knowledge and information.]

I am faced with this attitude more than I thought would be possible, and I have not yet found a way to make any inroads during these encounters. It is my hope that, over time, the proportion of Rejectors will make up an increasingly reduced part of the population. Attitudes that foster the distrust or dismissal of science (and scientists) are persistent in our culture. We see it at the government level: remember the recent elections in the United States? Several House and Senate candidates were quite open about their views on science-related disciplines, and these views ranged from denying climate change, bat-crap crazy views on reproductive biology, or proclaiming that science was sent from Hell. I felt ridiculous having to write that, but then truth is stranger than fiction as Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain once said. The truth that should have been fiction was that these people had some level of public support.

The United States is not alone in their vocal distrust of all that book-learnin'. As pointed out by Andrew Nikiforuk earlier this year, our current Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) belongs to an organization that practices what Nikiforuk describes as "evangelical religious skepticism." Given the myriad of recent decisions by the Canadian government that seem to fly in the face of logic, reason, and science (including restricting public and media access to Canada's federal scientists), many are wondering if Lawrence Martin hit the nail on the head when postulating that the distrust of science in favor of non-scientific doctrine might not be influencing recent government decisions. Again, this is a government official that was elected by the public.

I do not mean for this post to become a political commentary on the anti-science trend within government. I highlight these two examples because politicians are a subset of (and represent) the general public. The persistence of the anti-science sentiment is so prominent that the UNESCO 1999 World Conference on Science had an entire forum on the public perception of science. Please read the abstracts for a more in-depth look at the findings. In summary, despite the fact that many do view science as useful and beneficial to humanity, there are also many that suffer a type of science disconnect that has many sources (e.g., inefficient transmission of results to the public, lack of a larger context in perceiving results, government influenced trust, folk/religious beliefs, persistence of conspiracy theories, lack of science communication programs, etc.) leading to a portion of the general public rejecting science.

Category 4: The Mocker

This is an interaction that I thought would have been left to rot in the wasteland of high-school stereotypes. On occasion, when I have asked a non-scientist a question on how to do something technical, mechanical, or trades related, my question has been rebutted with "Oh, so the Ph.D. student doesn't know something as simple as X!" or "You're so smart, can't you figure it out?"

Some of my interactions with Mockers have been quite amusing. One person took it upon themselves to give me instructions on how to sweep and mop a floor. Some have expressed verbal astonishment when they learn I can operate a masonry saw. That I can smile at. Mockery I cannot accept, especially when I am going to the Mocker because the Mocker is an authority in their field, whatever that field may be.

I think this reaction stems from the common misconception that scientists a) claim to know EVERYTHING, and b) we hold those that do not enter the sciences in contempt. In short, we scientists are arrogant tools. Sometimes it is easy to mistake confidence for arrogance. I need some level of confidence if I are going to succeed in presenting a new idea to my colleagues. That confidence is provided by the data I collect.

I am not going to say that there are no overly arrogant people in the sciences (scientists are made up of all personality types) but from my encounters those types are the exception. When I was an early undergraduate, I had one acquaintance hand me a bone in front of a crowded booth at my very first professional paleontology meeting and loudly ask me to identify the bone. All I knew was that it was from the leg, and I guessed femur. It turns out it was a large metatarsal. This acquaintance made a big show of demonstrating all the reasons he knew it was a metatarsal and why I was wrong. Damn, was I humiliated! It turns he was an extremely insecure graduate student, and that most people studying paleontology do not feel that they have to humiliate a newcomer to make themselves feel smart.

My point with this anecdote is that if a non-scientist encounters an overly insecure scientist who resorts to the above antics, I can understand why the non-scientist might want to get a little revenge. It is unfair, however, to tar all scientists with the arrogance brush, just as it would be unfair to assume that people who are not in the sciences are not intelligent. I would never make someone feel bad for asking a question, and I expect the same courtesy in return when I ask a question.

I am glad that most of my interactions with non-scientists fall into Category 1. Is there any way to decrease the numbers of categories 2 through 4? I think that the more we engage the public, either by talking to school groups, giving tours, and presenting research updates at local public events, the easier it is to combat the disconnect the public feels towards science.

Never stop learning!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The 2013 To Do List

Happy New Year!

Our New Year's festivities are usually low key. We give the Gods of the Old Year one last chance to finish us off by feasting upon the most evil of all dishes: homemade alfredo sauce and bread sticks. We only do this once a year because a good alfredo sauce is made with heavy cream, egg yolk, and copious amounts of hard cheese. I doubt that the six cloves of garlic do much to counteract the aorta-clogging madness that is alfredo sauce. Eating this dish more than once a year would inevitably bring about an apocalypse of the circulatory system.

This Feast to end all Feasts results in one or more people joking "That's it. Tomorrow I begin my New Year's diet." At least, those not already in a cheese-coma make that joke. Those of us existing in a state of semi-sentience merely digest and exude garlic. If we live to see tomorrow we count ourselves as among the fortunate. Take that, Gods of the Old Year!

New Year's Day is the time for making resolutions. We see the date of 01/01 as a fresh start. We want to make lifestyle changes that are dramatic enough to make an obvious positive difference in our lives, yet not so dramatic as to be unattainable. Let's be serious: I am not going to wake up on 01/01 and immediately run 15K if I have never laced up a pair of running shoes in my life. I am not going to write and submit 20 papers in a month. Attaining my black belt by October? I don't think so. There is nothing wrong with having big dreams and large goals. We just need to remember, when making our Grand New Year's Eve Proclamations, not to automatically set ourselves up for failure. Keep those goals realistic: all that matters is that the change you want to make is meaningful to you.

With that in mind, I have completed my 2013 To Do List. I plan to attack each item on this list with great resolve.


A. Academic
1. Publish those papers, dammit!
I know I am not the only paleontologist with a folder on my hard drive named "Papers In Progress". This folder is both my ally and my nemesis. It contains "manuscripts" consisting of merely a title and a few disjointed thoughts. However, this folder also contains several projects that are near completion...or they would be if I would just make myself sit down and put them out of their academic misery. These are the projects that Andy, when blogging at the Open Source Paleontologist (Andy now blogs at the Integrative Paleontologists), would prompt the paleontology community to excavate from the trenches of the "Papers in Progress" folders, dust off, and expel from Publication Purgatory.

In total, I have four ichnology papers, two tooth papers, and one osteology paper that I can realistically finish in 2013. The "last modified on" descriptors for some of these documents is embarrassing (the most shameful one is 2008), but there is nothing stopping me (except me) from graduating these manuscripts into my small (but growing) "Papers Submitted" folder.

2. Complete several thesis chapters!
It is not just a happy coincidence that at least 3/4 of the papers in my "Papers in Progress" folder are thesis-related. I love interconnected resolutions!

B. Athletic
3. Be in the best shape I can be for the 11th ICKF 2013 Soke Cup.
I may have mentioned before that I am in karate. This year is the 11th International Chito-ryu Karate-Do Federation Soke Cup, an international tournament for those who study Chito-ryu karate-do. This year the tournament will be held in Hong Kong, and I will be able to participate. This means that I have to be in great shape. I don't want to embarrass my Sensei, the dojo, and the country by being the flabby Canuck who gets winded and passes out in the middle of a match. I am not in poor physical shape, but there are parts of my current diet and exercise routine that need improvement. One, I am a notorious snooze-button junkie. This has derailed more workouts than I care to remember. Two, I am a sugar junkie. Chocolate and fancy coffee drinks are to me as the calcaneum and astragulus were to Achilles. Three, thanks to years of university life, I have trained myself to be a night owl. Heck, it's 2:00am and I am updating this post! So, in the interest of my training, I am resolved to (from this post forward) get to bed at a reasonable hour, use any form of training instead of a snooze button, and use alternatives to sugar snacks while I am working on resolutions #1 and #2.

Resolutions are promises to replace bad habits (i.e. staying up until 2am while eating a Rice Crispy bar) with good habits (i.e. getting up early to take advantage of the many cross country ski trails in this area). The only way we can form good habits is to choose to do the good habit so many times that it becomes part of our daily routine. We simultaneously have to choose to reject bad habits until we forget that we ever did them in the first place. Good habits have to be repeated until they become regular habits.

I'll keep you posted on the progress of establishing my resolved good habits as part of my regular life, and I'd love to hear about the good habits you resolve to develop! Good night...good morning...oh, heck, good 2am!