Sunday, July 20, 2014

Idols and Idolatry

Who is your idol?

I found myself asking this question to myself in the wake of the public scrutiny of the behavior of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (I recommend reading Janet Stemwedel's in-depth examination of the situation). In short, he made important contributions to his field and is considered a brilliant scientist, but his actions towards the women he associated with professionally were extremely disrespectful, and arguably harmful to the goal of inclusion and fair treatment of women in science. Many in the field look to Feynman as a role-model or idol, and have responded harshly to the critiques.

The World English Dictionary defines idol as
"1. a material object, esp a carved image, that is worshipped as a god,
2. Christianity, Judaism any being (other than the one God) to which divine honor is paid,
3. a person who is revered, admired, or highly loved." has a different version of definition 3 for idol: "any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion. Madame Curie had been her childhood idol."

Both versions of the definition for idol carry with them an unrealistic burden to apply to any one person, and that burden comes with a heavy responsibility. Theoretical physics is not the only academic field in which idols exist. Every field has people who are treated as idols. There are idols in paleontology.

I had a couple of idols growing up, and I was fortunate in that I admired scientists who are also good people before knowing anything about their non-research conduct: they are ethical, fair-minded, and generous people. My early admiration of these scientists stood the test of time and my maturity. I still admire them, even though I have grown enough to realize that, although they are great scientists and great people, they will never be above scrutiny or critique. No one is.

Idols and role-models can be a potentially positive influence for young people looking to enter the sciences. They can inspire the younger generation to study. If their role-models write or appear for the public, they introduce young people to science concepts they might not otherwise encounter until their post-secondary education. Role-models inspire students to explore, to challenge old ways of thinking, and make the sciences so engaging that the students can see themselves participating.

There is a fine, fuzzy line between a role-model and hero worship, between a mentor and an idol. Idolatry can lead to mimicry, and while mimicry is supposedly a type of compliment, there are many examples in nature of toxic organisms being mimicked. It may be a heavy-handed analogy, but in the case of students, they may not immediately realize that the person they model themselves after is displaying behaviors that do more to erode the cooperative and inclusive goals of the scientific community than to uphold them.

I have come to find the idea of promoting someone to idol status disturbing. While we can cite examples of scientists who repeatedly demonstrate positive academic and community ethics, we should not promote the idea that any one should strive to "be like" another researcher. When a person is idolized, it is too easy to dismiss their less than noble actions for fear of tarnishing the shiny image, and those who critique the idol are portrayed as destructive. I have heard many say (and have stated this myself in my naive days) that it doesn't matter who the scientist is as a person as long as their academic work is sound, and that all that matters in the end is the product. I may have believed this once upon a time, but now I firmly believe this statement is a pile of steaming horse-apples.

Stemwedel hits the rock squarely with the Estwing:

'Do we have a scientist who is regularly cruel to his graduate student trainees, or who spreads malicious rumors about his scientific colleagues? That kind of behavior has the potential to damage the networks of trust and cooperation upon which the scientific knowledge-building endeavor depends, which means it probably can’t be dismissed as a mere “foible.”'

I realize that a scientist can be what I would colloquially describe as a jerk, a sleaze, or as dancing down the slippery slope of ethically dubious behavior and have also produced notable work. For example, I can't refuse to cite someone's paper just because I think how they treat their graduate students is despicable. However, their scientific contributions do not excuse or lessen the negative impact of their behavior on their community. They have set the stage for the conduct of future students on a shaky foundation. This should not be ignored.

How a scientist behaves towards their colleagues and subordinates professionally and personally is as important to the science community as their body of work, if for no other reason than they are maintaining the trail that the next academic generation will follow. All of the good within the community that currently exists is because of the attitudes fostered by our predecessors that we, knowingly or unknowingly, have internalized and are projecting as normal. The same applies to the negative actions that happen within our community. Whether we like it or not, whether we want the responsibility or not, our actions in and out of the field/lab are demonstrating what is normal for our field. We are demonstrating what we accept as acceptable behavior. It becomes our responsibility as soon as we start interacting with students.

It is also our duty to publicly criticizing behavior that we would not want to see demonstrated in our future students, regardless of the work conducted by the person/people. We have the responsibility to denounce the behaviors that sow mistrust, uncertainty, and even fear in the scientific community, and work harder to prevent them. If we do not want to see our future students 1) treat their peers or subordinates without personal respect, 2) treat underrepresented groups as inferior, 3) sabotage, undermine, or otherwise inhibit the work of their peers or subordinates, we have to model the type of behaviors that we want to see passed on to the next generation of students. We cannot excuse bad behavior as "part of the package" of doing research just because "it's always been done this way." If we receive criticism for our behavior, we have the responsibility to listen, examine, and change to foster a positive community.

In the end, the only people who are responsible for the climate we foster in our scientific community are ourselves. Sooner or later, someone is going to look up to you: who do you want them to see? More specifically, if you were on the receiving end of your actions towards your peers and subordinates, would you feel welcome in your scientific community?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Tales from the Field: Return (Almost) to Dinosaur Gorge

Hello, Dear Readers!

We've hit July in the Peace Region, and after a month of meetings, paper revisions, paper writing, meetings, delegations, meetings...did I mention we had a lot of meetings in June?...I am pleased to be able to start the 2014 field season. This year we are not focusing on the hadrosaur excavation. Instead, 2014 is going to be the Year of Ichnology. Our focus is on an unnamed creek which we unofficially call "Dinosaur Gorge": a steep-walled canyon with at least two vertical (really it is a 60 degree slope, but anything that requires ropes to document it is vertical enough for me) Early Cretaceous (Valanginian - between 139 and 134 million years old) track surface on which large ornithopod, large-sized theropod, and medium-sized theropod trackways are preserved.

Image of the main track surface of Dinosaur Gorge, taken August 2013. Can you see the trackways? I admit it is difficult, given the "Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" theme of the surface flora. Photo: L. Buckley.
Our goal for the Year of Ichnology is to document this surface using both direct measurements and 3-D photogrammetry, as well as taking latex molds of sections of the trackways. We set a test rope last year and found that we could access most of the track surface safely, so the plan this year is to set at least two ropes: physics starts to interfere with stability when your rope is craned over at 50 degrees.

No matter what your primitive instincts tell you, moss is not a load-bearing surface. Photo: L. Buckley.
The mission for this afternoon was to check out both the access to the site, and to see if the water in the creek was low enough for us to safely walk. We were just about a kilometer from our destination when we encountered this in the road:

Photo: L. Buckley.
We left the truck and walked the rest of the way, scouting out potential campsites along the route. We found that the creek levels were up, but not so much as to bar our access to the track sites. We considered this mission accomplished and turned back to check out a few more vertical surfaces we had spotted on our way to the mouth of the Gorge.

One massive surface was a complete disappointment: coarse, well-sorted sand, massive channel deposits, wood impressions, centimeter diameter silt clasts, but no traces were visible, not even invertebrate traces. Following a drainage channel down to a culvert, we saw material that was more promising: fine, organic rich sand with thin silty beds. The material was out of context, but it was similar in sedimentology to what we see in the Gorge, so we knew that it was local. Sure enough, there were traces!

Paired burrow openings, likely Arenicolites, are common in the sandy shore ichnofacies (the Skolithos Ichnofacies). Photo: L. Buckley.
The coolest traces we saw today were invertebrate traces. I am drawn to the fine-grained surfaces because I am a self-admitted bird track fanatic. When you start looking for small vertebrate traces (bird, amphibian, reptile) you are entering the size range of many invertebrate traces. Not everything that looks like a bird trace is a bird trace. Take this image, for example:

Photo: L. Buckley.
Depending on how you look at it, the structure I am pointing to does superficially resemble a poorly preserved avian trace. However, I have developed a set of criteria that a trace must meet before I will squeal with glee and triumphantly eat the Chocolate Bar of Victory:

1. Is the structure tubular? Some bird prints, depending on the consistency of the sediment, can appear to be ridges, grooves, or even shallow indents, but one thing they rarely preserve as are cylinders

2. Is the structure alone? Until someone discovers the Amazing Cretaceous Unipod Bird (although I did once see a duck with a missing foot - it walked around like a pirate on a peg leg), bird tracks are not going to usually occur alone, or if they do, they are large enough to not be mistaken as an invertebrate trace. Small, Cretaceous-aged avian track-makers behaved in a similar fashion to our extant shorebirds, with one or more individuals foraging back and forth on a wet surface. If that trace is an avian trace, the structure should be repeated somewhere else on the surface, even if it is not part of a trackway.

3. Is the structure connected to an obvious burrow? You would think we shouldn't need to ask this differential, but we do, especially when we have trained our eyes to look at traces with a vertebrate filter. For example, McCrea et al. (2014) addresses an earlier report of Sarjeant and Thulborn (1986) of Duquettichnus kooli, a purported marsupial print from the Early Cretaceous Peace River Canyon. On one surface is preserved what appeared to be a marsupial foot (pes) print. However, when we examined the specimen in 2006, we turned the specimen over: the pes was actually part of an invertebrate burrow that continued on to the other side of the sample. Doctors have the "Zebra Diagnosis", and ichnology isn't immune to supposed zebras trotting around in the Cretaceous when good ol' invertebrates are far more likely. I don't think we've seen the last of invertebrate traces being misinterpreted as the traces of small vertebrates.

I did not see anything today that I would confidently say is a bird track, and although one feature did get me excited for a moment, it was time to get skeptical when you are dealing with an infill surface and the structure is an impression:

Slowly puts away the Chocolate Bar of Victory, and eats the Stale Rice Cake of Defeat. Photo: L. Buckley.
Photo: L. Buckley.
However, my ichnology spirits were refreshed with some of the best Aulichnites-like traces I have seen in this region, along with larger repichnia (crawling traces):

Photo: L. Buckley.
I highly recommend taking a course in invertebrate ichnology. Not only is it fascinating to see how different burrowing, crawling, and feeding invertebrates, for example, alter their behavior based on changing environmental conditions or are restricted to certain environments, invertebrate traces provide vertebrate paleontologists with paleoenvironmental information.

I dedicate this post to our invertebrate track-makers. Proudly line your burrows with fecal pellets, Ophiomorpha trace-maker. Your poopy home is telling us a story!

Strange Woman


McCrea, R. T., L. G. Buckley, A. G. Plint, P. J. Currie, J. W. Haggart, C. W. Helm, S. G. Pemberton. 2014. A review of vertebrate track-bearing formations from the Mesozoic and earliest Cenozoic of western Canada with a description of a new theropod ichnospecies and reassignment of an avian ichnogenus, p. 5-93 in Lockley, M. G. & Lucas, S. G. (eds.), Fossil footprints of western North America. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 62.

Sarjeant, W.A.S., and Thulborn, R.A., 1986, Probable marsupial footprints from the Cretaceous sediments of British Columbia: Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, v. 23, p. 1223-1227.