Archive for May, 2009

AABQOTW 21

Following on from my recent media-related posts I thought an appropriate AABQOTW would be this one: Just how accurate is the TV show Primeval? To see how a bunch of professional palaeontologists rank the show, follow this link.

Tapejara navigans skull

Another short post with a nice picture attached, but hey, it is of a fantastic pterosaur. This is the great T. navigens first described as recently as 2003 though it has slipped into the mainstream conciousness of dinosaur research with the other Tapejara species (I should point out here that the actual taxonomy of Tapejara is in a state of flux at the moment, but will probably be sorted out soon with several species getting new generic assignments).

IMGP2204Anywhere, here is the skull (and indeed the whole thing as this is all we have). I have shown a close up of this before to show off the detail of how the skull bones fuse and run into the soft tissues on the upper part but this is the whole thing. As you can see the top is missing and the lower jaw is done, so it’s more ‘most of a skull’ than a skull, but the preservation is very good and when you get in close there’s tons of information there and parts are well preserved in 3-D. I’ve some photos of Ludodactylus I must dig out at some point for the site. Dino Frey at the Karlsruhe museum of natural history is kind enough to let me use my photos of stuff in their collections on my blog which is great for pterosaur fans as they have so many great pieces.

To those who would prove us wrong – a guide to scientific dialogue

There is nothing wrong with being wrong in science. Anyone who understands the fundamentals of how science is supposed to, even has to, work will understand that falsification of hypotheses is key to the scientific method. Personally I don’t think anyone *likes* being proved wrong, but it is a mainstay of how science works. To miss out on that is to miss a huge and fundamental part of it.

Secondly, science accumulates evidence. Lots of evidence, often on both sides of a given argument, but no matter how clear something is (like atomic theory, or evolution by natural selection) more and more evidence will accumulate to support it, often from new and unusual sources of data. Some ideas are very well supported, and some are equivocal but well discussed. Others have fallen by the wayside under the crushing weight of logical deduction or counter-evidence.

All this brings me onto the crux of this post, those who come to us (by which I mean scientists) with their pet ideas that absolutely-categorically-are-right and we are absolutely-categorically-wrong and they are going to prove it. Either that or they continue to support ideas long since disregarded, though the tone is often identical. Well, I have a few things to say to them…

Continue reading ‘To those who would prove us wrong – a guide to scientific dialogue’

One vocal dissenter does not make something wrong or controversial

There are lessons to be taken from even the most rant-y or misguided efforts of pseudo-science and un-science and general misrepresentations of science provided you know where to find them. One aspect of the near congenital media screw-up of science is the idea that one vocal dissenter to a well recognised hypothesis or theory makes this either controversial or uncertain. In fact I recently found a great quote by a science journalist on this very issue: “Journalism, which relies on “balance”, has never dealt with science, which relies on consensus”. (Sharon Weinberger).

Continue reading ‘One vocal dissenter does not make something wrong or controversial’

Pseudo random collection of various things of interest post

Several things have either come up or come together for various reasons that are probably not worthy of a post on their own, but are of interest and should probably be promoted in some way or other. So here is a fairly motely collection of links to various things:

1. A new paper by the SV-POW! (don’t forget the exclamation mark) boys has come out talking about the position of the neck in sauropod dinosaurs. Read about it in more detail at their hompage, or over at Tetrapod Zoology.

2. In a not entirely unrelated manner, a new paper is out this week on the evolution of long necks in giraffes and is covered very well at the BBC website.

3. Unrelated to these, but related to an upcoming post of mine, today Ben Goldace fo the imperious and unmissable Bad Science has turned up a particulalry interesting internet ‘personality’.  His take on healing mental illnesses, fertility treatment, recussitation and others are not things I would recommend. I would suggest reading them though, for, as funny as they are (in a sense) it is disturbing to see stuff like this put forward as genuine science. OK, it’s very much at the lower end of these kinds of things, but then, where does science become pseudoscience become well, this and how do you know which you are dealing with when they contact you?

Theropods are clappers, not slappers

One of the most pervasive but subtle errors of the Jurassic Park series LINK is the idea that theropod hands kind of fold forwards and down as if they are about to slap their thighs in some entertaining dinosaurian Bavarian dancing routine. In fact the palms of the hands should face inwards as if about to give a nice round of applause. Theropods were clappers, not slappers.

This is pretty pervasive in the minds of the pubic from the iconic moment of terror-inducement to children as a Velociraptor opens a door. It’s interesting to note that people seem to have accepted this position of the manus as more or less de-facto correct without even thinking about it. I have recently done a bit of work on a dinosaur book for kids and I think every single theropod that was sent to me had slappy hands. Every single one I sent back and told them to reorientate them, because they were wrong and that they didn’t look like that in pretty much any theropod and then a week later the next one would come in and well, you can guess where the hands were.

Milner et alWe actually have good evidence from two very different sources that theropods could not put their hands in this position (well a few derived ones may have been able to approach it). Most obviously when we have good 3-D skeletons we can simply articulate the bones to see A) what their natural position was, and B) how well they could pronate the arm (that is rotate the lower arm at the elbow towards a slapping position, something humans are exceptionally good at). Secondly we can see that even when actually wanting to do something like support the weight of themselves which you might think you’d really want to use the flat of your hand, rather than just the edge a theropod still does not (or more likely therefore cannot) pronate the hand. This comes from a recently reported fossilised print of a resting theropod with nice prints for the edges of the hand.

I should add that as ever this is biology and well probably they could we really can’t be sure exactly how they folded their arms. Doubtless some were better at this than others and could be proper slappers if you like and of course even those which you might call a ‘true’ clapper, could still pronate a bit, but as a general rule of thumb this is portrayal is accurate.

So the next time you see a slap-handed theropod remember to clap. Hmmm, that sounds awfully like the last ‘advice to kids’ line from the end of an 80’s cartoon. I think I’d probably better stop about there.

PS Thanks to Jerry Harris, Andrew Milner and Corwin  Sullivan for discussions on this one, a bit out of my normal range.

Argument from authority – not always a bad concept

I have noted that on various forums the sheer concept of ‘argument from authority’ is one that should burn in eternity for being a logical fallacy. At a certain level this is at least understandable – someone saying something does not make it true, even if they are an expert in the field. However, I would contend that the concept is at least open to being used in practical ways that indeed make it valid.

In a sense this links back to my essay on ‘ivory towers’ and trying to communicate science (or anything else for that matter) to people who simply may not be able to understand you (for what ever reason). Of course in the theoretical long-term you have to be able to demonstrate your points and contentions are based on evidence and not your interpretation of that evidence or quite simply incorrect but in the short term (and when I am really referring to that most often pointless of exercises the internet debate) this really should be enough. I don’t see any major judicial systems around the world not calling expert witnesses to take the stand because ‘argument from authority’ is bad. What is the point of having experts if you don’t consider their expertise somehow valid?

I know this point is not going to still any of the shill voices of the unreasonable and non-understanding, but it is perhaps worth thinking about even for the hordes that support reason. No, I would not stand by any statement till the end of time without proof and fact checking, but at the drop of a hat, I’d take the word of (to pick a non-random example) Mike Taylor to tell me about sauropod vertebrae that I would about that of 99.999999944% of the world’s population for an instant answer. And yes, I did calculate that.

Scientists: cast off your labcoats!

This post is not about scientists escaping the lab, but escaping stereotypes. Amongst my many gripes with the media is the stereotyping or pigeonholing of scientists. These are, I feel, mostly negative or at least not exactly positive (terms like ‘boffins’ or ‘eggheads’) and they are pervasive. I do of course accept that many of these stereotypes are well fixed in the public consciousness and the issue may be more about the media perpetuating and reflecting the public perception of researchers than them driving these, but that doesn’t mean they can’t escape bad habits, or stop taking the easy option.

The most pervasive of all these is the labcoat. You are, apparently, not a scientist if you don’t wear a labcoat, so whenever the cameras roll or the photop comes round for the university magazine or news media out come the labcoats. (I made the mistake of using various search engines to look for images for ‘science’ and ‘scientist’, you often have to go through several mpages before you find a non-labcoat bearing scientist). They are hard to avoid – watch any science documentary and no matter how inappropriate or unnecessary sooner or later you’ll see someone in a gratuitous white jacket so you know they are a proper researcher and err, not some random bloke in a white jacket. Ok, yes the medics and molecular guys need them, but I’m not sure I’ve seen one in a museum in the last ten years, certainly haven’t worn one and know for a fact that several colleagues I have seen in them on TV had to borrow them for the filming.

I think it’s got to the point of silliness by now. How exactly does owning and wearing one make someone a scientist compared to the person standing next to them?

I think respect for our intelligence, knowledge and expertise can come from the fact that we have those characteristics rather than a piece of laundry. Doctors don’t need stethoscopes or an x-ray to prove their credentials on screen so why do we need labcoats? The media (and by extension the public) can be weaned off them and I honestly think this would be a good thing. But of course this won’t happen without the researchers themselves refusing to put up with such things. So I say to you my colleagues (and especially those in palaeontology) the next time a photographer or film crew asks you to don a labcoat for a stupidly inappropriate shot (like sitting at your computer, or standing outside the building) point out that it is unnecessary and pointless, you are defined by your abilities not your outfit and if the photographer or public can’t work that out then there’s probably not much point in printing the story in the first place. And that goes double for when it’s actually your institution’s own PR people who want you to do it.

Public perceptions of palaeontology

DSC_0233I have touched on this issue before, most notably in the mammoth (and much under-read) posts on the ‘state of palaeontology’ and more recently on the sheer weight of scientific specimens that we have in collections such as the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology shown here. To emphasise this point I got an e-mail from artist Andrew Kerr the other day on the subject of ornithocheiroid tongues who commented that: “I think a problem with paleontology in general is a lot of people don’t realise the amount and how conclusive much evidence is that there is, and because it most people don’t know when they are guessing and when there is strong evidence so a lot of people simply dismiss it all.”

It’s a bit garbled since it was clearly a ‘dashed-off’ e-mail, but the point is obvious and I suspect quite true. The public cannot distinguish between when we have to extrapolate (or even guess) based on very limited evidence (like colours or some behaviours) from when we have overwhelming evidence (like diet based on stomach contents, or dates from radiometric dating). As a result they tend to throw out (mentally) the baby with the bath-water and assume that the whole thing is made up / over extrapolated / based on limited or even non-existent evidence. Of course the truth is that for a great many things we have a huge amount of evidence, when we don’t we can often extrapolate effectively and sensibly from close relatives or other organisms and we are generally careful to state which is which and what aspects are backed by what evidence and what flaws there may be in that reasoning.

This does not come through in media-speak / soundbites / reviews etc. as it’s often long, dull and requires a pretty specialist knowledge. However, it’s obviously foolish to thing that we are not doing our jobs properly at to a high academic standard or that what you read in a paper or even saw in a film is necessarily an accurate representation of how we got there. Sadly however, I suspect (as indeed does Andrew) that this may well be largely the case.

AABQOTW 20

Birds seem to be the blogger’s theme of chocie right now (provided you are not talking about boring Messel-based primates) so I thought I’d keep with the trend. This time out a combination question that really deals with both avian evolution and a more general concept about ancestors and descent: Are all modern birds descended from a single ancestor?

The answers are here.

The ‘jacket box’

IMGP3041A modified version of the classic palaeontological field jacket is used only occasionally but is good for shipping very large but potentially delicate specimens. You can only really do this when you have the facility to lift and transport the thing afterwards. Basically you actually fit the specimen into a transport crate and then just fill the intervening space between said specimen and said crate with plaster. The upside of course is that the specimen is very well protected and won’t suffer from bad handling (or much at all short of a direct nuclear strike) and the only downside is that you need a lot of plaster and potentially a crane to lift the damn thing afterwards. In this case we filled the sides and top in, nailed the lid down, flipped it over, filled the base, put a new lid on the base and it was ready to go. Took about four hours to do the two crates between about six people – it was quite a bit of work.

More picutres after the break: Continue reading ‘The ‘jacket box’’

A bit on the ‘fighting dinosaurs’

IMGP0681There are many dinosaur (and other fossil) specimens that are famous not so much for what they are as what they show (as with Big Mama featured here the other day). A complete T.rex is all very well (and very useful and interesting and fundamentally cool, I’m happy to admit), but some things are so incredibly rare and unlikely to preserve that to have them as fossils is truly amazing. The most obvious archosaurian example of this is the famous fighting dinosaurs of Mongolia that show a Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in combat. These have become the subject of much analysis and much speculation as to quite how they died and got preserved in such a posture.

IMGP0670

I’m going to join in that debate any further but merely point out that the Velociraptor has its foot claw jammed up in the throat region of the Protoceratops, but equally has its arm stuck in the mouth of its adversary. They may or may not have died together, but it is certainly possible that this was a case where each killed the other. It’s also worth noting that they are preserved pretty much in 3-D and have not collapsed into the sand as one might expect, something that is actually quite common in specimens from the area.

IMGP0692

These photos are of a fantastically well made cast of the pair that are on display in Japan. While photos of the original have been reproduced many times in all kinds of media, they always seem to be of the same shot, or at least one taken from the same angle, so hopefully these will provide some interest.

IMGP0703

While the photos are mine, I have graciously been given permission to post these by the Fukui Prefectual Museum. Please do not reproduce these.


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