Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Adjacently Fossilized Dinos: The Science of Selling a Story

Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, SD caused quite a stir at the 2013 annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Apparently he presented a poster depicting research performed on specimens that are about to go to public auction, which seems to be in conflict with standards set by the scientific community. Larson also allegedly misrepresented his research in his submitted abstract and used the poster session to promote the fast-approaching sale. Unfortunately, Larson's history can sometimes precede him and cast a negative light on his work before it is properly assessed. I find that too much time can be spent examining the intent of an individual when the actions should be the focal point.

Peter Larson's poster presentation featured a tyrannosaurid and ceratopsian now commonly referred to as the "Dueling Dinosaurs." The direction of Larson's research has led him to believe that the tyrannosaurid is a "Nanotyrannus," and the ceratopsian is a new genus. I see no reason to further discuss that aspect of the story, as it has been covered very thoroughly already. (If you're interested in getting more insight into the discovery, excavation, and research involved, check out this piece from Montana Hodges, courtesy High Country News. It reads more as a human-interest piece, but it has statements from Larson, Dr. Robert Bakker, and Dr. Jack Horner. It's a good place to start if you want a crash course on the matter.)

If one thing can be inferred from this image, it's that even dinosaurs love Firefly. We'll call this my Dinovember contribution.

The real story behind the "Dueling Dinosaurs" is their role in science and the perceived morality of selling vertebrate fossils on the private market. As it stands, I am not opposed to commercial fossil sales. I'm reminded of the most important rule of junior/senior rights in land surveying: You can't sell what isn't yours. (Currently taking a class called Public Land Survey System. I call this "bleed effect.") In this case, per U.S. federal law, fossils belong to the deeded owner of the land upon which they are found and the owner is free to do whatever they choose with the discoveries. To be against the sale of these fossils would be to oppose the legal rights of fellow citizens. I'm not saying that I like the idea of potentially valuable specimens being lost to science, but imposing on civil liberties is never okay.

Where ethical considerations of the fossil sale must be made are in their importance to Larson's ongoing research. He has been researching the possible existence of "Nanotyrannus" for some time and, according to the Hodges article referenced above, it is the subject of his doctoral thesis. (Page 4 of the article.) The article even quotes him as saying this discovery is "definite proof of Nanotyrannus." Unfortunately, this is where scientific standards and the commercial fossil trade come to a crossroads.

As is good practice, Larson has had other well-known paleontologists examine the remains in question and claims to have acquired all necessary data to document the find for research purposes. Unfortunately, if the fossils sell at auction to a private party and are no longer available for research, none of that matters. (This seems nearly a foregone conclusion, as the expected sale price is $8-9 million.) A key point of scientific study is that the work can be repeated for the sake of verifying or rejecting the results. A private party spending that kind of money is unlikely to give researchers much, if any, access to their new trophies.

"I have irrefutable proof, but you can't check my work. The specimens are in Nicholas Cage's basement!" ~ John Deere guy

Science aside, I do have one issue with Larson's involvement in the sale. According to Section 6 of the SVP code of ethics, "The barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust." (SVP just issued a statement regarding this section as it applies to a different sale by the San Diego Natural History Museum.) As a member of SVP, Larson is clearly disregarding the code by acting as an agent in the public sale of fossils, as discussed further by Brian Switek in a post on his National Geographic blog site.

I understand that landowner rights and scientific importance come to a head, making commercial fossil dealing a very contentious issue. Any doubt about this is quickly put to rest by the lengthy comments section of Switek's post. It began as a fairly civil discussion regarding Larson's poster at SVP and the society's inaction toward it. It quickly devolved into facetious comments and personal attacks, with one person comparing paleontologists to "religious zealots" for their unwavering disdain for fossil sales. While I applaud the attempts of those who chose to defend themselves from the stone throwing, I was reminded why I generally avoid reading comments for anything. (I did post the first overall comment, but it got hung up in moderation purgatory until after the fireworks had started.)

A major point of contention I have with the dissenters in the comments was an individual who made note of the positive impact commercial fossil sales historically made on paleontology. While this cannot be disputed, if historical references are to be made, I recall that slavery and tobacco were lynchpins in the U.S. economy when the nation was founded. (I know this is an extreme comparison, but it demonstrates that when looking at impact, one must remember that history is for reference use only. It cannot trump objective assessment of the present. As further evidence, I should note that disco was once a popular form of dance.)

My final issue with the sale is the inferences being used to advertise the "Dueling Dinosaurs." Prospective buyers are being told that a predator and prey were locked in a fight to the death, while one is "definite proof" of a widely disregarded genus and the other is a new genus altogether. (The idea of definite proof to me is a fallacy, except in thermodynamics. I'll give Larson "unrejected hypothesis.") This all seems like a slap to the face of science, as after the sale, none of it can be properly disputed. As the newspaper man in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance eloquently said, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." 

I don't imagine the publicity from these assumptions will have much impact on the final sale, but the number of prospective buyers could definitely increase. People love a good story, and most are willing to pay top dollar for it.

Notes: For more on "Nanotyrannus," Dr. Thomas Carr from Carthage College has provided his research and thoughts in a pair of blog posts(here and here).

I've been slacking on my reading lately. I tried to catch up a bit in art class, but the teacher was not thrilled to see my nose in Dinosaur Paleobiology by Dr. Steve Brusatte. I have made a lot of progress in Dr. Phil Currie's DINO101 online course, but there's not a lot of new info for me there. My 9-year-old niece seems to enjoy it though, and I've saved the videos and notes so I can go through them with her again.

DirecTV customer service must not like taking phone calls. When I contacted them before sunrise to figure out why HBO Go wasn't working, they bent over backwards to get it fixed so I wouldn't call again. It took a little time, but it's fully functional, and the entire run of Game of Thrones is again at my fingertips.

Hopefully I'll find time over Thanksgiving to blog about the Dino Shindig I attended way too long ago. If I don't soon, the notes I took will seem to be complete gibberish. I also plan to do a review post about DINO101 once I complete it. I'm thinking Christmas time will bring that gift to my audience.

As always, ideas and/or feedback are welcome. It is everyone's right to disagree, as I would in turn be exercising it against them. Thanks for reading, and maybe next time will come a lot sooner.

Twitter handles: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology - @SVP_vertpaleo, Brian Switek - @Laelaps, Dr. Thomas Carr - @TyrannosaurCarr, Dr. Steve Brusatte - @SteveBrusatte

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