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Two open letters from Storrs Olson (LONG)

Hello all,
I am not involved in this matter in any way other than as an interested observator, but I thought the two open letters below might be both of interest and relevance to the list. To be sure, I am not quite sure what to make of it, but since I am working on a history of the debate about origin of birds and of bird flight, I would be most interested in hearing the opinion of you lot.
Ilja Nieuwland

National Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian Institution

Washington, D. C. 20560

1 November 1999


Dr. Peter Raven, Secretary PRaven@nas.org

Committee for Research and Exploration

National Geographic Society

Washington, DC 20036

Dear Peter,

I thought that I should address to you the concerns expressed below because your committee is at least partly involved and because you are certainly now the most prominent scientist at the National Geographic Society.

With the publication of "Feathers for T. rex?" by Christopher P. Sloan in its November issue, National Geographic has reached an all-time low for engaging in sensationalistic, unsubstantiated, tabloid journalism. But at the same time the magazine may now claim to have taken its place in formal taxonomic literature.

Although it is possible that Mr. Czerkas "will later name" the specimen identified on page 100 as Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, there is no longer any need for him to do so. Because this Latinized binomial has apparently not been published previously and has now appeared with a full-spread photograph of the specimen "accompanied by a description or definition that states in words characters that are purported to differentiate the taxon," the name Archaeoraptor liaoningensis Sloan is now available for purposes of zoological nomenclature as of its appearance in National Geographic (International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Article 13a, i). This is the worst nightmare of many zoologists---that their chance to name a new organism will be inadvertently scooped by some witless journalist. Clearly, National Geographic is not receiving competent consultation in certain scientific matters.

Sloan's article explicitly states that the specimen in question is known to have been illegally exported and that "the Czerkases now plan to return it to China." In Washington, in June of 1996, more than forty participants at the 4th International Meeting of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution, held at the Smithsonian Institution, were signatories to a letter to the Director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences that deplored the illegal trade in fossils from China and encouraged the Chinese government to take further action to curb this exploitation. There were a few fossil dealers at that meeting and they certainly got the message. Thus, at least since mid-1996 it can hardly have been a secret to anyone in the scientific community or the commercial fossil business that fossils from Liaoning offered for sale outside of China are contraband.

Most, if not all, major natural history museums in the United States have policies in effect that prohibit their staff from accepting any specimens that were not legally collected and exported from the country of origin. The National Geographic Society has not only supported research on such material, but has sensationalized, and is now exhibiting, an admittedly illicit specimen that would have been morally, administratively, and perhaps legally, off-limits to researchers in reputable scientific institutions.

Prior to the publication of the article "Dinosaurs Take Wing" in the July 1998 National Geographic, Lou Mazzatenta, the photographer for Sloan's article, invited me to the National Geographic Society to review his photographs of Chinese fossils and to comment on the slant being given to the story. At that time, I tried to interject the fact that strongly supported alternative viewpoints existed to what National Geographic intended to present, but it eventually became clear to me that National Geographic was not interested in anything other than the prevailing dogma that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Sloan's article takes the prejudice to an entirely new level and consists in large part of unverifiable or undocumented information that "makes" the news rather than reporting it. His bald statement that "we can now say that birds are theropods just as confidently as we say that humans are mammals" is not even suggested as reflecting the views of a particular scientist or group of scientists, so that it figures as little more than editorial propagandizing. This melodramatic assertion had already been disproven by recent studies of embryology and comparative morphology, which, of course, are never mentioned.

More importantly, however, none of the structures illustrated in Sloan's article that are claimed to be feathers have actually been proven to be feathers. Saying that they are is little more than wishful thinking that has been presented as fact. The statement on page 103 that "hollow, hairlike structures characterize protofeathers" is nonsense considering that protofeathers exist only as a theoretical construct, so that the internal structure of one is even more hypothetical.

The hype about feathered dinosaurs in the exhibit currently on display at the National Geographic Society is even worse, and makes the spurious claim that there is strong evidence that a wide variety of carnivorous dinosaurs had feathers. A model of the undisputed dinosaur Deinonychus and illustrations of baby tyrannosaurs are shown clad in feathers, all of which is simply imaginary and has no place outside of science fiction.

The idea of feathered dinosaurs and the theropod origin of birds is being actively promulgated by a cadre of zealous scientists acting in concert with certain editors at Nature and National Geographic who themselves have become outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the faith. Truth and careful scientific weighing of evidence have been among the first casualties in their program, which is now fast becoming one of the grander scientific hoaxes of our age---the paleontological equivalent of cold fusion. If Sloan's article is not the crescendo of this fantasia, it is difficult to imagine to what heights it can next be taken. But it is certain that when the folly has run its course and has been fully exposed, National Geographic will unfortunately play a prominent but unenviable role in the book that summarizes the whole sorry episode.



Storrs L. Olson

Curator of Birds

National Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian Institution

Washington, DC 20560

Ph. 202-357-33212

FAX 1-202-633-8084

email: olson.storrs@nmnh.si.edu

-----Original Message-----
From: Storrs Olson [mailto:Olson.Storrs@NMNH.SI.EDU]
Sent: Friday, November 05, 1999 1:01 PM
To: [a lot of e-mail addresses snipped]

Subject: Your Open Letter to Peter Raven –Reply

Dear Mr. Gee,

Your response to my open letter to Peter Raven must be viewed in light of your own remarks sent to the vertebrate paleontology mailing list (vrtpaleo@usc.edu, 17 Sept. 1999), which I do not "tune in" to, and which were forwarded to me some time later. For the benefit of all of my correspondents who also received your message, I repeat your comments here:

"I'm surprised that there's still any argument over bird origins. The point that seems to have been missed (in more recent postings anyway) is that any hypothesis of phylogeny must be rooted in cladistics. Cladograms don't give you access to The Truth, but they are at least the testable hypotheses that science demands. They do not rest on unsupportable speculations about the possible biological functions of characters in long-dead creatures. At the moment cladistics suggests that birds makes their nests among theropods. This is not surprising given the large number of consistently arrayed features to support this view. This will not be overturned by notions that Megalancosaurus had a bird-like head, or Longisquama had scales that looked like feathers (sort of). Cladistics consistently places these animals well outside dinosaurs and so on current evidence they have nothing to do with birds. Significantly, those fond of flying Triassic archosaurs aren't fond of cladistics, either, and prefer to take their science in the form of untestable bedtime stories rather than rigorous and transparent hypotheses. Yes, the debate is over. There is a more interesting task ahead than fruitless, stale debates about whether birds and dinosaurs are closely related. We've passed that stage. The task ahead is to resolve the branching order in the currently dense and tangled part of the cladogram around Archaeopteryx. Such a resolution will help us understand the order in which birds acquired their features, so we can build up a picture of the evolution of the fascinating functional complex that is bird flight. Waffling about ancient lizards falling out of trees will never do this and should be banished to the entertaining world occupied by Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and educational conferences in Kansas.


Are these the words of an impartial adjudicator who can be relied upon to obtain an objective appraisal of manuscripts submitted to NATURE on this subject? I think not. Furthermore, I would ask you, why should I, who have spent 30 years collecting, identifying, and describing fossil birds, seek you out to discuss your views? You, and apparently everyone else at NATURE, seem to have overlooked the fact that you are not supposed to HAVE a view.
The very fact that you still have a job is an inexhaustible source of wonder on this side of the Atlantic, where most scientists proceed under the assumption that editors of scientific journals are under some small obligation at least to preserve the appearance of maintaining objectivity. With your highly unprofessional outburst you have raised a cloud of distrust over yourself and your journal that cannot be dissipated by any protestations attempting to assert a history of propriety. Many of us have long held suspicions---now these suspicions have been confirmed.

Perhaps manuscripts presenting data or ideas contrary to your ideas have not been submitted to NATURE in the past. But do you think that your words have created an environment in which scientists who have such contrary views would now select NATURE as their first option for presenting their ideas? Obviously not. Henry Gee, and thus NATURE likewise, have declared that "the debate is over," so that there seems little room in your program for those who would like to keep the spirit of enquiry alive.

I am not much concerned, however, about NATURE having rejected good papers that should have been published and I am prepared to accept your word that this has not happened. Of much more concern is the publication of bad papers that should NOT have been accepted. Obvious dinosaurs (Mononykus) have been described as birds (NATURE 1993, 362:623). Obvious birds (Protarchaeopteryx and Caudipteryx) have been described as dinosaurs (NATURE 1998, 393:753). Thus it is little wonder that the "birds-are-dinosaurs "movement is thriving.

If the manuscript on a supposed Cretaceous parrot (Stidham 1998, NATURE 5 Nov.) had been submitted to the AUK, CONDOR, JOURNAL OF VERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGY, or PROCEEDINGS OF THE BIOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF WASHINGTON, to name just a few examples, it would have been rejected and sent back to its author with referees' comments to the effect that "I don't know what you've
got there but it isn't a parrot." But whoever is doing the refereeing at NATURE insures that it gets published and now you and Stidham say that it is up to someone else to figure out what it really is (NATURE, Science Update, http://helix.nature.com/nsu/990527/990527-3html). This is science? No. This is NATURE.

Here are a couple more instances of editorial incompetence at NATURE---original descriptions of new genera and species of birds and dinosaurs (Forster, Chiappe, Krause, & Sampson, 1996, NATURE, 382:532-534; Xu, Tang, & Wang, 1999, 399:350- 354), with NO MEASUREMENTS! What is the first thing that any scientist who deals with objects, be they atoms or planets, wants to know? How big is it? This is absolutely elemental in any scientific discourse, but has been ignored at NATURE in these instances and who knows how many others.
I would suggest that if there really is no bias in the editorial process at NATURE with regard to fossil birds and avian origins, that you make available a list of all publications on these subjects that have appeared in NATURE in the past 10 years and supply a list of the referees of those papers with the number of manuscripts that each individual refereed. Such acknowledgments of referees and the number of papers that they review are
routinely published by many journals, so that there is absolutely nothing unethical or unprecedented in my suggestion. Furthermore, you would only be revealing the names of reviewers of papers that were accepted and published, and without identifying them with any particular paper, so that there would be no potential of identifying unfavorable reviewers to any author. My guess is that this list would be embarrassingly short and lopsided.
Alternatively, it would not be much trouble for someone else to assemble a large and impressive list of qualified referees in the field of avian paleontology and evolution who have never been asked to review a manuscript for NATURE. With pleasure, I would put my name at the head of that list.
Finally, I shall address your objection to my choice of words. For years we have endured the blaring and whining movements of the symphony of dogma being played by the proponents of the theropod origin of birds, so that when you boomed in with the basso buffoono part, and the National Geographic editors harmonized on their crockenspiel, it seemed natural to suggest that this was all "in concert." The lyrics may be new but the melody is hauntingly familiar. Is it the Piltdown Polka?


Storrs L Olson
Curator of Birds
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Insitution
Washington, DC 20560

email olson.storrs@nmnh.si.edu
ph. 202-357-3321
fax 202-633-8084