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Re: Two open letters from Storrs Olson (LONG)

Without commenting directly on the original post in this thread, there
are some cogent points to be made about how professionals interact in
paleontology and other sciences.

One thing to bear in mind is that paleontologists are humans - and, like
other humans, are prone to occasional bursts of irrational behavior. 
I'll never forget the first time I saw a priest behaving irrationally -
it really brought home the fact that no profession is free of the simple
fact of being owned and maintained by human beings.

In general, tempers are likelier to flare if a large number of people is
working on a particular set of issues.  There is much interest right now
in all aspects of the origin of birds - which theropods are closest to
them, how feathers evolved, the origin of flight, and so on.  The number
of specialists is increasing faster than the number of specimens or the
available pool of funding.  That means increased territoriality ("Hey,
that's MY project...") and, from random chance, a larger number of
people who may simply be more prone to irrational behavior.  Add
publicity to the mix, and simple human ego rises to the surface. From
what I've seen, the "level of rhetoric" in the bird origins "debate" is
nothing compared with the paleoanthropologists - they have a much lower
specimen-to-specialist ratio.  Several books have been written about the
history of human origins research, and it makes fantastic bedtime
reading.  (At the other extreme are groups that get comparatively little
interest - crocs, for example.  Not too many of us, and we all more or
less get along.)

That being said, I think there's something else going on in this
particular case.  I don't deny that unkind things have been said by
individuals on both sides of the issue, but part of what I'm hearing is
simple frustration.  On the majority side (i.e. among those who think
birds are dinosaurs), there's frustration that arguments viewed as
invalid (for good reason, in my opinion) continue to come up in
publications, long after huge problems with them have been pointed out. 
The "temporal paradox" argument comes to mind.  On the minority side, I
sense frustration that, simply put, they're the minority.  New fossils
are usually interpreted in ways that contradict what they think is
happening, and the methods currently used by the vast majority of
systematic biologists consistently and repeatedly support a set of
relationships they view as untenable.  Most of those deeply involved
with this issue are, deep down, reasonable persons; but as levels of
frustration rise, so rise levels of rhetoric.

So don't be disheartened.  All you're witnessing is the paleontological
community exposing itself as a group of bipedal primates before the
world.  I doubt you'll find a less human group in any other profession.


Michael de Sosa wrote:
> Listmembers-
> I have heard numerous concerns lately with the number of young people
> who want to get into vertebrate paleontology.  Well, you needn't worry
> too much, because the intense ad hominem mudslinging, seen in this
> series of open letters and elsewhere, among supposedly mature and
> rational adult scientists is sure to drive some of us away.  I don't
> know if I have ever been ashamed of my interest before, but I am now.
> Sincerely,
> --
> Michael A. de Sosa
> Undergraduate Student
> University of California - Berkeley
> ofsosa@uclink4.berkeley.edu
> "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make
> as they fly by."  -Douglas Adams

Christopher A. Brochu
Department of Geology
Field Museum of Natural History
Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605

voice: 312-665-7633  (NEW)
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electronic:  cbrochu@fmppr.fmnh.org