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RE: JVP, SVP...too many 'VP's...



Ah, we're back to this subject again...I'll try to keep this on the dinosaurian front to remain on list topic...

Actually, the Socialists for Vertebrate Paleontology have now gone further
than that.  If I understand Kevin Padian's recent letter to Science
correctly, it is now considered unethical to study fossils that are not
themselves politically correct.  Specifically, Dr. Padian sniffs at
Bambiraptor and regards any science based on it as dubious -- because the
fossil is privately owned.  Apparently, unless the means of scientific
production are owned by the State, it isn't science.

Since I haven't had time to visit the library of late, I haven't seen the specific article in question and cannot address its specifics, but the concept of not studying privately-held fossils trancends this article. While I admit the allure of many privately-held specimens is powerful, I too feel that one must severly limit the formal publication of privately-held specimens for several reasons. Typically, the argument against the scientific "acknowledgement" of privately-held specimens has been phrased as "scientific repeatability." These clothes are appropriate, if loose-fitting: a privately-held specimen is not, in the broadest sense, available to anyone wishing to study it. The owners could easily, and legally, forbid certain parties to view it, thus potentially biasing published interpretations of the fossil's nature -- if persons with potentially different viewpoints cannot view the material, then the "experiment" of studying it cannot be repeated. Repeatability is, of course, a keystone of scientific methodology. Many specimens which were previously privately held, although known to exist for a long time, were not published in part for this reason (e.g., the specimen of _Acrocanthosaurus_ now at the North Carolina museum). Owners may flatly refuse to allow _anyone_ to view, or publish on, a privately-held specimen (I believe this was the case with the now-stolen Maxburg specimen of _Archaeopteryx_). How is one to publish on a specimen that, scientifically, exists only as a few, dark, old photographs? Lastly, what happens if the owner packs up his fossil and moves away to parts unknown, leaving no forwarding address? Even if s/he previously allowed many to study the fossil, it has been effectively removed from the scientific realm -- I know of a few specimens to which this has happened. We're back to repeatability. We cannot say that any given publication on a specimen is eternally complete -- new perspectives and approaches in the future may certainly warrant restudy, so the specimen must be perpetually available.


Specimens reposited in public institutions are, in contrast, and by legal mandate, held in the public's interest, and available to be seen by any qualified scientist and, if my limited knowledge of the law is correct, even by any member of the public (although stipulations about prearranged appointments and supervision usually apply). However, unlike privately-held specimens, publicly reposited specimens rarely change houses and, when they do, typically change to another public collection. They are available (theoretically) to any scientist, regardless of their hypotheses. More importantly, they are also available to educate the public if put on display, something which cannot be said for virtually any privately-held specimen. Although I loathe the monetary problems it has caused, I am relieved that "Sue" the tyrannosaur is now in a public institution and on display, where it can be studied by the public and scientists alike.

SVP's political initiation tests are beginning to sound like the old >Soviet
system of requiring a Party card or equivalent proof of political >orthodoxy
before permitting a student to do serious scientific work. Lysenko >would
be proud of SVP, and certainly the folks on the Kansas Board of >Education
would understand SVP's attitude, if not the particular sentiments
expressed.

My reading of SVP's mandates are that they are intended to protect the fossils and the science from malignant intentions. Should we allow persons of alternative evolutionary viewpoint (hey Mickey -- how's that for a nice euphemism to avoid the "c" word? ;-D ) to publish there? Should we allow commercial collectors to publish on specimens that they sold to an anonymous person across the ocean? Every group has rules based on the majority interest of its members (democracy, of course), and though the debates rage, the interests of the fossils and of paleontology, as held by the majority of the present membership, still predominates.


                _,_
           ____/_\,)                    ..  _  
--____-===(  _\/                         \\/ \-----_---__
           /\  '                        ^__/>/\____\--------
__________/__\_ ____________________________.//__.//_________

                     Jerry D. Harris
                 Fossil Preparation Lab
          New Mexico Museum of Natural History
                   1801 Mountain Rd NW
               Albuquerque  NM  87104-1375
                 Phone:  (505) 841-2809
                  Fax: ; (505) 841-2808
           >>>>> dinogami@hotmail.com <<<<<

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