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Making Paleontology Popular



  The following post (below the dashed line) was run
by both Mickey and Mary for discussion of one of the
trickier points of the List's rules, especially that
of the prohibition of mention of creationism. As
Mickey writes: "we've made a distinction between
creationist ideas in the history of science and
Creationism as a 20th century political movement. The
former is a valid topics; the latter is not. ... In
this case, we feel the message falls within our
guidelines because its reference to creationsim
regards the history of paleontological science rather
than the current political movement. Followups
defending the latter may be construed as out of
bounds, though, so please tread lightly ...." --- MPR.

  Mickey further advises that messages concerning
tricky topics be ran by him and Mary, rather than just
posted on this list, due to the tenability of some
subjects. As he pointed out to me, he does not share
some of my viewpoints: be advaised that this will not
make him censor the subject, and the post will be
allowed through as long as "the message falls within
our guidelines."  Thank you, Jaime A. Headden.

---------------------------------------------------

  The problem with popularizing paleontology is the
general "dumbing down" of the presentation and data.
Something is lost in the translation from cold, hard
data into something that little kiddies can sit up and
clap to. I am blessed with a few local friends off the
list and out of the field who aren't these "kiddies"
who have to be "dumbed down" to so that they can
understand what I'm saying when I describe locomotion
in a four-ton biped and the inherent problems ... and
getting good feedback. I don't like how I have often
tried to sit and figure how I would present what seems
to me to be a relatively simple subject (but is
horribly complex in details) to the local library when
I need to help set up a disply for them on some odd
subject concerning dinosaurs, etc. Or to discuss with
a friend the subject and try to have to run through
three or four lines of evidence and discussion just to
get to the point. It shows me how limited the public's
knowledge on some major scientific concepts are
(especially if they aren't discussed in middle or high
school) or how some more "popular" scientific
magazines limit the content of their data, for sake of
whatever space might be needed.

  Recently in the popular press, several articles have
come out that have hurt science, probably not to its
credit, and for the large part, are uninformative to
say the least, if you're aware of the subject
yourself. Sloan (1999, _Nat. Geo._ 196 (5):98-107)
published a short piece on the prescence of
filamentous integumentary structures in dinosaurs as
being possibly universal in theropods, hence "Feathers
for T. rex," and that in turn arguing for the
dino-bird theory. Unfortunately, it used the example
of a little chimaeric fossil with a name, and set the
paleontological community on its ear. And the senior
editor of _Nat. Geo._ nonetheless. There should be
more respect for the security of the prep lab.

  Further infringements in the sense of productivity
that paleontology and its respective sister-studies
enjoys have been perpetrated. It has been argued that
the _Nature_ and _Science_ journals are little more
than technical pop magazines, featuring works with
such high critique as to the processes and methods and
even presentation of Jones et al. (2000) on purported
"feathers" in *Longisquama* (_Science_ 288: 2202-2205
[where superficial form of a venaceous, elongate
"scale" bearing folidate vanes (not barbed) and a
narrow base _might_ bear some resemblence to a
feather, but most skeletal anatomy points to a totally
irregular animal to birds]), and on limb proportions
and locumotory correllation in *Caudipteryx* (_Nature_
406: 716-718 [where any other archosaurs that have
been described as possible bipeds were not included,
or even some data misrepresented, some specimens are
not complete in the calculated regions, ontogeny was
dismissed _pro facto_]), further with previous data by
Ruben et al. (1996, _Science_ 273: 1204-1207
[illustrations of an incomplete skull of
*Dromaeosaurus* describe short choanae, as well as
dismissing respiratory turbinates due to lack of
ossification or prescence]; 1997, ibid. 278:
1267-1270; 1999, ibid. 283: 514-516 [these two papers
are based 1) on obscure lighting of a liver-like
structure and the post-mortem position of several
internal organs can suggest that these parts are in
their original (rather than taphonomic) positions, and
2) a brevity  of comparative anatomy and variation in
extant birds or mammals, and the use of superficial
resemblance of a croc and tyrannosaur pelvis, as well
as not demonstrating the unique mobile pubis in
crocs]), along with Hou, Martin, and Feduccia (Hou et
al. 1995, _Nature_ 377: 616-618 [supposedly the age of
*Confuciusornis*, along with *Archaeopteryx*, shows
birds fully fledged, could not stem from "younger" or
"contemporaneous" non-feathered theropods; the
temporal paradox scenario]; Hou et al. 1999, ibid.
399: 679-682 [both papers dismiss convergence in
certain areas, including the pelvis and manus, and
argue that analogy in others with birds is not
convergent, arbitrarily]; Feduccia and Martin 1998,
ibid. 391: 754 [critiquing the velociraptorine
furcula, drawing parallels and conclusions on "fused
clavicles" not based on preserved material and holding
true for birds as well, such as *Baptornis,* which
both authers are quite familiar with]) on more
specific anatomical statements regarding recently
discovered ornithothoracines and "non-dinosaurian"
birds. These papers have suggested to me, in fact,
that the scientific process that many esteemed
paleontologist, biologists, and theoretical
systematicists mork hard to refine and keep
"scientific," is going the way of the dodo, when it
comes to educating the public about the fields.

  I have the utmost respect for many of these people;
I would enjoy, I think, conversing with them about
respective fields, and did talk to Martin in Denver
last year about sabercats; I also do not like arguing
with people. Presentation of the public with data with
dubious methods or intents involved over the last
decade has chilled my attitude somewhat to dealing
with the public, but further has given me a
determination to inform the public about what, in
fact, dinosaurs and other extinct forms, are, or might
be. I do _not_ often go around saying birds are
dinosaurs, or point out a fluffy flock of south-flying
dinosaurs, but suggest instead the possibilities. I
_do_ note that the last few papers presented from
Jones et al. this year (_Nature_ 406: 716-718;
_Science_ 288: 2202-2205) do not overly state what is
the apparent intent in their analyses, but the
layperson can still draw the conclusion from the data
presented -- my friend Kevin certain did, and he has
no formal anatomical training.

---------

  That said, several popular articles have recently
hit the shelves:

  This one was mentioned earlier:

  Krause, David M. 2000. Monsters of Madagascar.
_National Geographic Magazine_  198(2): 44-57.

  Featured is *Simosuchus clarki*, the snub-nosed,
leaf-toothed croc that raised some nape hairs at SVP
last year, though I missed the presentation; the
carapace is shown in a small double-page spread. Also
featured are one of Flynn et al.'s Mid-Triassic
plateosaur jaws, *Majungasuchus* (a large nile-mimic
animal with tusks), *Araripesuchus* (a smaller form
that was probably primarily terrestrial),
*Majungatholus*, including the neck series, a
traversodont cynodont mammal-like mammal, and the foot
of *Rahonavis.*

  More recently:

  Hoffman, Hillel J. 2000. When life nearly came to an
end: The Permian Extinction. _National Geographic
Magazine_ 198(3): 100-113.

  Features the Karroo Basin in South Africa, including
a facing three-quarters view of the cool-looking
*Dinogorgon*, a "mammal-like reptile." Permian
aqui-fauna and flora are features, with a single-page
painting that does not really work on my level, but a
spread of fossils from P strata do, including a
wonderful trilobite. Something I've been looking into
recently included the evidence for an anoxia event
that may have wiped out most of the marine fauna,
etc., but evidence is strong for a meteoric impact
that might explain the terrestrial event. Multiple
lines of evidence lead in different directions.

  On a different note, this month's (or next's) essay
by Steve Gould is relevant to recent discussions of
taxonomy:

  Gould, Stephen J. 2000. Linnaeus's Luck? _Natural
History 2000 (9): 18-24, 66-70, 74-76.

  The teaser/abstract is this: "Why does the great
creationist's system of classification work in
Darwin's world? And what does the resolution of this
paradox teach us about the importance and fascination
of taxonomy?" It concludes with a tribute to Ernst
Mayr: "who taught me ... that taxonomies are active
theories about the causes of natural order, not
externally provided stamp albums for nature's obvious
facts."

  Gould describes the interesting position of a
taxonomic system based on the immutability of
Linnaeus's, the character driving it, and how Darwin's
publications did nothing to erase the idea that
Linnaeus is the "father of modern -- that is to say,
evolutionary -- taxonomy." His points are plentifold,
but what strikes most strongly is this: Linnaeus was a
creationist who formulated his system on a _Scala
Naturae_ idea of biology, his application to inorganic
materials the same system, and Darwin's discovery of
descent through modification, and Huxley's support of
this.

-----------

  I mention these three publications because they are
popular accounts -- the first two from _Nat. Geo._ are
rather simplistic in form and merely illustrate
bizarre faunas ... whereas the last is precisely what
I want to see when I read Gould's essays, a
descriptive historical approach. The thing is, these
merely report data, they don't try to go out on a limb
and make wild leaps into the air hoping to catch a
feathered lizard or hepatic-piston breathing dinosaur.
The papers by Ruben and Jones et al. appear to be
written with the intent of describing a suite of
features that show dinosaurs were ectothermic,
non-feathered and frilled (the argument against
"proto-feathers" in *Sinosauropteryx*), such as to say
they could not therefore have given rise to birds.
Papers by Hou and others appear to illustrate how
unlike dinosaurs modern birds or their
ornithothoracine ancestors were, and seem to be
surprised when they find complete diapsid temporal
bars in *Confuciusornis.* Biological concepts of
ontogeny, neoteny, convergence, and plesiomorphy, are
not considered when in the face of an argument these
authors have put forward in the last decade.

  This has also shown me, refering to all those refs I
detailed and a few more on similar lines (can't find
the refs right now, or I _would_ list more), that in
_Science_ and _Nature_, space can be a major concern,
and where, in a larger paper some lines might be
continued so that methods can be excamined more
clearly and then reviewed, this isn't always possible
in shorter-issue journals (above). That is not an
excuse. There are a few papers I am aware of that make
good the point in short space.

  In shortening the popular access papers, details are
left out that show how easy it is to leave rigor in
the popular press out of the picture. Some methods are
simply not followed through or are done incorrectly.

=====
Jaime "James" A. Headden

  Dinosaurs are horrible, terrible creatures! Even the
  fluffy ones, the snuggle-up-at-night-with ones. You think
  they're fun and sweet, but watch out for that stray tail
  spike! Down, gaston, down, boy! No, not on top of Momma!

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