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Re: Abstracts & Illustrations

OK.  Here is a reposting of my to Wagner's earlier post--just because I couldn't
let that one go unanswered.

>         Josh wrote:
> >Rather than repeat the entire text of a rather long email, I will just
> > offer my support and state that I feel Norm is 100% correct.  You must
> >SEE the specimens.  Period.  You must also see the outcrop.

            Wagner responded:

>         I hate to disagree, especially when it seems that your stance is
> considered the equivalent of "politically correct" by most "big
> name" workers. Many "provincial" paleontologists simply cannot afford
> to visit all the specimens. This does mean that certain subjects, such as
> systematics, are effectively closed for to them (you won't
> be seeing my hadrosaur dataset until I can personally review most of the
> specimens and confirm observations from the literature). However, it is a
> particularly unproductive attitude to expect a paleontologist to see every
> specimen of interest, especially for comparative purposes (it also seems
> just a shade exclusive). After all, what is the literature for, anyway?

            Wagner and I generally DO agree on most points, but I am not sure 
we do here.  It may
be an unfortunate situation that many specimens cannot be visited by all.  I
personally think this
sucks and it has bitten me in the butt a number of times.  However, it is a 
fact of
life.  Unproductive
attitude?  Exclusive?  Comon, Jon, you know me. Presuming that I am an arrogant 
child just because I study dinosaurs and that seems to be a prevailing 
is a bit unfair.  The
literature IS there to provide comparative data, sure.  However, there has been
some recent posting
on here that the literature might be failing rather emphatically in this regard
(considering some
character descriptions I have seen recently, I would have to agree--I mean, what
the hell does crown
size *large* actually MEAN???!).  We KNOW that specimen illustrations are often
wrong and yet
we publish analyses based on data that are taken from them anyway.  This is 
than not doing
the analysis?  I am not sure....  Sure it allows people to add their two cents. 
what?  It also adds
information to the pile that may be seriously flawed.  We make enough mistakes 
we have the
specimens at hand (damn, even with simple materials like dentition I make 
all the damn
time that I need to go back and correct).

I did not say (nor intend to imply) that the literature should be discarded. 
is foolish.  I publish
papers too.  Communication of information is the point.  However, there is a 
between what a line drawing can tell you, what a photograph can tell you and 
what a
first hand look
at the damn thing can tell you.  If you don't believe this, go do some
comparisons.  We need to be
communicating quality information and this is difficult.  It is VERY hard to
describe a complicated
three dimensional object like a quadrate using a couple of line drawings.  I am
constantly going to
specimens and not being able to find features that are there in the figures.  
maybe this is
because I suck and am a lousy paleontologist.  If so, I expect I will be 
out somewhere along the line.  Whatever...  All I am saying is that studying
figures in a paper is NOT the same as
studying nature and that one needs to be careful.

I hope this is not coming across abrasively.  It is really difficult to argue a
point over email and not
appear to be ripping the other person a new one.  Rest easy that Jon and I are
friends now and will
remain so regardless of what silly points of paleontology we argue on here.  The
only point I am
really behind here is caution.


>    large     Another point for you and Dr. King: paleontology is NOT
> stratigraphy! There is no way to illustrate a formation, and outcrop
> illustrations don't convey the same sort of information. I agree that a
> sed/strat study requires a programme of field work. Indeed, I've measured
> and mapped and researched all around Big Bend, and I can barely say
> anything beyond the four square meters of each of my sites. Not that I
> would necessarily have anything to say anyway. :)

    This is simply no longer true.  The technology has evolved to the point 
it is quite easy to
describe a formation now, or at least an outcrop.

> Wagner:

>         However, morphological information is interpretable from
> illustrations directly (although not always accurately... c'est la
> science).

 Josh:   This was, I believe, the only point I was trying to make.  Caution.


>         There is a skill to interpreting photographs and
> drawings, one which (admittedly), not everyone has. Just because some
> people are bad at it doesn't mean everyone is. It is simply insulting
> to assume that someone who has not seen the specimen can make no
> contribution to its study.

    Go back and read what I wrote.  This is NOT what I said (or at least that is
not what my brain
was thinking when I was writing...).  We have to do the best we can.  All of us.
That should be
obvious.  However, no one said this was easy.  Who said it should be?  The 
could care
less.  The literature is out there for us to use, but the biases that went into
generating that literature
HAVE GOT to be considered when using it.


>         As I have posted before, viewing a specimen does not constitute
> divine revalation, it is just one step better than using the literature.
> Really, if we carry this to its logical extreme, we should also discount
> the work of stupid people, even if they have seen the specimen. Is that a
> reasonable approach? Sure, in an ideal case, where we all had money coming
> out of our rear ends and we could afford to jet off to Lower Slobovia
> to see a new monkey finger before the deadline for our next paper, we
> would do so. Unfortunately, I don't think even you, Josh, can always do
> this. At least, if you can, I want your budget and your schedule! :)

Again, I didn't imply that we live in anything else but a real world (well, 
for maybe Tom
Holtz...).  Read my first paragraph above.   However, I guess I must take the
position that if you
don't have the resources to do the science, why are you doing it?  We are
scientists.  Our job is to
describe the natural world and test hypotheses based on those descriptions.  It
requires tools to do
this.  You would not try to build a house without getting a hammer.  It is a
necessary tool to
accomplish the task. Not one of the "amateur" astronomers out there that I know
fails to own a
telescope.  You would not even think about trying to study quasars without the
appropriate tools.
Why is earth science different?  You need a computer to generate phylogenetic 
for the most
part.  Everyone excepts this.  Why is it hard to accept that it might cost
resources to evaluate the
data that go into these trees?  The computer does nothing except analyze the 
If the data are
lousy, the tree means nothing.  Come on, Jon.  It doesn't matter if it is more 
less fun this way,
or whatever.  Nature didn't ask us.  The world doesn't care what we want or 
what is


>         Upshot (not specifically for Josh and Dr. King, but for everyone):
> consider the scope of the study, and the resources of the worker, before
> you go disparraging on the value of their contributions. And, for
> gosh's (if not Josh's) sake, illustrate as much as you can afford to!

    I quite agree. Spend a little time working in "third world" countries and
understand their
resources before ripping apart the works of authors, especially as far as their
comparative analyses
are concerned.  However, this is not to contradict my above thoughts, and this 
not in conflict
with my point (if indeed I am making one...which given that I am source is 
unlikely).  It
requires resources to do science.  Science is a by product of an affluent 
as much as that
sucks.  There is a reason that 19th century paleontology was a game for the 
No one is running
around yelling that we need to get the Egyptians a space program.  Why not?  
they have the
right to fire rockets at the moon as surely as we do....  Maybe people realize 
they have more
important things to worry about...?  Americans generate most of the paleo data 
there because we
have the ability to support the research--we can afford to pay lots of people to
make a living
measuring bumps on animals that have been dead for 100 million years rather than
on, say, figuring
out where the water is going to come from to keep our 40,000,000 person populace
alive in the
Sahara for the next decade.

If we all concentrated on describing the stuff we have on hand *in detail* 
than putting out
300 papers a year that don't say anything, it would be a little easier to trust
what is out there (I am
still waiting for someone to define "long" for me).  All of us in academic
positions are guilty of this
to some degree and I think this is the more serious problem at hand--I feel it 
more of a symptom
of the red queen biting down hard on science than anything else.

Assuming I have a point here, it is if we are dealing with the published 
(and that is all I am concerned with here) then we cannot afford to sacrifice
caution in interpreting data (i.e., considering the source and baises) for the 
of the enjoyment derived from idle speculation or the generation of yet another
tree.  Or, for that matter, for the sake of getting the research done, because
failing to examine the data for its trustworthiness devalues the research.

ok, putting on my kevlar,

Josh Smith
Department of Earth and Environmental Science
University of Pennsylvania
471 Hayden Hall
240 South 33rd Street
Philadelphia, PA  19104-6316
(215) 898-5630 (Office)
(215) 898-0964 (FAX)