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re: No substitute for seeing a specimen: Hone blog

This month (5/2) David Hone posted a blog comment entitled: 

"No substitute for seeing a specimen" 


In short, David had seen a specimen, then taken another look at it and 
discovered, in his words,  "I’d made a couple of pretty bad errors." He 
summarized his experienced like this: "There is simply no substitute for seeing 
a specimen firsthand and up close. It really doesn’t matter how good the 
descriptions, photos, drawings etc. are you will see things better and less 
ambiguously and more precisely in person. This is especially true of flattened 
things like from the Solnhofen and Liaoning."

I wrote back to Dr. Hone privately suggesting:

"It may be what you are experiencing is simply the knowledge and insight that 
experience gives you. Perhaps it's like second sight, in more ways than one. 
You're a better paleontologist now than when you first examined the same 
specimen. You see things differently.  Whatever this specimen is, I suppose 
you're tracing it to record your interpretations so that others will understand 
how you now see it. Will you be tracing by camera lucida or photographs? Or by 
eye? Will you be posting your before and after tracings. That would be 
educational and more specific. So far what you have said is rather generic. We, 
your readers, are left to wonder what really changed between then and now.

On a similar vein, I was able to see and hold a specimen for several days and 
yet, blinded by preconceptions and first appearances I interpreted parts of a 
specimen wrongly, as I gather you also had because you mentioned, "It's 
something I've seen before..." It wasn't until I reviewed certain photographs, 
made another trip to my MacClade file and had the insight to throw out a 
previous interpretation (as you just experienced) did a new insight develop. 
That's the insight experience gave me.

It has also been my experience (in fact it's something I'm doing right now to a 
Dalla Vecchia find) that tracing a photograph can provide a magnitude more data 
than a camera lucida can. Look at any fish skeleton tracing. It's easy to get 
lost in the chaos of similar-looking features unless you have a system of 
graphically separating layers of crushed material and this is where the 
photograph trumps the camera lucida, IMHO. 

Your position "No substitute for seeing a specimen" is the current paradigm and 
it is widely accepted. My challenge to you is this: You have the fossil. Send 
me a good picture of it. Later, when you're ready we'll compare tracings. You 
say there's no substitute. Let's test your hypothesis with a real scientific 
test. True to your word, I trust you will not use a photograph to trace from, 
but a camera lucida."

I'm posting to this DML forum because Dr. Hone gave me a lengthy word thrashing 
about never posting to his blog again and never writing to him again. By doing 
this he artfully managed to avoid considering or accepting the challenge. The 
same challenge, here made public, is still offered. Can a Ph.D. using a camera 
lucida trace more details in an original fossil than an amateur with a 
photograph? While all paleontologists that I know would and should side with 
Dr. Hone, science is all about actually doing the test to see what the results 
really are. Having already helped several scientists identify cryptic features 
they have overlooked first hand, I'm confident that the photgraph method will 
prevail or at least equal the first-hand method. This is one of those put-up or 
shut-up moments. Dr. Hone has every advantage, yet ignores this opportunity to 
put scientific evidence behind his headline statement. Is there anyone out 
there who can persuade him to do so?

Please, don't suggest making this into a paper. That would take more than a 
year or two and we already have several examples of scientists who have held 
specimens in their hand, yet could not decipher or interpret correctly certain 
details. Papers on Tanystropheus, Cosesaurus, Longisquama, Archaeopteryx, 
Helveticosaurus, Effigia, Vancleavea, turtle skulls, pterosaur pteroids,  wing 
membranes and footprints all come to mind. Let's do this before the China 
conference in mid August so I can reward and commend Dr. Hone when he wins the 
competition (~IF he wins). 

Best to all,

David Peters
St. Louis