Earlier we discussed in parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 the criticisms leveled at ReptileEvolution.com by Darren Naish, author of the Tetrapod Zoology blog titled “Why the world has to ignore ReptileEvolution.com. Here is part 6.
How Not to Change the World
Darren reported, “If you think you’ve discovered something radically new and absolutely contradictory to previously accrued evidence, you don’t go round saying “Hey everyone – I’ve solved all your problems…You ask other people what they think before your announcement, you try and test it using alternative methods (for fossils, the application of CT-scanning and UV light to specimens is showing us stuff we can’t clearly see with our own eyes) and, essentially, you state your incredible discovery in appropriately conservative fashion.”
Well, as Darren mentions earlier in his criticism, he (and others) did receive my manuscripts and abstracts several years ago. All but a few were rejected, often with emotion-filled comments. Those manuscripts that did make it through to publication made it through somehow, but even those suffered negative referee comments, which is not at all uncommon in the world of academic submissions as I understand it. So, the comment about “appropriately conservative fashion” was followed to the letter.
In the wake of those submissions, some paleontologists have cautioned me to never submit comments to their blog. Others have said they trash my emails without reading them. Others have been seriously venomous in their remarks. Hone and Benton (2008) gave credit to Chris Bennett for my ‘pterosaurs are fenestrasaurus’ hypothesis and took all references to my work out. This is especially odd since the preceding work (Hone and Benton (2007) stated this was going to be a test of the Bennett tree vs. the Peters tree. David Unwin’s book failed to mention a single reference for my several publications, but was otherwise extremely comprehensive. The book also mentioned the “prolacertiform” hypothesis without giving credit. Darren notes this when he reports, “and indeed Dave’s work is ignored by publishing scientists.”
Such a climate out there causes concern and is the prime motive for creating both websites. I have asked Helmut Tischlinger for certain UV images of key areas. So far I have only received copies of what he has done for others and they have been gratefully accepted and used. (Good to know that working from SOME photographs is okay).
Darren continues, “Some people actually take years or even decades to announce their major, groundbreaking discoveries because they want to be as sure as they can be that they’ve considered all the weaknesses, alternative explanations and possible flaws in what they’re proposing. Dave is a bit of a contradiction on this front. He’s thrown a million radically strange new discoveries out there at a phenomenally rapid pace, and indeed the rate at which his ‘discoveries’ occur is unprecedented.”
A ‘million’ may be a little over the top. Actually many of the so-called “discoveries” emanates from one point, the cladogram. Having a large reptile tree that I can pop new taxa into is a great advantage over the trees of others that only include one focused branch or so. The observational “discoveries” emanate from one point also, an interest in specimens that others have given up on.
The skull of Jeholopterus is a case in point. Originally it was figured as a mere outline with indistinct lines indicated within the outline. With DGS (digital graphic segregation) I was able to colorize one bone after another, taking over a month to do so (as if time was an important factor, which it is not) until all of the bones were identified with no “nuts and bolts” left over. I was the first to discover right manual digit 1 was on top of the skull and that the palatal elements had slid left beyond the limits of the maxilla. I sent my results to several other paleontologists on CD back in 2003. Manuscripts went out a little later. Rejections followed. So I followed the rules.
Paleontologists, as you can tell by now, absolutely hate it when amateurs with computers pull out data that they were unable to recover while staring at the original specimen with binocular microscopes. Most of the problem comes from the nature of crushed material. It’s hard to segregate one bone from the other visually and keep that bone in mind with your eyeballs alone. It’s like looking at a house after a tornado has hit. Instead a computer permits you to graphically segregate the elements one at a time then use those elements to reconstruct the skull. Hopefully all the elements will fit together precisely, as they do in my reconstructions. If they don’t, it’s back to the drawing board. Then phylogenetic analysis is undertaken. Any elements that stand out as autapomorphies are re-examined to see if an observational identification was mistaken. Sometimes that happens. In the end a tracing of the in situ fossil is offered along with a reconstruction of same. Then comments are requested from other workers.
Darren goes on, “But, when others don’t see what he sees, when they criticise his interpretations and his methods, he remains steadfast in his opinion that they’re wrong because they’re biased, because they’re refusing to use the same method that he does (read on), or because they can’t provide a superior hypothesis.” Unfortunately the criticism is usually not very constructive. When Darren reports, “I’m unconvinced” that doesn’t help. Darren’s figure of my interpretation of the pelvic region of Cosesaurus is a case in point. His captions reads, “The pelvic region of Cosesaurus (at left), with the Dave Peters/ReptileEvolution.com reconstruction in the middle and at right. You can see that Dave identifies markings on the slab as prepubes. But we can’t be sure what they are and cannot regard them as prepubes.” Certainly this area is difficult to understand, but when two identical paired elements are found (and evidently Darren sees them, too) and they follow patterns seen in sister taxa (based on other traits) then Occam’s Razor suggests we go with the simplest explanation. I didn’t do that in my 2000 report in which I followed Ellenberger’s interpretation of seeing the unusual projection anterior of the ilium as an anterior process. When I realized there could be a prepubis there (considering the affinities of Cosesaurus), I looked with a different attitude and found two matches. Of course, if Darren does admit that there are prepubes in Cosesaurus, his whole house of cards comes tumbling down with a paradigm shift that I earlier experienced. Perhaps this is why he can’t admit what has been fairly obvious to others who have seen the photo and interpretation. Refusals to accept certain facts that run counter to one’s world view are what keep paradigms going. It’s not uncommon, especially when reputations are at stake.
Darren reports, “Dave proclaims frequently that he changes his ideas when he’s wrong, and indeed he invites others to test his claims. So far so good. But, when others don’t see what he sees, when they criticise his interpretations and his methods, he remains steadfast in his opinion that they’re wrong because they’re biased, because they’re refusing to use the same method that he does (read on), or because they can’t provide a superior hypothesis.” What Darren doesn’t seem to understand is not all critical comments are correct. Saying one is unconvinced is fine but it doesn’t move one toward solving problems. I haven’t moved in Darren’s direction because he hasn’t offered any solutions that work.
Steadfast? I don’t think so (maybe with Darren, but that’s his anecdote). Just today I was in contact with Dr. David Dilkes correcting the illustration of Mesosuchus. We went through several rounds and I don’t mind going through a few more either. It’s better now.
Darren doesn’t like pterosaurs close to lizards, but he refuses to test even one, so the onus is on him. I’ve tested dozens of archosaurs. And like the other detractors, Darren can’t provide the much needed series of taxa within the archosaurs that demonstrate a gradual accumulation of pterosaurian traits. I can with lizards.
Darren reports, “I’ve now corresponded with Dave on several occasions about the structures he reports to find. He seems very confident that he’s always right, yet I don’t think that he ever is.” Darren, “EVER” is such an inclusive word. This is not a judicious use of speech. Certainly not scientific. Today’s communication with Dr. Dilkes (see above) falsifies Darren’s contention.
The Core Problem: Digital Graphic Segregation
Darren tackled my tracing techniques by saying they are “rotten to the core,” perhaps not remembering that nearly all fossils are traced in order to more clearly identify the elements. He illustrates his contention with my tracing of the skull of Sharovipteryx, a reptile that preserves bones and soft tissue on a bed of matrix filled with various insects. In fact the allure of well-preserved insects first attracted entomologist A. Sharov to the area where he found this reptile. Darrens caption reads, “Just one example of Dave’s application of DGS. At top, the disarticulated skull as preserved. At bottom, the information that Dave think he has discovered via DGS (note the insect inside the mouth!!).” The skull of Sharovipteryx has never before been studied in such detail and no one has ventured to create a reconstruction despite a rather complete gathering of elements. I have studied the specimen in person and retain an 8×10″ transparency that provides plenty of detail for further study. I gather from Darren’s rather neutral comments that he has no constructive or alternative criticisms to offer with regard to bone identification. He was most shocked by the presence of an insect inside the orbit, likely above the palate and therefore not in the mouth proper. A close look at the matrix reveals dozens of beetles and other insects all over the place, so to find one burrowed into the eye — or died their randomly — is not so unusual. I encourage Darren to be more critical of the interpretation if he thinks errors were made. If not, why is he complaining about someone trying to figure out a previously indecipherable problem? Or one that everyone else previously ignored?
Darren thinks many fossils worthy of DGS are “not the ‘high-resolution, high-fidelity’ objects that Dave assumes.” That’s unfortunate, but I also see his point. Some fossils are nothing to look at. Others are chaotic aftermaths and it does take serious effort over several days or weeks to pick apart the elements. Earlier I used every photo I could to tease out every object I could. I was educating myself. Certainly when higher resolution is available, more precision is the result, as in the case of the IVPP embryo. Even the raw tracings of this specimen are indecipherable until one applies color or tone to the individual elements. We know that that embryo is a complete fossil because it’s still in its original package!! Once again, no one else attempted to get closer to this fossil to figure out what was really inside that egg, so I stepped forward. There’s no sin in that.
Darren reports, “I have no doubt whatsoever that, with literally one or two exceptions, every single element Dave is identifying via DGS can be explained in one of three ways. (1) It’s not a genuine anatomical structure or feature. (2) Some of the big, ragged structures that Dave interprets as frills, dewlaps, wattles, pouches or crests might actually be sloughed patches of tissue that have broken away from the animal’s corpse during decomposition. Dave’s default assumption for such structures is that they can be interpreted as being preserved in the ‘in life’ position, but other options need to be considered first. Decomposition and fossilisation are messy. (3) In a few cases, Dave is seeing real bones, but interpreting them as something else. Broken, indeterminate rod-like elements that might be bits of ribs or gastralia, for example, become reconstructed as if we can be sure what their identity is.” Darn it Darren, this is where I need you to be specific! Your shots are not hitting specific taxa! Your comments would be more helpful if they were better directed. Darren illustrated his point by providing his illustration of a Campylognathoides that is not in ReptileEvolution.com. So why is he again complaining about an image that is not in the website? In court this would be considered improper.
Darren reports, “Dave relies almost wholly on images from the published literature – he doesn’t look at actual fossils).” Unfortunately, Darren, this is lie. I’ve been to numerous museums here and abroad (Europe, China). I’ve peered down the microscope. I’ve done everything other paleontologists do. So why are you trying to damn me with such statements?
Darren remarks on one valid genuine discovery, the head and neck of Langobardisaurus, thanks to my method. He considers this a “red herring” because you don’t need a special technique for seeing the head and neck. And he’s right. This was a case of the original worker overlooking what was pretty plain to see. Darren reports, “Compare this with the other fossils where Dave claims to make ‘discoveries’. They are not the same.” No, they never are. Some are easier and don’t require DGS, only a big family tree. Others are really easy. When Dr. Dino Frey found Muzquizopteryx he originally considered it a cycnorhamphid. I told him it was a nyctosaurid. Dr. David Hone had a model Rhamphorhynchus featured in his blog, but he identified it as a Dorygnathus. I steered him right without seeing the actual model. The model maker later confirmed my assessment. See I can be helpful!
It’s a Tidal Wave!
Darren reports, “Every single researcher who has expressed an opinion on this issue has said exactly the same thing, and you can see from discussions in chatrooms, message boards and blogs that interested amateurs, fanboys/girls and idly curious commenters tend to note that Dave’s views and DGS ‘discoveries’ are suspicious or obviously erroneous too. Chris Bennett published an excellent article on Dave’s methods and observations in which he pointed to specific case studies (Bennett 2005). That article is required reading for anyone interested in the Dave Peters issue.” Fortunately none of those pre-2004 images are in ReptileEvolution.com, so once again, Darren is mining rejects. This isn’t fair Darren. Please stick to your thesis. Please stick to elements one is likely to find in ReptileEvolution.com. By the way, Chris Bennett is not immune to “seeing things” and making misinterpretations, all documented here with evidence.
Darren simply “rejects” my interpretation of prepubes in Cosesaurus. Well, that doesn’t make him right or me right. This is a presentation of evidence. It’s difficult to even see the pelvis in this specimen and when I first looked at Cosesaurus I overlooked the prepubes, so I understand Darren’s conviction. The only difference between then and now is time –and attitude in my case. Perhaps time will change Darren’s outlook too. Prepubes are not the only evidence for this relationship. They are only two of dozens of traits restricted to this clade. And this is where the conversation needs to continue, because there really is a suite of traits here, just what paleontologists are looking for. You’ll note the prepubes in Cosesaurus are only about 2 mm in length. Not much, but it’s a start.
Darren reports, “I look at the images (or at a replica, or at the actual specimen) of Cosesaurus, for example, and I make my own decision about the structures that Dave is purporting to identify. I therefore have tested his hypothesis, and I’ve rejected it.”
This is the first time I’ve heard that Darren has seen Cosesaurus. Or did he? Rejecting a hypothesis doesn’t make you right, by the way. I do it all the time and Darren doesn’t consider me right. Darren rejects virtually all of my results gleaned form DGS. He says, “Remember that this affects all of his work, since his character codings, and hence his phylogenetic hypotheses, are heavily dependent on information gleaned from DGS.” Actually not as true as Darren would have you believe. Many, if not most of the illustrations were made my others and scored as is. And I wish Darren would offer alternative interpretations for the things that really needed DGS to understand. That would put things on an even footing.
Next time: Data Sets