Data denial you can listen to on a podcast

Dr. Mark Witton

Dr. Mark Witton

Dr. Mark Witton is a paleontologist,
author and illustrator, but based on a Liz Martin interview podcast denies the existence of pterosaur ancestors. Like his friends, Dr. David Hone (another data denier), and Dr. Darren Naish, Dr. Witton believes pterosaurs “appeared fully formed in the fossil record. We don’t have the pterosaur Archaeopteryx.”

Sadly this purposefully ignores 
the published literature (Peters 2000 is now 15 years old) online phylogenetic analyses (now 4 years old) and YouTube videos (just a few weeks old) that all provide a long list of pterosaur ancestors that demonstrate a gradual accumulation of pterosaur traits. Why does Dr. Witton prefers to hide his head in the sand rather than examine, test and/or accept published studies? Could this be academic bigotry? (definition: intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself)

Witton believes pterosaurs “are close relatives of dinosaurs.”
If so, then were are the common ancestors that show a gradual accumulation of character traits? Answer: You can’t find them because they are not there. Other taxa share more traits with pteros and dinos than either does with each other. This is the outmoded “Ornithodira” concept.
Witton says he did not expect
that the Jurassic pterosaur, Dimorphodon would be adept at walking on the ground (despite having digitigrade pedes and fully interned femoral heads). Again, published literature demonstrates just the opposite (Padian 1983). Glad to see that Dr. Witton is getting on board with a more terrestrial Dimorphodon.
Dr. Witton waxed on about Solnhofen juvenile and subadult pterosaurs,
agreeing with Bennett (1995) who lumped Rhamphorhynchus into one species by plotting long bone lengths on a graph. Witton thought different species should have a dramatic difference in wing shape. Not so. He didn’t mention foot shape and overall morphology, which varies quite widely and logically when phylogenetic analysis is employed (Fig. 2).
Figure 3. Bennett 1975 determined that all these Rhamphorhynchus specimens were conspecific and that all differences could be attributed to ontogeny, otherwise known as growth to maturity and old age. Thus only the two largest specimens were adults. O'Sullivan and Martill took the brave step of erecting a new species. The n52 specimen is at the lower right. Click to enlarge.

Figure 2 Bennett 1975 determined that all these Rhamphorhynchus specimens were conspecific and that all differences could be attributed to ontogeny, otherwise known as growth to maturity and old age. Thus only the two largest specimens here were adults. Witton agrees that all these are conspecific. Do you agree with Witton? Decide for yourself. Click to enlarge.

Witton follows the Lü et al. (2009) analysis
that nested Darwinopterus as a transitional fossil combination of pterodactyloid skull and basal pterosaur post crania. Other analyses ( Wang et al 2009, Andres 2013, Peters online) do not support that hypothesis. Only Peters online (based on Peters 2007) includes a large selection of sparrow-sized Solnhofen pterosaurs, keys to the origin of all later clades. Along the same lines, Witton believes in Modular Evolution, which is falsified in phylogenetic analysis and apparently occurs only in their vision of Darwinopterus.
Witton reports that some azhdarchids had short necks.
Not sure which azhdarchids he is talking about. Evidently that is sneak preview on unpublished papers. The large pterosaur tree indicates that going back to the Late Jurassic, all azhdarchids and their ancestors had very long necks, even as hand-sized taxa (Fig. 3).
The Azhdarchidae.

Figure 3. The Azhdarchidae. Click to enlarge. No short necks here, except way down toward the left. Not saying they could not evolve. Just saying I haven’t seen them yet. 

Witton reports there are small birds but no small pterosaurs
from the Upper Cretaceous — but no small dinosaurs either — so suggests there may be a preservational bias in the lack of small pterosaurs… but no such bias for small birds. Actually there are small bird fossils from the Late Cretaceous, and they ARE dinosaurs, and no small pterosaurs. Lacking tiny pteros in the Late Cretaceous spelled their doom. Only small and tiny pterosaurs survived the Latest Jurassic extinction event and only these were basal to later giants. So no darwinopterids had descendants in the Cretaceous. Because there were no tiny Late Cretaceous pterosaurs, none survived the Late Cretaceous extinction event.
Can we blame this on a bad mentor?
Dr. Witton has accumulated a great deal of pterosaur knowledge and expresses it wonderfully in his many paintings. Unfortunately, like Hone and Naish, he was ‘raised’ by wrong-minded mentors and continues his false beliefs (= he has not tested his or competing hypotheses in phylogenetic analyses) to this day. Earlier we looked at the many problems in Dr. Witton’s book on pterosaurs.
Dr. Don Prothero

Dr. Don Prothero

Some insight into that sort of thinking…
it’s not that uncommon.
Dr. Don Prothero in a YouTube Video provides great insights into the Creationist mindset that finds strong parallels in the current thinking of Dr. Mark Witton, Dr. David Hone and Dr. Darren Naish.

Notes from the Prothero video
  1. Humans are not rational machines
  2. We all employ motivated (emotional, wants and needs) reasoning, not logical reasoning
  3. We are all belief engines and we all create a world view or core belief
  4. Because of that we don’t like to hear anything that does not fit our world view
  5. AND we use reason to do what we want data to do, not what its telling us. We use ANY tricks to make the evidence of the world fit our beliefs, or twist it to fit, or deny it or ignore it. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and author of “The Believing Brain” writes, “We all support the world we already have.”

Bottom line:
Witton, Hone and Naish don’t like because it doesn’t support the paleo world they already have. Like Creationists they display the following traits raised by Prothero:

  1. Reduction of cognitive dissonance (= the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change) when presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted.
  2. Tribalism = we learn our world from whoever we were raised by. And all three professors are friends of one another.
  3. Deep innate psychological tendencies are genetic = there are some people who readily accept new ideas and there are some people who do not. Unfortunately, all three appear to have the same gene.
  4. Confirmation bias (= the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.) Thus when Hone and Benton (2007, 2009) come out with the worst paper I have reviewed, Naish and Witton support it anyway.
  5. Cherry picking (= remembering the hits, forgetting the misses). Hone, Witton and Naish like to pick on poor Longisquama, which was difficult, but not impossible to interpret and all three like to ignore the whole point of, the cladograms, both the large reptile tree and the large pterosaur tree. Note that no other pterosaur worker has produced competing interpretations of Longisquama of equal detail nor competing cladograms that include tiny pterosaurs. In this regard these pterosaur workers are exactly like Dr. Feduccia and the late Dr. Martin (who deny the theropod-bird link and never employ phylogenetic analysis) and also like extant Creationists, who likewise never employ phylogenetic analysis. Remember when Hone and Benton first deleted the taxa that Peters 2000 proposed, then deleted Peters 2000 from the competition? This was cherry picking at its best.
  6. Qiuote mining (= in this case finding images and hypotheses that have been long ago trashed in order to undermine the site. These are essentially ad hominem (directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining) attacks as they blackwash my methods (which they practice too) and the entire website while they could have gotten specific about one problem or another.
  7. Missing the forest for the trees (= The big picture) is the large reptile tree cladogram. This is created by a huge mass of data and becomes strengthened with every additional taxon – all of which affect every other taxon. In such an analysis you can remove data, remove taxa, remove characters and nothing falls apart. The subsets are just as strong as the dataset itself. But Hone, Naish and Witton refuse to acknowledge that, preferring to continue their thinking that pterosaurs appeared suddenly in the fossil record, like on the fourth day of Creation. Phylogenetic analysis would solve their quandary, if only they would give it a chance.

Dr. Prothero asks: Why is science different?
Prothero answers his own question in this fashion:

  1. Science (like is always testing with falsification, prove things wrong, correcting mistakes. Presently I’ve made over 50,000 corrections in drawings and scores and look forward to many more. Getting it right is important.
  2. Science (like is always tentative, no claim to final truth. I am always looking for a competing hypothesis. Witton, Hone, Naish, Bennett and other referees are making sure my papers are not getting published. They don’t like it when their claims are disputed here at PterosaurHeresies.
  3. Science (like works! It provides answers that make sense, can be replicated, and can provide predictions.
  4. In Science peer review cancels individual biases. Sadly the current pterosaur referees, Hone, Witton, Naish and others, are all from the same school of thought. Every day I hope to change that, to open them up to accept more valid hypotheses that work!
  5. In Science, if you’re not pssing people off, you’re not doing it right. Well, I must be doing something right, because Witton and Naish are never praising my work. It would be great if we could argue about it. I guess we’re doing that here.

Prothero finished with a cartoon
of a professor who was showing his cognitive dissonance: “If P is false, I will be sad. I do not wish to to be sad. Therefore, P is true.”

This is human nature.
We all have it. We all get jealous, ambitious. disappointed. As scientists we have to get over our human nature and let testing and experimentation rise above human nature. We have to be like Galileo, not Aristotle.

Bennett SC 1995. A statistical study of Rhamphorhynchus from the Solnhofen limestone of Germany: year classes of a single large species. Journal of Paleontology 69, 569–580.
Lü J, Unwin DM, Jin X, Liu Y and Ji Q 2009. Evidence for modular evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B  (DOI 10.1098/rspb.2009.1603.)
Padian K 1983. Osteology and functional morphology of Dimorphodon macronyx (Buckland) (Pterosauria: Rhamphorhynchoidea) based on new material in the Yale Peabody Museum, Postilla, 189: 1-44.
Peters D 2000. A Redescription of Four Prolacertiform Genera and Implications for Pterosaur Phylogenesis. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia 106 (3): 293–336.
Peters D 2007. The origin and radiation of the Pterosauria. Flugsaurier. The Wellnhofer Pterosaur Meeting, Munich 27
Wang X, Kellner AWA, Jiang S, Meng X. 2009. An unusual long-tailed pterosaur with elongated neck from western Liaoning of China. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 81 (4): 793–812.

9 thoughts on “Data denial you can listen to on a podcast

  1. well, first of all, this people have real bones, you have only photoshop silhouettes.
    This people are a group of researchers, you only quotes yourself ( Peters, Peters, Peters)
    And last but no least, your large reptile tree is not reliable.

  2. Anyone can upload videos in Youtube. Creationist did the same thing and it don´t give them the truth. ( Christian against dinosaurs). You could start your own podcast…a heresypodcast maybe.

  3. Blackwashing the cladogram is no answer. You must be specific with problems, as I am. If data and hypotheses are in the literature they should not be ignored. And finally, thanks for your continued loyalty to the site. Much appreciated. : )

  4. Oh yes, yes. I like so much this blog. And I want to see it in all its glory now. I know that will come a time of decay and death obviously and I did not want to lose that .
    It would be interesting to see if researchers then will been interested in your hypothesis finally.

    No, Im not blackwashing or put in the trash all of your work. But the Large Reptile tree has a tiny and weak roots. I will never stop to say that you have build a huge cladogram of photoshop silhouettes. I´m a graphic designer too, and I know what i say. I can “DGS” bones of a spotted photo: Bones, animals, cartoon faces. The methodology is the big problem since the beginning.
    And a signal of the growth of the problem is the fact that the large reptile tree is showing many displacements for the groups: Tortoises, scansoriopterigids, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, snakes.
    If all of the images of stars, planets and galaxies that we see in a telescope are blurred , perhaps the problem is not that the whole universe is blurry, but it is necessary to clean the glass now.
    Perhaps the large reptile tree is a large mistake too. And that’s what I mean by not reliable.

    That is the main reason why the others researchers ignore your work. Not Denial, denial implies that they can´t see your truth. A scientific method always discarded a intuitive methodology like DGS. ( after all analyze a photoshop) silhouette is something more qualitative than quantitative.
    The fact that not working with the real object implies a representation, ideal representation. And it belong to others sciences and branches of knowledges, not biology, not paleontology.

    Maybe you have some hits in all your hypotheses someday, I don´t close a door to that,
    Intuition gave interesting contributions to this science, but I think that more grows your theory more grows the errors too.

    I prefer the Witton researcher than the Witton human and Internet celebrity, but It´s logical all that Witton says about pterosaurs, In him methodology don´t count the intuitive. How can he include a silouhette as the same level of the fossil? Geologists don´t include as science a Youtube video of a flat earth´s belief. In this case, they don´t ignore all the data. The problem here is that in this methodology your drawings are representations, not data.

  5. I remind you, Sauramaya, that I have seen the fossils firsthand that were recovered as proximal outgroups to the Pterosauria (Peters 2000). This was peer-reviewed, accepted and published literature, the same as any other that has ever been published.

    With regard to the other 604 taxa in the large reptile tree, NO ONE has seen and examined all of the specimens first hand. It is literally impossible in a lifetime.

    I also remind you that every cladogram is a hypothesis of relationships, subject to refutation or confirmation if the experiment is repeated. So far I have not seen it repeated, but I look forward to that day.

    Finally paleontologists build on earlier trees apparently so they don’t have to visit every other specimen on the tree. So they are prone to accept earlier published trees whether valid or not.

    If you don’t like someone questioning your precepts, sauramaya, you’ve got the tribal gene. That’s okay, but perhaps you could defend competing cladograms? If so, please do. All we’re looking for is a gradual accumulation of traits that is more parsimonious than presented here and at

  6. This is such nonsense; comparing myself and colleagues to creationists and making claims of tribalism and psychological bias is ironic given that you are promoting something that is effectively pseudoscience. Everything here looks like science, but it isn’t – those observations fail the tests of repeated observation and independent verification, yet you simply brush these objections away because your detractors are, so you say, inherently biased, or working in a conspiracy, or brainwashed. Yeah, I’ve heard this sort of thing before. Jon-Erik Beckjord. Immanuel Velikovsky.

    And, just for the record, my scepticism of your interpretations is independently derived; it has nothing whatsoever to do with being academically related to Witton (via a shared supervisor) or Hone (via coauthorship and collaboration). In fact, I put it to you that the reason you regard us as ‘data deniers’ in your conspiratorial worldview is that we’re the ones who have published opinions on your contributions (likewise Bennett and Unwin). A substantial number of other workers would be regarded as ‘data deniers’ as well (would you like a list?), but aren’t, simply because they don’t bother to comment on or discuss your proposals. Are those people ‘part of the problem’ as well?

    Finally, I must add that I do love the ‘data denier’ label. It reminds me of the term ‘truth hater’, used by an individual who, similarly, argues that everyone who denounces his work is blinkered, biased, unable to perceive the brilliance of his conclusions, and working in some kind of suppressive conspiracy. I’m posting a screengrab of this comment elsewhere in case you decide to remove it. DGS is pseudoscience. Your papers are failing to survive review because reviewers (of which I, incidentally, have never been one) can identify them as the nonsense they are.

  7. This post isn’t connected at all to the fact Mark has what is considered to be the THE book on pterosaurs which was critically well reviewed by mainstream and scientific press and you have well a website based photos that you have fiddled with using the contrast bar in Photoshop, a technique that has not been proved to work by ANY PEER REVIEWED source is it? I mean why on earth would Mark be jealous of you!? Perhaps its not Mark that is the one thats jealous….

  8. Thank you for all your notes. None of these address the key factor here.

    We have on our library shelves published peer-reviewed, first-hand observation of specimens that nest as sisters to the clade Pterosauria, which Mark Witton denied in his interview. AND he repeated the traditional view that pterosaurs sprung forth without apparent ancestors in the fossil record. This is head-in-the-sand thinking…if we don’t acknowledge Peters 2000, it doesn’t exist.

    Those who agree with Witton are just as culpable.

    THE book on pterosaurs by Witton was critically reviewed earlier on this blog. It did not come off too well.

    Darren, who on Earth has produced the definitive precise tracings, interpretations and reconstructions of the skeletons Cosesaurus, Sharovipteryx and Longisquama? Who on Earth has added that data to a large gamut cladogram to determine where they nest on it? Please send them to me as I haven’t seen those critical ‘independent observations’ you say are out there, but I sense you are making up as part of your propaganda stream. Like your earlier blog warning the world about, you are still not employing data from the website.

    To those who do not admit Longisquama as a possible candidate, we have Sharovipteryx, Kyrgyzsaurus, Cosesaurus, Langobardisaurus, Macrocnemus and Huehuecuetzpalli, all of which nest closer to pterosaurs than the traditional sisters: Scleromochlus, Parasuchus, Euparkeria and other archosaurs promoted by others. Except for Huehuecuetzpalli, these were all tested against archosaurs in Peters 2000. That paper also reported that the palate of Macrocnemus through pterosaurs was a palatal process of the maxilla, years before that fact was independently verified by Osi et al. 2010.

    Osi A, Prondvai E, Frey E and Pohl B 2010. New Interpretation of the Palate of Pterosaurs. The Anatomical Record 293: 243-258.

    No one else has offered a similar series of taxa that demonstrate a gradual accumulation of pterosaurian traits.

    With regard to the concept of ‘conspiracy,’ it’s the same resistance to a new idea that many new ideas have. First everyone agrees the Earth is flat. Then one person says the Earth is spherical and offers evidence. Then others say no and kill him. Then years later someone else says the Earth is spherical and offers more proof. And pretty soon, most, but not all people get on board. This happened so many times in history that it is totally expected here and now.

    The large reptile tree cladogram should have fallen apart by now. But it has not.

    This is Science. Ideas are supported by evidence. Mistakes get corrected. My ideas are all supported by evidence. If you don’t like some of the evidence, there’s more evidence nearby.

    Some of you are not following the tenets of Science. It’s time to get back on board.

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