Advice for would be paleontologists: stay professional!

What do I mean by ‘stay professional’?
First of all, follow accepted scientific methods. Explore a wide gamut of possible solutions. And, more to the point of this blog: If you are going to make a comment about what a paleontologist has put forth as a hypothesis, keep your comments to the subject at hand. Use data, logic, your higher brain centers. Don’t abuse the author with personal insults that reflect how your inner monkey is feeling. In the professional world those forays into negativity can be labeled ‘ad hominem attacks” and they are not tolerated in academic publications (see below). More importantly, such comments can backfire on your professional reputation.

Several readers of this blog
have sunk below their professional dignity in their comments, perhaps because they became frustrated with what was being reported. It’s okay to feel frustrated. Just don’t let that enter your comments to anyone, anywhere. Stay professional in your demeanor.

The fact that Wikipedia
has a topic devoted to ad hominem attacks and various academic publications, like PlosOne forbid it (see below), tells you that it is commonplace.

Here are a few pulled quotes
from a recent blog on the subject.

  1. Aristotle argued that the ethos of a speaker is relevant to the persuasiveness of what they have to say. (ethos = the characteristic spirit)
  2. Everyone with critiques should continue coloring inside the lines, because that works. 
  3. There is no place for naming and shaming.
  4. “Trash talk” didn’t emerge only with social media: it has always been there. Case in point: the first Astronomer Royal called Edmond Halley, “a lazy and malicious thief” who manages to be just as “lazy and slothful as he is corrupt”. (Edmond Halley is widely revered today for his discoveries as an astronomer.)
  5. Avoid the ad hominem response: Just because you take offense, is not proof that offense was intended. Trying to separate that out makes it easier to see past the words and into the actual content, and gain analytic perspective.
  6. We have a lot to learn about each other and how to communicate in ways that get ideas across without diminishing people.
  7. Resist giving in to defensive emotion as much as you can: it clouds your vision.
  8. Pushing the envelope and collaborating in the open will push science forward.

From the PlosOne comments section:
Please follow our guidelines for comments and review our competing interests policy. Comments that do not conform to our guidelines will be promptly removed and the user account disabled. The following must be avoided:

  1. Remarks that could be interpreted as allegations of misconduct
  2. Unsupported assertions or statements
  3. Inflammatory or insulting language

Finally
When you go to conferences (= symposia), as I hope you will, and you meet your peers face to face, you will want to happily greet friends and colleagues, share dinner, discussions and hypotheses. This goes so much better when you haven’t tried to shame and disparage them.

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7 thoughts on “Advice for would be paleontologists: stay professional!

  1. Many scientists would do well to read a history of scientific discovery. While outsiders in any discipline often come up with total nonsense, there are times they hit the nail on the head. Wegener and Plate Tectonics comes to mind, but the history of humanity is full of examples. David Peters is an outsider to paleontology because his training was in another field–a graphic artist. Does that automatically make him an expert scientist? No. An excellent paleontologist? No. Does it disqualify him from making valid observations? Absolutely NOT.

    An excellent artist–which David Peters is–is a trained observer. It would be salutary for his critics to keep that in mind. Nobody is always correct. It might do us all good to remember that.

    • Thanks for the support, Bryan. Let’s all remember that there is formal training and tutelage. And then there’s on-the-job training, reading the literature and doing everything that occurs in formal training — without having to spend time on avenues of little interest. Unlike dentistry or surgery, paleontology is one thing you can learn outside of the mentor/protege system. Even so, we al need and depend on one another.

  2. In the professional world those forays into negativity can be labeled ‘ad hominem attacks”

    Terminology note: argumentum ad hominem is the name of the logical fallacy of attacking a person instead of an idea – “person X has been wrong before, so whatever they say is probably wrong, and we can safely ignore it”, that sort of thing. Ad-hominem arguments and insults are orthogonal to each other; it’s of course possible to commit both at once, but that’s by no means automatic.

    Wegener and Plate Tectonics

    Wegener came up with the idea that the continents move, and he was right – but he didn’t come up with plate tectonics. Instead, he thought oceanic crust (in modern terms; “Sima” in his, for silicon and magnesium) was a single unbroken shell, and that the continents (“Sial”, silicon and aluminum) were lying on top of it and sliding around by unknown mechanisms. Solid rock sliding around on solid rock is a pretty bad idea, which is why the geologists never accepted it. Unlike half of the biologists, they made the mistake of concluding that therefore the continents don’t move at all… they do, just in a way very different from what Wegener had thought.

    An excellent artist–which David Peters is–is a trained observer.

    Oh yes. But he doesn’t observe fossils, he observes published illustrations of fossils.

    Line drawings can be misleading in a long list of ways. Even photos can give completely wrong 3D impressions – I’m speaking from repeated experience. And that’s before we even get into the question of interpreting blurry, coarse-grained photos.

    • Seems, with Wegener, we’re cutting rabbits in two with an axe. I was made fairly familiar with the Wegener debacle years ago, and you are correct. So let us just ignore what Wegener did, throw it under the rug, because, obviously, he had nothing to do with helping geologists down the correct path. I will do what you seem to be doing, and ASSUME that is where you were trying to go. Enough, then, of the Wegener twaddle.

      That last point interests me, David Marjanovic. David Peters has claimed to have observed many fossils firsthand. I have talked to people who attend seminars (whatever one calls them) wherein actual fossils are displayed. He claims to have traveled to museums where they show fossils. He claims to have studied them while he could. Are you calling him a liar?

      • Bryan, as Peters’s most faithful supporter, I would expect you to have read his blog posts more carefully. He regularly describes working from drawings and photographs published online and laments the fact that he did not have access to the specimens.

      • Squiddhartha…I have done so many times. And you are correct as far as you go. What is left out, however, are his claims to have studied many specimens in actuality. I wish other paleo workers were kept to the same standards David Peters is, but the fact others in the field are constantly excused their errors. (I am fine with not holding honest mistakes against someone.) But David Peters is pilloried for claims made over a decade ago. When David says something I disagree with, whether an LRT claim, or methodology, I say so. When he says something I see as correct, I say so. Same with Darren Naish, same with Mark Witton…add all the names of paleo workers you want.

        Am I supposed to see you as an enemy or always wrong because you disagree with me about David Peters? In my view that would be foolish and almost criminally immoral. I admitted the correctness of your claim, but made an addendum. I have asked a number of times for pics of actual fossils vs David’s reconstructions and have yet to see anything, not even a link.

        I was once going to try and test David’s digital methods and asked a friend who prepares fossils to referee my effort. Know what he told me? “David knows so much more about pterosaur bones and fossils than I do, I cannot honestly referee your test.” And this friend is an inveterate David Peters critic. I am not here or anywhere to take sides on most of the scientific claims and issues. I am not here or anywhere with the intention of destroying anyone’s reputation on those grounds. Not here to destroy, period…but I will defend David against what I see as attacks made because he is David Peters…and someone tried his best to destroy David’s reputation years ago.

        I hate charlatans and mountebanks…David is not either one.

  3. Everyone made good points here. Best to pretend we’re all friends and discuss the subjects at hand reasonably and objectively, hopefully without prejudice either way. We all make mistakes. We all polish turds. Our critics hold us to high standards. We thank them for that even as we oft times fail to attain those standards.

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