The Aerosteon saga, Part 3: True and false ad hominems
October 31, 2008
If you’re new to this thread, here’s a minimal reading list, in chronological order. I say ‘minimal’ because all of the relevant papers are freely available, and therefore all of the factual claims are easy to check.
- The Aerosteon saga, Part 1: Introduction and background
- The Aerosteon saga, Part 2: Overinflation and undercitation
- Wedel’s misleading, ad hominem critique
The last is Paul Sereno’s response to my criticism of the Aerosteon paper. Here’s the full text, with my comments. Please go read the un-commented version at PLoS first, and see if you find it compelling.
In two trackbacks to our paper, Matt Wedel offers a misleading, longwinded, ad hominen critique of this paper on the new theropod dinosaur, Aerosteon riocoloradensis, and the significance of its pneumatic features.
There is a widespread misconception that if you say something unflattering about someone, that constitutes an ad hominem argument. In fact, an ad hominem argument has a specific form (quoted from Wikipedia):
- Person A makes claim X
- There is something objectionable about Person A
- Therefore claim X is false
If you actually read my critique, you’ll see that the form of my argument was more like:
- Sereno et al. claim X
- Claim X is misleading and easily falsifiable
- Sereno et al. probably claimed that X is true because it would support their hypothesis Y
I will not deny that I publicly speculated about the motivations of Sereno et al. (2008). Many of the arguments used in that paper are very difficult to explain unless Sereno et al. were trying to systematically discredit or suppress previous work (either by citing it misleadingly or not citing it at all). If you disagree, that’s fine. But don’t expect anyone to take your disagreement seriously unless you can back it up with evidence.
Anyway, remember what a real ad hominem argument looks like. We’ll see one later on.
Some personalized aspects of the commentary and erroneous claims push the limits of the “good practice” guidelines posted for commentary in this journal (http://www.plosone.org/static/commentGuidelines.action#goodpractice).
Here’s the last line of the good practice guidelines: “PLoS is the final arbiter of the suitability of content for inclusion in the PLoS Web sites.” In short, the guidelines are for commentary posted at PLoS, not about PLoS papers. A trackback is just a reciprocal hyperlink to material elsewhere on the ‘net–for example, a private blog, like this one. If the folks at PLoS don’t like the incoming links, they can always delete them and block my access.
And, hey, Darren put a trackback with his own critical review of the Aerosteon paper, but he doesn’t get mentioned at all here. Where’s the love?
Also, I’m curious to see which of my claims were erroneous. Presumably a fact-based rebuttal will be forthcoming, since Sereno does not engage my “misleading, longwinded” critique on a single point.
In this paper, we did our best to:
1) Present the pneumatic evidence as clearly as possible (Figs. 4-16).
2) Cite the literature thoroughly and fairly (95 citations).
3) Critique available hypotheses for the evolution of avian intrathoracic air sacs and respiratory mechanics.
4) Outline more clearly in tabular format our osteological correlates (Table 4).
5) Diagram more specifically particular stages as supported by current fossil evidence (Fig. 17).
In the short first trackback, Wedel outlines and agrees with all of the main points of the paper.
False. I said that the morphological description was mostly (not entirely) accurate. It’s the rest of the paper I have issues with, as I clearly and patiently explained. In fact, in the first trackback I hardly dealt with the Aerosteon paper at all; as the title suggests, I was laying out introductory and background material.
He then digresses to critique earlier papers and ends by explaining what “we’ve been up to”, referring to papers by himself, Pat O’Connor and Leon Claessens—research we cited many times in the paper, both positively for evidence and in critique.
…and other research they cited misleadingly or did not cite despite its relevance, as I’ve documented, and as Darren has further shown. Simply counting up cited references (ooh! 95!) does not demonstrate that previous work is cited “thoroughly and fairly”. I note that, in keeping with the rest of his comment, Sereno does not respond to any of my actual critiques, or try to defend the misleading citations.
Much of the personalized negativity of the second trackback is clearly generated by Wedel’s sense that the press unfairly aggrandized our work compared to theirs, which we somehow slighted and miscited.
Well, well, lots to dissect here.
First, they only address the “personalized negativity”. What about all the evidence? Not only is it not rebutted–it’s not even mentioned. Maybe they have an exhaustive, evidence-laden rebuttal lined up for that later. I honestly hope so.
Second, check out the form here:
- Wedel makes claim X
- But he’s jealous of our media exposure
- Therefore claim X is false
Textbook ad hom right here. Which is pretty ironic, since it’s the first pure example of the genre that has cropped up in this discussion so far, and it appears in a commentary that accuses me of ad hominem attacks.
Third, there is no question that Sereno made misleading statements to the media about the significance of Aerosteon. For example, when he claimed that it represented the first evidence of dinosaur sacs . . . about 150 years too late. That’s an easily verifiable fact, not an example of “personalized negativity”.
UPDATE: The “first evidence” thing was apparently hyperbole on the part of an underinformed journalist. At least, it’s not in the official press release, and Sereno denies ever saying it. He is right that one should never attribute to a possibly overzealous scientist what can be laid at the door of bad reporting–I’ve had some experience of this problem myself.
I wish now that I’d never brought up the misleading statements in the press. That opened me up to the ridiculous charge of being motivated by jealousy, and it’s quite beside the point. All of the important problems with the Aerosteon paper are scientific, not popular.
Fourth, I have no problem with other people working on pneumaticity and air sacs. Quite the contrary–it’s a big field and there’s plenty of work to be done. The more the merrier I say. I was very happy when Daniela Schwarz-Wings started working on pneumaticity in sauropods–her papers (including a new one out this week; congrats!) are thoughtful, innovative, and heck, just flat gorgeous:
So it doesn’t bother me that Sereno et al. (2008) wrote a paper about pneumaticity. What bothers me is the pervasive distortion of previous work and basic anatomy. I’m against that no matter what the subject.
Fifth, if anyone is curious about how it feels to languish in total obscurity, utterly ignored by the mainstream media, hoping against hope that someday I’ll make a valuable scientific contribution: I’m doing just fine, thanks. Fame’s a weed, repute a slow-growing oak, and I’m aiming for bark and acorns.
Neither we nor Pat O’Connor (pers. comm.) feel that personalized, ad hominem blogs like Wedel’s advance scientific understanding or enhance collegiality.
Hmm. I think it’s a bit pessimistic to say that my critiques didn’t advance scientific understanding. Certainly I’ve had a lot of people thank me for untangling the paper trail and showing what McLelland and others actually said about avian anatomy. A matter of taste, I suppose–although if Sereno was already familiar with what McLelland said, it’s odd that he got the cited information exactly backward.
Just for the record, I didn’t consult with Pat O’Connor or Leon Claessens about my critiques. We’re all big boys now, we can all speak for ourselves, and any fallout from SV-POW! will hopefully fall right where it belongs: on me. It’s not like I’m hiding.
As for collegiality . . . here’s where I stand:
- As scientists we have a duty to obsessively document all previous relevant work and give credit where it is due, especially in cases where someone else got to the right answer first. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got a real kick out of discovering that Heber Longman had worked out the basic dichotomy in internal structures of sauropod vertebrae decades before anyone else. And I made sure people knew about it (4th page here). I’ve always gratefully given credit to the giants upon whose shoulders I struggle to stand–among them, Owen, Seeley, Cope, Marsh, Longman, Janensch, Britt, Witmer, Wilson, Sereno (that’s right–he has done good and important work), O’Connor, Claessens, and Schwarz-Wings. Go look. Don’t forget to reread the Aerosteon paper while you’re at it. And then–yep, I am going to say it yet again–make up your own mind.
- When authors engage in misleading citation and muddle the historical record–for example, by citing a paper in support of argument X when the cited paper actually states the precise opposite–people who are familiar with the literature have a duty to explain how that literature is being misused. Collegiality doesn’t mean that we all keep our mouths shut no matter what (there’s a related word for doing that, and it also starts with a ‘c’). Sometimes we have to speak up and defend collegiality itself.
- If someone brings a fact-based critique against your work, rebut them with facts or not at all. Calling names just makes you look weak and gives the impression that you have no factual case to pursue. My critique of the Aerosteon paper is “longwinded” only because it is so thoroughly documented. Sereno tries to paint it as a content-free exercise in pique–which is a pretty fair description of his own response. The irony could hardly be any richer.
(On irony, not evidence. If anyone has any of the latter to bring against my critiques, I’ll be very happy to see it.)