“Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus”: further thoughts
October 9, 2010
I wasn’t going to write about this, partly because it’s so darn depressing, but mostly because in the wake of this comment it seemed like the “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” paper was being withdrawn, and to quote something Mike said off-list, I was happier about the retraction than I was sad about the implied revisionism. But then Henry Galliano wrote:
Although the paper has still not been completed, no changes have been made altering it conclusions. Interestingly, despite the 4000 recent hits and downloads from our website, it is surprising no evidence has been submitted challenging our claims.
If it’s really supposed to be an internal manuscript/press release type thing, why brag about the lack of criticism? Did it ever occur to you that we might be holding off out of respect, to give you an avenue of retreat where you could perhaps salvage a few scraps of dignity? But if you’re going to call us out for not tearing apart this joke of a paper, then stand by.
In the previous post, Mike wrote:
In other words, we’re being asked to believe that the new specimens are more different from all other Morrison diplodocids than any of them are from each other. And yet we’re brought to this conclusion by the very animals that are apparently not as similar. It’s as though I discovered dogs, and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs and house-cats are are all the same species.
No, it’s way, way worse. Because, claims of the authors to the contrary, “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” is not some kind of morphological outlier among Morrison diplodocids. From where I stand, it looks like it’s right in the middle. So it’s as though I discovered ocelots and thereby concluded that lions, cheetahs, and housecats were all the same thing.
If no apatosaurs had ever been found, and they got the first one, and then concluded that all the apatosaurines were one taxon and all the diplodocines were another, that would at least make some kind of sense, in that they’d be drawing their taxonomic distinctions along actual phylogenetic lines. Then it would be a fairly straightforward lumper/splitter fight. In the actual event, I’m sad to say that it’s the “A. brontodiplodocus” proponents against the reality-based community.
Back to Henry’s statement about the “surprising” lack of evidence to the contrary: dude, don’t do this to yourself. We thought you were on the right track with the implied retraction from your earlier comment. You’ve been one of the white hats, but if you go down this dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will!
It’s not at all “surprising” that no one has submitted evidence to the contrary. The evidence is in the 133 years’ worth of careful morphological and phylogenetic work that you blew right past on the way to nominating your new animal, at least implicitly, as TEH MOSTEST IMPORTANT DIPLODOCID EVAR!!11eleventy! Your material is awesome, and I don’t doubt that you’ve got a new animal on your hands, but the idea that it is one of only two diplodocids in the Morrison–or worldwide–and all the others are morphs of the same thing, is both suspiciously convenient for you, and so outrageously extreme that it would take a mountain of work (that is not presented in the paper) to demonstrate. In addition to the gross, obvious morphological differences, it would be really nice to know why there are geographic, stratigraphic, and paleoecological differences among the other Morrison diplodocids. Doesn’t the work of Dodson et al. (1980), Turner & Peterson (1999), and Foster (2003, 2007), just for starters, count for anything? Instead of boasting about the uncontested status of your claims, how about doing enough work to convince us to take them seriously in the first place? People who take the time to do reasonable morphological comparisons and phylogenetic work that doesn’t hail from an opium den have better things to do than exhaustively smack down every act of Hoser taxonomy that leaks onto teh intarwebz in the first two days. Give us a minute to get over our collective shock, and in the meantime, make up your mind about what the document is. Is it supposed to be considered published, or not? If so, it’s fair game for criticism, but don’t deny that you’re at least attempting acts of taxonomy. If not, don’t beg us to criticize it. You may get a lot more than you wished for.
Sadly, this will probably go down in popular opinion as a clash between academic and commercial paleontologists, or between credentialed paleontologists and hobbyists. It shouldn’t. I don’t care if someone is employed by a university or a rock shop, or whether they have any degrees in the field. All I care about is the quality of the work. (Repeatability, which necessitates that specimens be properly curated in accredited museums to ensure perpetual access to future researchers, is an inherent component of that quality.) Jack McIntosh is a physicist, and as far as I know never got any formal training in paleontology. But that’s irrelevant, because he taught himself by looking at literally thousands of specimens and reading everything he could get his hands on, and because his papers are as exhaustively researched as one could hope for. As Robert McKee wrote of Steven Pressfield, you can’t read Jack’s papers without being overwhelmed by “the work, the work, all the work” behind them. In contrast, I couldn’t read the “A. brontodiplodocus” paper without be overwhelmed by the complete disregard–and indeed implicit contempt–for all of the work that people from Cope and Marsh to Jerry Harris and David Lovelace have done on the admittedly knotty problem of Morrison sauropod diversity.
Taxonomy is facing a crisis, brought on by two things: at least for some charismatic clades, Hoser taxonomists potentially outnumber actual taxonomists (although even one is bad enough, as herpetologists have found); and there is essentially no filtering on what counts. Anyone in the world can whip up whatever uninformed BS they want and send a certain number of hardcopies off to libraries, and according to the ICZN their crappy work counts and the rest of us just have to deal with it. And the problem is only going to get worse in the shiny digital future as electronic publication removes the already minor inconvenience associated with “publishing” acts of taxonomy. I can think of a handful of possible outcomes:
- Working scientists are going to bog down in endlessly putting out the fires of Hoser taxonomy.
- We’ll install some kind of de jure filter to deal with Hoser taxonomy.
- We’ll collectively decide to ignore acts of Hoser taxonomy, which will constitute a de facto filter.
For my part, I think the ICZN’s policy of noninterference in cases like this is taking a sound principle to the point of lunacy. It’s like I walked up to a policeman, punched him in the nose, and told him he couldn’t arrest me because my assault counted as protected speech (on reflection, I’ll bet this actually happens in Berkeley). Of the options above, I suspect that we’ll end up with the third, and I won’t be entirely happy about that, because I also suspect that some credentialed academics will want to ignore the work of commercial paleontologists and hobbyists just because they’re not credentialed academics. Which would be wrong. We want to sort the work based on its quality, not who produced it.
Which is an interesting position for me to come to, given what I’ve said here in the past about filters. It was easier to deal with the thought of completely open publication when the waste products weren’t landing on my lawn. But I still think that this is the way things are going. In which case, post-hoc criticism of self-published works is often going to be the only filter we get. The comment thread is open. Filter away!
- Dodson, P., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Bakker, R.T., and McIntosh, J.S. 1980. Taphonomy and paleoecology of the dinosaur beds of the Jurassic Morrison Formation. Paleobiology 6:208-232.
- Foster, J.R. 2003. Paleoecological analysis of the vertebrate fauna of the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic), Rocky Mountain Region, U.S.A. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Bulletin 23.
- Foster, J.R. 2007. Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and Their World. Indiana University Press. 389pp.
- Turner, C.E., Peterson, F., 1999. Biostratigraphy of dinosaurs in the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of the Western Interior, U.S.A. Pp. 77–114 in Gillette, D.D. (Ed.), Vertebrate Paleontology in Utah. Utah Geological Survey Miscellaneous Publication 99-1.