All I want to do in this post is make people aware that there is a difference between these two things, and occasionally that affects those of us who work in natural history.
In one of his books or essays, Stephen Jay Gould made the point that in natural history we are usually not dealing with whether phenomena are possible or not, but rather trying to determine their frequency. If we find that in a particular population of quail most of the birds eat ants but some avoid them, then we know some things: that quail can tolerate eating ants, that quail are not required to eat ants, and that both strategies can persist in a single population.
This idea has obvious repercussions for paleoart, especially when it comes to “long-tail” behaviors. I dealt with that in this post, and also in the comment thread to this one. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
Sometimes it is useful to talk about things that never happen, or that have at least never occurred in the sample of things we know of. Obviously how certain you can be in these cases depends on the intensity of sampling and the inherent likelihood of a surprising result, which can be hard to judge. If you argued right now that T. rex lacked feathers because no T. rex specimens have been found with feathers, you’d most likely be wrong; it is almost certainly just a matter of time before someone finds direct evidence of feathers in T. rex, given the number of T. rex specimens waiting to be found and the strength of the indirect evidence (e.g., phylogenetic inference, analogy: ornithomimids are known to be feathered even though most specimens are found without feather impressions). If you argue that sauropods are unique among terrestrial animals in having necks more than five meters long, you’re most likely right; being wrong would imply the existence of some as-yet undiscovered land animal of sauropod size, or with seriously wacky proportions (or both), and our sampling of terrestrial vertebrates is good enough to make that extremely unlikely.
The reason for this post is that sometimes people confuse that last argument, which is about sampling and induction, with the argument from personal incredulity.
For example, in our no-necks-for-sex paper (Taylor et al. 2011), we included this passage:
Sauropoda also had a long evolutionary history, originating about 210 million years ago in the Carnian or Norian Age of the Late Triassic, and persisting until the end-Cretaceous extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs about 65 millions years ago. Thus the ‘necks-for-sex’ hypothesis requires that this clade continued to sexually select for exaggeration of the same organ for nearly 150 million years, a scenario without precedent in tetrapod evolutionary history.
One of the reviewers argued that we couldn’t include that section, because it was just the argument from personal incredulity writ large, like so:
There are no other known cases of X in tetrapod evolutionary history, and therefore we don’t believe that the case in question is the sole exception.
…with the second part of that unstated (by us) but implied. But we disagreed, and argued (successfully) that it was an argument based on sampling, like so:
There are no other known cases of X in tetrapod evolutionary history, and therefore it is unlikely that the case in question is the sole exception.
Now, it is perfectly fair to criticize arguments like that based on the thoroughness of the sampling and the likelihood of exceptions, as discussed above for T. rex feathers. Just don’t mistake arguments like that for arguments from personal incredulity.* On the flip side, if someone makes an argument from personal incredulity, see if the same thing can be restated as an argument about sampling. Maybe they’re correct but just expressing themselves poorly (“I refuse to believe that the moon is made out of cheese”), and maybe they’re wrong and restating things in terms of sampling will help you understand why.
* If you want to get super pedantic about it, they’re both arguments from ignorance. But one of them is at least potentially justifiable by reference to sampling. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but it may get to be that way as the sampling improves (e.g., there is no evidence of planets closer to the sun than Mercury, and at this point, that is pretty persuasive evidence that no such planets exist).
Parting shot: one thing that has always stuck in my head from Simberloff (1983) is the bit about imagining a large enough universe of possible outcomes. And I’ve always had a perverse fascination with Larry Niven’s “Down in Flames”, in which he pretty much demolished his Known Space universe by assuming that every basic postulate of that universe was false. Neither of these follow directly on from the main point of the post, but they’re not completely unrelated, either. Because I think that they yield a pretty good heuristic for how to do science: imagine what it would take for you to be wrong–imagine a universe in which you are wrong–and then go see if the thing that makes you wrong, whatever it is, can be shown to exist or to work. If not, it doesn’t mean you’re right, but it means you’re maybe less wrong, which, if we get right down to it, is the best that we can hope for.
The photos have nothing to do with the post, they’re just pretty pictures from the LACM to liven things up a little.
- Simberloff, D. (1983). Competition theory, hypothesis-testing, and other community ecological buzzwords. The American Naturalist, 122(5), 626-635.
- Taylor, M. P., Hone, D. W., Wedel, M. J., & Naish, D. (2011). The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology, 285(2), 150-161.
April 16, 2013
The cervical series of Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis FMNH 34426, articulated by Mike and me and photographed by Mike back in the summer of 2005, cropped and composited by me recently, not previously posted because there’s just too much cool stuff, man. But we’re working on it.
By the way, if you want the details on this critter:
April 15, 2013
I think the most painful part of the Elsevier-eats-Mendeley deal has been watching good people acting as apologists for Elsevier and then feeling hurt when people don’t accept their protestations. You can see a good example (but far from the only one) in the comments to Danah Boyd’s post on her #mendelete.
I don’t know what what Elsevier have been feeding their new minions, but whatever it is it seems to be working. They seem to have swallowed the party line uncritically. Yes, Elsevier have been making nice statements about what their intentions are with respect to Mendeley. They are exactly the sort of statements you’d expect them to make. And there is not one whit of a reason why anyone should believe them. Time and again, Elsevier have shown that the truth is just another tool for them, to be used when it’s useful and discarded when it’s not. (Fake journals, bribing reviewers, equating open access with lack of peer-review, the list goes on.)
Who will bet that Elsevier aren’t at least involved in, if not the prime movers behind, the New York Times’s recent open-access slander? It’s 100% in keeping with the Dezenhall strategy and the history of the PRISM Coalition (“scientific censorship” indeed).
The only question here is why the Mendeley folks seem so convinced that this time will be different, this time Elsevier really have changed, they really do have our best interests at heart.
Really, Mendeley people? Really?
Now look. We all understand that Mendeley was always a commercial operation. It was always a for-profit, and it was started not only to advance OA but also to make money for its founders and investors. There’s nothing wrong with that. And Mendeley did some great pro-OA work before its acquisition. The founders and investors deserve their pay-day, and good luck to them. But Mendeley, the Elsevier subsidiary, is dead to me, and should be to anyone else who is about openness. Mendeley did some good work, and now that’s finished.
You can’t have your cake and eat it, Mendeley people.
So in his comments on the Dana Boyd article, William Gunn rightly points out that “We participated in the SOPA/RWA blackout, we wrote comments to the OSTP, we campaigned vigorously for the wh.gov petition”. All true, and all commendable. It’s great that the old Mendeley did all that stuff. But anyone who believes that the Elsevier subsidiary Mendeley is going to do these things is sadly mistaken.
Update (eight hours later)
Let me be 100% clear that I am not saying any of the Mendeley people are lying. I think they genuinely believe the stories that Elsevier have told them. And I think they are dead wrong, just as Celebrimbor and the elves of Eregion were when they believed that Sauron, in his fair guise as Annatar, had repented of his history as lieutenant to Morgoth Bauglir the oppressor. All I’m saying is, don’t come running to me when you find that those pretty rings you’re forging with Elsevier’s counsel turn out to be under the command of the One Ring, and a Second Darkness covers the land.
April 12, 2013
Yesterday I was in Oxford for the Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science conference (web-site here, tweets here though they also include newer ones from Day 2 which is happening as I write this).
There was a lot to enjoy about the day, including meeting Cameron Neylon of PLOS and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ, both for the first time. The highlight for me, unsurprisingly, was the debate at the Oxford Union in the evening, of which more in following posts.
Another highlight was meeting my anti-particle — the pro-Elsevier Mike Taylor. There are quite a few odd coincidences linking him and me, and he has been using us both as a motivating example of the need for ORCID: skip to 5:50 in this video for an example.
There was some speculation that if we ever met, we’d both be annihilated in a burst of pure energy, but happily there were no fireworks.
Apart from a brief fist-fight.
Other Mike Taylor (hereafter OMT) had some interesting things to say about Elsevier, but I won’t pass them on without his permission. Maybe he’ll drop by here and comment.
By the way, I think this was the second time I have worn a tie in the last decade or so.
There’s an awful lot of talk about “predatory open access publishers” recently. So much talk that I can’t help wondering whether the phrase is being pushed by barrier-based publishers in another attempt to smear open access. (Hey, they have previous.)
Anyway, for anyone who is worried that they might be tricked into giving their work to one of these low-quality predatory publishers that accepts anything and only cares about the fee, here is my guide to avoiding this scenario.
So. Imagine you have an article ready to go, when you receive an invitation to submit it to a journal that you’ve never heard of before. How do you decide whether to send it to them?
Do not send it to them.
April 9, 2013
As many of you will know, it’s now official that Elsevier has bought Mendeley, previously a force for openness in the world of reference management. There’s some good commentary at The Scholarly Kitchen. Lots of open advocates — Ross Mounce, for example — are shutting down their accounts and moving to free alternatives such as Zotero.
Unequivocal good guys at Mendeley, such as William Gunn, are painting this as optimistically as they can. Good luck to them, and I hope their optimism proves well-founded.
But here’s the problem. Although both Elsevier and Mendeley are making all the right noises about this acquisition, the bottom line is that Elsevier has all the power in the relationship. So Mendeley say things like “very little will change for you as a Mendeley user” and “we will continue to support standard and open data formats”, and I’m sure they believe them. But it’s dependent on the whim of Elsevier. The moment it becomes inconvenient or financially disadvantageous for them to do these things, they’ll stop.
That’s not a criticism of any of the individuals at Elsevier. Every single Elsevier person I’ve had dealings with has been pleasant, sane and helpful; often funny, too. But a lot of good, smart people smashed together can and do make a big, dumb, evil company. So Elsevier continually does things that (I suspect) none of the individuals I know there would chose. But it does them anyway. Sadly all the evidence from the past says that nothing good is going to happen to Mendeley now.
I truly hope I’m wrong.
But I’m not.
What it comes down to is this: Mendeley’s ability to be a force for openness is dependent on a company that is implacably opposed to openness. That’s all there is to it.
Update (14 minutes later): read the much more informed thoughts of Jason Hoyt, who was one of Mendeley’s co-founders before leaving to co-found PeerJ. Very gentle, but also I think a strong confirmation of my reading.
April 9, 2013
I first met Wann at SVP in 1997, in Chicago. I was an undergrad, still three months away from my B.S., presenting a poster arguing that OMNH 53062 (which would eventually become the holotype of Sauroposeidon) was a new sauropod. At the time the only named sauropods from the Early Cretaceous of North America were Astrodon/Pleurocoelus and Sonorasaurus, and owing to the slow spread of news back then, I hadn’t heard of Sonorasaurus yet. So the bar was pretty high for arguing that EKNApod material shouldn’t just be lumped into Pleurocoelus. The person I was most fearing in the world was Wann Langston, Jr., who had referred the EK Texas sauropod material to Pleurocoelus in his magisterial 1974 paper. And in due course he arrived at my poster. If he remembered it at all, he probably remembered just walking up to chat with some kid. But for me it was like watching one of those giant saucers descend from space in Independence Day. As Jeff Goldblum said in one of the Jurassic Park movies, I was terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.
But then Wann turned out to be a totally fair, reasonable human being–if a wee bit gruff at first. He let me give a little spiel and then asked the dreaded question, “Why isn’t this Pleurocoelus?” I had some thoughts on that, and we talked it through, and if he didn’t agree in every particular, he at least allowed that what I was saying made some sense. He later served as a reviewer on the paper in which we described Sauroposeidon and didn’t shoot us down, so apparently he was convinced, or at least thought the hypothesis deserved its day in the sun.
A couple of years later Julian Hilliard and I were working on our MS theses under Rich Cifelli, and we realized that we both needed to see some specimens in Austin (Julian was working on tooth morphotypes in crocs), so we drove down together one Friday evening. Without much warning, in fact–we basically crashed Ernie Lundelius’s retirement party at the Texas Memorial Museum. But everyone welcomed us like we belonged there. We had planned to spend the next day in collections, but we had neglected to make arrangements in advance (this is not a story about the correct way to make museum collections visits). Wann saw us fumbling around the museum like a couple of idiots and pulled us into his office–I thought for a reaming out, but in fact for nearly the opposite. He basically took us under his wing. Wann talked with Julian for an hour about crocs and their teeth, speaking authoritatively and at length–he was clearly still well up to speed on the field. I listened and learned. Then he talked with me for an hour about sauropods, with an equally broad and deep knowledge base, while Julian listened and learned. Then he showed us the Quetzalcoatlus material and talked to us about pterosaurs for an hour, just as impressively, while we both listened and learned. And then he turned us loose in the collections, checking periodically to make sure we were finding what we needed. He turned what would have been a so-so trip or maybe even a disaster into one of the best museum visits I’ve ever had, when he would have been perfectly justified in chucking us out on our ears. I need to remember to pay that forward someday.
I kept up with Wann at SVP thereafter. He was always thinking out ahead of the field, and I always came away from those conversations with new thoughts in my head.
I’ve been going to SVPCA instead of SVP for the past few years, so I probably haven’t seen Wann in 5 or 6 years. And now I won’t see him again–he passed away yesterday. But he leaves behind as impressive a legacy as one could wish for, not just in the fossils he found and the papers he published, but in the lives that he touched. Including mine. Farewell, Wann. You are already missed.
Langston, Jr., W. 1974. Nonmammalian Comanchean tetrapods. Geoscience and Man 8:77-102.
April 8, 2013
Last night London and I spent the night in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LACM), as part of the Camp Dino overnight adventure. So we got lots of time to roam the exhibit halls when they were–very atypically–almost empty. Above are the museum’s mounted Triceratops–or one of them, anyway–and mounted cast of the Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis holotype, presented in glorious not-stygian-darkness (if you went through the old dino hall, pre-renovation, you know what I mean).
We got there early and had time to roam around the museum grounds in Exposition Park. The darned-near-life-size bronze dinos out front are a minor LA landmark.
The rose garden was already closed, but we walked by anyway, and caught this rainbow in the big fountain.
After we checked in we had a little time to roam the museum on our own. I’ve been meaning to blog about how much I love the renovated dinosaur halls. The bases are cleverly designed to prohibit people touching the skeletons without putting railings or more than minimal glass in the way, and you can walk all the way around the mounted skeletons and look down on them from the mezzanine–none of that People’s Gloriously Efficient Cattle Chute of Compulsory Dinosaur Appreciation business. Signage is discreet and informative, and so are the handful of interactive gizmos. London and I spent a few minutes using a big touch-screen with a slider that controlled continental drift from the Triassic to the present–a nice example of using technology to add value to an exhibit without taking away from the real stuff that’s on display. There are even a few places to sit and just take it all in. That’s pretty much everything I want in a dinosaur hall.
Also, check out the jumbotron on the left in the above photo. It was running a (blessedly) narration-free video on how fossils are found, collected, prepared, mounted, and studied, on about a five-minute loop. Lots of pretty pictures. Including this next one.
There are a couple of levels of perspective distortion going on here, both in the original photo and in my photo of that photo projected on the jumbotron.
Still, I feel confident positing that that is one goldurned big ilium. I’m not going to claim it’s the biggest bone I’ve ever seen–that rarely ends well–but sheesh, it’s gotta be pretty freakin’ big. And apparently a brachiosaurid, or close to it. Never mind, it’s almost certainly an upside-down Triceratops skull. Thanks to Adam Yates for the catch. I will now diminish, and go into the West.
Triceratops, Styracosaurus, and Einiosaurus–collect the whole set!
Of course, the centerpiece of the second dinosaur hall–and how great is it that there are two!?–is the T. rex trio: baby, juvenile (out of frame to the right), and subadult. Yes, subadult: the “big” one is not as big as the really big rexes, and from the second floor you can see unfused neural arches in some of the caudal vertebrae (many thanks to Ashley Fragomeni for pointing those out to me on a previous visit).
Awwwww! C’mere, little fella!
Still, this ain’t Vulgar Overstudied Theropod Picture of the Week. Here are some sweet pneumatic diplodocid caudals in the big wall o’ fossils (visible behind Mamenchisaurus in the overhead photo above). The greenish color is legit–in the Dino Lab on the second floor, they’re prepping a bunch of sauropod elements that look like they were carved out of jade.
Sudden violent topic shift, the reason for which will be become clear shortly: London and I have been sculpting weapons of mass predation in our spare time. In some of the photos you may be able to see his necklace, which has a shark tooth he sculpted himself. Here are a couple of allosaur claws I made–more on those another time.
The point is, enthusiasm for DIY fossils is running very high at Casa Wedel, so London’s favorite activity of the evening was molding and casting. Everyone got to make a press mold using a small theropod tooth, a trilobite, or a Velociraptor claw. Most of the kids I overheard opted for the tooth, but London went straight for the claw.
Ready for plaster! Everyone got to pick up their cast at breakfast this morning, with instructions to let them cure until this evening. All went well, so I’ll spare you a photo of this same shape in reverse.
We were split into three tribes of maybe 30-40 people each, and each tribe bedded down in a different hall. The T. rex and Raptor tribes got the North American wildlife halls, but our Triceratops tribe got the African wildlife hall, which as a place to sleep is about 900 times cooler. Someone had already claimed the lions when we got there, so London picked hyenas as our totem animals.
Lights out was at 10:30 PM, and the lights came back on at 7:00 this morning. Breakfast was out from 7:15 to 8:00, and then we had the museum to ourselves until the public came in at 9:30. So I got a lot of uncluttered photos of stuff I don’t usually get to photograph, like this ammonite. Everyone should have one of these.
London’s favorite dino in the museum is Carnotaurus. It’s sufficiently weird that I can respect that choice.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the old standards, especially when they’re presented as cleanly and innovatively as they are here.
Finally, the LACM has a no tripod policy, and if they see you trying to carry one in they will make you take it back to your car. At least during normal business hours. But no one searched my backpack when we went in last night, and I put that sucker to some good use. Including getting my first non-bigfoot picture of the cast Argentinosaurus dorsal. It was a little deja-vu-ey after just spending so much time with the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus–elements of the two animals really are very comparable in size.
If you’re in the LA area and interested in spending a night at the museum–or at the tar pits!–check out the “Overnight Adventures” page on the museum’s website. Cost is $50 per person for members or $55 for non-members, and worth every penny IMHO. It’s one of those things I wish we’d done years ago.
April 3, 2013
Just like the last time I tried to post a comment on Richard Van Noorden’s piece on open-access economics, the comment I posted has been rejected with a fatuous “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service” message.
SERIOUSLY, NATURE PUBLISHING GROUP. HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
You will notice that neither WordPress-hosted blogs such as SV-POW!, nor Blogger-hosted blogs such as Mark Witton’s offering – nor indeed PLOS-hosted blogs such as The Integrative Paleontologists — consistently throws away perfectly good comments.
It’s 2013. There is no excuse for running a non-functional blog. None. If you aspire to be a hub of meaningful discussion, you have to make your software work right. It’s not good blowing it off with a snort and a giggle, “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time, ha ha”. It’s contemptible — worse, it’s comtemptuous of your readers and of the people who spend time and effort to provide you with free content.
Sort it out.
For anyone who cares, here is the actual comment that I tried to post:
My thanks to Richard Van Noorden and David Crotty for useful criticisms of my simple calculations.
If both sets of figures are correct — that average profit-margins for the Big Four are 36% but the average across the industry is “only” 20-30% then it’s clear that the great majority of the parasitism that currently infests academia can be laid at the doors of the Big Four.
Is the Big-Four number correct? All we have to go on is the figures that those corporations themselves publish — and those are what I used in the linked blog post. If Wiley have now changed what they report, then we can use their new number instead. What we can’t legitimately do is look at what they say they make, then use a different number of our own choosing.
And here is where we reach the real problem: the appalling lack of transparency. David Crotty rightly points out “the assumption that the entirety of the $9.4 billion brought in by the publishing industry comes from subscriptions”. But I have tried very hard to get a number for what proportion of income is indeed from subscriptions, and not been able to get answers from Big-Four publishers. One of them explicitly told me to stop even asking. In the face of such obscurity, all we can do is work with what numbers we do have.
If any of the Big Four would like to reveal the true numbers, I would be delighted to hear them, and to revise my calculations accordingly.
Meanwhile here is my least bad re-calculation. If industry average profit margins are 20-30%, we’ll use the middle of the range, 25%. That means that 1/4 of the annual $9.4 billion revenue is profit — 2.35 billion. By coincidence, this is almost exactly equal to the price of publishing the year’s 1.8 million articles as Gold OA at a PLOS ONE price-point of $1350, namely $2.43 billion. Remember, this is not saying that what we spend on subscriptions would fund 100% Gold OA. It’s saying that what we throw away as sheer profit for publishers would fund it.
If that doesn’t make anyone absolutely furious, then that person’s outrage-meter is badly in need of recalibration. We’re supposed to be doing science here, not enriching shareholders with public money.
Thanks for listening.
April 2, 2013
Long, long ago — back in 2010! — Gordon Dzemski of the University of Flensburg, Germany, sent me a copy of a miniposter that he had prepared, and invited me to share it on SV-POW!. Somehow, it fell through the cracks, and I never did so. Time to fix that!
First, the highlight: a X-ray of a camel neck:
The great thing about this is that the condyles and cotyles are so thickly coated in cartilage that the condyles don’t even reach, let alone nestle inside, the cotyles. Amazing.
Now in contrast, the condyles of horse cervicals do nestle in their corresponding cotyles – very neatly. And the distressing thing is that, to the best of our knowledge, there are no osteological correlates that would allow us to distinguish these conditions. That is, nothing about the naked bones of the camel and horse that would let us infer this huge difference in their cartilage.
Unless anyone knows different?
Anyway, here is the whole of the poster that Gordon prepared:
And here is his own commentary on it:
for your nice Blog and the never ending story of articulated or disarticulated camels, giraffes, goos or ostrichs necks I have made a nice overview of some x-ray pictures of my work.
I think we can postulate some basic principles:
1) There is in every mammal an invertebral disc space between the neck vertebrae.
2) Every mounted skeleton of an animal with a free space between the cotyle-condyle joint system is in articulated postion (but without an invertebral disc).
3) The joint capulse with the specific system components of invertebral discs, cartilage, ligaments and tendons are capable of great dorsoventral and lateral flexion and is capable of high pressure or great tensile force to reach/generate the postures of the living animal neck . And yes, the space beween the camels vertebrae can be 30 or more mm.
4) For prehistoric animals we can assume an average invertebral disc space of 5% of the neck length. I think it is the best guess so far.
Please use the picture and this email freely for your Blog if it is in your opinion.
I am inclined to think that the 5% estimate for extinct animals may be a little on the high side (for reasons that will become apparent in due course) but all the evidence is that it’s in the right ballpark.
This has implications.