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A Giant Leap?

October 11, 2011

Skimming the digital waves this evening, I noted that an awful lot of zeros and ones are being consumed by a single presentation among the many hundreds of papers at this year’s Geological Society of America meeting. Unlike the commentators whose pieces I saw concerning this talk, I actually attended Mark McMenamin’s presentation about an ichthyosaur death assemblage in Nevada this afternoon. Therefore, I have seen rather more than those writers about this idea that the bones of Shonisaurus had been laid out by giant cephalopods as some sort of Mesozoic environmental art installation (imagine, perhaps, a monstrous molluscan Richard Long working with enormous vertebrae as his medium).

The bloggers are quite correct that this presentation travelled some considerable distance into the realm of pure conjecture and imagination, and that many in the media exhibited bad journalistic practice by homing in on this talk without seeking comment from other scientists.

As I sat through McMenamin’s presentation it struck me that, taken individually, most stages in the exposition were unremarkable and in fact similar to sections of many other scientific presentations. Scientists work by making inferences from the available data, and most of us try to be as thorough and cautious as humanly possible. Nevertheless, the discussion part of a scientific paper will typically have some elements that reach into speculation. If the solid data are considered as “A”, then a paper’s discussion will typically say, “since A is known to have taken place, therefore B is likely.” And I have seen countless conference presentations (particularly in fields such as dinosaur paleontology) where the presenter felt the freedom to speculate further, saying, “since A took place, and B is almost certain, therefore C is also likely.”

The basic issue with today’s presentation is that McMenamin took this several stages farther, saying effectively, “since A is true, B is almost certain, and C is likely, so therefore D may have occurred, and thus E followed, and F, and …” Each step in the progression was a relatively small one, but their cumulative effect was a giant leap into a place where the suggestions were no longer supported by science. Like a stealth predator, conjecture crept up on science, overwhelmed and consumed it, and then placed the few robust facts into an artistic and intriguing arrangement.

This is unfortunate; it was an interesting idea, and I would love to see McMenamin follow this up with the years of field- and lab-based work that would be required to demonstrate whether his conjecture is at all likely. But without this sort of slogging to support it, it will remain just that: conjecture.

Incidentally, this talk followed after an excellent student presentation about fossil lungfish burrows in Madagascar; why don’t the media consider taking a look at some of the superb student work that is being shared with us here?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Graham Rudkin permalink
    October 11, 2011 9:28 pm

    …I really want to see those ichthyosaurs now.

  2. October 14, 2011 9:50 am

    Hi Graham

    Sorry I missed GSA. Would have been interesting to have been in the room and seen this house of cards slowly being built. But you touch on a significant point; the mainstream media, whether print, broadcast or online, report science when its either human-centric (medical breakthroughs and scandals), or ‘weird’ in their estimation (giant ants and trilobites, cephalopd artists). Only rarely is science reported because its ‘cool’, and typically its something spectacular like the recent dinosaur feathers in amber (a story I thought was well reported … all the more so because it was Canadian, and science by colleagues). Discussing this point with colleagues who have had some success having their findings reported, they attribute this to the lack of scientific knowledge of most journalists. On the positive side of the ‘kraken as artist’ reporting (as this study has been reported in some media reports), it yet again shines a light on paleontology as being fun, and not all dry and serious. On the negative side, it risks trivializing our work and feeding into the stereotype that much of what we do is a ‘waste of public money’.

    Now … back to the picket lines.


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