To Play Devil’s Advocate

Recently, Mike Taylor of University College London and Matt Wedel of the Western University of Health Services (both of  SV-POW!) and Rich Cifelli (of the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History) have published a paper describing a new taxon, Brontomerus mcintoshi (freely available from their website, or online from Acta Palaeontologica Polonica itself). They have produced several engaging and data filled posts at the SV-POW! blog, so check them out (including the magnificent photo gallery).

However, in discussing this taxon, some issues arise. As part of a debate between the authors and one of the discoverer’s of the locality at which the specimens for Brontomerus mcintoshi were found — Jim Kirkland, he of Gastonia and Utahraptor fame and Utah’s State Paleontologist — Jim contested to the selection of the holotype specimen (the ilium of a juvenile specimen associated with the bones of a large sauropod, inferred by the authors to belong to the same animal), especially because during the process of recovering the block of excavated stone in which these bones were found, the ilium was partially destroyed, meaning that about 1/4 of it was unrecoverable, including much of the middle section and a portion of the rear margin. Several other bones were damaged in the process, but repaired and in much better condition now.

Kirkland argued that Taylor et al. had incorrectly selected the type because of the juvenile nature of the specimen, and that they had reconstructed this specimen improperly. Arguing on behalf on the idea (rather than Jim Kirkland himself) that the ilium made a poor choice as a juvenile specimen for a holotype, I contested both the reconstruction and selection of autapomorphies based on material that was reconstructed but not found: as the posterior margin is incomplete, the ilium is lacking indication of the postacetabular ala, shown by the authors as a dotted line in a short arc:

Ilium of Brontomerus mcintoshi, from Taylor et al., 2011, copied from SV-POW!

There’s a substantial amount of other material at the site, including material for the rest of a juvenile and an adult sauropod, without any overlapping pieces (which is unusual). The abnormal size of the ilium and some of the pieces relative to other sauropods indicated to the authors that two size-classes were present, rather than a huge-shoulder, tiny-hipped single individual. So it wasn’t an argument about the diagnosis of a juvenile, but rather that a juvenile sauropod was used. I indicated that because of the dearth of data regarding sauropod juveniles, using a juvenile to diagnose a taxon (and several autapomorphies including from the form of the posterior ilium) was problematic.

At the same time, I argued that the use of stratigraphic nomenclature, an issue (admittedly confusingly) brought up by Kirkland, where the Cedar Mountain Formation was used to label an expanse for which the name Bull Burro Canyon Formation is used. These names are commonly argued to be nomenclatural only, as the only division between them is the Colorado River; both are the formed from the same depositional events, into which a river cut and divided them millions of years later. As such, the terms are used definitively, but for the same thing. Taylor et al. chose to use the former name, and put aside the latter, which I argued against because this would confuse future workers, finding a specimen from the Bull Burro Canyon Fm. being referred to the Cedar Mountain Fm.

Nonetheless, in my argument, I argued against the interpretations of Taylor et al., and all with a straight face.

Darren Naish (of Tetrapod Zoology, once an active part of the SV-POW! trio, from the University of Portsmouth — he’s also on my blogroll, check it out too) wrote, in a general question-posed-as-statement manner, that I “have responded […] simply because [I] like playing Devil’s advocate[.]” I’m taking the quote out of context in this respect, in order to illustrate a major point, but you can find the original as is by scrolling down on the comments section of this page.

Darren is correct in one respect: I like making arguments that I do not believe are necessarily true. But Darren is incorrect here when it comes to me playing “Devil’s advocate.” I do not take the opposite view, nor do I think simply taking the opposite view, to disprove the other, is useful in science. In debate, this serves better forms of impressing people and proving oneself right or wrong (or proving this to another). But I only care about “right,” and in Science, I only care what is likely to be “true,” but I do not hold the belief that I am right, or what I argue is “true.” As I see it, I practice dialectics rather than debate (although I have occasionally stated I am a debater to people in private or public — although not a master — I only engage in debate when I have an audience, or because I feel I want to “prove a point”). The difference is telling.

In this blog, for example, much of what I say and discuss is spoken in the form of debate, as I am reaching out to those who view this blog, on either a paleontological or philosophical level, to find agreement or disagreement, although essentially the end goal is the same: I want to know, know more, know better.

When I was talking to Mike on SV-POW! about Brontomerus‘s ilium, this was a dialectic, and the same is true now for my reference to Darren’s comment. I affirm that Darren’s use of the term, and my general approach to discussion, is not accurately descriptive (although, as I said, it is partly true).

My philosophy is simple: big-S Science exists as a field in which the creation and destruction of ideas and systems for handling data are developed, evolve, and so forth. In it there are heuristics, systems or conventions by which we approach this data. The first, and most popular one, is that a scientist is “one who asks questions.” This is the philosophical aspect of the role (or profession to some). But Science doesn’t end with the question, it develops to find the answer, and the right one. It affirms it cannot know the “right” answer among many possible ones, so it used various devices to discriminate the “bad” from the “good,” and in paraphrase of Doyle, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, [is likely to be closer to the truth].”

(I also argue that truth is a philosophical ideal, but essentially unattainable due to the conflicting individuals who perceive it. This is certainly changeable.)

A scientists follows a process: he asks a question, applies the question to his subject, then attempts to affirm the “fit” of the question to the subject; but he must also attempt to see if this affirmation (this hypothesis) can be applied to other subjects, and better; the scientist then seeks to disprove his own argument. Here, the scientist is his own audience, and thus must rely on dialectic forms when questioning himself, including his perceptions. Then, and only then, he cannot disprove his own hypothesis with the data he has used, can he demonstrate his original question as “true.”

Myself, I find too much of the first few steps and less of the last few in many modern analyses I’ve been reading, and feel a sharp dose of antithesis is useful in poking holes in sometimes large flaws in various hypotheses. I understand this comes across as antagonism, or that the authors of the subjects I am questioning can take this personally, often triggering the fight/flight response (even more when nomenclature, which bears the author’s name for posterity, is involved). There are enough stories — public and secret — of scientists too close to their theories that react as though an opponent is trying to hack a limb off. Dialectic conversation in the Sciences is often restricted (in print) to commentary reviewing previous work, usually in  a neutral tone, couched in the terms of “however” and “but” and often with little “contra“s attached to citations — we gloss these over as technical, part of the jargon, and necessary. Yet I argue, the entire conversation in Science should allow the dialectic dialogue, rather than render us reactive animals; we have brains capable of logic, but use this so rarely in actual discourse (when the discussion portion of Science, as in the comments to the pages I’ve linked to above show).

I hope that Jim Kirkland, who once kindly let me manhandle the shoulder and limbs of Nothronychus shortly before its description, and Mike Taylor et al. will fail at going loggerheads, as I would prefer honest discourse without personal feelings involved.

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8 Responses to To Play Devil’s Advocate

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Quick point of information: my affiliation is with UCL, not Bristol; and Matt’s is with Western University of Health Sciences.

    • The confusion lay, essentially, with confusion over the fact that both you and Darren were at Portsmouth … eventually leading to a confusion with association with Bristol. This was, admittedly, a major brain fart, and easily correctable. I tend to describe people (especially as teachers and professors) by schools of convenience than by schools of current and potentially temporary occupation.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Oh, another quick correction: it’s the Burro Canyon Fm., not Bull Canyon.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    Ugh, sorry, I should have read your whole post before I started posting corrections. Darren’s at the University of Portsmouth (always has been), not Bristol.

  4. Nick Gardner says:

    mike taylor ownin shit up


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