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The only problem with quality first-hand analysis…

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 11:54
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…is that you often don’t get to ‘see’
the big picture offered by quantity second-hand analysis. That important step has to come first and unfortunately that has been largely ignored in several paleontological studies.

Both quantity and quality have their place.
But IMHO you must have access to the universe of pertinent taxa before you can say anything substantial about what is beneath your microscope. As an analogy: First the artist blocks in the composition. Later, the artist adds in the little details, like eyelashes, to the composition — which better be good to begin with, or else the little details will be ignored.

Here’s the issue:

Workers familiar with my analyses
like to caution that only first-hand quality observation can be considered scientific. In that way they insulate themselves from considering the views of workers who have not seen the material first-hand. In counterpoint, I often caution workers to consider other candidate (quantity) taxa recovered second-hand by the large reptile tree they may have overlooked.

This subject came up recently
with the continuing hypothesis that Pappochelys was the ancestor to turtles. I pointed out that other candidates share more traits and the LRT nests Pappochelys far from turtles. In counterpoint, that worker encouraged me to go visit the Pappochelys specimen before making any pronouncements. In counter-counterpoint, I encouraged the worker to broaden his inclusion set and rerun his analysis. In other words, I thought his metaphorical ‘composition’ (= inclusion set) was not yet ready to explored the finer details not already available in the literature (second-hand observation).

I think these suggestions will come to an impasse, since we are literally and metaphorically on opposite sides of the world. And that’s too bad… No one likes to consider doing the extra work and spending the extra dollars and hours to find out they were wrong, especially after investing so much time and pride. But if they really are good scientists they should explore and refute other options before proclaiming their candidate is truly the best,  especially when those other candidates are brought to their attention.

I realize the importance of first-hand observation.
But it must be done after a wide-gamut analysis, like the large reptile tree, which sets down a working tree topology. Even that is not the final word! Everything in Science is provisional. The LRT is a useable guide to those making up their own taxon lists to explore first hand. If they don’t like particular scores, those can be ignored. If they don’t particular taxa, those can be eliminated. The LRT topology is robust enough to sustain errors, deletions and missing data. I know because I’ve been molding it and working with for 6 years and it’s better than ever. Most workers, as you know, prefer to employ the cladograms of prior workers without testing them, which, of course, perpetuates errors.

PS. I have also had the experience
of having my first-hand observations dismissed by workers who did not have first-hand observations, so personality, professional status and academic power do indeed come into play to keep some data, figures and hypotheses out of the literature. It is not fair. It is two-faced. And that’s just the way it is. Paleontology does not turn corners very easily. Attitudes like this must be placated… or played a different way…


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