Rex Dalton is back on the Palau issue that got so much attention last month. He’s investigated the facts in much more detail than he did previously and does not necessarily have kind words for the research behind the Palaun fossils. He has written up his news feature in the latest issue of Nature. The piece is titled, “Archaeology: Bones, isles and videotape.” I want to disclose that while I did take the bait and switch after reading the original PLoS One article, I became very doubtful after I read Dalton’s first expose on the matter. I expressed the facts on this site, and as you may know, a very interesting debate ensued in the comments.
Now, I don’t mean to rehash the same arguments but I do want to spend some time looking into this issue a bit more. Why? Because mistakes like this, mistakes on how Berger conducted research and messed up local politics in Palau, on how the National Geographic Society meddled with the scientific and publication process, are critical to evaluate and learn from in order to prevent these things from happening again.
This is a serious problem, especially when one of the forefront voices of anthropology here on the web reduces these issues as, “irrelevant to the scientific evaluation of the manuscript.” I’m sure he is just as concerned as we all are in doing good science, but as I’ve said before the scientific evaluation also relies on how the research was done. It is very possible that he’s saying such because he wants to protect his reputation with the National Geographic Society, an institution that funds lots of paleoanthropological research. But, we should always put aside these considerations when doing good science is compromised. So, if you can’t tell, with this post I wanna emphasize that we be considered with doing good, ethical science first and foremost and then worry about the fortune and glory, the funding and publicity. In order to do so, I’ll review this recent case as an example of how not to do good, ethical science.
The first issue I wanna address, and perhaps the one that raises many concerns is how Berger et al. concluded what they did. I’ve taken a look at the data sets, and come to realize that the possibility the ‘Palaun dwarfs’ were nothing more than normal-sized island dwellers but juveniles, is very high. Why? Well, Berger et al. say that the 61 skeletal elements from the caves suggest the people were on extreme low end of the range, but I really only read three or so bones were used per measurement of body size. Seems like a very selective sample size to document small peoples… From these three or so measurements, are we to assume that the thousands of other bones in the cave are also small bodied people? No!
To add to that discrepancy, Scott Fitzpatrick criticized that many of the body size estimates were based off of long bones that did not have the shaft fragments, making it really hard to estimate height. Fitzpatrick did research on bones dating from a similar time period and in a nearby cave, about 4 kilometers away. He found femora, with the shaft and the head of the bone, and his analysis shows that those people were of normal height. Michael Pietrusewsky shares this concern and is quoted in Dalton’s piece saying,
“The more I read their paper, the more I am convinced it is complete nonsense and cannot be accepted as serious science.”
Ouch. That’s not only a direct jab at Berger et al. but also a shank to John Hawks, who was editor of the paper and screened it for scientific validity. Moving onto National Geographic’s impact in the science behind this paper, let me also quote John Hawks’ incisive commentary in his FAQ related to this publication,
“In this case, National Geographic funded the work and apparently produced a documentary about it. Their production wasn’t disclosed to the journal, and I view it as irrelevant to the scientific evaluation of the manuscript…
…I would tend instead to ask these questions: Does the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), in publishing Rex Dalton’s piece, have a vested interest in the credibility of their own journals, in comparison to open access outlets like PLoS?…”
John Hawks completely turned the table on Nature and Dalton, skimming over the fact that the National Geographic Society, the organization that produced the documentary in secrecy, leaving the publishing journal out of the picture, had more of a vested interest in making a buck out of investing in Berger’s project than NPG discrediting PLoS.
You maybe wondering, “How he can say something like this?” Through the multitude of media outlets the National Geographic controls, such as their magazine, television shows, and popular website — you can’t even begin to say Nature is on economic par with them. And while people seem to only use National Geographic Magazine as toilet reading material, to line doctor and dentist office waiting tables, and to house as memorabilia, the fact that the National Geographic Society is a popularizer of science is obvious. The National Geographic Society reports on science and reaches millions of peoples, which turns into millions of dollars in potential revenue generated from ads.
Nature is used by a much more specialized demographic, and is a credible more prestigious source of peer reviewed high impact science, where most of its content comes from first hand sources. While Nature does sell ads, I would venture to say that the National Geographic Society has more of a vested interest in spreading their documentary over TV than the target audience Nature‘s piece reached. Based upon the shear size of the National Geographic Society conglomerate compared to NPG, it is just absurd to even consider that the Society didn’t have anything but bling bling in sight when they accepted Berger’s grant request, hell a representative from the NGS even admitted that.
To further discrete Berger’s dedication to the hard science, Dalton scrounged up this awesome tidbit:
“In other areas of his research, Berger has worked on a planned television series featuring him called Fossil Hunter, which uses the slogan “entertainment first, science second”.”
With that sorta information, I’m not surprised to read further on that one of the bone-yielding caves was off-limits to visitors. Berger just marched right into the caves without fully figuring out if he could. Other researchers, more in tune with cultural issues, such as Timothy Rieth, discovered the Omedekol cave over ten years before Berger. He,
“viewed the mouth of the other cave… but didn’t venture inside even though bone piles could be seen. “I don’t just go inside burial caves on vacation because it’s fun…””
When Berger forced a emergency grant to study the caves, after he trespassed over it, it instigated a political power struggle between the Koror government and the state Council of Chiefs. And that’s why Dalton previously got a disapproving quote from a Palaun chieftan, to which Chris Sloan — from the NGS, commented on this site saying that “a disgruntled tribal leader who had been left out is not a surprise.” Gosh, how arrogant!
Aside from the massive holes in Berger et al.’s analysis, and the horrible reviews it got by one of the reviewers, we should also fold in the fact that National Geographic outclassed the publishing journal by releasing the documentary before the embargo was lifted. We should also consider how Berger did not respect this tribal burial ground, and how his and the Society’s urgency in excavating and producing a documentary in hopes it was another hobbit cash crop, not only compromised a very thorough investigation, but also the socio-political framework of Palau.