Palau, Lee Berger, and the junction between entertainment and science

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.

30 thoughts on “Palau, Lee Berger, and the junction between entertainment and science

  1. I’m not really surprised. Berger seems to like publicity, and he seems to be a bit careless with the facts — but few people are aware of this. I read his book In the Footsteps of Eve(I believe that’s the title), some years ago, only to find out that it was riddled with several factual mistakes, and misrepresented some disagreements he had with other paleoanthropologists, when he was working in South Africa.
    Anne G

  2. Hey, Kambiz — I generally agree with your take on this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people don’t read papers before commenting on them — even open access ones with no download restrictions.

    I haven’t seen the NG movie; if you’ve seen my other film reviews, you know I tend to mock them mercilessly. Still, they can serve a valuable purpose, which is better if they talk to all the relevant people. That seems to be the main complaint here; that they should have talked to more people.

  3. I think that it is time to clear up a great many inaccuracies in this story which are, by and large, being propagated by Rex Dalton at Nature and repeated here with comment by Kambriz.

    I suppose we should start at the beginning.

    Contrary to the implications in the story by Dalton, and the commentary by Kambriz, I did not just march “right into the caves without fully figuring out if (I) could.” I was taken to the site as part of an organized kayak tour while on vacation. The trip to see the bones at Ucheliungs cave has been, I believe, advertised for years by this specific tour company. There was even a picture of these bones in the tourist brochure of the company! The company in question is even owned, I understand, by a traditional leader. The presence of these bones in Ucheliungs, and the tours going there, was thus widely known about by Palauans – traditional leaders and government officials alike. When I went on the kayak trip with my family and the guide asked me if I wanted to see “old bones”, under these circumstances there was no way that I could know that access to these caves was technically forbidden by the government. In fact, I was thinking that these bones would probably be those of Japanese soldiers from WWII. Believe it or not, I had not at that time read the archaeological research around Palau. My area of study was on much older aspects of anthropology – and I was on vacation. When I saw the initial remains, I felt they were small and of unusual morphology based upon my own experience working with human material. I left for South Africa that evening.

    Within just a few days of getting back to South Africa, I emailed the Bureau of Arts and Culture on Palau. I told them what I had seen and what the circumstances of my seeing the bones were. I then asked about what the procedures would be, and even if it would be possible, to organize an expedition to Palau to examine and measure these remains as I thought they might be interesting to science and increase our understanding of island human variation. At that point, did I think they might be of use in the Flores debate? Yes, any island population of humans will contribute to that debate – it is precisely what the Flores case is all about – the adaptation of humans, or human ancestors, to an island situation.

    The Palauans received my enquiry with great enthusiasm. They were thrilled that I was interested, and immediately gave me all of the details about how to go about organizing the necessary permis to collect and work on these remains.

    It was only at this point that I went to National Geographic and asked them for funds to go and examine these bones.

    Upon arrival in Palau with the proper permits and permissions and before ever visiting Ucheliungs cave, I paid for all additional visitors permits, ensured that the Head Ranger was aware of what we were doing and approved, and met with officials from the Bureau of Arts and Culture. Even then, before going to the cave, I met with the Governor of Koror, other officials and traditional leaders who gave my team and I their permission and blessing to exam the remains. It was only at this point that I first went back to Ucheliungs cave.

    During the week we worked in the cave, we had frequent visits by government officials, and traditional leaders visited the labs at the museum where we were working.

    At the end of the research trip, I met with a large group of invited traditional leaders. It is important to note that these individuals were invited and selected by Palauan senior officials and traditional leaders – not by me. I showed them what we had found to that point and explained what I thought was the significance of this find. All of the traditional leaders present were supportive and pleased with how we were conducting our research. It is important to reiterate that these leaders had been chosen to be privy to this research not by me, but by informed officials – many of whom are traditional leaders themselves.

    On the next to last day of the expedition, I was shown a picture of Omedokel cave in an old tourist book. I obtained permission from the Bureau representatives, our hosts, to visit this cave and did. It was at this time that I observed, for the first time, the rich bone deposits there.

    It was logical and appropriate to seek additional funds from National Geographic to examine this second, rich deposit. We received all necessary permits and permissions from Palau.

    On each subsequent visit, as our assemblage grew and our understanding of the Palauan finds increased, similar meetings to those I held originally with officials and traditional leaders took place. At many times was a representative of the Palauan government present to ensure that we worked on the remains with the respect they deserved.

    Mr. Dalton was aware of all of these facts and chose to ignore them in his stories. Instead, he found a chief who had not been invited to these various meetings nor been informed of our work by the Palauans I had met with – for reasons I am not privy to. Dalton then went to one of the caves without informing me or my colleagues of his visit, and then published the frankly libelous comments, including implications that we had conducted ourselves unethically on Palau.

    I hope it is now clear that we did not act unethically.

    In fact, it is Mr. Dalton’s attempts to find a story where there was none that may have done damage to our ability to conduct research on human remains on Palau. We who do field research are very much aware of the sensitivities and rights of indigenous people – and respect them. Mr. Dalton’s inappropriate stirring of these emotions – deliberately and despite clear evidence that my team and I had conducted ourselves in an appropriate and legal manner is quite frankly reprehensible.

    Concerning his utilization of the wording of some ad campaign made by a media company that is promoting a yet to be made television show, and calling these planned popular television science shows “other areas of his (my) research”, well, this is frankly contemptible. Those planned shows – which have nothing in fact to do with my own scientific research – are meant to be fun and educational. That is all, and Dalton is aware of this as well.

    Concerning the show on Palau itself, I believe in open access to science and I feel that if people can share in the ups and downs of discovery and exploration, then it may enthuse young people to consider science as a career choice. You cannot film a first expedition in hindsight and TV reaches a large audience for this message. That is why I allowed a camera team to film our initial trip.

    Concerning a few issues of the scientific queries brought up by Dalton – I want to at first make it clear that the appropriate place to have these debates will be in the comment sections of the paper itself at PloS, or in other refereed journals. Nevertheless, a few deserve comment as data are deliberately being misinterpreted and our paper is not being cited correctly.

    Firstly, Fitzpatrick and Pietrusewsky are quite simply incorrect in their statements. John Hawks has already shown this in his comments on our paper on his blog site. Fitzpatrick’s 3000 year old individuals from Orrak are not of “normal” size, they are within the size range of small-bodied populations and similar to the body size of our sample. Fitzpatrick, and obviously Pietrusewsky, missed this. But once again Dalton new that the quotes of Fitzpatrick and Pietrusewsky were incorrect – I sent him an email pointing him to Hawks comments and the actual data in March – but he again chose to ignore this fact in his articles.

    Concerning the chance that the remains we measured were juveniles – please note on page 4 of our article under the Heading “Body size of the early Palauens”, 1st paragraph, where we state “The combined skeletal assemblages include specimens of subadult individuals, but all specimens analysed in this paper exhibit skeletal or dental indicators of adult developmental age (see Supplementary Data S2, S3).” We interpreted the body size of the Palauan sample based upon measurements and direct comparisons of ADULT bones with those from other small bodied populations of humans – a larger sample in fact than was used to estimate the body size of LB-1 – (see discussions under “Body size of early Palauans” on pages 4 and 5 of Berger et al., 2008). See also data presented in Supplementary Data S2, S3, Table 1 and comparisons of ranges, means and standard deviations given throughout the text.

    For the extremely vocal critics of this research, one should actually be asking what their agenda is? Why would our field not applaud the addition of another island population of human skeletal remains – particularly if it is small-bodied? Surely, our goal is to understand human variation and evolution in a wide variety of situations and conditions. Why would this not have an impact on the debate around Flores? Regardless of whether Flores is a pathological dwarf Homo sapiens or an island adapted new species descended from some primitive ancestor, the way in which a human population, such as that on Palau, adapted to an island environment is relevant.

    Citations

    Berger LR, Churchill SE, De Klerk B, Quinn RL (2008) Small-Bodied Humans from Palau , Micronesia . PLoS ONE 3(3): e1780 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001780

  4. I can’t comment on the technical stuff, nor on why the PLoS reviewer thought the piece was unacceptable. But I notice Dr. Berger has consistently misspelled the name of the Anthrosite blogger, something which could easily have been checked. It’s kind of minor, but it does make me wonder about the methodology of the rest of the paper.
    Anne G

  5. I presume the spelling is Kambiz? It’s not at the top of the post. Frankly though, what in the world would this have to do with the methodology of this paper? Anne, concerning your comments on the negative review – again, this is an example of people not reading the paper, nor understanding the methods that PLoS uses to review papers. That negative review was based on an earlier version of the paper. PLoS states this clearly at the bottom of the review, which you may not have noticed in your haste to criticize the “methodology” of this research. My colleagues and I modified the paper according to the valuable comments of this reviewer. This modified version is the paper that has been published. This particular reviewer then did not update his/her review of the research as published. I cannot predict whether this person would have changed his/her mind about the paper, but the bottom line is that the review has very little to do with the final version and his/her criticisms etc. were taken into account in the final version.

  6. In regards to the typo with my name, it often happens. I wasn’t blessed with a simple WASP name. Even so. I botch up names all the time but I own up to it.

    What doesn’t happen as often is when the person making the error points blame away from themself. Lee Berger writes that my name isn’t “at the top of the post,” sort of as an excuse. But my name is all over Anthropology.net, and John Hawks (the commenter above his) seemed to get my name right. So, I don’t really think its my fault. Do you?

    This dismissive tone seems to be indicative of the entire problem. All along we’ve seen the blame be shifted:

    ‘Hey, it ain’t NGS’ fault for releasing the documentary before anyone else — its Nature‘s fault for catching it.’

    ‘Hey, all those critics didn’t read the paper in depth.’

    ‘Hey, the Palaun tour guide tempted me with advertisements of caves with bones in them.’

    Clearly, there’s a fine line between being dismissive, defensive, and clarifying. I’m afraid this tone is what pissed off Palauns and got the attention of the Dalton task force.

    On the subject of dismissive tones, I remember reading a similarly phrased comment in regards to the last blog post on this topic. That comment was authored by Frodo Baggins. I’m curious to know who Frodo Baggins is. Dr. Berger do you know? Are you Frodo Baggins?

    Kambiz

  7. Kambiz:

    Well *I* know who Frodo Baggins is! Whether or not Berger knows, is another question entirely. But I don’t think Berger is Frodo Baggins. That aside, under the circumstances you describe, Berger’s misspelling of your name is lazy, to say the least. Is the rest of his research lazy? I’m hardly qualified to say. But I’m a writer, and when that kind of misspelling occurs, it kind of leaps out at me, as if, at the very least, the author hasn’t taken the time to spell-check. And that suggests something else. Again, I don’t know if this is an issue with Berger, but it raises red flags, big time.
    Anne G

  8. Anne Gilbert, the mystical powers of the Internet have illuminated who the person that commented as Frodo Baggins may possibly be.

    I’ll leave it at that.

    ;-)

    Kambiz

  9. Well, regardles of your accusation Kambiz, I am not “Frodo Baggins”. I am not sure who he is. Anne G, my spell-check does not have Kambiz in it.

  10. Well, Dr. Berger if you’re not the person who wrote the comment by Frodo Baggins and since you don’t know who is… then you most likely have security problem with your computer(s).

    See, both you and Frodo Baggins have nearly identical IP addresses. They both resolve to the university you work at, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since most universities assign static IP addresses to each device on their network (rather than randomly assigning IPs) it is very likely that your computer may have been compromised.

    I don’t wanna further complicate your problems by pasting your shared IP addresses as a evidence… I wouldn’t want to get you hacked or anything. But if you want, I can email you screenshots showing the shared similarities.

    Even if you don’t want the evidence, I’d figure out if anyone (Hobbit or human) may have used your computer(s) on March 11th, 2008, if I were you!

    Kambiz

  11. And by the way Anne, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – on your very fine website (which by the way, I really do enjoy), you have misspelled “straw cllutchers” in your recent post – didn’t search too hard for other mistakes. I just skimmed until I found the first one. Does this make me judge your writing abilities as “lazy” or inept? No it does not. It is simply an error – a simple mistake which can be rectified when someone points it out to you. There is a vast difference between posts on a blog site and published scientific papers. They fortunately go through two vastly different editorial processes – one doesn’t go through any and the other does. I would just like to make a couple of final points to both you and Kambiz. One of the real problems with Palaeoanthropology today is the way that we in the field unfortunately propagate the slander, libel and hate speech which seems to have become an acceptable replacement for scientific discussion and open debate. While you may revel in each bit of juicy gossip dredged up by reporters like Dalton, it does not help the science at all. In fact it does great harm. Nor does your joyful propagation of these apparently entertaining discourses on blogs like this do the science any good. There is a saying here in South Africa that pertains to rugby but is relevant to science – “play the ball, not the man”.

  12. Hi Kambiz,

    Thank you for your investigation. The fact is, I was in the United States on March 11th so it would have been impossible for me to post from my University and no, my computer has not been compromised. Isn’t it often the problem at places like Wikipedia where a University IP addresses appear the same even with different users? My suspicion is that Frodo Baggens is one of my graduate students just coming to my defence. I’ll ask around

  13. For the record I am not Prof. Berger, in fact I had no clue this series of blogs was still ongoing until just now when Prof. Berger asked if I knew who had posted as ‘Frodo Baggins’ on this blog. I said my peace on the 11th of March and moved on without ever bothering to check back.

  14. Frodo and Dr. Berger, I see both of you posted your latest comments from the same IP. Furthermore, looking at the timing of both posts and the cookie data, it seems as if the same computer was used to post both comments.

    Given the context, that Dr. Berger suspected it was one of his graduate students, and how Frodo Baggins responded, I’m assume Frodo is one of your students or at least someone who has access to your computers and knowledge of rather intimate details about the research behind Palaun fossils, that he was willing to share with us while you were out of your office.

    The information that Frodo shared has remained unanswered and are critical points to be explained now that they are out in the open, especially:

    “Palauans were informed, and were on the original team…. [and were] on the list of authors for the article and asked that they be removed for their own political reasons….”

    Since Frodo put these tidbits out there, and is linked to you Dr. Berger, can you please clarify why Palauns were on the original list but were asked to be removed? I asked this previously and like I said it has been unanswered.

    Now with Frodo saying he’s never gonna bother to check again, I’m a bit disappointed with how you and your people are dealing with this situation. Since you explain that you interfaced with Palauns so well, and how willing they were to help you, why did they not wanna be part of the original publishing team?

    Kambiz

  15. Kambiz, “Frodo” is in fact a post-doctoral student of mine. Our IP addresses at this university do evidently go out as the same. He is correct on this aspect in his original post – a senior archaeologist at the Bureau of Arts and Culture was in fact listed on a very early draft of the manuscript as an author. We had asked her to participate as she had greatly assisted us in all aspects of the original research. However, she informed us in early 2007, that it was in fact against Bureau policy for a member of staff of the Bureau, which is actually the permitting agency in Palau, to participate on publications as they participate in the approval process. It is rightly seen by the Palauan government as a potential area for conflict of interest to arise between their staff and researchers. That is why she had to withdraw from the paper.

    Kambiz, while I recognize that this is your “private” blog-space, you could use some manners in your discourse with me. My “team” and I have not been asked this question before. The post-doc in question is not part of the Palauan studies. I presume he was just speaking from discussions with other grad students etc. I have answered every one of your enquiries directly. I chose to do so because on the entire web, it was only on your very fine blog spot that you were choosing to not only repeat Dalton’s incorrect information, but enhance upon it with your own opinions. All of your information comes from two sources – Dalton’s two articles – which you then elaborate on. I have put to you that a great deal of what he says, and you elaborate on, is not true, but you do not seem to wish to pursue these lines of discussion. You are, however, willing to move off on tangents which have no bearing on the issue – such as the misspelling of your name, or your incorrect assumption that I was hiding behind another identity on your blog. I have used my real name from the beginning of this discourse and expect some levels of courtesy for this.

    Why, might I ask you, are you not critically examining Nature’s and Dalton’s motives in this bizarre episode? Why, for example, would Dalton in his most recent article, publish the quotations of Fitzpatrick and Pietrusewsky concerning what they thought were “normal-sized” individuals, when he knew this to be untrue? I had emailed him on the 26th of March, pointing him to John Hawk’s data showing Fitzpatrick to be incorrect in his statements. Fitzpatrick’s 3000 year old individuals from Orrak are not of “normal” size, they are within the size range of small-bodied populations and similar to the body size of our sample. As I pointed out to you earlier, Fitzpatrick, and obviously Pietrusewsky, missed this. Why then would a senior journalist at Nature go ahead and publish not only a statement he knew to be incorrect, but add in impolite and aggressive comments relating to this “fact”? Was it laziness on his part, or sloppiness for not reading and understanding Hawk’s comments? Did he not understand John’s clear writing, or is there, as John Hawk’s alludes to, possibly a deeper agenda behind these sorts of articles coming out of Nature publishing against open access journals? And it wasn’t just him. I copied the senior science editor on that same email.

    Let’s, for the time being, move beyond the issues about whether it is right or wrong to publicize science and look at the following points.

    1. We conducted a series of legal, permitted expeditions to Palau and published the results in a refereed journal after a normal review process.
    2. We kept all of the local officials and traditional leaders – individuals that the Palauan government officials put forward themselves – informed of our research progress, in a series of meetings held throughout 2006 and 2007.
    3. Contrary to the implications in Dalton’s article, we had permission and permits to go into Omedokel cave. Dalton knew this.
    4. Mr. Dalton, ignoring evidence at hand, chose to print factually incorrect data concerning Fitzpatrick’s assumptions about the body size of his sample – adding in aggressive, demeaning comments about our research from individuals who he may not have made aware that their statements were incorrect, apparently just to get a juicy comment. This evidence was not only freely available to him online, but had been sent to him and copied to his editor by me personally – well in advance of his article deadline.

    The above are facts – verifiable, real, and to my knowledge, undisputed. What then, might I put to you, would drive Dalton to write not one, but two articles on this matter? Is John Hawk’s right in his assessment that Nature is in fact afraid of open access journals like PloS – or was it just sloppy journalism and an individual trying to justify a heavy expense account in Palau? It certainly wasn’t a search for the “truth”.

  16. Mr. Kamrani,

    Lets just get this clear, Prof. Berger is not and has never posted as ‘Frodo Baggins’, all your IP address and cookies tell you is that we are in the same building, running off the same server. Considering the ‘Facts’ I posted on 11 March (when Prof. Berger was in the States by the way) the logical conclusion would have been that I indeed work closely with Prof. Berger. You say “Now with Frodo saying he’s never gonna bother to check again, I’m a bit disappointed with how you and your people are dealing with this situation.” This situation is being perpetuated by you expounding upon mis information that someone is apparently feeding you. Prof. Berger posted on your blog in an attempt to clarify the issues you and Mr. Dalton have published and you point out his spelling errors and say he is being dismissive. A scientist would have looked into all the ‘facts’ being presented by Mr. Dalton and Prof. Berger before launching into a diatribe of this sort, attacking the man without really looking at the science involved. But of course you did say earlier “Paleoanthropology is not just about the science. We don’t care just about the bones and the measurements.” Which pretty much sums it up…………..

  17. Dr. Berger and Frodo, the following is in response to both of your most recent comments.

    Frodo, first and foremost if you manned up and wrote your comments in this forum under your true identity, it would make your comment about my dedication to thorough paleoanthropology a bit less spineless. But, you don’t. You also said you’d back out of this discussion… You don’t. And now with your latest comment, you’re not standing behind your authoritative facts posted on March 11th, 2008. Can’t say I’m totally surprised that this happened, you’ve portrayed yourself a fictional character associated with Berger from the get-go.

    In regards to the quote you mined, I want to spend time focusing on the fact that you fail to include the rest of my quote, where I explain the anthropology behind the science. Pitiful mistake on your behalf… I can’t believe I have to remind a post-doc that anthropology is the study of humans throughout all time and place. And while some anthropologists, like you, Dr. Berger, or I want to focus on investigating past humans, we cannot be ignorant of the fact that paleontological and archaeological research has to interface and cooperate with living humans. The ways scientists interact with locals and government officials affect paleoanthropology. This was the crux of my first post on this subject, which seems like it didn’t quite get thru to you.

    In his original piece, Rex Dalton got a couple of alarming quotes from Palauns that raised questions on how the socio-cultural context of this research was conducted. Aside from one vocal angry tribal leader, a very upset Adalbert Eledu, a person that Berger et al. acknowledge in the PLoS One paper, also expressed disappointment. Like many others, I saw this as a sign that the ‘interfacing’ that needs to be done between scientists and locals went awry. To acknowledge someone and then have them publicly express disdain is not a good thing. This coupled with the ‘fact’ you first mentioned in your comment on March 11th, 2008, where Palauns were asked to not be on the author list, indicated that the Palaun interests were ignored in favor for releasing the National Geographic Society documentary. That is what instigated the inquiry into what happened to interfacing with Palauns.

    The consistency and frequency at which both you and Dr. Berger have down played or skirted aside the socio-cultural issues is why I called you both out on being dismissive. Time and time again I’ve read from both of you to “move on and focus on the science,” as if anything else is not worthy of your consideration. But I won’t be focusing just on the science. You call the points and questions I have raised as “moving off on tangents which have no bearing on the issue,” but they do.

    Furthermore, for Dr. Berger to also say his mistyping of my name was somehow my fault further showed more signs of his neglect in integrating the socio-cultural context with addressing someone in a discussion. And that’s why I called him out on it. There’s a point of distinction that I see neither of you are getting in your arguments. I don’t care about the typo. I care about how the typo was justified. Suffice to say, based off of these interactions and observations, I’m not surprised to read that there are pissed off Palauns out there and I’m not shy to share that.

    I hope you see that you’re breaking into jail by reiterating the focus on the science mantra. I also hope you realize it is bad PR, especially when addressing a community of anthropologists. I’ll keep reiterating that focus has to also be spent on investigating why people are pissed off and what can be done to remedy that. I am confident that many anthropologists will also acknowledge that as well.

    Kambiz

    P.S. – In regards to accusing Dr. Berger of signing his comments as anyone other than yourself, I did not. I mentioned to Anne Gilbert that I had an idea who Frodo maybe, but I asked Dr. Berger directly if he knew who Frodo Baggins is and if he was the person behind Frodo Baggins. To say I accused Dr. Berger of being Frodo is false.

  18. Mr. Kamrani,

    I never said I was backing out of the discussion, I said after I made the 11 March post that I moved on and never checked back, you drug me back into it. I made the post in March as, what I considered then, a courtesy to a fellow scientist who may want to know more about the background to the science. Was I authorized to make such statements, no. Should I have tried to clear up the mis information, in hindsight no, I shouldn’t have considering the replies that have come from you. And another point you seem to have missed, you say the “Palauns were asked to not be on the author list”, I never said that, I said the Palauns them selves asked to be removed from authorship for their own reasons (Which Prof. Berger has since explained to you). I agree with you that indigenous populations rights and feelings should come first and foremost prior to any research or digs being conducted, from my understanding this was done on Palau. The science comes after, once the material has been unearthed, then the measurements are taken and the comparisons made. In theory palaeoanthropologists should be grown up enough to put aside their ego’s (yes I have one as well) their petty dislikes for one another and look at the science for what it is, SCIENCE, not the playground attitudes of my find is better than yours, and what you uncover is meaningless compared to what I have uncovered load of crap that permeates the field. But as you point out, we have to cooperate and work with humans, and that goes to people within the field as well as the people living near and around potential research sites.

    As for your comment, “if you manned up and wrote your comments in this forum under your true identity, it would make your comment about my dedication to thorough paleoanthropology a bit less spineless”…. I don’t recall questioning your dedication to palaeoanthropology, I just queried why you insist upon perpetuating the miss information by Mr. Dalton when Prof. Berger has openly told you the facts has he knows them to be…… perhaps there is more to you and Mr. Dalton then meets the eye??

  19. Kambiz,

    Firstly, I would very much appreciate you not lumping your comments to me and Frodo Baggins together. We are two separate persons. I would suggest to you that I have not downplayed the socio-cultural aspects of this research. I was not involved in the earlier discussions on this blog. In my first post I clearly outlined the involvement of all of the Palauan’s I had worked with. Your comment that something went “awry” is correct, manifestly, but let me see if I can put my perspective on this clearly. Until the very moment that Rex Dalton set foot on Palau and begin his “witch hunt” – my colleagues and I were completely unaware of any negative issues that any Palauan’s might have – and that includes Mr. Adalbert Eledu. We were in communication with the Bureau and in good relations. Mr. Dalton quite literally “dropped out of the sky” – a form of ambush journalism. If you read his stories carefully, it seems that there is an underlying agenda concerning money. That’s the context he quotes Adalbert Eledu in. You must remember that I represent a research team. Yes, we want to continue research in Palau, and believe me when I tell you that we want to do it in a culturally sensitive manner. As you certainly must be aware, the internal and external politics in any situation like this – particularly when you are dealing with human remains – is like walking a tightrope. My team and I were in fact instructed by the Palauan authorities – including the traditional leaders we met with – to not speak to anyone on Palau about this matter. They would handle it. Sure it was a poorly kept secret – the island is small – but that was not our decision to make.

    What happened were two very unfortunate things: firstly, National Geographic broke its own embargo through a television scheduling error. The show came out before the paper and this almost certainly led to the Palauan’s being embarrassed by not being able to break the news of this find coming out to all in a sensitive manner to all potentially concerned parties. Secondly, on the heels of this, Dalton drops in unannounced as a “reporter for Nature”. Now we compound the first mistake with a reporter from a prestigious journal snooping around for a story which I think, given everything that has happened, has more to do with an issue between Dalton and NGS than with us. He was simply fishing. But fishing in these sorts of circumstances can be extremely damaging. How long did it take him to find a disgruntled leader who had not been informed by the group in the know? Not long. How long did it take him to jump on a boat with this disgruntled leader and race off to the caves for a photo op? Not long. Should this obviously distressed leader have been informed – I don’t know – but it certainly wasn’t my decision to make. It belonged to the Palauan’s who were caught off-guard by the show and Mr. Dalton. It’s their history after all. Do I bear some responsibility for this? Of course, but its hard to learn lessons from reports like Dalton’s – he’s ignoring certain facts and publishing others – as he told me on the phone just the week before last “It doesn’t matter what I say anyway, he’ll have the last word…” . Now there is a lesson in anthropology and science journalism for you.

    Concerning the quote of Mr. Adalbert Eledu, I am certain that this is a deliberate misinterpretation by Dalton of ongoing discussions I have been having with the Palauan representatives on the best way forward. From mid- 2007 we were in discussions about looking for ways to raise funds to purchase a boat, driver etc – they don’t have one to survey and protect the shelters. We wanted to look at ways of both protecting the caves and at the same time possibly using them for tourism. While one small part of the community may not wish to have tourism in these caves, another part does and sees this as a way of sharing their culture. Tours were going there already after all. I also wanted to look around for funds to continue exploratory research – these islands have tremendous potential as we have seen. Dalton twists this to imply “National Geographic owes the Palauan’s money”. I am not National Geographic any more than a researcher using an NSF grant is the National Science Foundation. But it is important that field researchers work with the communities to make sure they benefit from not only the publicity around important finds, but from the research itself, to help better understand their origins and protect sensitive sites. But this takes time. I know, I have raised a lot of funds for development here in South Africa around palaeoanthropology.

    In a telephone conversation with Dalton held at 7am on Sunday morning March 9th, when he called from “Hawaii”, and ambushed me with the news that Nat. Geo. had broken the embargo and he was just leaving Palau after digging for dirt, I was truly taken off-guard. I explained this history – he chose to ignore it in his first publication – and in his second. He even went so far as to go on and publish online the next evening after he promised me he would not go ahead with the story until after talking with me the next morning giving me time to find out what was going on. He had clearly already made up his mind and written his story. That, from my point of view, is a deliberate twisting of the facts and might now jeopardize our ability to raise funds for these much needed projects.

    When you add in the fact that he is putting juicy quotes into the articles about the science – and he knows those facts to be wrong – then what am I to make of this? You may not see it as a big deal, but for Dalton to use the Fitzpatrick and Pietrusewsky quotes about body size knowing that it’s not true, I think this is a very big deal. Can we have powerful science journalist always having the last word on issues like this? What am I supposed to expect his agenda is – to discredit the research at any cost? You did the same in your gleeful first commentary on Dalton’s “new” revelations. You knew about John Hawk’s data in his commentary on Palau. You must have, you quoted his commentary elsewhere, but you chose instead to take a dig at us on other issues – where is the fairness and balanced journalism in that? Above, you just answered two separate people in one review – the only reference to the post I made was you did not like me talking about you heading off on tangents – fair enough. But for you to now say you don’t want to talk about the science is a bit unfair when you went to some considerable lengths to use Dalton’s quotes and take a “slap” at Hawk’s and me and my colleagues on these very scientific issues.

    Finally, despite your denials, you did imply I was posting as Frodo Baggins – I presume in order to discredit my integrity in these posts. No one here is stupid. Amongst numerous other comments above the “Well, Dr. Berger if you’re not the person who wrote the comment by Frodo Baggins and since you don’t know who is… then you most likely have security problem with your computer(s).” and “Even if you don’t want the evidence, I’d figure out if anyone (Hobbit or human) may have used your computer(s) on March 11th, 2008, if I were you!” is juvenile sarcasm and your message is clear.

    We as scientists are fairly limited in our ability to protect ourselves from this sort of journalism. In blogs, we have to answer as I am doing here. For journals like Nature, I have sent a correspondence to them and we will see – but as Dalton says – they effectively hold all of the cards as to whether they will even allow a reply.

  20. This is just to inform everyone that Dr. Lee Berger did go to the “right” places and he did everything he could that did not go against the government of Palau.

    I quoted the “right” places because he went to the Koror State Government and issued the required permits to explore the caves and conduct the findings. I quote the “right” places because he did do everything well and he notified the “right” people.

    Koror State Goverment has control over most of the Rock Islands and the KSG has responsibility to notify the the public. So Dr. Lee Berger is not to blame here. Whatever is disclosed or not among the Palauan community has to do with the indigenous politics. In truth, the bones that are now sitting in the Belau National Museum are from a certain village in what is now Koror State. The chiefs of the village where the bones are located did not know of this dig because the KSG has more control.

    If anything unethical was going on… well… you know what I mean.

    But what Lee Berger failed to see… like any trained anthropologist should see, is the bigger picture. As an anthropologist/archaeologist, he should have done research on the indigenous culture and how does he go about in making the, if not appropriate, RIGHT moves in handling indigenous epistemology. Screw the government! It’s a total copy of the U.S. government! Palau, like many other cultures of the world, has a political system in which different states have different applications! If anybody should have been notified of this study, it should have been the people of where these sites are. The chiefs of Ngermid should have been notified. It’s no surprise that KSG did not mention that to Berger… but then again, Berger, after all his experience in South Africa (he must have dealt with the indigenous politics as well!), he should have at least done the respectful thing and let the ones who live in that part of Palau know, especially the chiefs.

  21. Need I say more? Fitzpatrick is a long time archaeologist in Palau, but then again, for what reason is he doing this? For show? Or really, for science… The floor is open…

  22. I’m not a scientist of any description but I am interested (love) science but scientists and their fragile egos drive me batty.
    I can’t believe these posts about name spelling and IP’s etc , it is just totally lame.
    Berger seems to be trying to address the more serious questions here , the ones to do with science , while Kambiz and Anne are doing anything but and have resorted to name calling.,
    the whole thing is very disappointing but confirms my view on scientists .Just give me the science ….please.

  23. As an interested and reasonably intelligent outsider, I watched “Mystery Skulls of Palau” on ABC television last night. These things take a while to reach Australia.

    It suffered from the usual production faults we see in National Geographic documentaries, e.g., hyperbole, constant repetition in both commentary and photography, excessive and unrelated background music. I eventually muted the sound and read the closed captions (sub-titles) cutting out the sound-treakc and putting up with the visual padding, without which we might have had an informative half-hour programme rather than a weary hour.

    Two main points came to mind:

    — The documentary should not have been made and screened until more research had been done, and more accurate or at least detailed findings could be reported.

    — The circumstances of and methods behind the Tasady hoax (1971/1972), which took me in at the time, cause me to question the validity of any National Geographic documentary.

    As a mere layman, I hope that when the academics have finished arguing, perhaps we could have the pleasure of seeing a more informative documentary with more solid conclusions . . . produced by the BBC.

  24. Last night, I watched the Parthenon TV documentary “Mystery Skulls of Palau”, produced for National Geographic. (It takes a while for these things to reach Australia.)

    Alas, it suffered from all the usual faults of National Geographic documentaries, e.g., hyperbole; constant repetition of voice-over statements and questions; repetition ad nauseam of shots of the cave when an intelligent viewer already knew what it looked like; repetition of graphics which had already been shown and explained several times; inappropriate and irrelevant background music, with themes and chords repeated over and over again; repeated interpolation of rapid clips of unexplained people doing unexplained things; multiple views of the bottom of a boat; frogs, for goodness sake; etc.

    I eventually muted the sound, to get rid of some of the overload, and simply read the closed captions (sub-titles).

    The documentary was potentially interesting, but turned out to be lacking in decisive information. It did not do justice to the research and findings of the academics involved. Thus did I come to this website to find out what was missing. A few main conclusions come to mind:

    — I am none the wiser and have grave doubts about a possible glitch in the usual evolutionary process. The documentary should not have been made and screened until more research had been done, and academics had found some sort of compromise in their argument about the findings.

    — Since being taken in by the Tasaday hoax (1971/72), I cannot accept on face value the validity of National Geographic productions, even if the presentation were to be greatly improved and aimed at adult viewers.

    — A half-hour documentary report, produced by the BBC when more information is available, will be vastly superior to a one-hour effort by National Geographic.

    Yes, we humble but interested laypersons like to be entertained but some of us also like to be informed, factually and usefully.

  25. I would much rather have the facts. I watch National Geographic documentaries sometimes, but it’s in spite of the portentous narration and the made-up mysteries, not because of them. This should have been edited to be more objective or at least sandwiched with cautionary notes at every interval.

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