Science Suffers From The Idiots At Scientific American

Scientific American recently published a spineless attack on the state of access to paleoanthropological specimens. They titled it, “Fossils for All: Science Suffers by Hoarding,” and John Hawks lend it credibility with a nod in his post. Aside from being spineless, it reeks of ignorance and is tactless. In this post I’ll be discussing why this is not a honest criticism but rather a sloppy slam.

If you read the piece, you’ll notice that Tim White is in the cross hairs of the editors of Scientific American. Why? Tim White discovered Ardi­pithecus ramidus fifteen years ago and continues preparing the specimens. For the editors, that’s enough to pull the guns out and start shooting — claiming he’s sitting on his golden egg far too long and damaging the field as a whole. The cowards at Scientifc American decided to make this bold claim behind a wall of anonymity… publishing this piece simply as the editors. And here in lies the drama and the conflicts of interest.

See, most anthropological editorials on Scientific American are authored by Kate Wong, a twelve year veteran editor for magazine. She is their anthropology editor. Her authority on the subject matter come from a Bachelor’s degree in physical anthropology and zoology from the University of Michigan. University of Michigan is home to Milford Wolpoff, the man who supports multiregional evolution hypothesis… You know the one that claims the origins of Homo sapiens happened in multiple places around the world and not from a common African origin. He’s known for not being a field scientist. Furthermore, within the discipline, the rift between Wolpoff and White is pretty well known and deep. White got his PhD from the University of Michigan. And Wolpoff holds a ~50 year grudge against White in regards to his stance against his single species origin of humans.

Wong has worked closely with another large anti-Tim White camp, the Hadar folks, during the lead up to the Selam news frenzy that we talked about several years ago. The Hadar camp is more or less a Donald Johanson territory as he was there when Lucy was discovered and published the findings. Where Wong may not have an immediate connection to Wolpoff, aside from earning her Bachelor’s from the department Wolpoff teaches in, she does have a clear one with Johanson. She was a coauthor with Donald Johanson on a book published this year, Lucy’s Legacy.

As you may know, there’s also sour grapes shared shared between Johanson and White. I won’t get into those details… But its clearly out there and is exemplified by a passage in Lucy’s Legacy,

“Tim is a very exacting scientist who is not about to be pressured into saying more about ramidus until he is good and ready. But his unwillingness to share more information about the fossils – not to mention access to the remains themselves – in a much more timely way has drawn criticism. (So secretive are he and his team about the fossil that it has been referred to as the Manhattan Project of paleoanthropology.) In fact, spurred in part by Tim’s actions, some researchers have even proposed that funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation establish a limitation on how long the discoverer of a fossil has exclusive access to that material before having to share it with other investigators.” p. 155-156 Lucy’s Legacy

There’s no way to know if Johanson or Wong wrote this particular passage but they both share authorship and royalities of the book and ultimately agree on the points raised in the text.

This is a clear conflict of interest for Scientific American and their anthropological editor, Kate Wong. As an editor of Scientific American, for Wong to be an author of a book which conveys the same criticisms as published under anonymity in their magazine and on their website, shows that she exploited her professional capacity for personal benefit.

In addition to egregious political move by Scientific American, the piece is ignorant of the whole process involved in finding, cleaning, documenting a fossil. Fossils don’t come out of the ground perfect. Believe me, I know. Some of the time these findings are as delicate as a ball of dust and require a great deal of care to preserve them during which time it is the primary investigator/discoverer’s responsibility and privilege.  I’ve actually discussed this before, very thoroughly in this comment thread.

For the editors and other supporters to suggest there should be a limit to how long it takes to prepare a fossil show how they really have no idea to what it takes to curate a fossil. There’s no way to put a time limit on this process. Aside from a select few, most field scientists are professors at universities. Again, as I’ve said before, their time in the field is limited, several months a year, of which time is split between finding new fossils and curating old ones. Field scientists, like White, can’t leave their teaching positions at places like UC Berkeley and dedicate years to preparing the specimen. They do as much as they can and they do it with quality. The Middle Awash, White’s stomping ground, has an impressive record of impactful, frequent fossil discoveries and publications which can’t really be said for Wolpoff and Johanson.

You may consider this a defense of White. I admit this is. This was a shameless jab at White and a despicable, cowardly, and haphazard move by Scientific American. Science is not about quantity. I shouldn’t have to tell freaking Scientific American that. Science is about quality. Editorials like this don’t advance the field. They completely ignore that science is a process and not a product. In doing so they damage the discipline.

One last thing… To the editors of Scientific American, grow some balls next time you wanna put out crap like this and publish your full names along side your criticism. Stand behind your words.

29 thoughts on “Science Suffers From The Idiots At Scientific American

  1. Wow… fun and games. But just a suggestion. Given some of your comments, you should probably put your own name on this article. It’s not particularly easy (as far I can see) to identify which of the blog team wrote the article.

    1. Duae, if I had any control over the editing the theme of this blog, the first thing I’d put is the author tag so that all our posts are easily identifiable by the author. But I don’t.

      Despite this, I still make people publish in their full names and it possible to track down authors’ posts under the about page.

      Kambiz

  2. Nicely written, Kambiz.

    There are too much drama in the field, and I can’t even keep track with 90% of them. I think people from our field should have a gossip blog like E!News, MTV, or VH1 so I can get in tune with the drama and gossip!

    1. Thanks for the comment Raymond.

      Honestly, I don’t get what the big push for the A. ramidus publication is all about? Could the interests in Ardi­pithecus ramidus, the one species everyone so desperately needs access to, come from the probability that Ardi­pithecus ramidus findings directly compete with the multiregional hypothesis… And those crying foul game need access so they can tear down the fossil and support their own agenda? I agree there’s a lot of drama, but wherever there’s blood and sweat involved as well as people’s livelihoods there’s always gonna be drama!

      In regards to a gossip blog, while I try to keep Anthropology.net poignant, sometimes Anthropology.net has served as the TMZ of Paleoanthropology. Several times I’ve indulged in the politics and drama just because it was blatantly obvious and needed to be discussed.

      Kambiz

      1. I think the significance of A. ramidus is whether or not it was a biped. I believe the 1994 specimen includes postcranial skeleton, which is important to determine if A. ramidus did walked upright.

  3. I don’t usually involve myself in BLOGS, I suppose the content and tenor of this one is a good reason why not, but I do believe this paragraph could be just a bit overdone:

    “See, most anthropological editorials on Scientific American are authored by Kate Wong, a twelve year veteran editor for magazine. She is their anthropology editor. Her authority on the subject matter come [sic] from a Bachelor’s degree in physical anthropology and zoology from the University of Michigan. University of Michigan is home to Milford Wolpoff, the man who supports multiregional evolution hypothesis… You know the one that claims the origins of Homo sapiens happened in multiple places around the world and not from a common African origin. He’s known for not being a field scientist. Furthermore, within the discipline, the rift between Wolpoff and White is pretty well known and deep. White got his PhD from the University of Michigan. And Wolpoff holds a ~50 year grudge against White in regards to his stance against his single species origin of humans.”

    Kate is indeed a Michigan graduate, one of our finest, and her training and intelligence shows in her work. Tim is my 3rd PhD student, I am happy to say, and while we don’t always agree with each other, I am proud to have trained him. The fact is that the University of Michigan is not a disease, it is a school where many practicing paleoanthropologists have learned to think originally, think for themselves, and above all to THINK. And it shows!

    By the way, I’ve worked in the field in Africa and Europe, but indeed that is not where I have expended most of my efforts. What I totally reject is the notion that you have to be able to find and excavate specimens to analyze and understand them and how they address key aspects of evolution (see above comments on thinking). So, if it tars the reputation of scientists to be trained by non-field-working-me me at Michigan, besides Kate and Tim I feel really sorry for David Wayne Frayer, Fred Hines Smith, Leonard Owen Greenfield, Clark Spencer Larsen , Mary Doria Russell, Marcia Lynn Robertson, Lynne Alison Schepartz, Andrew Kramer, Tracey Leigh Crummett, Katarzyna Anna Kaszycka, James Chapin McLaughlin, Sang-Hee Lee, John David Hawks, Adam Van Arsdale, and Virginia Hutton Estabrook.

    It is too bad that the blog finds the time to denigrate the messenger but ignores the message. The fact is that NSF DID have to act because there IS a problem with data access and control in paleoanthropology, and the NSF approach is a significant step in correcting it But then, this hardly needs elaboration or repetition since the Scientific American editorial lays it out so well.

    1. Thank you for your response, Dr. Wolpoff.

      I can understand the impatience of someone, like you, who relies on others to provide them with the fossils for analysis. I’m sorry that the few people actually still willing to go out and recover the primary data (the ones now being attacked “anon” editors and by those who can’t or don’t) aren’t meeting your expectations to be brought into an analysis prematurely.

      Which makes me curious when was the last time you discovered fossils?

      In regards to the lack of data sharing, I disagree that there’s a lack of data access and control in paleoanthropology. Since the discovery of A. ramidus, the Middle Awash group has been very busy, finding many new fossils and producing well over 130 publications. That’s almost 10 a year! Some of these publications are initial assessments and announcements of the fossils, others are thorough comparisons. In addition, several high quality manuscripts chock full of data have also put out, like Homo erectus and Ardipithecus kadabba.

      I consider this data sharing. What more do you expect? In what other field of research do the investigators invite others into their laboratories to read their notebooks and see the experiments in progress before publication? Not many, to be honest. Are biotech researchers forced to share their lab notes prior to publication? No.

      The only thing NSF has done in regards to paleoanthropology is by amending an absurd statement that a data sharing plan be generated before the nature of the data to be shared is even known, since the fieldwork hasn’t been done. How’s that even possible, let alone a significant step?

      Kambiz

  4. I just read the editorial at Sci Am. It doesn’t read as bad as your post makes it out to be. I didn’t find it to be “tactless” or “cowardly” and I certainly couldn’t detect any foul odor that characterizes ignorance. It’s common practice that editorials are usually never signed (and if you don’t like anonymity in your journalism then you’ll definitely be turned off by The Economist–none of their articles are ever signed). That said, Sci Am’s editorial didn’t seem to impugn Tim White as strongly as you imply, and they even had a paragraph devoted to his explanation of the delay in publication. Sure, they could have picked other examples, say, a yet-to-be described Afrotherian from the Fayum, but that example wouldn’t resonate with readers. Their choice of using Tim White as an example was probably less politically motivated than you make it out to be. And your Kate Wong/Michigan/Wolpoff connection is quite tenuous, if not downright fanciful.

    1. I disagree. It is cowardly and tactless for all the reasons I already addressed. In case you missed them… Let me summarize:

      The editors felt the need to single out White all while hiding under anonymity, which is cowardly. They could have generalized that some researchers take their time more than others, but they decided to make an example of White. And they decided not to publish their names along side it.

      The tactless move was the whole conflict of interest. Scientific American is a separate entity from Kate Wong, and for the magazine and to reiterate her same message shows they weren’t really adroit in covering up their tracks…

      Thanks for the comment but it was rather useless,

      Kambiz

  5. Your editorial would be close to the mark if you were talking about 15 months: at 15 years I think it is over the edge.

    Henry Harpending

    1. Do you know what it takes to fix up A. ramidus? Do you have any idea what condition it was recovered in? Fossil curation and reconstruction are time consuming and tedious and when done poorly are nearly useless.

  6. [just another useless comment, I’m sure]

    Hmm. This is one over-the-top rant. You state in your blog post that the Scientific American editorial “reeks of ignorance,” but you never substantiate the claim to my satisfaction.

    Curation only happens during a short window during the summer? Sounds like Dr. White needs a little more budget.

    If Tim White and his team are going to announce a discovery that redefines (according to them) the family tree, then yes, 15 years is too long. This would be like a physicist claiming he had discovered a way to to generate limitless energy, but them refusing to share his data for 15 years (and counting…).

    I’d like you to name one Paleoanthropologist outside of his team who thinks Tim White is right on schedule, and it’s ok if we have to wait a few more years.

    BTW, I certainly think that Drs. Wolpoff and Hawks deserve a little more respect than they got here.

    1. Eat shit, Paul.

      I don’t need you to be telling me who I need to be respecting or not on my blog. As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t disrespected either. Furthermore, this is my site. If you don’t like the message then get over it.

      The ignorance, if you didn’t catch it, dumbass, are the people who do not know what it takes to reconstruct a fossil, i.e. the armchair anthropologists who don’t do the primary data recovery, breathing down the White’s neck saying he’s working slow. I think I made that pretty clear.

      White, and the Middle Awash group he leads, have found a lot of impactful fossils. I am not gonna list all their important finds, it is out there and impressive. The issue is not with funding, they the have funding. They are one of the largest groups out there. So you clearly have no idea. It is simply a issue of time and doing quality work. Like I told Dr. Harpending in a comment thread above, fossil curation and reconstruction are time consuming and tedious and when done poorly are nearly useless.

      Kambiz

      1. In their 1994 Nature article White et al. list 17 collected specimens recovered from Aramis. In your opinion, should there ever be a time limit for analyzing 17 fragments of a mandible? Or maybe you would rather that I eat shit along with Paul?

        BTW, when you state, “The ignorance, if you didn’t catch it, dumbass, are the people who do not know what it takes to reconstruct a fossil,” you are showing your ignorance. In this case, the proper grammar would be to use the word ignorant, not ignorance. Good job, and keep up the great science writing.

        1. 1,000 apologies to the Sergent of the Grammar Police, John Turner, for my outstanding error. May he have mercy on me.

          Yeah, I personally rather have perfectly preserved 17 4.4 million year old mandibular fragments than 17 4.4 million year old fragments that disintegrate in 10 years because some third party, who provided no support in the recovery, reconstruction, and research process, wanted to see the fossil sooner. Call me crazy, but aren’t we here to recover fossils and preserve them so that future generations may learn from them?

          While, I don’t consider fossils to be products like vaccines, they both involve scientific research… and I don’t read accusational editorials from people breathing down the necks of HIV vaccine researchers who are still taking 28 years to make a vaccine. People who do have a problem with how long the process takes, should tighten up their belts, roll up their sleaves, goto Ethiopia and find their down damn fossil. The problem is that the people who find the fossils simply aren’t respected and are sidelined by impatient lab scientists who don’t do the dirty work and expect fossils to be delivered to them…. “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop!”

      2. Of course it’s your website, and you’re allowed to make an ass of yourself if you like.

        But how can you make such bold, powerful attacks and not expect others to have their own opinions?

        Perhaps you don’t think you’ve been disrespectful, but I suspect Dr. Wolpoff would be offended if he considered you worth the trouble.

        Calling people “idiots”, “cowards”, and “dumbasses” (as you would say) doesn’t advance the field.

        You’ve confirmed with your reply to my comment that I certainly have better things to do that read the rants of a person who is incapable of hearing criticism or simply being disagreed with.

        1. I’m right in this regard Paul. I know I am.

          Calling you a dumbass was also a valid move because you didn’t pick up my arguments the first time around and I had to basically spell it out for you. It is still valid because you think you have better things to do than read Anthropology.net, but we both know you don’t and you’ll still check out the site…

  7. Journalistic organizations commonly include unsigned essays from their editorial boards, and Scientific American is no exception. It is true that I did much of the legwork on this particular editorial, but the essay topic was decided by the board as a group, and shaped collectively. There are, of course, other hominin fossils that researchers say they have been denied access to. But because of the finite nature of a printed page, we only had room for one, and we chose to use the most commonly cited example. As for the assertion that there is a conflict of interest and that I exploited my “professional capacity for personal benefit,” I can only say that my involvement with Lucy’s Legacy is well known to my Scientific American colleagues and to most paleoanthropologists. If there was a personal benefit from this editorial, I’m unaware of it.

    1. Now that there’s no restriction to the limits of the ‘printed page,’ would you be willing to name a few other paleoanthropologists who are withholding fossils?

  8. I appreciate the points the site owner would like to make, but let us consider what value a reconstruction will be if it takes years to complete. How many fossils have had their value compromised because of disagreements over the reconstruction?
    (This comment from someone who couldn’t tell an arm bone from a leg bone, BTW. This also from someone who spends 1/2 lecture from 15 mya to 2.5mya in his intro class because there is hardly anything to say about that period that we can all believe).

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