Science is not perfect but it is important – that’s the point

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Robert Gebelhoff suggests we recognize that science is far from unassailable and easily twisted to push various political agendas or to bolster our own particular world view. Gebelhoff then points to a variety of ways that science has been misused, and concludes by suggesting we refuse to have opinions where we don’t have a clear answer.

Whereas we should all be skeptical of proclamations from authority, Gebelhoff is far from alone in missing key aspects that give science its power. Let’s start by asking, what do you mean by “science”? Often nebulously imagined as a search for ultimate truth, science is no more nor less than the best tool we have for answering questions about the natural world. Ideally, those who do science abide by strict rules of conduct. Your hypotheses, laws, and theories must be testable, falsifiable, and predictive. Your claims are only valid if you have data to support them. You recognize your own inherent human bias and so have your work evaluated carefully by experts, a process known as peer review. If your peers and others cannot replicate your observations or experiments, the burden falls on you to either provide more evidence or reject or modify your conclusions. Ultimately, the data decide.

Science is a tool, but it is used by humans and that means that it will never be “anywhere near perfect” as Gebelhoff laments. This is certainly true, but ignores the fact that it is typically scientists themselves who catch errors and correct them. As is often said, science is a self-correcting discipline: if data keep piling up that contradict previous or current hypotheses, we reject the old and embrace the new because it is closer to what actually occurs in nature. Being truthful may not hold much currency in some human affairs, but if you lie and distort your data in science, sooner or later you will be found out and it will almost certainly mean the end of your career. Believe me, peer review is not for the faint-hearted.

Yes, science is not perfect. But this misses a crucial concept: there is no absolute certainty in science — there is simply probability.  As scientists we recognize that we are human and can only realistically deal in samples. For example, when it comes to climate change, we simply can’t have all the data on all the clouds, carbon dioxide, and local temperatures everywhere and always.  Therefore, we indicate that our data suggest certain scenarios are more probable than others. The higher the probability, the more confident one can be that the predictions will come to pass based on the data.

Here we get to the root of so many problems at the intersection of science and politics. Especially now, many of us have taken rigid political sides and we hide behind our identity bunkers, secure in the knowledge that our politics are the right ones. Recognizing the authority of science, but failing to understand where that authority comes from, we cherry pick and twist what we have read about science to aid our fight. Few people go beyond a news blurb, Facebook post, or tweet, and rarer still do we read what the scientists actually reported. In other areas of politics, we can easily deny the significance of scientific findings by turning the nature of science itself on its head: until we can be certain, we claim, there is no need for action. How often have you heard something like, “Let’s just wait until all the data are in, and then we’ll make an informed decision.” This is simply a way to deny significant findings and to wait forever, potentially putting us in harm’s way.

Perhaps the most frustrating assertion in Gebelhoff’s article is that since the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on non-defense research each year, “with so much money at stake, it’s simply unrealistic to expect all scientists to act purely for the advancement of knowledge.” These sorts of statements really hurt those of us for whom science is not just a profession but a vocation. First, Gebelhoff’s claim that “$70 billion” is spent on non-defense research is misleading. Yes, in 2016 approximately $70 billion was spent on non-defense research and development, but it is “folded into the budgets of more than two dozen federal departments and independent agencies, and there may be little or no distinction made between activities” ( Furthermore, as an example, in 2015 the total U.S. government budget was approximately $1.1 trillion, and science funding accounted for only 3% or about $30 billion of that money. Second, the majority of the money is often spent on supporting and training students and postdocs, as well as (rightly so) public outreach and education. Most scientists, if they ever receive this highly competitive funding, are not rolling in cash. Only 20% of the grant requests the National Science Foundation receives are funded each year, and the average annual award is approximately $160,000. Think about that – the average annual grant award for supporting students, buying equipment, publishing the results for the public, and doing outreach is less than the average annual salary of a medical doctor in the U.S. The truth is, if you want to be a rich scientist you pursue a career in the private sector.

Gebelhoff is correct – science is not perfect and its conclusions can be twisted to justify political ends. But this is no reason to lose hope in the power and benefit of science as a tool. Recognizing that our politics often distort the nature of science, we must stop expecting science to give us absolute certainty to justify our preconceived notions. Instead, we must struggle to remember that science is an apolitical tool for understanding nature. It is powerful in that it helps us predict, often very accurately, the likely outcomes of our actions here on earth. Science doesn’t care about your politics, but like all tools, it can be bent toward noble or ignoble ends. Let’s choose wisely.

Read the first chapter of The Bare Bones

BareBmecDue to requests for a sampler of my forthcoming book from Indiana University Press, The Bare Bones, I am now making available a PDF of the first chapter. I think this will give you a feel for the tone of the book.

Thanks to everyone for all of the interest and enthusiasm for the book. It was truly a labor of love, and I hope many of you will find it enjoyable to read and useful to those who may use it as an educational resource.

The Bare Bones, Chapter 1

I am also giving another sneak preview at one of the figures, this one from Chapter 2:

Carnivorous mammals, such as a cat, tend to have a jaw joint in line with their sharp, shearing teeth, much as the handles of a pair of scissors align with the blades.  This puts the best cutting surface towards the back of the jaws.  In contrast, herbivorous mammals such as horses have a jaw joint located above the tooth row, allowing their teeth to simultaneously contact one another like a nutcracker.

Carnivorous mammals, such as a cat, tend to have a jaw joint in line with their sharp, shearing teeth, much as the handles of a pair of scissors align with the blades. This puts the best cutting surface towards the back of the jaws. In contrast, herbivorous mammals such as horses have a jaw joint located above the tooth row, allowing their teeth to simultaneously contact one another like a nutcracker.

Also remember, you can preorder The Bare Bones through Indiana University Press or Amazon.

If you are into e-books, it can also be purchased as an e-book. See the Indiana University Press website for links to the appropriate retailers.

Four-legged snakes and the myth of pure science

This Fall term I am teaching my dinosaurs course, but with a twist – it is a freshman-only seminar, and while we will cover dinosaur paleontology, the course is also designed to expose students to how science as a tool and culture intersect. For our first-year students, we assign a common reading, and this year’s reading is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele. This excellent little book shows how pervasive stereotypes are and how they affect our identities. There are certainly many stereotypes surrounding scientists: when I have asked students to draw a scientist in previous courses, I almost always get a balding, white male with a lab coat and a test tube.

As I was looking for a recent example in vertebrate paleontology of the intersection of science and culture, news broke about the discovery of a remarkable fossil that may be an early snake with four legs! Many websites have now covered the discovery in detail, but controversy has surrounded the fossil because of remarks by the lead author, Dr. David Martill, concerning the fossil’s provenance. Provenance refers to the locality of the fossil and its preservational environment, key data that provide context and a timeline. And the provenance of Tetrapodophis amplectus (the species name of the fossil snake) is questionable because the fossil came from a private collection that was later donated to Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum, in Solnhofen, Germany. According to Martill, who responded to questions on the blog of Herton Escobar, “There is no label on the specimen that says when or how it was collected. It was only recognized as certainly being from Brazil because I am an expert on the Crato Formation and I recognized the rock it is preserved in, and its preservation style is exactly like that of the Crato Formation. It is undoubtedly from Brazil.”

This is problematic, because missing the provenance information makes the fossil far less informative. Although it may provide insights into snake evolution, without tighter controls on where and when in time the fossil was deposited, we have lost a lot of environmental context and its temporal relationship to other snake fossils. This is one of the reasons why, public or private, fossils collected without appropriate provenance information lose much of their scientific value.

What is more problematic than the scientific issue of provenance is the legality of the fossil in question. Brazil has laws which prohibit Brazilian fossils from leaving the country, and this suggests Tetrapodophis amplectus ended up in the private collection (from which Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum obtained it) illegally. The reasoning behind such laws stem from concern by Brazilians that their natural heritage is being expatriated, which adversely affects Brazilian paleontologists studying and reporting on their own fossils.

Martill is no stranger to Brazilian laws on fossil collection, and he has made it clear that he doesn’t respect Brazilian laws because they interfere with his ability to publish on new discoveries. According to Martill in a 2014 Nature news article, “Scientists who just want to go about doing science are frustrated.”

Beyond the pale, though, is Martill’s response to a reasonable question from Herton Escobar. Given that Martill recognized the fossil snake was of Brazilian origin, and given that it was likely collected under less-than-desirable circumstances, couldn’t Martill have reached out to a Brazilian paleontologist to collaborate on the study? Martill’s reponse: “But what difference would it make? I mean, do you want me also to have a black person on the team for ethnicity reasons, and a cripple and a woman, and maybe a homosexual too just for a bit of all round balance? … If you invite people because they are Brazilian then people will think that every Brazilian author on a scientific paper is there because he is Brazilian and not because he is a clever scientist.”

For a sociological perspective on this last, abhorrent statement, see Jess Bonnan-White’s post on this issue.

It is time we move past such blatantly colonial and derogatory attitudes about fossil provenance in vertebrate paleontology, and that we call out those who believe it is okay to continue to express such attitudes. Martill’s language exudes overtones of colonial Europe and America, that mostly white, male scientists are in the best position not only to understand nature but to take what they please from others they deem less human. And whereas Martill’s voice may be among the loudest, it certainly is not the only voice extolling these “virtues.” I have myself been told that it is best for those of us in first-world countries to get and prepare fossils from other places so that the science is done right.

And that is perhaps the most galling thing of all: that in the end, we pretend that this is all just about making the science right. That we perpetuate this myth of “pure science.” That, in the end, this is just about a remarkable fossil and nothing more. That because we are scientists we have the luxury of not giving a damn about anything other than the science. That we don’t have to consider other peoples, their customs, their laws, their cultures, or their right to their own natural history. When you say, “Personally I don’t care a damn how the fossil came from Brazil or when it came from Brazil. These are irrelevant to the scientific significance of the fossil,” what you are really saying is that science matters more than people. Science is a tool, but its application is far from neutral. Science is done a huge disservice when its usefulness as a tool for understanding nature supersedes that of understanding and respecting our fellow human beings, let alone our fellow paleontologists.

You don’t get to ignore laws and promote the expatriation of fossils from other people just because you are doing science. If we truly care about global natural history, and we truly care about the story the fossils tell, then we must come to terms with the fact that whereas fossils know no political boundaries, humans do. Thus, it is in our best interest as scientists to be more global in our appreciation of other countries and other peoples. If you are interested in Brazilian fossils, you should also be interested in Brazilian people, their politics, and their laws. If we truly believe science is an egalitarian enterprise where someone’s merit as a scientist comes from their ability, not their nationality, then we can no longer tolerate the excuse that science trumps all.

New interview on Prehistoric Pub

Just a brief post to point those interested to my interview with Jersey native and paleontology enthusiast Gary Vecchiarelli:

Thanks for the interview, Gary!


A hopeful message for those pursuing basic science careers

Giving advice often comes out sounding hollow or self-serving, but if I may be so bold, I’d like to give some hope to young people considering a career in the basic sciences.  My message is simple: you have choices.  That is what I feel needs to be said after reading several recent articles about the pitfalls and difficulties of landing science jobs in the academe.

Take, for example, the article posted by John Skyler at Talebearing about pursuing a science career. Everything this article discusses, from the crushing debt that can be incurred, to the delays in life transitions, to the difficulties in procuring grants, is all, sadly, very real.  And yet, this article, like so many, gives a somewhat skewed vision of what success is in the sciences: becoming a PI (Principal Investigator, the scientific team leader) at an R1 (a large, research-focused university).  There is an often unspoken assumption that success in science = a research heavy / team-leading position in a coveted and highly competitive corner of the market (medicine, bioengineering, etc.).

One way to think of this is by analogy to the music industry.  How many people long to be rock stars, living years in poverty hoping for a shot in a very competitive and harsh business, and often never succeeding in achieving that goal?  Of the few that do make it into stardom, many face almost inhuman pressures to keep producing hits, keep touring, and keep current.  A lot of burn out happens at all levels.  But, of course, there are other avenues to pursuing a career in music.  Perhaps not always so glamorous, sure, but there are many more job opportunities for sound engineers, writers, teachers, studio musicians, and so forth, all with music creation at their heart.  If you work a job in music that you love, you are a success — not just the rock stars.

The same is true for science careers.  If you are interested in basic science, there are several paths you can follow and there are more opportunities outside of the handful of very competitive jobs at the top rungs of the R1 universities.  I speak from experience and from honesty — there are choices.

Yes, we need intense basic research and our federal dollars need to increase to support the motivated souls who push the frontiers of knowledge in R1s day in and day out. But science also needs a lot of people who can juggle research and teaching both effectively, bringing research knowledge to undergraduates and laypeople, conveying the body of knowledge we generate to the public at large.  Being a good science teacher at a college or university is not a booby prize — there is a lot of skill and dedication required to reach the next generation of scientists and, dare I say, politicians.  You can derive a great deal of satisfaction and joy by turning new minds on to science.

And, once and for all, let’s end the myth that says that those of us who teach larger course loads cannot produce quality research.  We can and we do, often involving undergraduates in their first research experiences.  So if you love teaching as well as doing quality research, don’t be dissuaded from pursuing a career in the sciences — know that it can be done.

Be flexible.  Be willing to consider alternate paths to your career.  If you can teach certain subjects, your probability of landing a tenure-track job improves.  For example, for those of us in vertebrate paleontology, knowing your anatomy and being willing and able to teach it can open many more doors than if you only search for dedicated paleontology positions.  Remember that science is not one size fits all — just because you might not get a particular type of position does not mean there is nothing else to do and that your life is a failure.  Science benefits from a diversity of perspectives and approaches that cannot all occur in one setting.

Please don’t take this post to mean I think it will all go swimmingly.  I recognize that I am fortunate to have a tenure-track job, and that many equally or better-qualified individuals currently do not.  I am in no way trying to paint an overly rosy picture — pursuing a science career can be difficult.  It is also true that a Ph.D. is not enough — preparedness, networking, luck, timing, and tenacity all play large roles in how and where we land our jobs.  On top of all of this, there are also still, unfortunately, barriers related to gender and race that make a difficult career even more difficult for many talented individuals.

What I hope I can impart to those pursuing basic science careers is that whereas there are many difficulties you will face, there is not just one path to being successful.  Don’t measure your success by someone else’s standards.  You have enough obstacles as it is without also burdening yourself with one ideal of success.  It is possible to be happy and productive as a scientist in many different ways, and I wish you much luck and future success.

The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey NAMS Research Symposium Abstracts Now On-line

The 2013 NAMS Research Symposium was very well attended, with over 40 posters and many more students and faculty.

The 2013 NAMS Research Symposium was very well attended, with over 40 posters and many more students and faculty.

This is a short post to announce that the NAMS Research Symposium abstracts are now on-line in HTML format as well as available in PDF format: NAMS Symposium 2014 -Abstract Book-.  We have 55 posters this year!

Find out more by going to the NAMS Symposium Research page.  We hope you can join us this Friday, April 25.

Combining physics and vertebrate paleontology

Often, students in biology and paleontology wonder why it is that we “force” them to take physics.  I ought to know — I was one of those students!  It wasn’t until later in graduate school that I began to appreciate the application of physics to matters of dinosaur movement.  I believe part of this reticence among many future biologists and paleontologists to embrace and understand physics is that they feel (as I once did) that it was mostly the arena of engineers and cosmologists.

Yet, the questions we are often so interested in about living organisms and those in the fossil record relate to physics.  How did they move?  Were they moving in water?  How could their heart pump blood to their head?  How did a giant sauropod move, let alone stand, without breaking its bones?  So, if you are interested in dinosaurs and other magnificent animals of the past in the context of how they went about their daily lives, then you are interested in physics.

When I first began teaching vertebrate paleontology back in 2003, my goal then as now was to communicate to biology and paleontology students how modern vertebrate skeletons and body form are related to their function.  Too often, in my opinion, we tend to emphasize taxonomy and relationships over how, as scientists, we reconstruct paleobiology.  To be clear, taxonomy and the study of evolutionary relationships (systematics) are hugely important — they provide the context in which we test evolutionary hypotheses.  However, I wanted to strike a balance in my courses of teaching how the vertebrates were related in combination with how they lived their lives and responded to the physical world.

Today in my vertebrate paleontology course at Richard Stockton College, I hope a new group of students has begun to appreciate this intersection among biology, paleontology, and physics.  In the lab, students used a small wind tunnel and “smoke” from a fog machine to test how three different fossil fishes may have moved through the water.  I have found it is one thing to talk about Bernoulli’s Principle or discuss friction and pressure drag.  It is a whole other kettle of fish (pun intended) to see for one’s self how body shape actually changes the fluid around it.

Each group of students was assigned a fossil fish to research and model out of clay in lab.  Then, after hypothesizing how they thought their particular fish would behave relative to the water current (or in this case, the air current with “smoke”), they put their models in the wind tunnel, turned on the smoke, and put their hypotheses to the test.  They will later present their findings to the class.  My hope in all of this is that these students appreciate that our hypotheses about past life rely heavily on our models of the present flesh, bone, and physical laws.

Student group modeling and studying the effect of body shape on fluid movement in the early chondrichthyan, _Cladoselache_.

Student group modeling and studying the effect of body shape on fluid movement in the early chondrichthyan, _Cladoselache_.  Our wind tunnel can be seen in the background, upper left.

The _Cladoselache_ model sculpted by students based on data from fossils.

The _Cladoselache_ model sculpted by students based on data from fossils.

The student group studying the heterostracan (jawless fish) _Drepanaspis_.

The student group studying the heterostracan (jawless fish) _Drepanaspis_.

_Drepanaspis_ model.

_Drepanaspis_ model.

The student group studying the osteostracan (jawless fish), _Hemicyclaspis_.

The student group studying the osteostracan (jawless fish), _Hemicyclaspis_.

The _Hemicyclaspis_ model.

The _Hemicyclaspis_ model.

The _Hemicyclaspis_ model in our wind tunnel, sitting on a box of clay to prop it into the (faintly visible) stream of "smoke."

The _Hemicyclaspis_ model in our wind tunnel, sitting on a box of clay to prop it into the (faintly visible) stream of “smoke.”

I want to dedicate this short post to the following people at Richard Stockton College.  First, having a wind tunnel and smoke machine would not have happened at all were it not for the help of our shop staff in the Natural Sciences — Bill Harron, Mike Farrell, and Mike Santoro.  They worked on this small scale wind tunnel with my input, and helped give our students a wonderful lab experience.

Second, Christine Shairer was invaluable for her help with getting me the materials my students and I needed to do this small-scale experiment.

Finally, third, Dr. Jason Shulman in physics who is a colleague, research collaborator, and one of the few physicists willing to put up with a paleontologist who is constantly asking what I can only assume are ignorant and humorously simple questions.  If only I had had such an enthusiastic professor when I was questioning why I had to learn physics all those years ago!