Spoiling All the Fun

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Some people are no fun. Like TPM Reader DF, who’s throwing some cold water on the idea that Jurassic Park may be opening any time in the next few years. More seriously, he points out that there are still some shortcomings in the research by the team who says they’ve isolated preserved soft tissue from a T-Rex that died 68 million years ago …

I am a vertebrate paleontologist and I am generally familiar with this work. I think your article stating that the presence of soft tissues in the T. rex specimen has been confirmed is a bit too accepting. I would say that in science, as in many other areas of academia, stating that something has been confirmed implies that a research group other than that which first proposed an idea or interpretation has replicated the finding or otherwise corroborated the finding. In this case, the story is about the same research group that has been arguing for the preservation of soft tissue all along, so it does not really count as confirmation as such.

I don’t have a horse in this race, to use a taxonomically challenged metaphor, but I have followed this debate in the literature since it started. Schweitzer and her collaborators have published some ideas that suggest they are insufficiently critical of their own data and interpretations, which undermines their support. For example, they published a phylogeny (or family tree) using their “fossil” protein sequence data that indicates dinosaurs (which includes birds) are more closely related to mammals than they are to lizards. This is simply untenable and suggests problems with their dinosaur data or their analysis or both, but they accepted it as a reasonable result. Such uncritical publication has hurt their case and makes them seem overly convinced of their claims, which is not a good position in any scientific debate.

That being said, in the end, the debate is one which tends to hurt paleontology as a science as it maintains the focus on unusual and “newsworthy” fossils (The Biggest! The Smallest! The First! The Last! The Trexest!) instead of the more analytical work that characterizes much of the effort in the discipline to understand the history of life on Earth. Of course T. rex had proteins and soft tissues. Isolating them will be nifty and will reveal them to be much like the tissues of living dinosaurs at the molecular level, with some differences due to time and genealogical distance. This will not get us particularly far scientifically, but will be eaten up by the media as an important result from paleontology. Understanding the causes of mass extinctions, such as those like the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction that was likely caused by climate change mediated by CO2 emissions, is incredibly important scientific work (also not my own!) that will help us understand the biotic crisis we face over the coming generations, but it is not particularly sexy and newsworthy.

I love getting emails like this because one of the joys of being a part of TPM is that there’s not a subject we’ve ever covered that doesn’t reveal a core of readers with deep knowledge of the subject and expertise we lack and will never have. But I’m not sure I agree with the last point. I don’t think newsworthy or ‘sexy’ nuggets from the world or paleontology (or other hard sciences for that matter) distract from the more important research and findings. In most cases, I think it’s just a wash or has little real impact one way or another. But these captivating nuggets are what prompt people to learn more about scientific disciplines and their core areas of research, not less.

And last but not least, thanks for scaring the bejeezus out of me about climate change once again. Sheesh.

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