Hey there every peoples!
Politics suck. They do nothing but mar progress and prevent anything meaningful from getting done. Those engaged in politics only seem interested in playing the game. And politics have the unfailing ability to overcomplicated anything and everything. Not to mention divide folks into embittered camps facing off like a couple of street gangs ready to rumble. Unfortunately the hemorrhoid that is politics isn’t relegated to the government alone. They seem to have a way of permeating everything, fro schools, to businesses to even science. The world of paleontology has it’s own political atmosphere and just like everywhere else, they seem to stand in the way of progress.
For starters, let us revisit the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs. They were set to go to auction last month, much to the horror of paleontologists. However, they did not sell. Perhaps the price was too high. Maybe the controversy surrounding the specimens was too much for any prospective buyer. So their fate remains uncertain for now. One article i read said that museums had contacted the auction house telling them to put the specimens on hold so they might negotiate (i can’t find that article at the moment so don’t quote me on that). This latest chapter in the saga of the MDD has brought with it fresh brawling between professionals and commercial collectors alike.
The attempt to sell the MDD is nothing short of tragic, even infuriating. These are very important specimens that not only would wow museum goers but also be great assets in the pursuit of dinosaur science. But there is one unfortunate detail that often gets overlooked: they were found on private land. They are the property of the landowner. We can condemn him and and plead with him until the cows come home. But at the end of the day, he is well within his legal rights to try and sell them. But some don’t think so. Thomas Carr thinks he has a solution to the problem: eminent domain. Basically eminent domain says the government can seize any privately owned property (usually land) if it is for the greater good of the people. Carr argues that . So therefore, the government should use eminent domain to wrest ownership of the MDD away from the landowner so that they can be placed in a museum.
Look, there is already a festering pool of resentment towards academic paleontology. I should know, I’m sympathetic to their cause and even i have a grudge against them. There is already this view that paleontologist are greedy misers who want to be the only ones with fossils. Only they get to search for fossils on (supposedly) public lands. The fossils they discover disappear into cavernous vaults never to be seen again. Carr thinks eminent domain may finally be the shock to commercial collectors that they can’t keep selling important fossils. But this would only be dumping gas on the fire. Imagine the attitude i just talked about and multiply it by 20. Using eminent domain to seize fossils won’t make them stop dead in their tracks, they’ll just keep doing it but under the radar, all the while harboring a more antagonistic attitude towards scientists.
I’m against the sale of important vertebrate fossils, but there has to be some kind of middle ground. Instead of trying to punish commercial collectors why not try to work with them? If they find something important they report it to you. And then they can sell all the fragmentary stuff that paleontologists usually don’t bother with anyway. Paleontologists complain that so many fossils are lost to erosion every year because there aren’t enough people to look for them. But they would apparently rather see those specimens lost to erosion than for someone other than a professional to find them (more on that later). This attitude that only professionals get to hunt for fossils is only fueling the view that scientists are a bunch of elitists who hoard fossils for themselves. Until we retire the inflammatory rhetoric and try to find a solution might we finally be able to prevent more cases like the MDD.
Throughout these debates the professionals argue that only museums can provide the proper care for fossils. Furthermore, being in a museum means it’s in the public trust, where it belongs to everyone. The museum is the only proper place for fossils. But then shit like this happens. And this. And this. Oh and don’t forget this. So we have museums attempting to sell their specimens (they were later taken off the market but the fact remains they even tried in the first place), selling out to religious donors, firing their staff, and having to scuttle plans for expansion. To the casual observer, it looks like museums are no better off than private citizens. And then there is this comment from Carr’s post:
As Witton reported on the Pterosaur-Net blog-
“Without mentioning any names, the Texas Memorial Museum has placed a strict embargo on the release of information about Quetzalcoatlus until the full monographic description has been properly published. This has been promised since at least the 1980s (Langston 1981; Kellner and Langston 1996) and, in the meantime, getting access to the material seems to be extremely difficult. I asked to see the material back in 2006 and was told no. Colleagues of mine have asked the same, and got the same answer. The few friends of mine that have seen the specimens are sworn to secrecy and, if they want to publish even itty-bitty snippets of information about them, they have to ask permission first.”
So even specimens in museums are being hoarded, in this case from other scientists (take that comment with a grain of salt though). These specimens are supposed to be in the public trust, the professionals always claim. But are they really? Civilians are prohibited from collecting fossils from (supposedly) public lands. Paleontologists scoop them up and then ship them off (often hundreds of miles away), where they may be seen being prepped, and then are interred into the collections never to been seen again save for the occasional professional scientist. It’s hard to buy the public trust argument when most fossils are hidden away from the public. Most people don’t even know those specimens exist. They just have to take the museum’s word that the fossils are held in their trust, even though only scientists ever get to so much as see them. “But Doug, museums don’t have enough space to display everything.” Yes, that is true. However, there are many ways to remedy this problem that museums don’t even try to do. Have a space where specimens are rotated out. Have an online database. Have a public online gallery of pictures and 3d scans. Maybe even lax access to the collections a little bit, either with open houses or volunteers who can escort appointments through. Why not any of those?
Perhaps it is because specimens aren’t treated as relics of everyone’s heritage. Andy Farke writes over at PlosOne about how even images of specimens are being hoarded. Paleontology is all too eager to right the digital imaging wave but has forgotten what it’s mission is in the first place. Andy lays out how museums put ridiculous amounts of restrictions on photos and 3d scans of specimens. Not only has this been hurting the science, but it also bars most of the solutions i offered above for no good reason. Andy rightly points out that the copyrighting of specimen photos and 3d scans are basically treating these specimens as property. They are being treated as the property of the museum that must be protected from any unauthorized exposure. Remind me again how it’s in the public trust when the museum thinks it should maintain such a choke hold on the best ways to bring them to light? I still think interaction with the real thing is the best way to go, but photos and 3d scans are an excellent start to bringing specimens out of the dark and into the public eye. As i noted before, there are too many excellent specimens hidden away in collections that the public has no idea even exists. All this strict control of images does is reinforce the already bad public image paleontology has gained as of late.
Why am i now partly sticking up for the commercial guys? I have in the past condemned them with much vitriol like the rest of the academics. So why am i calling for a truce with them and even arguing some of their points? Well the truth is that i actually relate to them a little. They are prohibited from collecting on (supposedly) public lands but that’s seen as a good thing because they want to sell fossils. I have science’s interest at heart. I was to collect fossils because i want to study them and teach people about them. They are not for my collection. I’m trying to build a museum so that my stuff will be available to scientists and the public alike. And i know full well the importance of collateral data, so i collect all that i can when i find a fossil. And yet i am also prohibited from collecting on (supposedly) public lands. I am very knowledgeable in how to collect, excavate, and prepare fossils. I know the importance of field data and do my best to gather it. I want to serve science. But i don’t have a fancy and expensive degree, so i just get thrown in with the commercial and private collectors and am invariable banned from trying to uncover and share the evidence of what is apparently (or maybe i should say… supposedly!) my heritage. It’s like having a family heirloom hidden in an attic I’m not allowed to go in.
People constantly shout that amateurs make very important contributions to paleontology. Usually they never give an example. Most vertebrate fossil deposits are on government land of some type, and all require the fancy and expensive degree to be able to collect on. So i can’t help but wonder how many other amateurs like me are out there unable to serve science because we simply lack a specific piece of paper. There was this article a little while back, but it doesn’t say where he found the fossils or who owned the land. Plain and simple, most federal lands only allow professionals to collect fossils. Paleontology almost has that “I’ve got mine” attitude that so many right wingers have. They got their degrees, they are allowed to collect fossils, so why care about amateurs like me who only want to help them? This has to change.
Remember when i said paleontologists complain that so many fossils are lost to erosion every year because there aren’t enough people to look for them? Well there might be enough people if amateurs like me were allowed to at least look for fossils on (supposedly) public lands. We have sciences interests at heart. We want to collect responsibly. And yet this vast reserve of potential eyes in the field is cast aside because we aren’t professionals. You afraid we might not keep the exact field notes you think is required? Then teach us! Or at the very least, give us the information (papers, maps, stratigraphy charts) so that we can keep proper data. Maybe have the government run field courses with certification? Or perhaps that public curation program Eric once mentioned? Paleontology has a vast and untapped source of people who are considerate and knowledgeable of science that is going to waste because the law is rigid and binary. Until us amateurs are allowed to collect on public lands, i think paleontologists have no room to complain about fossils being lost to erosion because of lack of people searching.
The politics of paleontology are about ugly as anywhere else. Arguments over how to collect, care for, and just where they belong rage as much as wildfire. And it seems people are too caught up in their own interests to try and find a solution to it all. There is a big push for open access in paleontology, not just of papers but also images and 3d scans. But i think it needs to go even further. I think if you truly want paleontology to be open access, then that means not just letting people read about science, but also being able to do it. We amateurs have knowledge and skills and yet the science that we are deeply passionate about still feels high up on an ivory tower. Not all of us can volunteer at a museum (in my case, i don’t live near one and even if i did, it would be no guarantee. I’ve been turned down from volunteer positions before) but we all do, in one capacity or another, have the ability to hunt for fossils that would add to the record of OUR heritage. Even the commercial guys have the potential to contribute. But if science is relegated to the domain of the elite few degree holders, then i fear the rift between the professionals and the civilians is only going to get bigger. I just don’t understand why both sides are more interesting in rubbing salt into wounds than heeling them. I guess politics is here to stay. And we will all suffer for it.
Till next time.