Category Archives: science communication

Communicating Systematics, Part 2

In the previous post, I discussed how phylogenetic trees, while powerful and informative to trained eyes, can be misinterpreted by lay audiences. These misunderstandings are easy to diagnose, but actually finding solutions to the problem is challenging.

In a perfect world, every child would be introduced to evolutionary theory early and often in their obligatory science education, and everybody would be able to interpret phylogenetic trees the way scientists do. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, especially in the United States, so educators are going to have to get creative. One option is to provide additional information to aid in the interpretation of the diagram. On the surface, adding more information is always an attractive prospect, but unfortunately it does not always work as intended. Attention spans are perilously short, and the goal of a visual representation should be to make the content immediately intuitive and easier to understand.

If conventional shapes and symbols in evolutionary trees are not getting the intended message across to target audiences, then perhaps we need to rethink how we are structuring these trees. I don’t have a catch-all solution, but the following might be enough to at least start a conversation.

Change the shape of the tree

Torrens and Barahona argue that many misinterpretations of trees stem from ideas of essentialism and teleology that are deeply ingrained in and continually reinforced by western culture. Likewise, equating up with good and down with bad is a recurring, internalized motif. Therefore, trees that illustrate evolution and diversification proceeding upward or to the right only encourage presuppositions of linear, goal-oriented evolution.

One solution that has been experimented with (at AMNH, for example) is to draw trees as circles (see below). This eliminates the problem of associating up with good and bad with down, or upward movement with progress. A circular “tree” has no orientation, and thus does not imply any taxa to be better than the rest. Personally, I find circle diagrams confusing to read, but I appreciate what they are intended to accomplish. A diagram of evolutionary relationships could theoretically take any shape, since the crucial information is in the branching order, not the nature of the lines.

A circular tree. From

Be careful with representation of ancestors

 Many phylogenetic diagrams place specific fossil taxa at nodes along the tree in order to illustrate the course of evolution. This is informative of general evolutionary trends, but it can also be confusing. As a case in point, I just did an image search for a horse evolution diagram to use as an example, and found that many of the top results came from creationist websites. These sites aren’t worth linking to (although they are easy enough to find), but they erroneously assume that fossil taxa are thought to be directly ancestral to modern Equus caballus.  Evolutionary scientists think no such thing, but looking at the image below I can see how that conclusion could be reached.

This diagram of the evolutionary history of horses can lead to the mistaken assumption that earlier species are thought to be directly ancestral to later ones. That polytomy that leads to three unlabeled nodes doesn’t help either.

In a proper cladogram, taxa are only placed at the ends of branches. Direct ancestry is (almost) never inferred, because the scarcity of the fossil record prevents us from ever knowing exactly what evolved into what when. The cladogram below shows the relationships between the seven modern-day species of Equus. Systematists have determined a series of branching relationships based on anatomical and molecular data, and even provide a suggestion of when these divergences occurred, via the time scale. Each node represents a common ancestor that definitely existed, but we will probably never find or identify their fossils.

A cladogram of modern horse species. From Hooper Virtual Natural History Museum.

In this case, I would prefer if books or exhibits for popular audiences nixed images like the first one and instead went with cladograms that do not suggest specific ancestor-descendant relationships. Obviously the cladogram could be spiced up with colors and illustrations, but it is important to use a format that represents precisely what scientists do and do not know.

Always clarify orientation

Proboscidea phylogeny from

Individuals well-versed in evolutionary science automatically read trees from the basal node out to the tips. Typically, and in the elephant phylogeny above, that would be from the bottom up. It can therefore come as a surprise (it certainly did for me) that non-specialists frequently attempt to read phylogenetic trees from left to right. Viewers may assume that the horizontal order of taxa across the top is significant, representing either the course of evolution or time. Neither would be correct, as Mammut on the far left and Mammuthus on the far right were roughly contemporaneous, and Loxodonta africana and Elephas maximus in the middle are the only extant elephants. Although it may not occur to specialists, it is a simple and necessary precaution to label the orientation of the tree and avoid such confusion.

Avoid calling anything “more evolved”

This is more of a nomenclature issue than a visual one, but poor graphics can exacerbate this misconception. All contemporary species, from sponges to frogs to humans, have been evolving for the same amount of time. An amphibian or reptile is not “primitive”; it is just as adapted to its environment as we are. Using this sort of terminology is attractive as a shortcut when referring to less-diverse sister groups to more-diverse clades, but it misrepresents the nature of evolution and should be discouraged.


MacDonald, Teresa E. “Communicating Phylogeny: Evolutionary Tree Diagrams in Museums.” 2010. Paper presented at the NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching).

Torrens, Erica and Barahona, Ana. “Why are Some Evolutionary Trees in Natural History Museums Prone to Being Misinterpreted?” 2012 Evolution: Education and Outreach 1-25.

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Communicating Systematics

In case you forgot, only 15% of Americans polled by Gallup accept that human beings evolved from other animals through natural processes*. This statistic has not changed meaningfully since Gallup started asking this question in 1982. This fact should be in the back of the mind of every science educator, and for that matter, every scientist, each and every day we go to work. It is a scientifically well-established fact that all life has evolved over long periods of time, and that all forms of life are related to each other. This fact is fundamental to our understanding of life on Earth. The goal of both educators and scientists is to expand our knowledge and awareness  of our world, and it is therefore disconcerting that so few people are willing (or have had to opportunity to) acknowledge the wealth of information that an understanding of evolution provides.

 *A couple complaints about that link. First, the phrasing of the question, “human beings evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life” (emphasis mine) is poor, read on for reasons why. Second, belief that humans evolved “with God’s guidance” does not seem like a meaningful distinction to me, and does not suggest a proper understanding of evolution.

The overwhelming number of people who do not accept evolution is intimidating. The fact that our politicians and leaders are often among this number is even more troubling.  It can be tempting to retreat into academia and  whine about the problem to our peers, or perhaps ignore it entirely. However, 30 years of unchanging results on the Gallup poll indicate that the issue is not going to go away. Both educators and scientists need to take the offensive and directly address misconceptions and misunderstandings about evolution, as well as find effective means to mitigate them.

Phylogenetic Trees

In the world of science education, one of the trickiest issues is supplying appropriate context. Although all good science can be explained in clear, readily-understandable language, most research still requires some background on the Big Ideas in science. Two huge examples are evolution by natural selection and the scientific method, which I briefly discussed here and here. Without an understanding of how scientific ideas or generated or how evolution works, discussing the finer points of, say, feeding strategies of tyrannosaurs is quite pointless. Unfortunately, even among people who accept the fact that evolution is a real phenomenon, this background all too often does not exist.

Educators need to supply the public with the context they need to understand current science, and one good area to focus is the reading of phylogenetic trees. A phylogenetic tree is a branching diagram that depicts inferred evolutionary relationships among organisms. A tree implicitly shows that included organisms descended and diversified from a common ancestor. As such, phylogenetic trees are a visual embodiment of evolutionary theory, and provide an informative narrative of the history of life.

As is often the case, David Hone has already provided a wonderful explanation of how scientists construct trees and how to read them correctly, so I’ll just drop that link and move on. The problem is that although evolutionary trees are often used to convey ideas in museum displays and general interest science articles, many lay-viewers are interpreting them inaccurately. Reading a tree requires practice and expertise that shouldn’t be taken for granted, because misinterpretations only provide fodder for the anti-evolution/anti-science lobby. Let’s go through the common misinterpretations one at a time (many of these are discussed in Torrens and Barahona 2012, a few are my own additions).

Evolution is goal-oriented. In fact, evolution is not progressive, but is the product of organisms adapting to their specific environment. When that environment changes, taxa that were once well-adapted often die out. Being “well-evolved” is therefore  fluid and transitory state. The misconception of directed evolution is probably related to ingrained western religious views of human superiority over nature. Rather annoyingly, cultural anthropologists often buy into the erroneous idea of progressive evolution, and attempt to use it as evidence that science is but one of many equally correct world-views.

There is a “main line” of evolution. This is largely the product of late 19th century drawings of trees of life which used literal trees as the basis of the diagram. Most famously, German natualist Ernst Haeckel illustrated the Systematischer Stammbaum des Menschen in his book Anthropogenie in 1874. In this drawing, the diversity of life is overlaid on a tree, which has a thick trunk running straight up to humans and other primates at the top. Again, this plays into concepts of human superiority and inevitability that have nothing to do with biological evolution.

Some contemporary species are more or less evolved than others. All contemporary species, from sponges to frogs to humans, have been evolving for the same amount of time, and are just as adapted to their environments as we are. Unfortunately, placing humans or mammals at the top or the right of phylogenetic trees seems to be an unshakable habit, even for systematists, which only encourages the notion that these taxa are somehow better.

Similarity among taxa always implies relatedness. Determining evolutionary relationships is a complex process. Modern systematists use huge matrices of independent characters to calculate the most parsimonious trees. Furthermore, Hennigean cladistics requires that relationships only be determined using synapomorphies (shared derived traits) rather than plesiomorphies (shared primitive conditions). Although the salmon and the lungfish below superficially appear more like one another than the cow, similarities like a fishy shape and a lack of a neck are primitive conditions, not specializations. The synapomorphies shared by the lungfish and cow, such as jointed limbs and the ability to breathe air, inform us that they shared a more recent common ancestor than either did with ray-finned fish.

A counter-intuitive cladogram. Subjective similarity does not always mean relatedness.

Change only occurs at nodes. The nodes in a phylogenetic tree do not represent literal evolutionary events. Rather, evolution is a continuous process. This is a case where I like to ask people who make this misconception, “how could we know that?” This can get people thinking about what evidence is available to scientists, what conclusions can be reached from these data, and what isn’t known.

Example taxa illustrated lower in the tree represent direct ancestors of taxa higher in the tree. It can be helpful to use fossil species to illustrate the general state of an evolutionary lineage at varying points in time (this is done all the time with diagrams of horse evolution). However, with few exceptions, the incomplete nature of the fossil record makes it impossible to know exactly which species were directly ancestral to others.

Traditional Linnean categories are directly applicable to trees. In fact, most  (sensible) modern systematists prefer the cladistic methodology, which requires that all groups be monophyletic (that is, made up of all descendents of a common ancestor, with no exclusions). For example, the traditonal Linnean definition of reptiles, which includes turtles, lizards, snakes, tuataras and crocodiles, is not monophyletic, because any cladistic unification of these taxa would also have to include birds.

The traditional definition of reptiles, which excludes birds, is paraphyletic.

This went on a bit longer than I expected, so I’m going to leave these issues hanging for the time being. But do not fret, I will finish this train of thought soon with a discussion of potential solutions to these misinterpretations that have been attempted, and some that may be attempted in the future.


MacDonald, Teresa E. “Communicating Phylogeny: Evolutionary Tree Diagrams in Museums.” 2010. Paper presented at the NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching).

Torrens, Erica and Barahona, Ana. “Why are Some Evolutionary Trees in Natural History Museums Prone to Being Misinterpreted?” 2012 Evolution: Education and Outreach 1-25.

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A brief history of mounted dinosaur skeletons

Mounted fossil skeletons, especially those of dinosaurs, are common at medium and large natural history museums. These mounts play a central role in the public’s perception of not only dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, but of museums as well. However, just as dinosaurs are relatively new to science, fossil mounts have not always been a part of museums. The word dinosaur was coined in 1842 by British anatomist Richard Owen, based on a handful of fragmentary remains of large, extinct reptiles. Nevertheless, the study of dinosaurs did not start in earnest until 1865, when Joseph Leidy of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences described Hadrosaurus, the first dinosaur found in the United States, and eventually, the first dinosaur skeleton to be mounted. The western frontier of North America proved to be a richer dinosaur hunting ground than Europe had been, and so vertebrate paleontology was among the first realms of science that American researchers could claim as their own.

The American fossil rush that followed came in two waves. In the 1870s, the field was dominated by the well-publicized but ultimately counterproductive feud between Othneil Charles Marsh of Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences. While these collectors amassed enormous collections of fossils for their respective institutions, their research remained largely out of the public eye.

1868 Hadrosaurus mount at the Academy of Natural Sciences. From

The second wave came at the turn of the 20th century, and was intrinsically related to the rise of the large museums that sprang up in America’s cities at this time. The American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and other, similar institutions became involved in a fierce competition to find and display the largest dinosaur (Spalding 1993). At this point, the discipline of paleontology had been marginalized in American universities, in part because of a rising interest in experiment-driven “hard” sciences like molecular biology and physics, but also because the demands of space, labor and money required by paleontological research was prohibitive.

1905 Brontosaurus mount at AMNH. From Dinosaur Tracking.

Instead, paleontologists made their homes at the large natural history museums, which were backed by wealthy benefactors who were impressed by their collections of giant fossils. At the time, it was fashionable for wealthy businesspeople to donate extravagantly to cultural institutions, including museums, in the cities where they made their fortunes. To the benefactors, there was no doubt that paleontologists and their fossil specimens could draw larger crowds than a chemist or physicist ever could. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie is credited with conceiving of the idea to display a mounted dinosaur skeleton as the centerpiece of his new museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie gave CMNH $10,000 to find a giant sauropod dinosaur, preferably just like the Apatosaurus (then called “Brontosaurus”) collected by Marsh 30 years earlier. Patrons of the other large museums followed suit, and by 1905 the Carnegie Museum, the American Museum and the Field Museum all had sauropod mounts on display, along with a menagerie of other dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.

Unfortunately, by modern standards these displays favored spectacle over good science. As mentioned, vertebrate fossils almost never found as complete skeletons, but as scattered and isolated elements. As such, the museum collectors were not racing to find a single, perfect skeleton, but to amass enough individual dinosaur bones to complete a mount. The early 20th century dinosaur mounts are typically composed of fossils found in rocks separated by hundreds of miles and millions of years in age. The collectors did not keep good records of where the fossils came from, so modern museum workers can only guess how many individual dinosaurs make up the mounts they have inherited. For example, the Stegosaurus at the Peabody Museum of Natural History is composed of at least five individuals, and researchers disagree whether the Giraffatitan  at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde is made up of three or five different animals.

A preparator at AMNH assembles the “Brontosaurus” mount. From

Additionally, the technicians that created the mounts were attempting something that had never been done before, and perhaps inevitably, poor choices were made during the construction process. Adam Hermann, lead fossil preparatory at the American Museum of Natural History during the early 20th century, used highly destructive techniques when creating fossil mounts. Fossils were connected to steel armatures by drilling screws and bolts directly into the bone, and broken bones and visible sections of the armature were hidden with liberal applications of plaster (Evander 2004). These practices turned out to be essentially irreversible, and modern workers are hesitant to attempt to dismantle old mounts for fear of destroying the fossils entirely.

The creation of the first fossil mounts was chiefly inspired by the vanity of museum benefactors, but their influence on audiences and their ability to draw crowds is undeniable. Although new dinosaur mounts have been constructed over the course of the 20th century, many, if not most, of the historic mounts remain on display, important not only as evidence of prehistoric life, but as icons of the history of science and museums in America.


Brinkman, Paul D. (2010.) The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Evander, Robert L. (2004.) “Armature Damage in a Mounted Specimen.” Presented at Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Conference, Bristol, U.K.

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Filed under dinosaurs, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles, science communication

Their hands were everywhere: the Morrison Natural History Museum

Outside the Morrison Natural History Museum. Doesn’t look like much…

Last week, I had a fantastic experience at the Morrison Natural History Museum, a little gem tucked away in the tiny town of Morrison, Colorado, on the north side of Denver. Since its opening in 1985, the Museum has served as a local educational resource covering the region’s plentiful paleontological resources. According to its website, the Museum is primarily a teaching institution. An affiliated foundation raises funds to bring local students on field trips, in support of the Museum’s mission to nurture “an understanding of and respect for the deep past.” In keeping with this teaching institution, gentle touching of all the fossils and casts is encouraged. This policy, and the design choices that go with it, are what truly set the Morrison Museum exhibits apart.

Paleontologically-inclined people are of course familiar with the Morrison Formation, the sequence of Upper Jurassic beds that extends across much of the western United States. The formation, which extends some 600,000 square miles, was named for the town of Morrison, where fossils were first discovered in 1877. The Morrison formation is probably best known as the epicenter of the “bone wars” between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, who each led competing teams of fossil hunters across the region, attempting to best one another’s discoveries. Marsh and Cope were affiliated with the Peabody Museum in New Haven and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, respectively, so the fossils they collected all ended up back east. Indeed, while the Morrison region is among the most important and productive places for finding dinosaurs in the country, comparatively few of the treasures found there have remained in the region. The Morrison Natural History Museum therefore exists, at least in part, as a dedicated local repository and interpretative center for the region’s natural history.

The 1st floor Jurassic exhibit.

The Museum’s exhibit space is tiny, only 2000 square feet, but it is chock full of awesome. The exhibition consists of three main rooms, each one representing a geological time period. In the first floor Jurassic gallery, highlights include partial casts of Allosaurus and Apatosaurus,  the holotype of Stegosaurus, trackways attributed to Stegosaurus and a baby sauropod, and some original 19th century lithographic prints from Marsh’s monographs. For those interested in the history of paleontology, and of science in general, those prints are particularly fascinating.

Infant sauropod trackway with model of probable trackmaker.

Cretaceous and Cenozoic exhibits are found on the second floor. Most of the objects here are casts, most notably full skeletons of Platycarpus and Pteranodon, and skulls of Triceratops, Tylosaurus and a Columbian Mammoth. There are also a number of live animals on display, including a very charismatic monitor lizard thoughtfully placed next to its close relatives, the mosasaurs.

Original 19th century lithograph prints of fossil illustrations by Marsh’s team.

The signs and labels in the exhibit are noteworthy for their succinctness and clarity. It can be extremely challenging for writers of museum copy to provide appropriate depth of content without confusing, boring or alienating audiences with too much text. Overlong and unfocused labels are particularly common in small museums, where most of the copy is written by a single curator bent on sharing everything he or she knows about a topic. On the other end of the spectrum, larger, committee-designed exhibit labels can be too brief, too simple and too narrowly focused on the exhibit’s educational goals to be of much use to anybody. Happily, the Morrison Museum avoids both of these pitfalls. Labels are simple and attractive, but still informative and up-to-date. I was rather impressed by the economical way in which they addressed the most important topics in paleontology.

An example of a brief but content-rich label.

Obviously, the fossils and other objects on display are fantastic, and many, like the trackways, are quite unique. However, as mentioned above, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Museum is that touching of all the fossils and casts is encouraged.  Few objects are behind glass; everything is out in the open for people to touch and examine up close. There are many in the museum field who would be horrified by such an arrangement. When putting objects on exhibit, it is a given that they are considered consumable. No matter what precautions are taken, anything put on display will inevitably suffer damage. Of course, the flip side is that exhibit designers want to allow visitors to get as close to the objects as possible. The Morrison Museum has taken this to the extreme. The fossils, many one them irreplaceable holotype specimens, are fully exposed to accidental or intentional abuse by visitors. This is a very bold move on the part of the Museum, and it makes the point that the knowledge visitors can gain from full access to objects is more valuable that the objects themselves.

I won’t lie, my initial reaction upon seeing this exhibit layout was open-mouthed horror. But after spending some time in the space, I think the Morrison Museum may be on to something. This is a great way to tap into the multiple intelligences of visitors. Obviously, this system only works because the Museum’s attendance is on the low side (I would hate to see what the summer hordes at NMNH or AMNH would do if they were allowed to run wild among the mounts),  but given these circumstances I think the open-access approach is a great educational tool.

Overall, I was very pleased with my visit to the Morrison Museum. The volunteer staff knowledgable, passionate and helpful, the exhibits were excellent, and the handful of other visitors passing through (mostly young children) seemed genuinely engaged. The Museum is well worth a stop for anyone in the Denver area, and may well be a worthwhile model for other museums to follow.


Filed under dinosaurs, mammals, museums, paleoart, reptiles, reviews, science communication

Exhibits with an Agenda

I am currently part of a team preparing a small exhibit on sustainable energy for a Midwestern history museum. Our original goal was simple: to review the regional history of renewable energy production and use, in order to illustrate that “green living” is not a new concept. However, as with most creations of passionate people, the size and scope of the exhibit has expanded quite a bit, and the exhibit is now intended to be a more forceful argument for responsible energy use and the importance of being aware of one’s own energy footprint. There’s no denying this argument has always been an implicit part of the exhibit plan. In this part of the world, there is an unfortunate resistance to, if not outright demonization of progressive energy policy, and we absolutely want to undermine the assumptions and misconceptions that fuel this anti-green discourse. What has changed is that we’ve stopped hiding our agenda.

In his 1994 essay Evaluating the Ethics and Consciences of Museums, Robert Sullivan proposes that museums are “moral educators”. Either deliberately or through unconscious subtext, museums inherently shape the opinions, worldview and conception of self of their visitors. It is unavoidable that museum content will be shaped by subtextual ideologies and assumptions. Identifying and unpacking these biases is a huge issue (it’s basically the entire focus of the humanities for the last 50 years or so), but one can still exert a degree of control over which assumptions are expressed.

Museums are among the most trusted of media forms, and are widely considered to be far more reliable than books, television or newspapers. This public trust can be intimidating, but it does present a unique opportunity: if a museum takes a stand on an important issue, it will probably be taken seriously. Obviously, trust is not a resource to be squandered needlessly, but when wielded with care and deliberation it can be very powerful.

With our sustainable energy exhibit, we are trying very hard to harness that power in an effective way. The issues that surround energy use are very serious, as the availability and ready access of energy are critical to our modern economy, infrastructure, and way of life. Unfortunately, the discourse around renewable energy, diminishing fossil fuels and climate change is highly politicized. We want to be plain about the economic and environmental dangers that good, solid research tells us is in our future, and we want to call out sources of misinformation. Above all, we want to give people the intellectual tools to evaluate controversial issues for themselves, and to identify which arguments are backed by concrete evidence and which are not.

Our exhibit may well raise some eyebrows for taking a hard stance on a topic that many in this region consider to be “controversial”. I think this is a good thing. Museums really should not be playing the “both sides of the story” game that other media forms play when the evidence and experts clearly favor one camp. If we are avoiding asking our audiences hard questions, then we are not teaching, and we are not doing our job.

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Over the past couple months, as I have hoped in vain that the folks at SV-POW will post cool stuff about sauropods again, I’ve learned a great deal about open-access publishing and the Research Works Act. Kudos to them for creating awareness. The sinister implications of the RWA are well documented around the web, so I’ll just provide the short version.

At present, taxpayer funded research institutions in the U.S., namely the NIH, require that research results must be freely accessible online. This is a reasonable requirement that is hard to argue against: if the public pays for science, the public should be able to see the results. However, this open-access policy gets in the way of the profits of the academic publishing industry. Publishers like Elsevier and Springer have astonishingly high profit margins of 36% or more, dwarfing even those of Apple, and they aim to keep them that way. Academic publishers have a pretty sweet scam going, in which (largely publicly funded) researchers supply the papers and the peer review for free, while the publishers take the full copyright, and charge $30-$50 to view a single article. All the publisher does is format the manuscripts into a physical volume, which is irrelevant since most people now access papers online. Enter RWA, an effort by publishers to push back against increasing awareness of their unnecessary and monopolistic role as gatekeepers of knowledge.

Until this point, the voices of dissent from the academic community seemed to paint a fairly straightforward picture. Researchers, who know the academic publishing industry well, are more-or-less unanimously opposed to the unbridled corporate greed represented by the RWA. But then this business happened (.pdf link). The American Anthropological Association, with which I’ve taken issue before, has thrown in its lot on the side of the publishers. The previously linked AAA statement was a response to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy’s ongoing Request for Information (check out all the responses to date here). The AAA claims that there is currently no problem with the accessibility of research, and that it is unfair to undermine the right of publishers to sell their property at market value. Here are the choice quotes:

We write today to make the case that while we share the mutual objective of enhancing the public understanding of scientific enterprise and support the wide dissemination of materials that can reach those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge (consistent with our association’s mission), broad public access to information currently exists, and no federal government intervention is currently necessary.

Mandating open access to such property without just compensation and lawful procedural limits constitutes, in our view, an unconstitutional taking of private property – copyrighted material – an expropriation without fair market compensation. In our view, such a practice cannot and will not withstand judicial review.

Both of these arguments are nonsense. If the AAA believes that “those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge” currently have appropriate access to research, then their definition of the public must end at researchers at large institutions. As articulated at Neuroanthropology, this insular view is unhelpful and unacceptable, and it is particularly surprising that it is coming from a group of anthropologists. Do the non-profit groups anthropologists work with in developing countries not require access to papers? What about the people the research is about? Interested lay-people? Under the current system, and to an even greater extent should the RWA pass, anybody not affiliated with an institution with a well-funded library* has to pay exorbitant prices out of pocket to view research. As a result, the research remains largely in the academic sphere. Given the political nature of anthropologists in general, it is shocking that the AAA deems this acceptable.

*Side note: Even as a grad student, getting access to papers can be a real problem. Even large universities sometimes only provide access to volumes of journals within a certain date range, and when I’m doing field work or an internship, I can no longer get access.

The second quote is bunk because, as explained previously, the services provided by academic publishers are minimal, if not counterproductive to the dissemination of knowledge, and do not constitute anything that researchers could not do themselves in this information age.

As they did a year ago when they removed the reference to science from their mission statement, the AAA has demonstrated that their interests are not in sync with researchers. Honestly, I don’t know who they are trying to represent. They are working against the interests of serious researchers, advocacy groups who help the people anthropologists work with, and the dissemination of knowledge in general. AAA, please stop.

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Medullary Bone and the Dinosaur-Bird Link

One of the coolest lines of evidence that birds are extant dinosaurs is the presence of medullary bone in multiple dinosaur species. Medullary bone (hereafter referred to as MB, to avoid confusion with the medullary surface) is a temporary tissue that forms on the interior surfaces of the long bones of birds. MB is identified by unique collagen organization: it is both densely mineralized and strongly vascularized. This structure helps MB serve its purpose as a readily retrieved source of calcium for use in forming eggshells, and prevents incapacitating bone resorption during this process. Among extant animals, MB is only found in mature female birds in the process of producing eggs. Its creation is triggered by hormones during the onset of ovulation, and it disappears during the laying process. Among extant animals, MB is only known in birds. However, in 2005 Mary Schweitzer and colleagues reported their discovery of medullary bone in a Tyrannosaurus rex individual. Lee and Werning followed up on this research in 2007 by reporting MB in the theropod Allosaurus and the ornithopod Tenontosaurus.

Medullary bone in modern Gallus and fossil Tyrannosaurus. From

Since MB is unique to reproductively active females, most popular coverage of dinosaur MB  has focused on its potential use for determining the sex and life stage of individual dinosaur specimens. We shouldn’t, however, lose sight of the fact that MB is an independent line of evidence supporting a close phylogenetic relationship between dinosaurs and birds. Nearly all paleontologists agree that the evidence that birds are dinosaurs is overwhelming, and MB is but a drop in the ocean of shared characters between birds and dinosaurs. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that few authors have attempted to challenge Schweitzer’s initial publication.

The only work I have found  that disputes Schweitzer and colleagues is the dissertation of Dr. Devon Quick  (.pdf link), in which Dr. Quick and Dr. John Ruben investigated the reliability of the methods used to recognize MB in the fossil record using extant animals. This is not, incidentally, the only work by Quick and Ruben challenging the dinosaur-bird connection. As a doe-eyed student, I’d like to take a shot at reviewing this paper. And since I’m posting it publicly, I of course welcome anyone who’d be so kind as to call me out for being wrong.

Quick and Ruben looked at cross-sections of the femora and tibiotarsi of a crocodilian (Alligator mississippiensis) and several birds. Scanning electron microscopy revealed that the medullary surfaces of the tibiotarsi of  reproductively active birds displayed the highly contoured and floccular texture that is characteristic of MB. Likewise, the male and non-reproductively active female birds displayed smooth medullary surfaces. In this regard, Quick and Ruben are in agreement with previous work. However, the authors also reported that the medullary cavity of the alligator femur contained “material superficially similar to…avian medullary bone” (Quick and Ruben 2008). This material was limited to the immediate diaphyseal side of the metaphysis, making it much less extensive than what was observed in birds. Since the alligator individual used in the study was a juvenile male, it was almost certainly not producing reproductively-specific MB. From this observation, the authors conclude from these data that a floccular texture may indicate early-stage bone mineralization and is not a reliable indicator of MB.

Quick and Ruben’s results are unconvincing in part due to a weak experimental design. Their conclusions are dependent on observations gleaned from a single alligator specimen, which is not an adequate sample. The authors’ conclusions would carry more weight if they had looked at multiple individuals. It would also be beneficial to compare males, females, adults and juveniles. Ideally, additionally crocodilian species ought to be included in the study, as well. Schweitzer and colleagues carried out a similar investigation, in which they looked for evidence of MB in multiple alligators, including gravid females, males and juveniles (Schweitzer et al. 2007). Schweitzer and colleagues found no evidence of MB, even with estrogen stimulation, and their larger sample size allows their study to carry more weight than that of Quick and Ruben. Furthermore, although Quick and Ruben assert that that “histological aspects of Tyrannosaurus tissues that are supposedly consistent with an avian-style reproductive physiology were not analyzed carefully”, they did not look at the Tyrannosaurus material as part of their study. Accordingly, no evidence is provided that the structures the authors observed on their alligator were synonymous with those observed by Schweitzer and colleagues on Tyrannosaurus. Finally, Quick and Ruben’s observations are focused on the floccular texture used to identify MB, when in fact Schweitzer and colleagues used several other indicators, including extensive vascularization, to identify MB in Tyrannosaurus. It is notable that the structure, thickness and texture of MB in modern birds varies considerably based on the specifics of the animal’s reproductive biology and the size of the taxa. Given that Tyrannosaurus is several orders of magnitude larger than most extant birds, some structural difference is to be expected (wow, that sentence had some serious science snark).

Quick and Ruben suggest that the floccular texture on the alligator bone may be the result of early-stage mineralization, which would be consistent with the sub-adult status of the individual they used in the study. The authors go on to speculate that a similar explanation might account for the evidence of MB in Tyrannosaurus. Again, it would have been helpful if the authors had amassed more examples of sub-adult archosaurs undergoing skeletal mineralization, and compared them directly to the Tyrannosaurus material in question, rather than merely speculating. If the Tyrannosaurus was forming MB, this would be consistent with information from lines of arrested growth in Tyrannosaurus and other dinosaurs, which indicates that dinosaurs became reproductively active before reaching adult size.

Having reached the somewhat tenuous conclusion that texture is not a reliable indicator of MB, Quick and Ruben go on to argue that even if MB is present in dinosaurs, the fact that it has been reported in both saurischians and ornithiscians “offers no particular insight into the phylogenetic origins of birds.” On the contrary, MB is an independently observable feature that unites the crown group Dinosauria with Avialae, and therefore supports the consensus that Avialae is bracketed by Dinosauria. At the very least, MB suggests marked similarity in reproductive strategies employed by birds and dinosaurs. As demonstrated by Schweitzer and colleagues, MB is not known in crocodilians. Quick and Ruben freely admit this, which makes their statement that MB “may well be a plesiomorphic trait that first evolved in basal archosaurs” nonsensical (Quick and Ruben 2008). The authors could theoretically argue that MB production is primitive but was lost in modern crocodilians, but there is no evidence for this.

Overall, Quick and Ruben’s work is hindered by weak experimental design and vague, unsupported conclusions. Given that a similar but more rigorous study regarding MB in crocodilians has already been carried out by Schweitzer and colleagues, Quick and Ruben’s interpretations are not convincing. Even the broadest interpretation of the available evidence indicates that MB originated after the divergence of crocodilymorphs from the main archosaur line. The phylogeny postulated by Schweitzer and colleagues remains most tenable, in which MB originated in early dinosaurs, and was inherited by ornithiscians, tyrannosaurids and modern birds (Schweitzer et al. 2005).


Lee, A. H. and Werning, S. “Sexual maturity in growing dinosaurs does not fit reptilian growth models.” 2007. PNAS 105:2:582-587.

Quick, D. E. and Ruben, J. A. “Amniote bone structure and longbone histology in birds, alligators and the theropod Tyrannosaurus rex.” 2008. Oregon State University.

Schweitzer, M. H., Elsey, R. M., Dacke, C. G., Horner, J. R. and Lamm, E. T. “Do egg-laying crocodilian (Alligator mississippiensis) archosaurs form medullary bone?” 2007. Bone 40: 1152-1158.

Schweitzer, M. H., Wittmeyer, J. L. and Horner, J. R. “Gender-Specific Reproductive Tissue in Ratites and Tyrannosaurus rex.”2005. Science 308: 1456-1460.

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January 20, 2012 · 6:26 am

Science journalism: no longer even pretending to be educational

This morning (for me, afternoon in the U.K.), Ananyo Bhattacharya offered up a very frustrating opinion piece at the Guardian, arguing that the inherently flawed practices of mainstream science journalism are ideal, because journalists apparently know better than scientists. Excellent responses have already been posted at geologygeek and  Southern Fried Science, but I figure there’s still room to jump into the fray.

My first concern with Dr. Bhattacharya’s editorial is his assumption that science and scientists are fundamentally boring, and it is up to journalists to liven things up. Even if it means spinning the original paper beyond recognition, fabricating an irrelevant hook, dropping quotes out of context, or inventing controversy where none exits. Now, Dr. Bhattacharya’s background is in physics and protein crystallography, so maybe he has a point about that being dry. However, he is drawing on the myth that all scientists are stodgy boffins incapable of expressing anything without the jargon of their own esoteric specialty. Such people exist, but in my experience many, if not most scientists are engaging and skillful communicators. I dare anyone to hear a public lecture by Matt Carrano and not be impressed. Scientists have to be able to communicate to a wider audience; these days it’s a requirement for getting grants. Science is already interesting, and there is no more engaging source of information than a passionate and knowledgeable expert. As such, it is condescending for Dr. Bhattacharya to imply that scientists need journalists to “contextualize” the story (read: miss the point of the paper entirely in order to make it palatable). In particular, I must take issue with the assertion that journalists know better than the scientists who did the research which caveats are critical to understanding the issue being discussed.

I’m also concerned that Dr. Bhattacharya defends brevity out of “respect for readership”, but goes on to argue that journalists should be free to spin, exaggerate and misrepresent stories at their own discretion. If media outlets are only offering asinine and inconsequential science stories, rather than information that is actually relevant and useful, I would not call that respect for readership. But then Dr. Bhattacharya drops this bombshell:

There’s a fundamental misapprehension among many in the scientific community that the principal job of science journalists is to communicate the results of their work to the general public. It’s not.

I think that’s the problem in a nutshell. Actually communicating (accurate and reliable) information is not the media’s concern.


January 18, 2012 · 2:51 am

Part 3: In Which Ben Gets to the Point

I’ve spent a couple posts raining hate on the media’s portrayal of science and  exuberantly praising science bloggers. I’d like to wrap this series up with a few suggestions for how the excellent science communication in blogs might be applied to other media, specifically museums. Science blogs currently reach a relatively small audience, but the strategies for science communication employed by bloggers can be utilized by media forms that attract far more people.

Museums occupy the lower middle range of visibility among science communication venues. America’s most-visited natural history museum, the National Museum of Natural History, had seven million visitors in 2009, a number which pales in comparison to the 431 million homes reached by the Discovery Channel, but which is considerably higher than the 500,000 2011 subscribers to Scientific American magazine. Nevertheless, museums require special recognition in that they are among the most trusted of media forms. 86% of Americans view museums as a trustworthy source of information, substantially higher than the number of Americans that trust books (61%), television (49%) or newspapers (41%). Since museums are blessed with such high public trust, the stakes are higher for museums to report information accurately.

The New Museums

The museum field has undergone a significant revolution since the 1970s, trading its traditionally academic leadership for an audience-focused and education-based model. This change is beneficial because museums are now beholden to serving the needs of the public, and are trying (and occasionally succeeding) to serve increasingly diverse audiences. Visitors are now seen as active participants in the learning process, rather than passive spectators. This new paradigm has, however, made museums vulnerable to the same pitfalls that plague other media forms. Some in the museum field have noted that concern for public interests has been in some cases led astray by devotion to entertainment. Many newer exhibits sacrifice scholarship and educational value for gimmicks and sensationalism, not unlike the practices in science journalism.

An additional hurdle facing museums is the difficulty of communicating science through objects. Museums are based around objects, but science is based on ideas and concepts. Traditionally, science exhibits would place a spotlight on spectacular objects, but would communicate very little information about why those objects are important and what scientists can learn from them. For example, a paleontology exhibit is typically centered on the enormous mounted skeletons of dinosaurs, but visitors can only learn so much from this kind of display. The audience will surely be impressed by the size of the skeletons, but will leave without understanding what those skeletons tell us about the age of the earth, the evolution and diversity of life, and the place of humans in the natural world. The lack of science in science museums is an oversight that has unfortunately stood the test of time, and museums would do well to reconsider their approach to science communication.

New Strategies

Museum workers are moving toward an audience-centered institutional mission, but have struggled to do so without resorting to the same non-educational sensationalism seen in attempts at science communication in other media. Science blogs, however, are achieving this goal right now: they foster dialogue between scientists and laypeople, without sacrificing intellectual substance.
One of the most important aspects of science blogs is that they introduce audiences to real people doing real science. Firstly, the public gains direct access to the scientific process, which instills appreciation in the reliability of scientific conclusions. Additionally, communicating with working scientists and seeing the work they do demythologizes the process of making knowledge. Science is shown as a tangible process that anybody can become involved with or contribute to. Putting a human face on the scientific process is a powerful tool for engaging the public, and one that some museums have already started using. For instance, as part of the “The Scientist is In” program at the National Museum of Natural History, staff curators set up shop in the exhibit halls, where they answer visitor questions and discuss their current research. This program has proved popular both among visitors and the scientists, who appreciate the opportunity to find out what their audiences are interested in. The implication from “The Scientist is In” and from science blogs is that the idea that scientists are universally poor communicators is false. Public education need not be the exclusive domain of education specialists, and many scientists are eager and willing to take part. Indeed, it is good practice to limit the number of layers of interpretation, as this often contributes to distortion of facts.

Another strong practice of science blogs is encouraging interaction from readers. Blog audiences enter gainful conversations with bloggers, and both parties benefit from this process. Museums can mimic this by inviting visitors to form and share their own conclusions. Process-focused science exhibits can show visitors what kinds of information scientists use to make interpretations, and then invite visitors to try it for themselves. For instance, an exhibit could use a variety of animal skeletons to demonstrate how scientists use indicators like gait and posture to determine how extinct animals may have behaved. The goal is to make the museum exhibit an interactive and intellectually involving experience. Involvement nurtures passion for content, which encourages repeat visits and deeper engagement. This is a new concept for museums, which have traditionally positioned themselves as institutions of intellectual authority. Unfortunately, there is little data on how to successfully integrate web-style discourse into a physical exhibit, because very few museums have tried it. Museums will have to be proactive in order to encourage substantive interaction with the exhibit content, or even among visitors. Some museums have successfully integrated user-generated content into exhibit spaces. For example, the “Playing with Science” exhibit at the London Science Museum invited visitors to place photographs of their own objects into the exhibit, alongside brief statements of the objects’ importance. However, something as simple as a comment board can also encourage visitors to respond intelligently to exhibit content.

Finally, museums should refocus content interpretation away from objects for their own sake and toward ideas. As stated previously, the public’s understanding of science is hindered by the media’s focus on encapsulated facts and discoveries, rather than broad, unifying concepts. Most scientific concepts are inherently logical and do not require specialized knowledge to understand if communicated properly. Evolution via natural selection is a good example. The concept that genetic variations within a population of organisms succeed or fail based on suitability to the present environment is easy to grasp, but a troublingly small percentage of the population is familiar with it. Even among visitors to natural history museums, who are more likely to accept evolution as true than the general population, less than a third are familiar with how natural selection works. Evolution is most important concept in biology and unifies the field. Therefore, it would not be difficult to integrate evolutionary concepts into virtually any exhibit on natural sciences. Communication of scientific concepts like evolution is more important for building science literacy than sharing scattered facts and impressive objects. Objects are excellent teaching tools, but are better when used as examples of underlying ideas.

Science communication in the media is at a tipping point. As the media has edged away from education and toward lowest-common-denominator entertaining, the public need for distinguishing reliable and unreliable information has increased. The misleading and inaccurate presentation of science in the media is woefully unhelpful for supporting an active and informed citizenry. Museums, with their high visibility and public trust, are well positioned to take steps toward reversing this trend. However, museum workers must first strike a balance between the sometimes conflicting goals of public appeal and accuracy. Science blogs are an excellent model for reliable, involving and applicable science communication, but they operate on a much smaller scale than museums. The challenge for museums, and any other media forms up to the challenge, will be to translate the strategies employed by blogs at the micro scale to large institutions.

Selected References

Diamond, Judy, and Margaret Evans. “Museums Teach Evolution.” Evolution. 61.6 (2007): 1500-1506.

Gregory, Jane, and Steve Miller. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.

MacFadden, Bruce J., Betty A. Dunckel, Shari Ellis, Lynn D. Dierking, Linda Abraham-Silver, Jim Kisiel and Judy Koke. “Natural History Museum Visitors’ Understanding of Evolution.” Bioscience. 57.10 (2007): 875-882.

McLean, Kathleen. “Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue.” Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. Ed. Gail Anderson. Lanham: Altamira, 2004. 193-211.

Simon, Nina. “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0.” Museums and Social Issues. 2.2 (2007): 257-274.

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Filed under dinosaurs, museums, NMNH, science communication

Part II: Why Science Blogs are Neat

Returning to the shameless term paper recycling extravaganza, this post will cover the recent success of science bloggers. This discussion is based pretty much entirely on the blogs I read, which are mostly vert paleo-related. I can only assume that molecular biologists, physicists and those poor, brave souls in paleobotany have similar online communities. Once again, thanks to Matt Wedel and Brian Switek for their thoughts, experience and quotability.

Of the 112 million blogs on the internet, science blogs represent a small but growing subset of some 1,200 active contributors. Describing his reasons for co-founding the paleontology blog Sauropod Vertebrae Picture of the Week, Mathew Wedel admits, “if we had a goal at first, it was just to talk about how cool sauropod vertebrae are” (Wedel 2011). However, science blogs have since evolved into a valuable resource for both scientists and laypeople. First, science blogs have the advantage of being written by practicing scientists and other experts in their fields, and therefore remove the distortive barrier typically imposed by the media. As such, they provide a unique opportunity for scientists to communicate directly to interested lay people, and to hear what their audience has to say. Blogs can create public awareness of research or scientific concepts deemed irrelevant by the media, and can rapidly provide commentary or corrections to more widely dispersed reports. Science blogs have also proved invaluable for fostering networks of academic peers, but my concern here is with popularization.

Science blogs also embrace a pluralistic conception of academia that is typically obscured by mainstream media. Whereas the media presents scientists as an invariably unified professional entity, blogs reveal the specific positions and interests of individual scientists, humanizing the discipline in the process. SV-POW is once again a prime example. Posts like this one  reveal the little-publicized controversy over for-profit versus open-access academic journals. The comments generated indicate disagreement, or at least varying levels of apathy, within the scientific community. Similarly, Brian Switek’s recent post on Hell Creek ceratopsian diversity emphasizes the normalcy of scientific debate, combating the widespread assumption that any published paper is definitive truth. The public benefits from these conversations because it provides exposure to important issues in knowledge making that are normally not accessible.

Most importantly, by providing audiences with a direct link to working scientists and accounts of their everyday activities, science blogs demythologize the process of creating knowledge. As Wedel explains, blogs are well positioned to integrate the public into the scientific process:

“If we have one overriding goal now, it’s to break down the artificial walls between interested people, regardless of training or background. And by that I mean the scientific process, what we call making science, and the communication of science in both academic and popular settings. A century ago most science was citizen science. The rise of national funding agencies like NSF and NIH has allowed a lot more professional scientists to do science, but along the way we lost something, which is the idea that any curious, disciplined person can contribute to human knowledge. We firmly believe in that, and we’re doing what we can to bring it back.” (Wedel 2011)

This is a critical point because, as discussed in the previous post, the current standards for science communication do not encourage public participation. Information about science is fed to audiences in a one-way exchange. Science blogs break this mold by encouraging a productive dialogue between scientists and laypeople. They encourage the public to actively contribute to the scientific process, and provide a forum for this knowledge to be shared.

Science blogs are still a young media form, and their potential for communication remains largely untested. Nevertheless, the field is growing rapidly, and scientists who blog are gaining much more respect in the academic community (Switek 2011). While there was once skepticism about quality control in the blog medium, increasing numbers of scientists are entering the fray, and it is now reasonable to foresee most labs including somebody blogging about their work by default. Currently, the majority of the public, even those with strong interest in science, are unaware that this forum exists. Science bloggers, however, are encouraged by their increasing visibility, and some are optimistic that blogs will change the way science is communicated to the public.

Selected References

Batts, Shelly A., Nicholas J. Anthis and Tara C. Smith. “Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy.” PLoS Biology. 6.9 (2008): 1837-1841.

Switek, Brian. Email Interview. 19 Oct 2011.

Wilkins, John S. “The Roles, Reasons and Restrictions of Science Blogs.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 23.8 (2008): 411-413.

Wedel, Mathew. Email Interview. 24 Oct 2011.

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Filed under museums, science communication