April 7, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Of Brontosaurus, Cartoons, and Revisionism

With the resurrection of Brontosaurus as a valid dinosaur name after a century of repudiation, what’s a kid to think? Thoughts on science’s arbitrary and tentative nature.

Eight-year-olds used to brag about correcting their parents who said “Brontosaurus.” The correct name is “Apatosaurus,” the kid would be quick to say. Now the parent has a comeback: Brontosaurus is a valid name for some of the members of the Diplodocidae, according to a new reclassification of the giant sauropods by a team led by Emanuel Tschopp from Nova University of Lisbon, according to Nature. His team studied all the known fossils of the beasts and concluded that Edward Cope’s name Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard”) is valid, because there are enough distinguishable traits to distinguish it from Othniel Marsh’s earlier find that he had named Apatosaurus (“deceptive lizard”).

Tschopp says he did not start out to resurrect Brontosaurus, but his team’s analysis decided enough differences warranted the reversal. “The Smithsonian Institution accused USPS of favoring ‘cartoon nomenclature to scientific nomenclature,'” Michael Balter writes in Science Magazine. “It didn’t help that the stamps were officially launched at Disney World.” The cartoonists may have the last laugh. Undoubtedly some parents will enjoy rubbing it in to their kids: “See? I was right!” dad will say. “We were both right!” may be the retort.

Old dinosaur hunter Bob Bakker welcomes the change, because it gives him new evolutionary themes to work on: “this group of critters, the long-neck Apatosaurs, evolved faster than we’ve been giving them credit for,” he said in Live Science. Did you hear the one about Brontosaurus being really an Apatosaurus with the wrong head? That’s a “popular myth,” says the BBC News.

According to the new names, “thunder lizard” and “deceptive lizard” are distinct genera. But maybe both names are wrong; these dinosaurs are not lizards at all. Lizards have legs splayed out to the side, and dinosaurs have them underneath. But then “dinosaur” means “terrible lizard.” Will there be terrible thunder at this deceptive naming scheme that depends on ‘saurus’ (lizard)? What’s in a name, anyway?

Obviously the dinosaurs didn’t call themselves Bronto- or Apato-saurus. They just lived and ate and fought. It’s humans that are obsessed with pigeonholing things into classification schemes. The lumpers want more items in bigger bins; the splitters want fewer items in smaller bins. The “bone wars” between Marsh and Cope in the 19th century track the classification wars of taxonomists. It cannot be ruled out that some future day a taxonomist will want to lump the diplodocids into bigger bins. Maybe he or she will keep Bronto and ditch the “deceptive lizard” Apato, leading future kids to tell the parents, “The correct name is Brontosaurus.” The bones won’t have changed; just the human scheme.

This is a take-home lesson about scientific hubris, Balter concludes:

Some paleontologists have reservations. “It’s going to force us to ask questions about what we really mean by genus and species in a paleontological context,” says paleontologist John Whitlock of Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania. “Is it more useful to distinguish specimens as Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus than it is to distinguish A. excelsus from other species of Apatosaurus? I don’t know, but I hope it’s the start of a conversation.” He and others, including Tschopp himself, note that the characters used aren’t cut-and-dried and could be scored differently by others.

Upchurch thinks this kind of detailed taxonomy could help resolve questions such as how diverse dinosaurs were just before they went extinct about 66 million years ago. Others welcome the resurrection of an icon. Brontosaurus has a prominent place in the public imagination,” Mannion says. “It can only be a good thing that it is back with us. … It shows that science develops through time and that it’s possible to change our minds, even about long-held views.”

Would it be possible to change long-held views about subjects like evolution or global warming? Think about all the recent overconfidence by climatologists about anthropogenic climate change, resulting in global conferences determined to force draconian measures on nation’s economies. News flash! This just in! Quirin Schiermeier writes in Nature,

Climate science needs more mathematicians and physicists. So say prominent climatologists who are trying to spark enthusiasm for their field in budding researchers who might otherwise choose astrophysics or cosmology. Talented physical scientists are needed to help resolve mysteries that are crucial to modelling the climate — and, potentially, saving the planet — the group says, such as the ways in which clouds are formed.

There is a misconception that the major challenges in physical climate science are settled. “That’s absolutely not true,” says Sandrine Bony, a climate researcher at the Laboratory of Dynamic Meteorology in Paris. “In fact, essential physical aspects of climate change are poorly understood.”

With that kind of thunder in the clouds, maybe climate science will have its Brontosaurus moment. The article doesn’t doubt anthropogenic climate change, but if “essential physical aspects” that feed the models are “poorly understood,” and the models generate all the media hype, what’s an observant layman to think?  “The perception that climate science is ‘solved’ is an inadvertent result of pressure on climatologists to convey a simple message to the public,” one climate modeler stated. Another added, “We too quickly turn to the policy implications of our work and forget the basic science.”

Scientific nomenclature can be matters of economic viability. Is the “delta smelt” an “endangered species”? There’s no question its numbers are down, but how diverse is it from other species of smelt? National Geographic talks about the little fish that is at the heart of California’s “water wars”. Massive efforts to save this fish have destroyed farms and left millions of acres of land fallow for years, due to policy decisions to cut water delivery in the central valley to save the fish instead of people’s livelihoods. Scientific nomenclature can also be matters of life and death. Is it useful to call depression a mental illness? And how definitive is the label “depression”? Does it help to add the adjective “clinical” in front of it? In the wake of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s “conscious decision” to commit murder-suicide in a Germanwings aircraft, killing 154 people, Peter Kinderman of the University of Liverpool argues in Live Science that the labels have no explanatory value. “Individuals commit murder-suicide, not the ‘mentally ill’,” his headline reads. Instead of applying labels, he advises, we should be on the lookout for combinations of traits and actions that put people at risk for heinous deeds.

These are just a few recent examples of revisions that undermine science’s claim to progress in the knowledge of truth. Zacharias Maniadas thinks that economic theory can help science’s ‘credibility problem’. “Science is considered a source of truth and the importance of its role in shaping modern society cannot be overstated,” he says in The Conversation. “But in recent years science has entered a crisis of trust.”  He advises that “implementing the transparency proposals will help science fulfil [sic] its purpose of discovering the truth.” But the transparency proposals are built on models; what if essential aspects of those models are also poorly understood? After all, human nature is much more complex than the way clouds are formed. The old question comes up again: who watches the watchers?

Science becomes much more fun when you see the blowhards as cartoon characters. Real scientists are humble. Always be wary, because despite the thunder in the media, deceptive lizards are not extinct.


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