Cladism Goes To The Chair 05: Disparage Opponents, Their Philosophy, And Again Their Genuine Expertise

Anyone would recognise Naish’s gratuitous disparagement as bad practice in science since it distracts from the true subject matter… but he has no workable alternative:

“I so love posting comments on bird origins, Longisquama and so on – always brings out the (looks for polite term), err, individuals promoting non-standard hypotheses.”

Of course, not starting a discussion by smearing the opponent was too trivial to be included in my list of handy guidelines for good science, but Naish also commits the offence here of trying to disparage anyone who simply has a new idea (violating Ж:13 on the list). Why is that an elementary error? Because being a new and therefore non-standard hypothesis is one thing absolutely every idea of any kind, including all the good ones, share at some time. There is therefore nothing good about disparaging the new or the non-standard. In fact, since there’s been no change in methods in dinobird science for 15 or 20 years, they should be desperate at least to be pretending to accept novelty otherwise it doesn’t even look like a real science! It’s just fossils that are new, but even the change in theories those should bring aren’t adopted. Oh – and would you rather be on the side of the creationist majority around the world? No. And I wouldn’t want to be in the unqualified cladist majority either.

In an email, or in a blog comment as above, thoroughness needn’t be completely sacrificed. Twitter on the other hand is the perfect medium for the unjustified insinuating jibe:

“How I love ‘strangetruther’ comments. How do those with minority views get sure that they alone see “the truth”?”

How? He might have learned if he’d listened – all those words I’d sent his way were explanations, and all of them he ignored. His subtext is clear: “Minority Minority Minority!” In fact, it would make more sense to say: “Democracy – the last refuge of the pseudoscientist”.

Skipping the next dollop of unjustified insults, Naish then says:

“For some reason, John has seemingly taken to defending Feduccia in recent years – pretty weird…”

Weird to judge by track-record? Alan Feduccia backed the right horses most of the time, unlike the cladists who got all the hard questions wrong and most of the easy ones too (they didn’t even get a random success rate). Feduccia thinks the lineage to birds went via tree-living gliders (which we find in the Permian, the Triassic and the Jurassic) and not the physically impossible route via allosaurs and then the later-living tyrannosaurs flapping their arms on the ground and taking off, which only a fool would believe possible. (T. rex irrelevant? Why’s it in you cladogram?) Feduccia also doesn’t put his faith in something he doesn’t understand, as cladists like Naish have to, by definition. (Probably Alan doesn’t trust cladograms because he does understand them!) But anyway, he’s still right on that: there’s no reason in the real world to consider them more than contributory evidence. Alan’s view on the near extinction of birds at the KT boundary was a pretty good call, and nearer to my present view than alternatives. I think his view on Megalancosaurus being relevant to bird evolution was amazingly prescient considering he hadn’t seen the newer skeletons showing the peculiar spinal section where gliding plumes would attach. Like Longisquama it is very different from birds but relevant for the same reason. I couldn’t prise him away from the collagen fibres but despite that he’s actually still a lot closer to pinning the tail on all the various donkeys than most.

“…pretty weird given that Feduccia’s opinions on archosaur evolution and bird origins are all based around the tenet that scenarios are more important than anatomical characters and character-based phylogenies.”

Scenarios. Subtext, for those blessedly free from palaeo culture: ‘reconstructing events in the past is pseudo-scientific’. Who says? Who says that trying to work on sequences of events in the past is never going to make sense? Two of the biggest bullshitters ever to infect science: first, Stephen J Gould (1980 – see ref. in Kennair’s (2002) critique, and this too), who did make sense often enough for some sensible people to trust him for a while, and was all too often entertaining; and second, Henry Gee, who didn’t manage either, and claimed anything expressible as a story could never be science. But reconstructing and sequencing events in the past is not just useful but an essential function of higher cognition at any level, never mind science. Indeed, thinking is all about dealing with sequences of events and their representations. If your definition of science doesn’t admit it, we still have to use and study it anyway – and our definition will admit it. Sober, a world authority on the nature of science, titled his 1988 book “Reconstructing the Past:…” advisedly.

Guess who someone like Darren Naish would follow: Gee or Sober?

“Oh, and that everyone who disagrees with him is essentially stupid stupid,…”

He refuses to see that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man doesn’t have to be special to see better – while he avoids being stabbed in the back of course. Naish and his fans simply can’t believe he might have any great swathes of ignorance when he’s so expert at identifying animals washed up on the beach and listing the contents of Lord Rothschild’s menagerie; but that’s entertainment, not science. Remembering is not thinking. When I want to solve a mechanical problem with the car, who should I go to? The greengrocer with rotten apples who thinks he knows everything? Funnily enough no, I go to a car mechanic. When I want to understand what the output of an information processing heuristic means, do I go to someone like Naish who didn’t even pick up a proper science ‘A’-level, nor maths of course, and never said or did anything in an information or numeric field that could ever be confused with the output from a professional? Or do I instead listen to the reasoned opinion of someone with an MSc in information systems engineering – like myself? Naish can’t see why I should choose the latter. And that’s an example of stupidity. I don’t mind stupidity, it’s when it’s combined with the pretence of expertise I won’t tolerate it. He gets as much mileage as he can – and more – out of the degrees he reeled off the toilet wall of whichever University of Portsmouth department does palaeo, but genuinely relevant degrees held by others are so useless he can’t even understand why I suggest they might be relevant:

“Once you get past John’s idiosyncratic ramblings about philosophy, psychology, knowledge engineering…”

Subjects he’s ignorant of, he has to pretend are meaningless. Elsewhere in science, steps are taken all the time to avoid psychological corruption. “Double blind” experimentation is understood to be essential to avoid psychological influences that would otherwise ruin the scientific process; disclosures of possible influences, or claims of independence are commonly seen, rightly, after certain scientific publications (though Gee never discloses his cladist loyalties or writings alongside his editorial contributions; nobody knows why). My philosophy of science was influenced by Richard Gregory’s lectures, and my view of phylogenesis as perception might have been too. Gregory was an idiosyncratic rambler was he? Also for perception I had Stuart Sutherland, but he also wrote perhaps the most famous book ever written on human cognitive fallibility: “Irrationality: the Enemy Within”. That was incoherent rubbish was it? Cladists like Naish eventually break every rule of scientific subculture in the book, and that book is Sutherland’s.

Not only is criticism within or even of a subject by those entirely ignorant of it, unacceptable, but the idea that someone with good arguments, experience and often qualifications should have every argument they make, insultingly damned, as mine have been by Naish, every time, and on the basis of pub-style science, is totally and blatantly absurd.

“…and how we’re all clueless idiots for blindly using parsimony-generated phylogenies (something to do with the fact that we don’t have qualifications in information systems, apparently)…”

He’s still trying to deny that a relevant engineering degree isn’t as useful in the engineering area concerned, as his and his colleagues’ complete void, and he’s still claiming cladograms are perfect. Some would describe his attitude as insane but it’s the peer pressure that’s suppressing the logic in his mind. He probably thinks he’s got real experience value from his postgrad palaeo degrees because he thinks you can get real experience or genuine feedback on the phylogeny of long extinct animals. He doesn’t know you can’t because he also holds a void in anything in the philosophy of science category. So he’s happy to continue blindly using parsimony-generated phylogenies, to pass on ‘info’ derived from them, and to advise others to do it, despite counter-advice from a professional.

“…John also mentions Protoavis as well.. that’s right, the chimaera named for wrongly associated bones of diverse Triassic reptiles…”

That’s right – the non-chimera that makes their theory untenable. Having no feel for statistics is a terrible handicap in science. Protoavis, an ideal branching point from feathered gliders to dinosaurs, is hated by cladists, who call it a chimera – a mixture of other animals (precisely those animals it forms a bridge between). But a scientist can see that that mixture of a reasonable number of bones from even two different animals, all of matching size, but with no duplications between them, is already unlikely to be a chimera. Add in the third contributing animal they require, and the likelihood of a true chimera producing no inconsistency drops dramatically. But there’s a second partial specimen! …and the bones in that are also of a matching size, slightly larger now, but not only are there are still no duplications, but there’s no clash in the bones contributed by the same supposed donor species – neither within the second specimen nor between the two! That not only makes it definitely not a chimera, but it makes anyone criticising it definitely a poor scientist (for anyone still in any doubt). And did I mention the feather bumps on its forearms? Just one bone with its bumps would be enough!

In fact, the only reason why his lot dislike the fossil is that it clashes with their own theory – but they show themselves up again here: their antagonism is inappropriately high. Their reaction is not to see it as counter evidence to their theory, but to try to damn as non-scientific those who consider it valid! Appalling on two counts: first they make the wrong choice of theory and expose their statistical naïveté; second they treat their error in simple judgement as their opponents’ error in scientific propriety.

He continues:

“John said (in connection with Protoavis) “you don’t like to pay attention to anything I say”. Indeed, why would I, and why would anyone else?”

Well, a professional qualification in a relevant field would be seen by a professional as a reason to attend. Which is why he doesn’t. I could have taught him all he needs to catch up in ten one-hour sessions but after more than ten years he’s still learned nothing from me. [Why would “any one else” “pay attention to anything I said”? ANYTHING?! An indefensibly stupid insult if ever there was one, easily answered by a good few SD226 students, and the university that employed me for a start, not the mention the editors who’ve gladly accepted copy from me in three entirely different fields.]

“Your entire approach is based on speculation…”

At last – that word speculation: though it may seem paradoxical it is indeed an acid test of the pseudo-scientist. “Conjecture and Refutation” was good enough for Popper, and conjecture is a synonym of speculation. We’re reminded of this when we eliminate null hypotheses in statistical tests, for those with experience of such, which in his case he has not got. Science never offers anything better than this version of generate and test, so only amateurs, such as politicians of various kinds, try to use it as a weapon. Though used all too often, the accusation of “conjecture” can be made lethal in an argument but only to the user.

“… and scenarios,…”

Yes, that would be generating possible sequences and combinations of events and eliminating the impossible or very unlikely… which is exactly what historical science is. If he hasn’t heard of Popper, surely he’s heard of Holmes? I’ve a feeling Conan Doyle annoyingly called the method simply ‘deduction’ which would have been wrong even then, though that is a part of “hypothetico-deductivism” as it’s now termed. And of course, it’s the same sort of thing as conjecture and refutation… which means Naish is claiming the standard scientific method is non-science (he instinctively knows no-one in the SVP will ever see the blunder). I have now asked the University of Portsmouth at what point in their post-graduate courses the candidates are informed that Popperism is not only not the only scientific principle they should be following, but that it is even a risibly unacceptable option.

Even if he’d made no other mistakes he’d be damning himself by this.

“…and you persistently maintain that only you are clever enough to see the truth, and that we are all dumb children with irrelevant qualifications.”

He is having a brave go at defending an impossible position. If I were in his position, say as a swimming instructor who couldn’t swim, or an accountant who couldn’t subtract, I would have said “It’s a fair cop” a long time ago. I’m the only one “clever enough”? You’d only need to be halfway sensible to see the point of competence in a vital scientific area! Just understanding the role of conjecture and refutation in modern science would put you ahead of the palaeo pack, and I knew it when I was 16, as any kid destined to be a scientist should. (I don’t know why more aren’t told! How expensive would it be, and how much hassle would it save?!)

Secondly, I know that cladograms can’t be trusted for dinobirds, and you need to be really stupid not to appreciate that. I don’t like to use that word ‘fact’ but if anything were an undeniable fact in palaeontology, it’s that.

“Well, what a very encouraging role model you are.”

I preach that Popperism is the best road through science, that zero relevant qualifications and meaningful experience are a good guide to zero authority, and not to give up until bullshitting charlatans like Darren Naish are crushed. By preaching and demonstrating the opposite, he comes under the heading of what I do for a living.

“For entirely unconnected reasons, I will point out that repulsive arrogance is an undesirable personality trait.”

So he’ll change soon then?! Implying Popper is a crank isn’t arrogance? For Naish, arrogance is denying his clique’s imperatives. He shows no evidence of ever having considered the possibility of scientific life outside cladism. He’s annoyed because I show how I use science from beyond cladism to explain why I’m not bothered what his clique thinks. A psychologist will see Naish’s anger at what he sees as disobedience, as tyranny growing from local power, just as a yob in a pub itches to attack anyone doubting his groups’ standards. Just take a look at this chart of citation interconnectivity between the sciences, and see the isolated position of palaeontology, compared to the influences I draw from:

Map produced by – see – reflecting subject interconnectivites, and included in Steve Jones' independent assessment within BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science, July 2011.

Map produced by – see – reflecting subject interconnectivites, and included in Steve Jones’ independent assessment within BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science, July 2011.

Palaeontology, not big enough to have a blob to itself, has to share with geosciences, out on the edge (it shouldn’t even be there anyway, it should be with biology). None of the blue links from geosciences owes anything to palaeontology except the one going to ecology and evolution – but dinobird scientists don’t listen much to ecology or evolution studies either. An even more honest representation would have palaeontology as the smallest possible blob… and on the next page, connected to nothing. Indeed, Steve Jones says in connection with this image: “Much smaller and more isolated are astronomy, anthropology, and geosciences.” I draw from the interface of computer science with both biological and cognitive psychology. Information flow and system behaviour issues obviously contribute to understanding cladograms and the true biological processes behind them; unfortunately, to make sense of the world of cladism, other aspects of psychology become relevant all too often. Perhaps if I draw him a diagram, Naish just might understand where I’m coming from.

Try to practice medicine without genuine qualifications and the law will get you. I see real qualification, or hunting down imposters who don’t even know what they are supposed to be copying, as admirable social obligations in science; but expecting to get away with murdering science goes way past arrogance.

He’s not only criticising the pursuit of conjecture and refutation as pseudo-science, and lambasting anyone who tries it, but he goes on to tell everyone (perhaps including his 1,000 Twitter followers of which he’s so proud) that in my case, I’m not just wrong in my scientific head but thoroughly immoral, evil and repulsive too. That makes him a shameless liar about me (for the record, the bright think I’m bright, and the nice think I’m nice), and a hypocrite. You might think hypocrisy trivial – on a par with bad taste in facial hair – but although we don’t bother about Hitler’s taste in the latter, we are concerned about his skill at putting over the really big damaging lies about others.

(True stories: when Naish was on the checkout at my local supermarket he’d merely informed the shopper in the queue behind me that the mystery antelope on her cereal box was a bongo… but in such a manner as to suggest nothing was more important than that factoid and his smug delight in telling it. She didn’t say anything but I’ve never seen a shopper more insulted and angered – and just through the expression of his personality. Whether or not he noticed her response, he certainly didn’t care. I’ve very rarely been in a position to see people’s reaction to him but the reaction is so frequent. I only met him three times there; the third time, as he was ending his shift, his co-worker was also seething. “I really hate… [she groped for a description] …these young people” she said, after he’d walked past us. But it’s always the same thing people hate about him and it isn’t his youth. At an editorial meeting of the Dinosaur Society UK magazine that I attended, they were considering him for some illustration work. “Loose cannon” was the term they found that time. How thoughtlessly selfish would your reputation have to be to lose that commission!

Addiction can hugely damage the individual and others, but I’ve never seen addictive egotism expressed more intensely than in him. It’s most neatly expressed in his Twitter stream: drop a fact… bathe in the admiration even if he has to imagine it though he doesn’t on Twitter… find a turn of phrase that coincidentally expresses his own cool superiority… drop another fact… etc etc. The tight loop of an easy action and sometimes modest yet usually real and rapid reward (just like bubble-wrap), endlessly practised even in inappropriate social circumstances, explains his reluctance ever to depart into the slow rewards of real science, and his anger when told he’s not… actually… being clever enough.)

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