Cladism Goes To The Chair 06: Many worse than Naish

If only it were just him! But that circus contains a constellation of performers, most moving freely between offering useful basic information and unwise cladist advice, a terrible situation for the unwary trying to learn. But they all share the oft-used comedy principle of being corrected about something and largely agreeing, and then straight away assuming their old belief was still valid. This originally reminded me most of a routine in Monty Python where a discussion with a castle gate-keeper (Eric Idle?) goes round and round in circles, ignoring what’s already been covered; but the bit in “Spinal Tap” where the idiot keeps saying “Yeah… but this goes up to eleven” is actually a better example. You see it when they accept a cladogram is just a hypothesis, then quickly talk as if it were a test. You see it when you explain decisive testing can only be negative, and then five minutes later they treat a satisfied test as positive proof. The most resistant carbuncle is their perennial claim that science equals simplicity. I’ve explained that if science is the Popperian principle of power of explanation, which they often accept for a few minutes, then it can’t also “be” simplicity. But two weeks later you get the same idiot blaring at you that you must be stupid not to know science is simplicity. And of course they never understand that when the higher level thinking is wrong, the results can’t be trusted. Hence Naish’s claim that philosophy of science had nothing to do with understanding, say, microraptors.

It isn’t funny when the dogs repeatedly return to their vomit decade after decade, supported financially by science funding, and implicitly by the SVP. I can and do take it to the PhD supervisors of those at fault, but the claim can be made the errors didn’t come from their university. But even if it came from the SVP subculture, graduates should have been inoculated against it. I did this with Hone. For me now, he is the most shockingly appalling. Holtz, Naish and Mortimer often keep their stupid mistakes off the surface and at least write stylishly and carefully, so that, like Ann Widdecombe or Enoch Powell, they do offer an external verbal polish despite the daftness and danger in the underlying thinking. But while they seem to write effortlessly, David Hone just appears to make no effort. Whereas they seem to be incidentally playing the game of exploiting loopholes in scientific procedure, he explicitly invites you (me at least) to play “the game”, as if he doesn’t even pretend to have real science as an overall aim. Many biologists are, as they should be, reluctant to ascribe the evolution of a puzzling feature to sexual selection until they’ve exhausted every other possibility, but you don’t detect any reluctance when Hone uses it. He might resemble other palaeontologists in that, but can you imagine any of the above three writing, even on a blog comment, that Anchiornis was the first feathered troodont to be discovered?! Never mind its being on the wrong side of Archaeopteryx to be a troodont, which the others wouldn’t appreciate either – but can he really have forgotten even for a moment, all those years of waiting that Jinfengopteryx finally brought an end to?!

If the whole game is ruined, does not having a silver lining matter? Marjanovic’s special contribution: his petulant childishness designed to kill creativity in others, would damn any academic or indeed any professional sphere that tolerated it, and even when he’s certain, he’s often wrong; but as with most of the others, he occasionally says something interesting (not that I’ve needed to ref. him in the book). But not Hone. It’s hard to recall any thought both novel and true from him. Of all the ‘Rosemary’s Baby moments’ palaeontology has given us as we peered horrified into its cradle: realising Gee was an editor at Nature; hearing Paul can’t get abstracts accepted to the JVP; hearing the first feathered dinosaurs described as a triumph for the old guard… none are worse than seeing that oafing arse Hone sent to China to write up – oh, ‘and explain’ – the new discoveries. So he was really the best they could get?

I’ve concentrated here on Naish because he’s said so much about me, but I’ve omitted others only for reasons of space.

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One Response to Cladism Goes To The Chair 06: Many worse than Naish

  1. Thanks for bringing some hilarity to my day. It’s good to know my writing comes off as carefully considered and stylish. Now back to my normal life of daftness and danger…

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