Comments on Hone on birds and dinosaurs in the Guardian

In a recent contribution to The Guardian: Birds and dinosaurs – one of the great fossil connections, David Hone (ghod – he’s actually got a regular spot there :-S), made his usual pretence at being a scientist. I didn’t hear about it early enough to make a comment there, but this is my comment…

The important issue is not about creationists. We’ve had over 3,000 years to learn to ignore them, and they do little damage in the West, and none in the UK. The elephant in the room is types like Hone. At the heart of palaeontology is information science. It’s needed for generating family trees and to understand the evolution of the fossils, and much else follows from that. Do you know a working palaeontologist who has degree-level expertise in it? I don’t. The amateur palaeo enthusiasts with those skills all keep away from the family trees of early birds, because they know their skills will annoy the “experts”. Do you know that The Guardian has NEVER printed the opinion of anyone with knowledge of both the fossils and the info skills?

Why? Is it general Guardian policy to take at face value whatever those with vested interests have to say? The whole world knows it can’t be, after Assange, Snowden, and others. If Hone etc. are ALL so ignorant of the essential info science that they can’t understand the significance of their computer output, AND also of elementary philosophy of science to the point that they can’t use evidence to select their theories properly, and of the psychology they’d need to avoid the self-deception they’re prey to, how do you expect them to be competent? Hone hasn’t even got a biological degree. And how do you expect he and his lot have managed to stay the only ones who ever get heard, without corruption? No need to bother Assange and Snowden for their opinion on this – they’re a bit preoccupied at the moment, but another Guardian contributor [at least once :-)] Max Keiser… what do you think his views on this might be? Why don’t you ask him? You might be surprised. I’ve a feeling that unlike some editors, he thinks incompetence is likely to be problem wherever it occurs, even science!

So shall we check out some of Hone’s errors?

“…one can see the feathers changing in size and structure over time in a clear and consistent pattern. In the first lineages, these are short and simple fibres,..”

Since Hone has no psychology, he doesn’t realise that he sees what he wants to see. He simply fails to see the earliest feathers as feathers at all. The reality is of leaf-like blades progressing into herring-bone fibre blades, and finally but repeatedly, losing the blade format if the aerodynamic requirement is lost. That is a clear and consistent pattern, but it’s one he can’t see.

“…create family trees (phylogenies) with which we can test ideas,…”

His phylogenies (cladograms) Do Not TEST Ideas! Run your science writers’ ideas past a genuine philosopher of science once in a while, will you, Guardian!

“…the various methods to date fossils and create family trees (phylogenies) with which we can test ideas, the studies showing that actually the two combine beautifully (the order in which we predict species evolved through the phylogenies matches their age in the fossil record),…”

That’s a bundle of bare-faced lies. First, they’ve never had a consistent idea of how Archaeopteryx, dromaeosaurs, troodonts and other birds evolved, for them to compare against the fossil ages. They needed me to do that for them. Second, no dromaeosaur or oviraptorosaur appear before the Cretaceous, so there’s no beautiful way they could be an ancestral to Archaeopteryx.

That only leaves them with troodonts… which brings us to Anchiornis, which, amazingly, Hone was asked to co-author the first paper on. He described it as a troodont. He also didnt’ recognise that it was probably Archaeopteryx’ ancestor (in, amongst other places, New Scientist) nor of course that it was its arboreal gliding ancestor, as I described it in my book. Happily, Attenborough seems to have chosen my interpretation when he featured Anchiornis in I think the first episode of his most recent two-part series.

Hone knows nothing of evolutionary simulation or of the understanding it can bring, and has no physics, which is why he can say: “and even asymmetric feathers just as in Archaeopteryx [or] in the gliding dinosaur Microraptor…”

Over 20 million years after its relative Archaeopteryx flew, how could a top predator in its size range, with not one but two sets of wings with very high-performance primary feathers, survive as a glider! And why is he so certain this is the only possible interpretation? Does he not listen to aeronautical experts who say it’s fine as a powered flier?

Well, he gets away with it because editors follow the rule of listening only to those with qualifications in the subject… but they can’t even follow that simple rule properly. Hone has no qualifications in any of the essential skills, only in the overall portmanteau subject palaeontology. So he’s assumed to have superior understanding in EVERY academic area that contributes to palaeontology, way beyond that of any specialist statistician, engineer, philosopher, computer scientist, biologist etc. etc. If any of those disagree with him as do, they are considered ignorant, and are permanently blocked.

Which is why the likes of Hone, and indeed Henry Gee, get all the bandwidth they want, to say nothing worth listening to, and why what the Guardian prints on palaeontology is not just boring, but rubbish.

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