Comments on Carl Zimmer’s reporting of feather evolution

I posted Feather Genes Surprisingly Early – But Misinterpreted before reading Zimmer’s write-up of the same paper. I’ll add a minor comment on his contribution here, just as I posted a more major comment on his feather commentary of 2011.

The main problems with Zimmer’s reportage are:

He thinks he only has the right to pass on, unconsidered, what the scientists say. Well, he’s right in a way since he shows no scientific appreciation himself (see the next point), so he isn’t the person to question scientists; but therefore neither is he the person to report on them. Good journalism requires good critique… so when he’s given rubbish he passes it straight on to you. In this case not rubbish generated by the genetic scientist authors of this paper, but that which they themselves were handed by palaeontologists.

Then, because like pretty well most poor scientists including most palaeontologists, he not only thinks it is the scientific process to establish sequences of facts and progress along them laying more in turn, but, because he believes in facts, he can’t get his head round the necessity in good science of backtracking, i.e. changing one’s mind. In fact the currency of science is theories, not facts. Anyone knowing anything about cognitive science, artificial intelligence, or philosophy, would know that. Zimmer shows no influence from any of these fields, and neither do the palaeontologists he panders to. Even if you believed in facts, you’d need a theory before you could get a fact, otherwise you wouldn’t know what to research further into. A “fact” is just a theory we believe strongly in – which we’re prepared to treat as a fact. However we need to imagine – invent – competing theories, and see which explain the observations the best. If that’s your view, as it should be, then you will be forever going back over even your favoured basic theories, and re-examining them in the light of new evidence, and newly spawned theories, which that evidence inspires in you and others.

Listen to Einstein:

…concepts which have proved useful for ordering things easily assume so great an authority over us, that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as “conceptual necessities”, “a priori situations”, etc. The road of scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors. It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyse familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions on which their justification and usefulness depend, and the way in which these developed, little by little, from the data of experience. In this way they are deprived of their excessive authority.

People think that science can get stuck when starved of new observations. It’s more likely to get stuck when starved of good theorisation.

In addition to his first two problems of never thinking for himself at all, and sclerotisation due to excess “fact”, he uses hominem-based decisions. Some people he will never listen to… because they inconvenience people by questioning too much. And as the best scientists are those who question better, and you don’t get good by not practicing… you can see how his reportage is likely to become toxic in difficult fields – where the public really needs incisive expert journalism; he will only be reliable in obvious areas where even non-experts need no help.

Zimmer therefore unthinkingly hands you the drivel:

“Birds evolved from dinosaur ancestors, and those ancestors already had feathers. Feathers started out as simple filaments, turning to fuzz, and then diversifying into a lot of different forms–including the ones that eventually let birds take to the air.”

The only reliable part of that is: “those ancestors already had feathers”. If you think good blade-form aerodynamic feathers can evolve easily from fuzz, you should get a feel for physics, and another for the ways of genetic algorithms, and sit down and think hard about the steps required, as I related in The Secret Dinobird Story. Trust me – it’s enormously problematic to evolve a filamentous form into an aerodynamic blade form easily. There’s a reason mammals never got anywhere near it for 200 million years. And there’s a reason why nothing ever got anywhere near, even now, taking flight by running along the ground and flapping.

But I digress, because Zimmer’s biggest problem is philosophy of science. It showed in the quote above, and it shows again near the end:

“…the fossil record reveals that as dinosaurs evolved into birds, their bodies shrank,…”

People see what is in their minds, a few good scientists excepted. The fossil record does not “reveal” that as dinosaurs evolved into birds, their bodies shrank. A theory that its supporters have never questioned, and is unjustified, suggests it.

And the genetic record doesn’t reveal it either.

PS – I was fascinated to see that the first two commenters on Zimmer’s post had contributed images for my book! The first, Dave Peters, is an honest worker in the field, but concentrating on pterosaurs. That’s not my area, but I suspect Dave is too trusting of cladograms, and I’m not convinced of his views on the origin of pterosaurs, as far as I understand them or his views on them. But note: Zimmer subscribes to the belief that views you disagree with may be blocked, and their supporters diminished as far as possible – viz Naish’s nasty posting. Peters is no wronger than Naish on tricky phylogeny but he understands manners and the need for an open mind. Yes, I do have a good go at the likes of Zimmer and Naish, but that’s because they believe both that they don’t have to listen, and they’re entitled to censor. They may have listened to Peters but they’ve never listened to me.

Zach Miller, in the second comment, seems quite reasonable here, but though his artistic talent is massive, so is his ignorance and intolerance. Ask him about the style of physical violence he would like to inflict on those scientists he doesn’t understand! As to his point about the position of turtles, I’ve been saying for ten years that they’re where the genes now say they are: just before crocs.

This entry was posted in Bird evolution, dinosaur evolution, Philosophy of science, The Secret Dinobird Story and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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