Thursday, June 10, 2010

Further Musings on Serendipaceratops

One of the scientists in the media I've come to trust and respect is Steven Novella, the neurologist who co-founded the New England Skeptical Society, hosts The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast, and blogs prolifically. In addition to being knowledgeable in a wide variety of scientific fields, he has that rare ability to clearly articulate the workings of science. A sentiment I've heard him express a few times on the SGU is that contrary to science-deniers' claims of a conspiracy to preserve the status quo, scientists relish when a hypothesis is proven wrong. Or when a provisionally accepted fact is upended. These occurrences create questions. And questions are what fuel science. Like most people, I have little contact with scientists in my daily life. I'd like to think that Dr. Novella's observation is mostly true of scientists in general. He's extremely wary of casually making weak generalizations, but I'd love to hear about the experiences of other people.

This isn't to say that I expect superhuman levels of objectivity and logic of scientists. Everyone has flaws in their thinking. But scientists - at least those who have paid their academic dues - are trained to recognize those flaws so they don't influence the work. What I expect of scientists (and hope of anyone) is healthy skepticism, especially of their own conclusions and biases. This is a basic requirement, really. I try to hold myself to the same standard.

What does this have to do with Serendipaceratops? Paleontology has always been my favorite scientific pursuit to learn about, and part of that is because it's such a rich mental playground, pulling in so many other sciences. Serendipaceratops is one of those tasty mysteries that makes you consider possibilities, flex the brain muscle, so to speak. That it's only one or two bones only makes it more intriguing. Maybe it will never be solved. That's okay. Science is a process, and even dead ends can yield worthwhile insights.

Sometimes when I'm writing I'll imagine someone stumbling across this blog who doesn't care a whit for dinosaurs or paleontology or natural history. They might read about this odd bone from Australia and think that fussing over such a thing is ridiculous. What does it really matter? I can put myself in that person's shoes and understand why digging up ancient bones may seem that way. But I'd ask that person which of the following options is the most ridiculous, when you've pulled a fossil out of the ground.
  1. Make up something off of the top of your head.
  2. Toss it aside and forget it.
  3. Do paleontology.
In my opinion, number three is the only reasonable choice.

Finally, thanks to the commenters yesterday for giving me more to mull over. I've put out a request for a recent paper that offers an alternate hypothesis for Serendipaceratops' identity and may post on that if I'm lucky enough to receive it. If anyone else has any more information that might help, pass it my way - I think I've been pretty diligent about researching this critter, but there's not a lot out there.

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