There’s another development in Aetogate, which you’ll recall saw paleontologists William Parker, Jerzy Dzik, and Jeff Martz alleging that Spencer Lucas and his colleagues at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) were making use of their work or fossil resources without giving them proper credit. Since I last posted on the situation, NMMNHS decided to convene an ethics panel to consider the allegations. This ought to be good news, right?
It probably depends on what one means by “consider”.
On Thursday, February 21, the Albuquerque Journal reported that this ethics panel was to be convened. Your first assumption might be that the museum would bring in some respected paleontologists without close ties to Lucas, his co-workers, or the museum, in the interests of making an objective judgment as to the facts of the case. Here’s what was reported on the constitution of the panel:
Members of the museum’s executive committee and two outside experts will meet in closed session to review allegations that Lucas and some of his colleagues took credit for work done by other scientists…
One of the outside experts brought in to review the case, retired New Mexico Bureau of Mines geologist Orin Anderson, has collaborated with Lucas on scientific publications in the past.
The second outside expert is Norm Silberling, a retired U.S. Geological Survey geologist from Denver, according to Doug Svetnica, spokesman for the state Department of Cultural Affairs…
Svetnica said Anderson and Silberman were recommended as researchers with the necessary expertise to evaluate the issues raised in the case. Silberman was recommended by faculty at the University of New Mexico. Svetnica could not say Wednesday afternoon who recommended Anderson.
Recall that Spencer Lucas is the director of the museum. This might complicate the ability of the members of the museum’s executive committee to be completely objective in weighing the evidence.
And one of the two “outside experts” is a Lucas coauthor (on 65 research papers). Arguably, if the motivation for involving outside experts is to get input from experts without conflicting interests in the case — whether institutional ties to the museum or personal ties to the accusers or the accused — Orin Anderson was a problematic choice.
But at least one of the members of the panel, Norman Silberling, was without any apparent tie to the museum or to Lucas. Or so it seemed. From an article in the Albuquerque Journal Saturday, February 23:
Last year, Lucas dedicated a book to Silberling, describing him in the book’s foreword as “a fine gentlemen and a gentle soul.” …
Silberling and Lucas coauthored five papers.
Lucas has dedicated books to both Silberling and Anderson, and, in his Feb. 18 letter, Silberling described himself as “a professional friend and admirer of Lucas.”
Since Silberling is described as a geologist — not a vertebrate paleontologist — one can’t put down this connection to Lucas as a matter of the community of vertebrate paleontologists being so very small that all the experts know each other. Surely there exists some similarly qualified geologist without any ties to Lucas; the NMMNHS just couldn’t find her.
Personal ties or not, scientists pride themselves on their ability to make objective evaluations of evidence. Perhaps, despite their connections to Lucas, the scientists on the panel were committed to doing just that — ready to look at the all the relevant evidence with a fresh eye, weigh it carefully, and then make a decision.
In that case, this fact seems inexplicable:
Silberling wrote a letter to state officials Monday declaring Lucas’ innocence, three days before the review panel’s meeting… He said in the Feb. 18 letter that he based that conclusion on reading material submitted by the accusers, as well as detailed responses by Lucas.
Silberling’s not even trying to look like a careful consideration of the facts in evidence matters to his conclusion. If he were, he’d wait to issue his judgment until after the panel met to consider the facts. Considering the facts with others is supposed to change the dynamic — to get you to move beyond your gut reactions to giving reasons for your conclusions, not to mention examining how well those reasons hold up and how vulnerable they are to challenges. This is the whole point of having a committee rather than a single judge of the situation. The process of giving reasons and asking for reasons is supposed to make the judgment that results more objective.
As well, to counter the appearance of conflict of interest, you’d imagine they’d be sure to solicit information from the paleontologists making the allegations against Lucas. You’d be mistaken:
The panel heard from Lucas and Adrian Hunt, former director of the museum and a co-author on both of the papers in question… The panel did not hear from Parker or Martz, the two primary accusers…
Silberling, in a telephone interview Friday from his Colorado home, dismissed questions about his ability to be impartial.
“This was in no way a jury trial, so there’s no way friends of Spencer and people who have been with him shouldn’t comment,” Silberling said.
In his letter, Silberling characterized Lucas’ accusers as a group of “mainly young, un- or under-employed workers (including both Park and Martz)” that has “for whatever reasons a strong grudge against Lucas and the (museum).”
At the very least, Silberling’s comments make it look like he was biased in favor of the party towards whom he was a “professional friend and admirer” and against those young paleontologists, since their personal situations (rather than the facts of the sequence of theses, submitted manuscripts, and publications) are what he singles out for attention.
On the basis of these reported facts, it’s hard to believe that an objective hearing of the ethics charges was an outcome, or even a goal, of the NMMNHS panel’s deliberation.
(Thanks to Brian Switek for pointing me toward today’s Albuquerque Journal article.)