Bad business at the Burke

Chris Clarke sent me some unfortunate news about my alma mater, the University of Washington. There’s a scandal brewing at the Burke Museum, involving a retired curator of vertebrate paleontology, John M. Rensberger. The Seattle Weekly has published a series on the troubles, with a professional evaluation of the collection. Basically, the Burke has a beautiful assemblage of vertebrate fossils, but their collection was very poorly documented (scribbled notes on scraps of brown paper bags?), and there are also allegations that many of the collecting trips were made without permits or permission—so ownership of at least some of the specimens is up in the air. It’s not a pretty story.

I have to hammer on a theme I’ve pounded on here before. Science is not a collection of facts. Science is not a fossil in a display case. Science is a process—it is the meticulous documentation of observation and experiment, with full transparency about how conclusions were derived, so others can evaluate them independently. This is just as true in a largely historical science like paleontology as it is for an experimental science like molecular genetics.

If the allegations against Rensberger are valid, then I do deplore the ethical lapses they represent, and also the administrative incompetence that has allowed the problem to build despite complaints over decades. Even worse to me, though, is the fact that he betrayed fundamental scientific principles, and 30 years worth of work on that collection has been undermined. Without a solid, replicable methodology and documented provenance for each specimen, it wasn’t science.