How committed are paleontologists to objectivity (in questions of ethical conduct)?

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.)

More like this

Last month I blogged about the ongoing ethics case in which paleontologist Spencer Lucas and several of his colleagues were accused of claim-jumping research from a number of individuals and institutions involving ancient archosaurs called aetosaurs. Mike Taylor has been keeping track and all the…
Yesterday the Department of Cultural Affairs announced its conclusions in the ongoing academic integrity case involving paleontologist Spencer Lucas. According to the panel, which included two "objective" scientists (both of which have collaborated with Lucas in the past, one of which had issued a…
Brian reminds us not to mistake the lull in the action in "Aetogate" (the charges of unethical conduct by Spencer Lucas and colleagues) for a resolution to the matter. We're still waiting for the ruling from the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology ethics committee. In the meantime, here are a few…
The silence must have been deafening. As - hopefully - everybody knows, during 2007 Spencer Lucas and colleagues at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) were charged with intellectual theft, of pre-empting the writings of colleagues, and of publishing on material without…

wow. that offends natural justice on quite spectacular levels and I'd have thought some of his comments run the risk of slander/libel.

One can only hope that the publicity of the facts of possible misconduct would gather enough attention that any attempt to cover it up will received close scrutiny by the public. My own experience is that in cases such as this one, much of the outcome depends on the aggressivness and persistence of the journalist who's covering the story.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 24 Feb 2008 #permalink

...and people wonder why I'm so cynical. :-/

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 24 Feb 2008 #permalink

If S. Rivlin is correct, then I take heart not only from the reporter (John Fleck) but also from the editorial page editors of the Albuquerque Journal. They have published twice suggesting that the case might be better handled by people other than the Department of Cultural Affairs and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History's Executive Committee. They have also published several letters, and made editorial comments about the backgrounds of the authors so that it is clear what axes different authors were grinding as they submitted their letters...

I also take heart that the case is making others more open to avoid even the appearance of having committed the crimes of which Lucas et al. have been accused. To wit, after midnight eastern time tonight look in the dinosaur mailing list archives ( for a message from me with the subject: Re: Question for the pterosaur set..

Mickey P. Rowe

By Mickey Rowe (not verified) on 25 Feb 2008 #permalink

The problems with Norman Silberling's letter go well beyond mere ad hominem, prejudice and blind disregard for process. He concludes with no less than a public invitation to undermine the careers of those who would dare to raise these questions at all.

Silberling's letter concludes with this odious comment: "As a final suggestion to the Museum Board, I think it would be useful for you or the Board to send whatever final public report is prompted by this Executive Committee discussion to Parker's supervisor at the Petrified Forest National Park. That person should be interested in how his or her employee is serving the scientific community and the public."

Even if a fair review of the events finds that it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding; the notion that one should attempt to punish those who even raise the questions is appalling, and shows Silberling to be singularly ill qualified for taking a formal role in any inquiry.

I would hope and expect that Parker's supervisors are supportive and encouraging of a fair investigation of his concerns, and would dismiss with contempt any insinuation that there is anything improper in wanting this properly investigated. If Norman Silberling wishes to serve the scientific community and the public in this matter, he should recuse himself from the investigative panel.

By Duae Quartunciae (not verified) on 25 Feb 2008 #permalink

I thought paleontologists always whitewashed the bones before assembling them, to make the displayed skeleton look prettier.

Perhaps they're simply following precedent?

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 07 Mar 2008 #permalink

Have any of the computer wizz scienceblog commenters done a plagiarism search on Lucas's papers? If he is a stealer of other people's work, it is possible that he got sloppy in the past...