Thursday, August 8, 2013

Blackout Science Rage: Proposal Edition

No introduction today, we're just going to dive right in: Meaghan recently received the following critique for a proposal requesting funding for her oreodont research.

"The premise that by examining extinct organisms we know what modern organisms are threatened is fundamentally flawed, unless you can demonstrate that the causal mechanisms are identical. Is it really the teeth that define the successful (or not) morphologies?”
Please allow Amy to nerd-translate:
"Studying dead critters to understand modern living critters is horse shit unless you can show that they were influenced by the exact same forces. Do funny shaped teeth really determine the success of certain oreodonts?"

Originally when Meaghan read this she didn't get past the first sentence because she flew into a paleo-rage; upon second glance she is still a grumpy Gus but less likely to make noises that make her roommates think she is possessed by demons or possibly hoarding a room full of cats in heat.

The problems with this review are two-fold: they imply that circumstances must be identical for cases to be relevant to one another, and they miss the whole concept of Meaghan's research plan: create a phylogenetic tree, so that someone else can find out if things like teeth are actually defining extinction events. Essentially, Meaghan is doing what is often referred to as basic research, so that other people can do all sorts of complicated fun things with oreodonts, also known as applied research. Basic research is important, often fundamental to the success of other projects, but because it lacks an automatic commercial contribution it is often difficult to pitch in proposals. To make it sound more important, many people discuss the possible ramifications of their basic research. In this particular example, Meaghan briefly mentioned that oreodont taxonomy revision is necessary if we want to study whether or not trends in their evolution led to their eventual extinction (applied research), and then went on to discuss how variability may play a role in species confusion in this group (her basic research). But basic research is the first step, and for many people - particularly those unfamiliar with the field - that basic research can seem to lack value.

It seems like this has been a problem for the general public lately, but it was a little upsetting to find it as a problem in a peer review as well. So for the sake of this reviewer, let us clarify the difference between basic and applied research, and the way that paleontology can play a role in conservation science. We’re going to do this SAT style, because they took this whole analogy part off that test and that was sad because Meaghan totally rocked that section.
Basic Research is to Duck Erections as Applied Research is to New Form of Blood Pressure Medication.

Basic Research is to Oooh Look, Fungus! As Applied Research is to Penicillin Makes My Tummy Better.

Basic Research is to If I Put These Metals Together, They Contain Heat Crazy Well as Applied Research is to Cold Fusion That Saves the Global Energy Crisis.

Basic Research is to Fixing Characters to Make an Oreodont Phylogeny as Applied Research is to Using Phylogenies to Detect Trends in Organisms Over Time and Therefore Evolutionary Successes and Fails!


Seriously though, Meaghan will be attempting to make it clearer in the future that her work is very important AS basic research. She is providing a tool for herself and others to use, a very useful tool that can tell us a lot about paleoecology and evolutionary trends. And yes, it could tell us a great deal about extinctions in the present, even if oreodonts weren’t hunted or harassed or extirpated by humans. The idea that circumstances of the present are radically different from those of the past is inherently anthropocentric, and it forgets a few very key pieces of information: we are animals, and we are invasive. Yes, we modify habitat – so do beavers, elephants, and probably sauropod dinosaurs. Yes, we hunt animals to extinction – so do deer and house cats. Yes, we poison the environment – so have bacteria, and again possibly sauropod dinosaurs. Yes, we change the temperature on a global scale – so did bacteria, grasses, trees, and once more, tentatively speaking, SAUROPOD DINOSAURS.

Damming and trampling and eating/farting, oh my!
We humans are not a unique evolutionary force. The only thing we have that’s different about us is that we are very efficient at the disasters we’re causing, and we have the capacity to change it.
So how can paleontology help us? Well, it shows us what lost the battles - tooth morphology is only one of the many things that are easy to track using a phylogenetic tree. Remember Amy's post about omomyids? Wouldn't it be great if we could use something like this for a family that was as common in North American habitats as deer are today? Like, say, OREODONTS?  But until their taxonomy is clarified and a phylogenetic tree is made, nobody can use them for this. A concept that is difficult to carry over to a non-paleobiologist in a 500 word limit….

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