Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Scientists At War!

Homo floresiensis
Scientists at war over claim that Flores hobbit man is modern human with Down's syndrome | Science | The Observer

This slightly alarming headline from the Observer leads neatly into a comparison between how scientists wage 'war' what's going on in the Middle East at the moment where theists are waging war - and happily killing one another and innocent civilians including women, children and other non-combatants as a matter of routine.

Another contrast of course is that, whereas the scientists' 'war' will undoubtedly end in agreement with almost everyone with an interest in the subject falling into line with the eventual consensus view, the only way there will ever be 'peace' in the Middle East is with the total, uncompromising victory of one faction over the others, which may well involve another genocide or 'ethnic cleansing'.

The reason for this is all too obvious: scientists will base their opinions on fact and logical deduction and will change their views if and when the facts change or become more clear. In facts, science has an independent, neutral and impartial referee. Muslims, Christians, Jews and all the other religious factions and cults have no facts at all on which to base their opinions so there is no independent referee and nothing neutral around which to build a consensus. To compromise is to abandon sacred dogma. They may learn to co-exist, usually uneasily and with simmering resentment, but they will never agree

Also interesting is how this illustrates the difference between real science and what creationist frauds pretend is science.

So, what is it exactly that scientists are at war over? (Incidentally, I see the Observer downgraded the 'war' to a 'clash' in a later addition).

It's our old friend the 'hobbit', or Homo floresiensis, which regular readers will know is a particular fascination of mine. The 'war is over whether the fossilised remains of this diminutive hominid was the descendant of an archaic hominid such as H. Erectus, H. habilis or even an australopithecine such as Australopithecus afarensis, or merely an abnormal early H. sapiens.

Now, I'm not taking sides in this dispute. In some ways, an abnormal early modern human would clear the mystery up, but on the other hand, the thought that either an Australopithecine made it all the way to Indonesia and then onto a small island without leaving any trace of its progress, or that an archaic hominid underwent miniaturisation just as many other isolated island species have, is far more exciting. The important thing is that we get it right. Convenience and personal preferences are irrelevant and the very reason we use peer-review.

Having said that though, it seems that what we have at the heart of this dispute is a large ego which is unable to let go of a pet hypothesis and a rather disturbing loophole in the normally reliable peer-review process. What precipitated this 'clash' is the publication of a paper in the Proceedings of the American National Academy of Science (PNAS) by 89 year-old hydrologist with no expertise on the subject claiming the specimen known as LB1 is in fact from an early modern human with Downs Syndrome:

Human skeletons from Liang Bua Cave, Flores, Indonesia, are coeval with only Homo sapiens populations worldwide and no other previously known hominins. We report here for the first time to our knowledge the occipitofrontal circumference of specimen LB1. This datum makes it possible to link the 430-mL endocranial volume of LB1 reported by us previously, later confirmed independently by other investigators, not only with other human skeletal samples past and present but also with a large body of clinical data routinely collected on patients with developmental disorders. Our analyses show that the brain size of LB1 is in the range predicted for an individual with Down syndrome (DS) in a normal small-bodied population from the geographic region that includes Flores. Among additional diagnostic signs of DS and other skeletal dysplasiae are abnormally short femora combined with disproportionate flat feet. Liang Bua Cave femora, known only for LB1, match interlimb proportions for DS. Predictions based on corrected LB1 femur lengths show a stature normal for other H. sapiens populations in the region.

Maciej Henneberg, Robert B. Eckhardt, Sakdapong Chavanaves, and Kenneth J. Hsü
Evolved developmental homeostasis disturbed in LB1 from Flores, Indonesia, denotes Down syndrome and not diagnostic traits of the invalid species Homo floresiensis
PNAS 2014 111 (33) 11967-11972; published ahead of print August 4, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1407382111

The problem is that just about every other expert in the field dismisses this as nonsense:

They say Homo floresiensis is similar to a modern person with Down's syndrome, but no one with that condition has a tiny cranium only 400cc in capacity as floresiensis does, nor do they have thick cranial bones as it does. This is shockingly bad science riddled with errors of fact and attribution.

Professor William Jungers, State University of New York

It is interesting their paper contains no images of skeletons of Down's syndrome individuals. If it had, you would see clearly that they look nothing like the Flores specimen. The idea is nonsense...

First they claimed the hobbit was really a modern person with microcephaly – an abnormally small head. We showed that this could not be true. Then they claimed he had Laron syndrome, a form of dwarfism. Again my team showed this was not true. Now they are taking a shot with Down's syndrome. Again they are wrong.

Professor Dean Falk, Florida State University

But what has really annoyed the science community is not so much that a small team keep trying to disprove the idea that H. floresiensis is anything other than a modern human but the way they seem to have exploited a loophole in the peer-review process. Almost alone in the modern world of serious scientific publishing, PNAS allows Academy members to select their own reviewers instead of having them impartially selected by the editor. In the case of this paper, as with the other two mentioned by Dean Falk, it was submitted by academician Kenneth J. Hsü who selected reviewers who, like him, were not experts in palaeoanthropology either.

Hsu is a distinguished geologist and polymath, but he is not an expert on human evolution and anatomy. Indeed, he is on record fiercely attacking Charles Darwin and conventional evolutionary ideas. Yet he has now co-authored and seen through three papers critiquing Homo floresiensis in PNAS.

Professor Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, London

In this scientific 'war' words like 'nonsense', 'wrong', 'shockingly bad science riddled with errors' are the nuclear option but the opposition still bends over backwards to be accurate and factual, dealing with the claims and avoiding ad hominems and even acknowledging Hsü's undoubted expertise in the field of hydrology.

There is no campaign to silence Hsü and his colleagues; no calls for purges or expulsions, there is simply a polite campaign to ensure the loophole in the peer-review process used by PNAS is closed.

Imagine creationist pseudo-scientists complaining that the credibility of their research and the mechanism to eliminate bias from their publications was threatened by a few people exploiting a loophole in the process. The one thing you cannot get a creationist pseudo-scientists to do is to submit any of their claims to an impartial review by acknowledged experts in the relevant science. The best we ever get is a check by fellow creationists that they have kept their oath to always reach a conclusion that fully endorses a literal interpretation of biblical creation as a condition of funding and publication.

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  1. Rosa, you wrote: Almost alone in the modern world of serious scientific publishing, PNAS allows Academy members to select their own reviewers instead of having them impartially selected by the editor.

    In this Wikipedia article - see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proceedings_of_the_National_Academy_of_Sciences_of_the_United_States_of_America - one can read the following sentences: All research papers published in PNAS are peer-reviewed.[1] The standard mode is for papers to be submitted directly to PNAS rather than going through an Academy member. Members may handle the peer review process for up to 4 of their own papers per year—this is an open review process because the member selects and communicates directly with the referees. These submissions and reviews, like all for PNAS, are evaluated for publication by the PNAS Editorial Board.

    I must say that sounds quite bizarre. Do you know why PNAS adopted such a publishing policy?

    You also mention the process of miniaturisation. Birds are as we nowadays know the result of a shrinking process among dinosaurs (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/28563682 ). Can't that evolution be seen as a process of miniaturisation as well? In order to fill new niches, suitable for being inhabited? Or does miniaturisation occur "only" on isolated islands and other remote areas/places where food is sparse?

    BTW: Do you see any similarities between evolution and Adam Smith's concept of the “invisible hand”, later refined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter and his idea of creative destruction (see: http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/CreativeDestruction.html )? The idea of the economic markets shifting resources from declining sectors to new and more valuable ones - where workers, inputs, and financial capital/investments can seek their highest (or at least higher than before) returns - seems to me be a process that looks very much alike the evolutionary process seen in nature.

  2. I just received this article in my mail box: http://www.livescience.com/47418-how-pygmies-got-short-stature.html?cmpid=558172 .

    Two quotes:

    1) These small statures [among pygmies all over the world] apparently developed independently in these populations, an example of convergent evolution, much as fish and dolphins both evolved streamlined bodies to better swim in their watery worlds.

    2) Scientists have suggested that small body size might confer a number of evolutionary benefits for life in rainforests. For instance, while tropical rainforests are the most complex and diverse ecosystems on land, home to half of all living species on the planet, "there is actually not that much food for humans [...] Small body sizes, therefore, may have evolved because they require fewer calories.


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