Where o where is Robert Bakker when you need him? I mean, if there is one person on the face of the Earth that could help clear up this whole global warming/climate change mess I would put my money on the renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker. Why do I believe that someone who typically spends his days digging through the Earth to uncover fossilized bones can help resolve the current climate change debate? Well, for me to explain, we need to review a little history.
In terms of the history, and I’ll keep this brief, you can actually track the “study” of dinosaurs back almost two millennia to a book by Zhang Qu written during the Western Jin Dynasty that described “dragon bones”. Fossilized dinosaur bones are also linked to ancient Greek mythology. “Modern” dinosaur research began either in 1676 with the discovery of the femur of a Megalosaurus or, if you prefer, in 1842 with the coining of the term “dinosaur” by Sir Richard Owen.
So, any way you slice it, the study of dinosaurs has been around for at least 168 years. During most of that time, perhaps the most iconic dinosaur of all time, “Brontosaurus”, supposedly lived submersed in water because its titanic bulk was too heavy for its legs to support on dry land. In general, dinosaurs were universally recognized to be sluggish, unintelligent, cold-blooded and extinct. This view was so pervasive that the word “dinosaur” entered into the English vernacular as essentially meaning anything that is impractically large, slow moving and obsolete.
Guess what? Dinosaurs are now widely regarded as active, reasonably intelligent and warm-blooded with living evolutionary relatives, birds. Brontosaurus’ name has been corrected to Apatosaurus and is now regarded to be an entirely terrestrial animal whose pillar-like legs could support many times its weight. What this means is that, assuming that you discount the first 1,500+ years during which dinosaurs were known, that for at least 130 years of the scientific study of dinosaurs, right up until the 1970’s, the vast majority of the scientific hypotheses and theories about dinosaurs were 100% wrong. Now, mind you, this is not the case of science being slightly off-base or just a little bit wrong but rather the case where science somehow managed to come to the exact opposite conclusion to what is now widely regarded as scientific fact backed up by voluminous supporting evidence.
How did this happen? How could such a highly vaunted discipline as science; ostensibly based upon experimentation, reason, logic and rigid methodologies, go so far off-base? Well, it is an interesting question and while I do not know of a definitive, scholarly account as to why paleontologists got things so wrong for so long, a study of the history of paleontology presents quite a few keen insights into this question.
The first issue that becomes apparent is that early paleontologists often based their scholarly analysis on relatively sparse and incomplete data. Cases in point, Robert Plot’s description of a single femur (now known to be from a Megalosaurus) as a “human giant”, Edward Lhuyd’s scientific treatment of a single sauropod tooth and Rev William Buckland’s scientific journal entry on Megalosaurus, which ended up being reconstructed as a quadruped when, in fact, it was bipedal – just like all other theropods.
The second issue that is apparent from the early days of the science of dinosaurs can best be summed up as “a rush to be first and make a name for oneself”. This is best epitomized by the “Bone Wars” or “Great Dinosaur Rush” conducted between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh between 1867 and 1897. This heated rivalry involved Marsh and Cope essentially dueling for “fossil supremacy” in order to secure funding for their research and eventually led to bribery, theft and the destruction of each other’s fossil finds. They even went so far as to attack each other in scientific publications in an attempt to destroy each other’s reputations and curtail funding.
This rush to beat rivals and establish a lasting legacy led to a third problem, tainted data. In their rush to collect fossils, Marsh and Cope regularly employed dynamite to extract fossils from bedrock. This not only destroyed some fossils but also the contextual locality information critical for interpreting the fossils.
A fourth issue can best be summed up as hubris or arrogance. Because man is a mammal and the current dominant organism on the planet; dinosaurs, for all of their impressive diversification and size, must have been flawed and it was these flaws that led to their extinction. Dinosaurs were “too dumb” to survive or “too slow” (cold blooded). The hubris of mankind led to all kinds of incorrect conclusions about dinosaurs. Because mankind existed and dinosaurs were extinct, obviously humans and mammals in general were “better” and “more fit”. However, we now know that most animals went extinct at the KT boundary, the time when dinosaurs became extinct, and the major reason why some species went extinct and others survived was a large measure of luck. It is not like species evolve to take into account impacts by large asteroids.
Finally, the last issue that becomes apparent is what is best described as “group think”. Essentially, one scientist that is a supposed expert in the field makes a claim and others that might disagree do not have quite the stature of that individual within the scientific community and thus are loath to publish their own analysis and scientific opinions for fear of being ostracized by the scientific establishment. If you do not think that science is a social and “political” venue, then you really do not know much about real world science. In theory, science is 100% objective. In the real world, scientists have friends and colleagues that work together to promote and preserve each other’s reputations.
So, because of these factors, the “science” behind dinosaurs remained critically flawed and just plain out-and-out wrong for nearly 200 years. To illustrate this fact, it should be noted that Thomas Henry Huxley theorized the dinosaur-bird connection as far back as the 1860’s but it never gained any support, despite ample fossil evidence of a thoroughly reptilian dinosaur with feathers, Archaeopteryx. It took over 100 years for that view to be resurrected and another 30 for it to become mainstream science.
The man who resurrected Huxley’s theory regarding birds and dinosaurs was one Robert Bakker, who in 1975 published an article entitled “Dinosaur Renaissance” in Scientific America and the book Dinosaur Heresies in 1986. Now, to be fair, Bakker’s work was largely based upon the work of his mentor, John Ostrom and his 1964 discovery of Deinonychus. But, ultimately, it was Bakker that was the “bulldog” that drove real scientific debate and a “renaissance” in our thinking and understanding of dinosaurs.
And that is why I feel that we need Robert Bakker, or an individual like him, to help us bring sanity to the global climate change issue, a subject that is perhaps magnitudes more complex than paleontology and certainly only in its infancy in terms of scientific knowledge. Sure, you may scoff at the unrefined methods and dubious science conducted 100 years ago, but rest assured that individuals 100 years from now will look back upon us as similarly unrefined and scientifically inept. And make no mistake, all of the past sins of paleontology listed here are being repeated today with climate science. The simple fact of the matter is that science gets it wrong far more often than it gets it right. For every correct hypothesis and theory, there are generally ten or more hypotheses and theories that are, quite simply, wrong. And science often holds onto these wrong ideas for hundreds of years.
Beware of science, especially infant science, being used as justification for social and political ends. As with the Nazi’s and their quasi-science used to justify the “master race”, such methods nearly always result in the needless suffering of millions. And be particularly wary of scientists that demonize and ostracize opposition for their agendas are never the agenda of true science. Science thrives on honest and open debate and it is only through this mechanism that true understanding and knowledge can be achieved.
Originally published 2010