The best scientific smackdown about evolution you'll read this week

Over at fantastic blog Tetrapod Zoology, paleontologist Darren Naish tells one of the most bizarre, fascinating stories about the debate over evolution you're likely to read. It's the tale of David Peters, a web designer and amateur paleontologist who made a name for himself in the 1980s and 90s by illustrating a set of books about dinosaurs. Since that time, he has become a bane of the paleontology community by insisting that he's invented a new kind of technological analysis for fossils. And using this analysis — which he calls Digital Graphic Segregation — he believes he's proven that pterosaurs are far more distant from dinosaurs in the reptile family tree than previously believed.

Illustration of pterosaurs by the incomparable Mark Witton.

The best scientific smackdown about evolution you'll read this week

The problem? Nobody in the paleontology community uses Digital Graphic Segregation (DGS), which Naish describes like this:

[Peters] claims that it allows him to, variously, separate bones from underlying ones, to piece together previously unnoticed, shattered bits of elements in jigsaw-fashion, and to recognise truly novel, soft-tissue structures like elaborate dermal frills and those unossified pterosaur babies.

You can see an example of it here. Citing evidence gleaned from DGS, Peters wants to completely revise how we view the evolution of reptiles. He's also used DGS to come up with some pretty outlandish ideas about pterosaur anatomy.

None of this would have percolated beyond a few disgruntled exchanges between paleontologists if it weren't for the fact that Peters' day job is as a web designer and SEO expert. Unhappy with his chilly reception in the scientific community, Peters decided to take his ideas to the internet. He created a very legitimate-looking site called ReptileEvolution.com, where he advances his widely-discredited ideas as facts. And now anybody searching for "reptile evolution" sees Peters' incorrect ideas as the top hit in most cases. The problem is that most legitimate paleontologists don't have the time or inclination to use SEO techniques to legitimize their ideas. So nobody has been able to unseat Peters' hegemony. Every time a school kid or confused science journalist searches for information on reptile evolution, they'll be led astray.

The best scientific smackdown about evolution you'll read this week

The scientific consensus view of reptile evolution.

The best scientific smackdown about evolution you'll read this week

Peters' view of reptile evolution.

Basically, what Peters has done is effectively muffle his opposition on the web, which is where (let's face it) most people get scientific and technical information. It's rare that somebody wanting a simple fact about something like reptile evolution will double-check with academic journals before believing what they read on a website served up as a top search result.

The best scientific smackdown about evolution you'll read this week

When confronted about the problems with his theories, Peters apparently calls upon the oldest fallacy in the book. He tells his detractors that they haven't disproven his theories until they've come up with a better explanation. This is the kind of false logic you see all the time on the internet, but as Naish explains brilliantly, it's not scientific logic at all. It's worth quoting Naish's comment on this at length, and possibly nailing it to the inside of your eyelids:

In email correspondence, Dave said that my explaining away of his ‘identified' elements is unsatisfactory since, in order to knock down his proposed DGS-based identifications, I need to come up with superior hypotheses that are supported by "a ton of evidence". One specific example we discussed concerns the alleged prepubes of Cosesaurus. Prepubes (singular: prepubis) are fan-shaped bones located anterior to the pelvis, and they're unique to pterosaurs. Dave says that he's found them in Cosesaurus, and here [above] is the photo that's supposed to support that claim. I cannot see any prepubes there. I can see some rod-shaped impressions in about the right region, but nothing that comes close to being convincing. I thus simply reject Dave's suggestion that he has ‘found' prepubes in Cosesaurus. Dave is wrong in arguing that I need to present a superior explanation that accounts for the presence of the structures we can see here, or that I need to compile some sort of evidence that overturns his hypothesis. I don't: it is wholly acceptable in science to say "I don't know what's going on there; we cannot reach a conclusion without more evidence".

And this is why scientific reasoning leads to great discoveries. Because built into rationality is the proviso that it is better to admit we know nothing than to flail around making shit up.

If you want to help people find correct information about reptile evolution online, be sure to link to Naish's article debunking ReptileEvolution.com every time you use the phrase "reptile evolution."

Also, if you want to read an amazing story of amateur science gone wrong, you must read Naish's whole essay, via Tetrapod Zoology.