A Challenge to Papers on Growth of Dinosaurs
By KENNETH CHANG
Published: December 16, 2013
A dinosaur hobbyist who made his name as a Microsoft multimillionaire
published a scientific paper on Monday alleging “serious errors and
irregularities” in dinosaur research involving some of the world’s top paleontologists.
Nathan P. Myhrvold, formerly of Microsoft, says he found discrepancies in papers
on the growth rates of dinosaurs.
The research, some of it dating to the 1990s, analyzed skeletons of different ages to estimate
how quickly dinosaurs grew. For example,a 2001 paper, published in the journal Nature,
estimates that the giant dinosaur Apatosaurus had a growth spurt of 12,000
pounds in a year.
The papers, particularly a 2004 paper in Nature on
the growth of Tyrannosaurus Rex, were influential in
offering an explanation for why some dinosaurs were
much larger than their relatives and slashed
decades off the estimated life span of the creatures.
The accuser is Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technology
officer at Microsoft who is well known in the worlds of
avant-garde cuisine and patent law. The lead author
of the papers in question is Gregory M. Erickson, a
professor of anatomy and paleobiology at Florida State University.
Dr. Myhrvold’s article, published by the journal PLoS One, says
Dr. Erickson’s papers contain major mistakes, including graphs that do not
match the data and curves that do not match the reported equations. And Dr.
Myhrvold’s revised estimates put the maximum growth rate
of Apatosaurus at about a tenth of what Dr. Erickson and his colleagues had reported.
Dr. Erickson declined to be interviewed, but issued an email statement noting that
the papers had been the work of teams of scientists and had been peer-reviewed.
Dr. Myhrvold’s “reinterpretation of our data, although reaching moderately different
conclusions on a species by species basis, strongly supports the cardinal
conclusions that we reached regarding how dinosaurs grew,” the statement said.
“The bottom line is that the empirical findings of our research group stand, and we stand behind them.”
Dr. Myhrvold, a physicist, said he was not accusing Dr. Erickson or his collaborators of
deliberately falsifying or manipulating data, because he could not know how the
errors occurred. But in a letter to Nature, Science, PLOS One and other journals
that published Dr. Erickson’s work, he raised the possibility.
“At the very least these problems are serious errors that merit correction in the
literature,” he wrote. “The problems also appear to be consistent with scientific
misconduct, which may factor into any resulting investigation.”
Last week, Dr. Myhrvold emailed the scientists who had collaborated with Dr.
Erickson on the papers to alert them. “I tried very hard to reproduce the
results of these papers,” he told them, “and I failed to do so.” In exhaustively
describing what he thought were mistakes in the papers, Dr. Myhrvold wrote, “This
includes cases where the data set appears to have been altered or fabricated.”
Some of Dr. Erickson’s co-authors agree that the papers have errors that
should be corrected. “I’ll be interested to see how Greg responds scientifically
to Nathan’s claims,” said Kristina A. Curry Rogers, a professor of geology at
Macalester College in St. Paul, who was a co-author of the 2001 paper in Nature.
“If he has data to the contrary, then he can present that. If he does
not, then he can explain that.”
Dr. Curry Rogers said Dr. Myhrvold had provided ample information and explanation
backing up his assertions. “All his methods are laid bare,” she said. “Anyone who
wants to challenge him can do it.”
Other co-authors of Dr. Erickson’s include Mark A. Norell, chairman
of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History;
Philip J. Currie, a professor of dinosaur paleobiology at the
University of Alberta; and Peter J. Makovicky, associate curator of
paleontology at the Field Museum in Chicago.
Dr. Myhrvold said he had raised some of the issues a year ago with Dr. Makovicky,
who promptly acknowledged the errors and was amenable to correcting them.
In an interview, Dr. Makovicky confirmed that “There is some kind of mismatch in our
paper,” adding that another team member had done the statistical analysis. “He’s
right on that point. I didn’t produce those numbers. I can’t tell you
why.” He added, “I’m happy to ’fess up.”
After leaving Microsoft, Dr. Myhrvold founded Intellectual Ventures, a
company that buys patents from inventors. It has been praised for defending
the patents, but also derided as a “patent troll” for using them to extract
lucrative fees from technology companies.
He also created “Modernist Cuisine,” a six-volume opus on the science of cooking, and
he has published papers on a range of academic topics including climate change,
terrorism and dinosaurs. In 1997, his computer models suggested that
giant sauropod dinosaurs could have flicked their tails at supersonic speeds.
About two and half years ago, Dr. Myhrvold came across a 2009 paper by Dr. Erickson
as he was trying to answer the question, “Why were dinosaurs big?” He said data
in two of the graphs, one plotting the length of the thigh bone versus age, the
other mass versus age, conflicted with each other. “I instantly knew that this
couldn’t be correct,” Dr. Myhrvold said.
Dr. Myhrvold said he contacted Dr. Erickson, asking for the original
data. While Dr. Erickson answered some questions, he said the data was on a
computer he had gotten rid of and later that he did not have time to answer more
questions, Dr. Myhrvold said.
Dr. Myhrvold was able to obtain some of the data from other researchers and
thought he could do a better statistical analysis. Last year, he submitted a paper
with his calculations — a fairly esoteric scientific disagreement about how best
to extract reasonable generalizations from a limited number of fossils.
Dr. Erickson was one of the reviewers and argued strongly against
publication. While praising Dr. Myhrvold’s accomplishments and saying
the calculations appeared to be numerically correct, Dr.
Erickson said the paper would not advance scientific understanding.
“In fact it will hurt our field by producing inherently flawed growth
curves, misrepresenting the work of others, and stands to drive a wedge between
labs that are currently cordial with one another,” he wrote
Site note: The last statement by Dr. Erickson seems to be a travesty that
infects so much of what has now become the religion of scientism. "Science"
and its politics has now become more important than truth! Suppressing
information, criticizing valid challenges, and resistig and marginalizing
the challengers has now become acceptable for keeping the "cordiality". More
of the age-old poisonous thinking.