In my last post, I mentioned that I have had more fun with my recent project on Nedoceratops than anything else I've done lately. Just as a refresher, this paper described an oft-neglected horned dinosaur skull known as Nedoceratops hatcheri, and presented counter-evidence to a hypothesis (published by John Scannella and Jack Horner) that Nedoceratops, Triceratops, and Torosaurus were all the same animal. This all sounds kinda boring and academic, so where's the fun in that?
As a scientist in a small field like vertebrate paleontology, it can be awkward when you disagree with a colleague. I've heard third-hand accounts of shouting matches at scientific conferences, and have occasionally seen very heated discussions during the Q&A time at presentations. Thankfully, this sort of behavior is pretty rare. Yet, I was a little worried about what might happen when I publicly presented a counter-argument to Scannella and Horner's hypothesis.
My nightmare of a confrontation with John Scannella (left) at SVP. Maybe there wouldn't be fists involved, but at a minimum a wrestling match. He's in better shape than I am, so I would be in trouble.
Of course, I was less concerned about a shouting match, and more focused on not being a jerk in print. I've known both John Scannella and Jack Horner for a number of years, and wanted to stay on at least semi-cordial terms with them. Of course I was going to disagree with them (based on my interpretations of the available data), but I wanted to do so in a way that was fair, collegial, and honest.
So, I did something that some people might consider stupid. I sent John and Jack a copy of my unpublished, unaccepted, in-review manuscript. At the very least, I figured it was only fair that I should give them a heads-up that I would be presenting counter-arguments to their hypothesis about Triceratops and Torosaurus. More importantly, I wanted to make sure that I was representing their work fairly and accurately.
This initiated a lengthy and wide-ranging email conversation. Although I had done a decent job of representing most of their points, there were a few areas where I had inadvertently set up a straw man. I fixed those as best I could. In some (thankfully minor) areas, I needed to update information or account for some specimens I had neglected. For instance, I had grossly understated the amount of variation in the frills of various adult Triceratops (something that has only been adequately documented thanks to John's Ph.D. work). With their honest feedback, I was able to craft a much-improved version of my manuscript. It is not just a smarmy platitude to state that I genuinely appreciate their input.
Of course, I won't claim that Scannella and Horner find my counter-arguments (that Torosaurus and Triceratops are different animals) entirely convincing. And, my current opinion on the matter is not unchangeable. John and I had a nice long chat at the SVP meeting this year, comparing notes and talking about our future research plans. He has some really cool data (some of which he has presented at SVP and other conferences), and I look forward to seeing it in print. Undoubtedly, we will both modify our interpretations as new data are published.
Now why am I finding this to be so enjoyable? It's the joy of discovery, the entertainment of questioning long-held ideas (especially my own), and the pursuit of new data. After all, science shouldn't be about scoring rhetorical points, but working towards an accurate view of our world. I know beyond a doubt that we all are playing on the same team. My dialog with John (and Jack) has been engaging, challenging, and stimulating in a unique way. I've learned more about Triceratops in the past six months than I had in the past six years (to be ultra-nerdy, for instance, some specimens lack the mid-line epiparietal - neat!!!). It's just darned fun to be working on a research problem like this!
No matter how this whole issue shakes out, I think there is one thing we can all agree on right now. Horned dinosaurs are AWESOME!
John Scannella and I, with our favorite dinosaur
Coming Up: A few final thoughts on the process behind this paper.