Bad business at the Burke

Chris Clarke sent me some unfortunate news about my alma mater, the University of Washington. There’s a scandal brewing at the Burke Museum, involving a retired curator of vertebrate paleontology, John M. Rensberger. The Seattle Weekly has published a series on the troubles, with a professional evaluation of the collection. Basically, the Burke has a beautiful assemblage of vertebrate fossils, but their collection was very poorly documented (scribbled notes on scraps of brown paper bags?), and there are also allegations that many of the collecting trips were made without permits or permission—so ownership of at least some of the specimens is up in the air. It’s not a pretty story.

I have to hammer on a theme I’ve pounded on here before. Science is not a collection of facts. Science is not a fossil in a display case. Science is a process—it is the meticulous documentation of observation and experiment, with full transparency about how conclusions were derived, so others can evaluate them independently. This is just as true in a largely historical science like paleontology as it is for an experimental science like molecular genetics.

If the allegations against Rensberger are valid, then I do deplore the ethical lapses they represent, and also the administrative incompetence that has allowed the problem to build despite complaints over decades. Even worse to me, though, is the fact that he betrayed fundamental scientific principles, and 30 years worth of work on that collection has been undermined. Without a solid, replicable methodology and documented provenance for each specimen, it wasn’t science.


  1. Caledonian says

    Science is composed of two parts: the method, and the collection of conclusions produced by that method. Someone who understands the procedure but is totally ignorant of its findings can’t be said to be knowledgeable about science, and knowing the findings without understanding the procedure is equally limiting.

    Please don’t disparage half of science merely because you’re trying to emphasize the importance of the other half, PZ.

  2. says

    I wasn’t. Notice that bit about “full transparency about how conclusions were derived” — science isn’t blind collecting with notes, nor is it pronouncements that “X means Y”. It’s all about the how. Those conclusions are important, but without full documentation of how those conclusions came to be, it isn’t science.

  3. Caledonian says

    A meticulous-gathered grouping of observations IS just a collection of facts. The problem in this case isn’t that the logical procedure was faulty, it was that the collection of facts wasn’t properly produced and maintained.

    When one of the two branches of science fails, science-as-a-whole is compromised. This particular situation involved a failure of the fact-gathering-and-collecting branch.

  4. Caledonian says

    I just don’t understand why you’re emphasizing that science isn’t only data-gathering when the fault being discussed *was* a failure of data-gathering.

    Or maybe I’m misinterpreting: are you pointing out that science needs to actively acquire data, and doesn’t just churn through a static collection of received assertions?

  5. says

    I’ve written post that says science isn’t fossils in a display case, but a process of discovery…about as uncontroversial an assertion as you’ll find on a science blog. Somehow, you’ve interpreted this as a disparagement of any science beyond meticulous stamp-collecting. You’re reading stuff into this that simply isn’t there.

    Using my frist-like powers of remote diagnosis, I detect a colossal, exotic, and most uncomfortable bug up your butt.

    I recommend more dietary fiber.

  6. says

    Well, I get what you’re saying anyway, PZ, and if the allegations turn out to be true, it is very sad. I have spent many good hours in the vertebrate collection there, although among modern carnivores, rather than fossils.

    The collection and the curators I’ve worked with at the Burke have been wonderful; it will be truly sad if these ethical lapses are borne out and cast a shadow on the museum and its collection.

  7. lurker says

    Caledonian, please reread the penultimate paragraph in the post with an emphasis on the word *process.* Meticulousness and transparency are virtues of process, and thus apply both to both data-collecting and conclusion-reaching. Maybe PZM’s “nots” could be set up a little differently for maximum clarity, but you’re really over-reading.

  8. Kitty says

    This sucks so much ass. The concern over dubious collection practices and shoddy record-keeping isn’t a philosophical question; that is, it’s not about whether notes were kept in a meticulous, transparent “scientific” way. Critical data have been lost, and this could render many specimens virtually useless for future study, as well as casting doubts on the results of previous analyses that may have been based on faulty information.

    One of my friends, who is a scientist but not a paleontologist, said, “Well, I see why this is a bad business, but you guys still have the fossils to work on, right?”

    Paleontologists aren’t primarily concerned with finding and describing extinct animals that were really rad. That’s as 19th-century as the Zouave jacket. Without information about the placement of fossils in time and space, we can’t track when different lineages appeared and died out, correlate morphological adaptations with environmental conditions, do any sort of biogeographical analysis – our ability to generate testable, falsifiable hypotheses regarding evolutionary history is severely curtailed.

  9. Caledonian says

    I think I’ve misconstrued your meaning, Prof. Myers – I agree with your point (or at least with what I now understand your point to be), but it’s such an obvious one that I didn’t even think it needed to be said, and so I mistook you as talking about something else.

    I apologize. Sorry about that.

    (Do people really need to be reminded that science isn’t an arbitrary collection of assertions that come from nowhere? Egad.)

  10. Kitty says

    “Do people really need to be reminded that science isn’t an arbitrary collection of assertions that come from nowhere?”

    Dude, *especially* when it’s paleontology!

  11. lea-p says

    I am reminded of a 30-gallon metal garbage can I saw in the basement of a museum. The contents of that garbage can consisted of thousands of stone chips/flakes–petrified wood, cryptocrytalline silicates, jasper, chalcedony, chert, obsidian, etc.–from prehistoric tooling-making and/or reworking. The detritus was part of a private, amateur’s “archaeological” collection donated to the museum, all apparently collected from the 1920s-1950s. The museum was considering its options: spreading the stuff along the railroad track ballast nearby; digging a pit and burying the mass; selling the bits piecemeal to the public to raise money (very slowly). I’m not sure what the eventual dispensation was; it was of absolutely no value other than as pretty stones.

  12. Kitty says

    lea-p, that actually sounds like a pretty rad teaching collection for a methods course in quanitfying archaeological data!

  13. says

    From Laurie R. King’s mystery novel A Letter of Mary. Speaks an archaeologist: “[We] Had people out there rummaging about, destroying more than they found, … coming in with these magnificent finds, no way of dating them or knowing where they come from. All that could be done with ’em was to stick ’em in a museum, prop up a card saying SOURCE: UNKNOWN; DATE: UNKNOWN. Utter waste.”
    “Didn’t Petrie say something about museums being morgues, or tombs?” I asked.
    “Charnel houses,” she corrected me. “He calls them ‘ghastly charnel houses of murdered evidence.'”

    Sorry to hear about the trouble at the museum. I sometimes wonder if ADD-ness is part of the problem and workers who are information sinks should just have minders; but this sounds worse.

  14. SEF says

    scribbled notes on scraps of brown paper bags

    I’ve noticed that the degradation of labels is a serious problem even when they started off neat enough, eg my own collection of stuff. This is a real shame though. To lose all future chance of doing proper comparisons with those specimens, when some types of things are hard enough to come by in the first place. What a waste.

  15. Jessica says

    The real problem here is not just bad record-keeping, it’s the allegations that a) much of the material was illegally collected on federal and state land, and b) that the curator in question may well have falsified locality information to prevent knowledge of said illegal collecting. It’s going to take decades to sort this out, and it ruins the reputation of the Burke and destroys a lot of other people’s research. However, on the bright side, there is the possibility that some of his locality data may be ‘decodable’.
    It’s a travesty.

  16. Kristjan Wager says

    This is a bad story.

    The digital media (digital cameras etc.) is making it easier to document findings, but it will only be a help when people actually go through the trouble, and want to do the documentation – in this case it would appear that it was very much not in their interest.

  17. says

    Yes, people need to be reminded that data do not “speak for themselves” nor do they appear god-given or anything of the sort. This is actually my biggest complaint with many popular science writers: many are admirable about discussing the products (however temporary) of science but do not discuss adequately how they were obtained. Failing to do so I think in part gives rise to the “science is just a bunch of opinions” view held by fundies and pomos. One substantial difficulty is how data gathering relies on various previous well confirmed hypotheses. (For example, even some pH meters presuppose Newton’s laws as the pointer gets displaced by a force.) This aspect of science, which I (following Whewell, Wilson, and others) call consilience is important but very poorly understood by philosophers of science. (I’ve been trying to understand it on and off for several years now.) Similarly, the creative framing of hypotheses seems to follow the “inference to the best explanation”/”abductive” styles of reasoning, and those are also poorly understood.