Thursday 4 October 2012

Porotic Hyperostosis, or, How to FlimFlam Your Way to Fame and Fortune

I've about had it up to here with nothing buttery! The idea that you can simply choose the explanation you want for the observations you make. I'm done. I'm through. I'm pissed off. I don't know whether to thank Iain Davidson for this gem, or throw something at him for raising my ire when I should be moping by myself at World Headquarters. But, who am I to look a gift-horse in the mouth. Ripped from the pages of [you guessed it] PLONK ONE, comes this. 
'Earliest Porotic Hyperostosis on a 1.5-Million-Year-Old Hominin, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania,' Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, Travis Rayne Pickering, Fernando Diez-Martín, Audax Mabulla, Charles Musiba, Gonzalo Trancho, Enrique Baquedano, Henry T. Bunn, Doris Barboni, Manuel Santonja, David Uribelarrea, Gail M. Ashley, María del Sol Martínez-Ávila, Rebeca Barba, Agness Gidna, José Yravedra, Carmen Arriaza. PLoS ONE 7(10): e46414. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046414 
It's a benign enough title. Not the sort of thing that would normally attract the media's attention. It might have been better phrased: 'Pleistocene parents unable to provide enough meat for their progeny.' That, at least, might explain this article at Phys.Org. This is another example of what's known in philosophical circles as argument from want of evident alternatives. It's well known among charlatans, and I like to call it 'nothing buttery.' Such and such a phenomenon can ONLY be the result of such and such a cause. Too bad there are about thirty others that come to mind!
     Domínguez-Rodrigo et al. are reporting on a diagnosis of porotic hyperostosis. Wouldn't be a big deal in the grand scheme of things. However, this pathological condition [and the bony lesions that present themselves in the skeletal remains of sufferers] is a rarity for Plio-Pleistocene bipedal apes. Shown below is a photo of the inner and outer tables of the specimen and a cross-section through the cranium of the 1.5 Myr old genus species indet.
I don't dispute their diagnosis. I do, however, question their explanation of the observations. At last count there were about 47 squillion conditions that are capable of producing porotic hyperostosis. The main one is anemia, which has many causes. Yet, the authors fasten on one cause of anemia, that of dietary deficiency, specifically of meat. But that's a HUGE leap from the evidence, and the authors optimistically rule out the alternatives in a bald statement that has ABSOLUTELY no support. They say
The relationship between porotic hyperostosis and hemolytic anemias, like sicklemia and thalassemia, has also been stressed, suggesting its linkage to malaria .... Given that porotic hyperostosis is often documented in human infants of roughly the same estimated age as OH 81 from regions free of malaria ... , we thus conclude that serious nutritional stress at a key phase in the development of the OH 81 individual was the most likely cause of the porotic hyperostosis observed on the fossil. 
I'm gonna let that one sink in for a minute.

Hold on a minute! Porotic hyperostosis occurs in places where malaria doesn't. So, in those places something else is causing porotic hyperostosis. But, that doesn't mean that OH 81 couldn't have had sickelemia or thalassemia! It only means that elsewhere malaria doesn't cause anemia. Doh! Moreover, even though there are a squillion other possible causes of porotic hyperostosis, the authors fasten on only one--meat deficiency, or meat deficiency in the lactating female parent.

Can anyone tell me why the authors' position makes any sense? Sure, dietary deficiency is one possibility. But wishing it away doesn't privilege that interpretation--which, in this case, is way sexier than sickle-cell anemia, 'cause it lets the authors blather on about how the OH 81 hominid/n and it's conspecifics were already obligate carnivores [itself an odd choice for a preferred interpretation--after all, that would mean that we moderns would need to have devolved from carnivory to omnivory, a concept I find preposterous, along with the rest of this putative scholarly contribution]. So. I ask you. How can one take this article seriously?

Oh, and by the way, PlosOne, if you're trying to convince people that you're a legitimate and authoritative source of up-to-the-minute information you should probably spend a bit more time copy-editing [or, perish the thought, reviewing] the manuscripts submitted for publication. The title of Domínguez-Rodrigo et al.'s contribution [the charitable epithet under the circumstances] includes the term 'hominin,' which is de rigueur these days as a way of distinguishing us from the African and Asian Great Apes. YET, in the paper itself the authors revert to the historical nomenclature [which, by the way, hasn't as yet been dumped by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature], Hominidae. Furthermore, there are numerous terms and phrases that are not grammatical or even colloquial English. I know that we're all warm and fuzzy for inclusion these days, but I'm pretty sure your contributors wouldn't like to be accused of publishing 'broken English.' Get it right, or get out of the way.

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  1. emAnd the areas with malaria 1.5m yrs ago are the same as now?

  2. Rob, You state "I do not dispute their diagnosis". However, porotic hyperostosis is not a diagnosis, it is a symptom. It seems that you are disputing the diagnosis, while accepting their observations. Which is fine, I agree with your critique otherwise.

  3. @Ed
    You're quite right, of course. If, that is, I'd been using the medical sense of the term 'diagnosis.' I think what made me the use term is its common usage in describing that moment when fossil hunters decide what kind of animal they have in front of them, and, as Merriam-Webster say, inscribe 'a concise technical description of a taxon.' Perhaps I did improperly extrapolate that use of 'diagnosis' to the authors' recognition and description of the symptom. However, those same venerable dictionary writers include a fourth definition of diagnosis that lets me squeak through in the present use of the term. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary states that a diagnosis is an 'investigation or analysis of the cause or nature of a condition, situation, or problem.' You had me going there. ;-)
    Last, but not least, thanks for your assent with respect to my main point. Rob

  4. Rob, I couldn't agree more about the term "hominin", which drives me up the wall. I'm in the process of teaching a couple of intro course on human origins, and had cause to check out some different textbook definitions and taxonomies. Needless to say, none agree with each other, but my favorite moment was finding 2 texts using different terminology, published in the same year, by the same publisher, and (gasp) WRITTEN BY THE SAME AUTHORS!
    As for your primary point... when I was a grad student, we had a saying: "never let data get in the way of a good theory."

  5. As I said in my blog, I'm in full agreement with the criticism.

    However I would not attack PLoS ONE (or PLoS in general): they publish a lot of good stuff that we can read it for free. But most importantly major "reputed" magazines, like Science or Nature, also publish shit... just that we don't pay for it, so we mostly do not read it.

    As someone said: "just because it's published in Nature, it doesn't mean it's wrong". Same for PLoS publications, generally quite good.

    I'd dare even to add that the paper is pretty good in general and that only the discussion-conclusions section are somewhat biased, much less than the news around it anyhow. It seems clear to me that Domínguez, who has been making "carnivorist" declarations to the media in person, has pushed for his own favorite interpretation and that most likely the reviewers forced him to tone it down (although of course I do not know for sure, as these process happen behind closed doors).

  6. @Dave,
    When I read this .... stuff ... I think the authors must be made of teflon, like Reagan [and someone else who's reputation is more august, but lesser known]. Nice to hear from you, as always.

  7. @Maju,
    Belated thanks for mentioning me in your blog [which is, I might add, in my blog roll--for the readers who're interested in a sane appreciation of the day's palaeo news, as opposed to what you get at the SA!].
    Unfortunately for PLOS ONE, I only get to see the bad work that my sources alert me to. That said, I think your Nature quote is wonderful. I'd never heard it before. Talk about damning with faint praise! Your comments will always be welcome here. Rob

  8. You're welcome. At this point I must say that I am reluctant to list your blog because, for what I can see, it is all negative criticism and no positive information and, with all respect, I don't like that style. IMO criticism should be balanced and, when possible, constructive.

    Sometimes someone, something, deserves a merciless beating, so to say, but there's also a lot of interesting stuff, even often mixed with the bad one.

    For what I have read many of your destructive criticisms are not well founded, for example I radically disagree with your opinion on the Neanderthal eagle and crow feather use, which I understand to be well documented, not just in Gibraltar but in many other European caves (Fumane was the first one, if I recall correctly). Yet you did not reply to my criticism to your criticism (in form of comment, still orphan of any form of reply).

    I mean: in general I agree and welcome being critical of what must be criticized (a pillar of Science) but dedicating all your online existence to just making demolishing non-constructive criticisms seems to me a waste of time (your choice ultimately, of course). More so if one cannot be self-critical, what at this point I'm not sure you are.

    But to each one what (s)he deserves and in this particular case you clearly do have a point and I generally credit my sources as a matter of course.

    "Id, I think your Nature quote is wonderful. I'd never heard it before".

    I guess it is surely a pun on a previous saying that could go "not because it has been published in Nature it is necessarily right". I'm glad you liked it. Sadly I don't recall the source.

    What I like from PLoS and other open access media (BMC, etc.) is that all is transparent. If anything, I don't believe in censorship and have no problem with criticism being post-publication. Peer review (if not censoring) is at most a pre-filter that excludes the worst, but a scientific controversy does not end normally with a paper, rather it begins with it most often.

    What is important is that there must be debate AFTER publication (in some cases not any more even peer-reviewed at all, cf. arXiv) and here come the online media like critical blogs, forums, etc. Academic spheres may serve that to some extent but in general I find them too snob and autistic, possibly a bit obsolete and scholastic.

  9. @Maju,
    I can well understand your hesitation to put SA on your blogroll. That my work predominantly negative I do not dispute. However, it's my avowed mission to knock down archaeological myth-making. So, naturally much of what passes for criticism on my blog is going to be negative. On the matter of feathers. I was reluctant to respond to your last challenge because I thought I'd beaten that horse to death. I'll get to it soon. I promise. Thanks again for visiting, and for giving us your opinions. I share many of them!

  10. Just an FYI: Dr. Debra Martin and I, both paleopathologists, have commented formally on this research via PLOS ONE in the style of a traditional Letter to the Editor.

    You can read it here:

    We hope this debate generates further research and we look forward to greater understandings of the evolution of diet in the future!

    John Crandall, MA

  11. I'm sorry to be so long in responding John and Debra. I did send an email. I was wondering if you wouldn't mind me elevating your Letter to the Editor to a wholesale quote in one of my blurts, or perhaps as a guest blog. Unless, of course, there is a copyright issue or that you'd rather not be splashed all over the pages of the Subversive Archaeologist. Thanks for pointing us in your direction. Rob

  12. Rob,

    You can feel free to quote this and use it all you want. The authors of the original study have already posted a reply to our letter!

    While they certainly nail me on not discussing Malaria and Anemia with enough accuracy, they continue to dodge alternative hypotheses by simply saying, well... this is the best sounding "just so" story.

    I agree that it sounds good. But science often finds that things aren't good sounding and simply but rather messy and in need of further analysis. I am glad that they responded. Frankly, they are opening up a debate that needs to be had.

    Ultimately, I still think paleopathologists find this troubling and the paleoanthropology community will buy it because they are accustomed to a world where inference EQUALS rigorously tested hypothesis. Just a disciplinary difference and one that suggests we're a diverse and thriving academic community! (in discord but hey... the more debates the merrier for grad students like me!)

    Check if PLOS now "owns" our letter but otherwise, you have my permission. You can cite it as follows:
    Crandall, JJ, Martin DL (2012). On porotic hyperostosis and the interpretation of hominin diets. Comment on Domínguez-Rodrigo M, Pickering TR, Diez-Martin, F, Mabulla A, Musiba, et al. 2012. Earliest porotic hyperostosis on a 1.5-million-year-old hominin, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. PLOS ONE 7(10):e46414. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046414


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