Saturday, 26 October 2013

Will Somebody Please Tell Me How I Can Do Research That is Equally Dull-Edged?

I have to say that I must be a complete boob! All my life I thought Raymond Dart had theoretical legs to stand on when he pronounced A. africanus a baby bipedal ape. Evidently not. A tip o' my male, sartorial, secondary sexual characteristic to Physorg for alerting me to this.

It turns out that I was misinformed. So misinformed that I missed a perfectly awesome opportunity to do some cutting-edge research without having to develop a testable hypothesis. The testable hypothesis was ready-made. Russo and Kirk merely collected empirical observations that confirmed that, in bipedal mammals, the foramen magnum is statistically significantly anteriorly and inferiorly situated compared to its position in quadrupeds.   

I'm gob-smacked.
Russo, G.A. and E.C. Kirk, "Foramen magnum position in bipedal mammals." Journal of Human Evolution 65:656--670.
Besides its being one of the most egregious examples I've ever seen of an article title's uselessness [cf. the SA, October 25, 2013], I'm completely buggered if I can think of one reason why this needed to be researched, much less published.

First. Re: the title. I'm guessing that the authors figgered since it was getting in JHE, it would be read and cited by all the important people. Yet, unless I were a comparative vertebrate zoologist, I could give a flying hoohaw about the f.m. in the two other kinds of bipedal animals. So why would I, a human palaeontologist, want to look at the article? Answer: I wouldn't. Extrapolate to the four or five dozen who might want to see this article, to get their attention how hard would it have been to title the article "Studies show that bipedal mammals' foramina magnae are closer to the coronal plane than those of quadrupeds" ?

 Seriously. That title is extraordinarily limp, considering that it's a lead-in to a 'hard science' piece. *winks*

This is a pop quiz. True or False: from left to right, these illustrations depict a rodent, a kangaroo, and an anatomically correct human. I, for one, hope the rodent is not to scale! From Russo and Kirk (2013)
BTdub, in the late 1990s I became very, very familiar with the animal represented in the image below.

Also from Russo and Kirk (2013). Not to scale.
Back to Raymond Dart. I'm to guess that 'intuitively obvious' isn't good enough in a 'hard' science like comparative vertebrate anatomy. Nor are "as sure as grass is green" and "as plain as the nose on your face" enough to satisfy the discipline. No. Proof of everything must be sought, wrought, and bought!

[Which is, by the way, what publishers of low-subscription, refereed journals like JHE and JAS and others do to any article they choose to publish. They buy the copyright with the promise of a handful of reprints!]

[Those who work in the 'true' sciences, like physics, or astronomy are forced to PAY to have their work published!]

Okay, okay. Suggesting that their work is the antithesis of cutting edge is being a wee bit harsh on Russo and Kirk. After all, they're earnest and honest scholars and I take my hat off to them for having the good sense to think their idea might fly. They were right. And the rest of us were right, too. We just had no empirical observations to support our foregone conclusions!

So, Dear Reader, do you want to do some travelling? I think there's a niche that needs filling. I'm fairly certain that no one has ever collected empirical observations, amenable to statistic analysis, of the [apparently] heretofore untested hypothesis that THE SUN ALWAYS RISES IN THE EAST!

I think I need a drink.


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