Friday, May 2, 2008

Homo floresiensis: The Impact of Information Sharing

In 2003, an international team of paleoanthropologists & archaeologists discovered seemingly human "hobbit" sized subfossil remains on Flores island in Indonesia. The team that made the discovery claims that the remains of these individuals represent a heretofore unseen species of hominid and has been named Homo floresiensis. Ever since the Hobbit of Flores first graced the headlines in 2003, it has continued to make frequent appearances in news media and journals because its status as a new species is oft contested. This debate over its status as a species continues to be an on-going one because there is limited access to the remains. To date, only members of the original research team and selct outside experts have had access to the bones. All information pertaining to the find has been released by the aforementioned individuals in their published papers and journal articles. This lack of information sharing is a detriment to the scientific community. As the case of the H. floresiensis demonstrates, it continues to produce papers based on idle speculation and recycled information, reinterpreted(often incorrectly).

Recently, the saga of the Hobbit continued through the publication of a paper by Australian scientists Peter Obendorf, John Oxnard & Ben Kefford in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B(Biological Sciences). The article's title succintly summarizes the contents of the paper: "Are the small human-like fossils found on Flores human endemic cretins?" It challenges the attribution of species status to the find in Flores. They state that these remains are those of Homo sapiens suffering from severe congential hypothyrodism which, they claim, explains the oddities in form that the bones exhibit. Their hypothesis is hinged on the size of the sella turcica(aka pituitary fossa, where the pituitary gland rests) which they state was enlarged, a symptom of hypothyroidism. The evidence they used to determine the size of the sella turcica comes from a 2D screen capture of a blurry 3D CT scan captured from a BBC Horizon show called "The Mystery of the human hobbit," similar to the graphic above.

This paper has produced quite the negative reaction in the anthropological community and has translated into a significant amount of press in newspapers, journals and blogs. Mainly, Obendorf et al. have been criticized for unsound methodolgy, statements not backed by tangible information and usage of incorrect data. Peter Brown, a member of the original research team has critiqued the paper for "being complete nonsense...without a glimmer of factual support." Regarding the sella turcica, specifically, Brown stated that the area is "very poorly preserved and not capable of meaningful measurement." Colin Groves, a biological anthropologist recounted to the press "...I warned him [Peter Obendorf] that he would be simply laughed to scorn if he produced what is mainly idle speculation."

Obendorf et al.'s paper is idle speculation. It is not science. Science is a system of acquiring knowledge based off of observation, deduction and measurable, replicable results. Seeing as how the measurement of the sella turcica was taken from a warped and blurry computer simulated image of the area as exhibited on a TV show, I would daresay that this is not a scientifically valid measurement and that they are wrong in their estimation of the size of the pituitary fossa(sella turcica). At the end of the day, their argument is mainly wishful thinking around what could be. Had Obendorf et al. actually been given access to an endocast or another accurate representation of that area, then their measurement of the sella turcica would be demonstrably more accurate. But, then again, that's the issue: lack of access.

Obendorf et al. have been unfairly criticized for writing this paper without ever having handled the remains. It is not that they did not want access to them, it is that they were not allowed access. If Obendorf et. al had been given access to the actual remains of casts of high resolution photos of it, then we likely would have avoided this entirle debacle. It seems ridiculous to condemn this paper for having been written without better access to quality data when information sharing is a problem within the broader community. This paper was a product of its environment. Yes, Obendorf et al. could have decided against bringing their voices into the room concerning this debate, bu they didn't. Why not publish a paper challenging the generally accepted theory based almost solely on bad data and wishful thinking when so few others have access to quality information? It's definitely a way of adding papers to your curriculum vitae. And, maybem just maybe, the people holding a monopoly on the evidence will tire of the challenges based on flimsy evidence and finally allow other people access to the find.

Earlier on, I mentioned a comment that Peter Brown made about the sella turcica. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say I failed to convey the spirit of the quote. Since guilt plagues me so, I'll provide you with it now. Peter Brown said that "I'm the only person on the planet to have seen what's left of the pituitary fossa. It is very poorly preserved and not capable of meaningful measurement." Yup, that's right. He's the only person in the world to have seen that area of the skull, so, of course, he would know. But we wouldn't. John Hawks, an American paleoanthropologist provides a rather astute critique of this comment. In his blog he states "It may be true, but that doesn't make it science. If nobody can see it, then nobody can replicate it. Which means we have no reason to believe it."

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