Homo floresiensis: How Did This Dreck Get Published?

One of my readers (thanks Sabine) tracked the article down, so I have had a chance to read it. ResearchBlogging.orgAll I can say is “Wow!” There is certainly a lot of questionable material in it, to the point that I have to wonder how the paper made it through peer-review. Think I’m exaggerating? Here is an example:

Captured images from X-ray scans presented in The mystery of the human hobbit (BBC Horizon, 2005) clearly show a buccogingival ridge sloping to the buccal surface of the mesial root, as in human lower first deciduous molars (dm1s) and unlike P3s that are symmetrical (Zeisz & Nuckolls 1949).

Fortunately the date on the paper says it was published on March 4th, otherwise I would have thought this was an April Fools Day joke gone pathetically, and tragically, wrong. Captured images from TV, un-fucking-believable (pardon my French)! Even more comical, the authors of the paper are using the aforesaid images to argue that Brown and Morwood misidentified some of LB1’s teeth. Specifically, that they mistook a deciduous molar for a lower third premolar. This in turn allows them to argue that Homo floresiensis had delayed or missing teeth – a trait they associate with cretinism.
This is pretty characteristic of the style of argumentation in the paper. Another example concerns the scapula. Obendorf et al say that:

A scapula assigned to LB6 (LB6/4) has a broad and square inferior end (Larson et al. 2007), consistent with unfused and still cartilaginous and therefore lost secondary centres for the inferior angle and the vertebral border (a useful comparative image is fig. 206 of Gray 1918).
These centres are unfused in both HC and DC and as they normally fuse late, from ca 20 years (Miles & Bulman 1995) LB6 could be a young adult or older cretin with characteristic delayed fusion.

Yet they give us no reason for preferring their interpretation. What about their explanation for the ebu gogo and how did the fossils end up in caves?

In agricultural populations, ME cretins are well cared for, but in seasonally mobile hunter-gatherer populations, the limited mobility of cretins could lead to separation,
particularly of adult cretins. Use of caves by adult cretins and lack of burial would explain the cretin remains at LB, while seasonal mobility, alternative shelters and systematic burial would explain the absence of the remains of normal individuals. A population (nZ25-100) with 1% cretinism is calculated to produce 4-15 deaths of adult cretins per kiloyear, which is enough to explain the discovered remains at LB.

Oxnard is one of the coauthors and, after reading that, I am hoping for his sake that his sole contribution was the multivariate analyses mentioned in the paper. Speaking of multivariate analysis, one has to wonder why the only fossils included in the analyses were Nariokotome, Kabwe, and Mrs. Ples? One also has to wonder how this biased the results?
Obendorf, P.J., Oxnard, C.E., Kefford, B.J. (2008). Are the small human-like fossils found on Flores human endemic cretins?. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, -1(-1), -1–1. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.1488
Update 1: Kambiz has a more sympathetic take on the paper. Although, he has reservations about the screen capture as well.
Update 2: Tell me again how I’m being nasty and mean:

The new study was “complete nonsense and without a glimmer of factual support,” Professor Brown told the Herald.
Colin Groves, of the Australian National University, who was not a member of the discovery team, said many of the claims in the new paper lacked evidence.
“I am very very distressed to see such reputable scientists involved in such a travesty,” Dr Groves told the Herald.

Update 3: I would like to welcome my visitors from Daily Kos: Open Science Thread. Feel free to look around, turn the lights off when you leave, and beer is in the ‘fridge.

12 Responses

  1. ouchie. That’s quite a slam you do on the writers there!

  2. Isn’t there some deal about the owners of the Homo floresiensis being pretty weird about sharing data? I thought they wouldn’t let anyone else look at it. I would imagine that’s the rationale for the screen cap. Still, pretty weird to use that as a primary data point…

  3. I thought it was a joke when I saw it was published by “Proceedings of the Royal Society B“. Is that like a farm team for scientists?
    BTW, I’ll pardon your French when you learn how to spell it! It’s “phoque”.

  4. It’s a case of, “This thing cannot be, therefor it must be this other thing.” What you read is an example of the sort of prose that results when someone or someones frame matters to support personal preference.

  5. Pough. I maintain it should be spelled, “pharque”. Anyway it seems the authors have merely seen “Lord of the Rings” a few times too many. They’ve taken the name “Hobbit” too seriously.
    Why are so many so keen to deny they’re a separate subspecies I wonder?

  6. Okay,okay. I am “agnostic” as to just who,or what the “hobbits” may or may not be. But haven’t we heard similar arguments before? No, I don’t mean the late Teuku Jacob’s idea that they were microcephalilc “shorty modern humans”. . . .I mean, I seem to remember some clown some years ago, proposed that Neandertals suffered from iodine deficiency. . . .(whoever or whatever Neanddrtals may have been).
    Anne G

  7. I agree, this does seem to be a real stretch….
    @pough – the Royal Society publishes two Proceedings journals, PRS A is for the Physical Sciences, PRS B is for the Biological Sciences. Both are respected journals.
    @factician – yes, I heard through the grapevine that there were some serious jurisdiction issues between a few of the labs involved in Australia. As in, lab 1 was promised access via researcher 1, whilst lab 2 was promised via researcher 2.
    If only someone was working on getting some ancient DNA out of these, they could clear this whole mess up…

  8. pough, only if you’re one of the sort who think that biologists are second stringers to physicists.

  9. Why are so many so keen to deny they’re a separate subspecies I wonder?

    my guess — because of an enduring conviction that humanity doesn’t have subspecies. animals have subspecies, and people who think along these lines are quite sure humans aren’t that.

  10. Some of the information contained in this paper is valid and it certainly does not deserve the slamming given it here.
    The scientists involved are professionals and it is published in a serious journal that does have a sound Peer Review policy. I am truely fed up of writers condemning peer review processes whenever they dislike the result, but happy to accept it when they agree with it. Peer review is far from fool proof, but clearly this article was deemed acceptable by reviewers who are considered experts in their field. I won’t comment on the contributor who apparently doesn’t know what the Royal Society journals are or of their reputation, but your reponse is cheap and I would have expected better. I guess this is your blog and hence you are free to express your opinions, but your approach is not impressive and doesn’t exactly lead me to expect a measured or well reasoned argument from you.
    I am also very dubious about the collection of data from TV screens, but given the way that signiifcant hominid fossils are guarded jealously it should be noted that many/most of the literature published on them have not involved the authors having personally examined the original material.
    I don’t know if Homo floresiensis consitutes a separate species, or whether they were human in anything like our sense of the word. The evidence is not in my opinion sufficient to come to a conclusion yet. Though I guess I should say that currently, while remaining agnostic on the matter, I think there is more evidence supporting the various anomalous Homo sapiens theories than the the whole new species one – but the jury is still out.
    The strength of feeling these ‘hobbits’ have engendered is incredible. Indeed the really amazing thing is that so many people clearly WANT to believe this is a valid separate species. It seems that in many cases the stance people take on ‘the Hobbit’ tells us more about what they want to believe than about the evidence.

  11. Mark, to answer some of your critcisms:
    1) I actually have not made up my mind about the status of Homo floresiensis so my assessment of the paper has nothing to do with what I want to believe about Homo floresiensis. Personally I do not believe that the question will be resolved until such time as more cranial and post cranial material is found.
    2) Although there is some rivalry in Paleoanthropology, far and away most of the research published is based on the original material or on casts thereof (leaving aside review articles).
    3) I’m not condemning the paper because I don’t like the results, I am condemning it because it is methodologically questionable. For example, their data on the scapula does not allow us to choose between their hypothesis and Larson’s and give us no reason other, than their assertion, for accepting their hypothesis. This is not an isolated example from the paper. Every argument they make is in that form. I have read worse papers, but not many.
    4) Although pough can speak for himself, my take on his comment is that he was being sarcastic.

  12. I don’t think the paper’s such a bad effort for authors who had no access to the actual fossils; I’m more impressed by their case for cretinism than by any of the ‘microcephalic’ papers. It’s a testable scenario, the ebu gogo legend provides a bit of colour, and it gives the LB fossil record more power by offering up another hypothesis for test (and likely falsification) when more skeletons are described. But the strength of the conclusions seems overstated except for the very last line, suggesting either the reviewers or editor cut the authors a lot of slack.
    I knew a very attractive French girl some years ago in Sydney who was paying for her travels by working as a waitress. One day, she told me, she asked a lunch customer “Would you like a ferque?” (meaning ‘fork’) and he looked at his watch and said “Thanks for asking, but I really need to be back at work in a few minutes.”

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