Flores forensics, faces, and facades

(Open letter 2 September 2014 to Chloe Ross of 9News, Australia; edited and posted 2 September 2014 on www.LiangBuaCave.org)

Robert B. Eckhardt and Maciej Henneberg

The overall impression that one gains from the latest attempt to market the “mystery hobbit” is a swirl of confusion, misinformation – and scholarly desperation. That is not a healthy mix, and we excuse readers of the 9News pastiche for being confused; that outcome is not accidental, but rather seems purposeful.

At first glance we have what appears to be a story by Chloe Ross:

Indonesia’s mystery ‘hobbit’ unveiled by Australian scientist (http://www.9news.com.au/national/2014/09/01/17/43/flores-hobbit-is-given-a-face-by-australian-scientist#1gDVHe0GxSOEPuZe.99).

That story reports on what is represented as new work by Dr. Susan Hayes, a NSW criminal investigator who uses forensic techniques to reconstruct faces for remains found at crime scenes: “Discovering the Hobbit of Flores, Indonesia,” August 28, 2014 (Australian Geographic, #122, Sept – Oct 2014). We offer here no critique of the creative work by Dr. Hayes; forensic reconstruction is a demanding combination of science and art, and in the brief report she carefully qualifies her results, as is appropriate. Even best face reconstructions from skulls rarely lead to forensic identification because so much detail of the face surface (wrinkles, moles, lip thickness, facial hair) can’t be read from the skull. They are left to the artistic licence. (As an aside, the full facial reconstruction based on LB1, the only known skull from the Liang Bua Cave on Flores, looks quite similar to some Down syndrome individuals in having a relatively wide face and reduced chin.)

The reconstructive work by Dr. Hayes is not new. It was featured on another Australian blog, The Conversation, around May of 2013. Same pictures, same text.

The current story, as it develops, is rather like a set of Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. The outer wrapper is the 9News story by Chloe Ross; peel that away and one encounters a report about the reconstruction, ostensibly by Dr. Hayes; but inside is the continuingly bizarre tale spun by Bert Roberts. Here, as elsewhere, what Dr. Roberts writes is replete with error, innuendo, and disinformation. He appears to believe what he writes, but sincerity is no substitute for objective testing. As noted by the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman in “Cargo Cult Science,” his Caltech commencement address in 1974, in science “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”

Dr. Roberts appears to confuse intensity of belief with objective verifiability, continuing to disgorge factoids that have been shown to be incorrect, ranging from diagnosis of the sex of LB1 (a statement based on unsupported guesswork, while we have presented evidence from a scoring system that shows LB1 to have been a male, lightly built as would be expected for the small body size), through its stature (once more said here by Dr. Roberts to be “only one meter tall,” again disproved at multiple levels not only by our own research, but by a definitive thesis written entirely independently of our group by Dr. Bonita De Klerk of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, with Dr. De Klerk writing directly that the stature reconstructions by Drs. Brown and Morwood are wrong and should be corrected in the scientific literature) to the statement that LB1 had “disproportionately large feet,” while in fact the feet are in the very small end of the range for living humans, but associated with a femur that is quite abnormally short – as is common in patients with Down syndrome. These are not matters of opinion, but rather of fact, which we have presented in detail in the scientific literature since 2006 without effective contradiction. Dr. Roberts and his colleagues behave as if merely stating erroneous and misleading statements over and over again constitute disproof. It does, but only in Wonderland.

Finally we have the statement:

“Dr Hayes’ report comes just weeks after furious international dispute erupted over the publication of a paper which claimed a hobbit man of Flores was a modern human with Down syndrome. The research was widely denounced by scientists around the world.”

If one goes to the link brought up by the highlighted line immediately above (“claimed a hobbit…Down syndrome”) one finds only one of the two papers that we recently (4 August 2014) published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) – and it is the wrong paper!

The reference cited by one of the dolls, seemingly Dr. Roberts, is our paper which offers definitive disproof of the validity of the taxon “Homo floresiensis” but does not offer a specific diagnosis for the abnormality manifested by LB1 (still, after a decade, the only skull known). It is the second paper that offers that diagnosis. For those interested in the science involved, rather than the hysteria, here are links to the two papers:

Rare events in earth history include the LB1 human skeleton from Flores, Indonesia, as a developmental singularity, not a unique taxon

and,

Evolved developmental homeostasis disturbed in LB1 from Flores, Indonesia, denotes Down syndrome and not diagnostic traits of the invalid species Homo floresiensis”  Both of those papers are on PNAS Open Access so that anyone who wished could read them without cost or complication. We suggest that this might be a good starting place for Dr. Roberts and other people who have “denounced” the papers.

In closing we note that “denounced” seems a strange epithet to encounter in a scientific controversy. It seems more commonly associated with Stalinist era show trials and the like. We do not believe that we ever would be inclined to think in terms that would lead us to having “denounced” a scientific paper. There certainly are tactics of which we most certainly would disapprove. These include misrepresenting an opponent’s hypothesis in a distorted manner, the easier to attack it as a straw man. They also include, while acting as a referee for a scientific journal, taking valid, straightforward evidence that is correct by examination, and stating that it is incorrect, under the protection of anonymity, to block publication. They also include threatening a lawsuit for having allegedly taken a photographic image of a slide in a public presentation, when it was physically impossible for that act to have been done, then failing even to apologize afterward for the threatened but unconsummated legal threat. They further include taking the contents of a paper that we submitted for publication, arguing to the journal that that paper should not be published, then passing the contents of the paper to a colleague who then used the contents in that person’s own published work. As we have said, although we doubt that we would “denounce” people for having committed such actions, we would disapprove of them as being far below the standards for normal scientific discourse. But we will state, and stand willing to back up these contentions with all of the detail that might be necessary, that our detractors, the supporters of “Homo floresiensis” as “…one of the most remarkable anthropological discoveries of the last 50 years” according to Australian Geographic Editor John Pickrell, have done all of these things in their attempt to suppress any alternative to their viewpoints.

As far as we can tell, the number of scientists who have made intense attacks on our work were very small, though highly vociferous. Additionally, so far all of their criticisms, for example those offered by Dr. Colin Groves in an early piece published by ABC Australia and repeated widely before we forced corrections in print, simply have been wrong, as were some of his sources on the web site of the Australian National Museum (for some of this material see our web site www.LiangBuaCave.org).

Readers should make no mistake. This controversy is not just about the interpretation of the only specimen from the curious Liang Bua Cave excavation to have a skull (the “hobbit” reconstructed by Dr. Hayes). It is not just about the supposedly large number of other “individuals” recovered with LB1; this notional number now is up to 14 in some reports, without any photographic documentation of what they look like, individual by individual. Having seen the sparse and highly fragmentary remains firsthand ourselves, we know that there is less there than the actively-created impression of a large and uniform sample than is widely believed (please test us on this – show the photographs and prove us wrong). It is a controversy about how many people in the discipline of paleoanthropology do “science” as a matter of course, publishing inflated claims that commonly cannot stand up to public scrutiny—hence the attempt to keep the primary evidence under highly restricted access, as is the case here.

It is a common shibboleth that science is “self correcting.” In practice that rarely is the case. Far more often than not, scientific errors are exposed by small numbers of researchers who are willing to pay a high price professionally to correct the record, an endeavor for which there is little or no reward, and much casual calumny.

We had not thought of news media as fertile grounds for the hunting of heretics, believing that a more valid calling of the press was to look critically at widely held but shallowly based misimpressions. We remain ever hopeful that this yet may prove to be the case.

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