Monday, November 4, 2013

Going GONZO at SVP 2013 Los Angeles

Giant bank towers, like inveterate tombstones surround the Westin Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles where the annual society of vertebrate paleontology conference takes place. I mean for a conference really all about death you would not want to  surround yourself with anything like a park or even a tree- no big banking towers are just about spot on! I just hope attendees to the conference don't leave southern California with the impression that it is all just slabbed with concrete. But about that conference...

The presentations, in the 15 minute time span allowed, were efficiently and punctually performed for the most part. As a fan of oral presentation, and the theatrics they can engender, I was a little dismayed that the speaker was more or less shoved into the darker corner of the room behind a podium and could not more actively engage with the audience. Secondly they should have simply dismissed the question section after the speech because it was generally limited to one or none questions. I would suggest that speakers depart to a second meeting area for perhaps a more intimate discussion with people who want to delve deeper into that particular topic. I mean, you potentially could stalk down the person who gave the talk for a more pointed discussion. But I think in doing so you lose part of the group dynamic where you have more than one person chime in reflecting multiple areas of expertise. And I applaud all the speakers, even those with obvious faults in their presentation, it is hard to get up in front of an audience- especially one that can be critical towards your talk. Never the less, as in all things, there were some that were better than others in their ability to speak to a room. I also applaud several of the presenters, who, in the wake of data contrary/or faulty to their study carried on with the show anyways. Good for you, anyone who wants to pursue science fully should learn how to be wrong, and often (based on stuff I learned at the convention I have to reevaluate some of my own ideas I have put forth on this blog). As for the poster presentations this is what I actually enjoyed more due to the more intimate and in depth analysis. Really interesting conversations and people were very informative and engaging overall BUT on more than a few occasions the author was not there, obviously engaged in banter with friends and ignoring you, or just recalcitrant to engage with you about their work. Look maybe you have never worked a customer service job before in your life but I don't get it. You are on one of the highest stages in paleontology, people from all over the world spending all kinds of dough are here to potentially see and speak with you about your work and you give off the vibe that you could care less. You should be pulling at my fucking sleeves trying to talk my head off about the work you spent years on. Again, this group of people was in the minority but I saw this nonchalance repeated again and again. And I am not picking on presenters that were drinking beer and what-not, it is a mixer- hell people should be doing shots! What I am referring to is a general disdain towards presenting your work in an active and engaging manner and the society should do something about it because this behavior kept arising, even by several more bigger-name authors. I don't give a damn how many letters are behind your last name or if you are bummed that you did not get a spot on the presenters stage- I and others spent good money to come and see your work you should at least oblige us with your presence. Again this group was in the minority but there were enough of them for me and several others to notice.

And if I bumped you with my dinosaur tail I apologize.  Although I may have not cut as dashing a figure as Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing, if you are going to a conference talking about megafauna- you better learn to live with megafauna.  I was just a little surprised there was not more costumes. I mean come on a conference about dinosaurs, mammoths, and other beasties on Halloween and you don't put on a costume?!?

But now I want to talk about what made the event so special and why I would go again in a heart-beat. The people. The students, teachers, artists, writers, researchers, bloggers, and simply just fans of paleontology are a special lot and really made the show. Meeting people from around the world and recognizing a common passion and interest automatically forms a bond that circumnavigates differences in nation, state, sex, economic status or race that was really something special. It also was fun to rub shoulders with the big luminaries in the paleo world and chat them up.

And now to the presentations themselves, what was revealed? Well, I don't want to talk about them right now. They have an embargo policy on them, no photo/video allowed and I am sure you can scour the interwebz if you want the big reveal about Deinocheirus and Brain Switek, the CNN of paleontology, already covered the fighting dino/nanotyrannosaur debacle public vs private debate succinctly. So you can go bugger off if you want to hear stuff about the presentations. I might talk about some of them later but something else is on my mind.

No instead I want to get up on that soapbox, and talk about the role paleontology can play in social/environmental issues and how this potential social role paleontology can play was for the most part largely ignored by both the Society and the presenters at this event. While the Society has made valiant efforts towards education, supporting evolutionary thought and denouncing intelligent design/religious encroachment into public school system  (i.e. Louisiana), and probably most noticeably weighed in on making fossils available to the public rather than private hands for research- there was scant mention towards environmental/conservation outreach or crosstalk at the convention. Yes, but this is a conference about dead things, and we only concern ourselves with dead things. And this attitude, which is a a minority one in my opinion, but still ubiquitous enough to be addressed is one I encountered several times at the convention. I don't get it. If you love paleo why should you not love animals whether they are alive or dead? But here is my ultimate point: paleontology offers perhaps the most salient insight into the current extinction crisis we are experiencing right now real time. There is no taphonomic bias going on with this one, no need to send an undergrad out to collect data from the exposure, the data is unequivocal, damning and right in your face with this current extinction crisis. But I only concern myself with dead things. Well don't worry you will have plenty more dead study subjects in the immediate future. Now I recognize that the society has a public statement regarding climate change/and they have addressed the extinction/biodiversity issue in past conventions. But the current extinction crisis, in my biased view (remember I like living animals too), is such a large scale and pressing issue that the society should present it as an ongoing discussion at all society meetings. Have a panel with various top tier people and engage in an open debate regarding the role of paleontology in conservation. Do the same for how to combat non-scientific thinking, or how to win over fence sitters on the creationist/evolution narrative. What I am arguing is that if the society has certain mandates that they claim to uphold and you gather an audience together in one spot who may have a preferential attitude towards upholding those same ideals- then you should weaponize these people with the ability to convey and transmit these ideas to society at large. In this way a person leaving the convention will have not only learned all that is currently known about placodont phylogeny but they also know how to dismantle the arguments of a creationist- if not to change the mind of the creationist (usually impossible) but to win over the fence sitters.

And here is where I want to shift focus from the society but to the attendees of the conference. And yes I myself do not escape the harsh gaze of Sauron's eye on this one. We often use paleontology as an escape from the real world. Let's face it imagining what an an Ordovician sea was like is a lot more fun than doing tax returns. This is fine as long as you know what you are doing. I'm not telling you to stop studying, following, or engaging in paleo professionally or avocationally just as much as I am not telling someone to stop playing fantasy football, life often does suck and this other stuff is way cooler. What I am suggesting is that unlike the person playing fantasy football you actually have useful knowledge in your head that can be applied for use in the world, if not for the few jobs in paleontology, then for other greater social/environmental roles. But unlike the fantasy football player this knowledge was accrued at the expense of yourself, the state,  your parents, your family or society at large. Not everyone has the chance to immerse in arcane subjects for years at a time. My question now is what do you do with this burden of knowledge?

And finally where was the effort towards any sorts of awareness of extant vertebrates in southern California and even in Los Angelees?  The relict population of mountain lions not living more than 20 miles from the convention in the Santa Monica mountains hemmed in by freeways and urban sprawl?

Cougar with deer killed. Santa Monica mountains

Or how about the strange and mysterious deepsea oarfish suddenly washing up on our beaches in the last several months and the potential for interesting taphonomic processes going on there?

Oarfish washed up on Catalina CA

The growing prominence of historical ecology, bridging the gap between conservation, history, paleontology and archeology? The lost fauna of California subsequent with western man's arrival including, most famously the grizzly bear but also in many parts of the state jaguar, wolf, beaver, desert bighorn, elk, pronghorn antelope and ringtail? That large tracts of the LA Basin where the convention was held were, contrary to the popular image of desert scrub, consisting largely of gallery forests of riparian vegetation and wetland? Southern Steelhead? Or that the California Grizzly actually was more common in the oak savanna/chaparral communities which dominate in southern California than the redwood forest or high sierra of more northerly areas in the state? Or the great white shark nurseries along the nearby Malibu beaches? The Channel Islands? Blue footed boobies and southern caracaras making range shifts into California? Wind machines and solar panels devastating desert bird/migratory birds in California? The new legless lizards found at LAX?!?

There should have been at least a nod to the several very interesting sagas going on right now with extant vertebrates in California. Perhaps just a local naturalist, LA zoo people, animal trainers, a birder, local marine mammal scientists: you know people who actually deal with live animals? Just a booth or two?

There was one speech about leatherback sea turtles that successfully bridged the gap with due appreciation of modern leatherbacks. But even here it was not conveyed that the leatherback sea turtle is the state marine reptile of California (and our only one). And admittedly I could not see every talk so I probably missed a lot of stuff that gave a local flavor to the convention- there was also an interesting one on grizzly competitive exclusion of coyotes at marine mammal carcasses I missed. My point is that a more distinct Californian flavor could have been conveyed. And if you leaved the convention not aware that the Leatherback sea turtle is the CA state marine reptile there was a failure on some level in my opinion.

And finally I have to take issue with the societies lack of outreach to high school kids and the public in general. Give some passes away to high achieving high school kids that have interest in this stuff. For heavens sake you are in Los Angeles county, there are loads of high schools around with low tax bases! Don't charge the parents who chaperon them or at least give them a price break. And how about the role of the citizen scientist in paleontology? Again I think an opportunity is missed when you gather together a lot of like minded individuals and discussion on these subjects is not allowed a venue.

I realize I may sound a little over critical in some of my views, but like I said earlier I would go again in a heartbeat and it was a blast. But scientific conferences, just like science itself, should be held up to the highest scrutiny for the benefit of all. And I am biased because they should give bloggers a price cut. Because we promote this stuff. And we do it for free.

Yes that is an elephant bird egg if you were wondering


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Unknown said...

I agree with a lot of this post, but here's a thought: if you want to see a symposium at SVP on the current extinction event as it relates to the fossil record, then propose one! If you're an SVP member, you should have gotten an email on September 30th asking for proposals for symposia at the Berlin meeting next year. If this issue is important to you, then work to make it happen.

As for local flavor, there was a whole symposium about La Brea and similar asphalt-preserved fossil localities. Could there have been more? Sure--but only if people submitted abstracts on those subjects.

And as for the recently found oarfish--they couldn't possibly have been the subject of talks or posters at SVP, given that the abstract submission deadline was in April. Keep in mind that putting together a meeting like this takes a lot of time, both for the researchers who write abstracts, and the committee members who volunteer their time to sort through them all and put together a coherent program. It's a good way to keep current on research, but only where "current" means "things that people had started working on at least 6 months ago".

Duane Nash said...

Thanks for response unknown @11:44 PM

No I am not a member so I never had a chance to propose symposia. So i went online to make my case and in this way hopefully make as much clatter as I could. But if there is an online survey or review section/email response I will gladly point my comments at the society there as well. The society has not emailed anything to me in these regards as of yet.

My point with local flavor was not even to have more posters/presenters on local stuff. As you noted there was the La Brea stuff and a wealth of other stuff on display. What I believe would have been neat would be to have a rep from the department of CA fish and wildlife, or a large animal trainer, someone from the LA/San Diego Zoo, a marine mammal rehab person. Not even to present a paper but to have a booth or some kind of presence for local fauna. I think more crosstalk and input from other disciplines can only be a good thing.

And look this is my bias. Part of my goals with this blog is to provide a more seem less transition from the world of paleo (ie dead stuff) into the living realm.

And I believe paleo can play a role in conservation/enviro-social work. A bigger role than it currently plays. That the Society does not try to address the scope of this role every year at conferences- if not through abstracts/symposia then perhaps through a panel discussion or other chat session- is where they fall down a bit for me.

And I took my concerns to the interwebz to shout as loud as I can from my little hilltop in this corner of web to reach as many people as I can to try and enact change that way.

But you are right about the time, effort, and planning involved. I don't want to sound like a negative ninny and I would love to go again as I said several times. But as a scientific conference, and an excellent one at, we should apply the same rigorous criticism that should go into all scientific endeavors.


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