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National Geographic retracts boast of dinosaur-to-bird 'missing link'
By Lee Weeks
WASHINGTON (BP)--An independent group of scientists has described as unfounded National Geographic Society's report late last year of "a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds."
A panel of paleontologists and ornithologists released their findings April 6, confirming speculation by outside scientists that National Geographic Society's media blitz touting a feathered dinosaur fossil lacked independent scientific confirmation.
The panel was convened by National Geographic after a number of media reports, such as one in USA Today, questioned the supposed discovery.
Further examination by the scientists of the fossil has revealed that it is a composite of at least two different animals. The fossil was smuggled into the United States from China and was sold for $80,000 to the owner of a dinosaur museum in Monticello, Utah, before it eventually landed in the halls of the National Geographic Society in Washington.
While National Geographic Society attempts to restore its credibility in the wake of the dinosaur-bird fossil flap, scientists at two Baptist universities say the fiasco could have been avoided had standard scientific protocols been followed.
"Publishing the report in National Geographic before subjecting it to the scientific peer-review process showed very poor judgment," said David A. DeWitt, assistant professor of biology and associate director of creation studies at Liberty University, Lynchburg, Va. "In their zeal to provide evidence for their belief that dinosaurs gave rise to birds they short-circuited the scientific process."
Wayne Wofford, director of the Edward P. Hammons Center for Scientific Studies at Union University, Jackson, Tenn., said, "National Geographic will pay a heavy price for their over-zealousness. It will take them a long to time to re-establish the trust of the scientific community and the public."
In a six-page color spread, complete with artist's drawings, photographs and diagrams, National Geographic's November 1999 issue reported that the "Archaeoraptor," supposedly a 120-million-year-old bird-like creature with the tail of a meat-eating dinosaur, had been discovered in a fossil unearthed in the remote Liaoning Province of China.
The fossil had also been showcased before more than 100,000 people, the majority of them children, at the National Geographic's Explorers Hall in Washington between Oct. 15 and Jan. 21.
By late January, with the dinosaur-bird link controversy in the media, National Geographic promised to publish a correction in its March issue.
In March, National Geographic published a letter, of less than 90 words, written by Xu Xing, one of the scientists who originally examined the "Archaeoraptor," in the magazine's "Forum" section
In the letter, Xing writes of comparing the fossil to another "feathered dromaeosaur" and concluding, "Though I do not want to believe it, Archaeoraptor appears to be composed of a dromaeosaur tail and a bird body."
DeWitt and Wofford said National Geographic could have restored its credibility sooner by publishing the correction more prominently in the magazine in light of the hype it gave to the announcement last November of the alleged discovery.
"People who were looking for the retraction couldn't find it," DeWitt said. "A letter to the editor is not the usual way to handle an error of this magnitude."
National Geographic editor Bill Allen said the magazine plans to publish a story in the fall that looks at the whole sequence of events involving the fake fossil.
"I hope people are going to view what we do here in the overall context," Allen told the Associated Press, "so that the one aberration is not going to damage our reputation in the long run."
DeWitt said he hopes National Geographic and the scientific community at large has learned a lesson about flying off the handle with public announcements of discoveries before having them confirmed by independent researchers.
"It seems like National Geographic is being much more careful and rigorous in handling the retraction than they were in the initial report," DeWitt said. "Perhaps if they were as cautious from the beginning, they wouldn't have created such a mess."
But Wofford is careful to point out that the scientific process worked, "though belatedly so."
"It was scientists who raised the concerns about the validity of the fossil. ... The scientific community is for the most part a self-policing entity," Wofford said. "Maintenance of credibility is crucial for the whole community."
DeWitt noted he is concerned that the scientific community's predisposition toward evolution too often takes precedence over objective scientific research.
"Many scientists are so convinced that Darwinism is correct that they can't even see the plain evidence that contradicts it," DeWitt said. "Because they only look for evidence that supports the theory, they can be easily duped. The Archaeoraptor incident shows what can happen when scientists fail to consider alternative explanations."
DeWitt said the Archaeoraptor hoax will now be preserved in history along with a "growing list of evolution and fossil fakes" such as:
-- "Nebraska Man" -- In 1922, scientists heralded a fossilized tooth, reported to be 1 million years old, as the "missing link" in human evolution. The tooth was presented as evidence for evolution in the 1925 Scopes Trial. Later it was discovered that the fossil was that of pig's tooth.
-- "Piltdown Man" -- For nearly 50 years scientists believed they had discovered evolution's missing link in a portion of a human skull that had been pieced together with the jaw of an orangutan. Later it was learned that the teeth had been filed down to look more human-like.
-- "Haeckel's Embryos" -- Ernst Haeckel, a German developmental biologist, drew pictures of embryos of a fish, frog, chicken, pig and human to illustrate evolutionary history common to all of these species. Despite the revelation that the drawings of the various species had been deceptively altered, the drawings may still be found in biology textbooks today.
-- "Peppered Moth" -- In England, scientists' conclusions that darker-colored moths perched on tree trunks were better camouflaged from predatory birds than lighter colored moths was dispelled when it was revealed that photographs of the moths had been staged because the moths do not rest on tree trunks.
"One has to wonder how many other fossils are also composites of different animals," DeWitt said. "Since these professional scientists were so easily fooled, perhaps we should question how extensive such fossil mishaps are. They are probably more common than we think."
Used with permission.