Posts Tagged ‘Feathers for T. Rex?’

Archaeoraptor Disaster

 

Every fossil discovery has a unique story, and the story of the Archaeoraptor is no exception. In November 1999, a feature article in National Geographic titled “Feathers for T. Rex?” played out to be one of the worst debacles in the now storied history of the new fossil discoveries. The article claimed to provide “a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds.”

Discovered at Xiasanjiazi in China’s northeastern Liaoning Province, the fossil named Archaeoraptor liaoningensis appeared to have the body of a bird with the teeth and tail of a small, terrestrial dinosaur. The “discovery” seemed to fit the missing link criteria by filling in the gap of the popular reptile/dinosaur-to-bird scheme. The Archaeoraptor was displayed to have a long, bony tail like that of dinosaurs along with the specialized shoulders and chest of birds.

The Associated Press was the first to notice the story, and soon the major news networks were reporting the discovery of the new missing link that looked like a “fierce turkey-sized animal with sharp claws and teeth.”

The celebration was on. Philip Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada, weighed in, proclaiming the Archaeoraptor to be the first dinosaur capable of flying. The story had barely broken before questions about the fossil started taking flight, leaving the National Geographic suddenly embroiled in one of the hottest scientific controversies in decades.

The questioning was started by Storrs Olson, the eminent curator of birds at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. In a letter to the National Geographic Society, Olson stated that the story reached “an all-time low for engaging in sensationalistic, unsubstantiated, tabloid journalism.”

Olson was on target, and the National Geographic found itself in the embarrassing position of having to retract the entire article because, as it turned out, the Archaeoraptor fossil was a fake—a neatly contrived composite of a bird and a dinosaur tail.

In reflecting on the incident, Olson laid blame for the fossil fiasco clearly on “zealous scientists” that have abandoned the scientific method to become “proselytizers of the faith” promoting “scientific hoaxes,” and “the paleontological equivalent of cold fusion.”

Several months later in the March 2000 issue of National Geographic, the magazine published a letter to the editor from Xu Xing, one of the scientists who had first examined and discussed the fossil discovery. The letter stated, “After observing a new, feathered dromaeosaur specimen … [t]hough I do not want to believe it, Archaeoraptor appears to be composed of a dromaeosaur tail and a bird body.”

Seven months later in October 2000, National Geographic published a five-page article by veteran investigative reporter Lewis Simons describing how the hoax evolved. In the article “Archaeoraptor Fossil Trail,” Simons pined on the painful discovery: “An investigative reporter does some digging to unearth the truth behind a case of fossil fraud.”

Simons explained how farmers in China had developed a profitable hobby of selling the fossils they “discovered.” They doctored the fossils to follow basic market economics to increase the value of their “discoveries.” In the excitement, evolutionists were conveniently blinded by their belief in the theory. 

The Archaeoraptor illustrates the problem when the theory becomes more important than the evidence. Tragically, Charles Darwin touted this approach in a letter to John Scott in 1863: “I would suggest to you the advantage … let the theory guide your observations.”

Evolutionists continue in the Darwin tradition—let the theory mask the interpretation of the evidence.

Even in an era with unsurpassed technological advances, fraud in science continues to invade deep into the ranks of esteemed institutions. Storrs Olson, of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, in 2000 lamented that there “probably has never been a fossil with a sadder history than this one.”

Proof of the hoax was not long in coming. Later in March 2001, Nature published the results of the fossil investigation. Using high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT), the investigators concurred that the fossil was a forgery built in three layers. Timothy Rowe concluded that Archaeoraptor represents two or more species and that it was assembled from at least two, and possibly five, separate specimens. If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, Rowe gave a positive spin in the Nature article on the Archaeoraptor forgery, saying that technology may prevent future forensic fraud.

The Archaeoraptor disaster follows a fraud legacy starting with Haeckel’s embryos that founded Darwin’s “most important” evidence for evolution.