Private buyers do not deny these to science - Credit Rauantiques via Wikipedia

A very strange insistence happening here, that fossil in private hands are somehow denied to science. A most odd claim as who owns the thing doesn’t change whether it can be examined or not. But then that’s not quite what is actually being said here:

Should fossils be allowed to be in private hands at all? I have some scattered about my home: mostly small ammonite fragments picked up during family walks in Dorset. It strikes me as illiberal to stop such an inspiring pastime. And would we rather exposed fossils were destroyed by the elements?

But when it comes to bigger, more scientifically significant secrets locked in the rocks, it seems wrong to encourage amateurs with spades. Digging out a dinosaur is not an art but a science: the removal must be accomplished with care to protect the surrounding sediment. Positions of bones and the layers in which they rest must be accurately recorded, along with smaller fossils that are of less interest to fortune hunters. Such vital details fill in our portrait of prehistory.

Isn’t that a lovely claim of professional competence? We peeps can have the little trivial bits but anything impressive can only be had by those who have done the professional – guild – training.

But the sale has sparked concerns among the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), which wrote a letter to Aguttes last month urging the auction house to halt the sale. Chief among the organizations’ concerns is that keeping the skeleton in private hands will impede future scientific study—even if the owner allows researchers to access the remains.

“Scientific practice demands that conclusions drawn from the fossils should be verifiable: scientists must be able to reexamine, re-measure, and reinterpret them (such reexamination can happen decades or even centuries after their discovery),” the SVP explains in its letter. “Fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are lost to science. Even if made accessible to scientists, information contained within privately owned specimens cannot be included in the scientific literature because the availability of the fossil material to other scientists cannot be guaranteed, and therefore verification of scientific claims (the essence of scientific progress) cannot be performed.”

Isn’t that great? They’ve defined the rules so that private ownership makes science impossible. So therefore, to protect science then private ownership cannot be allowed. Hmm, how about changing the rules so that science can still be done with private ownership? You know, as was done when we were still arguing over and finding out about evolution itself? Darwin’s finches did belong to Darwin and he did some pretty good science with them, no?

My own interpretation here is that there’s a great deal of whining that not rich scientists are pissed at rich people being able to interfere with the scientists’ desired baubles. But the fact does remain that private ownership does not, in fact, hinder science. At least it wouldn’t with the right rules. Therefore there’s no reason to hinder said private ownership. For if “I want it” is to be a justification for confiscation then what would be safe from such rules?

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  1. In the first piece concern is expressed as to the recording and preservation of the context of the find. Whilst this is a valid concern, subsequent scientists will be unable to re-examine these once the fossil is removed. Hence the desire for skilled excavators.
    In the second piece concern is expressed about the ability of later scientists to re-examine the fossil.
    Why not apply the same standard for the fossil as necessarily applies to the context- do it right first time, with an independent check if deemed necessary?
    I love the concern about landowners charging for access- as though archeologists are entitled to pursue their interests rent free. I wonder what other interests would like the right to use other people’s property for nothing.
    Finally what is the guarantee that a fossil owned by a public museum will be properly conserved and freely available for ever?

  2. “strange…that fossil in private hands are somehow denied to science” — Hardly strange. We are familiar with the spin that real estate in private hands is not “protected,” and that extinguishing private development rights “preserves” real estate. You can argue anything if your rhetoric extends rights to things that are inherently unable to exercise rights (nor complain about the quality of stewardship of the bureaucrats who exercise the wetland’s rights).

  3. “Finally what is the guarantee that a fossil owned by a public museum will be properly conserved and freely available for ever?”

    There isn’t. Rare fossils are Trophies, and if anything institutions are far more stuffy about anyone near their Preciouses than private collectors.

  4. I’ve noticed a similar trend in the declaration of parts of the world as off limits to all humans except scientists. I fully appreciate we don’t want mass tourism in sensitive areas but the science community seems to be declaring whole swathes of the wilderness off limits to anyone but academics. They seem to be turning into some sort of priesthood.