Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking Forward

Much to my surprise, its almost a year since Prerogative of Harlots started. Not that I wish to toot my own horn, but given the notorious ephemerality of blogs (apparently 60-80% of blogs never make it past the first month) this is quite something. I put it down to the liberating effect of changing jobs and the creativity of working in a university environment again; others might say that it is evidence that I don't have enough to do.

Anyway, it being the end of a year, not to mention a decade, it might seem like a good time for one of those interminable "looking back" pieces that infest the media during the last half of December. But fear not, reader, because I frankly can't be bothered to write one. Instead, I humbly offer some predictions for 2010.

Someone will dig up a fossil and claim that it revolutinizes our understanding of life on earth. It will get its own Discovery/History/Lifetime special. A month later someone else will shoot this idea down. A museum will dispose of collections under ethically questionable circumstances. A dinosaur will be auctioned. There will be job cuts in the museum sector. Museum consultants will write papers suggesting that collections are of limited importance to museums. People will steal fossils and sell them on Ebay. Someone will publish on these fossils. The Large Hadron Collider will break down. A district school board will attempt to weaken the teaching of evolution in public schools. The VP listserver will spend at least 50% of its time expressing collective outrage. About everything.

In other words, I predict that 2010 will be much like 2009. I look forward to being proved wrong.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

(Not) The Year in Science

Scratching my head over how The Independent's review of science in 2009 could devote four paragraphs to Darwinius, but not mention Ardipithecus at all. I suppose you could argue that the hype is a story in and of itself, but I'd have expected better from the newspaper that claimed to be the most thoughtful of the UK broadsheets. Still, who cares? After all, nobody reads newspapers these days.....

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Quack

The adjective "awesome" is thrown about willy-nilly, but in this case it is entirely appropriate. It's definitely not for the faint-hearted, but here is an awesome blog post from Carl Zimmer on some cutting edge research taking place at Yale. I first heard about this work a year ago when I met one of the researchers at a party - there were rumored to be videos, but they were "too much for You Tube." Yikes. Anyway, the videos are embedded in the post. Two little words - "explosive eversion."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Medium & The Message

Over on the Vert Paleo listserve, the aftershocks of Matt Wedel's blog post on documentary makers continue to rumble on (there are times when I wonder how my colleagues actually get any paleontology done; if I spent my time expressing that much outrage, I'd have to retire to bed for a week afterwards to recover). Anyway, I'd have to say that the balance of the debate seems to be firmly tilted towards a mixture of "how dare they dumb down our science?" and "if only we could find a way to build a better working relationship with these guys, then we'd be able to get our ideas across." As you can imagine, I take a contrary position.

I'll start with a story. Some time ago, I went out for a drink with a paleontologist and a journalist, both good friends of mine. The journalist in question was a science writer - a very, very good science writer, who spends most of his time talking to scientists and translating their research into langauge that a moderately well-educated layperson could understand. He does this so well that he wins awards for it. The last time I won an award for anything was for my Samuel Pepys costume at the Queen's Silver Jubilee party in 1977 (and no, I don't have photos). So, after we had gotten our drinks and sat down at the table, and swapped a little small talk about families and stuff, the journalist says to the paleontologist "hey, what're you working on at the moment?"

About an hour later, as I picked surreptiously at the blood that was beginning to leak from my ears, I realized that was having an out-of-body experience. My paleontologist friend was leaning across the table, face alight with the joy of science, finger waving animatedly as he explained the nuances of the intracranial joint in the neurocranium of fishes and its role in cranial kinesis. On the other side of the table, my journalist friend was sitting frozen with a horrible blank look on his face, like someone had just told him his entire family and most of his friends had been slaughtered by a mad axeman and life had suddenly lost all meaning. I, meanwhile, felt like I was floating several feet above the table, inspecting my surprisingly large bald spot.

OK, so I exaggerate. But only a little. The point is that this scientist (who, BTW, is smart, articulate, and a very good teacher) was speaking to an interested, engaged, well-educated, and sympathetic audience. And he totally killed us. It wasn't that it was a bad summary of cranial kinesis in fish. It's just that it was too much to absorb over a quiet beer.

Now, let's look at the potential audience out there in the USA. First take a look at this 2006 survey from National Geographic. Only 14% of adults think that evolution is "definitely true" - if you're a paleontologist that means that 86% of your potential audience doesn't think at all like you. 33% of them reject the whole concept of evolution outright. And don't start laughing, molecular biologists, because the same survey revealed that fewer than half of American adults can provide a minimal definition of DNA.

Next, let's take a look at what Americans do believe, courtesy of this 2005 Harris Poll. I guess the fact that 82% of American adults believe in some form of God is not a surprise. The 73% that believe in miracles, or the 70% that believe that the soul survives after death are also not that surprising either. But how about belief in ghosts (40%), UFOs (34%), witches (28%), or astrology (25%)? A quarter of American adults believe that their destiny is in some way controlled by the movement of the stars and planets. Under the circumstances, I think we've got bigger problems than explaining that the sacro-lumbar expansion in a sauropod housed a glycogen body rather than a brain to drive its ass.

How about some more statistics? The 2006 American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau reveals that only 23% of the population has a batchelor's degree or higher qualification. Even when you add in students who never finished their degrees, or were awarded associate degrees, barely 50% of the population has set foot in tertiary education of any sort.

There is also a bunch of statistics available on attention spans – see here for a rather nice digest of some of them – and while they differ quite significantly according to how you define “attention span” none of them suggest that the U.S. Cable audience is ready for science programs that carefully weigh up competing hypotheses and then conclude that there is no outright winner.

The reason that I'm hammering through all these statistics is because I'd like my fellow paleontologists to take a long hard look at an assumption that many scientists make - namely that the best person to communicate the excitement and enthusiasm of science is someone who actually does science. Consider how totally unlike you the majority of your audience is. As far as most of them are concerned, you might as well come from another planet.

So, as a starting place, I think paleontologists need to think about the medium and the message. Don't worry - I'm not going to go all Marshall McLuhan on you; as you may know, there are risks involved in quoting McLuhan (see here - watch until the end). But there is an important point here for academics, which is that you need to consider who the Cable audience is (hint - they are not you) and shape the message accordingly. Cable may not be the best medium for transmitting complex scientific ideas.

This is not a problem that's unique to science - they are a bunch of people out there who have complex ideas that they need to transmit to a largely disinterested and undermotivated audience. They include politicians, educators, and anyone who's trying to sell something. What they do, with some success, is pay people who are specialists in packaging and selling messages. And that, I would argue, is the role played by the documentary filmaker in paleontology. I happen to think they are rather good at it.

Consider the National Geographic "Prehistoric Predators" series that I blogged about a few posts back. There are aspects of this show that, speaking as a professional paleontologist, make my hair stand on end. But my 8 year old daughter now knows that there were animals called entelodonts that lived millions of years ago, that they looked like pigs, and that you can discover things about their behaviour from their bones and teeth and from their fossilized footprints. How cool is that? And while she certainly listened to Scott Foss, Greg Macdonald, et al, what really hooked her was the computer animated reconstructions of Archaeotherium, Hyaenodon, Subhyracodon etc. The next day she went into school and told her class all about them. That, I would say, is a prime example of what Cable can do for our profession - it can get second graders talking about fossil mammals. And I think as a profession we should help do this and stop getting hung up on the details.

But we're scientists, I hear you cry; details are important to us! Well, what I suggest you do is this. Once the kids (or adults) have been hooked by Cable, some of them - the interested, motivated ones that we care about most - are going to go looking for more information, probably on the web. And the first place they will look is Wikipedia. So if you're a paleontologist who cares about the availability of accurate scientific information for a general audience, register on Wikipedia and start writing and editing. For example, I notice that there is no entry for "glycogen body." Matt Wedel, if you're out there, there's a tailor-made opportunity for you to use that great summary of sacro-lumbar expansion in sauropods.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Awesome Dino Rant

For anyone who's ever suffered through one of the raft of increasingly lame paleontology "documentaries" ("Most Fiercest Beasts of the Fiercest World Ever," etc) available on cable, here is an awesome rant by Matt Wedel that dissects the way in which scientific advice gets mangled during the production process. As with all rants it's hugely entertaining, although I guess you could argue that in a country where 50% of the population believes that none of this stuff actually happened, simply getting people to understand that dinosaurs were real animals is a major breakthrough.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Samson Update

Time for me to eat my words - Samson's owner has found a museum prepared to take it on loan by Christmas. The specimen is going to be on display at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry through the summer of 2010, supported by funding from Comcast, the Science Channel, and Discovery Education. Still no word on the identity of the owner, though the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the name "SAMSON" (actually, I'm guessing that it's the name as written here, in upper case letters) has been trademarked to "TREX SAMSON, LLC" and licensed to OMSI.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cryptozoology (VI)

I so wanted to make it through to next summer's "silly season" without writing about cryptozoology... but then my friend Badger sent me a link to this museum. All I can say is "damn you, Badger!" This one was too good not to share. There are so many gems here. I particularly like the statement that "living fossils" are "the successful cryptozoological stories." What, like horseshoe crabs? Or Lingula? Or ginkos, perhaps? (and if you think there's no such thing as Cryptobotany, then think again)

No, of course they don't mean that. What they mean is "if coelacanths can survive in the unexplored depths of the deep ocean for millions of years, then surely Gigantopithecus can survive in the Pacific Northwest?" To which my answer is "not if your collection of Bigfoot prints is all you've got in the way of hard evidence, because those babies are as fake as the chest of a Las Vegas showgirl." I mean, look at them - they're rectangular! How many primates with completely flat, rectangular feet do you know?

Anyway, there's plenty more where that came from. Now I promise I'll leave the cryptozoologists alone for a least a few weeks.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Museums for Men

The GLW drew my attention to this excellent article that was published a few days ago in the New York Times. Museums (or at least the ones that don't feature large machines or things for killing people) do have a reputation as rather girly places, to which men are dragged either for "family time" or uncomfortable first dates. The article suggests a range of ideas for attracting more men to art museums, including a meat diorama (yay!), exhibits emphasizing the artistic qualities of bombs, and those perrennial subjects of male interest, trains and "naked ladies." Personally I think the Met is long overdue for an exhibition of those naked women that get painted on the front of bombers. Preferably one that includes the bomber as well.