Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Perils of New Age Palaeontology

Let me say straight away that this post is in no way intended to offend anybody whatsoever in the palaeontological world! Rather it is just an objective look into how some people’s perception of palaeontologists may lead to an unfortunate stereotypical opinion of science whilst, at the same time, may also be indicative of the odd failing in our community.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now which was initially prompted by a comment by Jon Tennant that he had been told by a palaeontologist that bloggers such as ourselves and our other fellow web publishers are unqualified to make any relevant comments regarding the science since, that before you could make a comment, “… have to be an author of a study or you are under qualified”.
Whether this was tongue in cheek or not is neither here nor there but I wondered how prevalent this attitude may be throughout the palaeoworld. A very recent comment by fellow blogger Ian Garafalo, of the Other Branch, that he didn’t “…..really fit in with the rest of the online paleo community” was also suggestive that anybody who did not conform with the norm as established by the general paleo community was somehow disconnected from the larger community as a whole. This may simply be a matter of perception but it may also harbour one or two divisive points that we can and should address.
I like to think that all of us in the paleo community share a common bond and we all want to make a contribution in some form or another. At the bottom end of the scale is the ordinary guy in the street who has a passing interest in palaeontology such as when, perhaps, there is a new dinosaur announced and he wants to know more about the animal, what it was like, what it ate and where  and when it lived.
At the other end of the spectrum are our very best palaeontologists, many of whom are world renowned, and command the respect and admiration of the rest of us. These are the men and women who are as familiar to us as a Hollywood star would be to everybody else – people such as Benson, Brusatte, Horner, Holtz, Currie, Witmer etc. These are at the very top end of the paleo tree.
And in between these two groups are the rest of us – other palaeontologists, the preparators, the avocationists, the bloggers, the students, the museum volunteers, the artists – the list goes on. Each of us, in our own way, make a contribution to our science and, regardless of the size and merit of that contribution, are all therefore equally important.
However, professional palaeontologists are the most important contributing group in our community. It is through them that we get the very latest information that is brought to us through the various journals and conferences and, on occasion, that big story that breaks on a worldwide scale and is brought to us via the various media outlets.  Let’s face it – all of us thirst for the next paper that  bring us that detail we have been  waiting for and, even better than that, when something breaks that many of us did not even know of or had heard about. These are great moments and the buzz in the paleo world when this happens can last for days, sometimes weeks and then the cycle begins again as we wait for the next story to break. 
So our palaeontologists are important and are nearly always busy but, like all of us, they are all human beings and suffer the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us. This is extremely important and something that the rest of us must always consider. They have to deal with every day work and family issues and, as a result, suffer the same failings as the rest of us.
So it should come as no surprise that, on occasion, the busy palaeontologist may be unable or unwilling to talk to us, answer an email or share his data with others. Indeed, with some research, it is essential to maintain an element of discretion and only their fellow workers would be privy to that research.  And they will have bad days – real bad days.
And herein lies the problem in as much that these occasional lapses may be interpreted by Joe Public as a form of elitism. The palaeontologist (in fact any scientist in any discipline)  can be seem as if to be keeping things to him or herself, unwilling to discuss or share unless with their intimates and, to  the layman, this behaviour can be interpreted as disingenuous and unwelcome.      
But is elitism a totally bad thing? In many ways our elite palaeontologists are exactly that because they are the best at what they do. They have spent years of toil and study to get where they are and the academic selection process enables them to progress onward and upward and they are, therefore, selected as elite by achievement.
Having reached this status, the palaeontologist then has a delicate balance to maintain and, on occasion, this may not always appear palatable. They may choose not to disseminate data, can be obstructive and, as we have already heard, perhaps disregard other peoples work or comments because they are not “real” palaeontologists.
Sometimes this attitude may also be directed at their fellow palaeontologists and I actually find this to be more disturbing than actually, for example, being directed at someone like me. Just because you believe or even know that you are right should not give anyone the right to disregard somebody else’s hypothesis because since,  and before you know where you are, splinter groups arise and the harsh spectre of  tribalism raises its ugly head  and, as I have said before,  a couple of factions throwing insults around about each other benefits nobody. Unfortunately this scenario has occurred on occasion and I know of at least two rather high profile cases.
However, as unfortunate these cases are, they are still relatively unusual but when a similar attitude is reflected upon those outside the professional sphere then we have a problem. Why should any reasonable comment or theory be dismissed just because they are not published in an approved journal? And, even worse in some quarters, what if they are published in a non-approved publication?
No matter who you are, you should not be ostracised because you are not a “real” palaeontologist and you should certainly not have your ideas discredited – not because they are wrong – but because that they are published in a blog or in a non-sanctioned journal. Indeed, online publishers face a far greater critical audience and they know, or should know, that when you put your work, opinions and ideas up for public scrutiny that you will attract attention and you should be prepared to accept this criticism. Critique the work yes but do not ignore it or regard it as below status. 
Importantly, interpretation of data from all quarters needs to be fair and as accurate as possible. Unfortunately palaeontology, or indeed any science, is seldom a straight forward affair. In an ideal world we would find our fossils, prepare them, measure and research them and this would enable us to form our hypotheses about them whilst, at the same time, being able to disqualify others – the data supports the hypothesis – simple.
As we are all aware, however, this is seldom the case and the palaeontologist again needs to maintain a delicate balancing act.  In our science, because we are dealing with fossil remains, there are many occasions when a theory can only be formed because of subjectivity and all of us – but all of us – will do this. The trick is not to let any biases or any preconceived ideas influence your decisions. This is never easy since data can be notoriously erroneous and deciding which data is useful and that which is not can make and break a theory. Indeed, testability is crucial.
It is up to the palaeontologist to try and present the facts in a clear and concise way that in no way has had the data bent or twisted to accommodate the hypothesis. This is the very essence of good science because then the palaeontologist is not only understanding his own research but is always questioning himself about it time and time again before he is happy. This is a discipline to be admired since it must take a long long time to develop.
Having said all this I have to say that the vast majority of my experiences within the palaeontological community have been nothing but good at all levels of the science. There has been the odd occasion where I think I may have been a little hard done by, unfairly criticised or ignored but these are extremely few and far between. Indeed, over the years, I use these experiences to learn about how the palaeoworld works and, more importantly, to learn about myself as well as others.
Palaeontology of today is global. We are able to communicate with each other in ways that are unparalleled when compared with the past. Avocationists, amateurs and everybody else are able to communicate with palaeontologists of all levels via the social networks, the blogs and the conferences.  Once we were only able to watch these guys on the occasional TV program or when reading the odd magazine article or book – today we communicate with each other on a surprisingly regular basis.
We know who is in the field and where they are, we get instant notification of new discoveries and the same with new publications. Everything we see and do is disseminated instantly amongst all of us and I, for one, would not want it any other way. Palaeontology of today is fast moving, fluid and ever changing and where we will be in fifty years’ time blows the mind.
So we have to accept that there will be times when things do not quite go as we want, when people do not quite respond in the way we would expect and our friends and colleagues may appear a little short sometimes. This is the price we all pay for today’s instant communication and when you consider how rare these discretions are in the palaeoworld then surely it is a price worth paying.



Ian Cost said...

You know, in all honesty, I haven't had too many run ins with the "elite level" that were negative. I've had a few never return emails, but I get so much input from so many others and have very nice conversations (some of them being of the nature that I am politely being told that I am not entirely correct) that I don't really hold it against them or anything.

Heinrich Mallison said...

I keep having to find out that a lot of people who seem to think themselves "real" palaeontologists are much worse at doing a proper literature search and giving credit where due than those they consider "not real" palaeontologists.

need I say more?

Anonymous said...

What gets me, as someone definitely in the bottom group, is when, say on the DML, an interesting new discovery breaks and all that gets discussed for endless posts is some technicality regarding the chosen name. There generally seems to be a lot of bickering and oneupmanship on the DML.

I don't know, I just have an idealised view of naturalists and palaeontologists, I guess, and I think they all should be like David Attenborough or something.

Paul W.

Mark Wildman said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. My experience with palaeontologists at all levels is nearly always a good experience. Part of this post was an attempt to explain why I believe that, on occasion, they may appear aloof or disdainful.

Heinrichs comment is also correct and I too have found that there is an astonishing amount of elite professionlism in non-elite workers. Perhaps that is a poor way of expressing myself but I hope you can see what I mean.

The DML is a funny place sometimes and I confess that I understand the comments about bickering and oneupmanship. But I frequent the DML everyday, make the odd comment but usually just take it all in and delete the vast majority of it.

However, there also some great discussions on there, you can learn a great deal and are always getting the latest news as it breaks. And I know exactly who will comment on which subjects as well - sad but true!

Craig Dylke said...

I much like Ian have had a real burnout with the palaeo community this part year. My experience is in the art sector, and for the most part the palaeontologists at the top are not the problem.

Where I'm finding the most frustration is the try-hard palaeo-fans (or as one of my palaeontologist friends calls them palaeo-whinnies).

These are the people who never did get their qualifications or the job, but still want to strut around like they COULD have. So they engage in the oneupmanship mentioned in the previous corner, and just make life unpleasant for the rest of us who don't pretend.

Whether they know their stuff or not, I personally, don't give a BEEPing BLEEP whether you could have been a real palaeontologist or not. They aren't, they should just deal with it, like the rest of us who didn't get to "live the dream", and deal with the rest of us like people. Not threats to their little delusional fantasies.

Where I DO run into trouble with palaeontologists is their developed defences to palaeo-whinnies. I understand this, once you've dealt with a few of these annoying people (and they would have to deal with them A LOT) you lump everyone without the credential or job in with them. It is safer that way...

I totally understand it, but that doesn't mean I have to like being lumped in with them. I'm just an up front primary teacher who wants to talk and draw the awesomeness that was prehistory for people who haven't been exposed. In my experience people enjoy my sharing as much or in some cases more than the actual scientists (I worked at the Tyrrell as a tour guide for 4 years).

When dealing with the palaeo community, I typically end up with having to deal with a lot of people (who hold no official position) telling me how stupid I am about it cause I don't use the latin or agree with their pet theory. I also then get politely ignored by real palaeontolgists, who don't want to risk getting involved with yet another one of "them"...

So again I've abandoned palaeo sadly (though I love your blog and writing style Mark... you're one of the few palaeo-blogs I've stuck with :P) and gone off to sell out as a part time artist in the board game industry. It isn't as fulfilling or awe inspiring, but at least I'm respected as much/little but make money while being harped at by fan boys (which is a universal trend about fandom isn't it. The fans feel a degree of hostility to those who "make", and lash out... I only tolerate here as I make money, and therefore AM legit :P).

Mark Wildman said...

Hi Craig and thank you for a very thought provoking and interesting comment. I know exactly what you mean by palaeo-whinnies but it is a shame that they do not put their what is sometimes considerable knowledge to a more constructive use - anybody can just sit there and criticise.

Everybody has a right to make a contribution and it is very sad that there is an element out there (thankfully small) that see fit to do nothing but stir things up for what appears to be the sake of it.

Well I hope you stick with it as well Craig and come back into the paleo-fold. As with any community, the more diverse we are the further we evolve and I absolutely believe this. Everybody has a place but it must not be at the expense of others.

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