I’ve recently spent a bit of time on a variety of dinosaur / palaeo sites frequented by kids and those with no more than a very casual interest in the field. One common feature of these is the often profound lack of accuracy heralded by various posts and comments (though often to a very enthusiastic reception). As someone who obviously works on dinosaurs, but moreover has a strong interest in science communication and the public understanding of science this leaves me with some questions about what, if anything I could (or should) do about this. I thought therefore I’d pen this little note and see what people think and especially ask about experiences you had in building towards an interest in the field.
I’m not advocating any strategy myself. I’ve recognised this issue for a while and have done nothing partly out of not being sure if I should even do anything, but also a lack of time to invest in any potential intervention. I’m simply trying to lay this out as what I see as a dilemma and use that as a springboard for further discussion. As I see it there are two obvious and basic things that can be done and each has its problems and benefits.
The issue is that these people (and mostly young-ish kids through to teens as far as I can tell) are often badly misinformed (for whatever reason) about the real facts of dinosaurs and / or research. They don’t have access to the literature (or are even aware it exists) and are reliant on intuition and whatever sounds good over what is right (or probable). While there are good books out there and obviously blogs and websites where anyone can engage with real practicing scientists, these sites tend to be rather enclosed with people only interacting with each other and so getting endless positive reinforcement for their ideas with no real outside input or criticism.
Now I don’t expect them to be scientists (hell, I wasn’t aware the literature existed till I was an undergraduate, and didn’t know what it really meant for some time after that). However, if they are as interested as they seem to be, it would seem to me a good thing for me (or people like me) to try to intervene and help them along the road towards more knowledge and a better understanding. However, that is likely to be a lot of work (answering a colossal number of questions, trying to boil down difficult concepts, arguing over points etc.) and this is likely to do little more than upset many of them or put them off science and scientists. Maybe I’m not imaginative enough but it seems hard to try and do this without divesting them of a huge mountain of nonsense and beloved theories etc. and that’s not likely to go down well. They might be much better off being left alone to mature and develop and if they have a real interest in the subject, they will come to read deeper and better and come around to a better understanding and real picture of dinosaurs and research.
On the other hand, starting them off early with some real information and ideas about science might get them there much sooner. Some, even many, might be inspired and interested and advance much faster. They might also drop some of the negativity that I can often experience in occasional blog comments etc. when people come over with very fixed ideas that must-be-right-because-they-say-so type things.
In short, it is better or worse to try to help out / intervene / interfere?
Will they be put off and annoyed by big-shot scientists pointing out their ideas are nonsense (however nicely), or will they be thrilled to engage with real experts and push themselves to do better? Will they get better on their own eventually or should they be helped? And if we do this, will it be a huge amount of work for little thanks or benefit, or really bootstrap a few to a new level of interest and understanding?
Obviously this is going to vary from person to person, but I’d be most intrigued to see what people think, and what experiences they have had at various times in their lives as experts, or with encountering experts. Did this help or hinder? Were your ideas well received or did they result in tears and tantrums? Did you grow up isolated from real experts and found your ideas changing as you learned more, or were you stuck in a rut till someone helped you see the light?