Public perceptions of palaeontology

DSC_0233I have touched on this issue before, most notably in the mammoth (and much under-read) posts on the ‘state of palaeontology’ and more recently on the sheer weight of scientific specimens that we have in collections such as the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology shown here. To emphasise this point I got an e-mail from artist Andrew Kerr the other day on the subject of ornithocheiroid tongues who commented that: “I think a problem with paleontology in general is a lot of people don’t realise the amount and how conclusive much evidence is that there is, and because it most people don’t know when they are guessing and when there is strong evidence so a lot of people simply dismiss it all.”

It’s a bit garbled since it was clearly a ‘dashed-off’ e-mail, but the point is obvious and I suspect quite true. The public cannot distinguish between when we have to extrapolate (or even guess) based on very limited evidence (like colours or some behaviours) from when we have overwhelming evidence (like diet based on stomach contents, or dates from radiometric dating). As a result they tend to throw out (mentally) the baby with the bath-water and assume that the whole thing is made up / over extrapolated / based on limited or even non-existent evidence. Of course the truth is that for a great many things we have a huge amount of evidence, when we don’t we can often extrapolate effectively and sensibly from close relatives or other organisms and we are generally careful to state which is which and what aspects are backed by what evidence and what flaws there may be in that reasoning.

This does not come through in media-speak / soundbites / reviews etc. as it’s often long, dull and requires a pretty specialist knowledge. However, it’s obviously foolish to thing that we are not doing our jobs properly at to a high academic standard or that what you read in a paper or even saw in a film is necessarily an accurate representation of how we got there. Sadly however, I suspect (as indeed does Andrew) that this may well be largely the case.


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