I have a thin skin when it comes to criticism. This is deeply unfortunate when I a) publish in such an argumentative forum as palaeontology (and even more so with theropods and pterosaurs) and b) run a public access blog with comments. The former I can at least generally deal with in the literature and the latter on the blog itself, but ah! What about those little comments that sneak out on the DML, other blogs and especially these days on forums and newspapers running your work? Oh God the stupid. And the offensive.
I do appreciate that people on the internet are and can be anonymous and this means that they can (and therefore are) far nastier or just less polite than they ever would be face to face. I also appreciate that instant communication means that people can (and again do) post comments without a moments thought. There are however two different patterns of comments or rather commenters here at play, one group of which I found particularly disturbing.
The first are those which come from the ‘average’ person who (I *assume* I should note) has no great knowledge of science either at the knowledge level (i.e. they don’t know many facts) or at the mechanics level (i.e. the don’t know how science and science publications work). They tend to leave unreasoned comments based on either a misunderstanding of the science or the method. Those who think to criticise our methods despite having only read a 300 word newspaper report of 7500 word paper written by a journalist. They do not seem to realise that there might be more to the story than what is on the page right now in front of them and frankly probably lack the knowledge and skills to obtain and understand the full report in any case. As such they are overestimating their own knowledge and underestimating the abilities of the scientist. Annoying though this is, it is to be expected and while it will be difficult, these are exactly the kinds of people who we should be trying to reach through science communication efforts even if it is difficult.
However far more worrying was the reaction of the second group of people, those who we have already reached or do not have to reach. Here people have a clear understanding at least of the mechanics of science and a good (or at least better) based knowledge of science. Most importantly, they *like* science and want to learn more and understand more (or again, this at least is my impression). Unfortunately, the reactions I spotted here were, at least on occasion, essentially the same as the first group.
A specific example – on one ‘sceptics’ site someone posted up a link to my blog post and commented briefly that it was some new research. It got stomped on pretty much instantly by a number of other commenters despite the defence of the original poster and another person. At least half a dozen different people over about 30 minutes tore into various aspects of the research, the methods, the data and yes (obviously, annoyingly) the actual researchers (i.e. including me). However, since my blog actually tracks incoming links and so on, I know that only a grand total of two people ever actually followed the link to the blog post. In other words, people who are supposed to be interested and knowledgeable about science were quite happy to disparage research without having read the paper, or the words or one of the authors even though it was a mouse click away on the very thread they were writing on. They even proved themselves quite knowledgeable about palaeontology and dinosaur research based on the comments and citations they used to discredit me, despite the fact that ironically they were citing work I myself used to *support* my ideas since they had large chunks of the concepts backwards (perhaps unsurprisingly since they didn’t actually bother to read what I actually said or ask me what I thought).
This IS a disturbing trend. I am used to annoying and provocative comments on the Musings, but then I am aware that I get a lot of non-expert or causal readers and also obviously they tend to at least respond directly to things I have already said so it is largely a case of clearing up a confusion or expanding on a point I had kept brief etc. However here we have a situation where those I would most expect to want to read the original research or the words of the researcher did *not* do so and still acted like the classic pack of ignorant hyenas who tear apart a story without knowing anything about it. The ignorant I can handle, but the wilfully ignorant? This is a problem!
In fact it’s such a problem I’m really not sure what I can say more or do about it. I will confess I did not do much about it on the original page (since I would have had to sign up and login and everything and I can’t do that for *every* place that gets something wrong, even about just my own work – though here at least this may have been a mistake I admit). I have not seen anything quite like this before (or perhaps I have but, without the intimate knowledge of the subjects being discussed, missed the salient points) and I would hope it is not common. If those who profess to enjoy and like science (enough that they do know about taphonomy, coprolite research and predator prey ratios and regularly comment on a science discussion forum) are still happy to hack away at things in public even when presented with the actual research that contradicts them then we have a real issue on our hands.
These are the people we do not have to try and reach (or so I thought) yet despite the obvious problems I noted above with internet communication they seem as beset with an equal miss-estimation of their knowledge and indeed those of researchers and we are back to the Ivory Towers problem again. I think there is more work to do here than I had thought and this is a real problem as far as I can see, though I hope that it might be an isolated case and as if often the situation, dinosaurs just bring out the worse excesses in ignorance from some.
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