To help or best left alone?

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?

24 Responses to “To help or best left alone?”

  1. 1 Peter Bond 24/08/2011 at 8:14 am

    As a high school science teacher, I would very much like something to be done! To intervene at a young age and right the wrongs of misconceptions. Contact with actual scientists is the holy grail of education. It is so rare to have that accessibility.

    The challenge and exciting opportunity is in what medium do you transmit this message with? Scott Sampson works effectively with the Dinosaur Train. I’d love to know what you are thinking, David!

    • 2 David Hone 24/08/2011 at 8:19 am

      Well I wasn’t thinking of anything specifically. More that it seemed a colossal waste of time that kids who seemed genuinely interested were only talking among themselves and getting things wrong. That means that sooner or later they are going to have to be divested of the nonsense (or retain it forever) and the longer it goes on the harder it might be, but that however it happens, it’s not likely to go down well. And annoying people intensely is not the best way to get them to listen or accept what you have to say.

      I’d like a good answer to the problem, because I don’t have one. And it may not even be a huge issue if they end up coming round themselves as they mature, in which case avoidance is probably better than any intervention.

  2. 3 Traumador the Tyrannosaur 24/08/2011 at 8:29 am

    Funny enough we’re talking about a similar topic on ART Evolved (only in this case accuracy and inaccuracy in amateur palaeo-art and how some in the palaeontology community are dealing with it…).

    There are many parallels here between eager bloggers and eager artists. In the art realm we have some issues with creators taking a little more artististic liscense than a scientific advocate might like.

    We too also face a similar dilema of how to best help straighten out art “fact” and fiction… With the added problem that in scientific reconstructions the official understandings and science change very rapidly… (knowing actual fossil feather colours or finned Mosasaurs being two of the big ones of this past year!)

    I have yet to write my piece for the AE discussion, but I will be recommending positive solutions from knowledgable individuals, rather than a lecturing or telling off approach. You can correct people, but in a friendly and chummy way. Also by providing the illusion of a choice between continuing to do things the wrong way (aka what they’ve been doing until now), or directing them to something that would help them (get better educated) they’ll almost always want to fix things.

    In the case of straight up science this is much easier than with art. I’d just suggest leaving comments like “You know this isn’t actually right. If you checked out *Book X or article Y* you can learn all about *Z*” you provide them with the basis to learn the information themselves. I’d also use it as a chance to plug Ask a Biologist as they sound like a perfect target audience for that site. They can find out where to start their posts from AAB and spread the word of both the site and the information to their peers!

    In the art world things are much harder, as most artists aren’t very interested in the scientific literature, and so they’ll reference palaeo-art already out there (be it terribly out of date or wrong). I’m hoping to persuade more academics and science literature fans to compile short briefs in lay person language (and hopefully simple diagrams) so we can build up a data base on ART Evolved for people to find out how to accurately and update recreate their favourite prehistoric critters… but this is an aside.

    Above all else we shouldn’t be talking down to people who have the same interests as us. I can say from personal experience dealing with people trying to hold their expertise over me, it is not going to win the day (and I know a bit about palaeo I should note).

    People don’t like being told their essentially stupid, and have someone parade facts that (espeically if directly from the academic literature) could a bit past their current level of understanding. However acknowledging that you have a similar interest and would love to it share it with them is what we should be doing more of!

    I’m getting really sad how palaeotology on the web has become very negative, with people feeling they have to match wits (and out fact everyone) to mark their place in the community (not this site for the record… but I’m sure you’ve encountered a few of the sort I’m talking about)

    So that is my opinion. Can’t wait to see other people’s take on this issue, and also hope you can all pop over to the palaeo-art version of this topic on ART Evolved too!


    • 4 David Hone 24/08/2011 at 8:50 am

      Just to add briefly, I’m not suggesting ‘talking down’ to these people, or being nasty. But having been a teenager myself, I can’t help suspect that however nicely it is put, “you are basically wrong about everything that you have siad and wasted days building this site on” is not going to go down well and either make them look / feel stupid or sound enormously patronising….

  3. 5 dmaas 24/08/2011 at 8:53 am

    Count me in as interested.

    I’ve only become bitten by the paleo-bug lately, so I can’t really contribute. I do feel that a major step for kids is moving from a collector’s groove (names and species) to an awareness of the process of gathering the knowledge we have. ie. from knowing that birds are dinosaurs to the understanding of how we know this fact (other than “scientists say”). That kind of transition gets the ball rolling… then the interest moves from trivia to understanding.

  4. 6 Helen J. DeMarsh 24/08/2011 at 8:53 am

    I agree; if someone is truly interested in the subject, being informed of the facts would be thrilling, not upsetting. As a student who has heard mixed opinions from variously-informed sources before I attended university, it was very gratifying to learn what contemporary views are, if only to feel current in my field. I wish someone was able to do that for me earlier.

  5. 7 David 24/08/2011 at 9:09 am

    In economics certainly there are lots of sub-communities of amateurs with their own theories (Austrian economics, 100% reserve banking etc.) who are not interested in hearing from academics and hostile to them and don’t really recognize who is an expert. I doubt it is this bad in paleontology unless you are talking about creationists. But isn’t there reliable info on the web? For example, how reliable in Wikipedia?

  6. 8 Paul Pursglove 24/08/2011 at 9:40 am

    As a palaeontologist and ex-teacher of biology and science (by choice) I have been disappointed by the educational system in England, where the emphysis is on stats and returns about education, partly at the expense of the learning experience. Many of my lesson plans have had to be cropped over the years to fit a tight schedule. The dumbing down of science is widespread, both in the reduced syllabus content and the examination marking structure. The buzz line is to make students feel included and give them a sense of acheivement – for this I read that it is to improve national examination results for political gain.

    There are lots of teachers that do well in this system, inspiring pupils/students to acheive at a high standard and develop a good understanding of the world. I aplaud them. There are also lots of difficult situations where, for example, a chemistry specialist is expected to teach biology, physics and other sciences on a reduced contact timetable to large classes with a wide range of mixed ability and interests other than scinece.

    In my experience, the mix is very variable. With an increasing reliance on web based material, the temptation to believe what is out there in order to meet time constraints and other pressures is very real. Pupils/students within the state system can become overloaded very easily and this leads to short cuts and misconceptions which are difficult to rectify later in the system. This problem can be an issue at university level as the reality of science starts to become important.

    An improved educational system is probably too expensive to implement, especially against a management system which is partially entrenched in dogma and significantly restricted by financial limitations. The good managers and effective teachers have to fight to maintain progress.

    Science is fundamental to progress in many areas of life, but it is not well valued. I cannot see a way forward to improve the situation which seems to be more widespread than it once was.

  7. 9 Albertonykus 24/08/2011 at 10:49 am

    Personally, I’d welcome input from a professional. But, of course, that’s me. There was a time when I wouldn’t have liked to concede when I was told that certain cherished ideas were wrong as well.

  8. 10 Hadur 24/08/2011 at 3:34 pm

    An important question is whether these are fundamental misunderstandings (e.g., “birds are not dinosaurs, they evolved from thecodonts”) or non-fundamental misunderstandings (e.g., “Stegosaurus had a second brain in its hip”). The latter will probably easily be changed once the kids encounter a better source of information. The former might stick around.

    Also, I’ve only been reading your blog for a few months, but my impression of you is that you have a bit of a temper and a slightly caustic personality. I draw this conclusion from a few posts where you talk about your students and also from the post where you were very, very angry about being asked to shill for some media project. Perhaps you may not be the blogger best suited, personality wise, to interact with children who have wrong-headed notions. Perhaps outsource it to other bloggers? For every misconception that a kid could have, there probably exists a post in the dinosaur blogopshere refuting it. Link to these and yourself some time.

    • 11 David Hone 24/08/2011 at 6:23 pm

      I’m not saying I am doing this and causing problems, I’m not if anyone *should* that’s the issue here. Would be be a good or bad thing for people to tackle this, no matter who?

      • 12 David Hone 24/08/2011 at 6:27 pm

        Incidentally, I am a mardy sod when blogging, but I don’;t think there’s anything wrong with being caustic about being asked to shill a PR company’s product sight unseen. And this is a blog specifially aimed at an interested, educated audience, I think most readers can (or should) be able to tell what is hyperbole and contextual rhetoric and what is the real me. I’m not trying to write for kids on here.

    • 13 Marc Vincent 24/08/2011 at 6:34 pm

      “The former might stick around” – yeah, and you picked a very unfortunate (if completely apt) example! Trying to point out the overwhelming evidence that birds are dinosaurs to some people is utterly futile. They just won’t buy it – according to them birds are ‘special’ and dinosaurs are de facto all dead, whatever the science says. It doesn’t help that the popular media (including the news media) keeps on drawing a distinction between ‘birds’ and ‘dinosaurs’ that doesn’t really exist. But I digress.

      Also – Dave, caustic? Compared to a lot of people out there he’s positively cuddly…

  9. 14 Zhen 24/08/2011 at 7:41 pm

    Dave, you’ve seen my work Dinosaur News Center I once linked. Do you think something like that is worth it? What I do on my show is try not to overwhelm people with jargon while breaking down things into bite size piece of information to digest. Of course, the show’s tone isn’t 100% serious, but I think my viewers understand when I’m joking and when I’m serious.

    The whole reason I started dinosaur news center was to try and educate and keep people up to date with the latest on goings.

    Mistakes in writing not withstanding.

    • 15 David Hone 24/08/2011 at 8:06 pm

      Well this is a very different issue. There are good resources out there (like this I hope, among others) but these people are obviously not reading them for whatever reason. Just waiting for them to find us is not going to work, so *if* we are going to do anything, we need to go to them….

      • 16 Zhen 24/08/2011 at 8:36 pm

        What you’re referring to might actually be a case of fanboyism. I swear, I posted research that backs up my findings and hardly anybody reads them. They just want to believe what they want to believe.

        That said, I myself have run into some annoying issues when trying to research certain subjects. Sometimes these papers are just locked and can’t be read for free. It’s all the more ironic when wikipedia links to them, but people can’t access it to see the hilarious mistakes made on wiki.

  10. 17 Kilian Hekhuis 24/08/2011 at 8:12 pm

    It took me a second or two before I realised you meant web sites, instead of excavation sites :).

  11. 18 Tomozaurus 25/08/2011 at 12:03 am

    I can safely say that I would have loved to speak to real paleontologists when I was a child/teenager and hear their opinions (and I did when it happened); that is just me though.

  12. 19 Mark Robinson 25/08/2011 at 6:59 am

    As frustrating as it may be to read so many ill- and un-informed comments around the place (or hear them in the mall, at a party, whatever), I think that you’ll ultimately only find it more frustrating wasting time and energy trying to correct these opinions. It won’t matter what techniques you use, whether you try to “engage” with them, spell it all out for them, link to papers, recommend popular books, or whatever. And of course, this issue is not unique to palaeontology or even science.

    An example from left-of-field: I enjoy solving escape-from-the-room flash-game puzzles. Sometimes the code for a combination lock will involve adding a couple of numbers together, or occasionally something scary like multiplication. The number of comments from people (who are presumably playing these games for the pleasure of solving them) begging for the answer because they are either too lazy or too stupid to use the calculator that comes with their operating system or type it into Google can be very disheartening.

    I think these people have always existed but, until the internet, I wasn’t really aware of them because I’m choosy about my friends. They are the same types of people who used to burn “witches”, thought that everything that it is possible to invent has already been invented, think that the “superior” mammals killed off the dinos by eating all their eggs, and now think that turning the LHC on will destroy the earth but that climate change won’t. Don’t get me started on the conspiracy nutters like 9/11 truthers, the fake moon-landing lot, or those who believe that humans have been infiltrated by lizard people (you thought “V” was just a TV show didn’t you?).

    I think something like the AAB site is absolutely brilliant. Promote it well enough and those that are genuinely interested will come and listen/read and learn. I think that you’d just be wasting your time with the others.

  13. 20 dmaas 25/08/2011 at 8:53 am

    I feel there’s a line to avoid crossing in going to these sites. I’d propose one-time invites to authoritative sources such as TetZoo, svpow, ArchosaurMusings,, AAB… I mean – it’s ridiculous that there are so many quality resources nowadays. No one can plead ignorance.
    We have to get to the point where ignorance is uncool. That’s the issue. And too much effort in persuading the stubborn only lends them too much weight. I hope that illustration and animation can be part of the formula in achieving this goal.

    • 21 David Hone 25/08/2011 at 9:17 am

      Well I think they think they know stuff. They are not ignorant in the sense that they don’t know stuff and don’t want to learn, but what they have latched onto and are working from is wrong.

      And as for the invites, well you have to get them to come to you, and even if they do, they might learn ore, but will they unlearn what they have now? I mean I simply write about what I want, and you can read it all and I hope pick up some new things, but that won’t stop you thinking that hadrosaurs are rooted in pachycephalosaurs (or whatever) if I never talk about it.

      • 22 dmaas 25/08/2011 at 9:51 am

        That would be a classic invite: writing about the faults you find – perhaps from a wider perspective – and linking from the sites in question… that establishes you as accessible authority.
        Or the “how to” documents – ie. reconstructing sauropods (at svpow) – those go such a long way in reaching the artist community. Prepped bundles of knowledge for the purpose of artistic reconstructions. That’s one of the reasons why GSP was so popular – he took artists under the arm and made accessible “how to” documents.
        If you’d like to propose something similar (ie. how to draw pterosaurs / hadrosaurs, etc.), I’d be more than happy to play the artist part in making such a document. I’m hoping to package my experiences with Heinrich M. in such a way – something along the lines of “archeosaurs vs mammals, drawing the difference”.

      • 23 David Hone 25/08/2011 at 10:07 am

        But then we get into two further issues – first I have tow rite about things to specifically correct them, rather than what *i* want to write about. Which is really unappealing and not why or how I do this normally. And second, there are so many things there that I could be doing this till the end of time.

        All of this is really a rhetorical exercise, I’m trying (and clearly failing) to look at this from the perspective of the palaeo community as a whole. It’s not about what I should do (I don’t have the time, even if I had the motivation and it was generally agreed to be a good idea), it’s about the issue as a whole.

  14. 24 Terry Alan Davis Jr 25/08/2011 at 4:45 pm

    To be honest I’ve ran a couple Jurassic Park sites for the last couple years before starting my own and the biggest issue is the misinformation on Dinosaur Science/Paleontology as a whole. A lot of us do understand the dinosaurs contain within are not real dinosaurs (obviously), but there are kids that just get into endless misinformation rounds as you pointed out about various topics.

    If you chose to interact/intervene – what have you – I would personally be an advocate of a professional coming in and saying “This is what we DO know.” While some of us are going back to school for the field, in progress of obtaining our undergraduate degrees in Biology/Geology, or just holding a huge interest of it I personally feel having a professional on site and helping out on providing real information on the real animals and interacting with some of the people that post on the board to improve science education all around would be beneficial to our community as well as the scientific community.

    Most of the kids that hit the site are in their teens and we do have the various cliques on there that scream the technical language without really understanding it.

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