Posts Tagged 'outreach'

Science communication and fossil preparation

As part of my travel to Canada for the Project Daspletosaurus work, I attended the Fossil Collections and Preparation Symposium hosted at the Tyrrell. Obviously I’m not much of a preparator, but after getting through the mammoth Gorgosaurus prep stuff with Darren Tanke, there was obvious scope to talk about sci comms in general and what we’d done with the field of preparation specifically and how me might go about improving that. All of the talks were recorded and have now gone up on line. There’s some cool stuff like removing old consolidants  or microvertebrate screening, so hunt around on the Tyrrell’s YouTube channel, so it’s well worth having a look around, there were a ton of talks.

A fifth anniversary tyrant

The next few days are likely to be very busy for me and this weekend I’m off on holiday, so I very much doubt I’ll be blogging on next Monday. This is a bit of a shame as those who occasionally glance at the bottom half of the sidebar on the Musings will realise that it pretty much marks the 5th anniversary of the blog. Of course very longtime readers will know I was going for some months on the old Dinobase site before cranking up this version on wordpress, but this has for most people always been the home of my pronouncements, even if there is also now, the Lost Worlds, and various bits on other parts of the web too.

So I’m naturally really rather pleased to have reached this mark, having also not too long past gone over 1.25 million hits and 1250 posts on here. It has, obviously, been a lot of work. While naturally there have been plenty of short posts (even one liners, and those of just a single image) and a fair number of guest pieces, I’ve obviously poured a huge amount of time and effort into this over the years, and I’d like to think it’s made a fair impression on a goodly number of people. Plenty of great dinosaur blogs by interesting and talented researchers seem to have fallen by the wayside, so if nothing else I can claim a fair bit of persistence.

Right, well to ‘celebrate’, here’s some pictures of a Tyrannosaurus mount from the Tyrrell that I was going to post anyway (so hardly the greatest party ever thrown really). Still, it’s hardly an inappropriate thing to include as I have done my share of tyrannosaur work and this is a neat mount. Oddly, I wasn’t too happy with the photos originally, you can’t see too many details, but I rather like the way this looms out of the murk with the animal trailing off into darkness.



Although the skull looks great from either side, once you get a shot up the nose, it’s rather clear how distorted this is. There’s quite a bit of difference between the two sides and it’s obvious there’s been a fair amount of squishing to the bones to give this rather asymmetric appearance.

Well, that’s it for now. Not sure if there will be another 5 years, but I’m not planning on stopping just yet and I’ll be annoyed at least if I don’t reach 1500 posts having gone this far, though with my other commitments, it may take a good long while yet.

Reaching further out

The Musings has indeed been unusually quiet of late and my normal daily post rate has fallen away considerably. This is due to a number of factors, though I’d have to admit that the main one is simply not having much to write about. A contributory factor has certainly been that I’ve also been penning a couple of pieces for the Guardian website (here and here) and the fact that I had to prepare for, and then go to, the Cheltenham Science Festival.

Those outside the UK might well not have heard of this, but as things go it’s a fairly prestigious event and I was delighted that my application to do some kind of event through Ask A Biologist. So this morning, four AABers assembled in Cheltenham. Here was me, Paolo Viscardi (of Zygoma), Alice Roberts (you know, her off the telly) and David Wynick (or, err, AAB really). In front of a panel of about 150 kids we attempted to tackle everything that they could throw at us.

Overall, this worked really well and I was delighted with the result. We all managed to get a good bit of ‘air time’, each had questions that spoke directly to our specialities, and we managed to get through quite a few questions, but gave each the time it needed to provide some long and occasionally complex answers. Speaking personally, despite the large number of dinosaur talks and Q&As I’ve done recently I still managed to get two questions I hadn’t had before which at least made for some novelty.

One aspect of it at least was simultaneously great and terrible. It was terrible that there were a couple of rather leading / insinuating questions that basically started from the premise that evolution wasn’t true. However, it was great that they were prepared to ask a team of biologists this and that we could speak to them about this and correct their misunderstandings and try to present the evidence.

So all in all we had the chance to reach a wide audience and hopefully both answer some nagging questions, provide a little inspiration and show them a bit of the scientific method as well as the breadth of biology as a field and the people who work in it. We’ve already had some very positive feedback, so I’m comfortable we did a good job. It is nice to get out and do something beyond the web and reach out a little further and this was a fun event. I hope it’s the first of many.


Catch 22

While the aquatic dinosaurs nonsense certainly united palaeontologists in their dismissal of the ‘hypothesis’ it also caused something of a split. Discussions both public and private went around about how to deal with such an issue. It’s a fundamental problem with bad science and anti-science and while it’s a fairly obvious one, it is worth laying it out. In short, once the proverbial cat is out of the bag and has spread to a significant number of the public via the media, there is no obviously good way of tacking the problem.

Option 1 is quite simple – ignore it. It’s bad science, it’s wrong. Sooner or later most people will simply forget and move on and many will recognise it as being wrong.

Option 2 is to counter it. Show why it’s wrong and why the good science is right.

This all sounds rather reasonable and not too tricky and either way, the good science should shine through. The reality though is all too different and in fact dealing with it is a catch 22. Follow option 1 and you will find a good number of people will, years later, still think this thing was true. They heard it, absorbed it, heard nothing to contradict it and so assumed it was right. Even if it sounded dodgy, they do now have two (or more) competing ideas in their heads and might not be able to say which is right or better supported. If you do nothing then bad ideas can fester and it can be triumphed by some as a victory with the scientists too cowed to reply.

Acting may not help much however. Assuming you can even reach many or the same people as the original story (the media rarely publish retractions, don’t tend to give replies the same airtime or print space, and will come later) you may convince few. Simply continuing the discussion gives a sense of validity to an idea that it shouldn’t have simply by arguing with it and keeps things going longer than they should.

So it is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Some favour the ‘let it lie’ approach and others the ‘get good info out there’ (like this for the aquatic dinos at least). Not surprisingly I tend to favour the latter with my overall approach and attitude to science communication, but it’s not a blanket one. There’s no need to devote time and effort to disprove every bit of silliness that appears online and in the media, if no one has seen it, it’s not even an issue. But for me, major stories do have an impact and I’ve too often seen people cling onto things and think of them as genuine simply because they were reported and while it might give a nonsense piece a little of the oxygen of publicity, providing a well-directed and decent sized dose of science will probably reach a few more people and more than offset the damage.

The real solution of course is for idiots to spot pushing BS as science, the media to stop reporting BS as science and to make everyone scientifically literate so they know BS when they see it. In the absence of solutions to those trivial problems however, we have to do the best we can, even if we can’t always agree on the best way to do it.

I do wish they didn’t bother

You can understand why those with an agenda will try to challenge or trap a biologist in order to bolster their cause or knock down what they see as the opposition. They think that they can see weaknesses or flaws in science and that they know how to exploit them. What they tend to do of course is merely demonstrate their own ignorance, bankruptcy of ideas or lack of scruples when it comes to an academic exchange (well academic on one side).

It takes an especially confident frame of mind therefore to try and challenge an entire suite of biologists on something so utterly fundamental as the basis of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Would you believe that this didn’t turn out well and, despite an exceptionally polite tone, the destruction of the position taken is quite beautiful and simple. I thought you’d enjoy it as an example of such exchanges, one only hopes that something is taken away from this.

From the horse’s mouth

Yesterday I was able to get out and into a school in Dublin to do some direct communication to the kids there. I genuinely do like doing this kind of direct outreach as while the Musings and AAB can reach vast numbers of people, there really is noting to match direct interactions with people and be able to talk to them and engage in real conversations and discussions. It’s certainly nice when you can see you have piqued an interest and get some great questions.

I was hosted by Humphrey Jones who runs the superb ‘Frog Blog‘ which is basically a science news feed for kids and even gave a small write up to the event, as well as posting a gallery of images here. My thanks to him and his school.

Extinct: a Horizon guide to dinosaurs

The third and final show of Wednesday’s hat-trick of dinosaur shows was an odd Horizon special. For those who don’t know, Horizon, is, (or sadly, rather was) the UK’s flagship science show on the BBC, with really detailed explanations of properly cutting edge science. It has rather fallen away in the last 10 years or so and become a bit more about flashy graphics and controversy though it’s still important. (Oddly enough I managed to chat with a former producer of the show a couple of years back and he lamented how far he felt it had fallen, so this is not me just whinging).

This show was an odd conglomeration of various Horizon shows over the last 30 some years to show how our impression and understanding of dinosaurs has changed. As a result this was for me almost the opposite arc of ‘How to build a dinosaur’ in that it would have probably been more interest to an expert than perhaps the general public. The clips themselves were fascinating and it was genuinely great to hear from people like John Ostrom and Luis Alvarez talking about their then brand new discoveries and see the reaction this brought from their contemporaries as well as looking at how this was presented to the public and the style in which this was brought forward and explained.

However, in order to cram in a fair bit of this kind of stuff there was a noticeable lack of real background to each clip and the whole thing was a bit disjointed. That’s no surprise really, Horizon generally does a great job of building the story and giving the audience the background and showing why the experts are at the heart of things and how they go there. Shorn of that then you’re left with little more than a series of talking heads and quick exposition on a long and complex subject and of course one that was novel perhaps decades ago.

As such I found it fascinating as I knew the history and the science and the people involved so it all fitted together fine for me. However, I do wonder if the casual viewer was not a bit lost being somewhat bombarded with three decades of developments in dinosaur science and dotting around through bird origins, the KT extinction, homeothermy and others all in an hour. Still, it was great from a scientific and historical perspective and i at least enjoyed it thoroughly.


Hadrosaurs ar the Tyrrell

Sadly I was unable to make the International Hadrosaur Symposium that’s going on right now at the Royal Tyrrell museum. I had hoped to go and present some work on the Shantungosaurus quarries in Zhucheng but it was not to be. However, neither I nor you need miss out entirely as some of the lectures are going up on YouTube starting with an introduction by David Weishampel. Enjoy!

h/t Tom Holtz for the heads up.

On Planet Dinosaur

Last night in the UK saw three, yes three, dinosaur shows running consecutively on the BBC, starting with the second episode of the new Walking With Dinosaurs ‘update’: Planet Dinosaur. Readers of Tet Zoo will already have an idea of how I feel about it, but a few words of my own might be more revealing.

First off, let me step away from my normal caricature and say that, on average, I liked the first episode. The animation was OK, if not great, certainly better than many I’ve seen of late, and the overall design and colour etc. was well done. It looked reasonable and thought through and while there’s always nits to pick, it was basically ‘good’.

It was certainly a near revelation to see the actual science and fossils shown behind these things. It’s one thing to have a talking head but another to actually show chunks of jaw and slabs of specimens to demonstrate just how how much material there was and how it looks and what we are basing the science on. That was a major improvement and great to see. Also good was the judicious use of caveats to reveal bits of uncertainly like “X is thought to do Y” and “A may have acted like B”. Much more of this in the future please.

So the bad? Well, as ever there was some injudicious hyperbole, exaggeration and downright unsupported speculation on screen. As noted on TZ, I can buy Spinosaurus as being 17 m long, and yes, that was said once in the literature. But there’s good reason to think that this is not only an upper estimate, but a very high one, so why is this not the subject of a bit more “may have been / could have been / the biggest of which might have got to”?

The mix was frustrating and pointless when they have done so much good work to show the fossils and explain the data, why then just throw in the Rugops was a dedicated scavenger based on errr, ummm. What compounds this is they can’t complain about bad advice or declare incompetence. They had a good list of advisors and got lots very right, so why the need for the mad speculation or suddenly drop a lot of caveats. I also suspect it’ll give a very false level of confidence in the data since the casual viewer would, I suspect, even hope, be impressed by the level of data given for various ideas but then might not notice the glossing over of some of these other points and simply assume they’re as well documented when they are not.

Moving on to the second episode, I was rather less impressed sadly. If nothing else there was simply some bad writing – in near consecutive sentences were were told “it’s impossible to be certain that Gigantoraptor had feathers” and “it seems almost certain that they had feathers”. Errr, yeah, not quite opposites, but surely better could have been done with the text. We were also told that oviraptorids [sic] had no teeth, but the example they gave was Caudipteryx – one of the few toothed species. And then yes, they went there and had Sinornithosaurs not only gliding around but being venomous. Ah yes, you see what documentary makers still have yet to learn it seems is that just because something has been said, doesn’t make it right. Please don’t use things this speculative, unsupported and unpopular, it’s not helping communicate or entertain which I rather assumed was the point of this.

So on balance I was really pretty impressed with the first episode and rather less with the second. I guess we’ll see how the series pans out over the coming weeks. For all my whinging, it’s already better than many I have seen, though it would have been nice if the second episode improved on the first rather than fell away.



Late little edit: I forgot to mention there are some odd little inconsistencies in there too which I assume are the result of different teams doing different things. Sharp eyed people might have noticed the pterosaurs with ankle attached wings (yay) but their little black and white skeletal outline during the flash-up science section showed the wings attaching to the end of the tail with the legs completely free. Eeek twice. Not only is that horribly wrong, but isn’t what they’d even illustrated seconds before.

And this works out how?

Thought my multifarious (and possibly nefarious) blogging and outreach activities I have built up a pretty good archive of dinosaur and associated taxon based stuff on the web. This is accompanied by what appears to be a fair following of readers who clearly like this stuff (and, dare I say it a bit of credibility as a researcher and communicator). I work hard at this stuff because I enjoy it and I think it is important, and I am a strong supporter of good scientific outreach.

It is then kinda troubling that twice in the last couple of years I have been approached by media people and effectively asked to promote their upcoming wares sight unseen. In both cases this pretty much consisted of them saying something like “We think the people who like your blog will like our stuff so please blog about it for us”. That, plus a bit about the show in question was pretty much it. (I should say that actually one was rather better than this in tone at least).

Now I can see why they are doing this – they want to reach their target audience and I am already reaching it. And it’s far easier for them to identify a few people like me and get me to do their work for free than it is for them to spend time and effort (and money) trying to advertise their wares. But while it is sort of flattering to get this kind of attention, it also shows a profound lack of respect on their part. They are basically asking me to all but shill myself to my readership about their product (without me knowing what it is) based on my years of graft and effort to get said readership in exchange for errr, well, nothing. What a deal! I really can’t wait to tell my readers about something that may not be any good on behalf of a media company (and in one case an advertising firm hired by the media company!) for no reason other than they asked.

Errr, no. Not playing. I think most science communication is good and I promote what I know and like where I can. But I am not doing this to save you the trouble of doing it yourself, and certainly not when you can afford it, and certainly not when I don’t know what it is, and absolutely not when it could be terrible or I fundamentally disagree with the premise or approach. And not for free either.

(And to qualify that, I’m not looking for money, but there is quid pro quo and if I’m in a position to get something which will help my projects and am under no obligation to say nice things about said venture, and when I am fully aware of the facts / content, then I’d at least consider it – I’m otherwise being asked to give up potentially quite a lot for absolutely nothing at all. If you want an exchange or partnership then by all means ask, but doing so when the entire thing is done and set to run gives me no input, not time to make a real decision, or know if the people I’m speaking to can be trusted etc.).

So yeah, I didn’t do either, and I was also rather insulted to even be asked in the manner in which I was. For some strange reason I sort of get the feeling that the media don’t quite get how to handle science and / or scientists. Now who would have thought that?

@Dave_Hone on Twitter


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