Sunday, February 16, 2014

We Have Always Been Here.

 (An homage to Kosh of Babylon 5.)

(Updates: new handle,
"Just because it's publicly published does not make it accurate...Just because it's publicly published does not make it accurate..."

Oh, hello Dear Reader!

You caught me chanting my favorite Internet and popular media-related mantra. It is the mantra that I made my students repeat for every writing lab. The Internet and the public media are lousy with misinformation presented in a credible fashion. Opinion pieces are taken as fact. Cryptozoology web pages and books. Pig-chimp hybrids. Seazoria.

People working in academia are not immune to misconceptions and misinformation, as demonstrated this article by Nicolas Kristof. His article highlights, complete with affirming quotes, that academics have created for themselves a cocoon of irrelevancy in terms of public communication. Perhaps the academics in the disciplines mentioned within the article (Middle Eastern studies, international theory, history, political science) are not as active in social media and communication as they could theoretically be. I'm not one to judge what professors do or don't do with their time: Janet D. Stemwedel's article thoroughly and accurately demonstrates that a) professors have mandatory research, teaching, and service duties, and b) despite the workload, a multitude of professors do public outreach on Twitter, Facebook, and their own blogs despite these activities not being considered under "traditional outreach/service."

To preface my critique, I am not in a tenure track position. I am not working in a traditional academic position. That being said, I am an active academic (student though I am) and can comment on the relevancy of this article as it pertains to my specialty of vertebrate paleontology and related disciplines.

Paleontology, I feel, naturally leads to active public engagement. Tell a non-academic that you study fossils and chances are you will discuss the accuracies of the latest dinosaur show or the trending fossil-related news article. People love fossils. Fossils inspire awe and a voracious curiosity. Every fossil, from the fluffiest dinosaur to the boniest fish, has a uniquely fascinating story just waiting to be told, and paleontologists are fortunate enough to directly interact with these fossils to bring their stories to the world, first through scientific publications, then through the media and museum exhibits.

So, on reading quotes such as this,
'“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation',

...I become a touch irate. Yes, paleontology has very specialized fields of study: histology (study of bone structure), palynology (pollen and spores), cladistics (evolutionary patterns). Heck, I have my own specialties: dinosaur tooth identification and vertebrate ichnology. These are rather extreme ends of the animal: if a dinosaur is ever found that was kicked in the teeth, I'll geek out all over the place.

What the New York Times article and those quoted within failed to acknowledge is the amount of training in basic information acquired by each rarified researcher. My paleontology training included cell biology, animal biology, ecology, earth history, earth sciences, statistics, calculus, basic anatomy, comparative vertebrate anatomy, invertebrate zoology, evolution, climate, ethology, ornithology, invertebrate paleontology, and a load of basic and specialized courses in vertebrate paleontology. A paleontologist may, for example, study the tooth patterns of an extinct fish, but that is not all they know: they represent an entire undergraduate and graduate education's worth of accumulated knowledge.

"Hold up, Strange Woman: these researchers may have the knowledge to speak on many of these subjects, but can they do it in a way that is interesting to the general public?"

Fair question, and easily answered. Nicolas Kristof does all of academia a huge service by pointing out:
'Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.'

[Begin sarcasm] Really? Social media exists for academics and the general public alike? It's not just a place to post pictures of cat memes? Holy crap! This is news! [End sarcasm].

The avalanche is well underway, and the above quote about the availability of social media as a tool for science communication is a pebble trying to influence the flow.

Here is a tiny list (not at all meant to be exhaustive) of paleontology-related blogs run by real-life academics (professors, researchers, and students), many who also have Twitter feeds. Many also have links to other paleontology-related blogs. Some are museum blogs, and the information on them would not be possible without input from their academic team. Some of these blogs are new. Many of these blogs have been around for a few years.

Archosaur Musings
Canadian Museum of Nature Blog
Chinleana (Triassic fun)
Dinochick Blogs  (with a long list of other paleontology-related blogs!)
Green Tea and Velociraptors
Inside the Royal Tyrrell Museum
The Integrative Paleontologists (PLOS Blogs) 
Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs
Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (an ichno-tastic blog covering the traces of all backboned critters and those critters that likely taste good with clarified garlic butter)
Musings of a Clumsy Palaeontologist
Paleo Illustrata
Pick & Scalpel (there is also have a Facebook page, WitmerLab at Ohio University, that is full of wonderful CT-scan images and 3D reconstructions)
Rantings of a Canadian Evolutionary Biologist
Tetrapod Zoology 
What's in John's Freezer? (full of squishy dissection images, themed quizzes, and great skeletal anatomy)
The Whirlpool of Life
4th Dimensional Biology

Vertebrate paleontologists are also very active on Facebook. Many natural history museums manage both a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Are these paleontologists blogging every day? Are they on Facebook and Twitter 24/7? No, of course not. As with any other academic person, paleontologists have both busy professional and personal lives. That being said, the amount of time and energy paleontologists put into social media is astounding. This is not including the outreach they do through public talks, educational days, museum open-houses, and the media.

One of the great joys I have in my career is the large amount of public outreach opportunities that I have. Talking to school groups and womanning Fossil Road Show booths are my favorites. Outreach started very early in my education. My favorite outreach moment is when, at a fossil booth for a Museum Open House, a four year old was absolutely convinced I was Ms. Frizzle from "The Magic School Bus". He stayed to reminisce about our adventures together through the human nose. Interacting with kids about fossils is a joy. I also develop our museum's educational programming, judge science fairs, visit classrooms, manage our museum's Facebook page, and speak to the media when contacted (we don't have a PR office). 

These are considered normal outreach activities, regardless if they "count" in terms of a traditional tenured academic career. I have met very few paleontologists that are put off by the idea to interacting with the public. Every scientific discipline has a subset of that community that is active in public outreach. We talk to the media. We give public talks. We run information booths. We talk to school groups. We design public museum displays based on their research. We advise on movies and documentaries. We are educators. We love what we do and want to share our fascinating world with you. We are not hiding from the public. We are not hiding from you. Ask us.

We have always been here.


  1. Great post, and it reflects my experience as a VPer as well. The strong public accessibility can be a liability in some academic circles, alas, as it can be seen as a sign that paleo isn't a "real" science. After all, if a grade schooler can understand it, it can't be adequately difficult.

    I'm not defending that perspective, just noting my own experience.

    Lastly, I'd like to plug my blog, where I recently posted a piece I co-authored with a student explaining the broader impacts of a fussy taxonomy paper in plain language. It fits perfectly into your discussion of paleo outreach.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Edward, and the blog plug! I'll update my list as more of these come in! I hear you on the "paleontology isn't real science" perception: it's shared by some academic circles and the general public alike, especially if it is framed in the "How is paleontology important compared to curing cancer?" [Note: I am in no way casting dispersions towards cancer research, but it is the example of a "useful" science that I hear juxtaposed to paleontology the most.] Perhaps we paleontologists look like we are having too much fun with our work. After all, if it's fun, it's not work, right? Many equate field work with recreational camping and researching fossils as playing with them, leaving paleontology's greatest achievement in the public eye as consulting for CGI dinosaur documentaries and providing cool things to entertain humanity at museums. What also frustrates me is when academic paleontologists shoot themselves in the foot by taking an apologetic approach to answering the "Why is paleontology important?" question (I've heard this mostly from fellow students). There is no need to defend the notion that paleontology is the pop star of the science world: it's the only baseline we have to figure out what the normal, anthropogenic-free patterns of life on this planet are. We're not science imposters. There: that is now off of my chest. The sad part is that I think EVERY science could be understood by a grade-schooler if only presented in an engaging way.

  3. This is a fantastic list, well done. Will be retweeting it.:)