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.

The Blank Page

There is nothing more daunting to me than the blank screen.

Before I had consistent access to computers (and my very first computer was the family Commodore 64 that we received second hand from a relative during Grade 7, and it had a black screen with green letters and came with a lovely D&D style maze game), there was nothing more daunting to me than the blank page. I know I'm not alone when it comes to having a stare-down with the blank screen. Scientists and writers extraordinaire with much more experience face this stare-down at various points in their lives.

I admit to being a procrastinator when it comes to physically writing SOMETHING. I'm not a procrastinator in the sense that I'll look at a writing task and think "Oh, fiddle-dee-dee, I'll think about writing that tomorrow," but a procrastinator in the sense that I spend more time than I should, well, assing around before I write what could be considered a passable sentence containing any content. I fill the time when I could actually be depressing keys with my fingers and putting words on the screen with going overboard on the other aspects of writing a paper - in other words, everything except the actual writing part.

Oh sure, I spend a great deal of time researching the background information, the previous studies, collecting the data, and running the analyses. I make the pretty graphs. I study the pretty graphs until I am confident in what they are telling me about the data. I rerun the analyses (and make the pretty graphs as a result of said analyses) to make sure I'm not missing an angle. I know what I know, and I know that I know it well.


The blunt truth of the issue is that I, a die-hard field researcher for whom encountering (mountain) lions and tigers (do bad field tans count?) and bears (oh my!) is just part of the job, and thinks nothing of flinging herself (safely) down a 60 degree slope to study dinosaur footprints, am nothing more than a highly derived theropod belonging to the genus Gallus (I'm chicken).

I will never be as cool as these chickens from Grossi et al. 2014. Walking like dinosaurs: chickens with artificial tails provide clues about non-avian theropod locomotion. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88458. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088458.

Are my observations original enough? If they are not original, do they at least offer a fresh perspective? Am I interpreting the data logically? Am I interpreting the previous work correctly? I imagine those concerns are relatively normal for academic writing, and if nothing else, they keep me vigilant. Still, those are the logical concerns, and my paper-writing trepidation is full of all kinds of non-logic.

On a deeper emotional level, The Idea that I plan to write is safe, snug, and tame in my head until I release It on the page with all of the intellectual equivalent of placenta and blood (and sweat, and tears, and frustration). Once The Idea is released, It begins to take on a life of its own. Sure, I guide It, shape It, and direct It, but The Idea grows to become a demanding force that can't be ignored or set aside. The Idea contains its own brand of strengths and weaknesses, all of which display my personal intellectual strengths and weaknesses. The Idea must be seen to its conclusion, for better (happily published) or worse (horribly rejected). Every Idea that is published has a potential to change the course of science from the smallest tweak to one of those papers that makes you sit back and think "Well, I'll be..."

Now that this swirling bit of illogical emotion is out of my head, I hear the incessant call of the The Idea that cannot be ignored.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

I Love My Job...But It Comes At A Price

I've been thinking a great deal about my last post, mostly because events in my country have transpired that have crystallized the fact for me that there are some communities in which science is not welcome. Where educated people (who aren't doctors or people who supply medications) are not welcome. These are the communities where the people use the statement "I'm not an educated person" as a boast and a badge of pride. It's fine to admit you don't know something, but a completely different cup of tea to willfully resist any opportunities to learn. These are the cultures in which "college educated" is used as an insult to insinuate a person is isolated from reality and surplus to requirement.

Being one of the useless college educated group and female to boot, there are certain personality traits I am expected to exude in the presence of these cultures. I am supposed to:
  • Be quiet when the "real world" people are talking. People look like they've been slapped when they approach me and assume I am the more quiet, soft-spoken version of my husband, and look equally kicked in the nuts when I cut through their language of ignorance.
  • Not ever correct misinformation being spewed by the "Real-Worlders." I'm an educator: that's what I do. If someone if making decisions based on faulty information, I will immediately correct them. Does it hurt their egos? Probably, but I'd rather hurt an ego than have a discussion proceed and conclude on a faulty premise.
  • Not express any opinion with confidence. I don't do passive-aggressive. I don't fish in muddy waters for compliments. If I know something, I say it. I jump in.
  • Respect ALL opinions. Nope, sorry. I can't respect opinions founded on logical fallacies or willful ignorance. Faulty logic leads to faulty solutions. A person has the right to believe whatever they wish, but that right does not protect them from critique. 
My career in science is the result of me having the confidence and the knowledge that I have today, but those benefits come at a price. I will never be viewed as a "regular person." For better or for worse I will always represent the "Ivory Tower", and my point of view will be forever excluded from that of the "average citizen." I accept this, and I also have to accept that because of my educational background I am more likely to be ignored than those of the Fallacy Flingers and Science Rejectors. Oh sure, they will come to me when they want to be entertained: after all, to these groups paleontology is nothing but a source of amusement. However, when it comes down to the cold, hard, and sometimes inconvenient facts, the science viewpoint will be considered less than valid and worthy of scorn.

Knowing this makes me extremely appreciative of the science community. This is the one community in which (close friends, my dojo, and family are the exceptions) where I feel it is perfectly fine for me to be a scientist and a person. It's not a community without its own peculiar faults, but it is one of the few places I feel as though I belong. Perhaps I'll live to see the day when "scientist" isn't a dirty word to the general public, but right now I feel as though I'm experiencing a modern Dark Age. All I can do is science on, and hope that my small efforts will contribute to the little spark of knowledge that will survive these times and shine bright and strong in the future.