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Re: Making Paleontology Popular



Once I had a boss who told me, 'I'll read only the first paragraph of
anything you send me.'  I was glad he was willing to read anything of mine
at all, but he was making two good points:
First, don't start by writing the history of the world, part #38.  He either
knew the background information or had successfully avoided hearing it.
Second, he assumed I knew what I was doing.  If I was confident enough to
send him a conclusion, he was willing to accept it as an operating
hypothesis (or not).  Of course, the second paragraph included all the
hedges required by my sense of personal responsibility.
So, when you say:
<The problem with popularizing paleontology is the
general "dumbing down" of the presentation and data.
Something is lost in the translation from cold, hard
data into something that little kiddies can sit up and
clap to.>
and what's left is the information that satisfies curiosity.  You're
presenting to an audience, and some audiences' prior knowledge does not
include the premises necessary for evaluation.  Nothing wrong with that; not
everyone is like you, or you couldn't tell them anything new.

May I suggest that many intelligent people expect their analytic approaches
will produce workable results when the relevant information is provided to
them?  When you say:
<I don't like how I have often
tried to sit and figure how I would present what seems
to me to be a relatively simple subject (but is
horribly complex in details)...[o]r to discuss with
a friend the subject and try to have to run through
three or four lines of evidence and discussion just to
get to the point. It shows me how limited the public's
knowledge on some major scientific concepts [is]...or how some more
"popular" scientific magazines limit the content of their data, for sake of
whatever space might be needed.>
you remind me of the mathematician who commented that he resented the fact
that he had to explain his ideas without a single equation in order to get
people to understand.  He did not realize that for most people math is
simply a calculation or a shorthand used by scientific specialists or (for
some, very definitely not including me) the way to an answer to a
speculative problem.
There is a single, commonplace logic which people use both because it is
usually successful and because, like words always having the same meaning,
it makes possible communication and quick understanding with other people.
How the magazines actually make editorial decisions would have to be
explained by someone with actual experience (see, I hedge even here!), but
articles usually require a hook (the biggest, the smallest, the best
example) and a simple qed explication, implying that the answer is more than
the relatively best.  This is frequently annoying to me, but it does get the
point across.  People learn to discount asserted correctness, sometimes even
when they should not.
Despite all this, I'm not disagreeing with you about dumbing down existing.
I think the basic idea is to 'teach to the test', to identify the essential
facts and ideas and to communicate them in an unchallenging manner.  I
disliked history in college; I started reading history narratives on my own
and found the real people and the nuanced assertions I enjoyed.  Discussions
should be based on a normal vocabulary and logic, but they can still be
challenging and exciting.  And the ideas included should be enough to excite
interest beyond whatever is needed for the grade.
I am, of course, leaving out the 'dumbing down' which occurs simply because
of the opinion that the victims are not very smart, and have to feel good
about themselves.

<These papers have suggested to me, in fact,
that the scientific process that many esteemed
paleontologist, biologists, and theoretical
systematicists [w]or hard to refine and keep
"scientific," is going the way of the dodo, when it
comes to educating the public about the fields.>
This follows a discussion about how certain magazine articles did not
include context, either about disputed conclusions or the authors'
limitations on the source data used.  In part, I think these are examples of
the sacrifices made for a compelling style, as suggested above.  I think the
writers also wanted an opportunity to state their views fully, without the
distraction of opposition.
Both of these purposes may be worthwile, but both are built on the
assumption that the reader will be able to obtain a more complete
presentation elsewhere.  When the authorial choices are controversial, I
think there is a responsibility for the discussion to continue.  The
question to be asked is, 'Would someone who stopped reading here be misled?'
If so, then the context has to be politely and respectfully supplied.  And
that applies to both sides of any issue on which there is a respectable
opposition.  I have a couple of issues myself on which the full range of
essential information has been relentlessly excluded.
I think of this discussion as providing the necessary context for your
views.  (By the way, I think Linnaean classification comes reasonably close
to modern views because both are based on substantial physical differences,
though the mechanism is different.  I'll leave the topic to the more
knowledgeable, tho.)  I don't think you're wrong in your observations, just
a bit oversimplified.  Shows you were communicating well, anyway, don't it?!