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RE: Stegosaurus preparation photos take two...

At 8:33 AM -0400 4/27/05, Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. wrote:

>And yet time and time again people who don't actually do science (see earlier 
>posting for definition) are introduced on talk shows
>and such as "paleontologists". Well, no, they aren't. Sorry if that makes some 
>people feel bad, but I'm not in the "make people feel
>good business"; I'm a scientist.
>Science cannot get done without a lot of help. We need administrators to run 
>institutions and help find funding; preparators to
>clean the specimens (although they may also be researchers in their own right: 
>see below); artists to illustrate them; editors and
>publishers to run the journals; and most importantly of all, field workers to 
>help collect the specimens. (And, at some places,
>graduate students to do all the work...) But the administrators, editors, and 
>publishers don't claim to be paleontologists, and
>those preparators who aren't interested in research are happy to call 
>themselves preparators. Graduate students rightly and fairly
>call themselves paleontologists in training, as already stated on this list 
>and in stark contrast to Frank's assertion that the
>professionals somehow believe that paleos are born fully formed ex nihilo.
>Sometimes, I gotta wonder: do nuclear physicists and geochemists and 
>microbiologists have this same issue...?

You touch on a very big and complex matter. There's a continuum of people 
involved in science. As a writer, I interpret science for the lay public. If I 
wrote a book on paleontology, that would make me an "authority" in the eyes of 
the general reader. That would be accurate only in the sense that I would have 
to know considerably more than the general reader in order to do a good job 
writing about it. 

Likewise, the public's notions of what dinosaurs looked like are shaped by 
artists as well as paleontologists. We can get a general idea of what a 
sauropod or T rex looks like from the bones, but we often turn to artistic 
recreations -- worked on by paleontologists, anatomists, and artists (and 
people will skills in all three areas) -- to know what the animals really 
looked like. 

Not everybody has or needs PhDs in paleontology. Modern science is complex, and 
no paleontologist is going to know _everything_ about the field. If a radio 
station wants a quick description of the latest new dino-bird fossil that I've 
just covered for New Scientist, I can be an instant radio expert for 2 or 3 
minutes, and nobody introduces me as a "paleontologist." If I need more 
information, I'll call up specialists (like Tom on tyrannosaurs) to find out 
more. And if specialists like Tom need more information, they go to other 
specialists in areas such as sedimentology and radiometric dating. 

The issue is global, but paleontologists appear particularly sensitive about 
Jeff Hecht, science & technology writer
jeff@jeffhecht.com; http://www.jeffhecht.com
Boston Correspondent: New Scientist magazine
Contributing Editor: Laser Focus World
525 Auburn St., Auburndale, MA 02466 USA
v. 617-965-3834; fax 617-332-4760