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RE: Stegosaurus preparation photos take two...
As someone who would like to be considered a paleontologist, but currently
only in the broadest sense of the word; and as someone who knows several of
the posters on this topic here (Hi! Tom, Jeff, etc.), as well as several of
the players on the 'team' (i.e. preparators, excavators, administrators,
educators, facilitators, artists, etc.) - I offer my perspective.
I don't really do paleontology, I study about it, and I dabble in many of
the afore-mentioned related and included fields. I don't have any of the
requisite degrees (although Physics is still somewhat impressive :-)). If I
had money, and lived a century and a half ago - I probably would qualify as
a paleontologist - as, back then, all of the Natural Scientists were
amateurs - or only one step beyond (i.e. Medical Doctors).
Given that I'm not directly affected by this discussion, I feel that my
views might be worthwhile.
I think that the major problem is publicity. As we all agreed (I think), an
EMT would not be identifiying themselves as a Doctor when appearing on TV
(or radio, or in a newspaper, magazine or book). Because, it is considered
a sufficiently noble profession on its own (being an EMT that is).
I know that I'm annoyed when someone identifies themselves as a
paleontologist, when, all they've really done so far, is paint dinosaurs, or
maybe go on a field trip. For some reason, being 'merely' a dinosaur
artist, or an excavator (or hunter), or preparator is not strong enough for
some people's egos.
And those that have struggled (and continue to struggle on the small
salaries that most professional paleontologists manage to collect :)), to go
through all the schooling and testing and peer-reviews to get the degrees
needed to get jobs as paleontologists resent those who claim the name
without doing the work.
Perhaps we need to augment the name of those degreed or truely professional
paleontologists in someway to distinguish them from the wannabes. My reason
for this, is that by definition, a paleontologist is someone who studies
ancient life (based on fossils). Therefore, technically, all those people
(or most of them) who claim to be paleontologists - are!
We don't have gradations or classifications of "paleontologists". Maybe
someone should build a cladogram of all the related tasks and sub-tasks -
no, seriously. That way, you could be a paleontologist, but we could name
clades of the type of work/expertise involved. For example, you could have
sister groups of preparator and excavator (and I know many who do both),
with an outlier of paleo-artists :-). I know that most colleges and
universities do not even offer a Doctor of Paleontology. Dr. Dodson, at the
University of Pennsylvania, teaches veternary medicine. Most
paleontologists who teach at various colleges and universities teach in
either Biology or Geology. I would not say that any of these are not
paleontologists, merely because they aren't titled as such where they work.
[I'm a consultant - but I function in different jobs at different times,
based on client need].
If we were to buld a cladogram or some similar construct, that showed the
relationships among the various jobs involved in paleotology, we could
possibly come up with a name for the most difficult to achieve position
(note that amateurs should be included, based on the work they do). "Grand
Poohbah of Paleontology" [GPP] or some such nonsense. Just enough, so that
when someone declares themselves a paleontologist, that the public (or the
press, as the public's agent) could ask, "But are you a GPP, or just a
regular paleontologist?" At least then, the public would consider the
source, based on the level of expertise.
To me the publicity situation is the greatest concern in this debate. Since
the definition is so broad, anyone can claim their rights as a
paleontologist, and I think we need to differentiate the various levels of
expertise, at least when dealing with the public/press. [See the discussion
around 10 days ago about the Swami who is a "Cosmo Expert"].
I can consider myself a dino-expert, at least in comparison to the general
public, but I would not be a GPP (or whatever). Dr. Gould, Dr. Holtz, Dr.
Dodson, 'Dr.' Horner, Dr. Bakker, and many others would be GPPs.
BTW: Expertise in the science does not equal success in the field (or the
field work, to be precise). I know some scientists who have tried many
times to find dinosaur fossils and have failed, while others with less
technical and academic credentials find fossils all the time. Some people
have the knack, others don't. (Some of these 'luck-less' scientists who
have gone out with the 'lucky' collectors/excavators - and stepped right
over a fossil, that was then spotted by the 'lucky' one - time and time
Allan Edels - definitely not a GPP :-)
From: Jeff Hecht <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com,
Subject: RE: Stegosaurus preparation photos take two...
Date: Wed, 27 Apr 2005 09:58:23 -0400
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
>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
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
The issue is global, but paleontologists appear particularly sensitive
Jeff Hecht, science & technology writer
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