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Re: Paleontology and Dinosaurology 101: What layperson MUST to know about?



Ouch!
Well, your answer is just as I thought.
Not everything is necessary, but you seem to forget that apart from hobbies, laypersons also have passions. I know some people (to say the least) who don't look after their garden, don't ride a bike, are not interested in collecting videos (is that the image that scientists have of laypeople?), but who love reading scientific litterature (with no scientific backgrounds), and when they don't understand a word, google or wikipedi for the meaning. And you, scientists, you have no hobbies? I'm sure you have. So, how do you manage your profession and your hobbies? Like everyone else, I guess. (smile)

So, back to the main subject.
I don't agree with facts are a subset of details. That's the contrary, to me. E.g: birds are dinosaurs is a fact. Detailled phylogeny of aves is a detail, although it could be interesting to people aware of clade names. My point here is not to attack HP Roberto, that never was my goal, the question just hurt me. As a layman, and passionate amateur palaeontologist, I just took this question as unbelievable. Why hide facts? That was my first reaction. I've been reading, sometimes translating, scientific papers for years and years. And what was obscure to me at the beginning became clearer as time and papers passed.

I hope I've made my point clearer
And many thanks for your long explanation
Regards
Jean-Michel

Le 06/02/2011 13:40, Raptorial Talon a écrit :
I know what you're trying to say, but I think there are some
linguistic snags between us.

To a layperson, "facts" are a subset of "details." A detail in my
usage here is anything that goes into the understanding of the subject
- facts, hypotheses, methodologies, metadata for specimens, etc; I
don't consider the word "detail" to be somehow equivalent to
"particularly obscure fact," which is how I'm understanding your
example. Surely the entire enterprise is devoted to an understanding
of physical facts, so if "details" are somehow distinct from facts and
from attempts at explanation, then there are no details involved in
any science at all, at least in the abstract.

My point is that people by their nature are interested first and
foremost in their own immediate sphere of needs, worries, and desires.
A typical person who works 9-to-5 at an average job while raising a
family simply does not have the time to truly delve into a subject
like this, and even those who do pursue it in their free time aren't
going to be able to compete with a professional who lives it every
day. Total information capacity is therefore seriously limited, and
(potential) content is thus at a premium.

More importantly, there are thousands of other hobbies, pastimes, and
interests in existence to compete for the average person's attention.
Someone who likes paleontology to some degree may also like any number
of other hobbies, from collecting movies to hosting dinner parties to
breeding pigeons, and any number of other leisure activities, from
going to dance clubs to birdwatching to playing video games. We as
educators have to be aware of how people portion out their involvement
in such things.

The amount of attention a typical person is prepared to devote to any
single subject is therefore finite, and so too is their mental
investiture in anything that doesn't have some immediate practical or
emotional relevance. Most people are not interested in paleontology,
period, even if they like dinosaurs in their entertainment. It's just
not part of the culture, labors, or social demands of their day-to-day
lives. It's a subjective perception, as for any interest or lack
thereof, but even the people who are interested can't pursue it in
depth, except for professionals of one stripe or another.

Thus, given limited time and attention, only a limited amount of
information stands to be picked up by the general public, and for the
purposes of education we want that limit to be filled to the brim with
the most important facts and concepts, not minutiae or tangents. So to
answer his original question, I would suggest that some of the key
elements that need to be present in public education regarding
dinosaurs as a science would include:

Evolution and its core mechanisms; the fact that birds are extant
dinosaurs; the immense scale of geologic time; the fact that dinosaurs
did not all exist at the same time and did not coexist with a great
many other famous prehistoric creatures; the fact that not all
prehistoric reptiles were dinosaurs; and the fact that dinosaurs
existed as part of local ecosystems, and so their evolution,
behaviors, etc were underpinned fundamentally by the same processes we
see going on today. They need to be conveyed as real animals, their
ecosystems being the forerunners of modern ecosystems, and as
creatures which adapted in response to changing environmental
conditions through time. If I could teach a layperson nothing else, I
would try to teach these facets, however succinctly I might have to do
so.

And that's what the question boils down to: you can't teach
*everything,* so what do you focus on? If you don't want to waste your
time or theirs with information that will be frivolous relative to
their time commitments and emotional investment, what information is
*least* frivolous? How do you maximize educational impact with limited
educational time and limited interest in education? You yourself
recognize that some information is not worth it for the ordinary
person; his question really is only what information is *most* worth
it from an educational perspective.

Note too that while such examples of interesting things as those you
gave are among the *most* interesting, not every person in the general
public will exhibit the same degree of interest, and many will have no
interest whatsoever because they're caught up in wholly unrelated
endeavors or cultural backgrounds. Certainly, examples like those are
a great lead-in to hook people's interest in the science as a whole,
but they don't *necessarily* work the best for teaching people the
most important elements of how the science works or what its most
immediately relevant conclusions are. Some might indeed be excellent
for it if handled well. Some kind of optimum between public "zing" and
scientific relevance is desirable, although not necessarily easy to
ascertain.

It was a long way to go for a short question, but I think that should
cover it. There's no notion here that some facts should be hidden or
left unknown, only the recognition that people left to their own
devices will not usually pursue science issues as vigorously as we
might hope.