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



Wait, why "ouch?" I got long-winded in the course of trying to make
sure I wasn't being vague.  It wasn't personal . . .

>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.

No, I haven't forgotten that at all. In fact, I explicitly referenced
the observation that some people are indeed interested. But the
average interested person still cannot devote all of their time to
that interest, and most interested people will also have additional
interests that need to have time allocated to them, too. A person's
time, energy, motivation, and processing capacity are all limited, and
if the person is not a professional (or pre-professional or devoted
amateur, but I felt those went without saying), then their job, social
life, other responsibilities, and multiple other interests will deduct
from the time, energy, and motivation available for any specific
subject.

This really is just a basic statement of human psychology.

People's interests vary subjectively, their time varies socially,
their energy varies physiologically, and their desire and absorption
of input varies neurologically. The sociocultural reality is also that
paleontology is a notably but not overly popular subject, so there's
not a social or cultural pressure to pursue it. In fact, in some ways
and some regions, there are pressures to *avoid* devoting any
significant time to it.

>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?),"

Since I'm a layperson and not a scientist, I couldn't speak for them
in that regard. But I have friends and acquaintances who all engage in
those or similar hobbies, so I was just speaking from experience. And
most of them simply do not care about dinosaurs or paleontology in
more than the most superficial ways.

I want to be a professional paleontologist, and am following that
dream, but I know that life gets in the way and it's not possible for
just anybody to throw themselves completely into such a field. I know
there are people who do, but they vary in all the ways I've mentioned,
and I as a unique individual have a unique balance of interests and
capabilities. And if *I*, as someone with a passion for dinosaurs
since a very early age, cannot continually muster the drive to be
engaged in dinosaurs virtually all the time, then I certainly am in no
place to judge average laypeople for being disinterested in piles of
old bones that don't blow off some steam or put food on the table. For
some people passions come naturally. For others they have to be
cultivated - hence the importance of the public education we're
discussing. I'm sure we agree on that, though.

>but who love reading scientific litterature (with no scientific >backgrounds), 
>and when they don't understand a word, google or >wikipedi for the meaning.

I do that all the time. And I'm sure millions of other people do too.
But hundreds of millions more don't, and trying to convince them that
stuff which happened epochs ago is directly relevant to their lives is
very difficult. A great many people, especially here in the U.S.,
aren't even convinced that history - their own U.S. history, even - is
something relevant enough to feel that they should know something of
it. It happened a long time ago, and that's reason enough for them to
feel they don't need to care. I've debated people who claim that
having history classes in school is a complete waste of time because
things that are in the past don't have any bearing on what we need to
do in the present. It's appalling, but it is a more widespread
mentality than one might expect. And even if that's simply one
extreme, it means there are a *lot* of people in the midrange of the
bell curve who are either just apathetic or have only very passing
interest.

>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)

I'm not sure who you're trying to address here, but the fact that most
people are preoccupied with some combination of work and their
subjectively held, culturally derived interests and pastimes is
undeniable.

>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.

I have to say that linguistically, this makes no sense at all to me.
Facts most certainly be details. *All* details are facts - even
details of fiction, wherein it is a *fact* that specific words,
phrases, descriptions, etc. were included. Even a detail of someone's
subjective perception is a fact insofar as it is, in fact, a specific
perception which they experienced. In common usage, a "detail" is
anything comparatively specific, but specificity is highly relative,
and to the average layperson paleontology *as a field* is a very
specific discipline. Something like economics or politics is
undeniably broad, but studying old fossils appears very specialized
and particular to a typical outside observer. Moreover, a detailed
phylogeny is itself composed of facts, even if the "fact" is that
someone put forward a given arrangement or employed a given
methodology.

Likewise, "birds are dinosaurs" is a fact, but "semilunate carpals are
a derived character which help demonstrate shared ancestry between
birds and other maniraptorans" is a fact too. It's not a
"detail-as-opposed-to-fact" just because it's obscure and esoteric to
the general public. It's a fact, and it's a detail. After all, if I
say I'm going to "get into the details of a court trial," it means I'm
going to be relaying the various (historical) facts pertaining to what
proceedings took place, what evidence was presented, and what legal
issues were involved. These are facts, but they are also some of the
details of the trial.

>My point here is not to attack HP Roberto, that never was my goal, >the 
>question just hurt me.

I didn't see it as an attack, just a misunderstanding of intent.

>As a layman, and passionate amateur >palaeontologist, I just took >this 
>question as unbelievable. Why hide facts? That was my first >reaction.

And speaking frankly, that reaction made no sense to me, simply
because I never in a thousand years would have thought to interpret
his question that way. In fact, I don't think I would have expected
*anyone* to reach that conclusion. I simply cannot derive that
interpretation from the language which he used, certainly not in
context. To me, it was clear and unequivocal that he was asking a
simple question about prioritizing education efforts. Yes, the phrase
"should know" might in an extraordinarily literal sense imply that
there are other things they "should not know," but it also can
literally imply "things they don't *have* to know," and in this
context this latter meaning not only makes perfect sense, but, I'm
forced to argue, is really quite obvious. It's just a shorthand for
"what is most important for them to know," or "should know given that
they don't have the time, energy, or interest to know all of it." That
the general public only has a finite appetite for information on the
subject really should go without saying, given the whims and trends to
which the general public is routinely subject.

But I've been digressing into pure semantic analysis, so I'll stop
that there. No need to beat it to death . . .

>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.

Well sure, because you had the time and the energy and the motivation.
Since the public can't be relied on to either a) have those things in
general or b) have those things *and* be willing to devote them to
paleontology specifically, knowing the most relevant information to
disseminate is vitally important - because, on top of frequently
having to operate in sound bites and abbreviated quotes, you may only
get a handful of chances to convince any given person that what you're
telling them they should be educated about is actually pertinent to
them in some way. You need to hook them in the limited time and
limited wording you have, so you need to optimize your "sales pitch"
with only the most relevant information.

>I hope I've made my point clearer
>And many thanks for your long explanation

I'm certainly happy to have the discussion, because educating the
general public is a principle and a passion of mine. And I hope others
don't think less of me for getting verbose . . . I'm very concise
during public speaking. Really, I am.