Megalodon and the Decline of Science: From Enthusiasm to Contempt

After Animal Planet ran some specials regarding mermaids, Discovery Channel released another mockumentary which (a) I haven’t seen but my interest is piqued, and (b) has many scientists and science enthusiasts up in arms, blogging up a storm. Here’s the trailer:

Disclaimers were released with the special, but not ones that flat-out said its scenario is strictly fictional (which is problematic). The program, like the mermaid ones before, is a thought exercise. It asks “What if?” — that beloved question of writers, artists, and anyone with an imagination. What are the charges against this show? As I understand it, it’s a combination of “That’s not real,” “Discovery is abandoning science and reality,” and “People fell for it.”

Can I be honest with you? I can agree that Discovery should have done more to let people know the program was presenting a fictional scenario. However…this show isn’t a threat to science. Where are those “huge numbers” of people who still think mermaids are real after seeing the shows on Animal Planet? Are they hiding behind the conspiracy theorists who think the Moon landings were faked?

People are smarter than that, in general, and are probably tired of getting talked down to. I don’t know about any of you, but I am definitely weary of the fear and fretting, including the endless proclamations that science is somehow harmed by mockumentaries.

Sure, don’t lie to people. But if the show is presented in a “what-if” manner, then bring on the Megalodons!

This is part of a bigger issue that stretches across a much larger canvas, from the endless complaints of scientific inaccuracies in movies to the mindset that scientists have “all” the tools we need to discover truth (as a Christian, that’s something I’ll respectfully disagree with). Without asserting it firmly, I worry that the most vocal supporters of science are turning increasingly contemptuous toward anyone who sees nature in a different way than they do, or who asks different questions.

I speak as someone who loves science. I may not have a PhD, but I love nature. I love science. And I appreciate accuracy and realism, insofar as they go. I grew up with Bill Nye and Beakman’s World. David Attenborough nature specials are sources of beauty and amazement. Bob Bakker and George Blasing can talk about dinosaurs for the rest of eternity without boring me (admittedly that’s already hard to do when we’re talking about dinosaurs). Neil deGrasse Tyson is always a delight when he speaks about astronomy — I met him at the Space Symposium in 2006, and count myself blessed for that.

You know what all of these people have (or had, in some cases) in common? Enthusiasm. I caught the science bug from them because they recognized and shared the wonders and the fun it holds. Where is that today, at least on Facebook and the blogosphere? The internet seems to be where science goes to die, even when the cemetery is marked “National Geographic” or “Discover Magazine.”

Please tell me I’m not crazy. Is anyone else noticing scientists now make more headlines for shouting that creationists and global warming “deniers” are idiots than for encouraging us to finally put humans on Mars? Even Nye and Tyson are starting to get in on the rhetorical bloodshed. The contempt is getting old. Fast.

One incontrovertible fact goes all but ignored by the online community as it does its Chicken Little impressions: nature includes so much more than what we know about or can currently explain, even where it seems no surprises are left. Just because a stone is overturned doesn’t mean a door has been closed on this or that possibility. Giant prehistoric sharks living in the present aren’t “impossible.” I find it doubtful that we’ll discover Megalodons surviving in the ocean. But I’m not going to say something foolish, like “all evidence says it’s extinct.” We don’t have all the evidence.

Contempt finds its roots in hubris and paranoia, both of which are well-displayed in the blogosphere. Passion and humility are what drive curiosity forward and breed enthusiasm.

Reality holds a lot of beautiful surprises. Who could have guessed we’d find gigantic pink slugs living in a lost world? That’s reality. What of the tantalizing possibility that it’s raining diamonds on Uranus and Neptune? And those are just the little things, tiny parts of a huge, mysterious universe that we’re nowhere close to understanding in full. There’s still plenty of room in the world for things that we little humans have a hard time imagining to be real.

Why waste my time yelling at Discovery Channel, when I can go look for those surprises? You’ll find me striving alongside Johannes Kepler to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

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Another feathered dinosaur ramble?! On Jurassic Park IV, Science, Plausible Doubt, etc.

Hey, guys. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly say anything more on why fellow paleontology geeks need to loosen up on feathered dinosaurs, I had a couple of extra thoughts to contribute (or reiterate, in some cases). I don’t want to make a huge deal out of this again, except it seems others are bent on making a big deal out of the issue. I wonder if anyone else is going to call them out on it.

Not really a unified angry rant so much as it is a couple of thoughts bundled together. And I’m trying to be charitable and composed here. Honest.

Xiphactinus, on the other hand...

Xiphactinus, on the other hand, isn’t. My thanks to Dinomemes.

One

Sometimes it’s hard to be charitable with other paleontology enthusiasts when they make such a big deal out of “OMG why aren’t the ignorant masses accepting feathered dinos?! We’re shoving the facts down their throats as hard as we can! Facts! Science! Argh!”

Maybe that’s the problem? Perhaps we can afford to back off from the battering ram? Entice people with the awesome fact that some dinosaurs had feathers (as XKCD does, quite admirably). Facts coupled with charity and grace will generate a greater impact. The problem isn’t that science is making dinosaurs less cool. The problem is that those with facts on their side are addressing the subject in such an adversarial manner that they alienate everyone else.

[One-B]

There’s a lot of derisive humor at the expense of outdated raptor depictions. Oh, so scaly raptors would have been pathetic and ill-equipped for survival…because they lacked feathers? A large, warm-blooded archosaur needs plumage (crocodiles and Carnotaurus notwithstanding), or else it’ll keel over and die? The muscles, intelligence, claws, pack hunting, etc. all count for naught? All righty then. Let me know when the cloned raptors are stalking you in Jurassic Park’s kitchen and immediately collapse because this essential tool of survival is not available for their use. Stupid geneticists. What do they know?

Two

Not everyone who’s less than ecstatic about feathered dinosaurs is anti-science, or a stick in the mud, or someone who’s overtly nostalgic for the scaly movie monsters of yore. Sometimes people’s aesthetic tastes (mine, for example) just lean more toward scaly raptors. I know they’re inaccurate. I am not contesting that. And if I ever design a painting of a Raptor for a museum exhibit, you can bet your Dinosaur Revolution DVDs it will have plumage in plenitude.

For crying out loud, I’m editing (well, I’m supposed to be editing) a fantasy novel that has dinosaurs in it, and I’m putting feathers on the appropriate species to keep the animals as accurate as possible. A fantasy novel!

But sometimes, people simply find the Jurassic Park Raptors awesome or frightening. Those people are neither lame, nor out of date, nor anti-progress. It’s a testament to the excellent work of Stan Winston and his animatronics crew, Steven Spielberg, and the CGI crew in bringing the movie’s versions of Velociraptor to life. Talking down to someone for appreciating a good movie monster doesn’t make you pro-science. It makes you look like a condescending jerk.

Three

The transition to feathered raptors being considered “cool” by the public will take time. Patience is required, but it’ll happen eventually. Here’s what I want to know: why is it so important that a Deinonychus with feathers be considered “cool” right now? What cosmic fate balances on the public’s awareness of the sort of body covering an extinct animal had? Normally I want animals to be accurately portrayed, or as accurate as possible. But I don’t scream for a boycott of adventure movies when the hero comes face-to-face with a “poisonous” jungle snake, and I can see it’s a harmless kingsnake or garter snake. I take the movie with a grain of salt, and enjoy it all the more when Indiana Jones encounters a real, live cobra.

Four

One large Tyrannosaur we know had feathers — Yutyrannus — doesn’t automatically mean all large Tyrannosaurs had feathers, too. The region where most of the known feathered dinosaurs lived — China and Mongolia — was, if I remember correctly, a colder region at the time, which would be conducive to feathered dinosaurs, at least when the feathers are being used as insulation against the cold (Note: please correct me on this and show your sources if I’m wrong!).

[Additional note: Yutyrannus is much more closely related to the other feathered Tyrannosaur we know of — Dilong — than it is to T. rex, so strutting around and pretending this is “proof” that T. rex had feathers is overreaching with the available evidence.]

T. rex and other large Tyrannosaurs, on the other hand, seem to have inhabited warmer climates, where they might not have needed any such insulation. Nothing to do with feathers that are used for display, of course. Tyrannosaurus rex may very well have had feathers anyway. I grant that. But it’s a plausible scenario, for the time being. Not knowledge. Until we can confirm it through physical fossil evidence, please don’t tell me we “know” T. rex had feathers. I don’t dread a discovery of T. rex having feathers, but I worry that it’ll be abused as another cudgel, wielded by OCD dino-nerds against those Ignorant Masses they love to rail against.

Five

So Jurassic Park IV isn’t going to put feathers on its raptors. Yes, I know it’s a huge fricking deal. Museums will have to close their doors. Paleoartists will be forced at gunpoint to strip their paintings and sketches of every quill and feather, because that’s how much people hate scientific accuracy. People will riot in the streets. Fossils will be smashed.

It’s a movie, guys. A movie that includes “Genetically engineered theme park monsters” in the words of Alan Grant. Dinosaurs that can change sex thanks to frog DNA being used to patch up their degraded genomes. Maybe they look a little different than the creatures from prehistory? It seems the OCD dino-nerd crowd is just hurt that the Jurassic Park franchise isn’t catering to their demands.

Consclusion

If I read one more of Brian Switek’s tantrums on this subject, I’ll need to visit my physician and request some blood pressure medication. I know, I’ve complained about him before. My apologies; I ought to be better than picking on one person. But I don’t like it when someone sneers at others who appreciate dinosaurs in a different way than he does, and I hate it when his fans join in with outright insults and ill will.

I am excited about paleontological discoveries. I’m grateful that there are surprises around every corner, that a new discovery can change our view of these animals completely upside down. But a smarter-than-thou attitude ruins the fun for everybody.

EDIT: I’m not sure if it’s Brian or me who’s doing the most whining, but I know one thing for certain: This has got to stop.

A Brighter Day for Paleontology? Switek Steps Down

Edit: June 05, 2013

Evidently, reacting to a link I stumbled across on another paleontologist’s site and then having something critical to say about it is clear proof of “trolling” in Mr. Switek’s mind, just because I’ve criticized him in the past, and I must be someone who’s obsessed and out to “get” him.

Or maybe I saw him doing something I cannot stand (condescending to others if they don’t see the world like he does, and making mountains out of paleontological mole hills), and tried multiple times to call him out for it. Either way, I neither threaten him nor trawl his account for excuses to snipe at him, nor do I call him names. Nothing that I can remember, in any case. If I think he says something that insults my intelligence, I’ll say so. But his best excuse is “go away and shut up.” Which of course doesn’t go over well with me, since I see a problem in his treatment of other people that’s still not getting solved.

Is that “trolling,” or being an annoying busybody? Either way, it’s not laudable. I apologize for sometimes being frustrated. I confess I should have let it go long ago, something I already admitted. For honesty’s sake, I’d just love to see him treat others with more respect and more open-mindedness. But fine. I’ll gladly stop paying him attention. He already gets far too much as it is.

————————————————

After four years, Brian Switek is leaving his “Dinosaur Tracking” Blog for the Smithsonian and moving on to what I hope are bigger and better things. Though I wish him the best of luck (honest, I do), I confess that I’m glad about it. Sorry, fellow paleo-nerds.

Here’s the thing: I wanted to love Switek’s blog. I really did. There are many informative posts, I admire and envy his depth and breadth of knowledge, and his devotion to scientific accuracy is quite laudable.

Here’s the problem: His concern for scientific accuracy was rarely expressed in a constructive light. Most of the time it was excessive griping about how movies and TV shows don’t portray dinosaurs quite as accurately as museums and the peer-reviewed literature, or bemoaning all the “inexcusable” mistakes the public at large was making about dinosaurs. At one point he even asked the media to “leave dinosaurs alone” because he couldn’t stand the inaccuracies.

But that’s like asking science fiction movies to “leave space alone” because they rarely get their astrophysics right. I don’t recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson stating that we should stop making space operas. And for all their inaccuracies, Star Wars and Star Trek somehow inspired a whole generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts.

Wait, inaccurate movies inspiring people toward science and education?! No. Freaking. Way. Imagine that! Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for Jurassic Park to keep inspiring kids to become paleontologists, even with its featherless Velociraptors and poisonous Dilophosaurs.

Not that science isn’t important — of course it is! And I am not saying entertainers have license to throw accuracy to the wind — they should make an effort, most of the time. But entertainment has purposes besides educating people about all the minutiae of scientific accuracy. Sometimes you just get a better story by fudging a couple of details. And if it is somehow a flaw or a mistake, it’s not the end of the world (today’s date notwithstanding). It’s best to shrug it off and let it go, rather than hop onto a Smithsonian blog and sniffle at all those uneducated masses, as they make errors so tremendous and damaging, they’d be better off just leaving dinosaurs to the professionals.

I’ll listen gladly to other paleontologists, thank you, namely those who allow people to imagine and exercise a little artistic license.

The Difference Between Geeks and Nerds

Artist Bob Eggleton has recently updated his Facebook status with an intriguing distinction between “Geeks” and “Nerds.” Yes, I know each term has a lot of possible meanings (often on an individual basis), and you can’t actually hammer them down to a specific definition. But let’s just accept these words for the moment as markers, convenient ways to distinguish between two modes of thinking.

Essentially, it’s a question of attitude. If people can tell you are obsessed with something because you love it, it endlessly fascinates you, and you don’t apologize for your passion, then that makes you a “Geek.” However, if your dedication to that subject is marked by disappointment, nitpicking at flaws, and approaching your interests with a cynical and dour attitude, then you are a “Nerd.”

I don’t mean to insult anyone who likes to think of themselves as a nerd (in which case you have a different meaning for that word anyway), nor am I saying we can never criticize or have negative feelings about our passions. Heck, for longer than I care to admit, I realize I have been a complete “Nerd” about my own writing, about movies I love, and any of a hundred other passions in my life. But it does help to be reminded that if something is a passion for you, it’s best shared with others in a positive light. Rather than spending all of your time pointing out mistakes or showing how not to do something, entice others into seeing things from your perspective.

Let’s pick a couple of examples in, say, the field of astronomy. I’ve always seen Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” fame as a Nerd. As the title of his blog implies, he makes a name for himself by going after the shall we say “astronomical” mistakes people make when it comes to the heavens, whether it’s a conspiracy theorist pushing the Apollo Moon Hoax idea, or picking apart the scientific inaccuracies in science fiction movies. Again, it’s fine to pick something apart, but when most of your effort goes to showing how other people make mistakes in your field, my enthusiasm considerably dampens. This doesn’t make Plait a bad person. He’s just not the kind of astronomer I’d be eager to share a taxi with. Plait is certainly knowledgeable about astronomy, and I’m sure he loves studying it and talking about it, but that pleasure is rarely communicated to his audience.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, would definitely qualify as a Geek in this respect. When you listen to him in interviews, you can hear him brimming with delight and optimism, and you know he was born to be an astronomer. A few years back, at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, I had the tremendous honor of meeting him and having a prolonged conversation with him. Not only does he have an extraordinary depth of knowledge about the universe, but his attitude makes you share that excitement. Tyson is accessible and friendly, and when he does get negative, as he does when NASA’s budget got cut for the umpteenth time, there is fire in his voice rather than a condescending sneer.

There are other examples of this, of course. In my cherished field of dinosaur paleontology, world-renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker is quite possibly the biggest Geek there is. He shares Tyson’s enthusiasm and constant sense of wonder at what he studies. The fact that he’s an Ecumenical Christian preacher likely lends some fervor to his academic pursuits, as well. Listening to him, you know that he thinks dinosaurs are awesome, and wants to share that attitude with everyone. By contrast, Brian Switek from Smithsonian Blogs can hardly write an article without taking potshots at writers, movies, TV shows, or the general public for all the mistakes they keep making about dinosaurs. Some of which aren’t even mistakes. Hearing it from him, either they’re deliberately irritating him by not putting enough feathers on Velociraptor, or they’re just stupid for thinking soft tissue was found in a T. rex femur.

[Note: Actually, we did find original remains from the animal — blood vessels and medullary tissue and the like — but Switek still seems to have a hard time thinking of it as anything but a “bacterial biofilm” that grew on the bone’s interior. Switek leaves little room in his thoughts for the extraordinary or the unexpected, never mind the impossible.]

In this cynical age where few things are good enough and we are constantly setting ourselves up to be torn down, I submit to you that the world needs fewer “Nerds,” and a lot more genuine “Geeks.” If you feel like you can’t help being a “Nerd,” please remember that most of us are at least trying to enjoy ourselves. And remember that even if facts can’t be changed, your attitude can be. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s high time I go from glowering to grinning and hop back on the Geek train.

Feathered Dinosaurs: Vigilance and Room for Artistic License

I’m going to say this right up front: We have found dinosaurs with feathers. That’s a confirmed fact. Small carnivores make up most of the species with this particular trait. Velociraptor had quill knobs on its arm bones, which served as points where long feathers attached. Microraptor had four fully developed wings. Others were covered in what looks like a downy covering, possibly for insulation. There’s even a medium-sized Tyrannosaur with down on its hide (although I think T. rex in particular has been found to have scales instead, and any addition of feathers is pure speculation).

But as I look over the blogosphere and hear the words of fellow dinosaur fanatics, there arises a hysterical cry that scaly theropods (carnivorous dinosaurs), especially raptors, should be tarred and…well, feathered. Fictional treatments of dinosaurs in books, movies, and TV shows are practically burned in effigy if a small carnivore shows up naked (scaly). Tyrannosaurs and allosaurs and abelisaurs can be tolerated without down or full feathers, but God help you if there’s a Deinonychus or Ornitholestes that isn’t fuzzy.

Notice that I said fictional. As in, stories told for entertainment, which are often known for fudging scientific accuracy. That should be expected and understood, even when the creators try to be accurate. This gets you about as far as saying “You can’t hear explosions in space!” We already know that. Now are you going to sit down and watch Star Wars, or do I have to ask you to leave?

I kid you not, one unpleasant man insisted to me that the scaly Velociraptors of Jurassic Park were “abominations” even though their only crime is being outdated. Let’s get something straight, Jurassic Park was released in 1993, at which point any feathered raptors were speculative. The quill knobs on this species’s arms were examined in a paper published in 2007. Call me nuts, but “abomination” doesn’t quite fit.

Yes, he’s a real menace to scientific accuracy. You can see it in those knowledge-hating eyes.

To make matters worse, I’ve seen these self-important, melodramatic bloggers getting upset about episodes of Doctor Who and Terra Nova because they do have feathered dinosaurs, but they’re not “feathery enough.” Why count your blessings when movies and TV shows aren’t furthering your cause as hard as you want them to?

Allow a little artistic license. Come on, people know they’re not looking at real dinosaurs. The Doctor isn’t riding a real Triceratops, and Stephen Lang isn’t shooting an actual Carnotaurus. By all means, correct a museum display that shows a Deinonychus without a scrap of feathers on its skin, because that’s meant to be a scientifically accurate reconstruction. But even then, don’t lose your temper. That’s just childish.

And for the love of everything sacred and holy, stop telling me that dinosaurs had “denser” feather coatings than modern birds. That’s a little hard to establish when you point to feathers on (gasp) a dinosaur’s ankles. And when all you’ve got with dinosaurs is feather impressions in the rock…how do you know the coating was denser than on birds? This is pseudoscience at its finest, folks.

Bloggers and paleontologists, listen. I know you’re tired. You’re tired of people whining “Don’t take away my scaly raptors and replace them with foofy little peacocks with teeth!” I know you’re tired of creationists insisting that Microraptor was nothing more than a weird bird (I don’t even know that much anatomy, and even I can tell you that’s false). I know you specialize in the cutting edge discoveries of dinosaur paleontology, and a lack of feathers can be aggravating.

Nevertheless, seeing this aggravation bleeding out into long-winded rants about how important feathered dinosaurs are can get very tiresome. A raptor without feathers may be scientifically inaccurate, but it’s not a threat to scientific literacy. It’s just outdated. Don’t try saying “feathered dinosaurs are more beautiful,” either, because beauty is subjective, and some people just find a scaly raptor more badass. Too bad. Just because you have the benefit of scientific evidence doesn’t mean you can be a jerk to someone who likes scaly raptors better.

Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Image taken from Wired Magazine.

Eventually the public will come around and find feathered raptors “cool.” Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, however, when you’re doing more whining than they are.

UPDATE: I would also like to point out, just for the heck of it, that many of the same anatomical features on Microraptor that identify it as a dinosaur (lack of a beak, teeth set into the jawbone, large antorbital fenestra, etc.) are traits shared by Archaeopteryx. For this reason, I place Archaeopteryx within the Dinosauria, rather than call it a full-fledged bird.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: I think it’s more likely a given theropod was feathered if it was in a colder climate, such as the Antarctic Cryolophosaurus, Canadian Ornithomimids, or the Mongolian Tyrannosaur Yutyrannus. In warmer climates, they might simply not need them.