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.

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.