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 Reason I Love Speculative Fiction

I do not mean to say other genres suck or are inferior. I mean only to celebrate what I love in my own field, shameless optimist that I am.

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Alternate History. Together, these genres form the pillars of what is called speculative fiction. There can be lots of blending and subgenres that don’t quite belong to any one group (just look at steampunk and dystopia), but together they give an image of worlds that, as far as we know, don’t exist. Yet that’s not all they do. They can accommodate any other theme or motif, perform any other task, that characterizes fiction of other stripes.

Speculative fiction is a field of storytelling that specializes in “What if?” and “Why not?” It probes, challenges, questions, and explores in ways that no other kind of fiction is capable of. Yet it can take whatever has been produced by other sorts of fiction and give it more flavor, more chances for originality and finding what has been overlooked. Science fiction can probe as deeply into human nature as any literary novel you can think of. Alternate history can be as pulse-pounding as any spy thriller, or as romantic as a bodice-ripper from the checkout line. A fantasy can be a murder mystery, or even a slice-of-life tale (though it may be a slice of life from a magic student or an apprentice dragon-breeder).

Admittedly, there is a reputation which says speculative novels are not as introspective or deep or profound as “literary” novels. There are indeed thousands of shallow, hackneyed tales in all three genres, with little thought behind them.

However, one-dimensional stories do not remove the capacity for profundity or depth from any genre. Though fantasy may have its Twilights and Eragons, it also has its Name of the Wind and Song of Ice and Fire. Science fiction may allow The Fifth Element or Transformers into its ranks, but it boasts of  Star Trek, Fahrenheit 451,  and Dune. A million terrible novels could not extinguish even one book that doesn’t just ask “What if?” but also provides the best answer it possibly can.

I think bad fiction is usually bad because of untapped potential. The writer did not squeeze hard enough, or didn’t look in enough shadowy corners, to see what could nourish their characters, story progression, pacing, or anything else writers need to consider about their work. But when they do, they should be recognized for their incredible achievement.

In summary, this is why I love to read and write speculative fiction: It can always find a new place to go, and there’s nothing other fiction does that it cannot do.