Ilja Nieuwland, Palaeontology - Cowboy Science?

A few years ago, the presenters of the car show Top Gear (yes, I know) compared American and British police chase videos, much to the detriment of the latter. Where car chases from the United States offered exciting, edge-of-seat entertainment, UK coppers seemed unduly hampered by procedure, protocol and a marked lack of performance from their Astra diesels. There may be very good reasons for this (taking into account the 5,000 bystanders killed by American police car chases since 1979) but it’s all so much less exciting. Any ten-year-old will gladly swap the dullness of safety for a chance to go out in a blaze (pun intended) of glory.

In palaeontology, we have more or less the same problem in a field whose marketing is largely dominated by the priorities of the ten-year-old. You only have to take a look at popular palaeontological literature to appreciate the immediate consequences of such an approach. Of course it is all about dinosaurs. Big, brash, roaring dinosaurs eternally opening their enormous mouths to devour other dinosaurs. And if the movie industry is to be believed, dinosaurs with a peculiar preference for human flesh if it happens to be on offer.

 
Figure 1: Presentation of the Tyrannosaurus specimen RGM 792.000 in the 2016-2017 exposition "T. rex in town" of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, the Netherlands. By Rique (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ( https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATrix_-_frontal_view.jpg )

Figure 1: Presentation of the Tyrannosaurus specimen RGM 792.000 in the 2016-2017 exposition "T. rex in town" of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, the Netherlands. By Rique (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ( https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATrix_-_frontal_view.jpg )

 

In this version of reality, the study of dinosaurs entails little more than digging up huge bones, putting them together in museum mounts, and spending much time envisioning how dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs. It is an depiction worlds away from the habitual white-coated scientist in a lab. Dinosaur scientist are no Stephen Hawkings or even Richard Dawkinses; they are Bob Bakkers, Jack Horners and other big bearded men wearing cowboy hats. And as far as popular literature is concerned, they have always been. The heroism associated with the life of the cowboy and the 19th century American frontier spirit is simply irresistible. The most lasting images of the history of palaeontology, eternally regurgitated and repeated, are those of the Marsh-Cope battle, Roy Chapman Andrews on top of a Mongolian hill, or Bob Bakker in the Badlands of Montana.

Those that know a bit a bit more about the realities of palaeontological work are aware how far this image has strayed from the reality – or rather, how badly it serves as a pars pro toto for palaeontological work today or in the past. For every hour excavating, palaeontologists are spending many in laboratories; and they have always done. Yet even those active in the discipline insist on perpetuating the myth of the lone frontiersman.

Even looking at serious works in the history of paleontology, I’m struck how pervasive it still is. Numerous books have been written about the Bone Wars and the AMNH expedition to Mongolia. Barnum Brown, perhaps the archetype that Jack Horner and Bob Bakker have moulded their public personas on, has been the subject of a biography, and John Bell Hatcher will soon be. But little attention is still being paid to the actual science of palaeontology. As a consequence, there is a persisting image that palaeontology only happens in the United States and, in previous years, in the United Kingdom. The very active palaeontological communities in continental Europe, which moulded the direction the discipline would take, are all but totally obscured from view.

But perhaps more seriously, the success of that image has backfired rather badly on palaeontology itself in a number of respects. Being essentially perceived as “something for kids”, the discipline’s portrayal has created a problem for broader scientific credibility, which makes itself felt in the way it is seen by scientific peers. The same peers that determine whether a researcher is eligible for a grant – or not. To compete with doctors and engineers that can demonstrate a direct relevance of their work is difficult enough. Using “Kids’ stuff” it is nearly impossible. As a consequence, there are very few academic positions for palaeontologists, and they appear to be on the decline.

Is it necessary to maintain this mascot? Does it make sense to perpetuate such an image because it is the only way in which we can draw people in, or are we alienating more people than we reach? And is the lone frontiersman an accurate depiction these days for even a tiny part of palaeontological work? Or, the other way around, is a more accurate representation detrimental to the public appeal of the science? As far as I can see, the identification of disciplines such as astronomy with a more technocratic image hasn’t hurt its appeal.

Of course, dinosaurs are for kids. But we should perhaps stop being afraid for what they can be for adults, too.