Paleonet: Paleontology and sensations
bjoekroe at gmx.de
Sat Apr 14 14:39:27 BST 2007
a few days ago I read Jere Lipps' “Future of Paleontology” in PE, a
wonderful review and outlook. When reading Jere's top ten topics of
todays and futures (?) paleontology, I remembered that I owe you
You probably remember - quite a while ago I posted a little query on
asking five questions:
1. Which area of paleontology you consider especially cutting-edge?
2. Which area of paleontology you consider as genuine paleontological?
3. Which contemporaneous scientist you consider as most famous
paleontologist of you home country?
4. Which paper, book, or monograph of the last years you consider as
the m ost important paleontological publication?
5. What would you consider as the biggest challenge in paleontology
of our time?
I asked these questions with a (what I think) specific German
discussion in mind: Why is Paleontology so highly valued in the
public domain, but suffers such a strong decline in academic funding,
an ongoing tendency of closing entire institutes and academic teacher
positions etc.? I called the problem in this time: “The conflicting
perceptions of 'What is Paleontology?' between the public and
scientific community”. The simple reason for my query was, I needed
to get a better idea, what are the top Paleo-topics from our own
I got little more than 100 reactions, mostly from the US and Germany.
Meanwhile I gave a talk about the topic at the Annual Meeting of the
Paläontologische Gesellschaft, and a paper (in German) is in print in
a German Museum Journal “ Natur im Museum”, but I failed to give an
English response so far. The paper of Jere Lipps was the impulse to
write a little report for Paleonet today. (This is just informal, I
do not checked the English and I just write what is coming through my
mind right now; a time economic compromise ..;-)
What was the outcome of the query?
(1) The question, what forms the core of our discipline, was answered
relatively clear: deep time. However Germans often answered with:
“research of evolution”.
(2) The question, which topic is thought to be cutting-edge was, not
very surprisingly, answered with: integration of biological an
paleontological methods (cladistics, molecular genetics),
macroevolutionary synthesis, paleoclimate, and early life.
(3) This fits well in the listing of most important paleo-
publication: Goulds books, the “Paleobiology” text books are the
tops, but dino-books where mentioned often, too.
(4) Who is famous?: S.J. Gould, Jack Horner, Bob Bakker, Paul Serano.
In Germany Dolf Seilacher. In Catalan Xavier Panades I Blas ;-).
(5) What are the most important challenges?: Funding. And this is
important: The problems in funding recruitment were often linked with
a lack of acceptance in neighbour sciences such as biology. Our
response to that challenge was considered to develop innovative
methods and content.
So far so good. The query showed again that a discrepancy exists
between how our discipline is perceived in the public (and this
includes the public of scientists from neighbor sciences) and the
within-Paleo-perception: Whe are known for Dinos but we think the
most cutting edge things we do are macroevolutionary research,
paleobiodiversity, molecular paleobiology, paleoclimatology...
Like few other sciences paleontology produces sensations. Jere Lipps
writes that fossils remain one of the top media science topics. Does
this mean, we don't have a problem with public interest? I think, we
have a problem, but this is quite different, than that of -lets say -
I think the problem, and this is probably in Germany more apparent
because of the strong cuttings, is that the media view, which is
trivializing or banalizing, dominates the perception of our
profession. I do not mean the perception of the average couch potato,
but the perception of scientists from neighbor sciences of the
funding institutions, the university chairs etc. What these people
know from Paleontology are, plainly spoken: monsters.
I did a little survey of “Science” and “nature”, counting the content
of Paleo papers. What I found was little surprising: The search of
“Paleontology” in “original research” without “comments” in “Science”
2000–2006 produced 94 hits, the largest part are reports about
exceptional occurrences of fossils (41 articles), 17 of them about
dinosaurs. “nature” was even more skewed: from 27 “Letters to Nature”
and “Articles” 2005–2006 with paleontological focus eight were on
dinosaurs and eight on early man. Is this reflecting our field?
It would be interesting to know if this focus, expressed in “nature”
and “Science” coincides with highest impact Paleo-papers of that
years. I would guess not. My assumption is that paleontology in
journals like “nature” and “Science”, which are the prime interface
between media and science, serves the demand for sensations that
these journal need.
I think this is not a big problem in international scale. Jere Lipps
impressively listed the fields where paleontology produces high
impact science and our interdisciplinary network is strong. But I
think this is a problem for paleontology in Germany. University
politicians cut one after another entire paleo-institutes despite of
very strong publication records (look at Würzburg). There is a
culture of “We don't need Paleontology any more. Paleontology is
interesting (produces sensations), but scientifically not very
important.” The publication policy of prime journals like “nature”
and “Science” is not very helpful in this context.
The media have their own value system and their own marked and we
cannot expect to have a real impact on their content/quality. This
would be like if an artist would try to control the media which
publish critics of his/her art.
The summary of this excursion of my interest is: In the current
situation in Germany the most important thing is to enter, and
influence interdisciplinary discourses in science. Paleontologists
have to be present in scientific biology discourses in climate
discourses etc. From my perspective here in Germany I have the
impression this problem does not exist so much in the Anglo-Saxon
world, but I may be wrong...
Dr. Björn Kröger
Museum für Naturkunde
an der Humboldt Universität Berlin
mein blog: http://www.tiefes-leben.de
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