Paleontology: A Candle in the Dark*

Paleontology is the best of all sciences! At least in the public eye, it seems to be, if media attention means anything. Movies, television programs, newspapers, tabloids, magazines, and books abound with paleontology. Not all of it would meet the approval of every paleontologist, but most likely the exposure is good over the long run. This popularity provides a means of influencing the general public about science in general (Lipps 1998), which is sorely needed. The general scientific illiteracy in the public (National Science Board 1996, 2002) can be countered in part by using paleontology to show how logic, evidence and alternative ideas can be used to make life better.

Just how popular is paleontology? Dale Springer tabulated the number of times that paleontology, among various earth science disciplines, was mentioned from 1994 to 1997 in eleven popular American publications (Springer 1997). These include major magazines in the USA (Life, Newsweek, Time, U.S. News and World Report, National Geographic Magazine, Discover, Omni, Earth) and newspapers (USA Today, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education). Paleontology exceeded all the other earth sciences in the number of keyword returns by subdiscipline (e.g., paleontology, volcanology, structural geology, etc.), by practitioners (e.g., paleontologist, volcanologist, structural geologist, etc.), and by topics (e.g., dinosaur, fossil, plate tectonics, volcano, floods, etc.). Floods, earthquakes and other Earth disasters received more citations than paleontology, but these were gratuitous voyeurism rather than true interests (e.g., "thousands killed in earthquake" or "flood cost billions"). An Internet search using "paleontology" and "palaeontology" (on Google in November, 2003) yielded 600,000 pages; far too many to check out individually. Paleontology remains one of the real science topics of greatest interest to the general public for decades, with perhaps only astronomy together with space travel exceeding it in the public's eye. Even politicians of various sorts like paleontology. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, had an abiding interest in fossils (Thomas Jefferson, Paleontologist), and former USA Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has a life-long interest in paleontology, expressed some time ago through a fossil-hunting trip with Jack Horner (Gray 1997) and a cast of a dinosaur skull in his Congressional office. Even the Republic of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, with 1190 tiny coral islands (Quaternary in age) barely poking above sea level, issued dinosaur stamps. Paleontology appeals to just about everyone!

As many of us have said, this great interest in paleontology can be and is used to introduce people to various aspects of science (Lipps 1996; Stucky 1996) from paleontology to physics, from asteroids to zoology, as well as mathematics and statistics. More importantly, paleontology is among the best of sciences to show how the process of science works--ideas and evidence turned into hypotheses, multiple working hypotheses developed, and, finally, hypotheses tested and eliminated or supported. Most people have ideas about dinosaurs, for example, stemming from their childhood interests and the movies, if nothing else. Indeed, movie producers and studios know this too, and have made fortunes for years on those very interests. Like so much of natural history, paleontology is relatively easy to do and to understand in its basics. Paleontologists thus have a great opportunity to use their discipline to educate the general public about how science works--the process, not just the facts.

*This title was inspired by Carl Saganís 1995 book title, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The editorial is an update of Lippsís Presidential Address (which summarized his previous essays) delivered to the Paleontological Society in late 1997. It is published here rather than in the Journal of Paleontology, as Presidential Addresses used to be, for the larger, more general audience of this web publication.