Paleontology—The Adventure Continues
Department of Integrative Biology & Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720 USA
PE NOTE: some links in this article no longer exist 6/2013
Paleontology, a most wonderful discipline, has had a terrific past two centuries. All of it was filled with discovery, fascination, ideas and adventure. Not that the going is always easy, but with the subject, we are lucky indeed. Few have the working dimensions we do--at least four billion years of time, the entire earth and more, and every living or once-living thing fall under our scrutiny. We work with such a broad range of subjects. What a joy! What intrigue! What a job! Oh, there was controversy and more than a few were wrong, but it was exciting. And the next couple of hundred years will remain exciting times for paleontology, without doubt in my mind. A new journal in a new medium at the start of a new millennium is thus an opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are to be paleontologists and how we can use paleontology to influence more people, more widely than we ever imagined.
Who among us is not thrilled to do paleontology? Who walks reluctantly to their lab or museum? Who is not joyful to find a fossil? Who cannot think of neat ideas about past life? Who retires completely? Paleontology is, as the avian paleontologist Loye Holmes Miller said in reference to his own career, "Lifelong Boyhood". That career, as with many of us, began as a child tracking down birds and fossils and ended only with death at age 96. So many paleontologists go that way, thinking about one fossil or another to the very end. In a time when 80% of the working public is unhappy with their jobs, we in paleontology are fortunate! Scientists in general are pretty happy people, but I think we have it better than most.
Why? Because it is so fascinating. We all have known that since our first discovery of the field. Importantly, most people in general learn of paleontology as youngsters. They get just as excited and joyful about it as we do. From presidents (Jefferson) and lesser politicians (Gingrich) to the family next door, paleontology has attracted attention to science as no other field, save perhaps astronomy, ever has. Paleontology dominates the mass media and movies over all other sciences. Sometimes we come off as a little weird or complete wackos, but there we are on the big and little screens around the world. Our discipline is very, very prominent. The media uses us exactly because people everywhere will pay good money to see paleo-topics. We can capitalize on this too, for our own benefit and for the benefit of scientific literacy in society. For in spite of the inherent attraction to paleontology, most people remain nearly completely ignorant of science and how it is done.
I don't need to recall the great names in paleontology and what they did. You know them well. Some started little revolutions within our own branch of science, and others, Darwin in particular, started one that resulted in a whole new way of looking at life's history and that has had enduring impact and controversy on just about everyone on earth. We should expect little revolutions to continue, and maybe even another big one or two, and this new journal will be on the forefront of disseminating them. With it, these revolutions, our debates, and the way we present ourselves scientifically will take on new meaning. In Darwin's day, educated people read widely and his "Origin" was sold out on the first day of its release. Few science books sell that well now days, for as we have learned more, we have become increasingly specialized. The ordinary citizen, for lack of time and a need for programmed relaxation, does not seek out the details but is content with the spectacularization of paleontology in the media. No longer are we been able to discuss meaningfully with ordinary laypersons the significant theories and finds in our field. Those that do attract the attention of the media are sensationalized, either for better or worse. Our controversies, when they do make the media, are badly distorted. All of this because of a basic lack of comprehension about how science in general works--the processes of critical thinking, skepticism, and evidential reasoning to develop and test creative hypotheses.
We have in Palaeontologia Electronica an opportunity. For the first time, we professional paleontologists (and I include those serious people earning livings in other fields but that write about fossils scientifically) will be read in the homes and dens of Mr. J. Q. Public worldwide. When fossils hit the news, you can bet that Palaeontologia Electronica will be automatically found by all of the Internet search engines and fed directly to people who could never have checked the original literature in any form in the past. Many will find us by accident, just by following the electronic links from movie or museum sites. Everyone will be able to see what we do. And many will. Little kids will pummel us wanting data for their class projects, teachers will seek our advice, young adults seeking an adventure will look to Palaeontologia Electronica for opportunity, older people will vicariously explore our world through the journal and try to second guess us. We will be tested in ways we have not known and cannot anticipate. Check out some of the general chat sites dealing with our topics just to get an idea of what is going on out there. Now our science and we practitioners, with Palaeontologia Electronica, will move toward increasing publicness.
Thus, those in charge of and contributing to Paleontologia Electronica have an added burden and responsibility for paleontology. Not only will papers have to be written to demonstrate good science, but they will have to represent our discipline fairly, cogently, and with verve to a world-wide audience. They will have to make maximum use of the special features of this medium--sounds, videos, movies, 3-D presentations, interactive figures and datasets, opportunity for immediate feedback among others. We could hope for nothing better. Here is a chance to meet directly the people who support our science, who give us money, who practice our science in the field and in their hobby rooms, who are curious, who are cantankerous, who want to be involved with us, or who want to challenge us. Let's not bore them with deadly dull stuff. Let's not ignore them. Let's use Paleontologia Electronica to merge research and general intrigue together in ways that will benefit everyone. This journal must show us at our very best--using our critical skills and evidential reasoning, developing clearly and concisely our hypotheses, eliminating those that fail the tests, and evaluating those that remain. Science in action! By example, we can show the young and the old the advantages of scientific thought in paleontology and in their own daily lives. Keep it in mind. Write these kinds of things. Let the editors know of new ideas. Keep them on their toes! That's the name of the game in this new medium!