Few, I imagine, are bugged by this, and I maybe the only one to strenuously object:
A recurring and dishonest trait of science popularizations and populizers is their utter disregard of science. Here, we have a little PBS documentary where more and less supported speculation about things that happened many millions of years ago are presented as simple facts, over an over and over again.
It’s good to remember that what we actually have is a good pile of fossilized bones that are very reasonably thought to be many millions of years old. Even this conclusion – that what we have are the bones and imprints of animals and plants that lived in the distant past – is, while very reasonable and something I’m fairly well convinced is true, is yet built on a foundation of a whole bunch of assumptions. These assumptions – for example, that we can tell how old something is by the geological layer we find it in, that we have the right dates for those layers, that fossils don’t get jumbled around – seem good, and I have no reason to challenge them, but they remain assumptions. They could be wrong.
In other words, I’m not getting too exercised if a narrator says simply: these fossils are about 100,000,000 years old. While it would be nice to see the case for believing this is so made explicitly once in a while, it’s not an outrageous overreach.
Where it starts getting a little less certain is when it is simply stated that, say, dinosaurs dominated a particular environment. Really? We know that giant cephalopods, who left no skeletal remains because they thoughtlessly neglected to have skeletons, didn’t lurk in the shallow seas and eat dinosaurs for lunch? This only sounds crazy, until you realize that any number of even crazier sounding things have proven to be true. Plate tectonics, say, or the motions of the seemingly motionless earth. Sea giants live on krill and ants kill and eat pythons and cattle in this world! Venus flytraps eat tree frogs!
I’d bet, if there were any way to collect on such a bet, that speculations about the environments in which various dinosaurs lived over the many millions of years are seriously off about half the time. Some creature that left no traces might be the prime food source for, say, triceratops, who used their thagomizers primarily to rip it loose from the rocks it grew on to eat it. Or, far from being minor players, the primitive rodent-like creatures were causing the extinction of many larger animals because they gnawed through the shells of their eggs, or, even better, pushed eggs out onto rocks to break them. Maybe worms infested the nests of pterosaurs are killed them off, or the giant plant eaters lived on particularly chewy jellyfish. Who knows, but nature being nature, there was bound to be some weird stuff like this over the course of a couple hundred million years.
Sometimes we have entire fossilized skeletons, sometimes even the imprint of skin and feathers, and traces of pigment are recovered. Even DNA shows up, sometimes. Mostly, though, we have a few scraps of bone reassembled through hunches and presumed parallels with better known creatures. We look at teeth, and speculate that those that look like more modern teeth belonged to creatures that ate the same sorts of things that those modern animals eat. Well? Seems reasonable. Should it be stated as a fact, especially given that there no reason to imagine we have anything like a complete catalogue of what was available to eat in any particular environment?
These may seem like quibbles, but taken all together, we, the viewer, are given the impression scientists are a lot more certain about a lot more things than they ever could be certain about. We KNOW how the dinosaurs lived! We KNOW what killed them off! We, your scientific betters, have filled in all the blanks, answered the questions, provided the proper understanding. All that’s left for you little people is to get in line and parrot what we tell you. You’ve all had 12-16 years of schooling to prepare you to do exactly that!
Not so dangerous, possibly, when we’re talking dinosaurs. But it doesn’t stop there.
(Didn’t mean to take a break from posting here, just sort of happened. Stuff happens. I would appreciate it if you might say a prayer for my sister and her family, as she is near death. In less than 7 years, I’ve lost a son and 2 sisters. It has not been an easy time for any of us.)