Science! Your Tax Dollars at Work

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.

Related image
Waterson is a god.

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.

Image result for calvin and hobbes dinosaur

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.)

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

17 thoughts on “Science! Your Tax Dollars at Work”

  1. Speaking of legendary 90’s cartoons:

    You may already know the history of the term “thagomizer”, but for the edification if others, it was coined by Gary Larson in a Far Side cartoon. A paleontologist who read the cartoon realized they didn’t actually have a scientific term for the spiky thing on the end of certain dinosaurs’s tails and it has since been adopted semi-formally.

    1. Not reptiles, per se; but related to them. There are ways of looking at the skulls and the ankles that helps classify them. They are part of a grouping called archosaurs that includes birds and pterosaurs, but not reptiles or lizards.
      and a most fascinating site follow the links
      When you dig into the notes, you’ll find the scientists are a whole lot less certain than you give them credit. Their own stuff contains all sorts of cautions and alternatives.

      1. Yeah– one of the tell-tales of science, as opposed to SCIENCE!, is that it has a lot of “this might possibly be” or “thiswith this and that suggest-” or “in modern animals, thus and such is associated with-” type statements.

        Which various groups then usually edit down to, oh, “chickens are t-Rex.”

      2. Sure. It’s usually the so called popularizers who are way too certain. Most real scientists hedge like crazy – which is generally appropriate – except when there’s grant money on the line.

      3. I didn’t give them or not give them credit for anything. It is the video that called it the Age of Reptiles, and when I looked it up like you I found a whole bunch of different qualifications and questions, which was my point.

  2. The thing is, scientists (esp. Geoscientists) talk like this all the time, BUT (and it’s a big butt), it always comes with the *unspoken* assumption that ‘This is as far as we know’. If someone finds something different or contradictory, the leading lights of the old knowledge might be a bit put out and argue against it, but mostly they’re happy with a hefty wodge of ambiguity (which unfortunately gets lost in vids like this).
    Which is the direct opposite of what the True Believers in Thomas Dolby assume. The less background someone has in the field, the more certain they become. So we have monstrosities like [drumroll, please!]


    Before which we all shall bow in humble adoration, and Dawkins help you if you don’t.

    On another note, I pray a blessing of peace and acceptance on your extended family. Sounds awful.

    1. Right. Real science is glorious *because* it is messy and people are often jerks. When the truth (for scientific values of ‘truth’) is discovered, somehow, despite all that, it’s a great reason to celebrate! But the process is such that humility and caution is always the right attitude. Real scientists, even if they’re in it for the glory, will tend strongly to be circumspect among their peers because they know how easy it is to be revealed as a fool.

      Thanks for your prayers.

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