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Guest blog: A Missed Opportunity for Paleontologists

[From time to time on The Integrative Paleontologists, we will invite guest bloggers to share alternate viewpoints about current topics. Today’s guest post is by Matthew Brown, who previously posted about the impact of new regulations on fossil collection from federal lands.]

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Ask any paleontologist how they chose their field, and one of the most frequent responses that you would hear is “I always loved dinosaurs as a kid, and just never grew out of it.” Like astronaut or firefighter, the job of paleontologist is certainly a title that many children aspire to hold, and we often refer to paleontology as a “gateway drug into science.” Dinosaurs have captured the public imagination since their discovery, and for nearly 200 years have starred in books, cartoons, and movies. They have advertised gas stations and inspired as the centerpiece of blockbuster museum exhibits. This weekend, the film Jurassic World broke domestic and international records, grossing $524.1 million worldwide, and once again will expose a generation to the excitement of watching genetically re-engineered extinct animals running amok. And paleontologists aren’t happy about it.

In 1993, the film Jurassic Park revolutionized the way the public looked at dinosaurs, and helped to draw attention to the paradigm shift that took place in the way we study and interpret past life. New books and courses in paleontology flourished, and more than a few working scientists today can trace their introduction to the science through the Jurassic Park novels and movies. In recent months, however, the professional paleontological community has leveled numerous criticisms against the scientific accuracy of the new installment in the franchise.  Through articles and opinion pieces in National Geographic, The Guardian, Scientific American, The Telegraph, CBS, CNN, and the New York Times, scientists have roundly attacked the Jurassic World filmmakers for failing to make the new villains of their monster movie look like our current interpretations of dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles. Despite one character in the movie itself reminding us “nothing in Jurassic World is natural,” real-life scientists are admonishing Hollywood for a failure to educate. Some have voiced concerns about the “dumb questions” that they might field from a confused public. While nitpicking a lack of animated feathers or implausible communication between raptors, critics have yet to provide a compelling explanation for why getting the facts right matters. So why study paleontology, or any other natural science? This is the big picture question lost in the pedantic static, and I believe it to be the real missed opportunity.

We certainly know more about dinosaurian biology today than we did 22 years ago. But at the same time, according to surveys by the National Science Foundation, only 48% of the American public accepts human evolution. There is scientific, but not political, consensus on climate change. Congress has proposed massive cuts to the Earth Sciences budgets of the National Science Foundation and NASA, and last week the governor of Illinois proposed shutting down the Illinois State Museum.  Far from the dusty storehouses as they are commonly portrayed, museums, along with universities, are this nation’s factories for knowledge generation. This new knowledge will be key to humanity’s food, energy, and water security, to continued advances in medicine, space exploration, extinctions, and understanding of our climate. A country who doesn’t understand how that knowledge is generated and used will probably be reluctant to fund it. Science requires a childlike curiosity and openness to accept new information, for permission to be wrong. But it just as much needs us to be grownups, to explain (and recognize) the consequences of action and inaction.

 

See real dinosaurs at the McClung Museum
The McClung Museum gets it! They tied in the JW opening with museum discounts. Image © 2015 Stephanie Drumheller and used with permission.

Few people enter the natural sciences for high pay or glamour. Instead, we are compelled to answer questions about the world and universe around us, to gain new insights into the story of our planet and its life. This is the opportunity for paleontologists to be those ambassadors for science, using the international stage that a movie like Jurassic World provides to get people excited. It should be no surprise that scientists with advanced degrees in a field know more than producers, directors, writers, and other members of the general public; but instead of fact checking them at every turn, let’s walk that public through the same joy of discovery that we experience every day. In the film, a child runs past a theme park display on genetics shouting something like “ACTG! The building blocks of life!” How often do you hear that in a museum? In my 20-year career, not once. Paleontology is on the cultural radar, and we paleontologists should be relishing the opportunity to engage, and remembering that there are no dumb questions, especially when they come from children. Rather than behaving like, well, boneheads.

Matthew A. Brown is Director of Museum Operations at the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory and Lecturer in the Department of Geological Sciences, The University of Texas at Austin.

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NB from SW: I want to commend one museum, the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, whose pic is shown above. They had a great tie-in with the Jurassic World opening, including movie posters advertising museum discounts to moviegoers, fossils and dino species info on display at the theater, and a dino-themed summer camp. You can check out pics and get more info on their Facebook page or Twitter. Some scientists and museums did get it right – by using the movie as an opportunity to capitalize on interest, they educated the public in a positive way (i.e., doing more than nitpicking). Great job, McClung Museum! And thanks to Dr. Stephanie Drumheller for tipping me off on their great efforts!

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