22 July 2013

Teach the nontroversy: Tyrannosaurus teaching

If you’re a paleontologist, it seems there’s a quick way toget attention: say something about Tyrannosaurus rex. A new paper about predatory behaviour in the terrible lizard king got its fair share of attention, because it was reported as being relevant to this controversy, laid out by Calvin and Hobbes:

That’s right, it’s time to play:

The problem is, among working dinosaur paleontologists, this is a nontroversy. It just isn’t even a question. John Hutchinson wrote an excellent post laying out both the background when it was a controversy (past tense) and why it’s just bothersome to him now:

But when a journalist asks me how I feel about a new paper that revisits the “controversy”, I feel embarassed for palaeontology. Can’t we get past this? It makes us look so petty, mired in trivial questions for decades.

I understand this, I really do. Sometimes, you get tired. You get tired of rehashing the same old misrepresentations. But I am mindful of the point made by this xkcd:

Hutchinson, I think, know this, when he talks about getting questions from a kid (my emphasis):

That’s why I started off this long post talking about feeling deflated, or disappointed, when asked this question. I do feel that way. I have to admit, I sometimes even feel that way when a sweet young kid asks me that question. Deep inside, I wish they wondered about something else.

Similarly, Brian Switek wrote:

(A)s I expected, the question of whether T. rex was a hunter or scavenger came up today while I was on WNPR's Colin McEnroe Show.

Having met Brian, I’m sure that he handled the question like a pro: not with disdain or fatigue, but with a smile and good humour.

We always have to be wary of the “curse of expertise.” When you’re deep in a field, you get so used to knowing about something, you forget that other people don’t know it. There are all sorts of questions that people ask themselves. They get to those questions not because of any sort of failure of education, but just because they are curious, and have idle thoughts.

For instance, I have learned from listening to Dr. Karl’s weekly phone-in show on Triple J radio that a huge number of people, completely independently of each other, wonder what would happen in you drilled a hole though the centre of the Earth and fell through it. Would you go to the other side, or get stuck in the middle? (The former.) This question is so common, that Karl instantly says, “The answer is 42 minutes.”

I reckon it’d be very easy for someone to look at a a Tyrannosaurus rex reconstruction, be completely unaware of the history laid out by Hutchinson, and still wonder, “Hey, could T. rex have killed anything with those short front arms?”

Even if we rail against the systematic failure of journalism or society to do a better job of getting information to people in general, it’s part of the job of being any sort of educator to stay open and enthused when dealing with questions from individual people. Those are the people we want to reach, and you can’t reach them if they see your eyes roll.

Related posts

Tides and doldrums in science communication

External links

Physical evidence of predatory behavior in Tyrannosaurus rex
Tyrannosaurus rex: predator or media hype?
Time to slay the T. rex “debate”
Ten thousand


jrhutch94705 said...

I certainly agree that the wrong approach when asked by the public about a "nontroversy" is to say/imply that their question is boring. That's why my post said "So when I get asked about the controversy after a public lecture, I always try to go into detail about it. I don’t sigh and say “go Google it”."

As scientists we have to balance the accuracy of science communication with not acting like we're unreachable in ivory towers or too esoteric to be comprehensible. I think the best strategy is to both explain why there is a nontroversy but put it in a positive light, that science is exciting and always changing, and that we do solve issues and move on (but explain how the solution was reached); that's the teachable moment. But, given that we're human, it's not always an easy task to put on a smiley face, although I agree that it is a science communicator's job to do so.

Yet at some point the way the media portrays the science to the public has to catch up to that and move on from old nontroversies to modern issues, and that's more what my post was reacting to. A mistake would be to pretend that there is no nontroversy but rather a vibrant controversy; that would be perpetuating misinformation; and yet that is what some reporting on nontroversies (by some journalists and by some scientists) does. The teachable moment associated with any nontroversy, controversy, or mystery is a different issue.

Thomas Holtz said...

Do NOT avoid it, but rephrase it. Some possibilities:

1) Address the obligate scavenger as a hypothesis, and see how we have tested that hypothesis with fossil data.

2) (Not mutually exclusive): Address how we would infer the particular feeding mechanisms and strategies of extinct species like Tyrannosaurus rex on comparison with other extinct and living carnivores.

For instance, this talk I give/