One of the most influential approaches to teaching in the last few decades goes by the acronym KWL, where K stands for what students already know, W for what they want to find out, and L for what they have learned. The K part forces the instructor to learn what background knowledge, including misconceptions, that their students bring to a subject. Over the past decade, I have become increasing concerned about the “K” that members of the public, as well as our fellow scientists, bring to my field of paleontology. The perceptions of what we do and who we are rife with errors, with serious consequences for the long-term future of the discipline. Paleontologists are confused with archaeologists; they are assumed to only be interested in dinosaurs; and they are usually pictured as white men, often with a beard and a battered cowboy hat, working outdoors with a hammer and a whisk broom.
The confusion with archaeologists is of somewhat understandable; scientists of both fields can spend a lot of time outdoors digging old stuff up from the ground. There are also strong overlaps in methods and concepts. Archaeologists and paleontologists are interested in dating what they have uncovered (although we rarely use carbon dating), in reconstructing the environment they formed in, and in the processes of biological decay. The theory of evolution underlies the two fields. Both sciences would also disavow Indiana Jones, who was not a paleontologist and was a very bad archaeologist (theft of cultural heritage, anyone?). Scientists from both disciplines also often collaborate. But at core, archaeologists are interested in the history of humanity, which is outside the scope of paleontological research.
Some paleontologists do indeed study dinosaurs. But most don’t. Dinosaurs, as wonderful as they are, are only a tiny fraction of the life that has lived on Earth and have been preserved as fossils. In truth, the majority of us study other parts of the huge tree of life and its history, which mainly occurred well before the first sauropod or theropod appeared.
Although many paleontologists are white men with beards, me included, the last several decades have seen a major shift in the demographics of the field. Increasingly, one of my fellow scientists is just as likely to be a woman. And they are increasingly the intellectual leaders of our field and in positions of authority. Ethnic and racial diversity unfortunately still lags, but this is now explicitly recognized and steps to address this disparity are being taken.
Paleontological research still often begins with grueling and careful field work, but there are many paleontologists who have never used a pickaxe and shovel in their research. Instead, they use increasing sophisticated laboratory methods to unveil amazing new details about fossils, such as the color patterns of ancient birds or the minute structures of tiny arthropods. Others use cutting edge computer methods to unravel the evolutionary history of groups or to study the dynamics of evolutionary change. Paleontology today is highly sophisticated, and we ask amazing questions: how and when did multicellular life appear? What happens when gigantic volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts damage the global environment? What does the history of life teach us about its possible future?
To discuss these and other such issues at length, I decided several years ago to write a book for the general public. The book, entitled Explorers of Deep Time, is under contract to Columbia University Press. I am expected to complete it by the end of 2020 (I will not pull a George R.R. Martin!). The book does not focus on the science of paleontology but on paleontology as a science; what are the questions we ask, why we ask them, how we try to answer them, and who we are as both scientists and individuals. I hope that the public will want (W!) to find out what it is paleontologists actually do and what we are like as individuals and scientists, and that they will learn (L!) what an absolutely remarkable field ours is.
This piece has been republished with permission from Medium.