Paleonet: Paleontology and sensations

björn kröger bjoekroe at
Sat Apr 14 13:39:27 UTC 2007

Hi Paleonetters,

a few days ago I read Jere Lipps' “Future of Paleontology” in PE, a  
wonderful review and outlook. When reading Jere's top ten topics of  
todays and futures (?) paleontology, I remembered that I owe you  

You probably remember - quite a while ago I posted a little query on  
asking five questions:

1.	Which area of paleontology you consider especially cutting-edge?
2.	Which area of paleontology you consider as genuine paleontological?
3.	Which contemporaneous scientist you consider as most famous  
paleontologist of you home country?
4.	Which paper, book, or monograph of the last years you consider as  
the m ost important paleontological publication?
5.	What would you consider as the biggest challenge in paleontology  
of our time?
I asked these questions with a (what I think) specific German  
discussion in mind: Why is Paleontology so highly valued in the  
public domain, but suffers such a strong decline in academic funding,  
an ongoing tendency of closing entire institutes and academic teacher  
positions etc.? I called the problem in this time: “The conflicting  
perceptions of 'What is Paleontology?' between the public and  
scientific community”. The simple reason for my query was, I needed  
to get a better idea, what are the top Paleo-topics from our own  

I got little more than 100 reactions, mostly from the US and Germany.

Meanwhile I gave a talk about the topic at the Annual Meeting of the  
Paläontologische Gesellschaft, and a paper (in German) is in print in  
a German Museum Journal “ Natur im Museum”, but I failed to give an  
English response so far. The paper of Jere Lipps was the impulse to  
write a little report for Paleonet today. (This is just informal, I  
do not checked the English and I just write what is coming through my  
mind right now; a time economic compromise ..;-)

What was the outcome of the query?

(1)	The question, what forms the core of our discipline, was answered  
relatively clear: deep time. However Germans often answered with:  
“research of evolution”.
(2)	The question, which topic is thought to be cutting-edge was, not  
very surprisingly, answered with: integration of biological an  
paleontological methods (cladistics, molecular genetics),  
macroevolutionary synthesis, paleoclimate, and early life.
(3)	This fits well in the listing of most important paleo- 
publication: Goulds books, the “Paleobiology” text books are the  
tops, but dino-books where mentioned often, too.
(4)	Who is famous?: S.J. Gould, Jack Horner, Bob Bakker, Paul Serano.  
In Germany Dolf Seilacher. In Catalan Xavier Panades I Blas ;-).
(5)	What are the most important challenges?: Funding. And this is  
important: The problems in funding recruitment were often linked with  
a lack of acceptance in neighbour sciences such as biology. Our  
response to that challenge was considered to develop innovative  
methods and content.

So far so good. The query showed again that a discrepancy exists  
between how our discipline is perceived in the public (and this  
includes the public of scientists from neighbor sciences) and the  
within-Paleo-perception: Whe are known for Dinos but we think the  
most cutting edge things we do are macroevolutionary research,  
paleobiodiversity, molecular paleobiology, paleoclimatology...

Like few other sciences paleontology produces sensations. Jere Lipps  
writes that fossils remain one of the top media science topics. Does  
this mean, we don't have a problem with public interest? I think, we  
have a problem, but this is quite different, than that of -lets say -  

I think the problem, and this is probably in Germany more apparent  
because of the strong cuttings, is that the media view, which is  
trivializing or banalizing, dominates the perception of our  
profession. I do not mean the perception of the average couch potato,  
but the perception of scientists from neighbor sciences of the  
funding institutions, the university chairs etc. What these people  
know from Paleontology are, plainly spoken: monsters.

I did a little survey of “Science” and “nature”, counting the content  
of Paleo papers. What I found was little surprising: The search of  
“Paleontology” in “original research” without “comments” in “Science”  
2000–2006 produced 94 hits, the largest part are reports about  
exceptional occurrences of fossils (41 articles), 17 of them about  
dinosaurs. “nature” was even more skewed: from 27 “Letters to Nature”  
and “Articles” 2005–2006 with paleontological focus eight were on  
dinosaurs and eight on early man. Is this reflecting our field?

It would be interesting to know if this focus, expressed in “nature”  
and “Science” coincides with highest impact Paleo-papers of that  
years. I would guess not. My assumption is that paleontology in   
journals like “nature” and “Science”, which are the prime interface  
between media and science, serves the demand for sensations that  
these journal need.

I think this is not a big problem in international scale. Jere Lipps  
impressively listed the fields where paleontology produces high  
impact science and our interdisciplinary network is strong. But I  
think this is a problem for paleontology in Germany. University  
politicians cut one after another entire paleo-institutes despite of  
very strong publication records (look at Würzburg). There is a  
culture of “We don't need Paleontology any more. Paleontology is  
interesting (produces sensations), but scientifically not very  
important.” The publication policy of prime journals like “nature”  
and “Science” is not very helpful in this context.

The media have their own value system and their own marked and we  
cannot expect to have a real impact on their content/quality. This  
would be like if an artist would try to control the media which  
publish critics of his/her art.

The summary of this excursion of my interest is: In the current  
situation in Germany the most important thing is to enter, and  
influence interdisciplinary discourses in science. Paleontologists  
have to be present in scientific biology discourses in climate  
discourses etc. From my perspective here in Germany I have the  
impression this problem does not exist so much in the Anglo-Saxon  
world, but I may be wrong...


Dr. Björn Kröger
Museum für Naturkunde
an der Humboldt Universität Berlin
Invalidenstr. 43
D-10115 Berlin
mein blog:

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