Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The importance of outreach in palaeontology

Over the years, many great scientists could be accused (often fairly) of being very snobbish when it comes to engaging with the public. There are many scientists who often say it isn't their job to, but I'm here to suggest it should be (with a specific focus on palaeo matters).

This actually breaks down into two main sections and I will address them in turn:

General education - This one I feel like is probably the most important, particularly in this day and age with the increase in rise of fundamentalism and decreased scientific literacy in the general public. Specifically for palaeontology is the rise of creationism (or its pseudoscientific equivalent, intelligent design - ID). If anyone reading my blog isn't aware of this I would be surprised, but there are increasingly large numbers of people who have literal interpretations of the Bible (they aren't the only religion but the one that is most pervasive and actively trying to undermine evolution in many countries). Effectively the belief is that the Earth was formed in 4004BC based on work by the Archbishop James Ussher in 1650 who counted the ages of everyone in the Bible (start with Adam and Eve and figure out who begat whom etc.). This would make the Earth 6019 years old, although some have a "loose" interpretation of this and allow up to 10000 years to be safe. Whilst many people who have a level of scientific literacy say why should we care about the tiny religious group, the are not a tiny group any more...

In the USA there is the Creation Museum (there was an interesting debate between Bill Nye and the head of Answers in Genesis), the Discovery Institute (am organisation devoted to publishing peer reviewed papers about the "science" supporting the Biblical account), and the countless public school boards that are trying to ban evolution or at least force the teaching of creationism or ID alongside as viable options. Thankfully for science the USA has the separation of church and state laws, and several famous trials have quashed the teaching of first creationism and then ID. This separation of church and state does not exist in the UK (mainly because the Church of England is intricately linked to the state), and there is no regulation of what gets taught in private schools. There are ever increasing numbers of creationists out there, and a surprising example is my alma mater in Bristol there is even a professor (in engineering) who is a creationist. This was brought up in one of our first biology lectures, and is particularly surprising for a university that hosts one of the largest palaeontology departments in the world. It's not just individuals though, just outside of Bristol is the creationist zoo called Noah's Ark Zoo Farm. I am reliably informed (I refused to go on principle) that the signs there talk about the days animals are created in Genesis, and it is overtly as well as covertly teaching creation stories (although the website suggests there is a more complex story, please go have a read if you are interested). What I want to be explicitly clear about here though, isn't that teaching creationism or ID should not be allowed, but it should be clear that they are religious studies with no scientific backing and therefore kept out of the science classrooms.

The other major controversy sweeping the countries of the world that has as much to do about a distrust of scientists as much as a failure to properly educate people is man-made (anthropomorphic) global warming/climate change. The scientific community is more or less unanimous in the cause, humans burning fossil fuels, and the effects (although the magnitudes of the changes in the future are less certain and associated with unknowns in our climate models). The data is pretty clear as the recordings from Hawaii show CO2 increasing every year. The means that we have experienced a crazy number of years of warm temperatures over the long term averages, with 2014 the hottest on record, and 2001-2010 the warmest decade on record. According to reports (which I have not independently verified), February 1985 was the last month that had equal or below average temperatures - before I was even born! The Earth has never been below the long term averages in my life time, and equally an entire generation of people.

Global surface temperatures for the land and ocean. NB the last combine Land and Ocean at average is 1985 (land only is in the 90s)
Whilst there are variations in temperatures found throughout geological time (not just the ice ages - we are still technically in one as we have ice on the poles), associated with Milankovitch Cycles (tip of the planet on its axis, distance from the sun, and variation in rotational axis) and major climactic events (volcanism, large impacts, catastrophic degassing of deep ocean reservoirs etc.) the current trend is far beyond anything ever seen and far beyond anything that can be explained by those alone. There was a talk at UCL about ongoing research suggesting that humans have been messing with the climate long before fossil fuel burning due to us changing land use, particularly cutting down forests and planting crops giving reason to suggest we are in a new age for the Earth, the Anthropocene. Whether this is prehistoric as the UCL talk suggested, in 1610 or 1964 (as the Nature paper link suggests) will be debated, but undoubtedly humans are leaving a clear mark on the planet that will be recorded in the rock record. The data is clear, but there is still much debate within countries with politicians showing a lack of enthusiasm to address the problem due to a distrust in the data, and the costs of fixing OUR (humankind's) problem. A good example was the "Climategate" scandal where some researchers had their computers hacked and there were communications about how to manipulate the data for display purposes. 8 separate investigations were carried out and cleared the researchers of any wrongdoing, but called on them to do more to regain public. Another is where politicians (the USA Republicans are particularly good at it), hold up their hands and say that they aren't scientists so how should they know whether global warming is real (whilst ignoring the research from their scientists/governmental research e.g. NASA).

It is very much in the scientific community's best interest to engage the general public, whether in schools or helping teachers and politicians understand the work in an open and transparent way. This is particularly vital for people with their own work, and that is where I next focus.

Explaining your research - It is incredibly important for researchers to be able to explain the value of their own research to not just the general public, but also people from different scientific backgrounds. From my limited publication record, my family (of various backgrounds) are happy if they can understand 1 word in every 4 or 5 of my papers. As such they do not understand most of what I do. Obviously explaining your work to friends and family isn't the main reason for doing it, but underlines the issues that people outside our specific fields face. Probably the most important reason is being able to distil your research down into something that everyone can understand so that the funding bodies, which are made up of people from all scientific areas, can interpret your work and decide if you deserve more money! But being able to explain you research is also vital for press releases and for general communications to make sure that your research is correctly presented.


Schools programs - When it comes to palaeo it is incredibly easy to get young kids enthused and thinking about it. Pretty much all young children love dinosaurs (it's how I got into palaeontology aged 4 or 5), so utilising that love is easy. University of Bristol was incredibly good at doing outreach into schools as part of the Bristol Dinosaur Project. In the duration of the funding of the project (which was almost 3 years), the project reached 10000+ kids in schools around Bristol. These weren't large groups, these were standard classroom sizes (20-25 kids at most), which were taught by 2 people from the university. The standard exercise involved seeing what dinosaurs they could name, which countries they thought dinosaurs were found in and showing maps of dinosaur finds including Antarctica and thinking about how climates changed, how big dinosaurs got, what do they reckon dinosaurs closest living relatives were, how fossils form, and how we can tell what dinosaurs ate. From there the talk then focussed on the Bristol Dinosaur (a prosauropod from Bristol cave deposits), and we had a lifesize jigsaw puzzle for them to put together, and to look at its proportions (long tail, small head) and what that might mean for its lifestyle, then let them try to match replica bones to the skeleton, then we put a photo of a tooth up and asked what they thought it might have eaten. After all of this talking we got out a bunch of fossils that were borrowed/donated from the uni and city museum collections and let the kids touch and think what these fossils might be. Some were more obvious (ammonites), whilst bits like the ball (from the ball and socket joint) of a mastodon femur let them think. Then we showed them pictures of the reconstructions of what the animals looked like before letting them asking any questions they may have had.

Talking about the fossils the kids had on their desk. Specifically horsetails

Obviously this is not the only method, and every year at SVP there are increasingly more demonstrations of outreach in schools and how various universities are approaching the issue.

Science festivals/fairs - Again I base a lot of what I say here based on my experience with the Bristol Dinosaur Project. Every year there is a large science festival in Bristol known as the Festival of Nature. There are 2 days of only school children visits (Thursday and Friday) then Saturday and Sunday were open to the general public. Our activities varied from year to year, but always involved a couple of sandboxes filled with dinosaur bones that had magnets in them. The children then tried to match the bones to a magnetic skeleton outline on a board.

Helping the kids dig up dinosaur bones at the Bristol Festival of Nature

In addition we had a selection of the fossils from the school sessions, sometimes they got a chance to make plaster or paris casts of trilobites or claws to take home, and sometimes we had some of the microfossils from the dinosaur locales for people to look at under miscroscopes. With these sessions you may or may not actually get to teach as much as you might in school sessions, but the goal was still to get the kids (and parents) thinking about fossils and things that they look like that are alive today. The Festival of Nature had up to 30,000 visitors across the days so gives a chance to get to people from a much larger spectrum. I was involved in other festivals in Bristol and Bath, but there are other large ones in the UK such as Cheltenham. One of the most interesting moments we had was when a creationist woman brought her child who came and spent ages with us and we talked dinosaurs and science to him, whilst she refused to enter the tent we were based in. The plus side of festival is they do draw so many people, young and old, and there are often lots of good exhibits that you can link up with to help bring big picture ideas together, like dating archaeological things, fossils and the age of the universe and how they all relate.

Museums - Museums are already large outreach centres as well as repositories for collections and research. Most in the UK are actively involved in projects not just within their normal daytime hours. Bristol City Museum hosted a few late nights where they opened the doors for talks and displays from the university to showcase their collaborations. The Natural History and Science Museums both do massive late night showcases where they have drinks and talks as well. Due to their large numbers of guests already they are ideal locations to showcase work, or even help design information panels for the displays - I am collaborating with Anjali Goswami on a piece on how we know what dinosaurs looked like that's going in the UCL Grant Museum for part of their Strange Creatures Exhibit. Just last week (7th May) I was involved in a Show'n'tell session at the Grant Museum discussing my PhD research on dinosaurs to members of the general public.

3D printed skull of Ornithomimus used to show my PhD work.

Public speaking events - These are often the best way to display your research to the public as you can focus what you are trying to say for your specific audience. Whether this is for a specific group (e.g. meetings for local geological societies), or a general open day thing to showcase some work in coordination with other activities. There are also other less traditional ways from radio podcasts (see palaeocast.com for a good listen), to comedy nights (like the Infinite Monkey Cage do with comedians and Brian Cox for physics) which all allow different ways to engage your audience with information.

Media - Whether newspapers, television or radio the media will probably always be the biggest outlet for research to the public. Whether this is people actively involved in documentaries, being interviewed, or providing the press releases, all of these have a large impact on how people view research. The media are often incredibly important for young researchers to get their work noticed, normally in the form of press releases and follow up interviews. Within palaeontology we often like to think we have made it (I have yet to), when the Daily Mail publish some highly erroneous article on the newest fossil creature discovered that we have been involved in. Whether it was the fish that supposedly was the ancestor of whales, or the anomalocarid that was. To give them a bit of credit I have gone back through their science articles and the articles are far tidier and less ridiculous than on first press release, but the http link continues to say the original writing. The comments sections are normally even funnier/scarier depending on your point of view. To that end it is imperative that we as scientists clearly explain our work to everyone so that their can be no mistakes or misquoting/misrepresenting of the science.

Social Media - Much like blogs they allow interaction readily with the public. Twitter and Facebook are probably the most common, and quick searches of some of the famous scientists in any scientific field and you will see how they interact with short "wordbites" of information and science. Normally its them teaching the world or sharing information, but occasionally you will see personal interaction on a one to one level over certain things. Neil Degrasse Tyson would be a good port of call for people searching. However, much like the mass media some of this needs to be approached with caution. Even IFLS (I ****ing Love Science) which does a world of good for publishing science to the wider public is known to have issues with it's reporting, so much like with the media it is important to make sure there cannot be any misrepresentation, accidental or otherwise.

Blogs - I started my blog as an outreach to discuss my work and experiences particularly for friends and family who haven't got a damn clue what I do as all they hear is nerdy things from me and effectively jibberish in my papers as they aren't scientists. But it also has a secondary effect of giving me practice distilling down my work to make sure I fully understand the concepts I am talking about. Einstein is reported to have explained his theory of gravity being deformations in space time to a child by explaining it as a blind ant walking over a curved branch and never being able to see what he could. He also enjoyed the concept of racing light waves and looking at a clock if you raced away at the speed of light and how it would appear stationary to the observer moving away, but not to any other people (theory of relativity). Blogs are a great way to involve the general public in your work on your grounds, and combined with other social media, allow people a chance to engage directly wit you.

Undoubtedly there will be many more ways people can and do regularly engage the public in science. There are also probably limits to how far we should go to engage the public (see this interesting article from John Hutchinson) particularly when it comes to incomplete or ongoing research. We must as scientists endeavour to make our work not just some unattainable work in a journal, but something that the wider public can understand.