‘New Dinosaur Fossil Hailed As Missing Link’

I know this topic has already been covered somewhat (and in a far more entertaining manner) by The Guardian writer Martin Robbins, but I thought I’d shove my own oar in, because it is something that irritates me almost every time I open a newspaper (you may notice that this blog is going a bit ranty at the moment…I blame this on Charlie Brooker (I’ve been watching 10 O’Clock Live and How TV Ruined Your Life lately) and Ben Goldacre (whose book Bad Science I am currently reading)).

Science is very poorly reported in the news, and even institutions that you would expect to take fact-checking and journalistic integrity seriously rarely seem to get it right. And the quality of the reporting seems to go rapidly downhill when they are discussing palaeontology in particular. I have seen new fossil finds hailed as the evidence ‘that finally proves Darwin’s 200-year-old theory of evolution’ (excuse me? Finally proves?! This is a direct quote from a news piece I saw last year (although sadly I can’t remember which particular fossil find they were talking about)), any number of ‘missing links’ which a) weren’t missing to start with, and b) weren’t in fact related to the species the journalist quoted them as being links between, and of course the perennial favourite: any and every fossil animal over 65 million years old being described as a dinosaur.

I am aware that the media have to aim their pieces at the general public who may or may not have a good grasp of science, and that they need to keep things fairly simple, but surely there is no need to call a pterosaur a dinosaur? Everyone can recognise a pterosaur when they see one, so just call it a pterosaur. Most people already think of pterosaurs as dinosaurs, and wrongly naming them as such in news articles just perpetuates this misunderstanding. But I see it all the time. And this is only one example of the level of factual inaccuracy that reguarly crops up in the reporting of biology.

Of course most science journalists are not themselves scientists, and seem to have a limited grasp of their own subject matter, so it’s easy to see how these errors and misunderstandings can creep in. The answer is obvious: hire scientists who can write rather than writers who don’t know science. Or just check your facts before sending an article to press. That is, after all, what Wikipedia is there for.

Fighting The Battle Of Who Could Care Less

The title of today’s post comes from a Ben Folds Five song (entitled, funnily enough, Battle Of Who Could Care Less), mostly because it happens to be playing in my study at this exact moment, but it’s also quite apt. I hate doing it, but I feel a rant coming on…

As an unemployed museums person on the bottom end of the museums ladder, I spend a lot of time scouring the internet for job adverts. And a trend is beginning to attract my attention: I have seen in the last year (last few months particularly) a lot of traineeships and internships aimed at getting young people into enty-level positions which would otherwise be denied to them due to lack of education/experience. Which is great – the museums sector desperately needs a crop of young people with experience, and outside of volunteering there are few ways to get the necessary experience. But what I’m not seeing advertised anywhere are the entry-level positions that these trainees/interns are supposed to be going into after they’re done being trainees and interns. If there were any, I’d be applying for them myself!

Maybe next year there will a spate of entry-level positions advertised to accomodate these fresh, newly-trained museums professionals. But I doubt it. The museum sector as a whole was hit early and hard by the governments cuts made in the wake of the recent (and ongoing) financial crisis, and continue to be made. Where people leave or retire from a post, they are not generally renewed or readvertised, and new positions are very rarely being made. Especially, it seems, in the sciences. This may just be my bias because I pay more attention to what’s going on the the world of science, but I’m not convinced. While science curatorships are cut, positions in the arts are still being advertised. Which doesn’t surprise me, because while the general public is not as interested in art (see my post from a while ago discussing the results of a Museums Association survey on this topic), it is the art supporters that bring in the most money to museums.

So where does this leave our current trainees and interns? Sadly, I suspect it will leave them in the same position as me in a year or two – unemployed and bitter at the injustice of the world, with no use for their new-found knowledge and skills except to volunteer at their local museum, which will probably by then be run by an army of volunteers as the paid staff find themselves victims of yet more cut-backs. Ah, the Big Society at work.

Hey-ho. Actually, this week I’ve found a few jobs to apply for (some of which I’m actually qualified for!), and I’ve just applied for a job in the States, where the global financial catastrophe doesn’t seem to have hit museums quite so hard. Fingers crossed!

Rabbits, Revulsion, & Repetition

There is always a certain element of worry involved when running a public event using handling objects. First, obviously, that the precious museum objects will be damaged, but there is also a concern over how people will react to them. Especially when using dead animals. Some people can find stuffed animals quite upsetting, and there is always a percentage of the audience that is just repulsed by wet-preserved specimens. But I have usually found that, the more worrisome we think a specimen is, the cooler children think it is. A good example would be the freeze-dried week-old baby rabbit that we (when I say “we” I mostly mean the biology curator. I’m just a volunteer!) used in a museum event in Bristol yesterday to celebrate the Chinese New Year (it’s the Year of the Rabbit, in case you hadn’t heard!). It is a cute little blighter, all curled up with its eyes closed almost as if it could be sleeping, but I’ll admit there was a little curatorial worry that it might be a step too far. We were using a couple of stuffed adult rabbits, but dead baby animals are always a more tragic sight, and we debated whether we should actually have the kit on display. We needn’t have worried at all: some adults found it mildly disturbing, but most children wanted to cuddle it and take it home! They were picking it up without a second thought, often to slightly queasy expressions from their parents, even after being told that it was a real dead rabbit. Their curiosity, and innate attraction to all things cute and fluffy, outweighed any worries they had about touching a dead thing. And of course the younger ones just thought it was sleeping. Aren’t children wonderful?

The event seemed to be a huge success, judging by the number of people there, and now there are dozens (possibly even hundreds!) of Bristolian children who should be able to tell the difference between a rabbit and a hare (hares are larger, with longer ears, live solitarily above ground, and produce precocial (well-developed at birth) young rather than altricial (blind, naked and ugly!) young like rabbits), and between a rabbit and a rodent (lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) have 2 extra dinky teeth behind the top incisors, which rodents lack (anyone know why they have them? Wikipedia wasn’t able to tell me that!)). I lost count of the amount of times I recited those nuggets of information to people, but that is the nature of public events: there is always an inevitable amount of repetition involved, because people want to know the important things. It did mean that my more interesting rabbit facts (well, I thought they were interesting!), such as that rabbits can only breathe though their nose and are incapable of vomiting, went unused, but you can’t have everything I suppose!