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Dinos and Dragons

As the world recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, there has been much discussion of the dismal state of science education in this country—or at least that’s one of the leading theories for why so few Americans accept evolution, and why even fewer understand how it works.

Given that, I was excited to receive a recommendation online about a picture book called Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs. It was billed as an introduction to the scientific method, a window into the process of making theories based on the evidence you have, testing them (when that’s possible), and changing them based on new evidence.

And, of course, it’s about dinosaurs, which hold a not entirely explicable fascination for a massive proportion of kids, mine included.

It is in fact, a pretty great book, full of neat stories such as people mistaking Iguanodons’ massive conical thumb bones for horns until they found a complete skeleton, or how some bone cross-sections look more like those of warm-blooded animals than of cold-blooded ones—which is part of what spurred the whole movement toward dinosaurs-as-bird-ancestors and away from dinosaurs-as-big-lizards.

But the book also is a better example of how science works than it really set out to be: It contains two glaring examples of how, for all the real power of the scientific method and (most) scientists’ genuine commitment to objectivity and open-mindedness, science is carried out (and interpreted and written about) by people who are subject, to a greater or lesser extent, to all the biases and assumptions of their day. Those blinders creep into their conclusions far more than they would like to admit.

For example, one of the points that the book makes is that we used to think of dinosaurs as having reptile-like parenting skills—i.e., none; they lay eggs and leave. But then paleontologists found evidence (such as nests with older hatchlings in them) that dinosaurs may have been more active parents.

Except the book doesn’t say parents.

It says mothers. Over and over.

I have no need to project egalitarian parenting onto other species, where it often doesn’t exist. But since it does exist among birds quite often, I would have been pretty slow to make such a massive assumption and present it as a “discovery.”

And in fact, last December a flurry of articles about active dinosaur dads came out—some researchers think in some cases they were the primary parent.

Boy, was the book wrong—not in a scientific way though, in a lazy way.

This kind of assumption can actively bog science down. In the 1990s, cultural anthropologist Emily Martin described how researchers working on new forms of contraception were incredibly slow to recognize key information about how human fertilization works because they were so wedded (unconsciously) to their culturally influenced assumptions of mighty aggressive sperm and passive eggs. (Turns out sperm are weak uncoordinated swimmers and have to be entrapped and engulfed by the egg while they try to get away.)

The other bias in Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs strikes even closer to the heart of scientists and their self image. It starts off with a description of how the ancient Chinese found dinosaur bones and, in trying to figure out what they came from, came up with the creature we now know as the Chinese dragon. It shows a picture, says that they figured they must have been magic to have been so big, and thought they might be still around. “Boy, were they wrong!” Then it says, “Now we think many of our own past guesses about dinosaurs were just as wrong as those of ancient China.”

Toward the end of the book we come back to this theme, but less diplomatically: “Perhaps today’s ideas about dinosaurs will someday seem just as silly as the magic dragons of long-ago China.”

Interestingly, instead of “Boy, were they wrong,” everyone else, starting with European scientists from hundreds of years ago gets “Boy, were we wrong!” (emphasis mine). The message is clear: real scientific inquiry began after those initial discoveries, with the “we” of the rest of the book (all white by the illustrations).

Let’s pause and consider for a second. What did the ancient Chinese think those bones belonged to? A large, long, scaly reptilian creature. What did the first Europeans to try to make a theory about the same sorts of bones—a long time later—come up with? A large, long, scaly reptilian creature. They gave it a different name. They came up with different wrong embellishments. They placed it into a different cosmology. But the ancient Chinese were basically doing the same thing, with fewer tools, and had remarkably similar results. They were hardly silly.

I understand and support what the book’s authors were trying to do: show how early scientific hypotheses can turn out to be as off-base as something that even a child can recognize as untrue. Only in the process of doing so, they revealed their own ethnocentric biases: They feel that dragons were an obviously silly, superstitious theory, while gray, reptilian brontosauruses dragging their tails through the mud were an educated hypothesis that happened to turn out to be inaccurate.

Boy, were they wrong.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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