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
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
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
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
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.