Science: Lost in Translation to the Public

A new dinosaur discovered that's even bigger that T. Rex?!

We spent 10 years preparing to land on a comet and totally messed up the landing?!

We are putting shrimp on treadmills?!  

The headlines for science are becoming as dramatic as the headlines for celebrity gossip in hopes to get more folks tuning into current research.  But this kind of marketing is backfiring and instead of engaging more with science, the public is developing a whole new set of misconceptions about the nature and value of science.

The public sees science slanted in this way and then they start asking questions about why we even do science anyways. 

For example: Why are landing on comets when we have so much to do here on our own planet? My personal recent favorite misunderstanding that played out very publicly online: Why is [my] taxpayer money going to fund shrimp treadmills?

You don't need to be a scientist to value science - you don't even need to know much about the specifics.  An appreciation for science can come from a general understanding of the nature of science and, more specifically, the why behind the headlines.

Yes, Spinosaurus was big, but so what?

There has been a lot of coverage about the discovery of Spinosaurus lately, the dinosaur that is lauded as the monster that was larger than T. rex.  The National Geographic story covering this discovery in detail is even called Mr. Big and begins with: "Move over, T. rex: The biggest, baddest carnivore to ever walk the Earth is SPINOSAURUS."

 

 

But, how much does it really matter to science that Spinosaurus was bigger than T. Rex?

It was a huge dinosaur. It was the largest carnivorous dinosaur that we have found in the fossil record yet. But that's not what matters to science. More importantly, it helps to address an interesting phenomena that scientists have been perplexed by for years known as Stromer's riddle, about the region it was found in: "Indeed, this region was inhabited by three enormous meat-eaters, each of which would have been an apex predator elsewhere: swift, 40-foot-long Bahariasaurus; 40-foot Carcharodontosaurus, like an African T. rex; and Spinosaurus, perhaps biggest and certainly oddest of all. Stromer speculated that large herbivores had probably been present—what else had the carnivores eaten?" 

It's not until the end of any story of Spinosaurus does anyone ever bring up this conundrum, yet it is what makes this research scientific and is ultimately the question scientists were pursuing and why they found out that what's interesting about Spinosaurus is that it scientists think it was an aquatic carnivorous dinosaur - the first of its kind. That would mean that it devoured aquatic prey and that that's the reason the ecosystem could support so many predators - they weren't all on land eating the rare land herbivore. That's the science, not the sensation.