P. Edronkin

Ivory Towers In Palaeontology and Geology

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Some years ago, as I was leading a couple of expeditions in search for fossils in Patagonia, particularly in the Chubut province area, I talked repeatedly and extensively with various palaeontologists and geologists about their activities and how they saw the evolution of their own sciences. Palaeontology and geology are so detached from lucrative professions that talking about why people would dedicate themselves to those fields, or what can be obtained from such jobs is always a conversational topic.

What struck me more than anything else was that despite the fact that these scientists obviously love nature enough to dedicate their lives to such low-profitability activities, once they began researching, they tend to stay inside their labs with little contact with the outside world, and I am not talking about city life but nature, the object of their study. Most geologists and palaeontologists that I talked to agreed that they and their colleagues seldom venture in the wilderness; they mostly visit places where access is simple, say, using a pickup truck, but not like the expeditions that we were undertaking at the time, with week-long treks across totally virgin territory.

Laboratories are fine and necessary, but losing touch with reality as well as the object of study forecasts trouble for any science; naturalists should spend more time outside their labs in order to keep in mind what they are studying, and why.

Some years ago a doctor told me that she prescribed all sorts of treatments and studies to her patients, until she had to go to a clinic to undergo such tests herself, including the typical breast-cancer prevention checks that many women undergo repeatedly. She told me that she had no idea about how her patients could feel while performing those tests, how painful or boring or stressing some of those were, and what people might think.

Of course, she knew the science behind each test and why, how and for what purpose they were performed, but she had no idea about the actual experience of undergoing or even suffering such processes that before that, she prescribed more or less as if she had been selling candies.

In the case of palaeontology and geology, the opportunity to revert this pervasive tendency among scientists is there: researchers should spend more time outdoors, in the wilderness, which is what they live for. A geologist or a palaeontologist should be more like an explorer or extreme athlete than a mathematician writing formulae on a blackboard.

Science must follow the precepts of its method in order to care for ultimate objectivity, but that should not be used as an excuse to forget what each science is about and remain in an ivory tower.

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