We can do this. We can learn new stuff that changes us.
We keep hearing that our magically brilliant scientists have figured out everything important or are on the verge of same, in every specialty from climate change to cosmology. This past week has been a bit of a deflater for such bombast. I won’t provide you links unless I relent later, but the Climate Apocalyptics have an inconvenient problem with soaring penguin populations in the Antarctic. They’re supposed to be declining and endangered. Instead they’re thriving. And the cosmologists, who already are muttering to themselves about their inability to find the dark matter that makes up 75 percent of the universe, are now reporting that the universe seems to be missing 75 percent of the light that should be here. Dadgummit.
I don’t hold it against them that science is a moving target. I only hold it against them when they overplay their presumptuous, unproven speculations. But I’ve been doing that for a long long time. Here’s a column from Shuteye Nation coming up on 15 years old.
April 17, 2000
The Television Connoisseur
“Dozing with Dinosaurs” was magnificent educational television.
Those of you who watch for my column know that it is a rara avis. I write only when I am moved by quality of the sort infrequently aspired to by television producers. Thus, it has been some months since I put pen to paper for the Times. The last time I felt tempted, indeed, was in March, when the Evolution Channel mounted its two-hour special called “Excising the Mammoth.” On that occasion, I was profoundly impressed by the overall integrity of the production. Lesser lights might have pandered to the audience by insisting that the attending scientists remove the ice and reveal the actual carcass of the animal. Instead, we were privileged to receive a television treat—two hours of closeup footage of heavily accented Siburians chipping away at an iceberg and the formless shadow it contained.
In the final analysis I demurred, however, because in the closing moments of the special a certain amount of ‘show biz’ did regrettably intrude. I found the reattachment of the amputated tusks mawkish and sentimental. Too, I was repelled by the artifices employed to imbue the transportation of the icebound mammal with suspense—the melodramatic music, the jump cuts intended to suggest that the helicopter might not be able to carry the load, et cetera. Taken together, the lapses culminated in failure to meet my standards.
In a word, I am a stern critic. That is why I am so pleased to be able to tender a fully glowing review of the Evolution Channel’s most recent effort, an epic film bearing the title “Dozing with Dinosaurs.” From first to last, it was magnificent.
I had not anticipated the broadcast with much enthusiasm. Promotional pieces promised an application of high technology to the project which inevitably suggested Hollywood-style exploitation of the topic with computer graphics and other sensational special effects. I was expecting ersatz drama, stage-managed excitement, a determined effort to provoke and retain my interest.
Happily I now confess that I was wrong. “Dozing with Dinosaurs” dared to be true to its subject. For three hours that could have been three years, we saw the life of dinosaurs the way it must have been in reality—dull, repetitive, and featureless. There was plenty of hunting and eating, lumbering and scurrying, hatching and dying, but it simply did not matter. There is nothing to like about dinosaurs. They had no personalities, no engaging qualities. And to their immense credit, the producers did not attempt to suggest otherwise.
I am, of course, untrained as a scientist, and I cannot offer a technical critique of the information provided about the extinct species to which we were exposed in the show. For example, I am ignorant of the means by which the scientists deduced the timbre of baby Raptor chirps, the choreography of brontosaur mating dances, the trans-Alantic flight patterns of pterosaurs, or the ocular architecture of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Nevertheless, I feel I can vouch for the meticulous scientific accuracy of the film for two reasons. First, the scientists kept explaining how much they knew about dinosaurs, and second, if they had been making up their information, it would—at least occasionally—have verged on the interesting.
I make this point only because certain other critics of my acquaintance have expressed a certain dubiousness about what they call the “all-knowing manner” of the scientists interviewed on camera. These critics suggest that if the science of living animals is unable to answer major questions about the lives of sharks, anacondas, and homing pigeons, then paleontologists are perhaps presumptuous in deciding that dinosaurs can be satisfactorily summed up as whale-sized chickens.
My rebuttal, as I have already stated, is esthetic rather than scientific, but it is none the less certain for that. If “Dozing with Dinosaurs” is in any respect the product of imagination, that imagination is scarcely a human one. No fantasy of the human mind could manage to be as devoid of charm, beauty, creativity, and appeal as the wurld of dinosaurs captured on film by the Evolution Channel. It is indeed a masterpiece of public television.
To my list of living animals that are still mysterious to contemporary zoologists I might have added (and know I did somewhere I can’t locate) the oh so familiar white tailed deer, which many of us try hard to keep from killing us or themselves on the nation’s roads.
Why I am taking this opportunity to recommend two documentaries which show the difficulty of “figuring out” what science is chartered with finding out: what strict, objective observation can tell us about the facts of the matter. And what remains stubbornly elusive nonetheless.
The first is the documentary about white tailed deer above. For everyone who lives near farms or in the suburbs, the information provided is relatively new and hopefully helpful in your own private lives. Guaranteed, the list of stuff you don’t know about them is long and fascinating. Most importantly, they really want to live right next to us. Human development of landscapes has propelled them to a 30-fold increase in population within a century. We’re not in their way so much as they, arguably, are increasingly in our way. Watch and learn. We can work this out.
The second is a sadder piece, about a species far less successful, even though it should be an inspiring example of inter-species communication and bonding.
Science is founded on observation. But not everything can be measured. For you quant types, that’s where alarm bells should start going off on the validity of your certainties.
In the end, though, they are both mysteries. A lesson in humility we should find both thought provoking and, well, inspiring.