When I was young, we were taught about “gateway drugs”, things that were technically not illegal but allegedly lead to more extreme behavior. In a similar, but morally admirable way, among the sciences I consider paleontology a gateway science, the study of which will lead to even more intense and extreme scientific study. I’ll confess this is partly my own anecdotal experience and personal bias showing (i.e. it’s my blog), but it seemed to generalize with a few other people I’ve met.
One of our country’s problems is that, because this particular science isn’t a science that’s particularly useful outside of its pedagogical value, it suffers abuse from more powerful social institutions, and I think that is a very serious problem that undermines all scientific learning in the country.
This is because the sciences are hard, and like math, you must start learning young to be able to keep up. We wouldn’t dream of putting off all reading or math until you are in high school before you start learning, and the sciences should be no different.
Paleontology is different from most other sciences in several key ways. Because it is not as well funded as some of the more practical sciences, catching up is not an insurmountable challenge, especially for a younger person with a lot of time on their hands. Very few sciences offer the same immediate excitement and inspiration that dinosaurs (and the fossil record in general) do. Paleontology is much more approachable than other sciences because of this excitement. Scientific speculation is an important part of the scientific process, but in more advanced and thoroughly studied fields (e.g. physics or chemistry), most of the early study is dominated by learning the facts that have been discovered without much room for intelligent speculation. For example, fireworks are also exciting, and do generate some small interest in chemistry – but the answers are quickly found (different chemicals for different colors), and there’s not too much room for scientific speculation in that narrow topic.
Paleontology is vast, and what gaps and incompleteness there is in the fossil record is part of what makes it such a good candidate for early study. In Paleontology, even if the only part of an animal you have is the skull, there is still some information you can get from that – for example, the teeth can still suggest what it ate and how it lived. The position of the eyes can suggest a predator (forward facing for binocular vision) or prey (toward the sides of the head for better peripheral vision). The size of the skull can be compared to other animals to estimate the size of the animal, with varying degrees of success (which itself introduces the idea of error).
In another example, you cannot see the enormous fossilized insects from the Permian era (such as the giant dragonfly Meganeura with a two foot wingspan) without questioning how the insects grew so large, and why they do not grow so big today. These are questions that can be studied and speculated on almost immediately — though probably not correctly – leaving plenty of room for practice). The current leading hypothesis suggests that oxygen was more abundant at the time, which then suggests you look for evidence to support higher oxygen content elsewhere in the geologic and fossil record.
My point is just that there is a whole lot of intelligent scientific speculation that paleontology lets you get into, allowing you to practice important skills like logic and scientific speculation early in the study instead of always requiring many years to catch up before you can even begin to speculate on anything. These skills are also transferable to other fields, especially in the other sciences.
Paleontology leads directly into other fields of science – geology is an extremely natural companion, and from there you quickly get into chemistry. In another direction, paleontology also leads into biology, where fossils get compared to similar structures in modern animals to better understand the extinct animals we cannot observe directly (as was the case with the emu study below), or the analysis of different body parts as I suggested above.
Where we run into problems is when certain religious groups have decided that the observations that scientists make (e.g. “That the earth is older than we had supposed.”) offends their religious beliefs in a way that the religious cannot reconcile, and that therefore that particular science is repugnant to them. They’ve called themselves “creationists” or “intelligent design” in recent years, but what makes these ideas so weak is that they have no evidence to point to, while there is a preponderance of evidence that suggests that these ideas are wrong. The most use these hypotheses have is to use them to demonstrate why they are wrong and can be quickly rejected, but for inane reasons these terrible (and religiously motivated) ideas are getting pushed into the science curriculum in schools, especially in the South.
When our country (especially in media) gives credence to these completely wrong ideas, it is cutting our country’s own feet out from under itself. Deliberately spreading misinformation undermines the learning that could be taking place, and stunts the scientific learning and understanding of students.
Paleontology is not the most profitable of the sciences, but I think its pedagogical importance cannot be overlooked. The sciences are quite good at arguing, so the problem isn’t that they should not have to argue against these ideas, but that these ideas which are quickly quashed in a scientific analysis should not find support from the government or communities to appear in any school curriculum.
Isaac Asimov himself wrote “There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere.” In a similar vein, if we allow the sciences to be darkened anywhere, they will be darkened everywhere.
Other, more in depth writing on why Intelligent Design is not viable science: