Imagine that each scientific discovery is a piece of string, a strand amongst many, stretched out between two points. Many of the strings would connect to each other and form a web, some would be almost on their own, whilst there would be many big tangled networks clustered together. If they were colour coded for importance and usefulness, then we might expect the tangled balls to be the most vibrant. Pluck on one of the outlying strings and it might have little effect whereas a string close to a cluster might send vibrations everywhere.
By sheer luck I found this image from an art installation seen here: http://www.newamericanpublicart.com/stringfling/
Whenever a new palaeontological discovery hits social media, I have a bad habit of reading the comments, exposing myself to scientific illiteracy and ignorance, even on pages which claim to be for lovers of science. Whenever a new dinosaur discovery makes the news, people seem to come out in droves and the same few comments are repeated ad nauseam. There are the usual arguments about whether feathered dinosaurs can be as cool and/or as scary as reptilian dinosaurs, you’ll find someone commenting about Spielberg needing to make a new film (like he did with the hundreds of other dinosaur discoveries since Jurassic Park, right?), the odd Young Earth Creationist will emerge to doubt concepts such as deep time and evolution, you’ll witness self-appointed dinosaur experts correcting people and usually getting things wrong, and if it is a discovery about T. rex someone will declare that it is a fact that the tyrant king was a scavenger (a quick and easy way to frustrate dinosaur experts). Then there are the people who will declare that it is a useless discovery or that the scientists involved should be trying to cure cancer – my current issue.
Palaeontology as a whole has many useful functions, not least in mineral and oil exploration, but it is also used to inform conservationists about the impact of extinction and it helps us to understand how we evolved, for example. Dinosaurs, however, are more difficult to put into this sort of picture, though their impact on our understanding of extinction has been substantial (and let’s not forget that they are still around today as birds). The thing with science is that we don’t always know how a new discovery will impact other lines of thought. Palaeontologists have given insight into the history of cancer, they’ve provided examples of some of the interesting adaptations achieved by evolution which provide previously unknown engineering solutions, their contributions are broad, yet not always immediately obvious. Pluck a seemingly isolated string, bland in colour, and you might find a rhythmic thrum amongst the strands in a colourful cluster.
Dinosaurs are a success story for science capturing the public’s imagination. They get people paying attention, wanting to learn more about them, especially piquing the interests of children. They also give a sense of hope and the tangibility of involvement, as many major finds have been by complete novices getting out there and hunting for fossils. They bring people into our museums, they are the focus of many books, TV shows and films, they are reproduced as toys and ornaments (sadly often inaccurate). If a dinosaur discovery can get just one person more interested in science, then it cannot be labelled as useless. A child clutching at that string might find other strings, leading to a lifetime of dedication to science. We should never be so quick to judge a discovery as useless, it might change everything.