Writing about Science in 2017

Derek Turner writes . . .

As 2017 winds down, the Extinct team wishes everyone a peaceful and happy new year. Here we are, at the end of a pilgrimage to Canada’s Burgess Shale, sending warm wishes to the world from the slopes of Mt. Stephen. 


It’s been a great year for Extinct. The blog had just over 15k unique readers in 2017, which was up from 9.3k in 2016. We also have slowly built a global audience, with readers from Argentina and Brazil, Japan and China, Russia, Ethiopia, both Israel and the Palestinian territories, and many other parts of the world. We’re grateful to all of you for visiting the blog, and grateful especially to our guest contributors this year. May paleontology continue to bring people together in 2018! 

2017 was a big year for Leonard, who is working on a masters degree in paleontology at the University of Oregon while still holding down his day job as a philosophy professor at Linfield College. His reports from the field were an awesome addition to the blog this summer.

Of all the things we saw in Dinosaur Provincial Park, this was one that most surprised me. Any guess what this is?

Of all the things we saw in Dinosaur Provincial Park, this was one that most surprised me. Any guess what this is?

I don’t know if anyone enjoys hearing about other people’s adventures, but the Extinct team had an epic week in western Canada in August, where we attended the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Calgary. In addition to our trip to see the Burgess Shale, we also gathered for a phil paleo workshop at Dinosaur Provincial Park. Some other contributors to the blog were there as well: Caitlin Wylie and Thomas Bonnin. And Don Brinkman showed us around the Canadian badlands. The credit for organizing all this goes to Adrian. Also, Adrian does some philosophizing about what we learned in “The Secret Epistemology of Paleontological Fieldwork.”


In 2018, look out for the publication of Adrian’s new book, Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences. The book is sure to generate lots of good discussion. The book has a bit of a special meaning for me. Part of it is that I have enjoyed collaborating with Adrian on other projects and agree with him about lots of things. Part of it is that I know the “optimism” part of his view involves some disagreement with me. But above all, I think the book is going to be a milestone in the coming of age of philosophy of paleontology.

Also in 2018, we do plan to scale back our pace of publication a bit. We are finding that an essay every week is a difficult rate to sustain while doing our regular jobs and making time for our other research. So look out for one or two new posts per month in 2018.

If you would like to pitch an idea for a contributed essay, please just write to one of us to let us know. (You can reach me at derek.turner@conncoll.edu.) We are especially eager to maintain our practice of publishing a mix of essays by scientists, historians, philosophers, and social scientists.

A Few Themes from 2017

Looking back over the past year, we had some exciting conversational threads emerge on the blog. I want to highlight a few of these, because you might not notice them if you just look at the archive.

First, Joyce reviewed two books by Martin Rudwick, the great historian of paleontology to whom all of us working in this area owe so much. One of these was Rudwick’s classic, The Great Devonian Controversy. Joyce also reviewed his more recent book, Earth’s Deep History. This also builds on her earlier 2016 review of Rudwick’s The Meaning of Fossils. It’s actually quite remarkable to have this kind of triple review of three works representing different moments in the career of a major scholar.

Second, a couple of our posts this year explored connections between paleontology and science fiction. Check out Leonard’s “Systematics and Star Wars,” as well as guest contributor Russell Powell’s piece, “From Humanoids to Heptapods.”

Third, we’ve had a series of posts on the theme of historical counterfactuals. Especially noteworthy is guest contributor Helen Zhao’s piece on the minimal rewrite rule. Adrian responds to Helen’s ideas here. And I tried to add a new twist to the conversation here. This topic connects closely to the issue of historical contingency, which guest contributor John Beatty weighs in on here. See also my own earlier attempt to frame the issues here. If you’re interested in historical counterfactuals, Extinct is where it’s at.

Needs More Attention in 2018

The shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument, in southeastern Utah.

The shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument, in southeastern Utah.

Looking to the future, I do think we could use some more conversation, in 2018, about legal and political issues in paleontology. To give one example, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) recently joined in a lawsuit against the Trump administration. (Here is an excellent report that provides some context.) The Trump administration announced a few weeks ago that the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, created by President Clinton in the 1990s, would be reduced in size by about 50%. Some important paleontological sites will be losing their protected status. The Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, created only a year ago by President Obama, is being eliminated and replaced by two smaller national monuments that cover only about 15% of the land originally marked for protection. The SVP has joined with several Native American tribes and other organizations to challenge these moves in court, arguing that the Antiquities Act of 1906 does not really give US presidents authority to reduce or eliminate national monuments. This is a pretty important development, and I think there’s a need for us philosophers of science to give this some attention.

The Art of Writing About Science

Finally, a personal thought about why I love writing for Extinct so much. I really believe that the short essay about science is a distinct artistic genre. A good instance of this genre will teach us something about science, while also raising critical historical or philosophical questions. Rather than just reporting on recent scientific research, a good essay will change how we think about science, leading us to see something familiar in a new way. Or it might change how we think about ourselves. It is a great joy to try one's hand at this art form, while also appreciating and learning from others’ efforts. 

May 2018 be as peaceful as a morning in the Alberta badlands.