Loss of Engagement

While this is not deliberately personal, it should be noted that it has happened to me, and thus I do not write what follows fully objectively. I am biased, and I admit it.In my experience as a scientist with occasional attempts to write papers and composed reviews of others, you are given several avenues from which to conduct your work. The first is to follow the trail of analysis, retreading the ground the paper laid out to see if the work done by others actually indicate what the authors say it does, and/or whether the trail actually can be construed to lead in that direction at all, and where the current authors diverge into the wilderness of the imagination.

I am not a professional, though I aspire to be one (eventually), and as such I have placed myself in the hands and minds of professionals — not as a colleague, but as an interested outsider, a constant student, a scientific interrogator who wishes merely to know more. In this respect, I have followed the trail of the research on a particular subject, and quizzically attempted to puzzle out “Why?” at each step. Sometimes it seems things do not make sense, and so I ask the scientist “Why?” when the trail tells me things I cannot reason, or tells me nothing.

Not all scientists answer this question. Often, they will say nothing (they are busy people, after all; I cannot demand their attention). Other times, they respond warmly, friendly, and fully. I have received extensive and elaborate replies from some researchers who have been fully willing to discuss the work they had, even as it was in preparation, because they saw something … inquisitive in me that warranted the response. I can recall this both in person and in email, where I asked individuals like Xu Xing, Barsbold Rinchen and Heinrich Mallison questions and received detailed responses. This is a level of engagement that is aspired to by some workers who have passed to the education system as a new step to their careers, such as Scott Sampson or Matthew Bonnan, where public engagement has become important.

But there’s a third group that simply respond by pointing at the literature, as if that answers the question. It doesn’t always, and sometimes not at all. When an author makes the briefest pass at engagement it may again be an aspect of a busy work schedule. It may also be an aspect of ongoing work, which he/she may be reluctant to continue about. It doesn’t help that the comment that leads to questions on this subject were touched on in the work and warrant elaboration, that will be handled “at a further date.” This group will claim the data is available, and leads the reader to then track down whether they missed an aspect in the literature trail they’d already traversed. Perhaps there is an obscure perspective not cited in which the work should be interpreted. But you are not told this. So this results in something of a loss of engagement.

I try to be very public about my research, and have openly indicated the subjective points of inquiry in many of my broader projects I have going. For me, the research helps me see if I can get to the end point, and if not, where it would actually end up. If anything, it answers the questions I had (hopefully, most of them) and raises new ones. Description of the skull and dentition of Suminia getmanovi opened up such an enormous path of inquiry for me that for months it dominated my research, and I did everything I could to absorb anomodont cranial evolution, dicynodont evolution, and the juncture between postcranial and cranial development for ecological aspects. I had to delve into ecology, and forgot Suminia for a while. This lead to inferring ecology, and thus I was lead to taphonomic processes and geological deposition regimes, and then so on. These things are interrelated, sometimes intimately, and in paleontology, inextricably. To me.

I can’t say as how others may view things, but for me, the engagement with the author requires me to ask if these issues are relevant to them, and if then mentioning them other things were considered. I do not ask this to question their previous work’s value, but to ask if there’s MORE. There isn’t always. I’ve more than once been told that it wasn’t in the author(s)’ interest to consider this topic, when I thought it relevant, and that’s certainly a viable argument. I differ, as I cannot help but see them inextricably woven together. You cannot depart the ecological questions of diet in an animal from its ecology morphology, and thus the morphology of the jaw and limbs must play a role in this discussion: they must lead the author to concerns in how the limbs were used, how the jaws were used, how the animal fed itself. These lead to evolution of the systems involved, and thus their phylogeny. When you see a morphological analysis followed by a phylogenetic analysis, but no ecologic or geologic system involved, you must occasionally wonder if the author mistakenly or deliberately left something out.

So I, as a scientist, ask questions. I do not always do so in a Socratic manner, and more than often in a Cynical manner. I do this because, often, that is the manner in which responses are given. A teacher can be engaging Cynically as much as Socratically, challenge the perceptions of the questioner rather than just tell them fables and have them work out the paradigm for themselves. Perhaps this is just a defense of mine.

I see that, when a scientist chooses not to engage the questioner, he does so at his peril. To refuse the engagement is to give purchase to the aloofness to which he may be accused. This doesn’t matter if the questioner is clearly opposed to the views of the author, or the subject matter: if the questioner is a Young Earth Creationist and the author is a geologist who argues that superposition and dating of the geological column lead to extraordinary Deep Time, the latter has just as much reason to engage the former as if the former was a geology student in the latter’s classroom. No one learns when engagement doesn’t happen.

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2 Responses to Loss of Engagement

  1. Thanks for the kind words ;) I always try to answer questions fully, unless it is obivous the reader has not gone through the relevant (and appropriately cited) literature yet. In that case it is often a matter of access, especially when laypeople are involved, so that me sending a copy of the papers is often more than they hope for, and very little work for me. I understand that scientists sometimes take long to reply, but I do not understand how some do not reply at all, or with the unhelpful “go re-do your ‘homework’ ” you mentioned.

  2. David L G Rice says:

    Withdrawal is also a mode of engagement, and it can be pedagogical. Perhaps those who withdrew their engagement were trying to teach you something about the terms of engagement – a lesson about professional mores rather than neck musculature.

    As a classroom educator, I will certainly withdraw from non-productive engagements (and yes, there is such a thing, although we have to exercise judgment. There’s no easy agreement on when an engagement ceases to be productive). This is not just a way to manage the scarce resources of time and energy. Sometimes an impatient student simply needs more time and space to think without the irritant of the teacher’s authority.

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