In the pub the other day a good friend of ours asked me how I can bear doing palaeo-art when, ultimately, I'll never be able to know if my restorations were anywhere near correct. Where was the sense of reward for me? Didn't I find it unbearable to think about how I'll never know?
This intrigued me. I've never been asked that before and it's honestly never occurred to me to feel in any way upset about it. Sure, I wish I could really see the extinct animals I restore, but I kind of like that sense of mystery about it...Plus, I'd kinda be out of a job if that were the case!
So, I asked my friend to elaborate on his point. He went so say he's become rather disillusioned with scientists of late, in the same way he gets disillusioned with religious creationists (not a creationist himself, I should point out). His point was that our picture of the universe changes with every scientific discovery that's made. Our idea of the world we live in today is very different from what it was even ten short years ago. He finished by saying of scientists that they always seem so certain of what they're saying, but ultimately they "just don't know."
This use of the word 'know' seemed very potent for him, like it annoyed him greatly. It had never occurred to me before, but we do tend to elevate science to an impossible state: as if it's all about knowing things to be true; a place where we can find comfort in facts. Unchanging, irrefutable facts.
Facts are very comforting things to intelligent beings like us - we are afraid of the things we don't understand and cannot predict. The more we know about the universe, the less we have to be afraid of it. It sounds rather primitive when put like that I suppose, but there we have it.
Of course, in palaeontology (and particularly the reconstruction of dead ecosystems) there is precious little absolute certainty for us to find refuge in and I'm sure pretty much all scientific disciplines are just the same. It's true; just six years ago, it was quite dangerous to restore a dromeosaurid with feathers (just look at the BBC's 'Walking with Dinosaurs' series - not very old, and yet not a feathered friend in sight), but now to do otherwise would be quite unthinkable. This is because science is about discovery, exploration and revision. It is a quest for fresh knowledge, true, but it is also in very large part a refining process of what we already know, fueled by peer-reviewed investigation and ongoing inquiry.
In fact, I think it's pretty fair to say that if science teaches us anything at all it is that what we do know is very little and if the pursuit of science is to 'find all the answers', then it is a task that can never be fulfilled. Personally I don't think that's sad or annoying at all; I think it's wonderful!
My reply to my friend's challenge was: "OK, I'll admit, it is all guesswork, but it is thoroughly researched guesswork..."
I think (I hope) that's what makes the difference.