A List of Erroneous Pet Peeves (with Clarification)

Our show is about promoting a literacy of and excitement about all things SCIENCE! Well sometimes in the interest of not dampening the excitement we let some of the literacy fall by the wayside, but that defeats both purposes so here are a few things you should be aware of to avoid an embarrassing mistake in the future. It’s for your own good.

1)      It’s astronomy NOT astrology

It’s such an easy mistake to make; they’re very similar words and are both about the observation of heavenly bodies. However, astronomy is the scientific study of space whereas astrology is what they print 12 versions of in the paper each day or what you read on the placemat of a Chinese menu. The validity of astrology has been disproved time and time again. Astrologers like to move the goalpost and say “sure, that version of astrology is bogus, but mine is super-great and legit.” They’re wrong, it’s not. Astronomy has given me some of the most beautiful desktop backgrounds I’ve ever seen; astrology just gives me a headache. For more on the awesomeness of astronomy I simply must point you over to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, he never pulls punches when is comes to astronomy vs. astrology and he knows his stuff backwards and forwards.

2)      Pterosaurs are NOT dinosaurs

The Mesozoic was a time of fabulous reptilian diversity and some of the most charismatic fauna around at the time were the dinosaurs. Everyone loves dinosaurs and all too often their aerial and aquatic relatives are lumped into the same category either by convenience or laziness. Well that’s wrong, both pterosaurs and dinosaurs are distinct clades in their own right. They’re closely related but they are not the same. Embrace the diversity, extinguish the ignorance.

2a) Birds evolved from dinosaurs NOT pterosaurs

At this point I’m building what could be its own post about the confusing terminology of dinosaur systematic, but for now just go with me. Birds are living dinosaurs that evolved out of the theropod group of mostly carnivorous bad-asses like velociraptor and T-Rex. Birds evolved flight completely independently of pterosaurs. Two flying groups, confusing names, all a long time ago but now you know the truth. Pterosaurs are completely extinct, but we still have birds, hooray!

3)      Evolution is NOT random

This one is more often used as an attack rather than an honest mistake. You can guess whose attacking evolution and their motivations without much difficultly, but it’s worth clarifying. The most frustrating thing in the world is arguing with someone who’s wrong but can pull out a point you know is refutable even if you don’t know the refutation. They’ll say evolution is random in an attempt to undermine it’s ability as an effective agent of change. Genetic mutation, the raw material by which evolution (through various types of selection), is random. So yeah, base-pair substitutions, point mutations and the like are random (but do occur of predictable timescales). The active evolutionary processes that occur in response to those changes are not random. Evolution will effectively remove deleterious mutations from a population, support beneficial mutations, and ignore silent mutations (which comprise the vast majority of mutations). So the next time someone says evolution is random, tell them they’re wrong (and explain why as nicely as possible) then call them a mutant and kick them in their dirty mutant shins.

I hope this was illuminating for you, but frankly it was more cathartic for me than anything. It’ll be nice to have a post like this to link to instead of just getting annoyed the next time I see one of these mistakes made. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I post something like this either so make with the suggestions on what to cover next time!

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