The following essay is a result of two recent conversations: one at 32,000 feet, the other on the phone from my office. Each by itself was unremarkable. When taken together, however, they hint at a potentially troubling issue facing paleontology today.

The first occurred several months ago somewhere over Nebraska. I was returning home from a conference when I struck up a conversation with the passenger next to me. Upon learning I was a paleontologist, he was full of questions—excellent questions. He first asked about dinosaurs, to which I explained that I study clams (he hid it well, but I...

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