Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs

December 15, 2009

So I finally got to see the Discovery Channel’s new series, Clash of the Dinosaurs. The show follows the common Discovery Channel MO of cutting between CGI critters and talking heads. I’m one of the talking heads, and I get a lot of air time, and I suppose I should be happy about that. But I’m not, for reasons I’ll explain.

I need to preface what follows by saying that I thought the other talking heads did a great job. My experience suggests that the scientific problems with the series didn’t originate with the scientists, infrasound weapons excepted. Tom Holtz–another of the talking heads, and a good one–nailed it on the DML:

For those going to watch the show, a warning:
The documentarians often take anything that any of the talking heads speculated about, and transformed these into declarative statements of fact. In some cases this is particularly egregious, because I strongly disagree with some of these statements and believe the facts are against some of these (say, about tyrannosaurid cranial kinesis…) and they present these as facts rather than suppositions.

Dangerous

In the fall of 2008 the folks  at Dangerous Ltd, a London-based film production company, asked me if I’d be interested in being part of a new documentary project, which had the working title “Dino Body” (this isn’t a trade secret or anything, that title was on the Dangerous webpage for months). The grand idea was to show how much we’ve learned about how dinosaurs actually lived.

Now, this is something I care about a lot. In the past couple of decades we’ve learned about the physiology, diets, nesting habits, growth rates, and social lives of dinosaurs, in unprecedented detail. Things no one predicted and that I would have bet heavily against, like burrowing dinosaurs, four-winged raptors, and comparative studies of dinosaur and pterosaur genomes, are backed by solid evidence. We are in a golden age of dinosaur paleobiology, and new discoveries, even new kinds of discoveries, are stacking up faster than I can really keep up. So it would be a great time to bring all this new evidence to the public.

In the late 2008 and early 2009 I spent a LOT of time with the people at Dangerous Pictures, going over all kinds of questions about dinosaur biology. I sent them papers, links to blog posts, diagrams, you name it. They seemed really keen to get the science right, and I was hopeful that we’d get a dinosaur documentary that wasn’t overly speculative sensationalized BS.

Sadly, that hope was to be mercilessly crushed.

Deja vu

The series has some obvious faults. It is incredibly repetitive, to the point that I found it hard to watch for any length of time without my attention wandering. Not just the CGI clips, but the narration as well. You’ll learn in 30 seconds why females tend to be choosier about mates than males (eggs are more expensive than sperm), and spend the next 15 minutes having that slowly beaten in your brain using as much empty verbiage as possible. Ditto every other fact on the show.

More galling are the places where animation is cleverly cut with talking head bits so that we end up describing things that were never in the script. I explained on camera about the unavoidably high mortality among juvenile sauropods, and how groups of Deinonychus could probably pick off the baby sauropods like popcorn. I had been speaking of hatchlings, but my words are cut together with a scene–which you’ll see about 15,000 times–of three Deinonychus taking down an elephant-sized subadult Sauroposeidon. In the real world, it would have pulped them. In the dramatically-lit world of Clash of the Dinosaurs, the three raptors inflict a handful of very shallow flesh wounds with their laughably tiny claws and the Sauroposeidon expires theatrically for no visible reason.

(If they really wanted to impress the audience with the implacability of Mesozoic death, they would have shown the three raptors mowing down a field of newly-hatched babies like so much wheat…)

I spent a long time explaining the evidence that sauropods buried their eggs, and at their request I mocked up diagrams showing the possible proportions of a hatchling Sauroposeidon. So naturally the program shows a mother abandoning her eggs in an exposed nest, and then a few minutes later, hatchlings that are perfect miniatures of the adults struggling up out of the ground. I guess they cut the scene in which the Sand Fairy buried the eggs, and lacked the budget to perform the simple morph of the digital model that would have made the babies look like babies, instead of ponderous adults emerging from the Sarlacc pit.

Some may complain that I am picking nits. But what the heck is the point of bringing on scientific advisors if you’re then going to ignore the stuff they tell you? Why not just make the crap up out of the whole cloth? In fact, there is far too much of that in the show. There is no evidence that Quetzalcoatlus could see dinosaur pee with its ultraviolet vision, or that a herd of hadrosaurs could knock over a predator with their concentrated infrasound blasts. Sorry, paleontologists, you’ll be fielding questions about these newly invented “facts” for the next decade at least.

It’s like I had this great working relationship with the researchers, and they were really curious and careful, and we went to great lengths to do the best work we could, and then somewhere in between my filming back in February and the airing of the completed show, all of our diligent work was flushed right down the crapper, and a fresh script was written by a hyperactive child whose only prior preparation was reading Giant-Size X-Men and getting hit on the head a few times.

Do I sound too harsh? I’m just getting started. Let me tell you about the sacral expansion in sauropods.

Back in the Back in the Day

In many sauropods and stegosaurs and a few other archosaurs, the neural canal (the bony tube that houses the spinal cord) is massively enlarged in the sacral vertebrae. This is the origin of the goofy idea that big dinosaurs had a “second brain” back there to control their hind end, because the real brain up front was (supposedly) just too darn tiny and remote. The researchers at Dangerous asked me about this sacral enlargement, and this is what I told them (quoted from an e-mail I sent November 25, 2008):

The sacro-lumbar expansion is possibly the most misunderstood thing in sauropod biology. First, there are two separate things that have been referred to as sacro-lumbar expansions. The first is the slight swelling of the spinal cord in that region in almost all vertebrates, including humans, to accomodate the neurons that help run the hind limbs (you also have a swelling in the spinal cord at the base of your neck to help run your arms). Contrary to popular belief, a lot of your stereotyped actions require little direct involvement from the brain and are instead controlled by the spinal cord. When you walk, for example, most of the motor control is handled by the spinal cord, and your brain only steps in when you have to actually worry about where to place your feet–when you step over a puddle, for example. So there would be nothing remarkable about sauropods using their spinal cords to drive many of their limb movements, this is something that pretty much all vertebrates do, it’s just not widely known to the public. [Aside: this is true. Also, I have heard it claimed that sauropods could not have reared because their brains were too small to coordinate such an action. This was claimed by a non-biologist who evidently doesn't know how the nervous system works.]

The other sacro-lumbar expansion really is an expansion, but it’s not unique to sauropods and it has nothing to do with running the hind limbs. Most birds have a very large expansion of the spinal cord in the sacro-lumbar region called the glycogen body. As the name implies, it stores energy-rich glycogen, but the function of the glycogen body is very poorly understood. It has been hypothesized to be an accessory organ of balance, or a reservoir of compounds to support the growth and maintenance of the nervous system. Since we don’t even know what it does in birds, we’re straight out of luck when it comes to figuring out what it did in sauropods. Here’s a brief overview:
http://www.innerbird.com/other_special_features/hips/other_features_hips.html

Here’s an explanatory diagram I sent with the message:

This business about the glycogen body caused some consternation and dithering in the production process. They wanted to bring up the second brain because it’s so entrenched in the popular consciousness (i.e., bad dinosaur books), but they were unhappy that the real explanation turned out to be so unsatisfying (“We don’t know what it does, but not that!”). In the end, we did discuss it briefly on camera. I said something like, “There was this old idea that the sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail. But in fact, it almost certainly contained a glycogen body, like the sacral expansions of birds. Trouble is, nobody knows exactly what the glycogen bodies of birds do.”

Somebody in the editing room neatly sidestepped the mystery of the glycogen body by cutting that bit down, so what I am shown saying in the program is this, “The sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail.” I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have a DVR, but that’s basically it. (Update: my memory was pretty good. Here’s the interview transcript.)

Do you see, do you understand, what they did there? I was explaining why an old idea was WRONG and they cut away the frame and left me presenting the discredited idea like it’s hot new science. How freaking unethical is that?

So. I don’t know if the decision to turn my words around 180 degrees was a mistake made by an individual editor, or if it was approved from someplace higher up the line. I aim to find out. Until I do, I’m boycotting Dangerous Ltd, and I encourage you to do likewise.

The Final Insult

Oh, and they spelled my name wrong, throughout. And also mispelled Sauroposeidon in one of the quiz bits at commercial time. “What does Sauroposeiden mean?” It means you don’t know the Greek pantheon, sauropods, or basic spellchecking, dumbasses.

Science journalism FAIL.

UPDATE, January 27, 2010

This is so perfect that it hurts. For “Science Channel” feel free to substitute any of the ignotainment feeds operated by Discovery Communications.

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132 Responses to “Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs

  1. Jura Says:

    Don’t forget the “meatballs on legs bit.” I often wonder if the filmmakers ask you guys to come up with the most bizarre analogies.

    From what I’ve heard of the process – from Dr. Witmer – the guys at Dangerous seemed really interested in making the kind of show that you initially thought it was going to be. The problem arises when the network suits get a hold of it, and demand certain changes to better fit their alleged demographic.

    Rather than boycott the production company, it might be better to just boycott Discovery Channel, as it is they (and occasionally A&E) that are responsible for the current glut of godawful dino docs.

    Ironically we can thank the BBC – who are usually renowned for their science friendly documentaries – for introducing the CGI heavy Specu-umentary. Where’s David Attenborough when you need him.

    On a side node, you might send Dr. Witmer an e-mail and see if he knows anything more about these apparent ethical violations.

  2. ech Says:

    “It is incredibly repetitive” – and how. There was about 3 minutes of content – barely passable CG and narration – repeated and cut up over 20 minutes of running time. Discovery Channel shows do this kind of thing a lot, but this is probably the worst I’ve seen.

    Thanks for this post. I was wondering about that sacral expansion bit – I had thought that was debunked, but if Dr. Wedel said it was true… And about the 2 Deinonychus taking on the big sauropod. I was wondering why it couldn’t put up more of a fight.

    After watching it I couldn’t wait to see what you were going to write.

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    Don’t forget the “meatballs on legs bit.” I often wonder if the filmmakers ask you guys to come up with the most bizarre analogies.

    Aww, man, I was proud of that one! It was all me, baby.

    Rather than boycott the production company, it might be better to just boycott Discovery Channel, as it is they (and occasionally A&E) that are responsible for the current glut of godawful dino docs.

    Believe me, the thought has crossed my mind. But Discovery Communications is merely a peddler of lousy documentaries. Dangerous Ltd made a liar out of me on TV. Screw them and the transparent dino they rode in on.

  4. David L. Rice Says:

    Death panels and dinosaurs with two brains…this year has given us at least two excellent examples of selective editing used to lie about a scholar’s opinions!

    I’ll keep plugging away at teaching my students to read contextually. A losing battle in a sound-byte culture…


  5. Maybe it was a good thing, then, that I don’t have access to the Discovery Channel….

    It’s too bad that Dangerous Ltd. went for flashy soundbites than hard scientific information. At least this post was both very informative and entertaining (and a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in those nature documentaries). I love a good smack-down.

  6. beccrew Says:

    Meatballs on legs ftw

  7. William Miller Says:

    Why would Quetzalcoatlus be interested in dinosaur pee anyway? I don’t think it would be nutritious…

    And infrasonic hadrosaurs? Is there ANY evidence even vaguely suggesting this?

    (BTW, how *did* hadrosaurs survive? They don’t look that fast moving compared to big theropods, and totally lack weapons – sure, they could step on or tail-whap something Dromaeosaurus sized, but what could they possibly do against a tyrannosaur? Did they just reproduce ludicrously fast?)

  8. Richard Says:

    Well what can I say? It is after all for entertainment and for the average person who would know probably next to nothing about dinosaurs. I suppose they do have a responsibility to make the show as interesting as possible.

  9. CW Says:

    Thankfully, I got Carl Zimmer’s tweet that linked this page. I was watching the “Clash” series and was slowly getting a feeling that there was a little bit too much certainty from the talking heads on a few things. The ‘ultraviolet vision’ part was one that sort of stood out to me (hahaha).

    Anyways, even though there was some bad science, and even worse production values – I give the episodes that I have seen a B minus. And yes, I know refer to my cat as a “meatball on legs” (nice phrase).

  10. CW Says:

    (Woops, I forgot to state after my first sentence, that I’m glad I got the link because reading your blog post put me at ease – made me understand why I was getting that uneasy feeling)

  11. Matt Wedel Says:

    Well what can I say? It is after all for entertainment and for the average person who would know probably next to nothing about dinosaurs. I suppose they do have a responsibility to make the show as interesting as possible.

    So let me see if I understand your argument: instead of letting the scientists tell people about the actual cool stuff we’ve learned about dinosaurs (like, er, we do at this blog), the documentary companies have a responsibility to the public to dumb things way down, cut out most of the science, and replace it with overhyped speculation and pure made up BS? Interesting thesis. Have you thought about a career in marketing?

    One question: how does the grossly repetitive animation and narration contribute to making the show “as interesting as possible”?


  12. I am sorry to hear of your experience. Nothing is more frustrating than to be manipulated and misrepresented.

    I have determined that networks are run by proverbial dinosaurs who are stuck in their ways of thinking, pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience and then production companies are forced to meet those lowered demands…it’s all about the bottom line.

    If Discovery Channel wants to do service to science then it needs to represent science accurately and reflect the times. (less astronomy and physics, more biology, show more women, and of course, get the science they do show right)

    You’re just lucky you didn’t have to be Mike Rowe.

  13. Jura Says:

    I learned about the repetitive animation too. Apparently these “documentaries” are designed to snag the attention of channel surfers. That is why you often see the “cool” bits over, and over, and over again ad naseum. They don’t even design these shows to be watched in a single sitting. How sad is that?

  14. Jamie Stearns Says:

    I have found that the absolute worst sort of people to deal with regarding dinosaur misconceptions are those who think they know everything because they watch the Discovery Channel, then proceed to argue with people who really do know what they’re talking about.

    These are the kind of people who think that most scientists consider Tyrannosaurus to be an obligate scavenger, that Quetzalcoatlus could see UV light, that “raptors” were just like the Jurassic Park version, and that Brontosaurus was renamed Apatosaurus in the 1970s because it had the wrong head.

    (Come to think of it, why didn’t the public realize the name had been sunk before then? Surely Osborn, Holland, and especially Riggs should have known enough to put the right labels on their skeletons. And what happened in the 1970s to cause the proper name to surface?)


  15. Join the club! I once did an episode of “Paleoworld” about fossil rhinos–and they INSISTED against all my protests on putting in Triceratops because it had horns and four legs. Never mind that the horn was not homologous, and there is nothing ecologically or phylogenetically correct in linking them– it’s just they had footage of a Triceratops robot and insisted on using it somewhere no matter how inappropriate.

  16. Richard Says:

    Matt, did you seriously expect them to make the show a scientific based fact fest for their intended viewers? They have their interests and it’s certainly not scientific.

  17. Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum Says:

    Matt:
    As an award winning videographer & producer, let me apologize for the treatment you received. That was uncalled for. Ignorant producers are a big part of the problem when they inculcate ignorance in their audiences.

    Wish I knew what to do about people like that. Perhaps a lawsuit is the only way to get their attention.

  18. Casey Says:

    i tried to watch some of it since they had pestered me about feeding, bite forces, and whatnot, like 2yrs ago now. No air time for me though (good thing). But man: avascular pterosaur retinae? poor ischemic rods and cones; propalinal Trex mandibular movement (wt@$@$#2); and despite explaining the nature of pterygoideus muscles, and sending them figures, they still missed ‘em, giving ole Rexy a sad, weak set of jowels extending directly out of the mylohyoid, instead of from behind (hey, its as important as glycogen bodies :)) I had my hopes up for Dino Body too, with images of a TV version of the transparency pages of organs, muscles, skeleton etc. but alas. Nice job though Matt! very nice style and speaking. If they were to just string the talking heads together and cut the CGI and narration, it’d be a good progam.

  19. Alan Says:

    Discovered the series while channel surfing in a motel room. Ten minutes of rapt attention led to the conclusion that it was so much CG coated baloney. Did laundry. Came back to see the same footage from an hour before and figured they were just looping the same episode. Then I realized they weren’t.

    It’s moments like this that I’m ashamed of working in television. Like last year when I wrote the admittedly hyperbolic line that the most dangerous animal in Africa (after homo sapiens) is the mosquito. I had the script shoved back at me with the editorial correction that a mosquito is not an animal.

  20. Tor Bertin Says:

    It’s perfectly possible to make a well formulated, accurate documentary that does financially well in the States. I need only point you to Planet Earth to show as much. Ignoring these kinds of practices and letting the companies who use them get away with it without dissent only allows this kind of garbage to fester further.

  21. BJ Nicholls Says:

    CGI animation and rendering is expensive, I don’t think the repetition is to draw in channel surfers, it’s to keep the minutes cheap.

    I believe this is the same piece where the narrator kept saying “Parasauropholus” over and over.

  22. Ryan Says:

    Matt Wedel Says:

    One question: how does the grossly repetitive animation and narration contribute to making the show “as interesting as possible”?

    How about when they took the overplayed seen of the Sauroposeidon leaving her nest in the sunset and did the same clip BUT this time after nightfall. I use to hold respect for Discovery Channel seeing how I was raised watching it. Pitty.

  23. seppastrid Says:

    when I watched the premiere of this show on discovery, I was disgusted. filth and lies indeed!

    what is wrong with those editors!! I’m so glad the error wasn’t in you talking heads, that is a huge relief!

  24. Jura Says:

    The repetition part was explained by the production crew themselves. It’s one of the sad ways that cable channels compete for viewership.


  25. As we say in Spain, “lamentable”… When will we get to a good dinosaur or paleontology show? Why do always journalists change everything we say? In an enterview about dinosaur reconstructions, I was explaining parsimony to a journalist. She took my “because evolution doesn’t normally make big jumps” and wrote “because evolution does normally make big jumps”. I say… when we talk, do they listen? or just heard and write?
    Let’s boycot them! :)

  26. davidmaas Says:

    As somebody involved in the creation of entertainment (mostly creature animation, hopefully now paleoart) all I can say is – wrong producer. They refused to see the value of their main asset (the knowledge-holders) as anything more than billboards… ie. scientist Joe says…
    The errors also sound typical of a highly segmented production pipeline. Budget is seldom the simple answer for the things that went wrong here (note: I haven’t seen the film yet). Rather, it sounds like a combination of disinterest in specifics and segmentation of production information.
    By the latter I mean that each hand-off of information filtered info. The producer is notorious for this… they are focused on financing, logistics and exploitation. If you’re not talking with the director or cg-supervisor, the information will likely not make it to the artist doing the actual work.

    The former (disinterest) rears its head in the case of the second brain. When I hear “Trouble is, nobody knows exactly what the glycogen bodies of birds do.” I immediately think: cut to modern bird, analysis of options. Project possibilities on interpretation of functionality in sauroposeidon. This is where I always perk up in documentaries – its sleuthing. That’s exciting. But these paleo-zoo formats assume stupidity among their audience and don’t understand the sleuthing is what makes it all so magical.

    What can I say, except sorry.

  27. davidmaas Says:

    Casey said: “despite explaining the nature of pterygoideus muscles, and sending them figures”
    and Matt also made great graphics.

    May I request that you keep these handy? Don’t give up. There are good producers out there, and good productions. (ie. mdtvpro who made the four-winged dinosaur)

  28. Andreas Johansson Says:

    I suppose they do have a responsibility to make the show as interesting as possible.

    Even if that involves misrepresentation and slander?


  29. At least they kept my (six second?) enactment of an adult Sauroposeidon vs. an adult Deinonychus:

    D (in high pitched voice): Hi, I’m a Deinonychus!
    S (in deep voice): Hi, I’m a Sauroposeidon!

    Squashing motion with forelimb.

  30. Mario from Brooklyn Says:

    If I were cynical I would say the producers engaged field experts to give the show a baseline of ‘truthiness’ from which they could embellish. They also needed talking heads to fill in the gaps between the repetitive CGI. Could you imagine what the program would have been like without them?

    I’ve noticed this pattern lately in CGI documentaries – end segment, commercial break, spend first few minutes of next segment recapping the previous segment. But CotD broke new ground. They recycled material in all four programs. It could easily have been condensed into 90 minutes.

    I’m glad to see this blog entry shows up on the first page of a Google search for “Clash of the Dinosaurs”. More people need to know that these shows take a lot of creative license and pawn it off as fact.

  31. chris brochu Says:

    welcome to my world, dude.


  32. We (Matt Lamanna, Hailu You, and I) were obviously exceptionally fortunate to have worked with really terrific companies (Discovery Quest/Science Channel and thinkfilm inc.) for our 2006 “Rise of the Feathered Dragons” documentary — not only were they just flat-out great and fun people to work with, but they, Matt, and I went through like 15 drafts of the script for the show so that we had basically final say on what the text read (and, therefore, the show said) — the only thing we had no real part in was what graphics and video went with what soundbites, and with one or two very minor and totally ignorable exceptions, we were thrilled with how they put even that together. I’m probably biased, but I think that fact-wise, it’s still one of the best paleo documentaries that’s been made and shown, and I think that’s in large part because the producers were so willing to work with us (and, to be honest, genuinely seemed interested in the material!) I’ve been filmed for a few other documentaries that, when I saw the results, I was about as happy as Matt W. is with CotD. I’ll be a talking head in another one coming out sometime in the first half of 2010 (on Acrocanthosaurus) that is being assembled by a company called Creative Differences; I haven’t seen any footage of the show at all yet (and I know they filmed a lot of people other than me, too), but I can say that I was really thrilled with the crew I worked with in Ft. Worth, shooting the SMU/Ft. Worth material for the show — we had tons of fun and I think they shot the right stuff. We’ve also had numerous subsequent communications about various things so that they can get other details right in, among other things, computerized animations and restorations of things like the cervical “locking” mechanisms and respiration. I am looking forward to seeing the results!

  33. David Marjanović Says:

    What the fuck. They quote-mined you like creationists. It’s like Expelled!.

    Don’t merely boycott them – they won’t even notice. Sue them. Sue them for libel, slander, something, anything.

    At the very least send them the link to this page by e-mail. Rub their faces in it.

    Fart in their general direction, and make sure they smell it.

    Did I mention that I’m angry…?

    ====================

    Why would Quetzalcoatlus be interested in dinosaur pee anyway? I don’t think it would be nutritious…

    Extant raptors follow the trails left by rodent pee to find the rodents. Very convenient.

    It’s also perfectly reasonable to assume* that Quetzalcoatlus was able to see UV – after all, almost all vertebrates are.

    Pity, then, that diapsids don’t pee like mammals.

    * Stating it as a fact, however, is immoral. Evil. Inexcusable. Lying. Assholish, even.

    And infrasonic hadrosaurs? Is there ANY evidence even vaguely suggesting this?

    There’s evidence that hadrosaurs were capable of making noise. That’s it.

    BTW, how *did* hadrosaurs survive? They don’t look that fast moving compared to big theropods

    Apparently they were pretty fast, though. Leo the Brachylophosaurus shows enormous caudifemoralis muscles…

    They also clearly tried hard to stay away from big theropods, and they also clearly reproduced rather quickly.

    Well what can I say? It is after all for entertainment

    The fascination is the entertainment.

    Lying and quote-mining is not entertainment.

    and for the average person who would know probably next to nothing about dinosaurs.

    This is one more, not one less, reason to stick to the facts!!!

    I suppose they do have a responsibility to make the show as interesting as possible.

    Absolutely. You’re just wrong, and evil, if you suggest that “making it interesting” includes lying and quote-mining. Forget the participants – have you no respect of the viewers at all!?!


  34. Jerry,

    The Acro show may air at the end of this month. I’ve seen the latest cut, and it is VERY good. Sure, there is some cheesy narration (but less than in CotD), and the Deinonychus are naked, but I think it comes off better even than the Spinosaurus show. Lots of sequences of paleos looking at fossil evidence: including Jim Farlow as Chewbacca (you’ll see what I mean when it airs.)


  35. Jamie:
    RE: “Brontosaurus“: Osborn is largely the problem for that one. His personal promotion of that name at the most important museum in the world in the city that is the center for English-language publishing is the main reason the name stayed in use. It was the work of Jack McIntosh and colleagues in the 1970s that brought the taxonomic issue to light. It was at the same time he emphasized the diplodocid nature of Apatosaurus, and so the news about Apato.-skulls and the “Bronto.” name came out around the same time and were thus conflated.

  36. Darrin Pagnac Says:

    So Matt, what is your overall verdict, then? Is it worth it for us as paleontologists to continue to participate in this nonsense, or is it simply the lesser of two evils, the greater being input from completely unqualified “experts” who are at best tangentially involved in paleo?

    Would you do this again? Would you like more control over the script and production? These are extremely pertinent questions to entertain because, unfortunately, much of the general public’s education on paleontology, and science in general, comes from this type of program.

  37. davidmaas Says:

    Her are some of the options that quickly occur to me, with the goal of maintaining editorial control:

    1) sue them, as David says. Personally, I doubt the stress will be worth it.

    2) Inform yourself. Note the companies that work in dodgy ways. And more importantly, note the companies that work conscientiously (Jerry mentions Discovery Quest/Science Channel and thinkfilm inc., I can recommend mdtv). Refuse to work with the former, work with the latter.

    3) Demand conditional release contracts. A publisher must have your written consent before using interview material. These are always written up and signed in advance of the interview. If the company you are working with isn’t on one of the lists above, demand a clause that gives you release rights – ie. at least one edit review session. After which you can refuse specific segments if you feel they misrepresent you. Be prepared and willing to be turned down.

    4) Make your own films.

    The more scientists screen the companies that are doing these things, the more effective the action will be.

  38. davidmaas Says:

    to clarify:
    the editing of your words to present an idea contrary to their meaning may well be worth prosecuting.

  39. Matt Wedel Says:

    So Matt, what is your overall verdict, then? … Would you do this again? Would you like more control over the script and production?

    I would do this again, but I would demand some measure of control over the script and how my filmed sequences are edited and used. One one hand, I think we should all be doing everything we can to bring good science to the public. On the other hand…once burned, twice shy.

    If the level of input I’ll demand from now on means that some companies won’t work with me, boo hoo. I’d rather miss the opportunity than suffer through another debacle like this.


  40. An added complication to all this: the team that you start working with is rarely the team that finishes the project! Turnover in studios and networks is phenomenally high. So even if a project is started with someone who says all the right words about working with the researchers and wanting to keep the science accurate, it might not end up that way.


  41. Darrin asked:

    So Matt, what is your overall verdict, then? Is it worth it for us as paleontologists to continue to participate in this nonsense, or is it simply the lesser of two evils, the greater being input from completely unqualified “experts” who are at best tangentially involved in paleo?

    I would add here that some of us paleontologists (I’m not one of them, but I know many that are) have substantial “service learning” components to RTP (rank, tenure and promotion) requirements, and documentaries that are broadcast nationwide or globally go a long way to fulfilling such requirements! The kind of advertisement that they provide a school and a department are extremely valuable, so administrators (inevitably in charge of approving or declining RTP advancement) love it when their faculty are involved in these things. I doubt that this was at the root of Matt’s involvement in CotD — I suspect that, like me, Matt accepted involvement in the show as an opportunity to educate a wide audience! — but I did want to mention that there is often this extra pressure exerted on many paleontologists to commit to such things, even if the results are, uh, mediocre at best…

    Like JCR rankings, it’s a stupid system, but it’s the one many of us have to play in…!


  42. Jerry mentions Discovery Quest/Science Channel and thinkfilm inc., I can recommend mdtv

    The folks at MPH Studios were responsible for the “Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt” show several years back, and the team had lots of positive experiences with them. I’ve seen some other (non-paleo) MPH documentaries, too, and they seem to be of high, if not perfect, quality. I mention this just as long as we’re documenting “good” agencies to consider!


  43. The folks at MPH Studios were responsible for the “Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt” show several years back

    Crap…that should be MPH Entertainment, not MPH Studios. The latter is also a real company, but I know nothing about them, or whether or not they’ve ever even been involved in a paleo documentary.

  44. Davor Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Matt. A “science” documentary would actually feature hadrosaurs knocking down a predator with infrasound blasts is one of the silliest things I’ve heard all week (I hear a lot of silly things).

    Dinosaurs offer such a perfect opportunity to get kids into natural history. It’s a crime for that to be squandered so a handful of executives can get a bigger bonus.

  45. Matt Wedel Says:

    A “science” documentary would actually feature hadrosaurs knocking down a predator with infrasound blasts is one of the silliest things I’ve heard all week (I hear a lot of silly things).

    To clarify, the program didn’t actually show this happening, but it was mentioned as a possibility…by one of the talking heads. So that one’s not solely the fault of Dangerous. Still, if one of your advisors says something loony, shouldn’t there be a mechanism to catch it?

  46. Mike Keesey Says:

    This is just disgusting.

    This is one of the reasons I refuse to buy cable. Most of my favorite shows are streamed online, anyway. I’d rather use my Roku to watch an Attenborough documentary (whenever I want, not just at certain times!) than be subjected to the kind of drivel the Discovery Channel puts on.

    Remember, the most effective way to vote is with your dollars. The Discovery Channel’s getting none of mine.

  47. Andreas Johansson Says:

    Do we know if the talking head in question actually thinks that a reasonable idea? Given your experience, one half suspects they cut out the bit when he said it was a ludicrous conception.

  48. Andreas Johansson Says:

    That was addressed to Matt Wedel.

  49. Matt Wedel Says:

    Do we know if the talking head in question actually thinks that a reasonable idea?

    He certainly seemed sincere, although he did qualify to say that the if the infrasound didn’t knock over the predators outright, it would at least scramble their brains. Brain-scrambling (in the sense of disorientation, not literal stirring of neurons) is at least conceivable, which is more than I can say for the Wall of Sound bulldozer attack.

    I don’t want to name names, but the talking head in question has been on a LOT of documentaries, and I often find his assertions…lacking in rigor.

  50. William Miller Says:

    Waitaminute … the suggestion was that it could *physically knock down* the predators? What?

    For the actual sound power to be sufficient to knock down even a piddly little Velociraptor, that would be louder than … well, anything, ever.

  51. Darrin Pagnac Says:

    LOL! You’re awesome, Matt!


  52. As I suggested while live-FBing during the show, perhaps this mythical ParasauROFLus had this Black Bolt like power, but Parasaurolophus would almost certainly not be able physically damage opponents with their noise. (Certainly no more so than herd of elephants trumpeting can knock over lions!)

  53. Mike Habib Says:

    I was very fortunate in likely being the least burned member of the CotD interview group – most of the Quetz stuff was pretty reasonable (note the use of word *most*). The UV vision bit was poor (because of the certainty expressed), but at least it was still likely, as opposed to unequivocally incorrect, as much of the other material turned out to be. Personally, I tend to expect a certain amount of “historical fiction” run into these features, in the sense that they tell a story about what X animal did and such. However, there is a distinct line, and that line is where things are expressed that are outright false, and it is especially egregious when such statements are produced by editing a talking head out of context: I completely understand why Matt is furious, and so am I (not for my bits, but for some of the things they connected other to, especially Matt and Tom).

    Interestingly, Tom Holtz pointed out that:
    “An added complication to all this: the team that you start working with is rarely the team that finishes the project! Turnover in studios and networks is phenomenally high. So even if a project is started with someone who says all the right words about working with the researchers and wanting to keep the science accurate, it might not end up that way.”

    I happen to know that this is indeed the case with CotD. Most of the Dangerous Films crew that we actually worked with, including the production lead, passed on their notes and footage not too long after the winter filming. I know this because I had subsequent contact with members of that crew, and they had already moved on to another project. One of the reasons that the Quetz material was not quite as bad as some of the other bits (a lot of it was pretty good, actually) is that I got to add my own notes into that last stack of information, and ended up being called for some clarifications closer to the final cuts – this occurred through more or less dumb luck.

    However, that dumb luck gave me a *very* useful insight: to minimize the chances of such disasters, try to have the production lead pass you along in the chain of work. This will be much more time consuming, but you can cover your butt if you follow the bucket brigade. There were several things like the UV vision bit that I managed to get pulled late in the writing.

  54. Lorna Steel Says:

    Discovery Channel (and all of the production companies that make TV shows for them) are just shit. No other word for it. Don’t touch them with a bargepole. Don’t even go there. Sorry to hear about your bad experience, and I hope that it won’t put you off doing good science TV (if there is such a thing). I’m not sure there is any more.

  55. Jamie Stearns Says:

    Dr. Holtz has just won the Internets.

  56. Matt Wedel Says:

    I was very fortunate in likely being the least burned member of the CotD interview group – most of the Quetz stuff was pretty reasonable (note the use of word *most*). The UV vision bit was poor (because of the certainty expressed), but at least it was still likely, as opposed to unequivocally incorrect, as much of the other material turned out to be.

    Precisely. I didn’t mean to imply in the post that you did anything wrong, it just seems that, as Tom said, any speculation we might have offered was transmuted into certainty well beyond what evidence or reasonable inference will support.

    Also, as David pointed out, dinosaurs probably didn’t pee, at least as we mammals understand it. Though there are photos out there of ostriches urinating, so it’s probably premature to say that dinosaurs never peed. Come to think of it, we might need a whole post on dinosaur effluvia at some point.

    Speaking of giant piles of crap, it’s probably time we got back on topic, eh? ;-)


  57. I do want to point out that the Channels themselves typically do not produce the shows. Instead, different studios propose and pitch various ideas for shows, get network approval and funding, make them, go through lots of different edits, and eventually the network airs them.

    In some cases (typically when there is little input from subject experts in the script, animation, and/or editing) the final product can accumulate errors. In other cases (including some already or soon-to-be aired on Discovery) contact with subject experts allows at least some errors to be caught, corrected, modified, or otherwise dealt with before the final version.

    So I wouldn’t tar the entire network as such.

  58. Raptor Lewis Says:

    I’ll echo Dr. Holtz in that you should not blame the Network, but I’m surprised they let it slide, if they even knew about it at all! I just WASTED my DVR memory space for this crap, is what I’m TRULY furious at!

    Personally, I liked JFC and some of Discovery’s Pre-2007 documentaries, as the Science is Correct for the most part. They present everything as Speculation, which is what it REALLY is! Any conjectures, they cite the research FULLY!

    Dangerous, Ltd? Yeah, Dangerous to Science!

  59. Kris Says:

    The thing I find thoroughly amusing are the changes that happen to the narration of shows that are originally produced/aired on BBC. When they make it to US networks like Discovery, they hardly resemble the originals. I understand using a different narrator, but it’s the dumbing down and injection of total garbage that amazes me. I know we are pretty stupid in this country, but is it really necessary to talk to all of us like we are 5 years old? The lowest common denominator doesn’t always need to be catered too. Some go as far as to actually cut footage deemed too “disturbing” for us soft Americans (the absence of the bbq’d hypsilophodonts in the US version of WWD comes to mind). I wonder if US documentaries are made more intelligent when they make it across the pond… Anyway, I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir….

    Matt, I figured that inappropriate/disingenuous cutting/splicing of dialogue took place… but the goings on that you describe here are regoddamdiculous.

  60. Matt Wedel Says:

    Personally, I liked JFC and some of Discovery’s Pre-2007 documentaries, as the Science is Correct for the most part.

    If JFC is Jurassic Fight Club, I hate to disillusion you, but it’s probably the worst dinosaur documentary ever aired. Thanks to the scientists who helped out with the show, it’s possible that a few facts slipped in, but it was mostly speculation, hype, and hilarious misconceptions. As for the host…as the saying goes, don’t quit your day job.

  61. Davor Says:

    What keeps bugging me about this is that it’s hard enough for science to get a fair hearing in our culture. The last thing we should have to worry about is an ostensibly pro-science cable channel mucking things up even more. I’m being hopelessly naive, probably. Still, it burns me up.

  62. DinoHunter Says:

    You are young and nieve about people in the biz…I hope they at least paid you. This is what they do and will always do. You can complain all you want, it isn’t going to change them. You aren’t the first to be used this way, and sadly, won’t be the last.

  63. Shane Foulkes Says:

    Well Matt just let me say that for some of us who surround themselfs in the history and science of the real world discovery of Dinosaurs (im a professional paleosculptor in st.louis) that i was ever so impressed with your knowledge and found myself willing to listen to you for hours as i could tell you knew your stuff .Even though i knew this editing stuff occurs and noticed all the flaws ,i had no idea until reading your concerns that the guest speakers where so manipulated on the cutting room floor and your disgust of it all is rightly desevered. Please know this from a person who is infactuated by dinosaur science ,that we in the know (as a laymen i mean) are not fooled and hold you in highest reguard so please dont think this tarnishes your credibilities at all because it doesnt and as for the rest of the viewers(the majority of people) who just see dinosuars as big scary monsters of the past then no harm done as they most likely think its all correct anyway .the sad part is its not correct info and we really need to know the correct science behind it all. for those us us who really wanted to learn something ,we were left a little empty but did pick up a few things here and there that science could hang its hat on! Your right though about the CGI being repetative ,i have never seen so many shots used over and over in my entire life , did they think we wouldnt notice? scary. happy holidays.

  64. Matt Wedel Says:

    You are young and nieve about people in the biz…I hope they at least paid you. This is what they do and will always do. You can complain all you want, it isn’t going to change them.

    I’m not writing to complain, I’m writing to exonerate myself and set the record straight.

    And I don’t expect to change them. But I hope that my experiences will give other scientists the impetus and ammo they need to demand better treatment by other production companies. The world may not get any better because of these efforts, but I know what will happen if we don’t try, and that’s nothing.

    It’s naive, by the way.

  65. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thanks, Shane, sincerely. I am pleased and even proud at how well most of the scientists on the show did (infrasound weapons excepted). Dangerous failed to transmute all of our hard work into crap.

  66. Michael O. Erickson Says:

    I don’t really know what to say other than I’m angry abot this, and sorry for you, Matt. It’s already been said, I know, but it’s sincere.

    If JFC is Jurassic Fight Club, I hate to disillusion you, but it’s probably the worst dinosaur documentary ever aired. Thanks to the scientists who helped out with the show, it’s possible that a few facts slipped in, but it was mostly speculation, hype, and hilarious misconceptions. As for the host…as the saying goes, don’t quit your day job.

    Agreed 100%. That show was crap, plain and simple. I unfortunately wasted my time watching the whole series, hoping with each episode that it would either get better (didn’t happen) or at least “Dino George” would shut the heck up and they’d let someone like Dr. Bakker or Dr. Holtz or ANYBODY else who actually knows what they are talking about get nearly the air time that he did (didn’t happen). JFC was even worse than Clash of the (Retarded) Dinosaurs, in my opinion.

    Personally, I liked JFC and some of Discovery’s Pre-2007 documentaries, as the Science is Correct for the most part. They present everything as Speculation, which is what it REALLY is! Any conjectures, they cite the research FULLY!

    This guy is joking. He must be. They never, not once, stated that something was “speculation”, they presented everything as full-on truth. For someone who claims to have liked JFC, he certainly doesn’t seem to have watched it.

    You are young and nieve about people in the biz…I hope they at least paid you. This is what they do and will always do. You can complain all you want, it isn’t going to change them. You aren’t the first to be used this way, and sadly, won’t be the last.

    That’s funny… “DinoHunter” once told me these exact same words (“young and ‘nieve'”, “You aren’t the first to … and sadly, won’t be the last”, “You can complain all you want”).
    Some of the words were just swapped to match the particular situation. Bizarre.

  67. Albertonykus Says:

    Discovery Channel may hype things up at times to make them more “exciting”, but to edit a talking head segment and make it look like the paleontologist is uttering falsehoods; that is flat out ridiculous, not to mention low down and dirty!

    I’m really sorry to hear about this! I once commented on another blog, “You just can’t expect much from media these days, even ones that call themselves documentaries.” This is proof of that. In fact, in certain cases (like this one), you had better expect the worst!


  68. I was a scientific consultant on the show and agree with Matt et al. that the researchers were exceptionally keen on “getting it right” with the science and incredibly interested in detail. They read the literature and emailed with me frequently and at length, and they did listen. They even shared some of the CGI with me for critiques, and made some changes (not sure if they made them all). From our communications, I expected a science extravaganza in the show, and even went on the record in the Telegraph praising their research.

    So whatever went wrong (I haven’t seen the shows yet so I don’t know), it probably happened at the higher levels. Remember there are studio execs to blame too; sometimes production companies get forced into modifying their work against their will. I’ve definitely seen that happen before.

  69. Larry Treadwell Says:

    Yeah, I couldn’t finish it. I watched all of the first two episodes and got half way through the third one and just had to shut it off. I was already suspicious and told my wife “I wonder how much of this these guys actually said and how much is being taken out of context. How much is fact, and how much is speculation?”. I was already getting a headache from the visual repetition (was seeing the head-tilt of the Deinonychus in my sleep) but when the narrator couldn’t pronounce Parasaurolophus,
    and they all started getting super-powers I had to shut it off. They even put Sauroposeidons nostrils in the wrong place for God’s sake.

    I mean, this program taught us that Parasaurolophus could scramble your brain with sonic blasts, Sauroposeidon had stomach acid that could digest iron (but ironically needed bacteria to help with plant fiber). Triceratops was not very smart but would eat baby Tyrannosaurs in order to keep them from growing up and becoming a threat.
    Ankylosaurus was the most dangerous animal that ever lived, Triceratops was also the most dangerous animal that ever lived, Deinonychus was also the most dangerous animal that ever lived…OH and Tyrannosaurus Rex was the most dangerous animal that ever lived. Right after this there was a show about Spinosaurus who was coincidentally, the most dangerous animal that ever lived.

    And I couldn’t finish Jurassic Fight Club either. Got through four episodes of that fat catastrophe. If I heard “razor sharp” one time, I heard it eleventy billion times.

    Davor said it best. This is supposed to be a pro-science channel. And this crap is embarrassing. It’s an embarrassment to Discovery Channel and even bigger embarrassment to the paleontologists involved. They owe you guys an apology.

  70. Raptor Lewis Says:

    Disillusion ME?! Jurassic Fight Club (JFC), WORST Documentary EVER MADE?! Ha! Did you forget what you were complaining about?! Come on, Mr. Weedle! I het to burst your bubble, but JFC actually hits the mark better than this show!! I mean, yeah, I understand the criticism, but I, personally enjoyed it! The Point was to ENTERTAIN, anyway! I’m sorry, but you missed the point by a LOT!! It isn’t meant SOLELY to educate! If it was, it would’ve been MUCH more “accurate!”

    My Point?! Your TOO up-tight about the Science! CotD (Clash of the Dinosaurs) is understandable, but attacking a show like JFC like that, without missing the POINT of it, seems pretty silly to me!

  71. Jamie Stearns Says:

    Raptor Lewis:

    To my knowledge, there has never been a flamewar on SV-POW. It would be regrettable if this were to change.

    Not that your point is necessarily invalid, but the yelling was not called for.

  72. Sarah Says:

    Matt, Brendan wants to know if you have kept a copy of your release form/contract (you must have signed one)? If the form has a conditional release clause, or no mention of a sort of “we can do whatever we want with whatever footage we want”, or any sort of “agree not to misrepresent you” clause, then you have the option of legal action (or threats of legal action). He suggests that one could make a solution to the threat of legal action be that your name, image, and words be removed from future broadcasts and DVD releases.

  73. Matt Wedel Says:

    Your TOO up-tight about the Science! CotD (Clash of the Dinosaurs) is understandable, but attacking a show like JFC like that, without missing the POINT of it, seems pretty silly to me!

    Oh yeah…right after I posted my comments above, I discovered your philosophy about documentaries. Suffice it to say, it’s diametrically opposed to pretty much everything I’m trying to accomplish in my life. I’ll stick with my “anal ‘Factual’ attitude”. Have fun being deceived in the name of entertainment.

  74. William Miller Says:

    this program taught us that … Sauroposeidon had stomach acid that could digest iron

    Well, finally the mystery of how sauropods got so big is solved. They had steel bones (from their iron rich diet)!

  75. Steveoc Says:

    Thanks for posting this Matt. Shame about what happened to you on this project.
    I wonder when it will air in the UK?

    Changing the subject slightly,

    On Zachs When Pigs Fly Blog it was brought up that they reconstructed the neck too short on sauroposeidon. I haven’t seen the show but the ones you mention are meant to be juvenille and subadult. Might we expect that they’d have proportionally shorter necks than adults?

    Oh and I agree that JFC was certainly one of the worst Dino ‘’Docs’’ ever.

    My favourite JFC moment:

    Narrator:‘’Camarasaurus owed its success to 5ich long spoon shaped teeth that palaeontologists realised could defoliate entire trees AT WILL!’’. What the?

  76. Karl Zimmerman Says:

    Probably the best (meaning, only good) dinosaur special I ever saw was that Nova episode where a team of scientists built a Microraptor model and put it in a wind tunnel. Sure, the few times we see model dinosaurs they are terrible, and it gave too much air time to BANDits, but it showed actual scientists doing real science.

  77. Matt Wedel Says:

    On Zachs When Pigs Fly Blog it was brought up that they reconstructed the neck too short on sauroposeidon. I haven’t seen the show but the ones you mention are meant to be juvenille and subadult. Might we expect that they’d have proportionally shorter necks than adults?

    Yes, juveniles and subadults would have shorter necks than adults. My colleagues and I documented this for Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus on pp. 368-369 of our APP paper on Sauroposeidon. Carpenter and Tidwell (2005) also reached a similar conclusion in their Astrodon chapter in the Thunder-Lizards volume.

    However, many of the Sauroposeidon shown in the series are supposed to be adults, and they still have the necks too short. The necks are borderline too short even to be Giraffatitan, let alone Sauroposeidon. There’s a post in this someday, but basically the vast majority of popular restorations of Giraffatitan (and Brachiosaurus assuming it had similar neck proportions, with the BYU cervicals support) get the neck too short. Very roughly speaking, Giraffatitan had a shoulder height of about 20 feet and a neck length of 30 feet, so the neck should be about 1.5 times the shoulder height. But many popular restorations, especially in older dinosaur books, show the neck length as equal to the shoulder height, which is just flat wrong. People who start with the skeleton and build from there, like Greg Paul and Nima Sassani, do not fall into this trap. I think this is at least in part what Greg Paul meant in his 1988 brachioaur paper when he said that his new skeletal reconstruction of Giraffatitan revealed a surprisingly graceful, giraffe-like profile. If you’re used to seeing it drawn wrong, seeing the correct version (or better yet, standing in front of the mounted skeleton) is a bit of a shock.

    I was asked to provide constructive criticism on the Sauroposeidon model used by Dangerous for the series. I must have told them four or five times that the neck was too short, but nothing ever came of it. I know they didn’t shorten the neck for the subadult that the Deinonychus hypnotize into submission because (a) the adults look exactly the same, and (b) if they had changed any of the proportions, they surely would have fixed the hilariously bad hatchlings, which in the series are simply miniaturized adults with adult proportions and even kinematics. Hence the goofy ponderous gait of the hatchlings, which looks completely out of place on animals the size of rabbits.


  78. [...] about the long discredited ’second brain’ thing in dinosaurs. However come broadcast, the edit makes it appear as if he says this is correct. When he complains, the company admits the [...]

  79. davidmaas Says:

    Karl Zimmerman says: “Probably the best (meaning, only good) dinosaur special I ever saw was that Nova episode … the few times we see model dinosaurs they are terrible….”

    This is the “four-winged dinosaur” film I mentioned. Here’s the whole thing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL0UIzU0EEc
    I love the sleuthing, the whole-hearted disagreements and the testing of hypothesis that they portray there. That’s entertaining!

    I have to disagree about the ‘terrible’ quality. I actually prefer those puppet sequences to slicker 3D attempts as they inherently communicate the intended information (dramatization of reconstruction) rather than purporting to reality. The eye immediately recognizes those reconstructions as such and so the mind (mine at least) enjoys them as representing an informed opinion. That’s the crux of what all this discussion is about. Those 3D animations are stylistically doing what you criticize the editors for doing.
    As cg reconstruction is something I’m currently working on, I’d love to receive further opinion on this.


  80. [...] dishonest editing and to request an explanation (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, read this first). Today I finally got a response [...]


  81. [...] the quote below is a bit hard to follow; read the whole thing in two articles on Matt’s blog, here and here. You’ll notice a lot of misspellings in the italicized portion of the quote; those [...]

  82. David Marjanović Says:

    As for the host…as the saying goes, don’t quit your day job.

    Now that explains something.

    Someone please beat his parents upside the head and finance college for him (this being the USA we’re talking about, it isn’t for free).

    To my knowledge, there has never been a flamewar on SV-POW. It would be regrettable if this were to change.

    Not that your point is necessarily invalid, but the yelling was not called for.

    Necessarily or not, the point is invalid. Of fucking course it’s possible to entertain without fucking lying. Reality is stranger than fiction anyway.

  83. Larry Treadwell Says:

    “Reality is stranger than fiction anyway.”

    Absolutely! It seems to me kind of rediculous to have to exagerate dinosaurs in the first place.
    They are already incredible enough without the added BS.

    You mean to tell me that a group of animals upward of 120 feet long that dominated this planet for tens of millions of years, whose very bones may explain the origins of much of our cultures myth and religion is not interesting enough?

    You mean to say that you need to stretch the facts and flat out lie (and disrespect those who you have sought for advice)to make it a little bit more entertaining for audiences who don’t care about the science?
    Well guess what, people who don’t care about the science are not watching Discovery channel to begin with! They are watching the Kardashians, or CSI or Survivor. Your viewers are the ones who DO CARE about the science!

    As far as entertaining, neither this show nor JFC fall into that gategory. “Walking with Dinosaurs” was a lot of things, but one thing it was not was repititive.

  84. Jamie Stearns Says:

    David Marjanovic:
    I wasn’t trying to agree with his post; I was merely pointing out that posting comments with excessive use of capitalization and exclamation points is not a good idea regardless of what one is trying to say.


  85. [...] about his experience with a television show on the Discovery Channel called Clash of the Dinosaurs. It didn’t go well. The producers edited Wedel’s interviews to turn his words around 180 degrees. For example, [...]


  86. [...] about his experience with a television show on the Discovery Channel called Clash of the Dinosaurs. It didn’t go well. The producers edited Wedel’s interviews to turn his words around 180 degrees. For example, [...]


  87. [...] Sauropod expert Matt Wedel was one of the talking heads on the program and he recently presented an entire litany of problems with the show.  The most egregious error? The distortion of one of Wedel’s quotes through some careful [...]


  88. [...] about his experience with a television show on the Discovery Channel called Clash of the Dinosaurs. It didn’t go well. The producers edited Wedel’s interviews to turn his words around 180 degrees. For example, [...]


  89. [...] though the assault on Matt Wedel’s honour was, I have to give this to the Daily Mail for apparently confusing Darwinius with Darwinopterus. [...]

  90. richard Says:

    Thank you for setting the record straight on how “information” gets into these shows. As I watched Clash of the Dinosaurs, I had serious credibilty issues with the experts – they seemed more to be dreaming in sci-fi than presenting careful arguments.

    There has been a lot of good advancement in understanding dinosaurs (especiallly their connection to birds), but this show was grossly speculative. I just couldn’t believe the idea that parasaurolophus’ crest was some sort of sonic cannon to scramble the brains of its predators.

    I have long suspected much of the science on discovery (or even in the news in general) is for marketing, not informational purposes. It was nice to finally read confirmation of that. Thanks.


  91. [...] functions of glycogen bodies in extant taxa are very poorly understood (as you may remember from this dustup). Nor can I fathom how a titchy little nerve bundle–if such existed–down at the end of [...]


  92. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]


  93. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]


  94. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]


  95. [...] was, total, amusing and entertaining, but very, very loose with fact. Here is Matt Wedel’s opinion of how “good” this miniseries really [...]


  96. [...] for you, with regularly posted photos of all kinds of skeletal remains. Recommended posts: “Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs” and “Sauropods held their necks erect, just like [...]

  97. Andrew Says:

    WOW for the average person they would regard this information as facts, it is putting words into people`s heads just for sheer entertainment. I feel sorry for the people who took this program seriously. But it is not only on TV that it is hard to find factual information it`s the internet too and diagram`s like yours are hard to find so thanx for posting it.

  98. Heteromeles Says:

    Reminds me of that experience I can’t talk about, working for a former media-liar who was trying to set himself up as a conservationist. He had zero science background. Unfortunately, he thought that it didn’t matter, because he was used to a business where everyone lied.

    Fortunately, he got fired, but he was so good at sounding reasonable, he caused a lot of damage, and silenced the real scientists working for him.

    I can’t say that the lesson is “don’t get involved with the media, because they’re just as capable of BS’ing without talking heads as they are with you.

    Rather, I would suggest that the media game has to be played with specific techniques
    –Use sound bites.
    –Talk fast and continuously. Pauses make it easier to edit phrases.
    –Stay on Message.
    –Do NOT give them opposing opinions, and do not debunk fantasies, unless you can do it in a way where it can’t be edited into supporting the fantasy or a position you oppose.

    Sickening, isn’t it? That’s why politicians have gotten so “stupid” on TV. They aren’t any more stupid than they were before, but they’ve been hurt so badly by people distorting their words that they have invented these techniques to minimize the damage. I feel nauseous even writing it, but scientists have to learn the same lesson, I’m afraid, at least when there’s a camera lens pointed at them and money is involved.

    Regardless, please keep doing public outreach and education, and make sure that there’s a lot of quality information, for public consumption, linked to your name. That goes for every scientist who does media work. That will help dilute damage a bit.


  99. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]

  100. Dino-Moa Says:

    Man I should probably walk over to the discovery company and be their advisor so nothing gets messed up!

  101. Nima Says:

    No offense Dino-Moa, but I don’t think that would make a shred of difference. Discovery didn’t make “Clash of the Dinosaurs” – they hired Dangerous, LTD to do it. Plus even if you were an advisor to Dangerous, there’s no guaranteee they’ll listen to you. They already have advisors, the thing is they ignore them because they think lying makes more money than facts – they don’t get that the facts actually show dinosaurs in a far BETTER light, like real live animals worthy of a modern, no-nonsense nature show of the kind Discovery already grinds out by the bushel (with no stupid “this won’t sell” excuses mind you) – rather than the ridiculous and sometimes paranormal/occult-like freaks in “Clash”.

    We’re talking about some pretty stubborn people who don’t take science or scientists seriously, they didn’t even listen to Matt’s critiques regarding all their mistakes with Sauroposeidon, and he’s got a PhD. I mean if you’re going to follow anyone’s advice on Sauroposeidon, it’s got to be Matt. He coauthored the description paper for crying out loud, and he’s done more research on it than anyone else. What more could you ask for – not only did they have advisors, they had the top expert on Sauroposeidon advising them and they still BLEW IT.

    BTW thanks Matt for the compliment about “not falling into that trap”. It’s true that a lot of book illustrations get the proportions wrong, they even publish wrong measurements sometimes. Brachiosaurs have much longer necks than even some professional paleo-artists give them, in fact the remounted Giraffatitan in Berlin has an even longer neck than its previous version, since RCI did a much more thorough job of reconstructing the neck vertebrae than Janensch’s team did so many decades ago.


  102. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]


  103. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]


  104. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]


  105. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]


  106. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]


  107. [...] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs [...]

  108. steve conrad Says:

    I watched the DVD version of this godawful documentary last night. Even forewarned as I was by this blog, I was shocked by the sheer lameness of the show.

    Sort of a combination of Walking With Dinosaurs, CSI and Rocket Robin Hood.

    While I can accept that in a TV documentary there’s going to be a bit more repetition than a literate adult would require, I have a hard time getting my mind around the way that after having thoroughly rubbed some simple point into the ground (eg that sauropods have small brains) they should choose to dredge it back up an hour later for another round.

    The relentless reiteration of the CGI scenes sets a new standard for shamelessness in the industry. Especially galling is the scene where the t rex bites off the triceratops’ horn only to have that same horn magically restored as the t rex shuffles off. Continuity gaffs do not bear repeated viewing.

    Also, the transparent efforts to disguise the reuse of material by simply rerendering it with different lighting would insult the intelligence of a stegosaur. Same for just flipping it around to a mirror image. Maybe the ruse would have been more successful if they hadn’t let the cat out of the bag by already playing the stuff a dozen times a pop before making a half hearted effort to disguise it.

    Also, the script’s author seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that pterosaurs are dinosaurs. At one point he says “quetzalcoatlus is not like any other dinosaur”. While this may be true in the strict logical sense in that it would be false to say that quetzalcoatlus WAS just like any other dinosaur, this probably wasn’t what they had in mind. Again in the trite wrap up where they bust out the big surprise that birds evolved from dinosaurs, pterosaurs are referred to as dinosaurs. This is a pretty low standard of scientific accuracy.

    I’ve seen some comments partially excusing the skinflint producers of this rubbish on the basis that they have to loop the CGI bits ad nauseum because it’s so darned expensive. I would argue that the cost in not proportional to the minutes of footage produced given that the modeling and such contribute a hefty fixed cost per unit. In any case, cost alone can hardly excuse their painful repetition of even the stock footage of some ferns in a forest or some guys in white coats pulling a cloth off of a t rex skull. Or for that matter the endless recycling of the same remarks by the talking heads. Presumably these two forms of footage are more easily come by than the CGI stuff even though there’s little to suggest it judging from the show’s penchant for looping the stuff forever.

    But the most painful thing about this show is simply that is has no thesis. Makes no argument. Has no point. The words aren’t even organized into paragraphs. Just one rambling redundant sentence after another. Clearly the working model was to see for just how long they could stretch the thing out using only a few minutes of CGI footage and some random sound bites from a bunch of talking heads. At 2:49 on DVD, I’d have to say that the show was quite a success in that regard at least.

  109. John Says:

    Discovery Channel – enough said. National Geographic is a little better. BBC seems the best.

    CGI overused and then overused again. I think there was only one time that an actual specimen was used as a form of proof in the shows. CGI was used in Last Days of the Dinosaurs as well -guess they didn’t use it enough.

    All CGI (dog and pony show) and not much else.

    Miss the old style of docs where they go on a dig and use actual specimens to say relate something.

  110. blfower Says:

    From the website: http://extinction-files.blogspot.com/2009/12/facts-about-clash-of-dinosaurs-train.html

    “Implying that baby T. rex’s were in danger of being eaten by Deinonychus, whereas in fact Deinonychus had already become extinct millions of years before T.rex evolved.”

    Is that correct?

  111. Mike Taylor Says:

    Correct. Deinonychus is known from the Aptian-Albian ages — about 100 to 120 million years ago. T. rex, on the other hand, is known only from the late Maastrichtian, about 65 million years ago.

  112. blfower Says:

    Thank you very much for your answer.

  113. Vasika Says:

    Speaking of Deinonychus trios taking down very large, well-grown juvenile sauropods, and evidence that sauropods had mass-nesting, AND that I believe that a baby could’ve gone off with the adults if it wanted to or gone off alone if it wanted…..

    Well, what you really need to even TRY to take on a young Sauroposeidon is Acrocanthosaurus, which was never even talked about. And why not baby-faced baby sauropods while we’re at it?


  114. [...] their work being misrepresented in the media.  I’m sure it happens — we all remember Matt’s awful experience with Clash of the Dinosaurs — but I think it’s much more the exception than the rule.  [...]


  115. [...] an article two days after it first aired, one of the people speaking in the show wrote at how they found it. [...]


  116. [...] Ltd. felt some heat from the negative reaction of bloggers and commentators, subsequent to Matt’s initial blog post. If we don’t take a stand, we are simply emboldening sloppy science communication. We should [...]


  117. [...] itself, where we’ve often had excellent, busy, informative comment-threads (example 1, example 2, example 3) that have resulted in us learning a lot from our commenters.  So why is it that some [...]


  118. [...] of “Brontosaurus” was eventually made clear, sauropods were ushered out of the swamps, butt-brains have been refuted, and paleontologists are able to extract more information about dinosaur lives from old bones than [...]


  119. [...] as a whole (though poor old steggy generally gets picked out) and how hard this idea is to kill, read this sorry tale by a friend of mine and his interaction with TV producers and editors (starts a way [...]

  120. Fatpat Says:

    I gave up an academic career in Egyptology, giving up a PhD, to work for the BBC some 15 years ago. I had this foolish idea that I could impart knowledge and a love of Ancient History to the public far better working for an esteemed broadcaster than I ever could working in Academia. How wrong I was! I joined a team that had been making archaeology/ancient history documentaries for the best part of 5 years with no member of the team with any knowledge of the subject. No wonder the films were sensationalist rubbish. I thought that I could make a difference! Ha Ha. I tried but was constantly swimming against the tidal pressure emanating fro the suits. The final straw was when the BBC entered into a formal arrangement with The Discovery Channel to make films with and for them.

    From the very start Discovery, with the money, were pulling the strings. The original intention was to make two versions, one for the BBC and another – even more dumbed down, for Discovery. Over time just one version came out of the Edit suites. Yes, a single, Discovery version that aired on both the BBC and Discovery Channel.

    As a Producer I had endless sleepless nights over the way that I had completely lost any academic credibility I once had. I would interview respected academics attempting to really get to the heart of the subject only to have battles with my Executive Producer who was under pressure to always go for the sensational angle. By the time you cut the interview to shreds and intercut the talking head with execrable ‘Dramatic Reconstruction’ or CGI where you can play God, your once proud interviewees could be made to say anything and often were. I lost count of the number of angry e-mails I received from our contributors, furious with the way their ideas had been presented. I felt shameful! The final, final straw was when I was expected to make films purely for the Discovery Channel, The BBC acting as an independent Production company, what Discovery wanted, Discovery received. I left the BBC shortly after that, vowing never to work in the Broadcast Media again. I might not have a career but I do have my self-respect! Whilst I’m sure that the Broadcast Media contains within it many respectable, people with great integrity my experience was of an industry full of people with little or zero subject knowledge who are intensely impressed with their own importance because they work in TV and who care little about the intellectual rigour of their product or indeed have no concept of what academic rigour is!


  121. [...] Sauropods and stegosaurs seemed like the perfect candidates for butt brains. These huge dinosaurs seemed to have pitiful brain sizes compared to the rest of their body, and a second brain–or similar organ–could have helped coordinate their back legs and tails. Alternatively, the second brain was sometimes cast as a kind of junction box, speeding up signals from the back half of the body up to the primary brain. That is, if such an organ actually existed. As paleontologists now know, no dinosaur had a second brain. [...]

  122. Sameer Says:

    Matt, you are there in the show Clash of the Dinosaurs.Did you tell them why they have to show lies like these ?

  123. Thomas Says:

    Is it just me or did they use an acrocanthosaur skull for filler @ 2:44 during episode 2 while going on about Trex?

  124. Fatpat Says:

    I do know that my previous comment, July 29th, reflects a completely different area of academic expertise, namely Egyptology rather than palaeontology. However, I do think that my experiences reflect the problems facing anyone from an academic background attempting to impart their own knowledge and love for a subject through the medium of TV documentaries. I’d be interested to hear if anyone had experierences like mine, i.e. going from academia to behind the camera rather than appearing as an expert ‘Talking Head’ on quasi academic documentaries.

  125. Larry Says:

    Thomas, Yes they did. I noticed that too.


  126. [...] thanks to the glycogen body, which was probably also present in sauropods and responsible for the inaccurate “second brain” meme). But then birds grow up very fast, with even the largest reaching full size in a year or two, so [...]


  127. [...] her crazy (paleo people: imagine getting the Clockwork Orange therapy and being forced to watch Clash of the Dinosaurs). Real cases are solved by teams of specialists, not two omnicompetent protagonists; it takes weeks [...]

  128. Bryan Riolo Says:

    Been reading the comments here and most everyone makes valid points. Maybe I missed it, but nobody mentioned a phenomenon that I, as an artist, have run across time and time again: the suits pay the money and have the last say. Why? Because, since THEY are paying for the information, THEY must know more than the experts. Sounds too loony to be true? Yes, it does, but it’s a fact I’ve run across time and time again. Not everyone, no, but it happens a good percentage of the time and not only in art, science entertainment, etc..

    So, IMO, it is more than fairly likely that is a good part of the explanation for what happened to Matt Wedel and the other scientists. The snafus mentioned often came about, not because of the producers wishing to sensationalize the material, but because the suits had theories that must be correct because THEY are the BOSSES.

    Think I am wrong? Fine. I am talking…typing?…from experiences I’ve had; my own and others.

    Keep up the great work!


  129. […] Apparently, kids’ books and TV shows often make claims about the two-brainedness of dinosaurs. I’ve never heard about this before, but there’s a really good explanation here. […]


  130. […] Fernbank Museum Although we have to admit, it’d be nice to appear deep in thought while scratching your ass. […]


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