April 12, 2012
As everyone now knows, last week the respected and trusted Today programme on BBC Radio 4 ran an absurd nonscience piece on Brian Ford’s wild, ignorant, uninformed speculation that all dinosaurs lived in shallow lakes because that was the only way they could support their weight. Plenty of people have shown what utter, contemptible nonsense this is, and I won’t waste everyone’s time by reiterating it.
Inspired by a comment by Stephen Curry, I put together a request for a formal retraction, and solicited signatories from the VRTPALEO list and Dinosaur Mailing List during a 24-hour window. During that time 20 palaontologists contacted me to sign, and so this is what I submitted at 3pm on Thursday 5th April:
Dear Radio 4,
The Today Programme for Tuesday 3rd April 2012 contained a science piece by Tom Feilden:
regarding Professor Brian J. Ford’s “theory” that dinosaurs did not live on land but in shallow lakes which supported their weight.
Professor Ford’s theory was published in a magazine rather than a peer-reviewed journal, and is wholly unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. It contradicts all evidence from dinosaur anatomy, biomechanics, sedimentology and palaeoenvironments, and does not even qualify as fringe science. It is unsupported and uninformed speculation which Ford could have disproved had he taken just ten minutes to look at the readily available literature representing a century of consensus.
By giving air-time to this speculation, even comparing Ford with Galileo, Radio 4 has unfortunately lent it a credibility that it has not earned, introduced a time-wasting controversy where there is not a controversy, misled the public, and maybe most importantly compromised its own credibility as a trusted source of science reporting. No listener with any knowledge of palaeontology will have been able to take this report seriously; will they believe the next science report you broadcast?
To mitigate this damage, we recommend and request that you broadcast a formal retraction.
- Dr. Mike Taylor, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, UK
- Dr. David Marjanović, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany
- Silvio C. Renesto, Associate Professor of Palaeontology, Department of Theoretical and Applied Sciences, Università degli Studi dell’Insubria, Italy
- Dr. Grant Hurlburt, Department of Natural History, Royal Ontario Museum, Canada
- Dr. Michael Balsai, Department of Biology, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA
- Dr. Bill Sanders, Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan, USA
- Dr. Stephen Poropat, Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University, Sweden
- Dr. Oliver Wings, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany
- Jon Tennant, Independent Researcher, UK
- Prof. John R. Hutchinson, Department of Veterinary Basic Sciences, The Royal Veterinary College, UK.
- Prof. Lorin R. King, Dept. of Science, Math and Physical Education, Western Nebraska Community College
- Scott Hartman, paleontologist and scientific illustrator, SkeletalDrawing.com
- Neil Kelley, Department of Geology, University of California at Davis, USA
- Dr. Matteo Belvedere, Department of Geosciences, University of Padova, Italy
- Andrew R. C. Milner, Paleontologist and Curator, St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, Utah, USA
- Dr. James I. Kirkland, State Paleontologist, Utah Geological Survey, USA
- Dr. Jerry D. Harris, Director of Paleontology, Dixie State College, Utah, USA
- Dr. Andrew A. Farke, Curator, Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, California, USA
- Dr. Daniel Marty, Editor (Palaeontology) of the Swiss Journal of Geosciences
- Dr. Manabu Sakamoto, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, UK
(My thanks to all who signed.)
To give it the best chance of being seen by the relevant people, I submitted this three times on the BBC’s rather confusing web-site: on the Today feedback page, on the BBC complaints page, and on the Contact Today page.
Today at 2pm, I got the following reply:
Dear Dr Taylor
Thanks for contacting us regarding ‘Today’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 3 April.
I understand that you were unhappy with the inclusion of a report by Tom Feilden on a theory proposed by Professor Brian Ford regarding how dinosaurs’ lived. I note you believe the report gave credibility to this theory, and compared the professor with Galileo.
Your concerns were forwarded to the programme who explained in response that the item in question was a light-hearted feature looking at an outlandish new idea about the dinosaurs and which was clearly signposted as such.
They added that the item even included one of the world’s leading experts on dinosaurs, Paul Barrett, exposing it’s flaws and ridiculing it and that it was very clear where Brian Ford’s article was published since Laboratory News was clearly mentioned.
They also added that the reference to Galileo was simply an aside about the importance of dissent in science, with Brian Ford was unlikely to be put off by the condemnation of the established experts, and not, as you suggest, a comparison between Brian Ford and one of the greatest scientists of all time.
In closing they explained:
“Today does a lot of good, serious science, indeed that same morning we had items on carbon capture and storage and the controversy over the publication of flu research, but that doesn’t mean it all has to be serious and we must be free to include light-hearted items, reported in a more humorous way.”
Nevertheless, we’re guided by the feedback we receive and I can assure you I’ve registered your complaint on our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback that’s made available to all BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers.
The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.
Thanks for taking the time to contact us.
I guess I don’t need to say that I find this completely unsatisfactory. Trying to pass the segment off as “a light-hearted feature looking at an outlandish new idea about the dinosaurs and which was clearly signposted as such” just won’t fly: its page on the BBC site is entitled “Aquatic dinosaur theory debated”, and there is nothing about it that signposts it as any less serious than, say, the piece they did with me on Brontomerus, or on sauropod neck posture.
As it happens, my mum called me for a chat a couple of days ago, asking me whether I’d heard “the new theory” on the Today show. It was pretty painful having to let her down. She obviously didn’t hear it as “a light-hearted feature”. It’s going to be harder now for her to accept other science reporting on Today.
The response claims that “the reference to Galileo was simply an aside about the importance of dissent in science [...] and not, as you suggest, a comparison between Brian Ford and one of the greatest scientists of all time”. Well, let’s take a listen and see what exactly was said:
Somehow, I don’t think that [Paul Barrett's gentle disagreement] is going to be enough to persuade Professor Brian Ford. As another famous scientific dissenter, Galileo, was reported to have to have muttered under his breath when forced to deny that the Earth revolves around the Sun, “Eppur si muove” — “And yet, it moves“.
This is just so disappointing. It would have taken Today‘s Tom Feilden five, maybe ten minutes of high-school-level research to discover that Ford has no grounding in palaeontology, sedimentology, biomechanics or palaeoenvironments; that his “theory” is as emphatically contradicted by the evidence as geocentricism; and that its publication was in a trade newsletter. By skipping that basic due diligence, and blindly reporting Ford’s fantasy as serious science, Today has dramatically undermined its own credibility; by refusing to retract or even apologise, they’ve missed a chance to regain some of that lost credibility.
Why does it matter? Scott Hartman said it best:
We live in a world where huge swaths of people don’t understand basic scientific concepts, and this sort of nonsense just makes it harder to teach. Worse, listeners that were sympathetic to the reporting will become disillusioned when they find out the reality of the situation, possibly making them view all science more cynically (or simply avoiding science altogether).
We deserve better science reporting than this. The BBC and everyone else who carried this story should be ashamed.
No. No, they did not.
(That’s occasional SV-POW! reader/commenter Paul Barrett in the back half of that audio clip, being amazingly restrained.)
Turns out that the published work this interview is based on is this one in Laboratory News. No references, no hint that it’s been peer-reviewed, no illustrations that are more convincing than this one:
And, unsurprisingly enough, the article is complete nonsense. “We accept the remains of their footprints without demur, although for such gigantic creatures the imprints that we observe in rocky strata make no sense. The prints are roughly as deep in the layers of Liassic mud as ours might have been, although the high mass of an adult dinosaur would cause it to sink up to its knees. The footprints seem to be those of an altogether lighter organism.” Yes, they would — to someone ignorant of all the work that’s been done on dinosaur biomechanics and tracks. A cell biologist operating way outside his area, for example.
What a complete waste of time and energy.
Matt and I have often talked about how valuable the contributions of amateurs can be in science in general, and palaeo in particular. And then some asshat comes along and takes a dump in the living room. And now the world is full of interested laymen all telling each other “actually, the latest theory is that they did live in swamps after all!”
The Today Programme should be ashamed of itself for running such nonsense. In scientific terms, it’s on a par with Young-Earth Creationism or Geocentricism. And that wouldn’t have been hard for them to have found out.
I wonder if we could get them to run a retraction?