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.
October 12, 2011
Folks. Just don’t do this. Just don’t.
McMenamin and Schulte McMenamin’s crack-smoking GSA abstract Triassic kraken: the Berlin ichthyosaur death assemblage interpreted as a giant cephalopod midden isn’t going to do anything for them except attract well-deserved ridicule; and it’s not going to do anything for the field of palaeontology except attract undeserved ridicule. It’s a lose-lose.
So just don’t, OK?
Oh, and, Geological Society of America? Don’t do this, either. A reputation is a valuable and fragile thing.
And mainstream media: we understand that you feel you should be able to trust the Geological Society of America, but can please have just a little common-sense?
(Actual analysis, if anyone wants it, can be found here on Brian Switek’s Wired blog.)
April 1, 2010
This is an actual page from the late, lamented Weekly World News, from December 14, 1999. I always thought it was pretty darned funny that they had the alien remains discovered in the “belly” of an animal known only from neck vertebrae. Now, subjecting a tabloid story to technical scrutiny really is like dancing about architecture, but…it just tickles me. As does the entire story. I haven’t been able to get hold of Dr. Posvby to confirm his findings, but it’s been over a decade and he still hasn’t published, so I’m not holding my breath.
December 17, 2009
Great news! I just got off the phone with someone at the Discovery Channel. He asked not to be named, but he has responsibility for Clash of the Dinosaurs and the authority to do what he promised, which is to fix the “second brain” segment exactly as I asked in the previous post! He said that the program would not be broadcast again until that segment was fixed, and that the fixed version would be in the DVD/Blu-ray release.
So, this is about the best and fastest outcome that I could have asked for. When I put up the last post, I didn’t know whether to expect broad support at the positive end of the spectrum, or a (probably unenforceable) cease-and-desist order at the negative end. I didn’t dare to hope that the problem would be solved so quickly and decisively. Many thanks to the folks at the Discovery Channel for taking responsibility and doing the right thing here.
Looking back: how does this happen?
In the past few days I have been contacted privately by several scientists who have worked or are working on documentaries, and most of them had the same complaint: although some individuals or teams of people at the production companies really care about getting things right, the show is almost always forced to follow a predetermined script or at least hit on certain predetermined points, and it is essentially impossible for the scientific advisors to change the courses of these things. I’ve experienced this firsthand on more than one project now and I can verify that this is how things are done routinely.
Where are the predetermined stories coming from, screenwriters, producers–who? Why aren’t the stories coming from the scientists? When the predetermined stories collide with what the scientific advisors have to say, why do the predetermined stories trump the science? That’s a bass-ackwards way to make a documentary. But this isn’t an infrequent anomaly. This is business as usual in the world of science documentaries.
(From everything I’ve seen and heard, NOVA is a shining exception; I suspect that extends to most documentaries that are commissioned by PBS instead of commercial cable outlets.)
You can see how this practice can’t do anything other than distort the science that the shows are purporting to deliver; as long as something other than the science has priority when it comes to content, it can’t possibly be otherwise. It’s a simple matter of priorities.
Commercialism vs science…or rather, not
And before some commenter says it, I know these companies are in business to make money, not to serve as some kind of selfless science dole. I disagree violently with the suggestion that commercial concerns force them to make bad documentaries, or that there is any necessary conflict between accuracy and entertainment. The real stories are more interesting and more exciting anyway. Exhibit A: David Attenborough’s entire career. End of discussion.
It was all an innocent mistake
In comments on the previous post, the idea was mooted a couple of times that what I’d said in the interview was sufficiently complex and the editors were sufficiently harried that this could just be a simple misunderstanding.
I have three problems with this. First, I don’t see how I could have been any clearer about the second brain business. I said “For a while it was thought that X. There are a couple of misconceptions there.” How anyone could possibly get from that I subscribe to X is quite beyond me.
Second, it had been clear for months that the folks at Dangerous wanted to include the second brain business. The idea that it was a simple misunderstanding by a single editor is contradicted by the pattern described above, wherein documentary makers often seize on certain weird ideas and absolutely won’t be dissuaded no matter what the scientists say. Dangerous wanted a clip of a scientist describing the second brain, and they got it…after a fashion.
Third, the “innocent mistake by harried editor” hypothesis is Pyrrhic exculpation. I’ll explain that.
When I was a grad student at Berkeley, we had a situation once in which a student plagiarized an entire termpaper. When she was called into the course director’s office, she started to explain that she’d only done it because she’d been so busy, and there were extenuating circum–and the course director, who was also my advisor, cut her off right there. He told her that it was actually far more damaging to her credibility to blame her plagiarism on being busy, because what she was indirectly suggesting is that anytime she got busy, she’d default to cheating. That would be turning a one-time screwup into a potentially recurring pattern of behavior, and a bad decision into a facet of her character. In short, the excuse was far worse than the actual crime.
I think the same applies in the case of the dishonest editing. In the view that I’d prefer to believe, there was institutional pressure to deliver a quote on the “second brain”, and an editor made the cut either on his own or because a producer told him to. There is still a component of institutional screw-up, because of the pressure to deliver a quote on one of these predetermined script points no matter what the interviewee said, but this could still be a one-off by one or two people. In the “innocent mistake by harried editor” defense, documentary editors have to work so hard and so fast that sloppiness to the extent of completely reversing an interviewee’s testimony is inevitable, at this company and throughout the industry. Maybe I’m being dense, but how is that better?
Looking forward: where do we go from here?
There is at least one big institutional problem with the way that many documentaries are made, which is that the scientific advisors are basically there to prop up an often deeply flawed script composed without their input. Depending on who you listen to, there may also be an institutional problem in that the editing of these shows is practically guaranteed to result in quote-mining. So what do we do?
First, I agree with many commenters here and elsewhere that scientists ought to demand some level of input into the script, and the right to review any footage of them that goes into the final product. This is tough, because it may be hard to turn down a gig with lots of publicity when you’re on the job market or clawing for tenure, and even if you say no, the production companies can keep calling other people until they get someone who says yes. Hopefully if they get turned down a few times, it will start to dawn on them that making up the show (often in more ways than one!) without any input from the scientists is stupid and wrong.
There have been calls on the DML and elsewhere to create some kind of body that could oversee these things. On one hand, I can see lots of barriers to making that work; on the other hand, if such a body could be brought into existence, production companies might go out of their way to earn their imprimatur. Or better yet, networks like BBC and the Discovery Channel might start insisting that documentaries in that area get the approval of the scientific oversight body. I know, I know, it sounds impossibly optimistic, and I don’t expect it to happen, but stranger things have happened, some of them just this morning.
Second, when documentaries come out, they need to be critiqued, by anyone with knowledge to contribute (the Wikipedia/DML model), by degreed professionals (because authority still carries some weight), and especially by the scientists involved. Production companies might not take such a cavalier attitude toward accuracy if they knew their work was going to be publicly scrutinized by the very scientists they were getting to appear on camera.
Third, we have to avoid becoming complacent, and by ‘we’ I mean scientists and audience members alike. A few doom-and-gloomers have suggested that this is just how Big Media works, and I need to stop being young and naive and simply accept it. I say, sod that. We will get the programming we demand. The internet is a very long lever, and I think that if we all push together, we can move the world.
Fellow Padian lab grad, elephant wrangler, and general nice guy and scientific badass John Hutchinson came through with a boatload of good advice in a comment below. I didn’t want it to be overlooked, so I’m just going to repost it here. Thanks, John!
One practice I recommend is to ensure you always charge production companies for your time, including time spent on emails and the phone. Almost all of them have a budget for this but of course they won’t tell you. How much you charge is negotiable; $100/hr is not unusual and it is possible to charge more. I do this and have the money go straight into my research slush funds, funding grad student trips to conferences etc.
If you’re up front about this (I tell them on the first call/email that my time is money and make an agreement) then they will tend to be more efficient with their time and at least at the end of the experience you’ll have a concrete benefit. In cases where you’re putting in a lot of time, get a contract signed; universities/museums may have business development people that can help arrange this.
In general the media will try to get as much out of you for free as they can. Be mindful of this. To be cynical/realistic, the companies don’t really care about you, even if the researchers do and are very nice chaps. Normally I am appalled by taking a mercenary attitude in science, but this is one case in which I am not.
A caveat is that companies in the early stages of documentary development may not yet have funds or even a guarantee that a filmed show will come out of it. In that case they will expect pro bono help. As a large fraction of these efforts tend to go under (not get funded), I recommend being careful with such situations- I’ve been disappointed 4/5 of the time.
The same goes once filming begins; if you spend 8 hrs filming you’d better get paid, because there is still a big chance that the footage will end up on the cutting room floor or just ~5 min will be used.
I tend to demand to see the script (when I don’t forget to ask, anyway)- and remember you can deviate from it. Much is negotiable but you have to be firm and persistent. It can be excruciating.
Once you get on the “hot list” from doing a few dino docs, you tend to more and more calls for help; I get about one a month on average (once four in one month). So the pressure to say yes reduces. Be choosy and don’t be afraid to say no.
Also, many, many thanks to all of you who took up the cause, either by blogging or by getting in touch with Dangerous, Zodiak, and Discovery. I couldn’t sleep after the previous post, I was afraid that I’d brought a knife to a gun fight. Considering how quickly and painlessly this was resolved, now it looks more like bringing a bazooka to a school debate. But I didn’t know that at the time. And as Carl Zimmer pointed out, happy endings like this one are few and far between.
Finally, as happy as I am that the bad editing is going to be fixed, let’s not lose sight of the larger problem. Clash of the Dinosaurs is still a pretty lousy show, especially considering the time and effort that went into it. All of the companies involved should be aspiring to do a hell of a lot better. We have a long way to go and hand-wringing about the likely education level of the average viewer is not going to get us there. I firmly believe that it is possible to present science accurately without losing the audience. The challenge is to get the people who make documentaries to believe that, too.
Right after I saw the show Sunday night, I wrote to the folks at Dangerous Ltd to point out their 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.
The message didn’t come with any formal or informal requests or warnings about not forwarding or reposting it whole or in part. It’s not all relevant so I won’t quote the whole thing, but it contains the evidence that proves that my claim against Dangerous Ltd is accurate, so I am posting the relevant bits.
For now, can I express our unreserved apologies for the clear fact that we incorrectly spelled your name in the show.
There follows a fairly long and complicated recounting of internal errors and miscommunications. There is no mention of whether this is something that could be fixed in future broadcasts or in the DVD/Blu-ray release. But the apology is something, at least.
I believe you are also right in pointing out that Sauroposeidon was written incorrectly as Sauroposeiden in one of the ‘quiz bits’. I’m sorry to say that the quiz bits at commercial time were produced by Discovery, and although this part of the production process was beyond our control the least I can do is offer another apology.
I knew that this was probably the fault of the Discovery Channel and not Dangerous, which is why I was careful to mention in the last post that it was something presented alongside the show and not as part of the show. There were other godawful quiz bits in the same broadcast, which is one reason I am not as quick to absolve the Discovery Channel of all responsibility for the failings of Clash of the Dinosaurs. I acknowledge that some of the shows they broadcast are quite good, but many others are terrible. In my opinion, the low quality of both Clash of the Dinosaurs and the quiz bits aired along with it are symptomatic of a general apathy toward scientific rigor at Discovery Communications; I don’t think that anyone with two neurons to rub together will be shocked by that statement.
Still, nice of them to apologize on behalf of the Discovery Channel; it’s a lot more than I’d get later on.
Now we get into the real meat:
As for the greater part of your concerns, re the part of the show concerning suggestions involving Sauroposeidon, I’ve taken a careful look at what you originally said compared to what was finally aired. In the original interview, you said:
Matt 14.45.08 Ok one of the curious things about saurapods is that they did have a swelling in the spinal chord in the neighbourhood of their pelvis. And for a while it was thought that may be this was sort of like a second brain to help control the back half of the body. Erm there are a couple of misconceptions there. One is that most animals control large part of their body with their spinal chord. If you’re going through day to day operations like just walking down the street and your minds on something else your brain isn’t even involved in very much controlling your body. A lot of that is a reflex arc that’s controlled by your spinal chord.
Quick aside: the technical term I was groping for here is not “reflex arc” but “central pattern generator”.
So its not just dinosaurs that are controlling their body with their spinal chord its all animals. Now the other thing about this swelling at the base of the tail is we find the same thing in birds and its called the glycogen body. It’s a big swelling in the spinal chord that has glycogen which is this very energy rich compound that animals use to store energy. Problem is we don’t even know what birds are doing with their glycogen bodies. Er the function is mysterious – we don’t know if the glycogen is supporting their nervous system – if its there to be mobilised help dry [should be 'drive' -ed.] their hind limbs or the back half of their body and until we find out what birds are doing with theirs we have very little hope of knowing what dinosaurs were doing with their glycogen bodies.
You can understand that a TV show for Discovery doesn’t always have the room to expand a complex argument. It must also accommodate the needs of all sections of the audience (including children) and while it must educate, it must simultaneously hold everybody’s attention. This said, this doesn’t mean there’s room for error. In the transcript of the final edit, you appeared to be saying:
One of the curious things about Sauropods is that they did have a swelling in the spinal cord, in the neighborhood of their pelvis. This was sort of like a second brain to help control the back half of the body.
There it is in black and white. I was very clearly explaining why a misconception is no longer held, and they edited the tape to make me regurgitate the misconception as if it was not just a commonly accepted fact, but a fact that I accepted. That is beyond quote-mining, it is the most blatantly dishonest thing that you can do with someone’s recorded words. Let’s see what they have to say about it (quote continues with no omissions):
In your email, you said: ‘Someone in the editing room cut away the framing explanation and left me presenting a thoroughly discredited idea as if it was current science.’ In your interview you carefully set out a context in which you made your argument, a context that was perhaps not included in the show as carefully as it could have been. Whether this was in the interests of brevity or not, I entirely appreciate your position. We had no wish to suggest you were presenting an old, discredited argument, we were simply working on the show ever aware of the demands of our audience. This does not excuse a part of the program which was perhaps not edited with as much finesse as it could have been and consequently I will make your concerns clear to the production team in the hope that we may avoid such situations again.
While I hope this clarifies our position, I will endeavour to call you to ensure all your concerns are properly heard.
Notice that there is not even a whiff of an apology anywhere in here. They were “ever aware of the demands of [the] audience”, this part “was perhaps [!] not edited with as much finesse as it could have been”, and they’re going to try to do better next time.
This is crap, crap, crap, just total crap from top to bottom. If you have a segment of an interview that covers ground that you decide is too complex for the audience, JUST DON’T AIR IT. Or, if you insist on presenting this very old and very stupid idea is if it is accurate and current, LEAVE ME OUT OF IT. But the one thing you don’t do is mangle my words to make it sound like I support it. And if you do commit that catastrophically stupid and unethical action, have the decency to apologize! Perhaps they didn’t because that would count as an admission of guilt?
This is not a joke and it is not a minor infringement. This is the broadest publicity that I have ever gotten or may ever get, the description of Sauroposeidon included. This is my professional competence and reputation on the line. This is not just careless editing, this is Dangerous Ltd deliberately making a liar out of me in front of millions of people.
This is intolerable.
What I’m Going To Do
I’m going to write back to Dangerous Ltd and request a copy of the release that I signed, to see what legal rights, if any, I may have to get this fixed. What would fixing it entail? Simple: I don’t care if they leave in the bit where they discuss the “second brain”, just cut out my speaking part. It’s probably all of ten seconds. They could even replace it with something or someone else, I don’t care. Just stop making me lie. I’d prefer to see that edited version replace the one currently in circulation, both for future broadcasts and for the DVD/Blu-ray release.
If they could fix my name while they’re at it, that would be nice, but it’s really small potatoes. “Matthew” Wedel is a dumb error, but it’s just an error. What they did in the ‘second brain’ segment is a lie, and one that is corrosive to my public credibility.
How You Can Help
Send this on to everyone you think might be interested, which potentially includes everyone who watches the Discovery Channel or likes dinosaurs. In particular, copy and paste the quoted section above that includes the transcript of my interview; the best hope for me in the long run is for this evidence to be backed up in so many places that it can never be suppressed. I have no idea about the legal status of a chunk of text copied from an e-mail message to a blog post to someplace else on the internet. I care far more that what is posted here and elsewhere matches what Dangerous Ltd has on file; the latter ought to be subject to subpoena even if the former is not. Fellow bloggers and science bloggers, I’m asking for your help.
Dangerous Ltd turned my words around 180 degrees because they had to “accomodate the needs of the audience” and “hold everyone’s attention”. This shows stunning contempt for the audience, for the scientists who appeared on the show, and for the truth. Coming from a company that makes documentaries, I think it’s about the most damning statement possible. If you’re working with them, maybe it’s time to reconsider.
You, reading this post: you are the audience. If you disagree with the idea that Dangerous Ltd has to subvert the truth to hold your attention, or if you’d like to support my request that they fix the show by removing the dishonestly edited portion, please contact them here. I shouldn’t have to say it, but this is the net, so: if you do contact them about this, please be brief, stick to the facts, and don’t be abusive, threatening or profane.
I’ve already e-mailed all of the top officers of Dangerous Ltd and this non-apology is the closest to an official response that I’ve gotten or expect to get. It might also be worthwhile to contact Zodiak Entertainment, the parent company of Dangerous Ltd, and make sure that they are aware of how their subsidiary is representing them. You may do so here; the previous plea for brevity and moderation applies.
Finally, outfits like Dangerous Ltd will only be able to pull this kind of crap for as long as Discovery Communications lets them get away with it. The most relevant thing I’ve been able to find for them is the Viewer Relations contact page for Discovery.com, which is here. Please let them know how you feel–briefly and politely, as always.
Many, many thanks to everyone who has written to me or commented here and elsewhere to show their support. The only way to get better science programming is to demand it. Please speak up!
UPDATE, about 1.5 hours after posting
Mike just pointed me to a post on the publicly archived VRTPALEO Mailing List by Alex Freeman, a BBC employee, that is highly relevant to my situation and maybe even crucial (I can’t link to it yet because the day’s posts haven’t been archived yet, but I will add it as soon as possible). Here’s the good bit:
I’d like to make clear that the BBC has a code of conduct which covers all of its output. Fair representation of contributors is extremely strictly regulated and if anyone ever made edits like those described they would very quickly be out of a job, and the BBC would have to make a public statement and apology.
First question is, does Discovery Communications have a similar code of conduct (that they are willing to enforce in this case)? Second question is, when is Clash of the Dinosaurs slated to air in the UK, and will it be on the BBC? Dangerous, Zodiak, or Discovery may be willing to fix the problem on their own steam, and I want to give them the opportunity to do so. But if they won’t, hopefully the BBC will have both the clout and the will to get the job done.
Needless to say, this code of conduct would be a useful thing to mention in any communication to Dangerous Ltd, Zodiak Entertainment, or the Discovery Channel.
UPDATE, the next day
The Discovery Channel came through; they will not air the show again or release it on disc until the dishonest editing is fixed.
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.
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.
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:
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.