BBC Radio 4 fail in their duty of care to their listeners

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,
  • 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

Reference CAS-1387310-3W6PSD

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.

Kind Regards

Mark Roberts

BBC Complaints

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.


18 Responses to “BBC Radio 4 fail in their duty of care to their listeners”

  1. Ouch, I missed signing this!

    And yes, the reaction is either incredibly stupid or simply dishonest: they should just fess up and retract this nonsense.

  2. tmkeesey Says:

    Well, obviously it was supposed to be lighthearted, it was about dinosaurs, which are magical creatures like unicorns and astronauts!

  3. Well done for organising this. The reply may not be wholly satisfactory but hopefully the criticism stings a little and will be remembered the next time Ford comes calling with a wacky theory.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, we can at least hope that having sent it will help to avoid a repeat.

  5. eotyrannus Says:

    Last night I submitted my solicited response for LabNews on Ford’s article. I think they realise that running his piece was a bit of a blunder and they’re perhaps aiming for damage control. This doesn’t help with the coverage the story received on the radio, though.

  6. Paul Barrett Says:

    Please get a sense of proportion about this. As I made clear in the email I sent to vertpaleo this really is small fry, and constant trumpeting of the story just keeps alive a thread that should just be allowed to die. We all know it’s nonsense and the pervasive picture of dinosaurs in the public eye will stop even the most avid Today listener from shifting their opinions much.

    The reply you got was virtually identical to that which I predicted you’d receive. I don’t see how it’s “totally unacceptable”. You got a lengthy personal reply that discussed the issues you raised, rather than the sort of reply many would receive along the lines of “Thank you, duly noted. Yours sincerely”. This really is a light-hearted story when viewed in the context of the rest of Today’s content (wars, terrorism, social inequality, that sort of thing). Dinosaurs are not affecting policy at the UN or in Westminster.

    I’m also getting fed up with the characterisation of my reply as somehow too gentle. This may be too subtle for some to grasp, but sometimes offhand casual dismissal is a much more effective way of shutting down a story than a full on assault. I actually had a large number of colleagues, some whom I’ve never interacted with before, contact me to comment positively on my approach. Moreover, some of us are tied by the rules of professional courtesy, which mean that we can’t necessarily use language that another would find defamatory.

    If you want to get righteously annoyed about something in the media go after the generally poor coverage of medical stories, the (mis)understanding of which has actual socitietal impact.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Paul, I know you didn’t want me to sent that letter. But having promised I would and collected signatures from 19 other palaeontologists who signed and others (non-palaeo) who also wanted it sent, I really couldn’t then unilaterally decide not to on the basis of one negative vote. And having sent it, it would hardly be right not to report the response.

    I didn’t say the reply was “unacceptable”, I said it was “unsatisfactory”. Very different.

    Who said your reply was “too gentle”? Not me.

    Anyway. I’m done here. As I told you at the time, I don’t intend to pursue this beyond the sending of the complaint. Stephen Curry makes the point that it might at least help to prevent a repeat, and that’s where I’ll leave it.

  8. Paul, I really have to disagree! It is this attitude of “oh shucks, let morons be morons” that got us into all the mess with climate change & science distrust, ecolution & science ditsrust, and so on.
    If you shut up and let bygones be bygones, they’ll never be bygones! They’ll come back to haunt you.

    be outspoken!
    be precise!
    be fun!

    THAT’s what’s needed – any appeasement just earns you bigger shit down the road!

  9. tmkeesey Says:

    This doesn’t quite seem comparable to climate change denial. It’s one guy, while climate change denial is a whole political engine.

  10. Indeed is not the same, I never said that so please burn your freakin strawman right now. As I said, the same attitude got us the problem. An attitude that used to be and still is wide-spread, although things are slowly changing.

  11. Mike, mind if I quote this response on my blog? I have another response I’d like to add to the chorus.

    @Paul – I agree that your response was appropriate under the circumstances, but the editorial use within the story was not. Nor do I accept the differentiation you make between the “light-hearted” misrepresentation of science when it’s not policy related and the misrepresentation of medical research – the very reason why dinosaur stories are covered on these shows is because they draw attention that extends well beyond the importance of their findings; that is, because people pay attention to it. It is these times when good science reporting may be most necessary, as we are often exposing listeners to science that would otherwise tune it out.

    Interestingly, much medical and “life-style” reporting is not too dissimilar – the reason why the claim that an herbal extract can cure something that ails us, despite lacking even a shred of clinical testing, is because it appeals at an emotional level to the listener that exceeds topics that many listeners consider “dull”.

    Likewise, what of the more than a dozen media outlets that considered the BBC report serious enough to turn around and do stories on? They weren’t kidding, those are all serious stories written as if it were actual science.

    Here is why this matters:

    1) One of the biggest reasons cite as to why people either don’t believe science (especially conclusions they don’t like) or simply don’t bother keeping up with it is because “Scientists will just change their mind in another six months anyways”. We all know this isn’t true, but the media reinforces this idea (for example, by treating bird origins as if it were a serious debate a decade after it stopped being one, or by relaying every last opinion about how good chocolate is for your long-term health, regardless of whether the new study has had an actual impact on the scientific consensus). Dinosaurs are one of the engines of popular attention to science in the media – misleading the public about it like this only reinforces the very stereotypes that are most commonly cited as turning people off of science.

    2) This was truly a case of representing non-science as science, and as such it hurts people’s ability to distinguish between the two. Argue with a creationist for more than 20 seconds (and here in the ‘States you have to since they control one of the two political parties) and you realize that probably the biggest problem is they have no idea that some guy with a blog (cognitive dissonance observed!) and someone publishing in Cretaceous Research are not doing the same thing. The sort of misrepresentation that BBC radio 4 did directly adds to this inability to tell an idea in a magazine from a peer-reviewed journal.

    3) On the flip side of issue number two (and SVPOW highlighted this nicely in their original post) is actually hurts the perception that anyone can actually do science, as long as they actually DO science. Unfortunately, when a crackpot like this is given air time, many of the attacks are understandably on his credentials. Yet really none of us are upset because of his qualifications, we are upset because he didn’t bother to do science. If he’d familiarized himself with the professional literature and submitted an idea that got through peer review we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Of course Mr. Ford probably could not have maintained such an ill-informed idea after bothering to learn the last century of science, and getting it through peer review would be difficult without some very persuasive new data, but that’s exactly the point; had he managed that he would have either given up, or made a contribution to the field.

    Now the literally millions of people who either heard the interview or read one of the dozen+ print and web articles based on it are more likely to believe that we scientists just make this stuff up as we go along, they will have a harder time telling real science from bad, and anyone reading the responses is more likely to get the impression that science is a black box process open only to a few, rather than anyone who is willing to put in the work and not take shortcuts.

    And all of this with arguably the most popular topic a science program can cover. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for light-hearted coverage of science (including paleo), but if that’s what the BBC thinks it was doing then they’re just as bad at recognizing humor as they are at detecting fake science.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Scott. All of that is spot on, and precisely what I was trying to convey. You’ve done it much better than I did: I suggest you take your comment and dump it straight into a new Skeletal Drawing post, where it’ll get the attention it deserves. The story was not light-hearted, and it was harmful — to much more than just palaeontology.

    (When you ask “mind if I quote this response on my blog?”, I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but you’re certainly welcome to quote anything I’ve said.)

  13. Heh, sorry, I pounded that out in between trying to finish some actual work – I meant “may I quote the response letter you received from the BBC”?

    Thanks for the kind words – portions of my post above will indeed go into my full response.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    “May I quote the response letter you received from the BBC?”

    Be my guest!

  15. alharron Says:

    I don’t know what the BBC are playing at. A few months ago, I wrote in to complain about a segment of a review show which managed to present a number of complete falsehoods as facts (in this case, claiming that several books were out of print when in fact all of them were still in print as a quick Google search would prove, as well as presenting a bunch of preposterous and borderline libellous myths about an author’s life as commonly-accepted truths): when I received a reply, it was exactly the sort of evasive, insincere sidestepping I read here, trying to pass the buck by saying this wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, and should not be expected to be held up to any degree of factual rigour.

    While I won’t argue that the two situations are quite the same, the central conflict is that something is being presented as truth without any indication that it could be otherwise, be it a contributor’s personal anecdotes, or the bald-faced cheek to present a crackpot theory as anything other than a crackpot theory.

  16. G R Hurlburt Says:

    I agree that the BBC’s response was disappointing and deceptive. I saw no indication that the piece was intended as light-hearted. The ref, to Galileo could only be interpreted as a comparison with Ford-the only defense would be that it was ironic. I cannot see how it can be interpreted as a comment about the importance of dissent in science, as this would be a definite non-sequitor. I think it’s a good idea to bring the BBC or any broadcaster up short on such misinformation. In the early days of creationism’s revival, S.J. Gould advised non-response to avoid giving it credibility. This now doesn’t seem to be the right approach. I don’t see that a proper response perpetuates the silly idea of the aquatically-supported dinosaurs. I have no problem with Barrett’s response. In his position, it’s hard to know exactly how to play such a situation and all too easy to over-respond. Many of us would have found it hard to avoid some comment about Ms. Anne Elk and her theory.

  17. I must say that I start to wonder about a possible connection between the BBC and Mitt Romney: “this statement was not meant to be truthful”, anyone?


    Scott, well said!

  18. […] I’m going to avoid saying very much about it for fear of making a fool of myself — as scientists so often do when wandering outside their own field. But I think it’s fair to say that we all have a tendency to see what we expect to […]

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