“But wait, Matt”, I hear you thinking. “Every news agency in the world is tripping over themselves declaring Patagotitan the biggest dinosaur of all time. Why are you going in the other direction?”

Because I’ve been through this a few times now. But mostly because I can friggin’ read.

Maximum dorsal centrum diameter in Argentinosaurus is 60cm (specimen MCF-PVPH-1, Bonaparte and Coria 1993). In Puertasaurus it is also 60cm (MPM 10002, Novas et al. 2005). In Patagotitan it is 59cm (MPEF-PV 3400/5, Carballido et al. 2017). (For more big centra, see this post.)

Femoral midshaft circumference is 118cm in an incomplete femur of Argentinosaurus estimated to be 2.5m long when complete (Mazzetta et al. 2004). A smaller Argentinosaurus femur is 2.25m long with a circumference of 111.4cm (Benson et al. 2014). The largest reported femur of Patagotitan, MPEF-PV 3399/44, is 2.38m long and has a circumference of either 101cm (as reported in the Electronic Supplementary Materials to Carballido et al 2017) or 110cm (as reported in the media in 2014*).

TL;DR: 60>59, and 118>111>110>101, and in both cases Argentinosaurus > Patagotitan, at least a little bit.

Now, Carballido et al (2017) estimated that Patagotitan was sliiiiightly more massive than Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus by doing a sort of 2D minimum convex hull dorsal vertebra area thingy, which the Patagotitan vertebra “wins” because it has a taller neural spine than either Argentinosaurus or Puertasaurus, and slightly wider transverse processes than Argentinosaurus (138cm vs 128cm) – but way narrower transverse processes than Puertasaurus (138cm vs 168cm). But vertebrae with taller or wider sticky-out bits do not a more massive dinosaur make, otherwise Rebbachisaurus would outweigh Giraffatitan.

Now, in truth, it’s basically a three-way tie between Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan. Given how little we have of the first two, and how large the error bars are on any legit size comparison, there is no real way to tell which of them was the longest or the most massive. Still, to get to the conclusion that Patagotitan was in any sense larger than Argentinosaurus you have to physically drag yourself over the following jaggedly awkward facts:

  1. The weight-bearing parts of the anterior dorsal vertebrae are larger in diameter in both Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus than in Patagotitan. Very slightly, but still, Patagotitan is the smallest of the three.
  2. The femora of Argentinosaurus are fatter than those of Patagotitan, even at shorter length. The biggest femora of Argentinosaurus are longer, too.

So all of the measurements of body parts that have to do with supporting mass are still larger in Argentinosaurus than in Patagotitan.

Now, it is very cool that we now have a decent chunk of the skeleton of a super-giant titanosaur, instead of little bits and bobs. And it’s nice to know that the numbers reported in the media back in 2014 turned out to be accurate. But Patagotitan is not the “world’s largest dinosaur”. At best, it’s the third-largest contender among near equals.

Parting shot to all the science reporters who didn’t report the same numbers I did here: instead of getting hype-notized by assumption-laden estimates, how about doing an hour’s worth of research making the most obvious possible comparisons?

Almost immediate UPDATE: Okay, that parting shot wasn’t entirely fair. As far as I know, the measurements of Patagotitan were not available until the embargo lifted. Which is in itself odd – if someone claims to have the world’s largest dinosaur, but doesn’t put any measurements in the paper, doesn’t that make your antennae twitch? Either demand some measurements so you can make those obvious comparisons, or approach with extreme skepticism – especially if the “world’s largest dino” claim was pre-debunked three years ago!

* From this article in the Boston Globe:

Paleobiologist Paul Upchurch of University College London believes size estimates are more reliable when extrapolated from the circumference of bones.

He said this femur is a whopping 43.3 inches around, about the same as the Argentinosaurus’ thigh bone.

‘‘Whether or not the new animal really will be the largest sauropod we know remains to be seen,’’ said Upchurch, who was not involved in this discovery but has seen the bones first-hand.

Some prophetically appropriate caution from Paul Upchurch there, who has also lived through a few of these “biggest dinosaur ever” bubbles.


I was a bit disappointed to hear David Attenborough on BBC Radio 4 this morning, while trailing a forthcoming documentary, telling the interviewing that you can determine the mass of an extinct animal by measuring the circumference of its femur.

We all know what he was alluding to, of course: the idea first published by Anderson et al. (1985) that if you measure the life masses of lots of animals, then measuring their long-bone circumferences when they’ve died, you can plot the two measurements against each other, find a best-fit line, and extrapolate it to estimate the masses of dinosaurs based on their limb-bone measurements.


This approach has been extensively refined since 1985, most recently by Benson et al. (2014). but the principle is the same.

But the thing is, as Anderson et al. and other authors have made clear, the error-bars on this method are substantial. It’s not super-clear in the image above (Fig 1. from the Anderson et al. paper) because log-10 scales are used, but the 95% confidence interval is about 42 pixels tall, compared with 220 pixels for an order of magnitude (i.e. an increment of 1.0 on the log-10 scale). That means the interval is 42/220 = 0.2 of an order of magnitude. That’s a factor 10 ^ 0.2 = 1.58. In other words you could have two animals with equally robust femora, one of them nearly 60% heavier than the other, and they would both fall within the 95% confidence interval.

I’m surprised that someone as experienced and knowledgeable as Attenborough would perpetuate the idea that you can measure mass with any precision in this way (even more so when using only a femur, rather than the femur+humerus combo of Anderson et al.)

More: when the presenter told him that not all scientists buy the idea that the new titanosaur is the biggest known, he said that came as a surprise. Again, it’s disappointing that the documentary researchers didn’t make Attenborough aware of, for example, Paul Barrett’s cautionary comments or Matt Wedel’s carefully argued dissent. Ten minutes of simple research would have found this post — for example, it’s Google’s fourth hit for “how big is the new argentinian titanosaur”. I can only hope that the actual documentary, which screens on Sunday 24 January, doesn’t present the new titanosaur’s mass as a known and agreed number.

(To be clear, I am not blaming Attenborough for any of this. He is a presenter, not a palaeontologist, and should have been properly prepped by the researchers for the programme he’s fronting. He is also what can only be described as 89, so should be forgiven if he’s not quite as quick on his feel when confronted with an interviewer as he used to be.)

Update 1 (the next day)

Thanks to Victoria Arbour for pointing out an important reference that I missed: it was Campione and Evans (2012) who expanding Anderson et al.’s dataset and came up with the revised equation which Benson et al. used.

Update 2 (same day as #1)

It seems most commenters are inclined to go with Attenborough on this. That’s a surprise to me — I wonder whether he’s getting a free pass because of who he is. All I can say is that as I listened to the segment it struck me as really misleading. You can listen to it for yourself here if you’re in the UK; otherwise you’ll have to make do with this transcript:

“It’s surprising how much information you can get from just one bone. I mean for example that thigh bone, eight feet or so long, if you measure the circumference of that, you will be able to say how much weight that could have carried, because you know what the strength of bone is. So the estimate of weight is really pretty accurate and the thought is that this is something around over seventy tonnes in weight.”

(Note also that the Anderson et al./Campione and Evans method has absolutely nothing to do with the strength of bone.)

Also if interest was this segment that followed immediately:

How long it was depends on whether you think it held its neck out horizontaly or vertically. If it held it out horizontally, well then it would be about half as big again as the Diplodocus, which is the dinosaur that’s in the hall of the Natural History Museum. It would be absolutely huge.

Interviewer: And how tall, if we do all the dimensions?

Ah well that is again the question of how it holds its neck, and it could have certainly reached up about to the size of a four or five storey building.

Needless to say, the matter of neck posture is very relevant to our interests. I don’t want to read too much into a couple of throwaway comments, but the implication does seem to be that this is an issue that the documentary might spend some time on. We’ll see what happens.


Suppose, hypothetically, that you worked for an organisation whose nominal goal is the advancement of science, but which has mutated into a highly profitable subscription-based publisher. And suppose you wanted to construct a study that showed the alternative — open-access publishing — is inferior.

What would you do?

You might decide that a good way to test publishers is by sending them an obviously flawed paper and seeing whether their peer-review weeds it out.

But you wouldn’t want to risk showing up subscription publishers. So the first thing you’d do is decide up front not to send your flawed paper to any subscription journals. You might justify this by saying something like “the turnaround time for traditional journals is usually months and sometimes more than a year. How could I ever pull off a representative sample?“.

Next, you’d need to choose a set of open-access journals to send it to. At this point, you would carefully avoid consulting the membership list of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, since that list has specific criteria and members have to adhere to a code of conduct. You don’t want the good open-access journals — they won’t give you the result you want.

Instead, you would draw your list of publishers from the much broader Directory of Open Access Journals, since that started out as a catalogue rather than a whitelist. (That’s changing, and journals are now being cut from the list faster than they’re being added, but lots of old entries are still in place.)

Then, to help remove many of the publishers that are in the game only to advance research, you’d trim out all the journals that don’t levy an article processing charge.

But the resulting list might still have an inconveniently high proportion of quality journals. So you would bring down the quality by adding in known-bad publishers from Beall’s list of predatory open-access publishers.

Having established your sample, you’d then send the fake papers, wait for the journals’ responses, and gather your results.

To make sure you get a good, impressive result that will have a lot of “impact”, you might find it necessary to discard some inconvenient data points, omitting from the results some open-access journals that rejected the paper.

Now you have your results, it’s time to spin them. Use sweeping, unsupported generalisations like “Most of the players are murky. The identity and location of the journals’ editors, as well as the financial workings of their publishers, are often purposefully obscured.”

Suppose you have a quote from the scientist whose experiences triggered the whole project, and he said something inconvenient like “If [you] had targeted traditional, subscription-based journals, I strongly suspect you would get the same result”. Just rewrite it to say “if you had targeted the bottom tier of traditional, subscription-based journals”.

Now you have the results you want — but how will you ever get through through peer-review, when your bias is so obvious? Simple: don’t submit your article for peer-review at all. Classify it as journalism, so you don’t need to go through review, nor to get ethical approval for the enormous amount of editors’ and reviewers’ time you’ve wasted — but publish it in a journal that’s known internationally for peer-reviewed research, so that uncritical journalists will leap to your favoured conclusion.

Last but not least, write a press-release that casts the whole study as being about the “Wild West” of Open-Access Publishing.

Everyone reading this will, I am sure, have recognised that I’m talking about  John Bohannon’s “sting operation” in Science. Bohannon has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Oxford University, so we would hope he’d know what actual science looks like, and that this study is not it.

Of course, the problem is that he does know what science looks like, and he’s made the “sting” operation look like it. It has that sciencey quality. It discusses methods. It has supplementary information. It talks a lot about peer-review, that staple of science. But none of that makes it science. It’s a maze of preordained outcomes, multiple levels of biased selection, cherry-picked data and spin-ridden conclusions. What it shows is: predatory journals are predatory. That’s not news.

Speculating about motives is always error-prone, of course, but it it’s hard not to think that Science‘s goal in all this was to discredit open-access publishing — just as legacy publishers have been doing ever since they realised OA was real competition. If that was their goal, it’s misfired badly. It’s Science‘s credibility that’s been compromised.

Update (9 October)

Akbar Khan points out yet more problems with Bohannon’s work: mistakes in attributing where given journals were listed, DOAJ or Beall’s list. As a result, the sample may be more, or less, biased than Bohannon reported.




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

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.


Smoking Kraken

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.)

Acknowledgements: public domain Brachiosaurus altithorax and Histioteuthis reversa images from Wikipedia.  Originals here and here.


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.

Incidentally, the WWN archives are available on Google Books: go here to read about Bat Boy siring a 3-headed alien Elvis baby on a female Sasquatch. Or something to that effect.

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.