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.

Parting Shot

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.

The real deal: Mike and me in the OMNH collections, with one and a half vertebrae of Sauroposeidon

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

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

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

Dangerous

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

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

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

Sadly, that hope was to be mercilessly crushed.

Deja vu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in the Back in the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Insult

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

Science journalism FAIL.

UPDATE, January 27, 2010

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