Sunday, May 29, 2011

Prehistory and the Press - Part 1

This month saw the end of my three-year stint at university, and the offloading of my undergraduate thesis into the hands of whichever poor souls have to read it. Inevitably, I managed to crowbar in my precious pet hobby pertaining to prehistory, and as such I had a look at palaeontology-related coverage in three UK national newspapers - the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and (oh yes) Daily Mail. I thought it might be fun to share some of my findings in a series of posts (what can I say? I'm short of ideas) starting with this one – all, or at least mostly, about pterosaurs. Launching Pteranodon below by Mark Witton (not the Press Association), from Flickr.

Gravity cannot reach us anymore

One of the most frequent errors made in palaeontology-related articles in newspapers is the use of the word 'dinosaur' to mean anything big, reptilian, and dead. Most frequently, it is pterosaurs that are blighted with the 'dinosaur' tag, even in the 'quality' newspapers – which should be a source of embarrassment. This is not mere pedantry. After all, if someone were to label humans as 'marsupials', they'd quite rightly quickly accumulate an enormous pile of correspondence ridiculing their basic mistake. Someone really ought to make it clear to newspaper journalists that even the most basic fact-checking would reveal the (as Mark Witton put it to me – see below) “non-dinosaury nature” of pterosaurs, and surely this is among the fundamental requirements of journalism?

Tellingly, the articles that make such errors tend not to be written by specialist science journalists (of which there are alarmingly few) but by jobbing freelancers and non-specialists. Nevertheless, if they were to simply copy information provided in press releases, they wouldn't end up calling pterosaurs 'dinosaurs' – and yet they do anyway. One of my favourite examples comes from what was (until very recently) my local newspaper, the venerable Lincolnshire Echo.

Now, you might say criticising some hapless, overstretched regional newspaper hack for their lack of knowledge in this area is rather cruel. And perhaps it is. However, most of the article is copied from a press release sent out by the University of Lincoln, concerning the famous Darwinopterus specimen 'Mrs T', and more specifically the collaboration of the university's own Dr Charles Deeming in the “research team that studied the fossil”. It begins:

The discovery of an ancient fossil, nicknamed ‘Mrs T’, has allowed scientists for the first time to sex pterodactyls [sic] – flying reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs between 220-65 million years ago.” (Source)

Which is basically fine. However, the Echo hack knew better than to simply copy the press release. They knew that pterosaurs were dinosaurs, and that the word 'dinosaur' was more likely to draw in the casual reader. As such, the introduction to the Echo article reads:

Fresh light could be shed on the sex lives of flying dinosaurs thanks to a scientist from Lincoln.” (Source)
Which, unfortunately, is completely and utterly wrong. And misleading. Still, what does one expect when the 'quality' national papers are making exactly the same mistakes? According to the Daily Telegraph,

A dinosaur the size of a giraffe was capable of launching itself into the air and flying for thousands of miles...” (Source)

I dumped this article - headlined 'Dinosaur the size of a giraffe could fly across continents' - in Mark Witton's lap and asked him about his experiences with the press. His response was pretty typical among the scientists I contacted. (With apologies for the huge blockquote.)

In my experience, most journalists are pretty clueless about even basic aspects of reporting palaeontology, and they don't seem terribly bothered about changing that. Pterosaurs, for instance, are almost always labelled as dinosaurs, despite often very clear statements to the opposite in press releases and God knows how many references to their non-dinosaury nature online. Worst thing is, as with the article you cite, the headlines will often refer to pterosaurs being a type of dinosaur but then, in the text, the journalist will explain that pterosaurs aren't dinosaurs. They contradict themselves, demonstrating either a chronic lack of fact checking or, perhaps more likely, a flippant attitude to accurate reporting.

As a scientist, this is very frustrating: science is all about accurately interpreting the world around us, after all: what's the point in making scientific findings known to the press if they're just going to fudge passing it onto the public?”

Out of the Telegraph and Guardian (which I picked as examples of a right-leaning and left-leaning 'quality' paper, respectively, and because they have different owners), the Telegraph fared a lot worse when it came to basic accuracy. Which is hardly surprising, when they can produce an article discussing pelycosaurs and pterosaurs and refer to them both as 'dinosaurs' with a straight face and are still referring to Tyrannosaurus as “the largest land predators to ever to stalk the earth” – the latter being all the more worrisome, given that it was written by Richard Alleyne, one of the tiny number of Telegraph science specialists.

My main problem – and no doubt some of you will agree – with reporters referring to pterosaurs (or god-knows-what-else) as 'dinosaurs' is that it fosters a cycle of ignorance among the general public as to the true nature of not just dinosaurs, or pterosaurs, or even archosaurs, but the history of life on Earth and the reality of evolution. If people believe that pterosaurs, which are extinct, were 'flying dinosaurs', then they will be blind to the continued evolution and diversification of the real 'flying dinosaurs' that are still around, and will continue to believe – as one commenter on the Telegraph's 'Cannibal T. rex' story put it – that “we do not need to know any more about dinosaurs” because “they're dead”. (Pterosaurs are very interesting in themselves of course, and definitely worthy of continued study. But you catch my drift, I hope.)

There's more, though. Especially on how newspaper journalists fudge things in simplification and create what Ben Goldacre (in Bad Science) has called "a parody of science". Oh boy. Next time!

11 comments:

  1. It's a very widespread problem. In Russia the media is often called dinosaurs any extinct organisms. As well as spiders and mites are "insects".

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  2. Argh, yes! Also quite annoying when people refer to plesiosaurs as dinosaurs, to me! Though of course, your particular point regarding "flying dinosaurs" is well-taken!

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  3. Argh, these basic errors are most annoying.

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  4. In Brazil it's the same pattern: every extinct creature turns into a "dinosaur", specially when it's big. And add to misunderstanding problems the translating problems. I remember a very old newspaper notice that convert a "kangaroo-like dinosaur" (described so to show that the dino was biped) into a "kangaroo's ancestor". Another, that represented a horrible fail in edition, in a Portugal edition of Stephen J. Gould's Panda's Thumb, translate a notungulate (Order Notungulata, South American extinct ungulates, from Greek "notos", south) as a not-ungulate.

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  5. As you alluded to earlier in the post, the mass audience of any given newspaper will most likely be attracted to the word 'Dinosaur' rather than a tongue-twistingly accurate name. Other than us lot, who the hell has ever heard of a Pelycosaur?
    Another reason that this ignorance festers (and even prospers) is that the majority of these articles are short puff pieces designed to fill up space. Unfortunately, it seems no one really cares..

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  6. "Kangaroo's ancestor?" That might be the worst mistake I've heard of!

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  7. @Dani Boy - it's true that the word 'dinosaur' uis more likely to draw in a casual reader, but that doesn't excuse its use for an article that's not about dinosaurs at all. Surely 'prehistoric beasts', or something along those lines, would be equally enticing but more accurate?

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  8. Mark - Absolutely! I'm not for one second excusing ignorance, just suggesting reasons for its proliferation.. And, I must say, I'm an advocate of 'prehistoric beasts'. :)

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  9. Well, when you become a famous science journalist (which oughtn't to be too far off), hopefully you can begin setting these things to rights...

    That comment about not needing to know any more about dinosaurs 'because they're dead' is utterly astonishing. I have no propensity for violence, but a response like that makes me want to throw something...

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  10. Is there a place where I can download this series of posts to print out and read all together? It is hard to read onscreen and I don't think I can print them individually without wasting a lot of paper via web formatting. Keep up the good work, thx

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  11. @lizziewriter I'm afraid there isn't, but if you like I can send you my thesis via e-mail. Just get hold of me at marcdv@tiscali.co.uk. (Or I can send you a document that's just these posts mashed together, but I'm sure you can do that yourself...)

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