Before beginning proper, I'd like to interrupt this blog to draw your attention to the latest abysmal article to splatter forth from the Daily Mail's foul-smelling electronic sphincter – concerning the probable Australian spinosaur vertebra. Brace yourselves, for now both Tyrannosaurus rex and a Baryonyx species have been discovered in Australia, and Baryonyx outsized T. rex in spite of the fact that (like other spinosaurs, apparently) it had a “small skull”. Of course, the lone vertebra has not been assigned to Baryonyx, as confirmed by a quote from Paul Barrett later in the article (and the article therefore contradicts itself). Robo-Baryonyx at the Natural History Museum by Ballista, via Wikipedia, below. 'Cos I need a piccy.
This is an utter journalistic failure that even the Daily Mail (which, like many of my fellow countrymen, I happen to despise anyway) should be ashamed to publish. It's also the perfect example of what often goes wrong in palaeontology coverage; in this case, the discovery of a spinosaurid vertebra has been warped into the far more bold claim that the vertebra is definitely from a Baryonyx species (whether B. walkeri or not) and mixed in with a lot of simplification and general ignorance. But anyway...
A frequently recurring over-simplification in palaeontology reporting is to declare that 'X genus/species' is the ancestor of 'Y genus/species'. Often, it will concern a theropod being the 'ancestor' of Tyrannosaurus rex. In an article for the Guardian entitled 'Everybody loves Tyrannosaurus', Brian Switek discussed the overuse of certain dinosaurs as anchor-points to which others can be compared - with a particular focus on the titular theropod, of course. Referring to the case of the alvarezsaur Linhenykus being referred to as a 'T. rex relative' (see here for example), Switek argued that while it is of course necessary for science writers to condense "technical details into compelling, easily accessible stories" and that most people probably won't know what an alvarezsaur is, by merely resorting to the T. rex trope science writers are failing to educate the public. To wit:
"We are not doing our jobs if we simply refer every sharp-toothed dinosaur to the tyrant family because Tyrannosaurus provides a solid hook. If we fall victim to this trope, we perpetuate a cycle in which no one will understand what an alvarezsaur is because we never explain it and we never explain it because we don't think anyone will understand."I completely agree, and might add that this leaning on a few archetypal dinosaurs dramatically understates dinosaur diversity and perpetuates an outdated concept of the true nature of dinosaurs among the general public. More than this, categorically stating 'X is the ancestor of Y', as some writers do, is not over-simplifying but plain wrong - there is simply no way of knowing for certain. A good example of this is a Telegraph article from January entitled 'Pint-sized ancestor of Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in Argentina' - concerning the theropod Eodromaeus.
Sometimes the problems can be more subtle, and yet still have important implications when it comes to public understanding of the science reported. One such example is the case of the Cretaceous crocodilian Pakasuchus. Articles repeatedly referred to the animal as a 'crocodile' - for example in the Guardian here and Telegraph here. This may be somewhat more pedantic than mistaking a pterosaur for a dinosaur, for example, but Pakasuchus, being a notosuchian, lies even outside of the clade Neouschia that includes modern crocodilians (in the clade Crocodylia). Therefore it cannot really be called a 'crocodile', and naming it as such is distorting the reality of crocodilian evolution. Probably. The Telegraph article by Richard Alleyne even goes as far as to say that
"It enjoyed land-based lifestyle [sic] on the African floodplains far removed from its aquatic descendants, preying on dragon flies and other insects and small animals." (My emphasis)In fainess, even the scientists were referring to the animal as a 'crocodile' for simplicity's sake. But no one was ever impyling that Pakasuchus was the ancestor of modern crocodilians, simply because it wasn't - the notosuchians represented a side-branch of the crocodylian lineage. Again, this might seem like pedantry, but the Guardian's Ian Sample gets it right while keeping it simple:
"The creature is not a close relative of modern crocodiles, but belonged to a successful sidebranch of the lineage..."At once the reader is given a completely different picture of crocodylian evolution than that presented by Alleyne, and a more accurate one, too. Adding in this detail is not only truer to the science, but - I would argue - also adds interest to the piece and educates the casual reader.
An additional problem of over-simplification - or 'being patronising' as it should occasionally be called - is that it creates a parody of the work that scientists do. In Bad Science, Ben Goldacre refers to a 'parody of science' created by journalists, and notes that unlike the science pages, the sports, financial and literary sections aren't simplified (or at least, certainly to nowhere near the same extent). There seems to be an attitude that readers need 'shielding' from the hard stuff that they might not understand. But surely if a reader is interested in an article about a prehistoric animal at all, then they're going to want to know the truth and at least some of the hard science behind the story? Science writing, when done properly, should not jettison highly important intricacies for the sake of a more rollicking read.
As David Hone has noted here, "most people get their science from the traditional media" in spite of the rise of alternatives. Certainly, while specialist online sites and blogs are a fantastic resource today, casual readers will not necessarily be seeking them out, but rather will take in their science journalism as part of their wider news reading. Therefore, as Dr Hone put it to me, "if [palaeontology] is there, it should be covered properly".
Coming up next - Jurassic Park, Nessie and Raquel Welch in a fur bikini...