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Bad Science journalism 101

by Donald Prothero, Apr 04 2012

The long-discredited idea of sauropods snorkeling in deep water as illustrated in this old painting by Zdenek Burian. The biggest problem is that they couldn't breathe in water this deep with the pressure it puts on their lungs.

The story popped into my email box earlier this week and soon I had dozens of follow-up emails from the vertebrate paleontology listserver flooding my inbox. Once again, the media have shown their complete inability to get the science right and publicized another flashy story that was complete garbage. I already gave an example last fall (my Nov. 2 post) with Mark McMenamin’s ridiculous claim that a giant Triassic “kraken” rearranged the bones of ichthyosaurs to create art. (By the way, that claim has dropped out of sight, and I don’t ever expect to see it published). As soon as the furor of that media gaffe dies out, however, they commit an even bigger blunder.

This time it was an article in the British media, starting with a “journalist” Tom Feilden (previously caught plagiarizing dino stories) reporting for the Telegraph doing an interview that then got coverage on both BBC radio and TV and on their website. In the brief story, a “Professor” Brian J. Ford makes the claim that giant sauropod dinosaurs were aquatic, not land-dwelling creatures. Immediately, the first reaction that my paleontologist colleagues and I had was “Who the hell is ‘Prof. Brian J. Ford’?” and “Did he say this in 1900?” To us, the article was startling not because it has some new insight on sauropods—but because someone who clearly  had no idea about the last century of sauropod research had managed to get all this publicity, and there was no evidence he had any credentials to be taken seriously!

It didn’t take much digging for my paleontologist colleagues and I to quickly discover the truth. The press coverage promotes him as a “University of Cambridge researcher,” but just a visit to his (clearly self-written and self-promoting) Wikipedia entry, or his over-the-top personal website shows he attended Cardiff University for only two years (1959-1961), has no college degrees, and no formal training in paleontology or any other scientific subject, for that matter. He has only a tenuous affiliation (not a real professorship) with Cambridge University but works out of his own “laboratory” (apparently, just a room in his house). His biography is full of amateur efforts in microbiology, criminal forensics, and other topics which he has no training to publish in. He even has the temerity to brag about being in Mensa. If his past work can be described simply, it is “glorified amateur science buff and media celebrity”. My friends in the British science community tell me he’s a well-known crank with no advanced training or qualifications in any field. Apparently his entire shtick is to dabble in different scientific fields without knowing much about them, gain media exposure for something flashy, and then move on.

So what if  Ford  has no qualifications? Maybe the idea has merit, even though he’s an amateur without formal training in paleontology. But this is the crucial point: if he had any formal training in paleontology and any familiarity with research into sauropods, he’d know right away that his idea was bunk that has been discredited for more than a century. Back around 1900 it was widely thought that sauropods were too large to carry their bodies on dry land, and must have dragged around on the ground on their bellies like lizards, or floated in water to enable their buoyancy to support them. You still see the old images of a brachiosaur deep in a fjord (see above) with only its nostrils above water (a physical impossibility, since the pressure of the water at that depth would have made it impossible to breathe). The problem with all these ideas is that they were debunked by solid evidence over the past century. For one thing, the limb posture of sauropods cannot be slow, belly-dragging lizard-like creatures living in swamps, because their limb bones cannot be articulated that way. Sauropod limbs are built much like those of elephants, and require that they were upright beneath their bodies like all other dinosaurs (and like mammals). Details from the anatomy of their tail bones show no evidence that they dragged along, but instead were held out rigid behind  them for balance. Ford poses the phony argument that their great weight seems unsupportable on dry land, but the biomechanics of sauropods have been studied over and over, and there’s no problem with their immense legs supporting their weight. More to the point: most sauropod bones come from units like the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation in the Rocky Mountains which are categorically NOT swampy deposits, but shallow braided river and floodplain deposits with only rare seasonal ponds, so there was no water deep enough for them to float in. The same can be said for the sauropods from South America and from Africa, as well. Recently, an article by Noto and Grossman showed that most dinosaur-bearing rocks show signs of aridity, not of swampy wetness. Any paleontologist who knows anything about sauropods would know this, since it was first published over 30 years ago. Finally, the clinching line of evidence: footprints and trackways. We have many different trackway sites around the world now, and the sauropod trackway sites are nearly always found on ancient floodplains or river channel sandbars, with no evidence that they left tail-drag marks. There are just a couple of examples of dinosaur swim tracks, which show just how rare this activity must have been. As for his ridiculous point that the tracks weren’t deep enough? The trackway depth varies tremendously depending on the firmness of the substrate, and in the case of sauropod tracks, their huge area means they spread the weight over a larger contact area. In fact, there are both shallow and deep sauropod trackways. In short, he’s making it all up.

SO where was the data to back up his claim published? Did he do new studies in biomechanics to support his assertions? Did he review the large volume of scientific literature and discuss all the points listed above? Did he manage to convince even a few peer reviewers so his work could be published in a reputable journal? No, the study appears in a little journal called Laboratory News, which is not peer-reviewed, and mostly publishes pop-science articles for the credulous. Judging from the Laboratory News website and the accompanying video, his argument is based on hunches and intuition—dinosaurs just “seem” too large to him, therefore the terrestrial explanation is wrong. In his own words from the article, “Dinosaurs look more convincing in water.” But nowhere in the article does he do any calculations to show biomechanically why they could not have been terrestrial. And as for experimental data? Ford’s “research” consisted of putting toy model dinosaurs in graduated cylinders of water (which he calls by the fancy name “volumentric analysls”) to calculate their volume and mass. This is a technique that was abandoned over 40 years ago as being too full of problems to be taken seriously (which he would have known if he’d read any dinosaur literature). Something must be wrong with the method, because he estimated the weight of the tails of large dinosaurs at 10-20 tons—larger than the total body mass of the largest dinosaurs (let alone their tails), according to modern estimates of dinosaur weights.

Apparently, this “journal” loves to repeat outrageous ideas by this clown, because it generates lots of publicity on the internet and the media and helps sales. For example, in July 2011 they ran a cover story by Ford claiming humans could not have evolved without the help of dogs. Never mind the fact that for most of human evolution, dogs were competitors and enemies of humans, or that dog domestication was a very late event in human prehistory.

But the “journalist” Feilden compounds the problem by not only giving a crank undue coverage of a thoroughly debunked idea, but then comparing him to Galileo in his fight against the scientific establishment. To me, that’s a sure warning sign. Almost every crank wants to make themselves out to be a modern Galileo, persecuted  by the establishment. But there’s a big difference between cranks and Galileo: Galileo was the most brilliant scientist of his generation, he did actual experiments and observations, and most importantly, he was right.

So Ford’s idea is garbage, pure and simple. The press coverage relied entirely on Feilden’s article, and only sought out one expert opinion, from sauropod specialist Dr. Paul Barrett at the British Museum, who commented (with typical British understatement and restraint), “Things have moved on quite a lot. I don’t think we will be re-writing the text books just yet.” The tone of sauropod researchers on this side of The Pond is one of outrage and indignation (see here and here), and for good reason. Once again, we have a glorified amateur playing with his toy dinosaurs who manages to get a gullible “journalist” to print his story with a straight face and almost no criticism. Feilden didn’t bother to check this guy’s credentials, consulted with only one qualified expert and then only used one sentence of rebuttal, and gave the story the full promotion because it was a glamorous topic (dinosaurs) and challenged conventional wisdom.

It’s bad enough that the internet is full of garbage that anyone with an opinion can broadcast worldwide without peer review. And there is certainly some bad science that does get past peer review and should never have been published (although in subsequent years, most of this bad stuff is weeded out by further research). But it’s really sad that science journalism has descended to the point where any reporter can interview any self-proclaimed expert and run the story, with no editorial oversight or fact-checking, and only a minimal attempt to ask experts or seek out dissenting opinion. Now my colleagues and I will be having to explain all over again when we talk to lay audiences that no, serious dinosaur researchers do NOT believe dinosaurs were aquatic. No wonder our level of scientific literacy is so abysmal. It starts with scientifically illiterate science reporters!

And to add to the list of ironies: later in the same issue of Laboratory News, they printed an article about the problem of bad science journalism!


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20 Responses to “Bad Science journalism 101”

  1. GraemeC says:

    “Something must be wrong with the method, because he estimated the weight of the tails of large dinosaurs at 10-20 tons—larger than the total body mass of the largest dinosaurs (let alone their tails), according to modern estimates of dinosaur weights.”

    Is that right? I’m a long way from being an expert about this sort of thing, but a quick look on Wikipedia shows lots of dinosaurs that were heavier than 20 tons.

    • Ilja Nieuwland says:

      A recent, and very thorough, publication estimates the weight of /Giraffatitan/Brachiosaurus (and you don’t get much bigger than that) at around 23 tons. Sauropods had lots of weight-saving characteristics, so they ended up much lighter than aquatic animals such as whales. The presence of weight-saving is a counter-indication of aquatic habits, by the way: a swimmer needs to be heavy.

    • MadScientist says:

      I still see numerous problems with the “toy dino in a bathtub” method of scientific investigation.

  2. FDUK says:

    I was really surprised when I heard this on the radio yesterday. It seemed as if they were reporting something and then had an expert who said it was rubbish. Not sure what that was all about.

    I got the feeling that whoever had suggested the item was rather shot down by the expert.

  3. John K. says:

    So, a single self educated person was unable to do better than the collaborative and cumulative efforts of a scientific community over more than a hundred years?

    Go figure.

    Bad journalism indeed.

  4. Trimegistus says:

    Bad science journalism is just the part that people with science knowledge notice. Business people spot the bad business journalism, cops notice the bad crime reporting, and so on. Most journalism sucks. Reporters are rushed to meet deadlines, they look for easy drama, and most of them don’t know much about anything. (This is based on my work at three different papers over a span of twenty years.)

    Quick: find a news story about an event you were personally involved in. It doesn’t have to be a controversy, even a charity event or a traffic accident. Now count the errors. All other news articles are just as inaccurate. That’s not even considering biased writing and “spin” or the large number of news stories which are simply retyped press releases.

    There’s a reason newspaper readership is dropping like a stone. Newspaper reporting sucks. And television reporting has always been worse.

    • Max says:

      True. A number of publications, including Wired, recently fell for the Human Birdwings hoax. NBC just apologized for cutting out part of George Zimmerman’s 911 call, making it sound more racist. And the famous Muhammad al-Durrah incident was apparently staged for TV.

    • Clara Nendleshaw says:

      This is why I don’t read the papers any more. Maybe I’ll miss out on some things, but most of the stuff one reads is lies and one doesn’t even known which is which. So it simply isn’t worth the time.

  5. Milkybar251 says:

    I didn’t realise they didn’t drag their tails either. Still had the childhood images from books in my mind. But then I’m not a paleontologist either :-)
    Good post

    • MadScientist says:

      That’s why I get hopping mad when I see embellished 3D fly-arounds of galaxies and nebulae being associated with observatories such as the Hubble Telescope – we’re so far away we cannot deduce the 3D structure and yet these images are being passed off as reality and giving people a wrong idea of what things are like and without so much as a disclaimer like “this is only an artist’s impressions”.

      • MadScientist says:

        Oh, speaking of artist’s impressions – I forgot about dinosaur coloring. There may be some hints of coloring for a few dinosaurs, but no one knows anything about the full coloring of any dinosaur and of any details such as variations of pigmentation patterns in the skin or feathers.

  6. Dan says:

    Are you certain that taking this case as an indictment of all reporting (“Once again, the media have shown their complete inability to get the science right …”) is a clearly thought-out response? Are the legions of reporters (science or otherwise) who passed on this story, good ‘media’ (whatever this meaningless word means) then, if this is your bar? Can it be that you are falling into the same trap of over-generalization and under-reporting that you decry in journalists?

    Just something to ponder.

  7. Michael Habib says:

    On a biomechanical note, a fun fact about sauropod limbs and weight support: Sauropods, in particular, had columnar limbs, so the bones were loaded almost purely in what we call ‘axial compression’ – meaning pushing on the bone length-ways. Sauropod limb long bones were also nearly solid all the way through (all compact bone). Those two bits of information can be used to get an idea of the limits of their weight support.

    Bone is really strong in axial compression (much more than bending). As it turns out, the failure stress of compact bone in axial compression is a whopping 170 GPa, which for comparison, is nearly 5x the compressive failure stress for concrete. If you run the numbers with the known diameter of sauropod limb bones this means that even the largest known sauropods had not hit a limit in terms of limb support (though there might have been other limitations that would stop them from getting any bigger).

  8. Mike G says:

    There’s a similar dust up concerning a New York Times article about a paper proclaiming limited value in personal genome for predicting disease:

    “The problem, geneticists say, is not that the study, published on 2 April in Science Translational Medicine, arrived at a false conclusion, but that it arrived at an old, familiar one via questionable methods and is now being portrayed by the media as a new discovery that undermines the value of genetics.”

    Check the for details.

  9. Lorne says:

    I think we hook this guy up with Ian Juby. After all they are both members of Mensa and therefore are expert paleontologists. Maybe Ford can help Ian explain how dinosaurs laid their eggs while running away from the rising noachian flood waters this one always breaks me up).

  10. Janet Camp says:

    Popular “news magazine” shows (such as 60 Minutes) are even worse than the newspapers. They feature any old study, whether or not it has even been peer-reviewed and present this “evidence” as unqualified fact. Occasionally they have some actual experts, but who can tell from week to week? I don’t watch this show, and have taken to leaving the room when my husband turns it on.

    Netflix’s category labeled “documentaries” includes more rubbish than there is space here to begin to enumerate. The blurbs openly declare that the film gives “both sides” of arguments such as the “vaccine debate”.

    Public libraries shelve all kinds of blatant pseudoscience in the “medical” section and if you complain, they tell you that readers can “decide for themselves”.

    This is the dark side of “tolerance”, not to mention the complete and utter lack of familiarity with basic standards of scientific investigation among the general public.

  11. SLC says:

    10-20 tons—larger than the total body mass of the largest dinosaurs (let alone their tails), according to modern estimates of dinosaur weights.

    According to Wikipedia, Argentinosaurus may have weighted around 80 tons and even Apatosaurus weighted around 25 tons.

  12. Professor Truelove says:

    Regarding the ‘ amateur ‘ versus the ‘ expert ‘: the history of science ( in the broader sense ) is littered with examples of amateur hoaxers showing up tenured academics as fools. Just two examples: not so long ago 2 professors of physics,very much amateurs in the field of social science and critical theory, persuaded the editor of a peer-reviewed academic journal to publish a new theory made up of modish deconstructional gobbledegook. When the ruse was discovered, anger turned against the physicists for daring to expose the social scientists as brainless sheep.
    Then, in 18th century Germany some schoolboys fooled a professor of medicine at Wurzburg into believing that fossil mollusca inscribed with all sorts of symbols and inscriptions were genuine and not the artful work of these imaginative youths intent on discrediting the knuckle-headed academic. The case is well known in palaeontology.
    I could go on. The academy is full of nitwits who think that the possession of a Ph D entitles them to lord it over talented amateurs who dare to challenge their theories.

    As for Mensa, there is demonstrable evidence that when IQ testing was undertaken among Cambridge undergraduates and postgraduates by Mensa , many candidates failed. How many of this number might go on to become academics ?

  13. Iamcuriousblue says:

    I’m not going to remotely defend the guy’s claims about aquatic dinosaurs. However, I do want to point out that he’s not the across-the-board crank and scientific dilettante you make him out to be in this article. He’s actually quite knowledgeable about the field of microscopy, and has made some important contributions in better understanding the early history of microscopes, and what such microscopes could and could not see:

    But, as often takes place when people take on huge claims in a discipline far outside their own specialty, his knowledge is not transferable to paleontology.