April 4, 2012
Earlier this week, the rotting corpse of a discarded dinosaur idea rose from the depths. Brian J. Ford, a television personality and self-styled independent researcher, decided that Apatosaurus, Allosaurus and kin just looked wrong ambling about on land. Unfettered by the accumulation of scientific evidence about how dinosaurs moved and the environments they lived in, Ford decided to set scientists straight by floating an idea that had been sunk decades ago—that all large dinosaurs spent their lives in water. And, like the bad science it is, the idea strained to explain everything about dinosaur biology. Not only did the idea supposedly explain why non-avian dinosaurs went extinct—their watery homes dried up, of course—but the aquatic setting also explained the small arms of the tyrannosaurs. The great tyrants, Ford said, would catch fish and hold them close for visual inspection before downing the sashimi. Ford’s speculation is a buffet of nonsense. There is so much wrong with it, it’s hard to know where to start.
Ford certainly has a right to his opinion. The weight of the evidence absolutely crushes his ill-formed idea, but there’s no rule against making poorly substantiated claims on the internet. Heck, much of the web is sadly founded on such sludge. But I was taken aback by how many news sources not only took Ford seriously, but cast him as a kind of scientific underdog. In a BBC4 Today interview—which helped spread this swamp of insufficient evidence and poor reasoning—host Tom Feilden cast Ford as a Galileo-type hero, boldly defending his revolutionary idea while the stodgy paleontological community refused to budge from its orthodoxy. Despite Natural History Museum paleontologist Paul Barrett’s admirable attempt to set Feilden straight, the radio host concluded that Ford’s idea was a new and exciting notion, even though the image of wallowing sauropods was part of the old image of dinosaurs that had been cast out in the 1960s. As artist Matt van Rooijen highlighted in his latest Prehistoric Reconstruction Kitteh cartoon, it would seem that the old is new again.
Other news sources followed Feilden’s lead. At the Daily Mail, a source not exactly known for reliable science coverage, reporter Tamara Cohen recapitulated Ford’s argument. Paul Barrett again offered a dissenting view at the bottom of the article, but the article promotes Ford’s idea anyway. “Dinosaurs DIDN’T rule the earth: The huge creatures ‘actually lived in water’ – and their tails were swimming aids,” the headline gasped. Hannah Furness did much the same in the Telegraph, summarizing Ford’s statements at length before, in the last line, plunking down a quote from Barrett saying that Ford’s idea is nonsense. Elsewhere, FOX News and Australia’s Sky News ran a syndicated version of the story that followed the same form, and the Cambridge News didn’t even bother to get a second opinion on Ford’s work. But my favorite howler came from the internet-based TopNews, which concluded that “it had [sic] become all the more imperative that further research is done on [Ford's] theory so that some sort of conclusive findings can be presented.” No, it isn’t imperative at all. Ford’s idea is not even close to a theory, or even science. Ford’s evidence-free approach doesn’t make any testable predictions, and there is no actual scientific debate to be had here. Repeating “Dinosaurs look better in water” ad infinitum isn’t science, no matter how many journalists are enamored with the idea.
Paleontologists quickly jumped on the idea. Dave Hone and Mike Taylor called out Ford’s idea as old-school nonsense. Scott Hartman dug in at length in his post “When journalists attack!” and Michael Habib wrote a takedown of the bog-dwelling sauropod idea from a biomechanical perspective. And, earlier today, Don Prothero rightly cast the controversy as yet another media failure in reporting science. Prothero writes:
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.
Poor reporting is entirely to blame here. “Amateur, armed with dinosaur models, says all of dinosaur paleontology is wrong” would be a more accurate way to cast the story, and seen that way, it isn’t really worth talking about. But it seems that merely having a controversial, unfounded opinion can be the price of admission for wide media attention.
This is hardly the first time poorly supported paleontology claims have received more attention than they deserve. While it was a minor event, in February io9 ran a story highlighting the unsubstantiated notion that the little pterosaur Jeholopterus was a vampiric little biter that supped on dinosaur blood. The author, Keith Veronese, was clear that the idea was not accepted by paleontologists, but he still romanticized the idea of an outsider rattling the academic cage. The paleontologists behind the Pterosaur.net blog refuted the vampire pterosaur idea and questioned the usefulness of promoting ideas that lack any solid evidence, though I have to wonder how many people found the specialist rebuttal.
And then there was the legendary hyper-intelligent, artistic squid. Last October, a number of journalists fell for the spectacularly nonsensical idea of a Triassic “Kraken” which supposedly created self-portraits from ichthyosaur skeletons. While veteran science reporters wisely avoided the hyped story, enough journalists paid attention that the hype spread far and wide through syndication. I tore into the nonsense, calling out what I believed to be terrible reporting, and I heard a lot of tut-tutting from my writer colleagues that I was unfairly bashing all of science journalism.
To which I wanted to ask “Well, where were you in all this?” I’m thrilled that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal didn’t parrot the fantastic claims, but the story was still copied and pasted to places like Yahoo!, FOX News, MSNBC, and elsewhere. The story was put in front of a lot of eyeballs, even if cherished journalistic institutions didn’t take part. While nonsense is proliferating, should we really feel smug and self-assured that we didn’t fall into the same trap? Don’t we, as people who care about accurately communicating the details of science to the public, have a responsibility to be whistleblowers when spurious findings are being repeated without criticism? I believe so. We all snicker and sigh as the usual suspects promote sensational claims, but I think it’s important to take that frustration and call out credulous, gullible, over-hyped reporting whenever it might bob to the surface.
April 3, 2012
In 1941, Czech paleo-artist Zdeněk Burian created one of the most iconic dinosaur images ever. I saw it four decades later, in one of my childhood science books, and the illustration amazed me as soon as I saw it. I still love it. Not because it’s correct, but because the painting so beautifully captures an obviously incorrect idea.
The painting, in careful detail, shows a trio of Brachiosaurus neck-deep in a prehistoric lake. Two poke their grinning heads above the surface, while a third plucks a gob of soft aquatic plants from the silty lake bottom. It was reproduced in a TIME/LIFE young readers nature library book on evolution, and I fondly remember opening the book to that page and taking in the Jurassic scene.
I am surprised this strange sauropod imagery was cherished by so many for so long. Brachiosaurus was a little more streamlined than an office building, and if the dinosaur led a watery life, it looked capable only of sticking its pylon-like legs into the muck and waving its head around to strain algae. And then there was the Goldilocks problem—an aquatic Brachiosaurus would require rivers and lakes of just the right size and depth to survive. To make matters worse, Brachiosaurus would have needed to haul themselves out and go looking for mates in other hot tubs if the species was to continue. Despite recent suggestions that these huge dinosaurs were capable of amorous aqua-acrobatics, I’m not convinced the exceptionally air-filled, buoyant sauropods could have pulled off the required underwater maneuvers. Brachiosaurus, and its counterpart Giraffatitan from the Jurassic of Tanzania, were creatures of the terrestrial realm, just like all other sauropods.
In fact, with the exception of feathery dinosaurs that took to the air, all dinosaurs were land-dwellers. This fact has been amply documented by studies of dinosaur anatomy and trackways and by attempts to reconstruct the habitats where dinosaurs actually lived. After all, paleontology relies on a combination of anatomy and geology, and by pulling at those two threads paleontologists have been able to investigate how dinosaurs interacted with the various habitats they called home—be they fern-covered floodplains, dense forests, or sandy deserts. To pick just one example, paleontologists Chris Noto and Ari Grossman recently reviewed the pattern of global ecology during the Jurassic dinosaur heyday and found that aridity—which affected vegetation in prehistoric forests—influenced the abundance and variety of herbivorous dinosaurs present in different parts of the world. As paleontologists keep digging and poring over what has already been found, the ecology of the dinosaurs is coming into clearer and clearer focus.
All of which is to say that I was dumbfounded when the BBC’s Today program ran a sensationalist story about a so-called dinosaur debate that isn’t really a debate at all. You can listen to the brief story yourself here, presented by journalist Tom Feilden. (I have clashed with him about dinosaur journalism before.) The upshot is that dinosaurs should be shown wading through prehistoric lakes, not walking along the edges of prehistoric forests.
Feilden talks to Brian J. Ford—identified as a cell biologist and with no apparent expertise in paleontology—about why dinosaurs seem to be all wrong. Ford is given relatively little time to explain himself, but insists that dinosaurs were simply too big to have walked on land. “The tail of a dinosaur could weigh ten, twenty tons,” Ford says, which isn’t a precise statement or one that seems to be derived from evidence. Let’s assume that “a dinosaur”—which dinosaur is unclear—had a 20 ton tail. To put this in perspective, in his revision of Brachiosaurus, sauropod expert Mike Taylor estimated the huge Giraffatitan to be about 23 tons in life. Ford is suggesting that some dinosaurs had tails about as heavy as an absolutely huge sauropod, but not surprisingly, where he is drawing this information from isn’t mentioned. Things don’t get better from there.
To Ford, dinosaurs must have lived in perpetually flooded habitats. His whole argument boils down to “Dinosaurs look big!” A popular-audience article in Laboratory News gives Ford some additional space to spell out his ideas, though this does the reader little good. Dinosaurs were big and had heavy tails, Ford tells his audience, ergo, they make no sense on land. That’s it—that’s the whole basis for his speculation. Ford does not appear to have reviewed any of the literature on dinosaur biomechanics or body mass. He just flatly says that dinosaurs, as often depicted, aren’t right. Or as Ford succinctly frames his idea in the final paragraph, “Dinosaurs look more convincing in water.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Ford isn’t just talking about sauropods. He applies his idea to all large, multi-ton dinosaurs, and goes so far as to suggest one of the strangest ideas I have ever heard for the relatively small forelimbs of tyrannosaurs. Again, Ford uses an aquatic environment as an answer. “The fact that the limbs [of Tyrannosaurus] became foreshortened is entirely reasonable,” he wrote, since “animals like to inspect their food as they eat, and holding it closer to the face is normal behaviour.” Imagine a submerged Tyrannosaurus, trying to peer down at a fish in its arms. If you have ever looked at a tyrannosaur skeleton at all, you can see how downright silly this is. Tyrannosaurus would have to strain its neck pretty hard to get even a glance at whatever it might try to hold in its two-fingered hands. This is the sure sign of a rather crummy idea—the idea is not only unscientific, but it attempts to answer almost every question about dinosaur evolution, biology and extinction.
And there’s an important fact Ford totally missed in his position piece. While he criticizes interpretations of the dinosaur track record, Ford doesn’t mention that there are actually rare traces of dinosaur swim tracks. The majority of dinosaur tracks indicate that the animals primarily lived on land, but some dinosaurs, primarily medium-sized carnivores, sometimes went into the water. If dinosaurs really did live in water, we’d expect to see many more swim tracks in the fossil record, but these trace fossils are a rarity. We know the kind of tracks dinosaurs left on land, and we know what kind of tracks at least some made in water. Based on the track evidence, Ford’s idea immediately sinks.
Ford’s ideas are zany. That’s not a crime. There are plenty of weird ideas about prehistoric life around the web—the idea that tyrannosaurs hugged trees to hide from prospective prey is probably my favorite nonsense idea. But Feilden did not do his due diligence as a journalist. He reported this story as if there actually was a shred of merit to it, when all that was behind the story was a cell biologist who entirely ignored paleontology. Ford’s comments seem to stem from watching Walking With Dinosaurs—there’s no indication that he has carefully researched the subject he pontificates upon. (In searching for depictions of dinosaurs to criticize, Ford takes an image created for a creationist website as the best science can offer. Oops.) As paleontologists Mike Taylor and Dave Hone have already pointed out on their blogs, there’s not even really a discussion worth having here. Ford presents no actual evidence for his claims, and Feilden uncritically ran with the unsupported assertions.
To his credit, Feilden spoke to dinosaur expert Paul Barrett at the Natural History Museum for a second opinion, but that’s small consolation in a story that didn’t deserve the attention it received in the first place. If there is a story here, it’s about how a cell biologist arrogantly ignored the evidence collected over decades in a different field in an attempt to foist his own just-so stories on dinosaurs to ease his own discomfort at seeing landlubber Diplodocus. Even worse, Feilden makes a connection between the dissenting Ford and Galileo—Galileo, for crying out loud—to hint that Ford’s idiosyncratic views, unfettered by the problem of actually looking at the evidence, may turn out to be right. No. Just no. The accumulated tonnage of evidence places dinosaurs as primarily terrestrial beings, and simply ignoring all of that for the sake of controversial isn’t amazing news. It’s bad science communicated by bad journalism.