Trailer for Jurassic Fight Club II Clash of the Dinosaurs

This year saw the release of Unscientific America and Don’t Be SUCH a Scientist, two books that aimed to take scientists to task for not being media-savvy enough. Whatever “it” is scientists are clearly not “with it”, the books argue, and the public’s inadequate understanding of science can be traced back to the inability of nerdy scientists to give themselves media-friendly makeovers.

I didn’t particularly like either book (and that is putting things a bit mildly), but I have to admit that I am a little biased. Within the field I am most interested in, paleontology, there have been many scientists who have worked hard to help the public understand science. My own early interest in the science can be traced back to scientists like Jack Horner, Bob Bakker, Philip Currie, Paul Sereno, and Stephen Jay Gould who frequently appeared on television, in magazines, and in books. Even today many paleontologists collaborate with feature film companies and documentary crews both on and off camera to help bring solid science to the public. (And though she is not a paleontologist, the contribution of botanist Jodie Holt to the production of Avatar is a great example of how scientists and feature film creators can work together.) These scientists spend a lot of time reaching out to the public, but sometimes they get burned.

Such was the case with paleontologist Matt Wedel’s appearance in the documentary miniseries Clash of the Dinosaurs. You can find all the gory details here, here, and here. Long story short: media company wants to include dino myth into the show, Wedel tries to correct misconception, media company still wants to perpetuate myth because they don’t think their audience will understand the real science, media company carefully re-edits interview with Wedel to make him seem like he was trying to endorse an incorrect idea he was actually trying to refute, Wedel gets pissed.

Paleo blogs and mailing lists have been abuzz over this story over the past few days. There are lots of horror stories. Some scientists have had pleasant experiences with TV crews while others have been treated rather poorly in the name of selling the public a “more interesting” story. Of particular interest is the fact that the high rate of turnover in media companies means that the person who you started working with, the one who seemed really interested in accurately depicting science, suddenly disappears and you wind up with someone who wants to create controversy where there is none. (Check out the novel Terminal Freeze for a fictional take on this.) No two companies are alike, and I don’t want to damn all documentary production crews, but paleontologists who have often contributed to programs meant to educate the public have had their words twisted, been ignored, or otherwise had poor experiences with companies that value style much more highly over substance.

I guess that is why it was so difficult for me to enjoy Unscientific America and Don’t Be SUCH a Scientist. There are many scientists, many of whom I have had the pleasure of corresponding with thanks to this blog, who have worked hard to help the public better understand science. Rather than berate them for not trying hard enough maybe we should take a more comprehensive look at how science communication works and how messages can get distorted by media companies more concerned with making a buck than actually telling an interesting story in a responsible way. It is time for critics to stop being so negative about scientists and actually consider how we might push for change within mass media to better help scientists connect with the public.


  1. #1 CircleReader
    December 17, 2009

    So, could there be a post-production rating system for films that use scientist’s work directly or indirectly, that would let scientists rate how accurately their own work was depicted? Scientists would be able to rate the movies only with regard to their own work, and a review board of scientists/journalists/filmakers would oversee & award a badge of excellence (or not) that the media companies (& IMDB, Amazon, Wikipedia, etc.) could display to show that they are in fact “telling an interesting story in a responsible way.” And regular folks like me would know what to look for without reading a billion blog posts.

    Perhaps such a seal of approval could be connected with existing science communication awards. Has somebody done something like this already? What would it take to make this sort of thing work?

  2. #2 Mike Skrepnick
    December 17, 2009

    Every paleontologist I know has had their comments distorted by the media at some point. The solution is a relatively easy one… when approached for an interview or participation in a documentary, the academic involved should insist upon a clause in a written agreement, that stipulates that all edited content provided by said academic is subject to their express consent and approval, prior to the finished format appearing in public.

    No agreement, no participation… eventually public pressure and interest will force the media to capitulate to terms that will no longer infringe upon scientific fact over sensationalist media hype.

  3. #3 Prawn
    December 17, 2009

    The solution not to be mis quoted : choose a subject no one cares off :)

    Anyway, there’re efforts made by scientists to transmit their knowledges.

    I see three main problems :

    First, to understand science, you should have some prior knowledge in the field.

    Second, people spend few time on something on tv, they often switch from a channel to another. And medias knows that more than anyone else. So messages have to be very short and clear : see the news? That’s the basic concept ; few second on each subject, go directly to the main point, and forgive all the rest, so people thinks they learn many things, but truly they learn anything.

    … And three ; scientific must looks like what is expected form a scientist, white coat, protective glasses… No just joking, but its almost that sometimes.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    December 17, 2009

    The “we had to edit your interview for time” excuse doesn’t hold much water when the truth takes no longer to tell.

  5. #5 Andreas Johansson
    December 18, 2009

    media company still wants to perpetuate myth because they don’t think their audience will understand the real science

    I think that’s excessively kind, actually. Anyone who can understand “sauropods had an extra brain” can also understand “sauropods didn’t have an extra brain”. I rather imagine they decided reality was too dull.

  6. #6 JefFlyingV
    December 18, 2009

    Brian, I don’t know if you ever visit ScientificBlogging, but Michael White (molecular biologist) writes this on the scientists and the public. Didn’t mean to side step your article:

  7. #7 Melinda
    December 18, 2009

    I think we should distinguish between journalistic publications, who are ethically required to check quotes for accuracy where possible, and media companies making infotainment specials. As a journalist, I find it horrendous when I see other journalists distorting science, but often these distortions can be traced back to PR on the part of scientists, universities, etc. pushing a bad/incorrect framing of the science or pushing weak science that is nowhere near ready for prime time. So, I can’t put all the blame on fellow journalists all the time despite having encountered far too many journalists who fail to live up to their ethical obligations.

    Infotainment companies, on the other hand, have no ethical guidelines and couldn’t care less about distorting whatever they need to distort to sell ad space. I would advise scientists to expect distortion as a rule when working with these companies.

    I remember being particularly miffed at seeing a so-called examination of human entrance into North American thousands of years ago where the “recreation” showed these early humans as white, with some having red hair and blue eyes. A simple look at what Native Americans look like today would give you a decent idea as to what the first “Americans” looked like thousands of years ago. Just because, I’ll also add that blue eyes didn’t exist until about 6,000 years ago.

  8. #8 Raymond Minton
    December 18, 2009

    Darren Naish mentioned this yesterday too. Perhaps the solution is for paleontologists to collectively agree not to appear on programs with a history of taking their words out of context. BTW, am I the only one who found “Clash Of The Dinosaurs” sensationalistic and over the top?

  9. #9 Kevin Z
    December 22, 2009

    What gets me is that the public will still watch programs that are in front of them on TV. Viewership to a program called Clash of the Dinosaurs will not be affected because dino myths are not perpetuated. The same people will watch these programs regardless of what the actual content is. In fact, a better hook would have been “paleontologists thought dinos had 2 brains for X reason, but now OMG THEY WERE RONG!1!!1!!111”

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