You’re being interviewed for a TV documentary, and that documentary will focus on your special area of expertise. For the purposes of this article, let’s pretend that you’re an expert on sauropod dinosaurs. While being interviewed, you’re asked about the possible function of a peculiar and enigmatic structure: the cavernous expansion present in the sauropod sacral region. As everyone knows, the idea that the sacral expansion might have functioned as a sort of ‘second brain’ was once mooted in the literature, and – because it was a fun idea that jived well with the well-known fact that sauropods have small brains – it became rapidly absorbed into the popular literature.
The ‘second brain’ idea is crap, though there is the caveat that the spinal cords of all animals are involved in motion control that occurs somewhat independently of the brain. Sacral expansions just like those of sauropods are also seen in birds. They’re nothing to do with ‘second brains'; rather, an organ called the glycogen body is housed here (astonishingly, we’re still not exactly sure what the glycogen body is for, though it’s likely something to do with energy storage). So, you’re being interviewed about all of this and, naturally, you mention in passing that the ‘second brain’ idea used to be trotted out. But, like the good scientist you are, you go on to say that this is incorrect. You then go on to talk about glycogen bodies and so on. You did a good job.
But then you see your interview – very much pared down and condensed of course – screened on TV. National TV, on a big network. It will be seen by millions and is going to be one of the biggest bits of exposure you’ll ever get in your entire life. It should be good. But no, horror of horrors. All the stuff about glycogen bodies, about the fact that sauropods are not unusual or unique with respect to their sacral expansions and so on, has been edited away… and, unbelievably, there you are stating the ‘second brain’ thing as if it’s a fact that you’re endorsing!!! Yes, to your horror, you have been QUOTE MINED. You know, the sort of shit creationists pull.
This was not a bad dream. It really happened.
Well, exactly this has just happened to my friend and colleague Mathew Wedel of the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California [not 'Matthew Wedel', as it says in the documentary concerned] [Matt shown here]. Yes, believe it or don’t, Matt was quote mined for a new TV documentary, and is shown saying of the sauropod sacral expansion: “This was sort of like a second brain to help control the back half of the body”. As you may know by now, this appeared in an episode of the new Discovery series Clash of the Dinosaurs (produced by London-based company Dangerous Ltd.; the working title of the series was Dino Body).
Understandably, Matt is furious and is asking for advice on what to do next. He contacted everyone at Dangerous. Their head of research responded by citing Matt’s interview transcript. Sure enough, Matt states very clearly therein that the ‘second brain’ idea is an old, inaccurate hypothesis, and it’s painfully clear that Matt’s statement was warped by the exclusion of the surrounding caveats and explanations that he provided. This is all documented in Matt’s article here at SV-POW! [the composite diagram that Matt sent to Dangerous is reproduced below]. The researcher at Dangerous implied in his response to Matt that the editing fairly reflected Matt’s statement, but it obviously doesn’t and what we have here is a serious breach of trust. When scientists are interviewed for TV (or, indeed, when anyone is interviewed for TV), they have to assume that their statements will not be portrayed out of context.
So, what to do? Errors of this magnitude really shouldn’t make it into a documentary in the first place (how did this happen? Someone with scientific expertise should have vetted the final script), but once they are there they need to be edited out. Matt is checking the legal small-print to see what can be done. But this also makes it clear that it’s time to request higher standards: we, as both the scientific community and as consumers of scientific documentary products, need to make some noise and get changes implemented. Some people are suggested that we (as in, those of us involved in palaeontological science) boycott the company (Dangerous Ltd.) and network (Discovery) concerned, or even boycott involvement in all science documentaries until things are sorted out. One suggestion is that we need to draft a set of basic principles that all media must adhere to before using palaeontologists (or biologists in general, or scientists in general) in a documentary. Of course, some media companies – notably the BBC – do have good guidelines on accurate and ethical treatment of parties, and are publicly liable when screw-ups are made (they have to issue an apology should such occur) [Sauroposeidon head from Clash of the Dinosaurs shown below].
Like everyone else in the UK, I haven’t seen Clash of the Dinosaurs, so can’t comment on it, but what’s been said by people who have seen it doesn’t leave me feeling too optimistic. Apparently there are a few anatomical violations (I don’t recall seeing these in the CG models I vetted), and ideas about palaeobehaviour that started out as reasonable bits of speculation (e.g., it’s possible that hadrosaurs could have generated, and detected, infrasonic sounds) became supercharged and modified during production (e.g., hadrosaurs could discharge infrasonic noises as WEAPONS, and were capable of stun-gunning an attacking theropod!). The series makers might say that they relied on the opinions of experts for this sort of stuff, and that ideas such as this one really were generated by specific experts. All I will say is that not all experts are created equal. The mis-pronunciation of some names doesn’t exactly bring credibility to the series (the narrator consistently says ‘Para-saw-ROFF-a-lus’ for Parasaurolophus).
This is really unfortunate as, like so many people involved in the making of the series (I advised on the life appearances of the creatures, and also provided some anatomical and behavioural information), I honestly got the sincere impression from the makers that they were interested in the science, in accuracy, and in an honest portrayal of where we’re at with Mesozoic archosaur biology. It was not going to be another Walking With Dinosaurs (that is, a speculative story-telling exercise). Things evidently well down-hill at some stage, though exactly when and how this happened is not clear.