A scientist is QUOTE MINED on a Discovery dinosaur documentary


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.

Read Matt's articles here and here. Things really need to change, and now is the time.

More like this

I just watched this episode two nights ago. I didn't realize that this was the Mathew Wedel of TetZoo fame. I was somewhat surprised to hear the 2nd brain theory being mentioned, but I'm no expert. I will say that I had no doubt while watching that that Dr. Wedel was saying that Sauroposeidon had a structure that acted as a second brain and controlled the tail and hind legs. You can not tell that he is explaining an old theory that has been discredited.

I remember buying a set of software for my very young kids, many years ago, and I distinctly recall hearing "Para-saw-ROFF-a-lus". It was one of my son's favorites. I have to admit, I can't hear it any other way at present, at least not without it sounding odd. Could you please post a proper pronunciation?

And thanks for both lessons.

The best way to thump/teach the production company may be to make the errors impact upon the people who commissioned the programme - the Discovery Channel. Emails and letters that explain how poor programming like this undermines Discovery's core values, stated here:

"Discovery's leadership is dedicated to upholding the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct, and to fulfilling the original mission spelled out by Chairman and Founder John Hendricks in 1982: 'To satisfy curiosity and make a difference in people's lives by providing the highest quality content, services and products that entertain, engage and enlighten.'"

I've only been able to see the clips available on hulu.com, but I did manage to catch the mispronunciation of parasaurolophus...which I had to replay to make sure that I didn't hear it wrong. Unfortunate. The graphics themselves were pretty cool, if a little heavy on the "combat". I know it makes for more impressive TV, but why must every documentary about dinosaurs include a prerequisite "battle to the death" between T-Rex and Triceratops? It's always the same, T-Rex attacking a Triceratops, Hadrosaurs mating, Sauropods migrating. Why not show a couple of Amargasaurs necking like giraffes? Styracosaurs scavenging bones for the calcium? If the push is to potray them as living, breathing animals, then stop making them into one dimensional cartoons.

This sort of thing is why, when I was presented with a disclaimer which more or less stated "We will do what we want with film of you, and you have no comeback or choice in the matter" by a film crew at the Weird Weekend, I turned down said contract flat. The lesson that should have been learned long ago by everyone in the world is this: if you sign a contract, you are signing up to what is written on that paper, NOT what the film makers say they're going to interpret it as; read the contract and if it sounds outrageous tell the person offering it to revise it.

By Dan Holdsworth (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

Okay, now that is just shoddy...well, everything. The first two Clash of the Dinosaur episodes (namely, the two last Sunday) didn't seem bad, per se, but they weren't overall good. Of course, it was probably a huge improvement over the shoddy science of Jurassic Fight Club (Raptors using hand signals to coordinate their hunts? What the heck?).

There does need to be some fact checking on a lot of these documentaries. This isn't the first time a reconstruction of a dinosaur has gone wrong. There's the Walking with Dinosaurs T-rex, and the Magyarosaurus on Dinosaur Planet could actually be seen chewing its cud.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

After hearing the "second brain" comment while watching that episode, I had to check my calendar. I thought I was in second grade and it was the 70s again! Back then they were peddling that theory for stegosaurs, if I recall.

The mispronunciation of Parasaurolophus made it sound like a Sesame Street character.

I watched (all?) the episodes and they were basically a rehash of each other in every episode. Graphically, they constantly reused scenes, over, and over again. Tinted, flipped, slowed down, close up, far away. It was frustrating. I know CG isn't cheap, but still. I couldn't tell the shows apart.

There was no new information presented. Only (as you pointed out) old, or inaccurate information.

In the words of Maxwell Smart, "Missed it by THAT much."

For this and many other reasons, I'm GLAD not to be working on dinosaurs! TV documentaries rarely bother with prehistoric mammals, so we don't get our work butchered as often as those of dino-workers. I've been in a lot of those on mammals, and most have been OK, even though they push you to speculate about color and behavior and lots of other unknowable stuff, and don't want to know the "why". My worst experience was with "Paleoworld" when they did an episode on fossil rhinos. They INSISTED on putting in their Triceratops robot because it had horns! Never mind that the horns are not homologous, the animals bore no relationship, etc.--they just HAD to put dinos in somehow. I spent an entire week filming with the BBC film crew and could NOT get them to remove it. And nearly all my footage ended up on the cutting room floor except for 3 minutes with the indricothere in Gering, NE. Instead, after I flew home, they filmed Mike Voorhies' "Rhino Pompeii" and all that footage replaced mine. Oh, well...

Clash of the Dinosaurs could be a great series, but it's a shame that this happened. Perhaps someone in the editorial staff thought the second brain theory would make a wonderful story, or perhaps someone in the editing room had learned this theory as a child and thought it was still true. I remember reading it in children's books, but I would hardly consider them to be definitive scientific works.

I've known lots of experts to be knocked out of documentaries, simply because their evidence doesn't fit nicely with the narrative framework. Sometimes, they are very good at bringing in scientists who disagree with the theory. I saw a really good program on Homo florensis that really did an excellent job of bringing in different sides. It actually makes for a good narrative and is an accurate portrayal of the science (and what scientists actually do for a living-- fight each other).

However, in this case, none of this applies. They just slapped in what has already been proven totally false.

I'm no paleontologist but I do love dinosaurs and it's shows like this that make me cringe in horror. I couldn't finish watching the first episode because I was getting so worked-up that my fiancée made me change the channel. They used the same (crappily animated) clips over and over again, dwelled upon the same (specious) ideas, and (of course!) focused on T-Rex and Triceratops.

Like one anonymous submitter says, the show was (marginally) better than Jurassic Fight Club (which featured only 1 fight with dinosaurs from the Jurasssic, if memory serves me correctly) but I couldn't believe that they wrangled some big names in paleontology (Mathew Wedel, Bob Bakker, etc.) into appearing. Despite the fact that they're as jazzed about dinosaurs as me, I wouldn't let my children watch this for fear of the poor science involved.

If the esteemed Lord Geekington doesn't beat me to it, I'll put this post in the Readers' Picks this evening. This scandal needs as much publicity as possible. The only reason I don't sound like I'm foaming at the mouth is because I read the first SV-POW! article yesterday and already aired my (ehem) concerns there.

Anon, the name ends in -lophus, not in -pholus.

Tom Holtz calls the infrasonic superhero beast from that show "ParasauROFLus".

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

and what scientists actually do for a living-- fight each other

Heh. =8-)

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

its likely that a good number of the people involved in
and responsible for this...production...have blogs of their
own. If the basic info is up at the IMDB, they shouldn't
be too hard to track down.

I'm no scientist myself, but I'm at a loss to understand
why distortion is somehow more "Entertaining" than the
reality. (They were dinosaurs!! for pete's sake, how much more amazing do they have to be?)

By Craig York (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

I remember reading it in children's books, but I would hardly consider them to be definitive scientific works.
Some of them are real treasure-troves of the bizarre. Last year, I read one (published in 1999) I believe, that among other things claimed that the Titanosauria was a "small and obscure group" and that troodonts were ornithischians.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

My blockquote fu is weak. The first paragraph there is by retrieverman.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

I saw this special myself (which, btw, I found melodramatic and sensationalistic.) I had heard the "second brain" theory in regards to Stegosaurus debunked long ago, so it was strange to hear it brought up again in regards to sauropods, and I had no idea that the makers of this program were doing something so unscrupulous as quote mining. This kind of tactic is reprehensible enough when it's done by people you expect it from, like creationists. It's even worse when it's done by those who are supposed to be informing the public, not misleading them.

The thing I don't understand about all this, is why do they bother getting scientific consultants in at all? And in this particular case, a lot of them, if they're just going to say what they want, and reconstruct how they like? I seems like a colossal waste of money and time to me.

By the way, there are plenty of other, less egregious problems in CotD, which have been dwarfed (understandably) by the quote-mining and the infrasound attack of ParasauROFLus. These include propalinal jaw motion in Tyrannosaurus; no nuchal crest (and indeed highly reduced occipital region) of the same; the anterior end of the bill of hadrosaurs moving dorsoventrally as if they were fleshy lips; and so on.

If a company gets a bad rep for misusing contributions, people should avoid it. Or perhaps there should be a sliding scale of fees: responsible users like the BBC get low rates, while Penn and Teller should pay five figures.

On sound as a weapon: I keep coming across the idea that Apatosaurus could use its tail as a whip to generate a very loud crack (perhaps as a sexual display). This is nonsense, right? Physical intuition suggests that an animal that attempted this would lose the end of it's tail.

By Chris Clark (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

Coming from the legal field, my fear is that whatever release Matt signed included permission for them to mangle whatever he said. However, it's still unethical and technically slander, so I think legal action should be pursued.

I'm sorry for you and your friend that this happened, but also i think you really should not be so naieve. I have some experience with the media (politician) and i always used to think that journalists were genuine truth finders, fact reporters, defenders of democracy, human rights and freedom. Well, i was naieve to. They are dumb assholes interested only in sales, status, controversy, making a name for themselves. Never trust em.......for they are, well, human....

By randomeda (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

By the way, there are plenty of other, less egregious problems in CotD

Yeah. For instance the picture at the top of this page, which reflects the widespread* assumption that every biped is a professional wrestler. The right leg of that tyrannosaur is sprawled at least as far as possible, and the left one is simply twisted out of its hip joint, with the medial (inner) side facing cranially (forwards). The broken hip joint must hurt. Also, the neck could be too straight, and the teeth are too short...

* Or anyway pervasive and very conspicuous in Jurassic Fight Club.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

It is not the first time Discovery did it. Once they asked scientists studying wolves to film a documentary. They cut scenes of catching a wolf for radiocollaring into a kind of horror about scientists torturing poor animals. Britons will be pleased to hear, that BBC usually behaves fair to naturalists.

But, budding celebs, media distorting your words is rather a rule than exception. It happened to me, too.
One practical tip is to count. For example: "There are two things about this theory. It says that sauropods, for one, had a second brain in the hips. Second thing is that it is not serious and disproved".
Second practical tip is to use third person: "Other scientists supposed sauropods to have second brains in their hips. It was disproved."
Third thing is to avoid talking about anything which you don't agree with. Four word sentences. In this case, comment on something different in sauropod anatomy.
If you think it over in advance, no media person can cut a fragment and make it mean something different without breaking the grammar and making viewers aware that it was a bad cut.

This is truly a terrible thing. Makes one wonder how many other docs have done quote mining to make things the way they want... or they think the public wants...

Uh, in which way is the walking with dinosaurs T. rex inaccurate?

Sorry to hear that, if I ever get interviewed on something important I will sign a non-butchering contract.

Hmm - if the company is in England, he can threaten to sue under the Libel laws. Look at the trouble that has caused Simon Singh (and many others). A bit extreme, but maybe they'd be afraid enough to correct the lies. If they lied about that small bit, what else have they lied about?

I haven't seen any of them, but you really mean the "infrasonic weapon" thing was not a joke? They actually put that in? WTF?

Sorry for the third post, but that infrasound thing...all I can think about is Gamera vs Gaos. (the creature with two throats that could vibrate like a tuning fork and generate the destructive ray - IIRC)

A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down into the region of your glycogen body...it's entertainment. The fact that they pretend it's a documentary ignores its purpose and the process that guides its editing. Furthermore it's the same degree of verisimilitude which guides the generally public which thinks of itself as relatively well informed when it comes to everything from foreign policy to the meme of "heat absorbtion by gasses in the atmoshpere" because it's seen "a documentary on tv". All things considered I'd bet the bong is less of a menace to mental competence than the bood tube even when it's at its supposed best.
Blogs like yours Darren stand in stark contrast to the tripe we get served via televison production and for that we can thank our lucky stars. cheers

Normally, I'd expect a production company to screw these things up on the basis of a bit of ignorance along with their desire to make their documentary sound "sexy", but this is frigging idiotic! Definitely worth some kind of complaint to Discovery, the possibility of it becoming more general knowledge that they distort and outright make things up in their documentaries might make them think twice about a repeat.

Good advice too Jerzy, making sure your words are chosen in such a way as to prevent convincing editing.

"Tom Holtz calls the infrasonic superhero beast from that show "ParasauROFLus"."

That, I believe, is what we call in the biz a stealth pun.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

@David, yea I thought the neck looked a little too straight for me. Also, I would be interested to know how the goanna-like throat of this T-rex compares to previous depictions, such as the lithe Gregory Paul theropods...although it seems plausible that something that takes ginormous bites and doesn't chew would have a giant throat to move those bites to its stomach.

I was also puzzled by the casually inserted statements about an infrasound weapon "scrambling brains" (huh, how does that work, when you can't even hear it unless you are specially adapted), about a T-Rex jaw dislocating like a snake's, and the sauropod "second brain"- I was like, Really? I thought that was a myth...but I was otherwise impressed by how they included the latest science on pterosaur flight and behavior (VTOL ground stalkers) and the info on the counterintuitive r-selected reproductive strategy of giant sauropods.

The endlessly recycled CGI was a little hard to take, and I thought the way they animated the theropod movement was not good- the bowed legs looked weird, and prolly anatomically impossible as David points out...plus that smaller theropod should have easily outrun Spinosaurus..and also I think baby dinos would be much more spry than they were depicted as, particularly since the sauropods have no means of defense but running.

Experience is what we get just after we needed it most. I hope that your friend goes into the next battle determined not to give the editors anywhere to go wrong. Next time, DO NOT mention the outmoded theory. Go straight to, "there was an enlargement that housed the glycogen body, which may have something to do with energy storage and use." Or whatever.

You can try asking for a correction at the beginning of the next show in the series.

This does suck balls big time.

A suggestion? Demand the right to independently record everything you say either with a side-camera or an audiotape recorder. Also transcripts provided. Then smack them up on a webpage with hyperlinks to the Home page of the documentary movie/series being produced. Otherwise, no deal.

In this age of the internet, there is absolutely no reason why this cannot be done. A standard commercial or screen pop-up should show at least six times for every hour of screening showing the main links to full interviews and transcripts.

This could be expanded across the paleontology field (heck other science fields). You don't really care if say David Peters gets an interview, no matter how controversial he is, as long as he follows the same standard as the rest of you.

What are the documentary producers going to do? Out-source everything to India or China? How many Indian and Chinese or wherever scientists are going to be willing to play that role in the face of their peers here in the West? How long before every paleontological paper makes a stink? Mainstream papers? I bet it will take less than a few months before the kids alone start saying "this stinks".

There has been a lot of scientific scandals brewing lately, Aeto-gate and Climate-gate comes to mind. To me, the biggest scandal is ScienceJournalism-gate; something that the majority of scientists have absolutely no editorial control over. If scientists are ever to reach the public at large, they _must_ be given the right to represent themselves in documentaries by means of prominent ads to get people to such information quickly and freely.

You aren't saying libel if you have clear evidence by way of independent transcripts/videos that you were quote-mined or completely misrepresented. Frack the whining of the producers. Stand firm and don't give in.

Paleontology is one of the most mind-blowing and joyful sciences around. It is the study of extinct organisms with real practical applications to the modern world in the form of the study of past ecologies among other subjects. It is the story of where we came from on this Big Blue Marble and just possibly, it might help us understand the story of where we are going.

I've been working with media / creative types for some time now, and as far as I can see, there are some people in the sector who are sufficiently ignorant and arrogant to be indistinguishable from evil. Much of the time, people are judged not according to their knowledge or abilities, but by how "cool" they are. A shame. I hope they realize their mistake soon!

By C. M. Koseman (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

[from Darren: filtered as spam, hence delay!]

a T-Rex jaw dislocating like a snake's

Even snake jaws don't dislocate. There are several extra joints, and the left and the right lower jaw are not really connected, but the joints don't dislocate.

There has been a lot of scientific scandals brewing lately, Aeto-gate and Climate-gate comes to mind.

You mean Climategategate â the scandalous quote-mining of stolen e-mails and their gross misinterpretation by people who don't understand what they're reading! There are several ScienceBlogs waiting for you. Three relevant posts are in the right sidebar right now: one, two, three. Follow the links in them and in the comments on them.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

As a former documentary editor, I can tell you, here's the real problem: Neither the producers of this show, nor the network, are in business to sell science; they sell advertising time. So, needless to say, they don't have nearly the same interest in absolute accuracy or up-to-date scientific information as you scientists.

If you want to change this situation and prevent it from happening, you folks will have to learn how to be media savvy. Don't act like "a good scientist", act like a savvy media professional, which, if you are on television, you should be. Otherwise, yes, you are totally at the mercy of people who might quote mine you because they believe it will makes their product better or flashier or sexier or better. I'm not saying it's right, I'm saying it's reality.

They don't really understand the subject and aren't really that upset if it doesn't meet the standards of YOUR business, because their product, flawed as it may be, sells ad time, which is what THEIR business is all about.

Bitch and moan and plot fantasies of the world's scientists pulling a John Galt on the Discovery Channel all you want, but until YOU scientists become media savvy, it will continue because you're opening the door to it happening.

This is a perfect example: what was Wedel doing talking about second brains at all? Why was he giving them the footage? You can't be quote mined if you don't say the words. I understand the "scientist" and "teacher" in him wanted to expand and explore upon this idea and give a full and complete picture of the subject, yadda, yadda, yadda. But as a media person, when the camera is rolling, he needs to me smart. Give the producer the background information off camera, before the interview. When the camera is rolling, he should have said, every time the issue arose in the interview: "There was old ideas about it being a hind brain. It's been long shown to be false." That is the only way to be accurate. You don't say anything more about the hind brain idea than those two sentences, so there is nothing to "mine." Media savvy. (Hell, combine it will a dismissive look and an expression like you smelt some bad cheese, and that footage will NEVER be used.)

Understand that the producers and editors are looking for egaging sound bites and good beats. Give it to them, but make them good, accurate and up-to-date ones. They aren't looking for a lecture, and they're not looking to learn about the subject. They're making a television program and you must always, ALWAYS, be aware of that fact, first and foremost.

This is basic media awareness that everyone going on television should master. The only way to protect yourself from being quote mined, is to not say anything that can be mined. But if you are pithy, engaging and enthusiastic about the things that are true and up-to-date, that's the footage that will be used.

By Grant Canyon (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

"Bitch and moan and plot fantasies of the world's scientists pulling a John Galt on the Discovery Channel all you want, but until YOU scientists become media savvy, it will continue because you're opening the door to it happening."

Well, while there's undoubtedly sense spoken here, the tone's pretty grim. Personally, I would prefer to live in a world where people demanded more of their media, regardless of its commercial basis. Of course, demanding honesty from commercial concerns will continue to be useless without concerted effort. Hmmm... let's overthrow the (fourth e)state, shall we?

It's obviously true that scientists need to be more media savvy. But the entire responsibility for dealing with breaches of trust cannot and should not be put on the scientist, any more than it is solely "up to the woman to avoid rape." The media also need to be held accountable when they pull this kind of stunt, with the understanding that they are lying about what someone has said, damaging his/her reputation, and potentially f***ing over his or her career. shrugging and saying, "well, media just act that way, deal with it", is just a milder way of saying "well, boys will be boys" -- no longer a valid excuse, nor should it be.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

Scientists as a group should not be singled out for their media savvy, or lack thereof. Everyone, and every group (however defined) needs to be more media savvy.

And the group that needs it the most? The media.

There's a whole lot that could be said about this subject, as it has much wider implications. It would be nice to think all production companies apply equal scientific rigor, but you you have to know and understand the "business" of documentary production if you want it to benefit you as a scientist. These people are producing a product and being paid for it, you need to treat it as such. You want them to quote the best material, then make it sound compelling, passionate and easily digestible. You don't have to sacrifice accuracy in order to be a good speaker, as all the best speakers understand.

If you understand that the producer is often playing a game with you, wanting you to provide them with the desired quote to fit the script, then you can ensure you don't fall into any traps. The hardest gotcha to avoid, however, is introducing any ambiguity into your statements. These can be easily directed in the desired direction using a narrator: "What Dr X is really saying here is ..."

By Adam Britton (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

I don't think it's the scientist's fault if his quote gets mined; however we DO all need to be more media-saavy and less naive... the media isn't your friend. And even for celebrities that everyone seems to envy and idolize, the media isn't their friend either... they're looking for a quick buck and often have no qualms about stepping on some people to do it.

Basically to prevent this, you have to be legally saavy and have good business sense, negotiate aggressively so that any compromise will NOT be a near-total concession to the corporation. Be a thorn so they will not think of stepping on you. But at the same time, offer them your best so long as they are smart enough to take it - you have to market your understanding of dinosaur FACT to outshine all the BS fiction the production team may have up their sleeve. They have to be told "do you want to end up with a crap program that just bores the hell out of viewers with second brains and other rehashed fairy tales, or do you want to shock and amaze them with real live, dynamic, social, thinking dinosaurs?

The media is ALL about shock value. Same with hollywood. That's why Jurassic Park did so well - the raptors were intelligent and could LEARN, thus making them far more unpredictable and dangerous than any classic movie monster. The shock value was unbelievable for its time! That's what we need - solid science that it MORE interesting than the bogus myths of the producer's script. Fast T.rexes that HUNTED their prey. Sauropods that cared for their eggs and at least BURIED them properly. Sauropods that defend themselves against any predator big or small. Ceratopsians that can gallop. Heck, this stuff is way more real than what's on TV now, and it's a hell of a lot MORE INTERESTING and frankly a lot scarier.

THAT is how you sell science to the media.

Speaking of errors, what's up with the Sauroposeidon pic? It looks like they put the nostrils at the end of the snout instead of the forehead (is there any researcher still arguing for the latter?), but they didn't fill things in with a convincing bladder structure.
But, to keep things in perspective, at least it's not "gagged-up" lizards.

By David N. Brown (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

Interesting. My latest comment, which will be 43, hasn't yet made it through moderation, but is listed in the left sidebar! Signs and wonders.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 19 Dec 2009 #permalink

I think the only solution to this problem involves interviewees participating on the condition that they will be sent the final edit before it airs and that they can retract their participation at any time up until the air date. I don't think there is anything we can do about documentary film makers saying stupid, made-up shit, but it would give them incentive to be intellectually honest if their "requisite expert cred" was contingent on the "experts" being satisfied with the product they are going to be forever associated with.

This here is exactly why most experienced scientists HATE talking to journalists; they realise that film-makers and reporters come with their stories attached to their brains, and that the scientist is merely a tool for a soundbyte or two that supports preconceived notions. At least most of the time. I think there needs to be some form of accountability to knowledge. It is easy to find facts to report on one side of an issue (as in a documentary), or two "conflicting" sides, like journalists feel compelled to do. But journalists are accustomed to dealing with the subjective, where there are no real right answers. What about the objective, scientifically-agreed state of knowledge, i.e. what we know almost for certain, what is still uncertain, and the predominant theories that can explain some of what is still uncertain. Reporting on the state of actual, peer-reviewed consensus, until better information comes in, is the only responsible thing to do, whether it is one-sided, two-sided or seven-sided. Subjectivity may make programs like Clash of the Dinosaurs possible, but it does not make anything they say about the way things actually were, true.

By VolcanoMan (not verified) on 19 Dec 2009 #permalink

My latest comment, which will be 43

No, it's 39, and it's there... perhaps the sidebar records the time of approval. It had three links in it, and sometimes (!!!) that's too much.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 19 Dec 2009 #permalink

"Even snake jaws don't dislocate. There are several extra joints, and the left and the right lower jaw are not really connected, but the joints don't dislocate."

True. But the number of people who really still beleive in this myth (snakes dislocating their jaws) is mind-boggling. I would argue that this is among the most persistent and widely-held biology-related myths in existence today.

"Speaking of errors, what's up with the Sauroposeidon pic? It looks like they put the nostrils at the end of the snout instead of the forehead (is there any researcher still arguing for the latter?)"

Me. And fellow researcher/paleoartist Nima Sassani. Can't think of anybody else.

By Michael O. Erickson (not verified) on 20 Dec 2009 #permalink

So what is so wrong with Walking With Dinosaurs? I was under the impression it was pretty good?

well, for those of us who aren't macrofaunal specialists, the non-dislocating snake jaw might be a one of those colloquial shorthands that turns out to be not really accurate...I will have to pay attention now to how many nature documentaries, if any, use that phrase


Thank you for that (working) link :-)

I understand your point here, but the damage is done. I'm not interested in debating the science, the larger politics or what not. I _am_ interested in one single, damning e-mail. That would be this one from Mann to Jones, March 2003.

"This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the âpeer-reviewed literatureâ. Obviously, they found a solution to thatâtake over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering âClimate Researchâ as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial boardâ¦What do others think?â

âI will be emailing the journal to tell them Iâm having nothing more to do with it until they rid themselves of this troublesome editor.ââIt results from this journal having a number of editors. The responsible one for this is a well-known skeptic in NZ. He has let a few papers through by Michaels and Gray in the past. Iâve had words with Hans von Storch about this, but got nowhere. Another thing to discuss in Nice!â

I'm having a very hard time trying to consider this as a 'misrepresentation'. To me, it is a blatant and craven statement and apparently successful attempt to tell other researchers, "get in line, or else".

The entire journal was a failure of peer review because the editor left manuscripts full of errors through, demonstrable errors that would have been caught had there been any serious peer review. The entire editorial board resigned when this came out a few months later. Submitting manuscripts to such a journal is nothing but a waste.

What surprises me is that you apparently don't read any ScienceBlogs other than this one. Posts which explained this very issue, and numerous others, have been in the "Top 5 Most Active", "Readers' Picks" and "Editor's Picks" for the entire last month, if not longer!

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 21 Dec 2009 #permalink

It's not one link, it's three. Each of the words "one", "two", and "three" in comment 39 is a link.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 21 Dec 2009 #permalink

actually, david, 1 and 2 don't work

"Scientists need to be media savvy?"
Yes, but I think that media people need get a bit intelligence-savvy too!

By C. M. Koseman (not verified) on 21 Dec 2009 #permalink

I don't find this at all surprising. Discovery and History channels will do anything to improve ratings and pander to their audiences. I love the idea of allowing the masses to understand science without having to sift through journals, but let's keep the facts factual.

It sounds as though the basic message we're being given is "they aren't interested in truth, or in your reputation, only in making something that sounds good." To the extent that's true, why on Earth should a scientist give such "documentary"-makers his or her time and knowledge, free, at the risk of being quote-mined, used to spread amusing lies (when the filmmaker knows it's false, it's a lie), and having his or her reputation harmed?

That is, yes if you are going to do this, be media-savvy, but media-savvy here sounds like learning self-defense skills. Knowing how to disarm an attacker, or divert an attack, is useful, but it's not a good reason to wade into a fight.

Neil @41: It may sound grim, because, in some ways, commercial media IS grim. If there is a solution, it is in aggressively supporting public, non-commercial television, even if only as an example to temper the commercial impulses in commercial media. Which means that any US scientist who is interested in this issue should work to elect politicians who are for full funding of the arts and outlets like PBS.

"Personally, I would prefer to live in a world where people demanded more of their media, regardless of its commercial basis." I would prefer to live in world where the climate in New Jersey was the same as that of Hawaii, but the world is what it is. The reason that people don't demand more of their media is because so many people actually love, love, love crappy television. The sad reality is that insanely larger numbers of viewers in the US would rather watch "Survivor" or "Dancing With The Stars" than "NOVA." The commercial media reacts accordingly.


Luna the Cat @42: I think the key point is that this is not a question of "breaching trust," as this is not a relationship of trust, but of business. If the scientist has the misguided notion that the producer will act according to the interest of the scientist over what the producer believes makes for good television â that he can trust the producer â then the scientist is kidding him or herself. The scientist has to understand that the producer absolutely does not have the same interest, and often has a diametrically opposed interest, and the scientist must take responsibility accordingly.

Again, I'm not saying this is right, nor am I excusing the behavior. All I'm just saying that if a scientist doesn't want to get quote mined, he or she needs to understand what is going on.

Further, your rape analogy is inaccurate; a more apt analogy would be a home buyer completely trusting a home seller to set a "fair" price given the condition of the home and doing no independent inspection on his or her own, and later complaining that he got ripped off by the seller. Scientist are, too often, the buyers.


Volcanoman @48
"I think the only solution to this problem involves interviewees participating on the condition that they will be sent the final edit before it airs and that they can retract their participation at any time up until the air date."

This is nice fantasy, but if you really think that any producer is going to agree to let the meat (i.e., the talking heads; i.e., you folks) have final approval, you are absolutely nuts. If you insist on this, all you will do is open up a niche for other scientists who are willing to appear without this condition (and there are always other scientists out there...). They'll get the exposure, you won't, the show will sell ad time and the world will keep going round and round...


Vicki @60:

"To the extent that's true, why on Earth should a scientist give such 'documentary'-makers his or her time and knowledge, free, at the risk of being quote-mined, used to spread amusing lies (when the filmmaker knows it's false, it's a lie), and having his or her reputation harmed?"

I presume there are personal and professional reasons for doing so, including spreading the scientist's love for field; inspiring the next generation of scientists; and, frankly, getting some face time with the same people who would be somewhat likely to purchase, say, a general interest book on the subject of the documentary.

"...media-savvy here sounds like learning self-defense skills. Knowing how to disarm an attacker, or divert an attack, is useful, but it's not a good reason to wade into a fight."

Yes, it is EXACTLY what it is: self-defense skills. But as for whether you want to get into the fight: that is a question only you can answer. Most don't and there is nothing wrong with that. But if you do, you should have the skills to do it right and not to get burned.

By Grant Canyon (not verified) on 21 Dec 2009 #permalink

In my experience, it is not realistic to be given opportunity to see and change the finished product. This is often finished in a hurry, by a team of people ignorant about the subject (from graphic designer to a chief science editor who is specialist in eg. engineering or history).

Solution for you is to ban the most careless teams, and be careful with the rest.

Best solution: don't fight media at all. Think out your own story compatible with the expected profile and sell it. Give them the story YOU want, and in most cases they will be extremely happy to buy it, because it saved them time of inventing one own.

Discovery wants gory stories? OK. Could sauropods rip theropods with these little claws on their forelegs? Could elongated neck vertebrae of Amargasaurus act like a row of oryx horns? What force could generate a Diplodocus, if it swung its neck at a rival at the full speed?

Zoology is very good, because it has an endless supply of lovable animals caring for their cute babies, and predators and prey fighting each other. Whenever I talked to media, I picked No. 1 for woman, No. 2 for a man, and it was a success. The problem was to make a story extremely simple, so the ignorant mediaperson couldn't mess it.

Thank you for fixing the links Darren.

Oops, sorry the links didn't work. I somehow didn't notice.

and there are always other scientists out there...

Actually, I'm not sure about that. There aren't that many scientists in the first place, you see.

Yes, there are always people like the self-proclaimed Dinosaur George, but sooner or later nobody will take them seriously anymore.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

WTF. Does every comment that contains a link get held for moderation now!?! I was trying to make and document the assertion that George Blasing would have loved to become a scientist, but some asshole talked him out of it, so now he talks about science without ever having done any.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

Test â don't let this through if it gets held.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

Test passed. So maybe I can try again...

[from Darren: nope, this one was 'reported as spam'!!]

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

I tried again, and it got held again. Completely illogical. I'd start complaining about SixApart, except that other people's experience shows this is completely useless. Grmbf.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

"Actually, I'm not sure about that. There aren't that many scientists in the first place, you see."

My point is not that there is an infinite number of scientists. Rather, if the top tier folks boycott video production, then the producers will look at second tier talent. They will eventually find someone who is trying to make a name for himself and looking to get some exposure. Academics might laugh that this person is no expert, but the audience won't know and won't care. If they think about it at all, they will think, "If this guy is good enough to get on TV, he's good enough."

"Yes, there are always people like the self-proclaimed Dinosaur George, but sooner or later nobody will take them seriously anymore."

I think you overestimate the intelligence and knowledge of the viewing audience. Even if a person is a laughingstock to professionals and academics, appearing on television, itself, gives someone an air of authority among the average television viewer. If there is no one else appearing on these shows, then people like Dinosaur George become the voice of authority to an awful lot of viewers.

After all, they're on TV.

If you think I'm exaggerating, consider that Rush Limbaugh, whose qualifications extend no further than being able to talk in front of a microphone, and whose ideas are demonstrably insane, is considered to be a major force in conservative politics solely because his media presence has given him an air of authority among the people who listen to his program. If a large part of the American people still take Limbaugh seriously, do you really think they will suddenly reject George Blasing because "serious" academics find him to be a joke? Hell, in the US, being shunned by elite, pointed-headed intellectuals in the academic world is in some ways a net plus, not a detriment.

By Grant Canyon (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

David M., I'm having the same experience- there seems no rhyme nor reason to holds for comments- length, href attributes, etc. don't seem to follow a predictable pattern- I posted a comment re. Redstarts here on Tetra (short paragraph plus two attachements: an article an a photo) and it was referred to moderation (still not posted) and I cut-and-pasted the exact same comment to Grrl's Scientsist Interrupted also here on scienceblogs and it posted immediately (although one with zero attachments didn't!) so it is either down to the settings individual bloggers set or a SEED issue...

By David Hilmy (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

I haven't noticed any consistency in what gets spam-filtered and what doesn't. Some comments with two or three links make it through, others don't. It's nothing to do with the settings, and I certainly haven't ever tinkered with any of the spam settings (though I have banned a list of spammers and offensive lunatics).

Thanks Darren, I'm not giving you a hard time at all, it's just frustrating when in the midst of 'dialogiue' with other commenters- Phrayngula was great, then terrible, now fine again; Laelaps seems to refer everything; Grrl's was great, now really difficult...

By David Hilmy (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

Test: This is David M.'s link using a redirector.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

OK, that worked.

Now trying the one, two links that got my comment dumped into moderation last month...

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

Huh, interesting. Sb seems to like tinyurl. Who knew?

Something different:

Trying David M's three links from #39 as internal URLs: one, two, three.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

Looks like that worked as well. If a link is to some scienceblog posting, you can leave off the "http://scienceblogs.com" (just be sure to begin your URL with a "/").

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

I had been looking forward to this special but honestly, now I'm even more disenchanted with the kind of thing Discovery cannel is putting out these days.

I am very sad for Mathew Wedel and for how science is being presented to those of us that care, but are not in the field, per se. Discovery channel seems to be getting worse rather than better when it comes to packaging real scientific information. :(

I've not read through all the comments yet but I thought I give my 2 cents as someone with a keen interest in these areas but lacking in the grad-level education (in this area).

Again, if I am making no sense right now - I blame the egg nog. ;)

By arachnophile (not verified) on 23 Dec 2009 #permalink

En mi opinión, los dinosaurios se convirtieron en posos petroleros o se extinguieron al rodar aparatosamente sobre la superficie de la tierra al presentarse el fenómeno fÃsico que hizo detener el giro rotacional de nuestro planeta a finales del cretáceo. Esto sucedió cuando el núcleo de un pequeño planeta que orbitaba entre venus y la tierra, se estrelló tangencialmente en el golfo de Mexico. El encuentro de la velocidad de rotación del planeta contra la velocidad de esta mole de hierro, hizo que la tierra detubiera la rotacion, inclinando el eje rotacional y elongando la orbita de la tierra. Puedo comprobar estos episodios de los cuales consecuentemente se desprenden otros fenómenos que no han sido estudiados por el hombre. atte. jordano: cientÃfico colombiano a espera de una respuesta.

By Jorge LuÃs ArÃ… (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

¡¡ Viva Velikovsky !!

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

Thq u Daren fr setting d links