Science Journalism FAIL: Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs

So I saw Clash of the Dinosaurs on Discovery last week. Even as science-curious-layperson I picked out a few things that I could tell production took liberties with. And the repetition of the same CGI was annoying. Here's a blog post by Matt Wedel, one of the 'talking heads' from the show illustrating how bad some science journalism can be.

Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs
December 15, 2009 - by Matt Wedel

So I finally got to see the Discovery Channel’s new series, Clash of the Dinosaurs. The show follows the common Discovery Channel MO of cutting between CGI critters and talking heads. I’m one of the talking heads, and I get a lot of air time, and I suppose I should be happy about that. But I’m not, for reasons I’ll explain.

I need to preface what follows by saying that I thought the other talking heads did a great job. My experience suggests that the scientific problems with the series didn’t originate with the scientists, infrasound weapons excepted. Tom Holtz–another of the talking heads, and a good one–nailed it on the DML:

For those going to watch the show, a warning: The documentarians often take anything that any of the talking heads speculated about, and transformed these into declarative statements of fact. In some cases this is particularly egregious, because I strongly disagree with some of these statements and believe the facts are against some of these (say, about tyrannosaurid cranial kinesis…) and they present these as facts rather than suppositions.


In the fall of 2008 the folks at Dangerous Ltd, a London-based film production company, asked me if I’d be interested in being part of a new documentary project, which had the working title “Dino Body” (this isn’t a trade secret or anything, that title was on the Dangerous webpage for months). The grand idea was to show how much we’ve learned about how dinosaurs actually lived.

Now, this is something I care about a lot. In the past couple of decades we’ve learned about the physiology, diets, nesting habits, growth rates, and social lives of dinosaurs, in unprecedented detail. Things no one predicted and that I would have bet heavily against, like burrowing dinosaurs, four-winged raptors, and comparative studies of dinosaur and pterosaur genomes, are backed by solid evidence. We are in a golden age of dinosaur paleobiology, and new discoveries, even new kinds of discoveries, are stacking up faster than I can really keep up. So it would be a great time to bring all this new evidence to the public.

In the late 2008 and early 2009 I spent a LOT of time with the people at Dangerous Pictures, going over all kinds of questions about dinosaur biology. I sent them papers, links to blog posts, diagrams, you name it. They seemed really keen to get the science right, and I was hopeful that we’d get a dinosaur documentary that wasn’t overly speculative sensationalized BS.

Sadly, that hope was to be mercilessly crushed.

Deja vu

The series has some obvious faults. It is incredibly repetitive, to the point that I found it hard to watch for any length of time without my attention wandering. Not just the CGI clips, but the narration as well. You’ll learn in 30 seconds why females tend to be choosier about mates than males (eggs are more expensive than sperm), and spend the next 15 minutes having that slowly beaten in your brain using as much empty verbiage as possible. Ditto every other fact on the show.

More galling are the places where animation is cleverly cut with talking head bits so that we end up describing things that were never in the script. I explained on camera about the unavoidably high mortality among juvenile sauropods, and how groups of Deinonychus could probably pick off the baby sauropods like popcorn. I had been speaking of hatchlings, but my words are cut together with a scene–which you’ll see about 15,000 times–of three Deinonychus taking down an elephant-sized subadult Sauroposeidon. In the real world, it would have pulped them. In the dramatically-lit world of Clash of the Dinosaurs, the three raptors inflict a handful of very shallow flesh wounds with their laughably tiny claws and the Sauroposeidon expires theatrically for no visible reason.

(If they really wanted to impress the audience with the implacability of Mesozoic death, they would have shown the three raptors mowing down a field of newly-hatched babies like so much wheat…)

I spent a long time explaining the evidence that sauropods buried their eggs, and at their request I mocked up diagrams showing the possible proportions of a hatchling Sauroposeidon. So naturally the program shows a mother abandoning her eggs in an exposed nest, and then a few minutes later, hatchlings that are perfect miniatures of the adults struggling up out of the ground. I guess they cut the scene in which the Sand Fairy buried the eggs, and lacked the budget to perform the simple morph of the digital model that would have made the babies look like babies, instead of ponderous adults emerging from the Sarlacc pit.

Some may complain that I am picking nits. But what the heck is the point of bringing on scientific advisors if you’re then going to ignore the stuff they tell you? Why not just make the crap up out of the whole cloth? In fact, there is far too much of that in the show. There is no evidence that Quetzalcoatlus could see dinosaur pee with its ultraviolet vision, or that a herd of hadrosaurs could knock over a predator with their concentrated infrasound blasts. Sorry, paleontologists, you’ll be fielding questions about these newly invented “facts” for the next decade at least.

It’s like I had this great working relationship with the researchers, and they were really curious and careful, and we went to great lengths to do the best work we could, and then somewhere in between my filming back in February and the airing of the completed show, all of our diligent work was flushed right down the crapper, and a fresh script was written by a hyperactive child whose only prior preparation was reading Giant-Size X-Men and getting hit on the head a few times.

Do I sound too harsh? I’m just getting started. Let me tell you about the sacral expansion in sauropods.

Back in the Back in the Day

In many sauropods and stegosaurs and a few other archosaurs, the neural canal (the bony tube that houses the spinal cord) is massively enlarged in the sacral vertebrae. This is the origin of the goofy idea that big dinosaurs had a “second brain” back there to control their hind end, because the real brain up front was (supposedly) just too darn tiny and remote. The researchers at Dangerous asked me about this sacral enlargement, and this is what I told them (quoted from an e-mail I sent November 25, 2008):

The sacro-lumbar expansion is possibly the most misunderstood thing in sauropod biology. First, there are two separate things that have been referred to as sacro-lumbar expansions. The first is the slight swelling of the spinal cord in that region in almost all vertebrates, including humans, to accomodate the neurons that help run the hind limbs (you also have a swelling in the spinal cord at the base of your neck to help run your arms). Contrary to popular belief, a lot of your stereotyped actions require little direct involvement from the brain and are instead controlled by the spinal cord. When you walk, for example, most of the motor control is handled by the spinal cord, and your brain only steps in when you have to actually worry about where to place your feet–when you step over a puddle, for example. So there would be nothing remarkable about sauropods using their spinal cords to drive many of their limb movements, this is something that pretty much all vertebrates do, it’s just not widely known to the public. [Aside: this is true. Also, I have heard it claimed that sauropods could not have reared because their brains were too small to coordinate such an action. This was claimed by a non-biologist who evidently doesn't know how the nervous system works.]

The other sacro-lumbar expansion really is an expansion, but it’s not unique to sauropods and it has nothing to do with running the hind limbs. Most birds have a very large expansion of the spinal cord in the sacro-lumbar region called the glycogen body. As the name implies, it stores energy-rich glycogen, but the function of the glycogen body is very poorly understood. It has been hypothesized to be an accessory organ of balance, or a reservoir of compounds to support the growth and maintenance of the nervous system. Since we don’t even know what it does in birds, we’re straight out of luck when it comes to figuring out what it did in sauropods. Here’s a brief overview.

Here’s an explanatory diagram I sent with the message:

This business about the glycogen body caused some consternation and dithering in the production process. They wanted to bring up the second brain because it’s so entrenched in the popular consciousness (i.e., bad dinosaur books), but they were unhappy that the real explanation turned out to be so unsatisfying (“We don’t know what it does, but not that!”). In the end, we did discuss it briefly on camera. I said something like, “There was this old idea that the sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail. But in fact, it almost certainly contained a glycogen body, like the sacral expansions of birds. Trouble is, nobody knows exactly what the glycogen bodies of birds do.”

Somebody in the editing room neatly sidestepped the mystery of the glycogen body by cutting that bit down, so what I am shown saying in the program is this, “The sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail.” I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have a DVR, but that’s basically it. (Update: my memory was pretty good. Here’s the interview transcript.)

Do you see, do you understand, what they did there? I was explaining why an old idea was WRONG and they cut away the frame and left me presenting the discredited idea like it’s hot new science. How freaking unethical is that?

So. I don’t know if the decision to turn my words around 180 degrees was a mistake made by an individual editor, or if it was approved from someplace higher up the line. I aim to find out. Until I do, I’m boycotting Dangerous Ltd, and I encourage you to do likewise.

The Final Insult

Oh, and they spelled my name wrong, throughout. And also mispelled Sauroposeidon in one of the quiz bits at commercial time. “What does Sauroposeiden mean?” It means you don’t know the Greek pantheon, sauropods, or basic spellchecking, dumbasses.

Science journalism FAIL.

Views: 25

Comment by Dave G on December 18, 2009 at 11:09am
Sad, but unfortunately not unexpected from the Discovery channel.
Comment by Shine on December 18, 2009 at 2:10pm
Things like this are really frustrating for those of us who didn't choose to be science majors. Because my classes are entirely of the liberal arts persuasion, my interest in science is only satisfied through a layperson's access to books, journals, and television. It is disappointing to find that most "science documentaries" are little more than nonfiction Hollywood productions.
Comment by Aric on December 18, 2009 at 4:13pm
I agree with Dave. Discovery channel kind of just does whatever they want with little regard for facts.
Comment by Danielle on December 19, 2009 at 2:11pm
Discovery Channel is starting to become on par with the History Channel for me.
Comment by Johnny on December 21, 2009 at 3:12pm
Jeff pointed out a related link to me; I thought it was good enough to add in here. Thanks Jeff!

Scientist tries to communicate with public, gets quote-mined instead
December 17, 2009 5:00 PM, by Brian Switek

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 tel.... 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.

Comment by Dave G on December 21, 2009 at 3:42pm
Good link, Johnny


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