Posts Tagged 'media'

And while we are on the subject…

While I’m wimbling about science reporting, here’s, for me, an encapsulation of two key issues. First go and read this. Now I’m all in favour of people selling science and being cool and an opportunity to sell the merits of footprints is great. But the piece has got it all backwards.

“The Polish discovery reveals that the ancestors of all birds were small, light and four-footed”. No. We knew that already. If we didn’t know that already we would not be abel to work out what the footprints belonged to. This merely shows that these animals were present at the time these tracks dat from. This is a pretty big misstep – the sun does not come up because it gets light in the morning, but the other way round.

This should be pretty obvious from the paper and, well, common sense. You need the skeleton to match to the footprint or an odd print is just an odd print.

The second problem is the fact that this is an editorial in the Guardian. These, if any, are the best of the Uk newspapers for science reporting (home as they are to George Moinbot, Bad Science, the Lay Scientist) and others. I would hope for and expect better of them. If they can’t even run their own pieces past their own experts for error then one must wonder a little at how luck rather than intent might have played a part in getting as good a team as they have assembled. No one is perfect of course, but such simple errors belie the amount of work there is still to do to even the best up to scratch on some basics.


More on science reporting

Those of you who saw this last week might be interested to know that it has been followed up. It’s well worth reading this follow-up article too and the author makes some good points. I get to feel a bit smug at this point by noting he mentions several things that I have long railed against (though people might listed to him more than me).

However, one thing stands out as missing in his analysis which was featured heavily in the original parody. He makes no mention of the problem of ‘balance’ – getting the ‘side of the story’ from people who don’t have a side / evidence / understanding of the issue. Science journalism is about science, not fringe group / new age / tin-foil hat nonsense. They don’t get a say in what is or is not good science or what work should / should not be done and you giving them space does not make for balance, it makes for uninformed people spouting rubbish and being given credibility by you for asking them and quoting them in the first place.

This is a serious problem with the worst of science reporting. Even if this is not that common as I have described it, even searching for an antagonistic quote from another researcher doesn’t help matters. Sure not all science is great and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of scepticism over a new result, but couching every story as a controversy neither builds public confidence in anything about science nor gives an accurate picture of what the work means.

Anyway, that’s my 2c. Go and read the articles.

Oh and since it seems a good time to mention it, don’t forget the PPC on your way to SVP.

Dave on dinosaurs

So I’ve done a little interview thingy for the general science and scepticism website The Twentyfirst Floor. It was fun to do though sadly interrupted by numerous breaks in the Skype connection. It was basically a micro intorduction to some of the more common misconceptions about dinosaurs as heldby the media and the public in general. As such it’s unlikely to be of great interest to the average Musings reader since it’s pretty simple stuff but if you want to listen to me chatting about dinosaur stuff, then go here. Mike Taylor or the legendary SV-POW! also did a piece on sauropods and the ODP.

Good and bad reporting

It does get boring simply recording and repeating mistakes made by those covering science inexpertly in the media, but when it happens so regularly and so confoundingly, it can be hard to avoid or resist. In this case I’ll prefix it with some better reporting.

Carl Zimmer is a consistently excellent science writer, and indeed concentrates on evolutionary biology. His blog is very good and his articles (whether for magazines or newspapers) are great and his books a good read while it is all accurate and informative. This time out he has a short review paper about communicating science and teaching (the whole thing is here). A couple of key quoters “Unfortunately, most reporters simply relayed hyperbolic quotes from their sources. They also demonstrated some deep misunderstandings about evolution” and “The number of skilled science writers who can report a story like this one with the proper skepticism is dwindling” bring me to the bad side once more.

The online arm of BBC news has sent a reporter out to a major dinosaur egg site in India. Naturally this is a local reporter and thus not a specialised science reporter. Nothing wrong with that, but one would also hope that a non-expert might just recognise their non-expert status and thus do a bit of fact checking or ask for some help. One can only assume not given what follows.

This is the offender “….Rajasaurus narmandensis or the regal reptile from Narmada. They say it belongs to the genus – subfamily – of the ferocious carnivore Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

OK, well first no italics, and then inconsistent / incorrect use of capitalisation in the species name. Not a good start and strongly suggests that the former name was cut and past from a document to ensure the spelling was correct and then T. rex was typed in incorrectly afterwards. However, the bizarre follow up is that confusion of genus and sub-family – the two are not synonymous obviously since, well, one’s a genus and one’s a subfamily. To make this still more odd, of course it’s not in the same genus as Tyrannosaurs, if it was, it would be a member of Tyrannosaurus! Rajasaurus is it’s own genus as you can tell because, well, it has a different generic name. And it’s not even a tyrannosaur, it’s an abelisaur. So somehow in 14 words two genera are confused, two families are confused and genus is made synonymous with subfamily and the names is written wrong and not italicised. Good work.

To cap it all off, the wonderful words “They say” is referring to scientists, thus squarely placing the blame on us for this mishmash of errors. Obviously this is not intended, but it doesn’t help when you are this wrong that you give clear credit to people who clearly did not say such a thing. Really, was it too hard to Google the actual name of the animal you are reporting on?

Is story colour at the expense of accuracy OK?

I’m of the opinion that journalists need to be careful to record facts as facts and opinion as opinion. Blurring the two is problematic as it can imply that something that’s little more than a hunch is based on empirical data, or that supposedly empirical data is in fact just a good guess. However, there are other aspects to reporting where the issues are less clear.

It’s routine for example that quotes by a person be broken up and distributed around a story to give it a better read. The sentences uttered in interview or in correspondence might appear on the page in a different order to originally given, or bits snipped or tweaked to make them more readable. Ideally the person being quoted should have the chance to approve these things, but I appreciate that it’s not always possible. Certainly I have seen multiple outlets provide direct quotes attributes to someone that are clearly different from each other and the actual original words. They might all capture the substance of the comments and be generally accurate and stylistically correct, but they are quite definitely not the direct and exact words spoken as the use of  ” “s would indicate.

Similarly, the use of colour in a story often seems to be just created out of nothing. The kind of thing where they want to provide a scene or give a human angle to the story, “It has been a long and hard time in the field, but on the last day, they struck gold”, “deep in the basement of the institute, researchers pour over their latest discoveries” etc.  I’ve seen a number of these that are simply fabricated since that are about research projects I was involved in and they didn’t happen. They are either assumed to have happened (which seems lazy at best) or were made up (which is clearly incorrect practice as far as I’m concerned).

In both these cases I must say this practice bothers me. It implies truth and accuracy where it is simply not the case. The words were not spoken like that in this way, and the supposed events to provide colour are assumed at best, inaccurate or indeed fabricated at worst. This does seem to be pervasive and all but considered normal practice, but should it be? I can see an argument that it does no real harm and draws in the reader / makes things clearer or cleaner etc. but to me this simply does not wash. You are there to provide the facts and explain the facts. Even if ancillary to the point, these things are incorrect. If you don’t know, don’t guess or make it up. You are a journalist, it’s your *job* to find these things out. If the quotes don’t work, then paraphrase or discuss them (or get some new ones), don’t rewrite them to suit the story and claim they are genuine. It might not be critical to the story (i.e. the facts of the science) but surely it is a measure of trust between the reader and the writer that those things actually happened (however incidental). If they did not, it’s hard for me to escape the simple conclusion that this is not to be trusted.

Has the media worked out it’s a civet? Not yeti they haven’t…

So I couple of weeks ago I wrote about the ‘Oriental yeti‘ (itself redundant really) story in the media. What was, and remains, rather obviously a normal mammal (and many people have independently pinned down as most likely being a civet) suffering from mange. I noted that the story was pure hyperbole and built on not only the ignorance of the media spreading the story, but also their apparent refusal to do the obvious thing and actually ask someone who might know what it was. Instead, the opposite was effectively true as the phrase ‘scientists baffled’ did the rounds. They weren’t baffled, they simply weren’t asked.

I suggested that once the news broke that it was in fact not interesting at all, it would either be ignored, or the scientists might come in for further criticism for apparently not having got it right immediately. Well, 2 weeks have passed with no word from anyone. It should take only a cursory glance at the real animal to see what it is, and the alleged DNA tests that were to take place should really have been done by now, even if they were no ones’ priority. It was not said which lab said animal was going to be sent to or who would look at it, so it’s hard to find out what happened exactly, but since it is (i rather assume) the job or journalists to find things out as well as report on them, then it doesn’t look like anyone has been trying very hard to follow it up.

What I can say is that after a couple of weeks there has been no new news story on the animal since it initially broke. No follow ups have appeared anywhere that I can find. Good ‘ol Google is quite revealing – search for “Oriental Yeti” and you get more than 215 000 hits. Add ‘civet’ to that and you get less than 6000.

That’s quite a difference and really illustrates the power of the media to spread misinformation and poor science (however unwittingly or unintentionally).  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions or even tens of millions, of people will have seen the story about the baffled scientists and the incredible / bizarre new animal. A few tens of thousand might have heard that it’s just a mangy civet. Even if the media do know by now, they clearly aren’t in any hurry to follow this story up and publicise the fact that they clearly presented something very boring as very interesting, that they didn’t bother to (or apparently even consult) any actual scientists on the subject and had (if somewhat lightly) accused them of not working out what it was in the first place.

This of course massively distorts the information going out, but also the distribution of that information. You know, you just *know* that there will be people out there, years or even decades from now, saying “well they never worked out what that Chinese thing was, did they?”. They’ll assume that this has remained a mystery or was something new when it was commonplace. This distorts the scientific process, the work and attitudes of scientists to this work, and paints a very unflattering picture of their abilities.

People worked out what this was minutes after the story broke and 2 weeks on there has been no correction, no follow up, no new stories, no (dare i say it?) journalism. And that’s how the media cover science. Great eh?

Barriers to effective science communication

Jim Kirkland flagged up this interview with scientist turned film director Randy Olson which you can listen to here. Randy’s central tenet is that scientists are not very good communicators because they tend to try and express facts rather than tell stories that might engage people better – we can do substance, but not style.

To a degree, he has a point, people can always improve their skills and obviously I do think this area is important. However, I take a bit of umbrage with the idea that scientists are, de facto, bad communicators. Many are clearly not, and be definition the better ones often rise to the top – I can think of plenty who do or have done lots of good science communication. I can also think of plenty of others who I know are or could be great communicators but are not given the opportunity and that brings me to my central point here.

In my experiences and from what I have seen, there are far greater and more pervasive and profound problems than some (or even most) researchers being poor communicators. There is often a general or even specific lack of support for efforts in communication from whole departments and institutes, or even colleagues. You can find yourself actively dissuaded from taking time and effort towards sci comms. Even if not, then the sheer pressures that face many researchers mean that such considerations are relegated to the last thing to do of a very full and constantly growing list. When you couple that with the all too familiar stories of horrendous media handling of science (everything from terrible misunderstandings of absolute basics right through to fabrication of stories and deliberate misrepresentation of research) that puts a tremendous filter between the researcher and the public then is any of this a wonder?

Are scientists truly bad at communicating or just inhibited from being able to do so, and wary of a near hostile media, hide behind facts rather than let slip anything that could be misconstrued or spun out of context? Where are the funds to allow researchers to visit schools and amateur groups, where are the bursaries to let them take time off to write books or articles, where is the allotted time in their contracts to allow them to do this work? It is such a low priority that these provisions are rarely, if ever, made (and if they are out there, I’ve seen very little evidence of them).This is as much, if not far more, of a handicap than some being less good at communicating than they could be.

Sensationalising nothing

In the UK papers at least, this story has been doing the rounds. A hunter in China has trapped something rather odd looking and instantly all kinds of stupid is being stated about it. Wild speculation doesn’t even seem to be least of what I’ve spotted. ‘Last of its kind’, ‘new species’, ‘unlike anything else’ and more. Most annoyingly, the Times lead with a headline ‘scientists baffled’.

This is just sensationalist nonsense and indeed, all but libellous. Read the story and they reveal that the thing is still where it was captured and has yet to be sent for researchers to view. And there are no quotes for any researchers anywhere, just the hunter who caught it. Obviously ‘scientists are apparently baffled by something they haven’t seen yet and may not even know exists’ would be an infinitely more accurate headline. Claiming ignorance of a third party is not really fair.

Of course once you cut out the wild speculation and look at the (limited) evidence things become much clearer. I’m no expert on Chinese mammals, but some things here are obvious and they demonstrate only the ignorance and credulity of the reporting, not the apparent and alleged bafflement of researchers. A decent mammalogist will probably identify this in second.

So what do we know? First off, this animal has mange or some horrid skin condition. Some fur remains, but mostly it’s gone and so too are the whiskers. The skin is in poor condition too, emphasising that this is likely a disease, not a natural pattern. It’s also from central China, though that as a statement doesn’t narrow the range down much, or the local climate / environment.

Well, there’s no scale bar, but the wire on the cage is thin and the general shape of the shot makes it look like a small animal, maybe 2-3 feet total length. It’s also probably a carnivoran of some kind, but not a cat (wrong face, and the claws are not retracted) and not an otter either (too long a face, no webbing). It’s probably not a dog of some kind either given that the hind legs look much longer than the fore (a good look at the teeth would really help sort this out).  The body looks too stocky for a typical small mustelid like a weasel or somesuch. This leaves us with larger things like badgers, or my current best guess, a binturong (since it’s the largest civet in China I can think of with round ears). (Late break, the Guardian happily savage much of this nonsense and suggest it’s a civet, and of course demonstarte that scientists are not baffled by actually asking one).

I could be quite wrong, and without my mammal books and more information it’s hard to be sure. None of the supposedly weird and wonderful characteristics make any sense. The kangaroo-like tail cannot be seen, and in any case a wide variety of animals have surprisingly bulky and muscular tails once the fur is missing (especially arboreal ones). The strange noises are probably the result of this being an unusual animal, that is seriously ill, being dumped in a small cage for people to stare at. Lots of even very common animals make odd noises when stressed.

Now, this might be a new species, it’s always possible. But it does look like a generalised carnivoran / mustelid even from a single, bad photo with limited ancillary information. I’ll be most surprised if this turns out to be anything unusual at all. The supposedly unique and bizarre features are noting of the kind and what can be seen all fits with what we know about Asian mammals in general.

So in short, someone who knows nothing about basic anatomy or living mammals (even less than me, imagine that) and cannot spot a catastrophic disease assumes that this is weird and wonderful and will baffle anyone else who sees it. Then sensationalises said non-information and profound ignorance into the *most read* story on the Times website. Ask someone with just a bit of biological knowledge and they’d point out just how unlikely this is to be anything new or exciting. It’s also depressingly familiar to the ‘sasquatch’ that turned out to be a mangy bear a years or so back, and the ‘monster’ that was just a dead raccoon – this has happened very publicly before. What’s more, I can pretty much guarantee that when this does turn out to be something really not very interesting, there will be no coverage of this at all, and if there is, (based on previous experience) this might well be blamed on those same ‘previously baffled’ scientists who now are spoiling the fun.

It’s easy to be overly critical of these things but it’s hard to see their value. Is this turns out to be new and interesting, great, there’s a story there. But even the most basic bit of actual journalism (i.e. asking someone who knows even a bit about mammals) would reveal just how unlikely this is. It’s simply a non-story. There’s no evidence beyond ignorance that it is anything odd or unusual and the information that is available suggests that it isn’t. Yet, it’s spun into the most amazing and unusual thing in years which will turn out to be a great new discovery.

To praise, not to bury

Thanks to Linheraptor, Xixianykus and the feeding traces,I think I have been dealing directly more with the media in the last three weeks than the preceding three years. While it could be considered true that on occasion I might be less than impressed with the media coverage of science (and with good reason), I have also encountered a new raft of writers who have gone to the trouble of actually fact checking, asking for information, reading papers, communicating things accurately, not turning ‘maybes’ into ‘dids’ and more.

Of course, not everything written makes it into print and I’m aware of several stories that never made it. As such, some of the better things done by better people are not out there and I can’t link to them. This is especially ironic given that in a number of cases this appears to be becuase the editor didn’t think the story was good enough, despite the fact that dozens of other news outlets ran the story, typically by cribbing it from someone else and making it less accurate. Thanks.

Even so, some did make it and here are a few of them. Here. Here. And here.

Jaded and cynical, moi?

I’ve just had the rather singular experience of being told that an article on my work is unlikely to be published because apparently I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the paper it was based on. I can see the logic, but equally it’s a bit of a surprise. Obviously I really like my job and I like working on dinosaurs and talking about dinosaurs (and pterosaurs too). However, I do this all day every day. The paper in question is based on some pretty poor material that I found two years ago and went through several rather delayed bits of review to get into the journal.

Is it really much of a wonder that I can’t necessarily motivate much interest in an e-mail conversation on something that for me has all but passed by? Sure I’m interested in it and I think it will interest me, but if the magazine has gone to the trouble of writing the article, one rather assumes that they think their readers will be interested in it. Surely my apparent lack of enthusiasm need not prevent them saying it’s interesting if they think it is? In any case, it’s not like I think it’s bad, I think it’s quite cool, but it’s not rendered uninteresting because I don’t say it’s the most fantabulous amazing discovery ever.

On a not unrelated note, any budding palaeoartists out there who want some exposure, other journos are bugging me about this paper and want some graphics. If you have artwork of a Velociraptor or Protoceratops or something similar (Tsaagan, Bagaceratops etc.) and are willing for it to be used please let me know. I cannot, of course, promise the story will be published or even the images will be used and you are very unlikely to get paid, but it might well bring you a bit of exposure to your work. E-mails to the usual address please.

The Musings have been a bit quiet of late as I’ve been very busy with various visitors and having internet troubles, but hopefully that’s behind now. More proper posts soon.

Linheraptor vs the international media

I was not too involved in the PR stuff done for Linheraptor, but after previous experiences with the press (and in the light of this recent, and superb, article) I am interested and intrigued as to just how these stories get circulated and written up to appear in the media. As before, there seemed to be several errors that were introduced early on (and it’s really not clear how) by some newsies which were then replicated and / or added to in subsequent generations of stories. Muller’s ratchet seems to apply to science journalism.

For example:

- The main photo of the cast of Linheraptor was said to be the original specimen by just about everyone, even by those who I e-mailed the photo to directly, telling them it was a cast, and not the original.

- Similarly, this photo was credited to the Journal Zootaxa in which the paper appeared and not me who took the image. This is odd, since again, I sent out the image saying I took it, and with a copy of the paper in which said photo obviously does not appear.

- While losing out here, happily I was credited with creating the life reconstruction that Matt van Rooijen did for us despite him having signed it, and his name appearing in all the source information sent out the media.

- The American Jonah Choiniere and British (admittedly via Hong Kong) Mike Pittman were credited as being Chinese students in at least one source too.

- The new taxon was described as being the nearest relative of Velociraptor, despite the fact that this is explicitly not what the paper says and several people even lifted quotes directly from the paper saying this was not the case.

- Finally (of the things I have spotted and am bothering to list here, I can’t help but rather suspect there are a few more out there) apparently we were able to tell this was a new dromaeosaur because of the shape of the raptorial claw which is nonsense.

You do wonder how some of these people continue to keep hold of a job. All they seem to do is recycle each others words incorrectly and somehow make a career of it. Nice work if you can get it, but since no one else seems to realise they are doing it badly, it carries on. Really how hard is it to copy someone’s name from an e-mail into an article, or check all of 2 figures in the paper to see that they are different from the photo in front of you. And when the correct information is available in the paper, in the press release and as an online resource, why are you copying from third and fourth hand sources in the first place? Really, I want to know. How are they doing this? ‘Pushed for time’ doesn’t really cut as an excuse when you are only writing 200 words or are 3 days behind everyone else on the story.

Superb article on science communication

Well worth five minutes of anyone’s time. Go read it. And here’s a nice satirical view of (sadly) what usually happens.

Both via Bad Science.

And while we’re on the subject, I’m still looking for nice archosaur photos for the Musings, and nice ‘anything biological at all’ photos for the new and improved (and very nearly here) Ask A Biologist. E-mails to the usual address please.

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