No, that’s not hyperbole. We really have a stinker here. Allow me to elaborate: as some of you may be aware, a paper came out this week covering a pterosaur trace fossil of an animal landing – in other words, it came into land after a flight and then walked off. I don’t often cover new papers on here, and don’t always cover even my own so no marks are lost for having missed it. Anyway, this got some coverage in the media and I was quoted in several stories about the paper. Here is one of the originals and it’s worth reading so that you can get some context for later.
Then I found this online. Oh dear. For all my recent complaints about the media, hopefully at least some of you will have noted that I did have some nice things to say about the stories in general and emphasised that while many are woefully bad, some stories are very good. This is genuinely one of the worst excesses I have seen of media screw-ups. I can only conclude that they read one of the original stories and then tried to change it so that it looked a bit different (since I wasn’t quoted on the press release they must have taken my quotes from a piece by Charles Choi, the only person I spoke to about this).
In doing so they fell for every classic error I complain about. They copy stuff indiscriminately, they get things wrong, they misattribute things and add errors and here, even contradictions. It really is horrendous, and, to cap it all, it was written by the sites science editor! Their only possible defence is that they are a software website, but for me this would be pitiful – if you report enough on science to require a titled editor you should get it right. Hell, if you are doing *anything* like this you should get it right (or very nearly right, everyone makes mistakes and you can’t always go into the detail you want). This is another level though, and allow me to elaborate more.
Let’s start with the title which includes ‘preferred’. Occasional anthropomorphism aside, this implies a choice was made – pterosaurs went for their runways as a matter of choice. Not true and not stated anywhere by anyone. Underneath it says “The conclusion belongs to a new scientific study” which to me is just poor English as well as being generally incorrect since the study doesn’t say this. In any case, how would you know? – this is the first example and you cannot extrapolate for a data point of one. Incidentally the English is dodgy throughout and I suspect the author is a non-native speaker and while this may not be his fault as such, if you are writing for an English-language website then I have little sympathy.
Next there is the top left with the image, one of Mark Witton’s that they have used without permission (so I understand) and certainly without credit (though I’ll admit I’m not sure why it was on Wikicommons). If you click on it there is a bit of text that says that pterosaurs only flew when they had to, though who knows where they got that from and that it is eating a lizard which is of course a sauropod.
The first word of the article is “Archaeologists”. This one AGAIN. Palaeontologists are not archaeologists. Not are they “Anthropologists” which also turns up later on. The word palaeontologist never turns up at all! Still in the same sentence we are told that pterosaurs are the ancestors of birds. No, no, no, no and no. And no. They then say that the track is very rare which should be obvious given that it is the first one ever discovered, good investigative journalism there. Still in the opening paragraph we get ‘proto-birds’ and then a horribly mangled sentence of “did not leave a massive imprint on the ground, such as the largest dinosaurs that ever roamed the Earth, the 50-tonne sauropods, did, LiveScience reports” horribly mangling my own quote while entertainingly revealing where they cribbed all this stuff from.
Moving on we are told that they have “two-foot-long feet” which will be a big surprise as the wingspan was probably only around 3 feet. Were they wearing skis? I think they mean the *track* is two feet long, but this is not what they say.
Now we get a stunning line where they seem to manage to think that the term pterosaur refers to a species (or think they are all the same size) while calling them flying lizards. So birds are pterosaurs which are lizards. Awesome! In the following ‘anthropologist’ sentence we are told that this track shows a take off and landing trace which is wrong, they only land. The original report they quote from even says that scientists now want to find a take-off trace as well which they clearly missed.
The next bit is fine, presumably because they copied it nearly wholesale and thus failed to screw anything up including lifting quotes directly. However, not to worry as in the last paragraph they manage to say that pterosaurs had great flight control and flight capabilities which rather contradicts their opening gambit that they only flew when necessary.
So there you have it, an absolute litany of crass basic errors that have been introduced for no apparent reason despite the whole thing being an obvious cut-and-paste hatchet job of an article which they even cite as the source. Quotes mangled, image appropriated, contradictions introduced and basic misunderstandings abound. This really is absolutely horrible. The only obvious thing I expect was the ‘pterosaurs are dinosaurs’ schtick which they avoided only by calling them birds and lizards. Genius. Good work lads, now, please never, ever write anything about science ever again. Because if you can’t even get this kind of stuff right, then I can only pray that you never have to cover string theory.
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