The title of this post is perhaps blindingly obvious to the vast majority of the readers here – we all know that bongo are antelope, but not all antelope are bongo, mackerel are fish, but not all fish are mackerel and well, ad infinitum for the whole of biology really. Now, I do appreciate that with palaeontological names (and those in general without ‘common’, non-Latinised names) this can get trickier (so zebras are indeed within the genus Equus and are equids, though of course, not all equids / equines / equoids are in Equus!) and those little endings (-inae, -ines, -ids and more) complicate things but still, there does seem to be an annoying and unending confusion that somehow family etc. names are basically synonymous with species and generic names. This is no more obvious than with that most ubiquitous of dinosaurs in the media, Tyrannosaurus.
I really could not even begin to try and count how many times I see reports that refer to Tyrannosaurus, when they mean tyrannosaur. It is annoying as it can confuse things (tyrannosaurs have a good distribution in time and space, Tyrannosaurus does not, so saying you have an Asian Jurassic Tyrannosaurus is out). This for me (in terms of writing this piece) has come to a head with the reporting on Raptorex which for those who missed it is a new, small Asian tyrannosaur. In addition to the age old and very annoying ‘ancestor issue’ an unending stream of media reports called this animal “a new Tyrannosaurus” (italics and ‘rex’ are optional, see various reports for examples).
To go back to my well worn ‘rant hat’ and lay into the media once more, I really do understand that even many science journalists are not, and cannot, be experts in every field of science. However, this is absolutely basic biology and thus I think reasonable to expect them to get it right. I did the basic KPCOFGS stuff at school aged about 10, and while obviously taxonomy is more complex than that, journalists should be able to distinguish between a Latin binomial and an anglicised family name. They should be able to of course, but clearly almost none of them can. This is not hard and in the UK at least is taught as basic science to kids who are not yet teenagers. Getting it wrong therefore is pretty near inexcusable – if you can’t tell the difference between a species and a family, I’m not going to be brimming with confidence that you can tell an electron from an atom or a county from a country, let alone absorb, digest and accurately regurgitate the latest papers on quantum theory or cancer research.
Whether you are nodding in agreement at this point or shaking your head matters not as you can head here and listen to both sides in a debate on science journalism and its effects between Ben Goldacre of Bad Science and the UK minister of science, Lord Drayson. And in a similar vein, check out this handy little guide to reading and understanding media stories on health.