Since I spend so much time berating the media for their terrible coverage of dinosaur-related stories I thought I should try and add a little positivity / advice rather than *just* slating them. In that light then, here are a few errors that seem to be made time after time after time and should be really easy to fix. Obviously I doubt I have many, if any, readers who are also science journalists (of the kind that make lots of basic errors, many are very good) but a) you never know your luck and b) I might just use this in the future when I next send out a press release to try and get things straight. This is, I am sure, very obvious to many, but these kinds of errors occur too often for it to be chance alone, so a few pointers may prove helpful (and will likely be of interest to other readers too).
Put the story in the context of the current evidence
Few discoveries are made in isolation. There is a ton of evidence, fossils, and papers already out there and the subject is likely much discussed already. Sure the new paper is interesting and exciting (or you wouldn’t be covering it) but don’t pretend that this is groundbreaking or original when in fact it demonstrates an idea first floated a century ago. The new study might be critical, but it’s unlikely to be that new and ignoring previous work is unfair.
Don’t confuse new evidence / analysis / specimens with a new species
A new specimen does not necessarily mean a new species, and a new species does not necessarily mean a new specimen. Names and identities get changed with taxonomic revisions and new species can be discovered in old bones. Anchiornis is a good case in point, the Nature paper that got all the media coverage was based around two new specimens, but every newspaper described it as a new species. But it had been named 6 months previously and was not new. The specimens were new and the evidence of the exact age was new, but not the taxon.
Don’t misuse the term ‘proof’ and absolutes in general
Science, and especially palaeontology, does not deal in absolutes. Outside of maths, you’ll be hard pressed to find a researcher who says that ‘X proves Y’, or ‘X shows Y must be wrong’ etc. Don’t do it. Yes, you need to make things clear to the readers, but the phrase ‘provides convincing evidence that’ is only a little longer than ‘proves that’ and is far more accurate.
Don’t assume that evidence for X is also evidence against Y
The new paper might show that say, Tyrannosaurs was a good predator, but this does not mean that it was not a scavenger. Biological systems are complex and few things operate in one way alone. Unless the researchers have done the work to test that the other possibilities are false, don’t assume that evidence for X rules out the other possibilities. We can hold things with our hands, but we also signal with them, and use them to make tools, and to help us feed, and climb etc.
Don’t generate a false controversy
Someone will likely disagree with what is being said in the new paper and researchers are understandably sceptical of new ideas. They might think it’s a stroke of genius, but are still likely to be lukewarm if asked for a quote until they have dug through all the details and had time to mull it over, discuss it with colleagues and check some more papers. Don’t take this as a sign that it’s wrong or bad science and don’t make it look out to be that way. Certainly don’t deliberately hunt down contradictory quotes and generate strawmen for others to pull down. Science is about consensus NOT balance, so seeking out an alternative point of view does not necessarily make things better (and indeed rarely does). Most important of all, don’t portray all researchers as flip-flops just because two different groups disagree on a point. It means they disagree and are trying to thrash out a controversial point, not that the whole of science is going ‘Yes! No, I mean yes. Or not’. This is of course made worse by saying that each side has ‘proof’.
Don’t confuse species and genera (or other groups) and get the capitalisation / italics right
Tyrannosaurus is a genus, rex the species. Both should be in italics, but only the generic name should be capitalised. You can reduce this to T.rex but the capitalisation and italics should remain the same. If we discover a new close relative of Tyrannosaurus called Newosaurus this is a new genus. It is a new genus of tyrannosaur not a new Tyrannosaurus. If we discover a new Tyrannosaurus species, it would be named as Tyrannosaurus newspecies.
Don’t talk about ancestors
In palaeontology we don’t deal with ancestors, but with ‘nearest relatives’. The point is a technical and complex one, but to use the term ‘ancestor’ is, essentially, incorrect so just don’t do it. It’s an understandable (if unhelpful) error at times, but it’s massively overused and in my experience frustrates the scientists and genuinely confused the public as they always seem to assume that it’s an *immediate* ancestor.
Do google / research even the basics
Research progresses, often very quickly, and ideas and data can become out of date quite quickly. You don’t have to be up-to-the-minute accurate and most paleontologists will forgive you missing out something like Amphicoelias when talking about the ‘biggest’ dinosaurs but announcing that Diplodocus was the biggest dinosaur when there are probably a dozen bigger taxa and other have been known since the early 1900s is not so good. Too many people who probably really should have known better have talked about swimming duckbills, lake-dwelling sauropods, tail-dragging tyrannosaurs, and called pterosaurs ‘flying dinosaurs’ too often. Some of these ideas were out of date 50 years ago or more, so repeating them is pretty bad. And when checking, pick something credible and don’t just lift things from wikipedia or the first site you come across.
At some level of course animals want to do things, but they run on instinct, not conciousness. Tyrannosaurus did not ‘want’ or ‘like’ to hunt. It needed to in order to feed and survive. Similarly, while it’s fine conversationally, the rise of creationism and ID means that terms like ‘believe’ and ‘designed’ should be avoided. I say both often in the context of science but when I say ‘I believe Tyrannosaurus was a predator’ what I mean is that I have read and assessed the evidence and in my opinion, this is the best explanation of the data available. Even if a researcher uses this in a quote, think about changing it (with their permission and knowledge) to something like ‘the evidence supports’ or ‘I think that’ or similar. Equally the word ‘design’ can and should be swapped for the more scientific and evolutionary relevant ‘adapted’ (‘these teeth are well adapted for cutting’ rather than ‘designed for cutting’).
There are plenty more things I’d like to see (like getting the actual taxon names right, the authors’ country of origin, not speaking to the cranks, etc.) but these are, I hope, relatively quick and simple to change or more often simply not do, that would not affect the style or tone of any article, but would significantly improve the accuracy of the report. As such I’d hope these would not be considered difficult or complex points to heed.
Share this Post