“Some palaeontologists think…”

This insidious phrase really ought to be banned when people are writing about dinosaurs (though to be fair it seems to be true about pretty much any aspect of science if you just substitute in ‘scientists’). Not only is it a horribly hackneyed and tired cliche, but in my experience it only ever occurs immediately before one of two kinds of follow up statements, both of which are nearly equally misleading. In addition to the problem of ‘think’ being used as a rather inaccurate replacement for ‘have evidence for’, the problem is that ‘some’ is such an indeterminate word and can account from anything from 1-99% of people, though of course most people would use is for a middling or far from overwhelming sum like 30-70%. This is where the problems begin:

The first is where this phrase is then be followed by something that is about as true as you can be in palaeontology. Something like “Some palaeontologists think birds evolved from dinosaurs”, or “Some palaeontologists think that a meteor may have been involved in the extinction of the dinosaurs”. The problem here is that ‘some’ sounds like ‘not many’ when of course ‘all’ or ‘nearly all’ or ‘the overwhelming majority’ would be far more accurate. To even imply that this is a minority view, or even less than pretty much absolute is rather inaccurate to say the least.

Quite possibly worse though is the opposite, where the phrase is followed by a view that is either profoundly wrong, or supported only by the most minor of fringe researchers, or even just non-scientific cranks. Again, statements like “Some palaeontologists think that dinosaurs evolved from fish” or “Some palaeontologists think that dinosaurs were died out when insects ate all their food” rather imply that, while perhaps not being a mainstream view, these are nevertheless reasonable and supported views held by a decent number of people who have good evidence for their assertions and are active and trained researchers. Again though, this is simply not true. ‘One’ is not ‘some’ really in common parlance, no matter how much you might try to stretch the definition, and in any case ‘a few fringe people’ (even if they are academics) is not really a consensus, or even a well supported idea.

There are cases where the evidence is genuinely split or support falls across two broad lines where the turn of phrase would not be inappropriate. Some palaeontologists think birds evolved flight after a gliding phase and others from the ground up. There’s a fairly reasonable split here and neither is certain. However, I would still avoid using the phrase because it’s so badly overused and is generally used so misleadingly, and many others would avoid using it here because the phrase “controversy splits palaeontologists!” is sadly far more likely to spring to their minds. Time for some originality and a bit more accuracy. I’m sure it can be managed.

5 Responses to ““Some palaeontologists think…””

  1. 1 Bob Strauss 01/03/2010 at 12:08 am

    Okay, I’ll admit to being a frequent user (and perhaps overuser) of the “some paleontologists think” phrase, but in my defense, I see it as a way of conveying that not everything we know about dinosaurs is etched in stone. I think it’s a lesser evil than stating something as absolute fact when it isn’t quite, which I see quite a few general-interest sites doing.

    Also, from my perspective as a popularizer (rather than a paleontologist), it can be hard to get a handle on just how controversial a controversy is. I’ll admit, I may sometimes have used the “some paleontologists think…” trope when it’s really just one lone nut or dissenter, which may not accurately reflect the situation, but hopefully most times it’s because a significant community of experts differs with the prevailing opinion.

    • 2 David Hone 01/03/2010 at 8:56 am

      I certainly agree that you should generally avoid presenting too many things as facts. Dinosaurs did lay eggs (fact) and some very very big (fact) but being killed by a meteor is a scientific theory which is of course not quite the same thing.

      I also appreciate that there’s a difference between writing for a young and adult audience. Kids want to know, and won’t misread “X thinks Y” (and young kids won’t understand phrases like “there is considerable evidence for X and the scientific consensus points to this”). However, sadly in the current climate of creationists and deliberate distorters, you are asking for trouble with phrases like “scientists believe” or “scientists think”.

      Even so, it is a much overused phrase and I’m very wary of it as it does seem to accompany the multitude of sins that I describe above. When it particularly accompanies one of these fringe or drank ideas it is especially worrying, as it shows that the journalist in question has missed the fact that this is a crank idea (not a good start) and missed just how much of minority this ‘hypothesis’ really is.

      As I say, i not really against the phrase as such (beyond the fact that it is rather cliched) but it does only ever seem to appear in the context of inaccurate information, hence my antipathy towards it.

  2. 3 Joel 16/03/2010 at 10:17 am

    An understanding of Science would be enough to comprehend that:

    not everything we know…is etched in stone

    Science evolves. There are hypotheses and theories, however they are active not passive by any means.

    @David: what about the issue with the difference between “theory” and “hypothesis” in science versus the lay-person’s understanding of the words?

    • 4 David Hone 16/03/2010 at 10:48 am

      Well it would very rapidly get boring for the journalist but I don’t see why they can’t point this out in their writing. I’m a big football fan and yet every single article on the England team without exception will say “Fabio Capello, the England manager,….”, even if the equivalent words appear in the headline or byline (similarly, who doesn’t know Barak Obama is the president of the US, do we need it in every newscast?). Despite the fact that this is incredibly common knowledge not just among football fans but also the general public, they feel the need to repeat that he is the England manager on every occasion that he or the team is mentioned.

      Given this, why are science journalists not doing the same for such things as hypothesis vs theory, or why ‘theory’ has two rather different meanings? Sure, it takes 20 words each time, but if the point of science writing is (and I rather hope it is) to educate the public then tell them. Educate them. Let them know. Far more people know who Fabio Capello is than know what a scientific theory is yet the sports hacks repeat it ad nauseum, and the science writers rarely mention it (unless they are writing about how people are confused over the issue). Why not do it this way? It’s the norm in other areas. Make it clear, say it repeatedly, so people will pick it up and understand and learn.

  1. 1 Filler post, and the thoughts of palaeontologists again « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 02/03/2010 at 4:15 pm
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