Having tried to help out with my last post in this area (hopefully without being too patronising) I thought I’d be a bit less helpful and a little more confrontational / exasperated in this one with some of the more obvious and constantly repeated errors that seem to crop up in dinosaur-related reporting. Rather like my good old ‘top 10’ for pterosaurs but a bit more generalised and directed more at reporting than general ignorance / inaccuracy.
As noted before on here, science progresses and while facts do not change, our interpretation of them does. Things go out of date, new ideas are added and new fossils are found or new hypotheses applied to old ideas. Still, some things are very basic or so outdated that it’s hard to imagine while they persist, yet they do. Ignorance can always be excused – not everyone knows everything and journalists are often asked to write things they know little about. Not doing basic research if however quite a sin, especially in these days of instant information access and when something like Wikipedia (for all it’s faults) can present you with at least a good starting point for further reading.
Bearing that in mind, here are a few of my biggest (and generally most unbelievable) bugbears in writing about palaeontology.
1. Getting the biggest dinosaur wrong. This is a profound irritant as while I appreciate the answer can be ephemeral or open to debate, the concept is massively overused and almost inevitably profoundly wrong. Was Argentinosaurus really bigger than Amphicoelias (and are we talking length or mass in any case)? Well, hard to say, but saying it was Diplodocus gets you 0 points. It wasn’t even necessarily the biggest dinosaur known when it was described (since Amphicoelias, Apatosaurus and Camarasaurus all predate it), so using something so out of date and superseded so much by so many other taxa is quite an error.
2. Calling things that are not dinosaurs, dinosaurs. Sure pterosaurs are close relatives, but check any single half decent book or website from, well about the last century and you’ll see that they are not dinosaurs. Putting plesiosaurs, icthyosaurs, mammoths, ammonites and eurypterids as dinosaurs does not help you look like an authority on the subject. Some are mammals, some are invertebrates and some are separated from dinosaurs by hundreds of millions of years – don’t do it.
3. Dinosaurs died out in the ice age. Sure it was probably cold with all the dust around after the asteroid hit and those volcanoes exploded, but it helps if you are accurate to the right geological epoch and have an error of under 60 million years
4. Horribly outdated images. This goes most especially for tail dragging sauropods and tyrannosaurs but those upright iguanodontids and swimming hadrosaurs are not current science. Not by a good few decades. Negative points are doubled if you claim the images / reconstructions are based on ‘the latest research’.
5. Palaeontologists are not archaeologists or anthropologists. Remember Indiana Jones? He was an archaeologist, he didn’t study dinosaurs or other fossils. Remember Jurassic Park? Those guys did study dinosaurs and were called palaeontologists. As I once noted on here, I caught one journalist change my press release to use both ‘archaeologist’ and ‘anthropologist’ having exorcised ‘palaeontologist’. One lot studies fossils, one lot studies humans, one lot studies human culture and artefacts. It’s not hard, learn the difference.
All of these are so simple, so fundamental, so widely known and the information so accessible that it’s hard to imagine a 10 year old child armed with an encyclopaedia or the internet get any of them wrong. As such, the fact that these mistakes are made with such regularity by people whose job description is effectively ‘write a summary of a science story, given to you by a scientist’ is rather a worry.