Archive for May, 2010

Flugsaurier reminder

While this blog is aimed at interested non-experts, I know that I do have a fair number of academic readers. Thus it’s probably not a bad idea to post up this little reminder about the Beijing 2010 Flugsaurier meeting on here. The deadline for abstract submission is this Friday (15th May) so get going if you have not already. Registration has, technically, ended but has been extended to the same date. So do get you information in now if you want to come.

Yet another new pterosaur – Fenghuangopterus

From Lu et al., 2010.

Published just a week or so ago, Fenghuangopterus is the latest in a long line of Chinese pterosaurs. Obviously new species in all groups are being described all the time but pterosaurs have certainly had quite a boost in the last few months with half a dozen new taxa being named. Given that there are still under 150 pterosaurs known (after over 200 years of research) more than 1 a month for any sustained period of time is quite something. Fenghuangopterus (skull shown above) is represented by a single nearly complete specimen that it’s rather crushed. I’ve actually taken a quick look at it this morning and it’s a much better specimen that the photos would suggest (the contrast here is not too good and the only images I have, while I’m permitted to use them, have a CAGS stamp on the body).

From Lu et al., 2010.

This is a scaphognathine pterosaurs (which also include things like Scaphognathus and Sordes) making it one of the rhamphorhynchoids. It’s the earliest known too, coming from Middle Jurassic beds and so extending the range of the scaphognathines back from the Upper Jurassic. More and more specimens are coming out of these beds and like the Middle Jurassic dinosaurs of western China are filling a long empty gap in our knowledge of this time for fossil reptiles. There will surely be more to come on this. This is a very short preliminary description so I can’t say much more without just repeating the content of the paper and describing the bones so I’ll leave it there.

Lu, J., Fucha, X. & Chen, J. 2010. A new scaphognathine pterosaur from the Middle Jurassic of western Liaoning, China. Acta Geoscientica Sinica, 2010: 263-266.

The ‘boring’ catch 22 of being a scientist

I was reading a comment thread on sci comms blog yesterday and was struck by the comments raised by various scientists about the problems of communicating effectively with the media which matched many things I’ve said on here and elsewhere. In short, that there is a sadly widespread tendency for the simplest of comments to be taken out of context, stories rehashed incorrectly, and things even downright fabricated. The apparent comeback from people on the media wide was that scientists are too boring with their communiqués and if we could just be more interesting maybe the media wouldn’t ignore us.

This is an unwinable situation. As a researcher it seems almost impossible to avoid having your words twisted, changed, misreported or worse. No matter how much you simplify things to make them clear and unambiguous and accurate, they will not survive meeting most of the journalists who are intended to make them into stories. If scientists suck the life out of a story with dry facts it is manifestly not to do with the incapability of researchers to communicate well, but a terror of having your words distorted. If you are exciting, you are simply far more likely to be misreported, if you keep it simple, you are boring.

If nothing else, this strikes me as simply being lazy. Scientists could be the most boring and tedious people on Earth with the driest of deliveries and who merely recite facts and figures and data. But even if they were, it would still be the job of a science journalist to make that stuff interesting and readable and exciting. So really, this complaint seems to boil down to “you are too afraid of us making anther mess of your work to give us good copy and we won’t make good copy out of it if you don’t try harder”. Well, thanks for that. I can see now how everything is the fault of the uncommunicative and boring scientists and not incompetent / unoriginal / lazy journos. You know, those people who write all those books and magazine articles and do TV shows and write blogs, and give public lectures and run websites and so on. Yeah, them. None of them are any good at communicating their science, are they?

Relative relatives revisited – context is important

The post on relative relatives went down quite well, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and it seems now to me that I really should have made it more general. The thrust is of course one of context and while pretty much everyone has a grasp of this, it does seem to slip past some.

In short, something can be large, small, fast, slow or whatever in context, but no overall, or in a wider context. Compared to other spiders or insects, bird-eating spiders are big. However, this is contextual – compared to terrestrial vertebrates, they are pretty small. Thus, they can be described as both large *and* small. There is no contradiction, but there must be clarification. Small compared to vertebrates, big compared to spiders and insects. Some snails are much faster than others, but none are fast in the grand scheme of things.

Remember then to use context when using adjectives, and remember to check the context when reading them. It’s perfectly possible and accurate for something to be big and small and fast and slow and young and old and long and short all at the same time.

Is story colour at the expense of accuracy OK?

I’m of the opinion that journalists need to be careful to record facts as facts and opinion as opinion. Blurring the two is problematic as it can imply that something that’s little more than a hunch is based on empirical data, or that supposedly empirical data is in fact just a good guess. However, there are other aspects to reporting where the issues are less clear.

It’s routine for example that quotes by a person be broken up and distributed around a story to give it a better read. The sentences uttered in interview or in correspondence might appear on the page in a different order to originally given, or bits snipped or tweaked to make them more readable. Ideally the person being quoted should have the chance to approve these things, but I appreciate that it’s not always possible. Certainly I have seen multiple outlets provide direct quotes attributes to someone that are clearly different from each other and the actual original words. They might all capture the substance of the comments and be generally accurate and stylistically correct, but they are quite definitely not the direct and exact words spoken as the use of  ” “s would indicate.

Similarly, the use of colour in a story often seems to be just created out of nothing. The kind of thing where they want to provide a scene or give a human angle to the story, “It has been a long and hard time in the field, but on the last day, they struck gold”, “deep in the basement of the institute, researchers pour over their latest discoveries” etc.  I’ve seen a number of these that are simply fabricated since that are about research projects I was involved in and they didn’t happen. They are either assumed to have happened (which seems lazy at best) or were made up (which is clearly incorrect practice as far as I’m concerned).

In both these cases I must say this practice bothers me. It implies truth and accuracy where it is simply not the case. The words were not spoken like that in this way, and the supposed events to provide colour are assumed at best, inaccurate or indeed fabricated at worst. This does seem to be pervasive and all but considered normal practice, but should it be? I can see an argument that it does no real harm and draws in the reader / makes things clearer or cleaner etc. but to me this simply does not wash. You are there to provide the facts and explain the facts. Even if ancillary to the point, these things are incorrect. If you don’t know, don’t guess or make it up. You are a journalist, it’s your *job* to find these things out. If the quotes don’t work, then paraphrase or discuss them (or get some new ones), don’t rewrite them to suit the story and claim they are genuine. It might not be critical to the story (i.e. the facts of the science) but surely it is a measure of trust between the reader and the writer that those things actually happened (however incidental). If they did not, it’s hard for me to escape the simple conclusion that this is not to be trusted.

No substitute for seeing a specimen

I’m working on a description of a specimen right now. It’s something I’ve seen before (since it’s not an IVPP specimen) and I have some notes on it and various photos, but without the material to hand, the basis of my description was on these notes and photos and not the material directly. Finally I’ve got hold of it again to try and polish it up and add in some more details. I hadn’t expected to have too much to go, but it was nearly instantly obviously that despite  the notes and photos I’d made a couple of pretty bad errors. This was, naturally, the point of going back to the original material to check these kinds of things but it makes a point worth emphasising here.

There is simply no substitute for seeing a specimen firsthand and up close. It really doesn’t matter how good the descriptions, photos, drawings etc. are you will see things better and less ambiguously and more precisely in person. This is especially true of flattened things like from the Solnhofen and Liaoning.  The ability to see things up close and turn them to the light just-so or switch between say left and right elements instantly can make a huge difference to your appreciation of the specimen and allow you to pick up things that would never otherwise get noted. It’s pretty much inevitably worth the effort and should always be a priority.

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