Why do they bother?

Over on Pterosaur.net Mark Witton has written a rather sad piece on the recent TV show that was laden with pterosaurs. Mark is rather critical of the science presented in the show and that is as predictable as it is annoying. What can only make it more frustrating is that he was one of the consultants for it and is even named in the credits.

Now I know it’s impossible for anyone to do something like this 100% accurately. For a start, some things are in conflict and you won’t even be able to create a pterosaur that one expert won’t like for the shape of the wings, or distribution of the pycnofibers or whatever. And we do understand that some things are exceptionally hard to animate or simply cost too much to do. Or deadlines can run out and leave things unfinished or with not enough time to do properly. All annoying, but understandable if not entirely acceptable. However, I do think it is fair to question exactly why they bother to hire professionals as consultants if they then don’t listen to them and fill the thing with absolutely basic errors.

Now I haven’t seen this but Mark and others have. They ignore all the early discoveries and apparently start historically with Dimorphodon conveniently ignoring the first half century of research. They feature Pterodaustro while saying that there were no filter feeding pterosaurs. This is basic stuff. You can find it out online in moments. The whole POINT of Pterosaur.net was to provide just this kind of information. If you knew nothing about pterosaurs at all you should be able to read the whole site in under and hour and come away with a reasonable understanding of pterosaur biology and science.

But despite having their own runners and researchers, and hiring researchers as consultants, they can’t get things right which are in the first few line of a damned Wikipedia article on the subject. Come ON. If you are going to get stuff like this wrong it’s going to look an awful lot like you hired people like Mark just to get a thin veneer of scientific respectability to your production safe in the knowledge that the scientists won’t complain, or if they do, no one will notice, but you might draw in a few more punters since you can apparently claim super accuracy and research. But surely the wouldn’t do that would they?

31 Responses to “Why do they bother?”

  1. 1 Marc Vincent 05/02/2011 at 7:03 pm

    On a related note, my undergraduate thesis is an analysis of palaeontology coverage in three mainstream daily papers (I have already e-mailed you on the subject, and may do again – if you don’t mind!), a subject chosen mostly because of my own bafflement at the very basic errors they keep making. I’ll be sure to let you know whether or not what I’ve suspected is true – that they make some mistakes deliberately…

    In any case, Pterosaur.net is proving very helpful, so thanks to you, Mark, Darren et al for taking the time to write it all.

    I haven’t seen the Attenborough-fronted film, but Mark’s review was a great read.

    • 2 David Hone 05/02/2011 at 9:00 pm

      Well I’m not sure it’s deliberate so much as uncaring. They simply don’t care if it’s right or wrong. So professionals are ignored (even if they were hired or interviewed to provide accuracy) and the same mistakes are perpetuated. Good luck with the thesis and I will be very interested in the results. And do feel free to mail me again.

  2. 3 Heinrich Mallison 05/02/2011 at 11:17 pm

    David, I think there are three separate processes at work here. None of which pterosaur.net can abate, much less stop:

    1) “I know this stuff, please confirm what I just said!”
    I have repeatedly encountered journalists who act as if this was their mantra. What can you do when someone has formed an opinion that is utterly incorrect, but doesn’t want to hear anything but “Yes!”, and as soon as you start talking takes anything you say as confirmation? I once ended up called the editor-in-chief and demanding he fax me a letter saying that his reporter would not write anything about my interview, because this guy didn’t even let me finish sentences like: “No, you got this wrong, the Jurassic wasn’t in the stone age”.

    So if a story line writer has it cemented into his dozen or so brain cells that this-and-that guy found the first pterosaur, then that’s what the story will be, whatever the experts say. Especially if it sounds “cool”.

    2) expert input is – in my limited experience – sought too late in the project. Even if the experts are hired way in advance, there already is a rough story board, there are initial graphics sketches etc. already done. If what the experts say show these to be wrong, only minor corrections can at this point be made at low cost and without hassle. Everything bigger requires renewed meetings etc. to obtain permission – remember that usually, the entire thing is outsourced to small firms that can break if a contract fails.

    3) Carelessness – as you said, they do not care if it is right or wrong, because in (today’s) journalists’ world, truth isn’t theoretically absolute, but in principle a matter of debate.

    add to that some sloppiness (not using wikipedia) and the eternal delay between science and children’s books, and presto, there’s you sucky TV pterosaur feature.

    The financial crisis made this entire thing worse, btw: I was asked to check some stuff for a very big project by a global player in the field, then suddenly there was silence for a long time. The phase where input would have been most important was done without any, because suddenly, “there was no time” (read: no money)


    • 4 David Hone 06/02/2011 at 12:01 am

      I’ve either seen firsthand or heard plenty of horror stories of all of these kinds of things. I don’t really expect something like P.net to make a huge difference in general but (and obviously I’ve not seen the show) one would kinda expect they went looking at some point for some basic info and something like that should have been an obvious source for them. They got quite a lot right or at least it wasn’t too bad so they must have got some decent information from somewhere, so how and where did it go wrong?

      What always annoys me most though is that, in general, shows like this make a big deal of their accuracy and / or the credentials of their advisers when the trust is that they are ignored or whatever. If that’s their attitude then why bother? I expect the average TV watcher has no idea who Mark or Dave Unwin is so won’t be drawn to watch because of them, or necessarily thing things are any better because of their (or anyone’s) input on it. So why go to the trouble? I assume becuase they feel they should and it probably looks good or adds to their ‘mission statement’ or is a required for their educational output or something similar. All it does is waste the time of the experts, and produce something bordering on false advertising in terms of scientific accuracy when the public think they are getting super accurate, scientist-approved science.

      • 5 mattvr 06/02/2011 at 2:38 am

        Do they really make a big deal of their accuracy?
        I think they make a big deal of the ‘spectacle’.
        Accuracy is bundled in the buy line of ‘like you’ve never seen before’ or ‘exciting new discoveries’.
        So in that context ‘advisers’ provide ammunition for the big bangs of the spectacle.

        What interests me is how paleo documentaries compare with wildlife docos? What are the differences in how the narrative is constructed?
        I reckon in part because paleo docos are ‘constructed’ rather than ‘reported’like a wildlife doco, there’s much more scope for ‘amplification’ of the evidence.

      • 6 David Hone 06/02/2011 at 8:48 am

        Not all Matt I admit, and some barely. But there are certianly shows that certainly triumph their scientific credentials and accuracy regardless of the actual level of accuracy.

      • 7 Heinrich Mallison 06/02/2011 at 12:57 pm


  3. 8 Marc Vincent 06/02/2011 at 2:43 am

    Heinrich – I am very interested re your first point: “I know this stuff, please confirm what I just said!” Can you elaborate upon your exchanges with journalists that have acted this way? (If not here, then 06032779@students.lincoln.ac.uk – thank you!)

    • 9 Heinrich Mallison 06/02/2011 at 1:24 pm

      Well, Marc, I’ll tell you the worst of the horror stories, the one where I right away called the editor-in-chief, while the reporter was still on his way back to the office:

      This guy shows up at the “open-door-day” of our institute (back then I was still in Tübingen) and starts interviewing people left and right. Obviously, this random approach meant that he mostly talked to guests, but he hit upon me as well, while I was looking after the children’s fossil dig (not really: adults love it, too). It used to be a big pile of Posidonienschiefer from nearby Dotternhausen (Lower Jurassic mudstone with high organic content, choke full of pretty ammonites; see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posidonienschiefer_%28Jura%29 link in German, but I guess the pics will tell you what I am talking about), and there were some tools, and kids were supposed to split the slabs and delight at the fossils they found. In order to make them fossils transportable we’d cut the slabs to nice little rectangles once the fossils were exposed – my job that day.

      So this reporter approaches me, introduces himself, asks me who I am and what I am doing – and then the horror starts! He keeps asking questions of the type: “So these ammonites, these snails, they died 65 million years go, right, at the same time the dinosaurs died out? Because of the volcanism in America?” I keep saying “No, that’s wrong!”, trying to explain that these specific ammonites had not lived at the K/T boundary, that volcanism is not a likely candidate for the K/T extinction, that the Dekkan Trapps are in India….. but he interrupts me about two seconds after the first “No…”, going on: “So they [the fossils] are golden because there was gold in the rivers? [there is a persistent rumor in the uneducated parts of the people living at the foot of the Alb that you can find gold in the streams] What are they worth, in terms of money? You’re selling them here, right?”

      By then, I get the drift: he has a story in his mind, already written, and is just waiting for me to nod or say “yes”, so that the could write “institute member confirms……” I do not know what his background or motivation was, but he came from the same newspaper that a year later abused a festivity in honor of some Tübingen Professor long dead, who was doubtful about some mechanisms of evolution to label him a creationist, and further the creationist agenda. To their credit, when Tübingen professors complained, they printed long and detailed replies. Still, in this context the reporter seems even more sinister.

      I have had (and witnessed them when they interviewed others) other experiences where reporters first read tertiary and secondary literature, and then insisted that this knowledge is correct, despite people bombarding them with print-outs and PDFs of primary literature saying otherwise. Some quickly caved (e.g., the BBC) when confronted with data incompatible with their stories, and happily adjusted the stories, but several simply went on and on and on, to the point where I refused to correspond any further.

  4. 10 Darren Tanke 06/02/2011 at 3:56 am

    I have been burned by journalists and film crews so often now that I have developed at “hate-on” for them and tend to avoid them whenever possible. They have gotten me in real trouble through paraphrasing or splicing unrelated comments together. I was once told by a now famous paleontologist that the media are a “necessary evil”. I am hoping that with social networking and blogs like this we will, to a degree, replace print media and eventually, maybe more. Why tell some journalist a really cool paleo story, only to have him/her muck it up through misquotes, etc. or misinform their subscribers through a second hand (their interpretation of what you told them; what THEY think the public wants) glorified article (to sell more papers), when we can tell a global internet community first hand all the cool stuff that we are doing and learning. As we are the direct authors of the things we are doing, posting and sharing on the Internet, it behooves us to be as truthful and accurate as possible. We work in such a fascinating field, there is no reason for the media to embelish or stretch the truth, or not use the critical information paleontologists frankly provide. By being our own “media” on blogs like this, enhanced accuracy is ensured. My Gorgosaurus preparation blog postings on here I think are cool for readers and I have not had to embelish anything. It is all 100% real.

    • 11 Heinrich Mallison 06/02/2011 at 1:25 pm

      >> what THEY think the public wants

      that’s a huge point here: what THEY think the public WANTS!

      • 12 David Hone 06/02/2011 at 2:50 pm

        Yes and oddly enough they never seem to ever actually have any evidence for these suppositions at all. And as I’ve long maintained the successes of series like Inside Nature’s Giants show that large numbers of people will watch very detailed science shows presented by sceintists. There’s no harm in aiming for a broad demographic, but that means simplifying things, not getting them wrong or exaggerating them.

  5. 13 Marc Vincent 06/02/2011 at 5:29 am

    Darren: “We work in such a fascinating field, there is no reason for the media to embelish or stretch the truth, or not use the critical information paleontologists frankly provide.”

    You are absolutely right. Why, in spite of what palaeontologists reveal being so fascinating – incredible even – the media feel the need to distort or misreport the science is something that I hope to establish. They are often not only infuriating scientists who (for example) put years of work into a paper, but also reinforcing ignorance about the evolution of life on Earth. It may be due to diminishing resources allocated to journalism as a whole, the marginalising of science, the refusal to take palaeontology seriously, or a combination.

    Hell, it might even be simple arrogance. 😉

  6. 14 Darren Tanke 06/02/2011 at 6:05 am


    I have had to deal with media for just over 30 years. This includes documentary film crews, radio, magazine/newspaper writers and television crews. I find the documentary people the worst. I found out early the hard way in 1981 with a BBC film crew in the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park. They were there in June and seemed more interested in chasing the local birds away who were singing their lungs out to attract a mate and define their breeding territories. They actualy had a guy running around shooing the birds away! Then they did not like the way my boot laces were tied, then how I walked, how I crouched down, how I said the dinosaur bones are “laying here” (they wanted me to say they were “lying here”). Another film crew made us use up our only drinking water by pouring it over our heads to simulate “sweat” while we worked on a hot day. It really was hot, but it did not look hot enough for the film I guess. The problem was if we were sweating that much we would likely be dead soon after- it looked like we just stepped out of the shower! Man were we thirsty when we got back home. Of course the film crew would not share their water as they had none- they had drunk all theirs hours earlier….. Another film crew thought it would be cool if a big name paleontologist and I rappelled down a near vertical cliff face (30 metres or so tall) on mountain climbing ropes. They did not even need it for their film, they just thought it would be cool footage. Yes it would have been dramatic seeing how the ropes ended about 10 metres above the cliff bottom! No knot was tied in the end so we would have rapelled off the rope to our deaths or serious injury.I have lots of stories like this! I think film makers and other media have a preconceived notion what paleontology is all about and it is imoportant to them or their editors that their take on what it is all about and how it happens is told “their way” be it true or not.

  7. 15 Marc Vincent 06/02/2011 at 6:26 am

    Suffice it to say that my thoughts on television news are best saved for another time and place…but thanks very much for going over your experiences. I hope you don’t mind if I get hold of you at some point via e-mail, particularly regarding the print media.

    (I’ve got to say though that the shoelace issue sounds particularly insane – especially for the BBC! I’m going to have to talk about that with some of the ex- and current BBC staff who teach here.)

    • 16 Darren Tanke 06/02/2011 at 5:02 pm

      Sure Marc, anytime. My email at home: dtanke@hotmail.com

      This is sure an interesting thread but it brings back lots of bad memories of numerous negative media interactions.

  8. 17 brian engh 06/02/2011 at 6:30 am

    As an animator, I’m curious how receptive you frustrated scientific advisors are to the idea of creating a TV show that puts animators and scientific advisors in direct collaboration with a high degree of creative authorship…

    There are an awful lot of middlemen – writers, exec producers, bad directors – standing between the visual artists and the scientists. A show gets written and shot by one group of people while the shitty CG animation usually gets farmed out to some VFX house, even further separated from the influence of the scientific advisor.

    I guess I’m curious if there are experts in the scientific community willing to spend a chunk of time away from their studies in order to work in a creative position in the studio with animators. Instead of being asked ‘can we do this?’ I think it’s time to put scientists in a position to say ‘we should show pterodaustro……’

    • 18 mattvr 06/02/2011 at 7:00 am

      Don’t forget the odd animator who doesn’t think their dinosaur is cool enough and so embellishes!
      You are right though, because making film is so collaborative an adviser’s authority/input is likely to be less than a script writer’s.

    • 19 David Hone 06/02/2011 at 8:55 am

      Well that would be great Brian but I just can’t see it happening for all the reasons people have discussed. Even if someone realised how accurate it would be and wanted it the show would need the time and money to do it and the real drive to get it done. All it takes is one person on the team somewhere to demand that it MUST be blue, or that however accurate it doesn’t look good on screen, or for drama it MUST do this behaviour and things will start being lost.

      • 20 mattvr 06/02/2011 at 10:12 am

        Depends on the person demanding the blueness Dave.
        There is a chain of command.

      • 21 David Hone 06/02/2011 at 10:20 am

        Indeed but it does need the person at the top to demand that the researcher gets the final say, and they have to be in charge enough that this actually happens. In my (limited) experience, the director or producer is generally balancing 5 projects or more at a time and may not be around and understandably, an animator might take more direction from whoever is around but senior to them than the researcher they are supposed to be listening to.

      • 22 mattvr 06/02/2011 at 10:27 am

        It’s those bloomin’ animation directors!(that’d be me then)

        Trying not to make this descend into a in depth discussion of production, it’s as much a communication and clarity thing. If everyone is on the same page then less goes awry.
        You’d want scientific input at script/storyboard/animatic level, not sitting over animators shoulders on individual shots… then followed by input at raw shots.
        It’s a ton of work and as Brian said, a huge commitment, as well as added expense for the production.

      • 23 David Hone 06/02/2011 at 10:42 am

        “Trying not to make this descend into a in depth discussion of production, it’s as much a communication and clarity thing. If everyone is on the same page then less goes awry.”

        Absolutely agree. In terms of the kinds of problems that I have seen though, I’m merely trying to extrapolate and suggest that, even IF someone had the time and money and desire to make an absolutely truly science-centric type documentary, it could still go very wrong in places because I have seen just these chain-of-command conflicts and confusion and people sticking their oar in where they shouldn’t and people listening to people they shouldn’t.

    • 24 Heinrich Mallison 06/02/2011 at 1:30 pm

      brain, I was involved in an attempt to do this, and they had LOADS of others involved, really big names. They even took my work over other people’s (BIG BIG names) when I gave them good data to show the other guy wrong, and they gave me a very hard time using data from others on some of the things I told them. They did very well!

      and then money became an issue, and suddenly we will get the same sh*t animations, without any science input, that we have been getting for the last decade 😦 Pity – the plan was awesome, and as long as they kept following it, things were swell. We had telephone/internet conferences where I could draw into their initial animations, pointing out errors, and they’d turn around and adapt things until I was happy. That’s the way it will work out, one day, when someone pays enough money.

      • 25 brian engh 07/02/2011 at 5:08 am

        Heinrich I’m interested to hear that there’s some precedent for the concept. It’s too bad that the production fell victim to what Dave was warning about – too many cooks spoiling the broth.

        To clarify, what I’m proposing is a show where a single species is reconstructed per episode and each episode features an expert on the species as something of that episodes ‘host’. The narrative of the show builds towards a single compelling animated scene (5 minutes or so) showing a moment in the life of that animal in a reconstructed environment… we start with the fossil fragments, discuss reconstruction of the skeleton, then soft tissue, environment and speculative behavior. At key points in the production process we actually see the scientist giving notes on the designs/storyboards/animation. We may also see the animators visiting the zoo, or watching documentary footage with the scientist in order to work out behavior and ecological dynamics.

        At the end of each episode the scientist introduces the animation, and the scene plays in its entirety.

        I know this all sounds hypothetical but I’m actually in the midst of preparing a pitch for Nat Geo Kids. A producer I work with knows the VP of the network, and some other artists and myself are preparing some animation and rough storyboards. My instincts are in complete agreement with Dave – this can only work if it’s done with a small tight knit crew in an environment of mutual respect and collaboration with the scientific advisor. Budget-wise, I think that could be made to work. The trick is getting the network execs to buy into the vision, and not fuck with it too much.

        In the event that my team and I were able to perform the miracle of getting a production like this rolling, do you think there would be respectable paleontologists willing to commit their time to basically co-direcing animation? Also, do you guys have any suggestions of ways we can structure the show that will keep everybody honest (like actually showing the scientist give notes)?

      • 26 David Hone 07/02/2011 at 8:59 am

        Oddly enough this was something (though with pictures, not animation) that I pitched to a museum for an exhibit on dinosaurs to show, basically, that when we do jsut half half a foot say, we DO have a decent idea of what it really looked like and can build up a realistic picture of it as a real animal. They didn’t go for it.

  9. 27 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. 07/02/2011 at 4:45 pm

    Here is a really minor bit of faux reality from a documentary: in the early 1990s the US TV series NOVA did a special on the origin of birds, and naturally they wanted to interview John Ostrom about it. At the time I was finishing up my graduate courses with Ostrom at Yale, so I was there for the filming.

    In any case, they wanted Ostrom to open up a cabinet in the Peabody collections to show the articulated foot of Deinonychus. However, the foot was actually in his office (and had been for years), and furthermore the fossil reptile collections had recently been upgraded to very modern-style compactors rather than old-fashioned wooden cabinets.

    Well, the film makers thought the old-fashioned wooden cabinets looked more “museum-y”. So they found an appropriate looking section for Ostrom to place the foot and open the cabinet to reveal it to the audience.

    While the reptile collections had been upgraded, not all the mammal cabinets had yet been changed.

    And that is how Deinonychus became classified as a perrisodactyl…

    • 28 David Hone 07/02/2011 at 5:17 pm

      Not quite the same thing, but I remember Dave Unwin complaining at having been asked to take the Berlin Archaeopteryx out of the cabinet and open up the case half a dozen times till the film crew in question were happy. Not only did it take a long time, but that thing is heavy and very fragile. He wasn’t too impressed.

      • 29 Mark Robinson 08/02/2011 at 1:45 am

        I saw Dave Unwin (and Andrew Farke) again recently on “The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs”. The programs weren’t bad altho’ the theropods had pronated hands and some of the mechanical demonstrations weren’t accurate analogues of reality; eg Tyrannosaurus biting a Mini automobile – I would have liked to see what would’ve happened if it’s teeth were made of enamel and dentine instead of steel.

        I wonder how Dave and Andrew found the experience of consulting for the program? Is anyone able to shed any light?

  10. 30 Marc Vincent 09/02/2011 at 12:15 am

    Mark: in defense of TTAKD, I think they pointed out that having a simulated Tyrannosaurus bite a Mini was, of course, just a bit of daft fun. Still, given the bone-crushing bite of T. rex and the flimsiness of a Mini, it probably could have performed such a move in a theoretical situation, possibly involving the TARDIS 😉

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