Catch 22

While the aquatic dinosaurs nonsense certainly united palaeontologists in their dismissal of the ‘hypothesis’ it also caused something of a split. Discussions both public and private went around about how to deal with such an issue. It’s a fundamental problem with bad science and anti-science and while it’s a fairly obvious one, it is worth laying it out. In short, once the proverbial cat is out of the bag and has spread to a significant number of the public via the media, there is no obviously good way of tacking the problem.

Option 1 is quite simple – ignore it. It’s bad science, it’s wrong. Sooner or later most people will simply forget and move on and many will recognise it as being wrong.

Option 2 is to counter it. Show why it’s wrong and why the good science is right.

This all sounds rather reasonable and not too tricky and either way, the good science should shine through. The reality though is all too different and in fact dealing with it is a catch 22. Follow option 1 and you will find a good number of people will, years later, still think this thing was true. They heard it, absorbed it, heard nothing to contradict it and so assumed it was right. Even if it sounded dodgy, they do now have two (or more) competing ideas in their heads and might not be able to say which is right or better supported. If you do nothing then bad ideas can fester and it can be triumphed by some as a victory with the scientists too cowed to reply.

Acting may not help much however. Assuming you can even reach many or the same people as the original story (the media rarely publish retractions, don’t tend to give replies the same airtime or print space, and will come later) you may convince few. Simply continuing the discussion gives a sense of validity to an idea that it shouldn’t have simply by arguing with it and keeps things going longer than they should.

So it is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Some favour the ‘let it lie’ approach and others the ‘get good info out there’ (like this for the aquatic dinos at least). Not surprisingly I tend to favour the latter with my overall approach and attitude to science communication, but it’s not a blanket one. There’s no need to devote time and effort to disprove every bit of silliness that appears online and in the media, if no one has seen it, it’s not even an issue. But for me, major stories do have an impact and I’ve too often seen people cling onto things and think of them as genuine simply because they were reported and while it might give a nonsense piece a little of the oxygen of publicity, providing a well-directed and decent sized dose of science will probably reach a few more people and more than offset the damage.

The real solution of course is for idiots to spot pushing BS as science, the media to stop reporting BS as science and to make everyone scientifically literate so they know BS when they see it. In the absence of solutions to those trivial problems however, we have to do the best we can, even if we can’t always agree on the best way to do it.

9 Responses to “Catch 22”

  1. 1 Robert A. Sloan 11/05/2012 at 11:29 am

    Option 2 sounds better. For people who don’t have a strong background in the subject, something silly can sound good and stand. I got it immediately on the aquatic dinos and was scratching my head – but if it was something in metallurgy or chemistry, I might not have gotten it even if it was comparably simple.

  2. 2 Adam Benton 11/05/2012 at 11:53 am

    One of the ideas I quite liked regarding this dilemma is just to respond in kind. If there is going to be a debate or discussion about the issue regardless of whether you are involved then you should have no qualms about getting involved. However, you shouldn’t try and start such discussion where none would’ve happened.

    You’re approach seems to be kinda similar to this

  3. 3 Zhen 11/05/2012 at 2:43 pm

    I also agree option 2 is better. If you just let it slide, people will eventually be misled and think its real. For example, one of those cheesy cable dinosaur documentaries had a Tyrannosaurus with feathers around its neck and the tip of the tail. Its just the show’s artistic license, and they never actually claimed it to be true, but people don’t know that. Now I have someone arguing with me that Tyrannosaurs had feather around the neck and tail.

    My example is pretty innocent too. The aquatic dinosaur theory is actually treated as “science” and the gullible public are… gullible. Paleontologists can ignore it, but if it makes its way into the public, you won’t hear the last of it.

  4. 4 Patty R. 11/05/2012 at 4:08 pm

    I have to agree that it must be countered and put to rest. I can’t tell you how many people come here to the Tyrrell Museum and ask where the live dinosaurs are – because they saw them in ‘Jurassic Park’! If the public will believe that we have live dinosaurs because of a movie, I can definitely see a ‘scientist’ stating something silly like all dinos were aquatic becoming fact with the public.

    • 5 Zhen 11/05/2012 at 8:02 pm

      Please tell you’re joking Patty. There are actually people coming to see real dinosaurs in the museum!?

      On second thought, I heard people were calling the phone numbers they saw in the movie Bruce Almighty to try and contact god.

    • 6 Mark Robinson 12/05/2012 at 3:57 am

      That’s ridiculous! Live dinosaurs would obviously be at the zoo. Museums are for dead ones.

  5. 7 Stephen 11/05/2012 at 4:48 pm

    Often, the nonsense comes rapid fire, as from a machine gun. It takes quite a bit of effort to counter one nonsense claim. It’s easy to make stupid mistakes. It can take effort to pull together real evidence. So one approach is to note a tidbit that is low hanging fruit. Evidence with nice graphics is within reach, the story is easy to follow. Then use doubt. “Look, it’s pretty easy to show that many of these claims are silly. Therefore, all claims made by this source should be suspect.”

    Of course, all claims made by any source are suspect. After all, that’s why we’re still attempting to show General Relativity is wrong (though so far, General Relativity has withstood these attempts).

  6. 8 Schenck 12/05/2012 at 4:29 am

    I think it’s pretty important to counter these claims when they come up. Consider the recent History Channel “aliens killed the dinos” episode. I haven’t seen it myself, but the things I’ve heard it claims are VERY similar to the sort of things it claims about historical events. Think about how many people either accept, or find it reasonably plausible, that Aliens built the Pyramids or Stonehenge, or who think we have no record/idea of how these things were built. Part of the blame for this lies with historians not speaking up and challenging these ideas, I suspect.
    So while challenging things like ‘aquatic dinos’ or ‘pterosaurs are descended from lizards’ and the like might seem pointless, I suspect that if no one does it the junk will build up to some sort of critical mass and really get picked up by society.

  7. 9 Jonathan 12/05/2012 at 10:07 am

    The above comments illustrate why I take a somewhat dim view of trying to communicate good science as an alternative to bad science in the media: the message that aliens did *not* build the pyramids has been repeated over and over and over, but some still choose to believe it.

    Nor do I think that the problem is that the audience is unable to recognize BS. It’s not that lay people actually have this ability, but rather that it doesn’t exist. How is science communication supposed to teach something that even the best 20th century philosophers (Popper, Wittgenstein, Kuhn) were unable to do – recognize truth by its logical formulation? People reading books and websites will come across eloquent defences of complete claptrap, like notions that Jesus was Ceasar, 9/11 ‘was an inside job’ and that, as touted recently, dinosaurs farted themselves to death.

    That last example brings me to where I think popular media and its communicators of science could play a role. We should look at the reasons why such a story gets so much attention. I think the most important reason is that it connects to something that people already know to some small degree: that there is no clear consensus about nonavian dinosaur extinction. Combined with the fact that everyone likes conflict and uncertainty, this creates a situation where any story that suggests scientists are constantly throwing theories up in the air is easily accepted. The audience is predisposed to such a message. But instead of emphasizing the lack of education, I would say the problem here is that media only want to run stories that strike such a chord with their audience. Because of the already existing preconceptions about paleontology, the dino-farts story is presented the way it is.

    So I see the solution to be a media landscape where challenging rather than confirming preexisting notions is the norm. In any case, when reading a story that looks like BS, it is good to ask ‘why would this paper/website choose to run this?’ rather than just be appalled at the stupidity. The key to understanding the problem is the combination of the audience’s willingness to accept certain stories, and the press’ willingness to facilitate that.

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