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.