The Young Palaeontologist’s Guide to Media Scepticism: Or, How Bad Dinosaur Journalism Destroyed My Trust in the Craft

(Still not happy with the Sunday Herald after that smear against the noble Dinosauria)

For many individuals in Scotland and across the world, their scepticism of the mainstream media may have started at a number of times. For Scottish independence supporters, many started to question the media around the time of the 2014 referendum campaign; others may have started earlier, about the time of the Iraq War; still more may have questioned the popular media narrative even before that.

For me, it’s a bit more complex: my scepticism of media, particularly newspapers, started a lot earlier – and for a rather different subject – but I’ve found that the journey I undertook is strikingly applicable to any field.

People who have known me for a long time will probably know me for one of three varieties of stuff: Scottish Stuff, Robert E. Howard Stuff, or Dinosaur Stuff. My mammy asserts that my appreciation of Dinosaur Stuff goes back well into my infancy, and it has been ever-present since. Dinosaurs were my “thing” in school, always my conversation subject of choice, and the thing most people will remember me for from that period of my life. See, I didn’t just like dinosaurs – I immersed myself in dinosaurology. I read every book I could find, over and over so I could remember; I campaigned to go to museums with fossils as often as I could; I made a point of memorising every species, every palaeontologist, every morsel of information. So, naturally, every time I learned of some piece of dinosaur news in an article, I’d ask Mam or Granda or anyone to get me a copy of that paper. Unfortunately, unlike the many books by genuine dinosaur enthusiasts I figuratively devoured, it was clear to me from an early age that newspaper science reporters were not quite as interested in accurately reporting palaeontological subjects.

Generally speaking, when people read a newspaper, or watch a documentary, they expect the information within to be accurate. It does not occur to the average reader to scrutinise those who are meant to do little more than present the news, or information, to the reader – they are not expected to immediately suspect that they might be misinformed, or worse. Yet from a very early age, I was forced to do exactly that when the “information” from science journalists about new dinosaur discoveries was either inaccurate, or completely fantastical.

This century, the democratisation of media means that, for good and ill, people who didn’t go to journalism school can reach just as wide an audience as those who did. While this means everyone with command of basic word processing & keyboard skills (& even a fair chunk who don’t) can talk about whatever subject they like, it also means that voices which would not normally feature regularly in newspapers could cut out the middle-man and build their own platform. As a result, the likes of Mike TaylorLiz Martin-Silverstone, David Hone, Rebecca Foster, and many more can talk about dinosaurs and other prehistoric life without having to wait for a journalist or book publisher to act as agent. This means such tales of bad dinosaur journalism has itself become a subgenre of paleonews, and palaeontologists can respond in real-time to inaccuracies.

Here’s how it tends to work:

  1. Palaeontologists discover thing
  2. Palaeontologists describe thing
  3. Scientific journal publishes thing
  4. Good journalists report thing, bad journalists report either what they think it was, or what sounds good to them
  5. Palaeontologists of all genders tear their beards in frustration as the thing is described completely wrongly to the world

Originally, this was a single article, but the sheer breadth of bad dinosaur journalism convinced me to choose a single example: one of the most profound examples of complete collective journalistic failure I’ve encountered in my many years as a dinosaur enthusiast.

The 2010 TorosaurusTriceratops Trauma

As one of the earliest North American ceratopsian discoveries, Triceratops quickly became one of the most charismatic and famous dinosaurs – though it didn’t start out as a dinosaur at all. Palaeontologist Othniel Charles Marsh originally believed the fragmentary remains to be what was left of a great prehistoric bison, which he named Bison alticornis: at the time, ceratopsian remains were so sparse few had any idea what the creatures looked like. Eventually, more complete specimens were uncovered, and the big-frilled, parrot-beaked, quadrupedal beasts we all know and love were established in dinosaur palaeontology.

Like all dinosaurs, Triceratops has undergone many different changes as new discoveries are made and new hypotheses are produced: from  from a sprawled stance to an upright stance to somewhere in between; from solitary to gregarious behaviour; to the frills being anchors for a massive muscular hump to being elaborate displays or cooling mechanisms. The latest excitement about Triceratops centred around its relationship to its very close relative, Torosaurus.

What it was actually about

The wonderful world of ceratopsians, as illustrated by Gabriel Lugeto.

Palaeontologists John Scanella and Jack Horner composed a study where they proposed that Triceratops fossils were in fact juvenile Torosaurus, and should be treated as different developmental ages of the same genus. Since Triceratops was described in 1889 and Torosaurus in 1891, the two genera would be merged into Triceratops. This was made clear by the title of the study: Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny. The study’s abstract makes pains to clarify through the use of apostrophes that ‘Torosaurus’ would no longer be considered a valid genus:

Although they have been considered distinct genera for over a century, ontogenetic analyses reveal that Triceratops and “Torosaurus” actually represent growth stages of a single genus. Major changes in cranial morphology—including the opening of parietal fenestrae and the elongation of the squamosals—occur rapidly, very late in Triceratops ontogeny and result in the characteristic Torosaurus morphology. This report presents the results of a 10-year field study of the dinosaurs of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and is based on a collection of over 50 specimens of Triceratops, including over 30 skulls, which have been amassed in that time, in addition to specimens from numerous other North American museums. This large sample of individuals reveals the full ontogenetic spectrum of Triceratops. The synonymy of Triceratops and Torosaurus contributes to an unfolding view of extremely reduced dinosaur diversity just before the end of the Mesozoic Era.

While naming shakeups are hardly uncommon in dinosaur palaeontology, this will no doubt be devastating to Dino-Riders aficionados.

It did NOT mean that Triceratops would be rendered invalid as a genre, and thus “not a real dinosaur” – not least because Scanella & Horner’s proposal wasn’t universally accepted by the palaeontological community even at the time, and that, you know, that wasn’t what they were proposing in the first place.

How it was reported

This adorable cartoon is based on a complete misunderstanding of the scientific hypothesis, thanks to a media with neither the wit nor the inclination to actually take the time to understand what they’re supposed to be reporting.

 

THE TRICERATOPS NEVER EXISTED, IT WAS ACTUALLY A YOUNG VERSION OF ANOTHER DINOSAUR
Scientists are saying that the Triceratops dinosaur—you know, the three horned one—was actually a juvenile form of a Torosaurus, the three horned dinosaur you don’t know. Apparently, dinosaurs’ skulls can shape-shift… Scientists sure enjoy crushing my childhood memory of The Land Before Time (they nixed Brontosaurus a while back). Hopefully they won’t delete Triceratops too.
– 31st July, 2010

TRICERATOPS ‘NEVER REALLY EXISTED BUT WAS JUST A YOUNG VERSION OF ANOTHER DINOSAUR
It is one of the most recognisable dinosaurs, part of the Holy Trinity of childhood favourites alongside the brontosaurus and the mighty T-Rex.
But now scientists say that the fearsome three-horned triceratops may never have existed.
Instead new research has raised the possibility that the triceratops was just a young version of a different dinosaur known as a torosaurus.
– 2nd August, 2010

DID THE TRICERATOPS DINOSAUR EVER REALLY EXIST?
Research published in the Journal of Paleontology says the three-horned dinosaur, Triceratops, never actually existed as a species, but was in fact the juvenile version of a creature called Torosaurus.
Dr Jack Horner, a palaeontologist at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana, was part of the team that carried out the research.
– 3rd August, 2010

SCIENTISTS: TRICERATOPS MAY NOT HAVE EXISTED
If we could go back and poll the generations of school children who have visited museums of natural history around the country, I’d wager that the Triceratops ranked among the most popular of all their dinosaur exhibits. But could it be that the Triceratops was not really the Triceratops after all?
I know – next they’ll tell us there’s no Santa Claus. But Paleontologists at the Montana State University argue that the Triceratops and his kissing cousin, the Torosaurus, were actually the same dinosaur at different stages of growth.
– 3rd August, 2010

TRICERATOPS NEVER ACTUALLY EXISTED, SCIENTISTS SAY
Brace yourselves. The famous triceratops dinosaur never actually existed as a separate dinosaur species, paleontologists say.
Known for its three horns and the bony, frilled ridge around its head, the triceratops was most likely just a younger version of the rarer torosaurus, say researchers John Scannella and Jack Horner at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana.
– 3rd August, 2010

TRICERATOPS ‘NEVER EXISTED’
Three-horned fossils are actually juvenile torosauruses
One of the best-known dinosaur species may not have really been a dinosaur species at all, according to new research. Scientists compared triceratops skulls to those of a lesser-known species, the torosaurus, and concluded that the triceratops were actually young torosauruses, New Scientist reports. They believe the three-horned dinosaur’s skull changed shape as it aged.
– 3rd August, 2010

TRICERATOPS’ STATUS AS A DISTINCT SPECIES THREATENED
The Triceratops, with its distinctive crest-and-three-horns look, is one of the few dinosaurs your average Joe could pick out of a line-up.
But new research has led some scientists to doubt it ever existed as a distinct species.
Instead, palaeontologists John Scannella and Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Montana suggest it was merely the juvenile form of the lesser-known torosaurus.
– 3rd August, 2010

TRICERATOPS WAS JUVENILE FORM OF ANOTHER SPECIES OF DINOSAUR, SCIENTISTS SAY
New research from a duo at the Museum of the Rockies argues that the triceratops may never have been a distinct species, but rather the younger form of another dinosaur.
After comparing the skull shape of the triceratops to that of its close relative, the torosaurus, researchers John Scannella and Jack Horner concluded that the triceratops may actually be a juvenile form of the torosaurus (not an entirely different species), as dinosaurs’ skulls could change shapes during their lifetime.
– 25th May, 2011

THE THREE-HORNED DINOSAUR TRICERATOPS NEVER EXISTED, SAY SCIENTISTS
We’ve all seen photos and animated videos of the three-horned Triceratops, one of the most popular dinosaurs that the public can recognize. But now scientists are saying that it didn’t really exist, but the recovered bones were those of a juvenile form of a Torosaurus, the three horned dinosaur we haven’t heard of. Apparently, dinosaurs’ skulls can shape-shift.
– 1st June, 2012

https://twitter.com/MailOnline/status/375048335213993984

How in blazes did this happen?

We went from “Torosaurus and Triceratops are the same > Triceratops named first > Torosaurus becomes junior synonym” to the actual opposite of that. There’s really no other way to put it: newspapers, news channels, websites, bloggers, all coming to the actual opposite of the correct conclusion. It is difficult to think of a more devastating failure to report the news than to report the actual opposite of what something is about.

Actual.

Opposite.

What seems to have happened is that none of the supposed science journalists actually made the effort to read – or, at the very least, the effort to understand – what the paper was saying. There’s a common thread, though: the notion that Triceratops was a “juvenile form” of Torosaurus. From there, it was a simple assumption: that the adult form takes precedence over the juvenile form, including its name, like dogs over puppies, cats over kittens, and birds over chicks. That, in and of itself, is a symptom of a much bigger issue in adults’ interaction and understanding of youth, but that’s beyond the bounds of this particular post: what’s relevant here is “Torosaurus is the adult, Triceratops the juvenile: since Triceratops “becomes” Torosaurus, that means Torosaurus is the “true” form.”

In the process, these anti-accurate articles unleashed waves of outrage and protest from casual dinosaur enthusiasts lamenting how Triceratops apparently didn’t exist, getting angry at palaeontologists for something they didn’t even propose, and prompting action to “Save the Triceratops” from supposed oblivion. This wasn’t just random eggs with a few hundred followers on Twitter: this was actual news outlets and people with tens, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people they can influence:

In the 8 years since the original publication of Scanella & Horner’s paper, the evidence against TorosaurusTriceratops synonymy has only mounted, the most compelling being that juvenile Torosaurus specimens have been discovered. All those hurt feelings about Triceratops‘ supposed existential failure seem to have been for nothing, about nothing, meaning nothing, changing nothing.

But there’s something else really strange going on here – the dates. The original paper was published in 2010. Why did, for example, the D**** M*** retweet a 3-year-old article as if it was some brand new discovery?

Because, like so many examples of bad journalism, sometimes a newspaper will simply republish, repost, or regurgitate a piece of news from a few years – or even months – ago, because they need copy. An argument could be made for 2012, as that was the year Longrich & Field’s response was published – and then, things got even more infuriating:

PREPARE TO THROW AWAY THOSE OLD PLASTIC DINOSAURS: TRICERATOPS WASN’T ONE DINOSAUR – IT WAS TWO SEPARATE SPECIES
The horned Triceratops is one of the most famous and recognisable of all known dinosaur species – but now it seems that the giant herbivore might actually be TWO species.
Horned dinosaurs’ bony headpieces change during their lifespans – which makes identifying species difficult.
Now a study of skulls and skull fragments has shown that there are two distinct species – triceratops and torosaurus, which both lived in the same period 65 to 68 million years ago.
Both animals had three horns, but at different angles and the torosaurus’ neck-frill was thinner, smoother and had two holes in it.
Earlier research by John Scannella and Jack Horner at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, had claimed that the triceratops was just a young version of a torosaurus and its horns changed shape as the dinosaur aged.
– 1st March, 2012

SCIENTIST SAYS TRICERATOPS DID EXIST AFTER ALL
Triceratops has been dead for 65 million years, but debates about the species are as lively as ever. Recent research claims that Triceratops isn’t its own distinct species but rather the adolescent version of Torosaurus. But Andrew Farke, of the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, Calif., has likely skewered that theory.
– 14th December, 2012

You wouldn’t have thought it possible, but some news outlets have not only presented the actual opposite of the original paper (“Torosaurus was actually Triceratops” to “Triceratops was actually Torosaurus“) but they’ve presented this paper as refuting a theory THAT NOBODY WAS ACTUALLY PROPOSING IN THE FIRST PLACE. Really, even if this was the only time science news got it wrong, it’s quite a thing to get the precise converse of what the news actually was. But it isn’t the only time this century, or even this decade.

One might wonder why any of this matters: it’s hardly the most pressing thing in the world for some scientific discovery about some long-dead-thing to be misreported, so why get so worked up? Simple: journalism is supposed to be about the truth. Journalists pride themselves on getting to the facts, the reality, the truth of something that is happening. This should apply to everything, from “real” news like politics and current events, to science, health, literature, sport, and whatnot. And when you neglect that journalistic duty in any area, you are neglecting journalistic duty everywhere.

In a time where trust in journalism is sorely tested, it is tempting to demand that physicians heal thyselves: in order for people to trust journalism, journalism should be worthy of that trust. And when I, as a precocious dinosaur fan, regularly found myself disappointed with that journalism on a subject I knew well, can you blame me, or anyone, for starting to wonder? For there’s far more at stake here than misrepresentation of fossils: the failings of journalism are being exploited by those with a vested interest in fostering distrust. Politicians say people have “had enough of experts,” and it’s hard to disagree – because experts are so frequently presented as out-of-touch, capricious, or indecisive. After all, if they can’t make up their minds on whether Triceratops or Torosaurus are the same or not, then how can they be trusted on anything?

Nothing in journalism exists in a vacuum. Social media shows the common, sinister thread: that scientists were wrong, or foolish, or heartless to “take away” the beloved Triceratops. At the same time, people are questioning foundational scientific concepts – and the media, who are either not interested or not informed about parity of ideas, promote these ideas regardless of their rigour, plausibility, or the risk of harm they bring. The children rejecting scientists “taking away” their Triceratops will become the youth embracing nihilistic pseudoscience; the adult embracing media-driven anti-immigration propaganda will become the parent rejecting vaccinations for their children. And eroding faith in science, in facts, is something that certain people are very interested in.

I count myself lucky I learned to do what the media should have done a long time ago: read sources beyond the headlines, question everything, and acknowledge there’s always something going on beyond what we read.

You must set your sights upon the heights
Don’t be a mediocrity
Don’t just wait and trust to fate
And say, that’s how it’s meant to be
It’s up to you how far you go
If you don’t try you’ll never know
And so my lad as I’ve explained
Nothing ventured, nothing gained

That’s what makes the world go round

You see my boy it’s nature’s way
Upon the weak the strong ones prey
The human life it’s also true
The strong will try to conquer you
That is what you must expect
Unless you use your intellect
Brains and brawn, weak and strong
That’s what makes the world go round

6 thoughts on “The Young Palaeontologist’s Guide to Media Scepticism: Or, How Bad Dinosaur Journalism Destroyed My Trust in the Craft

  1. Nothing has hurt journalism more, besides laziness, than the incessant desire to be “first” with news. Instead of being willing to take the time and effort to learn what is actually going on, being presented, has been discovered, etc., outlets are glancing over releases and studies and pumping them out on websites and social media as quickly as possible.

    When anyone does an Internet search, these stories come up, meaning incorrect information continues to muddy the water. Adding to this problem are cutbacks in staffing, which make it harder for journalists to have time to check facts and understand information being presented.

    Your example is not isolated. Anyone with in-depth knowledge of a complicated topic will have had similar experiences.

  2. Hugh Wallace says:

    For me it was engineering. But nobody understands engineering like an engineer so why would a journalist?

    My environmental degree had me reading a lot of press, but, you know, it’s science & more complicated than the simplistic way they (in the media) portray things…

    Then I moved into the police. OK, we police don’t always tell journalists everything we know so if stands to reason they’ll get details wrong…

    Then I went into health science. And… They were wrong again…

    Then it was 2014 & I got involved in independence politics & saw the media was wrong mostly all of the time…

    I happen to be professionally or academically qualified or trained in 5 separate disciplines & in every single one of them the media does not, generally speaking, portray the facts & realities if those fields at all well. More often than not they are completely wrong.

    How can I trust the media on any subject I have little knowledge of when I cannot trust them at all on the subjects I have some level of expertise in?

  3. Marconatrix says:

    FWIW how many creatures, living or extinct, are popularly called by their correct and current scientific names? The editors must have been desparate to fill a bit of space, but honestly, when have they not been willing to make stuff up?

  4. […] time, I provided a small example for how bad journalism can transform “this thing is going to happen” into “the […]

  5. […] the Baker’s account has been well-established since… well, the Middle Ages. As with dinosaurs, there’s nothing the press loves more than to present old new as some sort of bombshell new […]

What're your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.