The Young Palaeontologist’s Guide to Media Scepticism: The 2018 Taxonomic Tumult

Pretty much.

Last time, I provided a small example for how bad journalism can transform “this thing is going to happen” into “the exact opposite thing is going to happen” through scientific illiteracy at best and wilful ignorance at worst. Given the tumultous nature of science, politics, and current affairs, I’m going to find these comparisons quite useful.

The 2018 Taxonomic Tumult


What it was actually about

Palaeontologists Matthew Baron, Paul Barrett, and David Norman composed a study which proposed a reworking of dinosaur cladistics, changing the familiar saurischia and ornithiscia clades to saurischia and ornithoscelida in the above manner. The theory has promoted much spirited, lively discussion, with a great deal of interest in its implications for dinosaur studies.

It did NOT mean there was some sort of bitter civil war that was tearing palaeontology in two.

How it was reported

When Steve Brusatte heard that a 26-year-old PhD student had radically redrawn the dinosaur family tree – ripping up 130 years of scientific orthodoxy in the process – his first thought was that it must be a joke.
“I thought some crackpot has some new theory and everyone wants to know about it,” he says, recalling how journalists asking for his thoughts on the scientific paper clogged his inbox before he’d even had a chance to read it.
It wasn’t a joke. The paper, published in March 2017, took centre stage on the cover of Nature, one of the world’s most influential and widely-read scientific journals. For Brusatte, who has spent much of his career studying the evolution of early dinosaurs, it seemed to come from nowhere. “It was quite a shocking, iconoclastic article,” Brusatte says. “We were caught off-guard.”

New research on the creatures’ family tree could “shake dinosaur paleontology to its core.”
When I first read Matthew Baron’s new dinosaur study, I actually gasped.
For most of my life, I’ve believed that the dinosaurs fell into two major groups: the lizard-hipped saurischians, which included the meat-eating theropods like Tyrannosaurus and long-necked sauropodomorphs like Brontosaurus1; and the bird-hipped ornithischians, which included horned species like Triceratops and armored ones like Stegosaurus. That’s how dinosaurs have been divided since 1887. It’s what I learned as a kid. It’s what all the textbooks and museums have always said. And according to Baron, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, it’s wrong.
By thoroughly comparing 74 early dinosaurs and their relatives, Baron has radically redrawn the two major branches of the dinosaur family tree. Defying 130 years of accepted dogma, he splits the saurischians apart, leaving the sauropods in one branch, and placing the theropods with the ornthischians on the other. Put it this way: This is like someone telling you that neither cats nor dogs are what you thought they were, and some of the animals you call “cats” are actually dogs.

The dinosaur family tree continues to divide opinion among experts. A team of nine paleontologists from South America and Europe recently published a study in response to a controversial paper from March this year that proposed an alternative phylogenetic classification for some of the most important dinosaur branches (Nature, November 2). The new article analyzed data from the controversial paper by three English researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Natural History Museum in London, and recalculated the genetic relationships between the earliest known dinosaur lineages.

A Brontosaurus is a dinosaur, right? Well, not according to new research.

A dinosaur’s evolutionary history was long thought to be determined by the shape of its pelvis, but scientists behind a new study say that it ‘overturns 130 years of dogma.’

On the one hand, someone who’s familiar with the history of palaeontology might give a cursory glance to headlines like CONTROVERSIAL BATTLE and TEARING PALAEONTOLOGY APART and think “aye, sounds about right.” The early years of the science were fraught with bitter feuds, political vandalism, and all-out academic warfare: compared to things like the Bone Wars, a mere argument over a new theory might be almost quaint. Of course, if you know enough about palaeontology to know about those episodes, then you also know that things have moved on somewhat since the Gilded Age of America. Alas, like much in life, science journalism is marred by a desire for exciting drama and controversial conflict: modern palaeontologists don’t tend to try to destroy each others’ careers or destroy each others’ dig sites. So journalists just write like they are.

This taxonomic theory isn’t the only one, of course. A perfectly reasonable discussion about the nature of a set of Australian dinosaur footprints became “AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS FEUD OVER STAMPEDING DINOSAURS,” for example, and it got so bad that the (by all accounts) very acerbic Dr. Luis Alvarez calling palaeontologists “not very good scientists” became “THE DEBATE OVER DINOSAUR EXTINCTIONS TAKES AN UNUSUALLY RANCOROUS TURN.”

Palaeontology vs Journalism, c. 1925

Yet aside from that hyperbolic Wired article, nobody is claiming that palaeontology is in a state of complete meltdown, with dinosaur experts tearing each others beards out, strangling each other with their ponytails, beating lumps out of each other with trowels or tibia. Nobody has diagnosed the science in a terminal stage of internecine bickering. None save those suffering delusions of wishful thinking are under the impression that the entire study of dinosaurs is under threat of imminent collapse, just because a bunch of people think their science is wrong and called them some unpleasant names. The beauty of palaeontology, or science, or any idea, is that it goes on with or without the more controversial individuals. It survived the selfishness of individuals like Owens or Cope or Marsh, for even given their more reprehensible moments, they advanced the field as far as anyone else; it survived the attacks by luddites and fundamentalists and “realists” who found it a waste of time at best and blasphemous at worst; it survived non-palaeontologists calling them “not very good scientists” and the indignity of being represented by the worst guy on Friends.

There’s probably a lesson to be learned here.

3 thoughts on “The Young Palaeontologist’s Guide to Media Scepticism: The 2018 Taxonomic Tumult

  1. Marconatrix says:

    It’s perhaps worth noting that 99.9% of science, for better or worse, goes on without any real interest from the press or public at large, but then stand-up fights are even rarer.

  2. grafter says:

    LET’S ALL GO TO BANNOCKBURN !! Saturday 23rd June !!

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