[Above: Cast of Diplodocus carnegii at the NMH in London. This mount has not been made obsolete!]
The big dino news today has been the paper by Darren Naish, Matt Wedel, and Mike Taylor (all of the glorious SV-POW! blog) that, contrary to studies in the early 2000s, sauropod necks were not constrained to a horizontal position. Note that, if you read the papers or their own blog posts, they're very careful to spell out that this is not to say that sauropods are just going from one constrained pose to another. I read one comment on a news story, where some poor dim soul honestly said the new study must be bogus, because if they held their heads up high, how did they drink? For serious, a human being, presumably without any mental defects, said that. For a second I thought I'd been frozen for 500 years and woken up in Idiocracy.
Generally, the problem with science reporting, as detailed in the comic I posted a few days ago, is that science reporters, who are rarely specialists in whatever particular area they're reporting on, must not only interpret the information given to them by experts, but they also feel the need to severely dumb the info down for a general audience (and, often, try to spice it up or over-exaggerate the importance of discoveries, so people who aren't interested in science will be impressed. See exhibit A).
Here are some examples of news stories discussing today's sauropod neck paper, and either getting things wrong or dumbing it down so much that they're misleading people rather than educating them.
- "Generations of children have been brought up on the idea that that long necked dinosaurs like sauropods, lumbered along with their necks stretched out horizontally." --Channel 4 News
The headline of the Times Online article:
- Natural History Museum's sauropod exhibit 'anatomically wrong': The Natural History Museum's flagship dinosaur exhibit may be misleading because sauropods held their heads up high rather than keeping them low, claim scientists.
Anyway, those are just the first few examples I noticed. The SV-POWsketeers are keeping track of news stories about their research here, if you'd like to play along at spotting shoddy science reporting practices. If you find anything truly ridiculous, drop it in the comments!
Also, bear in mind that this is not a criticism of science reporters per se. Whenever trying to communicate complex ideas in a simple way, you're going to mislead some people. Take a look at the graphic I did for the previous post (linked at the top). Big ol' red X over the WWD Diplodocus. What I meant to convey is that this is no longer the standard, default posture for these animals. Will somebody look at that and think I meant they could not hold their necks horizontally? Unfortunately, it's possible. But maybe it's a problem inherent to the whole approach all the science news outlets seem to be taking. Rather than "New discovery disproves conventional view of sauropods," wouldn't a better tack be, "New discovery shows sauropods had greater range of neck motion than previously thought"? Or does that not sound earth-shattering and controversial enough for Joe Average to care?