Illiteracy, bad faith or gobbledygook? Chinese whispers of my talk

There is a wonderful table floating around the Internet that translates key words used by scientists, but also gives the terms usually erroneously understood by the public. I don’t remember where I got it from, I have to admit. it is really cool, because it taught me a key lecture about expert gobbledygook, differences in educational levels, and how easy it is to withdraw into the Ivory Tower. Here it is below the fold – read the terms carefully and try to imagine how they can be misunderstood.

OK, I guess you can guess this is leading up to something less general. here we go: As you all have been made duly (or should I say dully?) aware, I recently gave a talk at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and had the great luck to have Nature News report on it. There were other reactions published as well, some great, some vacillating between hilarious and downright stupid. I’d like to share some of them with you.

Here‘s the Atlantic Wire! Let’s see what the text says – is it an accurate portrayal of my talk? And if so, is it just a copy&paste of Matt Kaplan’s Nature News piece?

What would it take for the T-Rex to be considered not scary at all? Other than finding out that a T-Rex had very dull, gummy chompers or that they weren’t humongous, learning that the Tyrannosaurus rex may have been a “power-walker” is probably the least intimidating thing we’ve heard the feared dinosaur being called. But, according to a new study reported by Nature, power-walking is a good description of how they purportedly got around. “These huge animals may have been able to move quite quickly by walking much as race-walkers do,” said the researcher, Heinrich Mallison, a palaeontologist at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, to Nature. And the ironic thing, as Nature notes, is that Mallison’s study contradicts others showing that the dinosaurs purportedly moved even slower.

Well, right on! If I am right about how dinosaurs moved fast, it really would look rather unimpressive – until Rexy got hold of you…. ;) In fact, Eric Hayden has obviously read the source he cites (the Nature News article), he has understood what is being reported, and he has found an angle to report it that is different from the source. OK, the last paragraph of Nature News does use the same aspect, but Eric takes it further, spins the thought along – and then comes back to the main point in the end (that dinosaurs may have been a lot faster than usually believed).

Grade: Very well done! I enjoyed reading this!

Let’s go for another article at a blog called University of Life….. well….. I’ll be nice, because it seems the guy is a nice guy and simply partly misunderstood what I was reporting:

EDIT: he’s a very nice guy indeed, and after a short back and forth of comments has amended his article! Thanks :) /EDIT

Question: Why do scientists insist on tearing theories to pieces like a T. rex shredding it’s prey after a chase?
Answer: Because T. rex wasn’t quite the Olympic-standard athlete that popular film Jurassic Park depicted it as.

No, in actual fact as was already suspected, Tyrannosaurus rex - to full name the famous carnivore – was not a sprinter, nor a runner, not even a jogger. Actually, T. rex was probably at best a plodder, powered by a rather muscular buttocks.
According to Heinrich Mallison from Berlin’s Natural History Museum, it’s more likely that T. rex and other dinosaurs took short but quick strides.
“Race-walkers get big butts and little muscle associated with their ankles, and this is exactly what we see in dinosaurs,” added Mallison, who presented his work at a Conference for the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology.
In doing so, Mallison contested an archaic formula that was previously used to calculate animal speeds from fossilised footprints.

Secondly, and simply to clarify, Tyrannosaurus rex only appeared late in the Cretaceous era [145-65 million years ago] which followed the Jurassic [199-145 Mya].
For a more up-to-date portrayal of T. rex alongside its Cretaceous companions, watch Planet Dinosaur episode 3: Last Killers.
So there you go folks, not everything you see on TV is reality, or at least fossil reality, or at least accepted fossilised reconstructed reality.

Paper: Kaplan, M. 2011. Tyrannosaurs were power-walkers. Nature doi:10.1038/news.2011.631.”

Hmmmmm! OK, he did italicize the binomen…… but aside from that, there is the word “plodder”, which has all the wrong connotations! People think of plump, slow, heavy, clumsy. Certainly not of race-walking. Oh well! EDIT: gone now! :) /EDIT

Furthermore, it was not “previously suspected” that T. rex wasn’t a fast runner. John Hutchinson and colleagues stuck a HUGE nail through the heart of the running Rexes of movie lore. Twice! And while I am busy nitpicking: what’s “archaic” = “antiquated” about Alexander’s formula? It is being used even today, and it hasn’t even been around for half a century. EDIT: that’s gone now, too! /EDIT

Besides, I love the way the author slips in a plug for Planet Dinosaur. And turns a Nature News piece into a Nature paper. He does get one basic thing right: TV isn’t reality, so overall I’ll give a passing grade – but barely! Quite obviously, what’s in action here is Chinese whispers, with the author of the new piece not having fully understood the old piece. OUCH!

And now things get really absurd:

In Las Vegas, Nevada; the 71st meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has gone underway – and some very interesting proposals have come about. One of them is Heinrich Mallison’s (of Dinosaurpalaeo) new publication on the locomotory abilities of tyrannosaurids, suggesting that these dinosaurs may have been more like Olympic sprinters than Olympic runners.

The study has found that tyrannosaurids like the iconic Tyrannosaurus had longer strides than previously recognized, the new estimate stride length more than fifteen to twenty feet long. Unlike running tyrannosaurids of the movies, this being called trekking or power-walking, tyrannosaurs with longer strides worked out the pelvis and hips more. This would have given T. rex a big butt, hips and thighs, for anybody who power-walks knows what areas of the body it exercises the most: the glutes and hips. This would make the ankles smaller in comparison and less useful for locomotion.

The paper will be released in the November issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Jamie Kendrick has published an article on the new paper at his blog, The University of Life. As well, the author of the “T. rex, big butt” paper – Heinrich Mallison – will keep you updated about it on his blog, Dinosaurpalaeo. Nature News has written a report on the subject.

This appeared at Naturally Selected. Aside from the English – what’s that semicolon doing after Nevada? Who goes underway? and so on. However, check the bolded part (bolding mine): it is a clear contradiction of what I said! And it is even self-contradictory, because trekking and power-walking (in the sense of racewalking) are far from being the same thing. Double-, triple-, quadrupel-OUCH!

Even worse: this article makes up some stuff. I didn’t give any numbers on stride length in my abstract, in my talk, or in the Nature News article. Nor did the article cited above, from which this article was obviously created, give any (made up) numbers. And the made-up stuff is contradictory to what I wrote and said!

The funniest thing, however, is that my talk abstract gets promoted to a full paper. I wish it was that easy!

Grade? FAIL!

So where does this stem from? Is the authors simply unable to read? Or did he intend to misrepresent my work? Or was either my talk abstract or one of the articles about it too complicated and too hard to understand?

I believe we can exclude illiteracy – the author has quite a blogging history (google his name or email!), and the English seems pretty solid.

Bad faith? I think we can exclude that as well. This is not an issue – like climate change or religion (creationism) where there are strong beliefs or business interest at play.

Or is this a case of gobbledygook? Again, I do not think so, at least not all of the weird stuff! My abstract was coached in pretty demanding language, I admit. Nothing you can easily understand fully if you only skim it. But: “However, if dinosaurs combined high SFs with short SLs, they were able to move far faster for given maximal forces in the joints than previous models suggest” is a sentence that explicitly mentions short strides, not long ones (SF and SL were defined previously in the abstract). If we go to Nature News we can find this: “stride length was extremely limited by the conformation of the skeleton” and “dinosaurs could instead have used their powerful buttocks to take short but very rapid strides“. And the article from University of Life quoted above, the one that seems to be the direct source of the troublesome piece, has “it’s more likely that T. rex and other dinosaurs took short but quick strides. ” How do you turn that into “Tyrannosaurus had longer strides than previously recognized, the new estimate stride length more than fifteen to twenty feet long”? That’s not a problem caused by the original presentation being to difficult to understand!

In the end, it seems to me that the article at Naturally Selected suffers mainly from the reasons that make the game of Chinese whispers fun:
1) no chance to know the original version [except second participant] (author wrote based on a post that was likely based on a post)
2) no chance to hear the sentence twice (author wrote in haste, without bothering to fact check)
3) no idea about the topic [if far enough down the line] (author is a young boy with a very limited grasp of biomechanics)

I’ll blame him for 1 and 2: you can always look for original sources, or at least more detailed accounts, and you can always take the time to read a source twice, and check what you typed. I won’t blame him for 3, because very many people, even experienced biomech people, had trouble wrapping their minds around the concept of racewalking dinosaurs.

This does teach me one thing, though: I should try to be more clear in how I formulate abstracts and papers. Anything that goes out to the public should be written in terms the public can either understand, or very quickly look up. Time to get wikipedia up to speed ;)

Desert today is another Pittsburgh Tyrannosaurus rex picture, and one with a very unusual perspective. Dave Hone has blogged extensively about the tyrannosaurs in general and the CNMH Rexes especially, including some very unusual perspectives (thanks, Dave! I enjoyed all that!). I have another one for you:

Cast of a CMNH specimen at the Pittsburgh airport.

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About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy working at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
This entry was posted in CMNH, Dinosauria, Open Access, Science communication, SVP 2011, Theropoda, Tyrannosauridae, Tyrannosaurus. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Illiteracy, bad faith or gobbledygook? Chinese whispers of my talk

  1. thereviewer says:

    Thanks for the pingback Heinrich, your awarding of a pass grade and your constructive criticism :) Also, my apologies for aggravating your nit-picking urges!

    Admittedly some of the language used in my piece is ambiguous, misleading and in cases, erroneous. The words “trekker” and “plodder” are both classic examples of this, and my use of “archaic” is also unnecessary. My post title should instead be: T-rex: Power-walker not runner.

    However, I do not see why you take issue with my cross-referencing of the Nature article when explaining that T-rex’s took “short but quick strides”. Surely the term “quick” can be used interchangeably with Nature’s use of “rapid”?

    The KEY point I wanted to convey to my readers was that T. rex is not (currently accepted to be) a runner, which even you may attest I achieved, albeit not convincingly.

    Please do reply, I look forward to hearing from you,

    Jamie

    • Sorry, Jamie, I can’t find where I take issue with your post about cross-referencing Nature News?! And where do I complain about “quick” and “rapid”?
      The post that screwed up was the one I discussed last! :)

      • thereviewer says:

        You are right, in effect there is a classic game of Chinese whispers in action. I confess to reporting on Matt Kaplan’s Nature news article, which in itself makes my article at minimum a secondary source. And I shouldn’t have referenced that as a “paper”, incorrect again.

        I opted for the word “suspected” because, although controversial, obviously there is an element of guesswork to all palaeontological studies. Hence, nothing in that sense can be de facto proven, or disproven, as we weren’t present 68 Mya to witness T. rex in motion. Gather my thread? Rather a concensus is met, in this case Hutchinson’s. Theories change quickly.

        I cannot account for the figures detailed by Taylor from Naturally Selected. However, I will enquire as to where he got them, his sources and encourage him to enter this most singular discussion.

        Thanks,

        Jamie

  2. dmaas says:

    Dessert.

    (Lecker.)
    btw. I’m back from “vacation”!

  3. thereviewer says:

    Amendments made. Better?

    http://jkendrickensis.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/t-rex-trekker-not-runner/

    Thanks for drawing my attention to it, in future I won’t sacrifice facts when attempting to “jazz up” my writing. I did understand your meaning and also Kaplan’s report, but in the quest for a decent story I inserted some daft adjectives and misleading word switches.

    Do remember that MY intended audience is the intrigued layman/woman and general public, not the carnivorous community of blood-baying scientists.

    Jamie

    • Many thanks, Jamie! This now avoids the wrong impression of “plodder” very well!

      I fully understand that you need to write with more “grip” to get laypeople abroad, especially with all the hype going on in movies and on TV. One thing you can always try, however, is emailing the scientist and asking for a check of your article. I’m always willing to set minor things straight, or explain in more detail.

      Again, thank you very much! it is rare that an internet writer bothers to react to criticism, however well-meant! You’ve set an example to follow :)

      • thereviewer says:

        Thanks Mr Mallison, I’m glad you are satisfied with the new version! It must be frustrating when people misconstrue or misrepresent your work, I can appreciate that.

        All I strive is to be a better writer, your feedback is most useful to me. I never thought of contacting the academic directly, but will consider it in future. If only all scientists were as co-operative as you.

        Good luck with your future work,

        Jamie

  4. Pingback: More “press” for my talk | dinosaurpalaeo

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