Stoking and smoothing my press dislike

As you probably have already gathered from my previous posts I am usually no big friend of the press, or rather of its members. There have been a number of laudable exceptions (one example here), and as my career progresses (cough, cough) I seem to meet a higher percentage of competent journalists. That’s true for professional journalists, even people specialized on science reporting (and no, Brian Switek is not one of them, he is a for-real scientist, even if he does a lot of writing. That’s why his writing is so good!) all the way to amateurs with blogs. I have to admit that the quote of good vs. bad reports on my SVP talk was a lot higher than I suspected, for example. On the other hand, I have seen really atrocious treatment of palaeontology as well as other sciences even in high-ranking newspapers and magazines. That’s to the exclusion of climate science, where ideology plays a huge role in many screwed-up stories.

So it was with great joy that I recently found out that someone had had a systematic look at how journalists screw up (or not) reports on palaeontology. None other than Marc Vincent of Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs fame. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on the topic:

Dinosaurs in the Dailies – a critical analysis of palaeontology coverage in Fleet Street newspapers

Marc was so kind to email me the thesis, but he has made the entire thing even more accessible by blogging a four part series about it. It is a fun read, with all the classic topics: “flying dinosaurs” refers to pterosaurs, not birds, there is utterly ridiculous exaggeration (“A dinosaur the size of a giraffe was capable of launching itself into the air and flying for thousands of miles”), fact-ignoring capitalism (“If we can sell it, we’ll tell it.“), Jurassic Park – all my old friends are there.

Go, read it! It is great fun!

Folks you can trust?

So which news sources can we trust to get stories roughly or completely right? For one thing, there are the news services of major scientific journals. You have a high chance of them not screwing up. Nature News comes to mind, and Science News. There are more, though (I am too lazy to google, go find them youself).

What about encyclopaedic works? Obviously, they tend to be slightly to horribly out of date. It takes a long time to gather all the data together, so new finds made in the interim often don’t make it in there. That is, I am sure, one of the reasons wphy wikipedia is on average as accurate aas the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica (EB): wikiedia gets updated all the time, whereas a book (or CD, DVD, etc.) needs to be edited, printed, distributed, which takes time. Online versions could be more flexible, but then you’d end up selling a product that is less accurate than your webpage – ouch! But at least we can expect big, serious publishers with a good household name to get the basic right, even if the entire thing may be a bit dusty. Or can we? Can we?????

NOPE! Sorry to say: we can’t! Encyclopedia Briatannica Inc. has a series of books out called Britannica Illustrated Science Library. Here’s the link to the 2011 edition. The price is astronomical, but then, if the books are as good as the ad makes them?After all:

“As one of the most visually compelling science sets that students can enjoy, it covers earth science, life science, and physical science in 18 volumes. Created for grades 5-9, each volume provides an overview on the subject and thoroughly explains it through detailed and powerful graphics, turning complex subjects into visual information that students can quickly grasp. Students will be captivated by more than 18,000 unforgettable images-over 1,000 per volume-that simplify and engage, ultimately providing a thorough understanding of each important topic.”

If I read something like this, I immediately become suspicious. I smell a rat, a big fat, one-week-dead festering rat. Here is the blurb again, but this time with the key words that trigger my suspicion in bold:

“As one of the most visually compelling science sets that students can enjoy, it covers earth science, life science, and physical science in 18 volumes. Created for grades 5-9, each volume provides an overview on the subject and thoroughly explains it through detailed and powerful graphics, turning complex subjects into visual information that students can quickly grasp. Students will be captivated by more than 18,000 unforgettable images-over 1,000 per volume-that simplify and engage, ultimately providing a thorough understanding of each important topic.”

What’s so bad about this?

First of all, I dislike the extreme focus on “we have the coolest pics”. Yeah, maybe. But why aren’t you touting the accuracy? “Created for grades 5-9″ I read to mean that they simply grabbed a curriculum (which is horribly outdated, usually), and simply made artists deliver pics. Fact checking…. hm, usually absent. I have simply seen too many of these books to NOT smell a rat here.

Then, they want to provide and overview AND, at the same time, a thorough understanding? That’s advertising gobbledygook. Someone copied and pasted two catch phrases together that simply do not go together. And then they get repeated. In the very next sentence. OUCH!

Here’s a link to the 2008 edition. An official, EB Inc. made PDF version of one chapter made it to me. The one on “Reptiles and Dinosaurs“. Ring, ring – alarm bells! And what’s that stink? Oh, dead rat again….. You can download an example page from each book, so let’s all have a look at this chapter. The current one is identical to the one I have (2008), and given the magnitude of nonsense that wasn’t fixed I guess there were no changes at all in the entire thing.

DL link for example page of “Reptiles and Dinosaurs”.

I sent the publisher, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., an email asking for permission to use graphics and text. Until they reply I’ll stick tot he PDF that you can download for free. Maybe I can get permission to show more later.

So let’s have a peek.

Screw-ups galore!

Fact hell starts with the title of the page: Terrible lizards! Yes, σαῦρος means lizard. But no, dinosaurs are not lizards. And if you use the heading they way EB does, it starts the page with a wrong impression. And titles stick more than text. That’s what I call getting off on the wrong foot. Maybe I could dimiss it as a bit of British chauvinism, after all the term Dinosauria was coined by Owen. but that’s not what the EB PDF says. The introductory text states (barely readable in the free preview):

“...studies revealed that this prehistoric group of lizards included
herbivores and carnivores….

breathe….breathe…..deep inhale, exhale slooooooowly……. better now, better.

1) let’s get this clear from the start: Dinosauria is not a subtaxon of Lacertilia!
2) Dinosauria is not exclusively “prehistoric”. A very large and diverse subtaxon of theropods is doing quite well, currently, thankyouverymuchindeed!

Here’s a live dinosaur for you, just to imprint the reality into your brain, not the EB nonsense:

Very alive and non-prehistoric Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, taking
a bath at the Tiergarten Friedrichsfelde in Berlin and enjoying, well, life!

And while the word “prehistoric” is usually defined as referring to “of or pertaining to the time or a period prior to recorded history“, it is also often defined as (and used that way) “History of humankind in the period before recorded history.” And in some parts of the world, a lot of people believe that dinosaurs and cavemen lived at the same time, in essence: that The Flintstones is a documentary. You do not want to foster that belief in an educational resource – but EB happily ignores the potential misunderstanding.

Enough for now, my blood pressure is rising. More to come, I can promise a slaughter!

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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 Aves, Dinosauria, Maniraptora, rants, Theropoda, Zoos. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Stoking and smoothing my press dislike

  1. Marc Vincent says:

    My thesis might have been the only time that Darren Naish, Nick Davies, Greg Paul and Noam Chomsky have been featured in the same essay…(And Dave Hone too! Lots of him.)

  2. Marc Vincent says:

    By the way, it’s ‘Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs’, not Chasmosaurus. I’m sure David would be very upset. ;)

  3. Pingback: Bloodbath part 1: More on EB’s catastrophic failure | dinosaurpalaeo

  4. Pingback: Predatory Open-Access Publishers? | dinosaurpalaeo

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