Bloodbath part 1: More on EB’s catastrophic failure

So here is the promised bloodbath – at least as much of it as I can write down without suffering a stroke 😉

As previously mentioned, I emailed Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. for permission to use images from their Illustrated Science Library, particularly the part: “Reptiles and Dinosaurs”. No response yet. You can still get a free preview here. It includes pages 8 and 9, in fact a double-page that contains information on dinosaurs in general, with a focus on useless tidbits of information and anatomy. At the bottom is a timeline with a 15 key(?) taxa shown as rather simple life restorations in gray scale.

Aside from the atrocious headline and introductory paragraph, the double page has, on the right, a table of sorts contrasting Ornithischia with Saurischia. At least, that’s probably what was intended. And what the caption says. And admittedly, EB managed to sort the pictures of dinosaur hips and the names of the clades correctly. But that’s as far as they get without pissing me off. The caption for the saurischian hip picture reads:

Lizard Hip
Pelvic structure of saurischian dinosaurs

Uhm, no! Lizard hips for sure do not very much look like this. What they surely mean is “reptile hip”. By substituting “lizard” for “reptile” EB seems to suggest that saurischian dinosaurs shared the derived characters of squamates. That’s not true, and the same mistake they already made in the introductory paragraph. Repetition suggests that it is not a simple mis-type, but rather a profound lack of understanding on part of the author and all proofing editors. Whoever wrote this really has no idea that dinosaurs are not lizards!

You may now say that I should let this slide, that this type of thesaurus-mistake(*) is to be expected and harmless. But remember, this book/pdf is modeled on the curriculum for grades 5 through 9 (or 10, depending on the edition). It is meant to be an additional resource, and an expensive one at that, for pupils. It should not contain stupid mistakes of this proportion.

And the rest of the “table” is not much better. In fact, the rest consists of insipid drivel, e.g.,
These dinosaurs had hip bones similar to those of today’s reptiles, such as crocodiles and lizards. Many species of saurischian dinosaurs have been found, including Velociraptor and Argentinosaurus. They had long, flexible necks and large claws on the initial digits.
OK, here they have it right, “reptile” hips, and Reptilia includes “Squamata”. Finally. But if you have to characterize Saurischia in three short sentences, what good is it to list the fact that “many have been found”, give two random examples, and then add a sentence that is also (partly) true of ornithischians? In fact, totally true of basal dinosaurs?

The text for Ornithischia is not much more helpful:
Herbivores with hip bones structured like those of birds. The pubis slants backward, parallel to the ischium. Some of the most famous ornithischians were Triceratops and Parasaurolophus. Some ornithischians were protected from head to tail by bony plates.”
– I dislike the unqualified generalizing: it is not certain that all ornithischians were herbivorous. In fact, early and small forms may have been omnivorous (Barrett 2000).
– Again, two genera are listed almost at random. Why not Stegosaurus? Iguanodon? Maiasaura? Edmontosaurus? Sauropelta? Protoceratops? Maybe Triceratops really is the best-known ornithischian, but that doesn’t mean that this sentence should be wasted on listing it. And the second choice – well, why bother? I’d have said something about the ossified tendons so widespread among ornithischians. Additionally, examples for various groups are also given a scant two inches further to the right, in another part of the table. And yes, Triceratops is listed again.
– the Figure is not annotated. Stupid because no layperson will ever understand that the big forward and downward sticking thing in the saurischian hip is the pubis, but the big forward and downward sticking thing in the ornithischians is NOT the pubis. DUH!
– the mention of armor is another useless factoid.

“Better” yet, the next kinda-column contains another useless blurb of text, a life reconstruction picture of one example, and a much simplified (Linnean! AARGH! Why not make it a tree?) classification. They get the Sauropodomorpha – Theropoda split right, but still use Prosauropoda. Oh well. But this part proves that they really talk about all Saurischia here. Then why oh why does the text that goes with the life reconstruction of (what else?) Tyrannosaurus rex read:
FIERCE LIZARDS
Carnivores of the Cretaceous Period. They grew up to 46 feet (14 m) long and weighed up  to 7.7 tons (7 metric tons). Their teeth were like knives.

Uh, what?

Saurischians are fierce squamates that lived in the Cretaceous, never got longer than 14 meters or heavier than 7 tonnes, and had steak knife-like teeth?

Let’s see…….. (I needed an excuse to add a few pictures)

Plateosaurus engelhardti F33 in the SMNS.

MFN Diplodocus carnegii cast.

Nope, not true: one is Triassic, one is Jurassic, one has peg-like teeth and weighs ~ 18 t, one is 18 m long….. I could go on for ages.

So, OK, it seems they copied in a (bad) text on Tyrannosaurus. Heading/text discrepancies are a sign of really sloppy work. Bleh!

The text for Ornithischia is barely better, i.e. equally BS:
ORNITHISCHIANS
Named for the curvature in their thighbones. They could walk on two legs.”

Ah, do we need photos to check? Or will you believe me that hoofed hands indicate quadrupedal locomotion for the larger taxa, as do numerous tracksways? And how can anyone capable of reading and in possession of, say, some 10,000 brain cells not note the “-ischia” in Ornithischia? Which is printed directly next to (and as part of the same contextual feature) the blurb that explains the hip, and notes that “the pubis slants backward, parallel to the ischium“. You might get a suspicion, even if you have no Latin and no Medical Vocabulary, that OrnithISCHIA is not named for the thigh, but for the ISCHIUM. Ornithighia? or Latin, Ornithifemora? Duh!

I have no idea what these guys were trying to teach little kids here. Maybe that making up false facts is a fun exercise. Or maybe that grownups can get away with being clueless and lazy. In either case, they are in the wrong jobs.

I am not done yet with that one double page! And the entire PDF has nearly 45 pages of content, plus a reference list and a glossary, and title etc. OK, not all of that is as stupidly wrong as the dinosaur part. Still, a lot of it sucks. So let’s see one more example for today.

At the top right, above the previously mentioned table on the two main dinosaur lineages, are two short pieces of text on Sir Richard Owen and on the Bone Wars. The text on Owen in unremarkable, although it has a big mistake in it (or is so sloppily written that it seems to be wrong), as it claims that Owen was the first to describe a dinosaur bone. What happened to poor Gideon Mantell? He didn’t call it a dinosaur, but his Iguanodon tooth was the first dinosaur bone described.

The text on the bone wars is decidedly odd, and deserves to be quoted completely:

The American paleontologists Othniel C. Marsh and Edward D. Cope faced off in a very peculiar struggle. They competed to determine who could find more dinosaur bones and species. The competition was plagued with corruption, mutual accusations of espionage, fraud, theft, and even personal violence. Marsh considered himself the winner of “Bone Wars,” but the field of paleontology was the real winner as roughly 130 species were  identified between the two rivals.

This makes it sound as if the two of them had made a formal gentlemanly wager in a bar, then rushed off to the West to dig dinosaurs. But OK, if you need to drag out irrelevant history (irrelevant because this teaches only about human behavior, and nothing about dinosaurs), then a vague memory of a book on the Bone Wars may prompt a harried writer to barf up something like this.

The rules of naming dinosaurs

The EB piece must explain the etymology of the term Dinosauria. That’s really important, because that most definitely is not covered in each and every book a student will encounter in grades 5 through 10, so this curriculum-adapted visual guide just has to fill that gap, even if that can sadly not be done visually. AARGH! Here’s what they do:

DEINOS SAURO
Terrible   Lizard
IDENTITY
The term Dinosauria was proposed for these extinct reptiles by paleontologist Richard  Owen in 1842. The name of each species is based on characteristics of its shape and  physiology, the name of its discoverer, or the location where it was found.

OK, to spice it up they throw in some color (I tried to recreate that here), and there is a fancy bracket under DEINOS and one under SAURO, so that even the most retarded retard will get that “terrible” is the translation of “DEINOS” (sorry, “DEINOS“), and “Lizard” that of “SAURO“. Wouldn’t want to get anyone confused here, y’know? What this has to do with “Identity” leave me a bit clueless. I guess they had to put a header there, and not being able to think of one they simply decided to play thesaurus lottery.

But then – can you believe it – they get another thing right! Two in a row! Owen did propose Dinosauria, and it was in 1842, and he was a paleontologist…. er, well, kinda. We’d call him one today. I doubt he ever did, though. The focus of his work was on extant animals and extinct animals equally. If you want to being to do him justice, call him a biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist. but OK, I’ll let that slide. They needed to reduce the number of words with more than three syllables, in order to keep the fact checkers from going into metal overload. And as we can see from the final result they still retained too many of them, which is why fact checking wasn’t done.

And then, with the last sentence of the paragraph, comes the real crazy. or did I miss out on some strange ICZN rule? You name dinosaurs after shape and physiology, the discoverer or location – and that’s it? So what do we do with Bob Bakker, Robert Sullivan, Victor Porter, Peter Larson and Steven Saulsbury for the crime of naming a dinosaur after a kids mystery novel? I’d say a decade in jail is too good for them. I’d say we read the EB Illustrated Science Library to them over and over for ten consecutive hours! That’s gonna fry their brains.

And then there are David Burnham, Kraig Derstler, Philip J. Currie, Robert Bakker, Zhonghe Zhou, and John H. Ostrom. They can all join the reading, too, for Bambiraptor! Oh, wait a minute, Bakker is a repeat offender! I guess he must be sentenced to rewriting the Illustrated Science Library. That would at least make sure it had cool illustrations and factual texts.

Oh, and need I say T. nedegoapeferkimorum?

OK, I am fed up with this now, the rest of the page is tolerable. Barely tolerable, to be sure, but tolerable. I’ll devote a final paragraph to ranting about the title, and will then rest my case for today.

Nur wo Scheisse drauf steht, ist auch Scheisse drin

There was a German ad for nutella in 1979 with the slogan “Nur wo nutella drauf steht, ist auch nutella drin” (“Only if it says nutella on the label is there nutella in it.” Yeah, doesn’t translate well at all). Predictably, that line has developed a life of its own, and in “Werner“, one of my favorite comic strips, was altered to “Nur wo Scheisse drauf steht, ist auch Scheisse drin.” (Scheiße = shit). And that’s very true of the EB book. “Reptile and Dinosaurs”! “Reptiles and Dinosaurs”! AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The clade confusion begins with the title – no wonder it thrives and prospers on the inside! And predictably, it don’t have no birds. Bleh! And as usual, it is the dinosaurs that suffer. There is no volume “Mammals and wolves”. Or “Invertebrates and trilobites”. Somehow, the ease with which dinosaurs are used to extract money from people apparently makes them the prime victim for abominable sloppiness.

By the way: you ain’t seen nothing yet! More to come one of these days.

_______________________________________________________________

* Thesaurus mistake: in news articles you will often see words used that are not quite correct or simply wrong, but that have a meaning that is a second meaning of a word that would be correct. That’s caused by the desire to not repeat words all the time. Variation sometimes comes hard to scientists – how many words can you use to replace “clade”, acetylcholinesterase” or “taxon” without risking imprecision? There aren’t many, and often they have several meanings, of which one that does not fit the context is often the most common. Non-scientists constantly fall into this trap, they fire up their thesaurus and pick words seemingly at random. It works well in sports reporting, where the name of a player is often replaced by a recent title won (“the aging World champion said….”), the place of birth (“when asked about a transfer the Glaswegian confirmed he’d stay…”), and so on. but it simply does not work at all with science.

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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 rants. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Bloodbath part 1: More on EB’s catastrophic failure

  1. dmaas says:

    If there ain’t no nutella on it, there ain’t no nutella in it.
    😀

    Good rant. My experiences in trying to convince the world of established publishing to invest in digital technologies has me convinced that they won’t be established much longer.

  2. Pingback: drip | david’s really interesting pages…

  3. Dave Hone has a nice post up about tyrannosaur teeth. He does a great job of dissecting the “teeth like (steak) knives” myth. Go, read it!

  4. Pingback: Bloodbath part 2: more outrageous stupidity in the EB Illustrated Science Library series | dinosaurpalaeo

  5. Pingback: 2011 dinosaurpalaeo in retrospective | dinosaurpalaeo

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