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Dinosaurs Ain’t What They Used to Be

I grew up with very different dinosaurs than the ones familiar to us today. The names might have been the same—Tyrannosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus—but they looked very different. The drab-colored, tail-dragging creatures looked at home in the steaming primeval swamps they stomped...

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I grew up with very different dinosaurs than the ones familiar to us today. The names might have been the same—Tyrannosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus—but they looked very different. The drab-colored, tail-dragging creatures looked at home in the steaming primeval swamps they stomped around in movies and television, and I loved every minute of it.

Now that I’m 25 and have taken a more academic interest in dinosaurs, I know quite a bit more about them than when I was seven. (Ed. – Or so we hope) They are just as fascinating to me now as they were then, but the idea that “Brontosaurus” lolled about in stinking bogs because it was too big to have lived on land is more silly than realistic. (For more about the lifestyle of Brontosaurus—now known as Apatosaurus—see "Where Dinosaurs Roamed") But despite all the fantastic and out-of-date information I absorbed when I was young, my understanding of new dinosaur discoveries has not been stunted.

According to a paper by Anneke Metz published in the journal Television & New Media (and summarized by our own Mark Strauss), these shows might be promoting fantasy to the detriment of reality.

“CGI is, after all, just a highly sophisticated cartoon,” avers Metz, and the development of this technology has allowed television studios to create fantasies unbounded by scientific evidence. That scientists not only allow this, but participate in the blending of science with science fiction, leads Metz to conclude that fame & fortune might have somehow seduced otherwise staid scientists to lower their standards.

There is a lot of hand-wringing over modern documentaries and “edutainment,” but are shows like Walking With Dinosaurs really as harmful as some say? Is the public so brain dead that they can’t parse fact from fiction unless a scientist beats them over the head with a textbook?

The complaints about modern programming could just as easily been raised about the dinosaur shows I saw when I was young. (They carried such imaginative titles as Dinosaur!, Dinosaurs, More Dinosaurs, and Son of Dinosaurs.)

Watching some of them makes me cringe now, particular those that suggested that dinosaurs had survived in isolated jungles to the modern day, but I am still fond of them. They were my introduction to dinosaurs and paleontology, and I didn’t care as much about the information as getting to see the dinosaurs run around and interact with each other. Even more exciting were movies like King Kong where the giant ape battled with a Tyrannosaurus that, even though accurate for its time, is drastically different from the predator as we understand it now. (Watch the clip above!)

Accuracy is of extreme importance anytime science is communicated to the public, but it is also important not to ignore the enthusiasm popular media can stir. There is an important place for carefully constructed, accurate science shows, but not every documentary can be Cosmos or The Ascent of Man. The dinosaurs that appear in books, movies, and television shows today are generally much more accurate than the ones I grew up with, and children today are just as enthralled with them as I was when playing with my malformed Triceratops and “Brontosaurus” toys all those years ago. It might be fun to nitpick about all the little mistakes in new programs like Prehistoric Park and Jurassic Fight Club when among friends who know the latest science, but it is important to remember that the future paleontologists who might be watching don’t care about such fine details. They are excited to see dinosaurs brought “back to life” again, and sometimes I’m just as happy to see that, too.
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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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