Paleontologists Sink Aquatic Dinosaur Nonsense

Tales of aquatic dinosaurs have proliferated through the news, providing one more sad example of failed reporting and the parroting of fantastic claims

Were the arms of Tyrannosaurus adapted for catching and inspecting fish? No way.
Were the arms of Tyrannosaurus adapted for catching and inspecting fish? No way. Photo by the author

Earlier this week, the rotting corpse of a discarded dinosaur idea rose from the depths. Brian J. Ford, a television personality and self-styled independent researcher, decided that Apatosaurus, Allosaurus and kin just looked wrong ambling about on land. Unfettered by the accumulation of scientific evidence about how dinosaurs moved and the environments they lived in, Ford decided to set scientists straight by floating an idea that had been sunk decades ago—that all large dinosaurs spent their lives in water. And, like the bad science it is, the idea strained to explain everything about dinosaur biology. Not only did the idea supposedly explain why non-avian dinosaurs went extinct—their watery homes dried up, of course—but the aquatic setting also explained the small arms of the tyrannosaurs. The great tyrants, Ford said, would catch fish and hold them close for visual inspection before downing the sashimi. Ford’s speculation is a buffet of nonsense. There is so much wrong with it, it’s hard to know where to start.

Ford certainly has a right to his opinion. The weight of the evidence absolutely crushes his ill-formed idea, but there’s no rule against making poorly substantiated claims on the internet. Heck, much of the web is sadly founded on such sludge. But I was taken aback by how many news sources not only took Ford seriously, but cast him as a kind of scientific underdog. In a BBC4 Today interview—which helped spread this swamp of insufficient evidence and poor reasoning—host Tom Feilden cast Ford as a Galileo-type hero, boldly defending his revolutionary idea while the stodgy paleontological community refused to budge from its orthodoxy. Despite Natural History Museum paleontologist Paul Barrett’s admirable attempt to set Feilden straight, the radio host concluded that Ford’s idea was a new and exciting notion, even though the image of wallowing sauropods was part of the old image of dinosaurs that had been cast out in the 1960s. As artist Matt van Rooijen highlighted in his latest Prehistoric Reconstruction Kitteh cartoon, it would seem that the old is new again.

Other news sources followed Feilden’s lead. At the Daily Mail, a source not exactly known for reliable science coverage, reporter Tamara Cohen recapitulated Ford’s argument. Paul Barrett again offered a dissenting view at the bottom of the article, but the article promotes Ford’s idea anyway. “Dinosaurs DIDN’T rule the earth: The huge creatures ‘actually lived in water’ – and their tails were swimming aids,” the headline gasped. Hannah Furness did much the same in the Telegraph, summarizing Ford’s statements at length before, in the last line, plunking down a quote from Barrett saying that Ford’s idea is nonsense. Elsewhere, FOX News and Australia’s Sky News ran a syndicated version of the story that followed the same form, and the Cambridge News didn’t even bother to get a second opinion on Ford’s work. But my favorite howler came from the internet-based TopNews, which concluded that “it had become all the more imperative that further research is done on theory so that some sort of conclusive findings can be presented.” No, it isn’t imperative at all. Ford’s idea is not even close to a theory, or even science. Ford’s evidence-free approach doesn’t make any testable predictions, and there is no actual scientific debate to be had here. Repeating “Dinosaurs look better in water” ad infinitum isn’t science, no matter how many journalists are enamored with the idea.

Paleontologists quickly jumped on the idea. Dave Hone and Mike Taylor called out Ford’s idea as old-school nonsense. Scott Hartman dug in at length in his post “When journalists attack!” and Michael Habib wrote a takedown of the bog-dwelling sauropod idea from a biomechanical perspective. And, earlier today, Don Prothero rightly cast the controversy as yet another media failure in reporting science. Prothero writes:

Once again, we have a glorified amateur playing with his toy dinosaurs who manages to get a gullible “journalist” to print his story with a straight face and almost no criticism. Feilden didn’t bother to check this guy’s credentials, consulted with only one qualified expert and then only used one sentence of rebuttal, and gave the story the full promotion because it was a glamorous topic (dinosaurs) and challenged conventional wisdom.

Poor reporting is entirely to blame here. “Amateur, armed with dinosaur models, says all of dinosaur paleontology is wrong” would be a more accurate way to cast the story, and seen that way, it isn’t really worth talking about. But it seems that merely having a controversial, unfounded opinion can be the price of admission for wide media attention.

This is hardly the first time poorly supported paleontology claims have received more attention than they deserve. While it was a minor event, in February io9 ran a story highlighting the unsubstantiated notion that the little pterosaur Jeholopterus was a vampiric little biter that supped on dinosaur blood. The author, Keith Veronese, was clear that the idea was not accepted by paleontologists, but he still romanticized the idea of an outsider rattling the academic cage. The paleontologists behind the blog refuted the vampire pterosaur idea and questioned the usefulness of promoting ideas that lack any solid evidence, though I have to wonder how many people found the specialist rebuttal.

And then there was the legendary hyper-intelligent, artistic squid. Last October, a number of journalists fell for the spectacularly nonsensical idea of a Triassic “Kraken” which supposedly created self-portraits from ichthyosaur skeletons. While veteran science reporters wisely avoided the hyped story, enough journalists paid attention that the hype spread far and wide through syndication. I tore into the nonsense, calling out what I believed to be terrible reporting, and I heard a lot of tut-tutting from my writer colleagues that I was unfairly bashing all of science journalism.

To which I wanted to ask “Well, where were you in all this?” I’m thrilled that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal didn’t parrot the fantastic claims, but the story was still copied and pasted to places like Yahoo!, FOX News, MSNBC, and elsewhere. The story was put in front of a lot of eyeballs, even if cherished journalistic institutions didn’t take part. While nonsense is proliferating, should we really feel smug and self-assured that we didn’t fall into the same trap? Don’t we, as people who care about accurately communicating the details of science to the public, have a responsibility to be whistleblowers when spurious findings are being repeated without criticism? I believe so. We all snicker and sigh as the usual suspects promote sensational claims, but I think it’s important to take that frustration and call out credulous, gullible, over-hyped reporting whenever it might bob to the surface.

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