Scientist, Filmmakers Clash Over Dinosaur Documentary

Earlier this month, the Discovery Channel premiered the four-part documentary miniseries Clash of the Dinosaurs. I was not all that impressed. It was good to see some scientists get some air time, but overall the hyperbole and repetitiveness of the show made watching it a bit of a chore.

Some of the scientists involved in the show were not too pleased with the final product, either. Sauropod expert Matt Wedel was one of the talking heads on the program and he recently presented an entire litany of problems with the show.  The most egregious error? The distortion of one of Wedel's quotes through some careful editing by the show's creators.

The basic story is this. For years there has been a myth that dinosaurs had a "second brain" in their rumps since the ones in their heads were so tiny. The production team behind the show had heard about it and wanted to include it in the show, but Wedel tried to set them straight. In an e-mail sent during the show's production he explained that vertebrae in the sacral (hip) region of sauropods do show an expansion, but so do the sacral vertebrae of many other vertebrates (including yours and mine). The significance of this is that many basic body movements are controlled by the spinal cord rather than the brain itself, so the expansion of the spinal cord in some areas is for the purpose of accommodating more cells that can regulate these movements on their own. The brain only gets involved when you need to think about where you are stepping. On top of that, there was a second expansion in sauropods that might be similar to a similar one in living birds that contains something called a glycogen body, though what this feature would have done in dinosaurs is unknown. Generally speaking, though, there is no evidence that dinosaurs had any sort of second brain.

But the production team really wanted to talk about the "second brain," and during Wedel's on-camera interview they asked about it. He explained that it was an old story but there was not anything to it. In the editing room, however, someone chopped up his quote to make it sound as if he endorsed the idea, and that clip wound up in the final show.

Wedel brought this (and other errors) to the attention of the production company. Their response? They went ahead with the "second brain" myth because their audiences would not be able to understand what scientists really knew about the expansion of the spinal cord. They quote-mined Wedel, they said,  to meet the "demands of audience." In pushing ahead with the story they wanted to tell, Wedel argues, they not only misled the public but made him tell a lie.

Wedel brought his case directly to the Discovery Channel, and they agreed to change the show so that he would not be saying something that was not true. Wedel will still be in the show, but if you see the show on television in the future or on DVD, you will not see him talking about second brains in dinosaurs. It is wonderful that the turnaround on this problem was so fast, and I am glad that that Discovery Channel listened carefully to the complaints of a scientist.

Even so, the fact that this happened at all is troubling. Documentary filmmakers—who want to bring scientific discoveries to the public—should be just as concerned with accuracy as scientists themselves. Not all production companies are the same, and I am sure some are better than others (see some of the comments on Wedel's first post), but in this case the desire to perpetuate a myth caused the filmmakers to twist a scientist's words. This is a shame.

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