Here is a ‘paper‘ that I think would not be accepted by PLoS ONE and yet it was the subject of a report on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning, arguably the nation’s premier morning news show.
Please have a listen. It’s 3 minutes and 51 seconds long. And it’s unbelievable.
The radio report describes findings in a new paper by Professor Brian J Ford that call into question the ability of large dinosaurs to move around on land. They were too heavy to support their own weight, argues Ford, and so they must instead have spent most of their time immersed in water.
Now, to his credit, the BBC reporter Tom Feilden took this paper to Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum who is described as “one of the world’s leading experts on non-avian dinosaurs”. Barrett is unlikely to have come across Ford’s paper because it was published in a little known palaeontology journal called Laboratory News.
Although Feilden makes clear that Ford is not himself a palaeontologist – he describes him variously as a “cell biologist” and “polymath”, he doesn’t deign to tell us where he holds his professorship. Nor does he bother to inform the listener that Ford’s paper has not, repeat not, been peer reviewed. This was confirmed to me in a quick email exchange with Phil Prime, the editor of Laboratory News, who cheerfully also described his publication as a magazine, not a journal.
Barrett was polite but gave the paper short shrift. There will no re-writing of the dinosaur textbooks this year. Feilden could have made this assessment for himself with a quick glance at the paper — it’s a provocative piece that relies as much on rhetoric as on ‘evidence’, none of which Ford troubles the reader with through the tedious (albeit scientific) practice of citation.
I don’t know what Ford is hawking or whether he intends to submit his new theory for peer review, but I do wonder at his ability to enchant the Today program.
Such was his hold over the BBC journalist that, in signing off his report, Feilden could not help wondering whether Ford will have the last laugh: “As another famous scientific dissenter was reported to have muttered under his breath when forced to deny that the earth revolved around the sun ‘Eppur si Muove’ — ‘And yet it moves’.
Dear God, this was pitiful stuff. And it has moved me to formulate the Galileo Rule: anyone comparing a random maverick scientist with Galileo loses their science reporter’s badge.
Update (4-4-12, 12:11): I have since come across several other blog responses (i.e. demolitions) to Ford’s article and the BBC coverage of it. They range from the short and snappy (by Dave Hone), the longer but no less pithy (by Mike Taylor — no stranger to these parts) and all the way to a lengthly and clearly argued disquisition by Brian Switek. Frustrated I may have been, but on the upside, thanks to these bloggers I now know a bit more about how dinosaurs lived and walked.