Hawking with Dinosaurs

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.


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24 Responses to Hawking with Dinosaurs

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought that report was shockingly poor. I mean, it’s kind of fun to speculate about whether dinosaur biomechanics might have functioned better in shallow seas, and I don’t blame Laboratory News for publishing Ford’s speculations in a magazine context. But without better evidence — like, say, geology showing the *existence* of shallow seas — Ford’s speculations are just that. They certainly aren’t science, and the Galileo comment made me wince.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Thanks for the link.

    “Here is a ‘paper‘ that I think would not be accepted by PLoS ONE” <– I hope that is a joke. I know that PLoS ONE's status varies quite a bit between different fields of science, but I can tell you that it is very well regarded in vertebrate palaeontology, and publishes consistently excellent papers. Ford's travesty would not have made it past a pre-pre-pre-screening at 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." <– That is the tragedy here. Any clown can publish baseless and easily refutable nonsense in a magazine, but when the state-sponsored serious radio station gives it air-time, something is very badly wrong.

    "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”." <– And so he is. (Worth mentioning since that Radio 4 report said so much else that's not true.)

    I’ve wondered about getting a group of palaeontologists to co-sign a letter to Radio 4 asking for a formal retraction, but I suppose I’ve taken too long over that and the moment has passed.

    • Stephen says:

      Yes – the opening line was a joke — or an attempt at one. I hope my support for PLoS ONE would not be in question! 😉

      I’d say it’s worth making a fuss about. I suspect Tom Feilden knows better and a stink might at least make him think twice in future (though Brian Switek mentioned in his post that he’d crossed swords with the journalist before over dinosaurs). I’d be interested to know where the decision came from to run such a piece — journalist or editor? This sort of thing undermines the rest of their output on science and it should not be that hard to get it right on an issue that is so clear cut.

  3. What struck me first was a sense of déja vu. I remember reading in dinosaur books over 35 years ago that some of the large ones (particularly long-necked herbivores) might have had to spend a lot of time in water because of their immense weight. Not only is this baseless nonsense, it’s unoriginal baseless nonsense.

  4. Stephen Moss says:

    Professor Brian J. Ford clearly hasn’t watched Jurassic Park.

  5. Brian Ford is a well-known and prolific writer on science-related topics, but how exactly is he a ‘Professor’…? And would the Beeb have run with this if they couldn’t have called him ‘Professor’…?

    I think Universities bear a bit of a level of responsibility these days for handing out ‘Professor’ rather too easily, and Honorary Professorships too (which I’d guess this is? Do we know where from?). One of the things you find dealing with Alternative Medicine folk is just how many of them style themselves ‘Professor’, often on rather thin grounds.

    • Aha – the University of Leicester is the culprit – Ford is a Visiting Professor.

      Ford has, to be fair. far more claim to scientific standing than many of the people that Univs have made salaried staff Professors in alternative medicine-related subjects.

      But… among the various things Ford has a track record in (see e.g. here), I can’t find dinosaurs anywhere. So it looks like poor ‘background checking’ by R4, Today, and the journalist.

      • Stephen says:

        It looks like they didn’t make the least effort. It took me a couple of minutes to get an idea of Ford’s academic status… And that of his ‘paper’.

        • I’m quite fascinated by the qualifications etc. issue. I know really credible people and organisations who struggle to get any attention from the media and this gets on Today!

          Reading a profile gives a certain impression. Does “left before graduating to set up his own multi-disciplinary laboratory” ring alarm bells?

          The Wikipedia Talk page for the Brian J. Ford entry is worth a read, particularly further down under ‘Global academic’.

  6. Stephen says:

    And now I remember that I have been here before

  7. Wow – just read the old blog and scanned the comments thread.

    Given that both Feilden and Ford have ‘previous’, I think it is appallingly lazy of Today to let Feilden do such a feeble job, with the same MO, using the same pundit once again talking about something he has no realistic claim to expertise in. The politest word I can think of is ‘shoddy’.

    Since Ford presumably makes his living selling books and articles, I imagine he will not be turning down any opportunities to ‘boost’ his profile. But Feilden especially should be ashamed of himself. That he is the Science Correspondent for Today makes it worse.

    Hope you’re going to write to the Editor of Today and complain, Stephen, citing previous chapter & verse. If Today can’t be arsed to do science reporting properly, what the hell chance is there the rest of the media will?

    • Stephen says:

      Tried to ask a couple of questions on Twitter of both @TomFeliden and @BBCr4Today. But no response. If I get time tomorrow, may fire off an email, though Mike Taylor (above) is organising a letter from palaeontologists who are annoyed at the slap-dash nature of the reporting.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        I sent the letter today at 2pm UK time. The text can be seen at http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/tmp/radio4.txt and the list of signatories is:

        Dr. Mike Taylor, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, UK
        Dr. David Marjanović, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany
        Silvio C. Renesto, Associate Professor of Palaeontology, Department of Theoretical and Applied Sciences, Università degli Studi dell’Insubria, Italy
        Dr. Grant Hurlburt, Department of Natural History, Royal Ontario Museum, Canada
        Dr. Michael Balsai, Department of Biology, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA
        Dr. Bill Sanders, Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan, USA
        Dr. Stephen Poropat, Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University, Sweden
        Dr. Oliver Wings, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany
        Jon Tennant, Independent Researcher, UK
        Prof. John R. Hutchinson, Department of Veterinary Basic Sciences, The Royal Veterinary College, UK.
        Prof. Lorin R. King, Dept. of Science, Math and Physical Education, Western Nebraska Community College
        Scott Hartman, paleontologist and scientific illustrator, SkeletalDrawing.com
        Neil Kelley, Department of Geology, University of California at Davis, USA
        Dr. Matteo Belvedere, Department of Geosciences, University of Padova, Italy
        Andrew R. C. Milner, Paleontologist and Curator, St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, Utah, USA
        Dr. James I. Kirkland, State Paleontologist, Utah Geological Survey, USA
        Dr. Jerry D. Harris, Director of Paleontology, Dixie State College, Utah, USA

        • Stephen says:

          Well done – I hope that elicits some sort of response.

          • I still reckon it would be worth you firing off an email, Stephen. While Mike & co have dealt with the ‘bad paleontology’ issue head on, someone should point out to Today that they, and specifically Feilden, have pulled exactly this same trick before, with a different topic. That is, using the same ‘not really an expert on the science’ pundit presented as an expert, with a piece of ‘work’ that is really nothing but hand-waving. As the saying is, once is forgivable, but twice? And are there more? It smacks absolutely of:

            ‘Slow day – magic me up a silly pointy-head science-lite story, pronto’

            – but then portraying same as serious. Like I said, I think we have a right to expect something better from Today.

  8. To wear the mantle of Galileo, it is not enough to be persecuted: you must also be right – Robert Park


    The CBC went a slightly different way this week with an article delightfully titled “Huge, feathered tyrannosaur surprises researchers”. I immediately had a mental image of it bursting into their lab like the kitchen raptors in Jurassic Park, and a group of people in lab coats jumping out of their skins and screaming loudly.

  9. Belatedly, this is a great post, Stephen. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been having problems getting out of bed in a timely fashion these days, so Radio 4 gets neglected as a result.

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