Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Clash of the Dinosaur Special and Professional Paleontologist

Man, I really wish that I had actually finished my series on science, education, and the media before now. I keep getting interrupted from writing it, and then something like this happens, which perfectly illustrates why I need to talk about it in the first place. This will be another quick, link heavy post, but bear with me until I can flesh out the bones of my larger post over break.

Matt Wedel over at SV-POW was a featured "talking head" in the recent Discovery Channel documentary Clash of the Dinosaurs, and did not have a very good experience. Essentially, the individuals over at Dangerous Ltd., the production company working on the program edited an interview with Dr. Wedel so that it appeared, on television, as if he agreed with an outdated and falsified notion regarding the "second brain" of sauropod dinosaurs. Dr. Wedel was obsiously very upset at this, as his reputation among his peers and collegues could be seriousy tarnished.

He wrote to Dangerous Ltd., and got a response that he was not entirely happy with. Dr. Wedel's exact words, according to an e-mailed transcript from Dangerous Ltd., were as follows:
"Matt 14.45.08 Ok one of the curious things about saurapods is that they did have a swelling in the spinal chord in the neighbourhood of their pelvis. And for a while it was thought that may be this was sort of like a second brain to help control the back half of the body. Erm there are a couple of misconceptions there. One is that most animals control large part of their body with their spinal chord. If you’re going through day to day operations like just walking down the street and your minds on something else your brain isn’t even involved in very much controlling your body. A lot of that is a reflex arc that’s controlled by your spinal chord.

So its not just dinosaurs that are controlling their body with their spinal chord its all animals. Now the other thing about this swelling at the base of the tail is we find the same thing in birds and its called the glycogen body. It’s a big swelling in the spinal chord that has glycogen which is this very energy rich compound that animals use to store energy. Problem is we don’t even know what birds are doing with their glycogen bodies. Er the function is mysterious – we don’t know if the glycogen is supporting their nervous system – if its there to be mobilised help dry [should be 'drive' -ed.] their hind limbs or the back half of their body and until we find out what birds are doing with theirs we have very little hope of knowing what dinosaurs were doing with their glycogen bodies."

To me, this quote very clearly establishes three things: first, that sauropods (like the Sauroposeidon featured in the documentary) do have this swelling in the spinal chord. Second, that birds have it to, and we don't know what it does in them, so we can't know what it did in sauropods. And third, that the idea that it is a "second brain" is an outdated misconception that Dr. Wedel DOES NOT AGREE WITH.

This is how it was edited and how it aired on television:

"One of the curious things about Sauropods is that they did have a swelling in the spinal cord, in the neighborhood of their pelvis. This was sort of like a second brain to help control the back half of the body."
Say WHAT? That is the exact opposite of what he was saying. He was trying to take that misconception out of the public eye, not encourage it. Whether an honest mistake or deliberate modification of someone's words, somebody should have lost their job over this, as it completely misrepresents not only Dr. Wedel, but also the scientific community on the whole. It undermines his professional credibility, and even worse in my mind, presents ideas to the general public that are FALSE. I'm all about increasing the public interest in paleontology and science, as my readers well know. But I have a real problem with production companies or networks not being accurate with their data, and twisting someones words in a deceitful way. It's simply not cool.

Dangerous Ltd. said that they "had no wish to suggest (Dr. Wedel was) presenting an old, discredited argument" and that they "were simply working on the show ever aware of the demands of our audience." I find this pretty offensive too, as it seems to reflect their opinion that they either have to dumb stuff down in order to have the audience understand the ideas being presented, or lie to the audience entirely to keep them interested. I don't mean to sound agressive or harsh with any of this, but it seems horribly wrong to me.

In the end, there was a semi-victory for Dr. Wedel. Discovery is going to fix the mistake before the program is replayed on air or released on DVD/Blu-Ray. But it still doesn't undo the damage already done. People that follow paleo-blogs or get e-mails from the vert-paleo mailing list have been hearing about this, but what about all the people that watched the show, take it as fact, and don't do any research after that? They have been misinformed. I don't know whether the blame falls on Dangerous Ltd., Discovery Communications or anyone inbetween, but this certainly stresses the importance of accuracy and scientific research going into any media presentation - film, print, whatever. The media needs to be held to just as high of a standard as academics are when presenting scientific ideas to the public. When the media makes claims and misinforms, it makes the scientific community look bad. It gives the public ammunition to criticize science with, and reasons to not trust scientific evidence when they should. This is not a good thing, I assure you.

Let me stress for the record that I'm not against these kinds of programs or articles in any way shape or form. I think it's important to get people interested in science. But I think there is a line that needs to be established as well, because if you are going to distort facts to increase that interest, you are no longer supporting good science, and that completely defeats the purpose of this type of outreach in the first place. So while Clash of the Dinosaurs might have made me wince quite a few times, these shows are important in a larger context. But they have to be held accountable for the information they present, and that certainly doesn't excuse situations like Dr. Wedel's.

There will be more to come on the topic of science and the media, I assure you. In the meantime, feel free to check out some of the other articles and posts on this particular instance at the links below. And as always, thanks for reading.

Tetrapod Zoology
The Loom
Archosaur Musings
Dinochick Blogs
When Pigs Fly Returns

Image from Pop Culture Zoo, at


  1. And this is one of the reasons I stopped watching these kinds of shows. I'm fuzzy in the the area of pre-history and the last time a watched a show like this, everything was sensualized and it really seemed like the show was stretching concepts that couldn't even be called theory (mostly musings by scientists) into scientific fact. Generally speaking, when I watch these kinds of informative shows, I like to have some background so I can detect the BS (which always comes when you have the media do anything). It's sad that a show like this didn't make a mistake, or misunderstood something, but deliberately posted the opposite of what was said. Unfortunately, it's also typical.

  2. Hi David,

    Just wanted to thank you for including my site on your blog roll. I'm going to add your blog to mly list of links as well. I also feature a "blog of the week" on my site's community page and will be sure to feature you there soon.

    Thanks again!
    Vanessa Serrao

  3. Ugg, this happens all too often in science shows. The production companies & networks need to hire more producers with a strong science background to make these shows. I've worked at Discovery and know that unfortunately they don't make this a high enough priority. But scientific subjects are difficult to convey correctly by people without the right background.

  4. Fangbite,

    it seems like most networks today are just working as quick as they can to get content on the air, and have it appeal to as large of an audience as possible. I don't know if you watched or heard of the program "Jurassic Fight Club" which aired on the History Channel for a season about a year ago. As cool as it was to watch, there was a lot of speculation/repetition/dramatization involved as well, despite the work put into it by several professional paleontologists. I (obviously) love dinosaurs, and it was hard to stomach for me sometimes. The question is, if networks made programs that only included "the facts", and played out more like a research article, and less like a flashy, dramatic program, would people watch?

    But you're absolutely right. When watching a program like this, it is good to have some background knowledge. And if you lack it before the program, I encourage you to go out and search for it after. Hope all is well with you my friend!

  5. Vanessa,

    thanks for the insight. I kinda beat up on the media a lot sometimes, without giving them a fair chance to tell their side of the story. So it's nice to have someone with a media background confirm things that I've heard from professional paleontologists firsthand. Also, thanks for featuring me on Nature Break. I'll be sure to put up some videos as soon as I film some!