The Daily Fail have struck again, this time the poor victim being the rather cool fossil, Metoposaurus diagnosticus. Metoposaurus is an amphibious, er, amphibian from Germany, Italy, Poland and Portugal, and a member of a group called temnospondyls. However, three times in an article published yesterday, the innocent amphibian is labeled as a ‘dinosaur’ – what did it ever to to deserve such dishonour!
Responses on a Facebook group for palaeo-related awesomeness were appropriately snarky, as any child who has ever read a book on fossils, or attended a biology lesson will know that an amphibian is not a dinosaur. There may have been some confusion over the use of the term ‘saurus’, meaning ‘lizard’, but not everything with the name ‘somethingsaurus’ has to be a dinoasaur; for example, Basilosaurus is a cetacean, or whale!
This actually happens quite a bit, with reporters seeming to tag ‘dinosaur’ on to anything that resembles a tetrapod (anything with 4 limbs), including sometimes even…fish (not a tetrapod)!
So, being British, I wrote the Editor of Mail Online a letter (email) requesting that it be changed, as they wouldn’t want to develop a reputation of science miscommunication. The response:
Dear Mr Tennant
Thank you for your email.
We are investigating the points you raise and will revert back in due course.
I don’t have a clue what this means, as I wasn’t asking them to revert anything back, just to change a schoolboy error. Hopefully, they’ll follow up with appropriate changes. I also did slightly admonish them for not fact-checking, as this is a rather fundamental error to have made, and suggested that they consult a palaeontologist in future before publishing palaeo-related articles.
I’m not sure whether this is because I haven’t had any coffee yet this morning, but it is adding to my scepticism that some (many?) non-science-trained reporters simply lack the fundamental background to sufficiently cover scientific findings, or at least get the core facts correct. There are many other examples out there, of exploding ichthyosaurs, 12ft long tyrannosaur pensises, and dinosaurs farting themselves to death, that it seems, perhaps, maybe, that a lot of the time, the real science is dismissed in favour of a catchy headline or twist, and the people who lose out are everyone. Would love to hear additional thoughts on the matter.
.@Protohedgehog They missed out the key Daily Fail question – do fossils cause cancer?
— Freya Harrison (@friendlymicrobe) September 3, 2013
UPDATE: They have now changed the article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2408926/Prehistoric-amphibian-weighing-half-tonne-burrowed-underground-survive-extreme-droughts-230-million-years-ago.html #happyscientist 🙂