Take a glance at the photo above. It’s a snapshot of a life-size Pteranodon model on display at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The flying reptile – restored life size – looks like the standard image of Pteranodon I have seen in museums and books since I was a kid. The large pterosaur is instantly-recognizable thanks to its long, toothless beak and the slightly curved crest jutting from the back of its head.
Now look at this. Screwy, isnt’ it? The illustration – by Nemo Ramjet – is based on the strange notions of artist David Peters. For years, Peters has promulgated his bizarre, unsubstantiated ideas in print and online. His latest project is ReptileEvolution.com.
As paleontologist and blog friend Darren Naish has just described, Peters’ website is a den of misconceptions and idiosyncratic ideas based on faulty evidence. If you want to see all the gory details, read Darren’s post, but suffice it to say that ReptileEvolution.com does not actually reflect what scientists currently understand about pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and the various other prehistoric creatures that Peters has illustrated.
If Peters’ website were an obscure corner of the web, it wouldn’t really matter. But his illustrations look so good, and his presentation is so shiny, that unwary visitors are easily sucked into the morass of misinformation. (io9 fell for Peters’ unsubstantiated claims a few months ago. See this post from Pterosaur.net for context.) As Darren pointed out in his comprehensive takedown, Peters’ inaccurate site is top-rated on Google when you search for the names of various prehistoric beasties. This is a big problem, since Peters’ reconstructions and ideas about evolutionary relationships don’t actually represent what professional paleontologists have come to understand. Experts can easily spot the flaws, but people who are looking for accurate information on the fossil creatures Peters has illustrated can easily be led astray.
The episode reminds me of the push to get scientists to do more online and social media outreach. I’m all for paleontologists and paleo-artists making the most of blogs, Twitter, and personal websites, but the same tools can also be used by people who maintain unsupported, fringe ideas. I don’t doubt Peters’ enthusiasm and love of science, but that doesn’t change that fact that he’s pushing a misleading vision of how paleontologists study and understand prehistoric life.
So what can we do? Calling out bullshit when we see it is one step, but that, alone, isn’t enough. We need more professional paleontologists to take an active role in communicating science, especially when misinformation runs rampant. And by “professionals” I don’t just mean curators and other experts who make their living as paleontologists. I mean people who act professionally – people with a healthy dose of skepticism who understand how ideas are investigated and tested. As it stands now, paleontology blogs are relatively few and don’t form any kind of cohesive community. I’d love to see this situation change.