Earlier this week I received a press release about pterosaur takeoffs from Texas Tech University. Rather than launching into the air through a pole-vault motion, as paleontologists such as Michael Habib and Mark Witton have argued (check out the video), the email said that giant pterosaurs such as Quetzalcoatlus required a “10-degree downhill slope” where they could “taxi” by running and flapping before taking off. Only under such restricted conditions could an animal with a 34 foot wingspan get into the air, the release claimed.
I didn’t pay much attention to the news suggestion. There were no details about the actual science, presented at the annual Geological Society of America meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the study came from controversial paleontologist Sankar Chatterjee and colleagues. Previously, Chatterjee confused a crocodile cousin for a tyrannosaur ancestor, wrongly touted an assemblage of isolated bones from different animals as the first bird, and, despite the lack of evidence, proposed that some crested pterosaurs windsurfed through Mesozoic waters.
Every scientist makes mistakes, and being wrong some of the time doesn’t mean a researcher is perpetually in error, but, in this case, I didn’t trust the source and the hypothesis made no sense to me. How could large-bodied pterosaurs have possibly survived if they always required just the right slope and just the right wind direction to take off? When there’s a tyrannosaur or Deinosuchus nearby, you really don’t want to wait to get into the air. I felt Habib’s quad-launch idea was better-supported, and, since the press release was based on a talk without any paper to look at, I figured I’d wait for a publication to write about the topic.
But other news sources decided to pick up the story. A basic rundown of Chatterjee’s proposal popped up at LiveScience, syndicated over at the Huffington Post, and on other web-based news sites. None of them mentioned previous work by Habib and Witton. Even LiveScience, which ran a story about Habib’s paper on the subject in 2009, neglected to get an outside comment or even acknowledge other perspectives on the topic.
Witton rightly excoriates the press coverage of Chatterjee’s press release over at the Pterosaur.net blog:
By bigging up their abstract rather than a peer-reviewed publication in which their methodological details and discussion are explained in detail, Chatterjee et al. have given the impression that their work is more scientifically credible than it actually is. Science journalists have lapped the release up, presumably because giant pterosaurs are cool, but they have not mentioned the lack of a detailed peer-reviewed study behind the findings, nor (in the majority of cases) bothered to find out what other palaeontologists make of the story.
As Witton notes in the same post, this isn’t the first time press releases have been parroted through online news sources – last year’s GSA meeting, for example, gave birth to the fantastic “artistic Kraken.” The trend isn’t new, and highlights a never-ending problem in the online science communication ecosystem.
Science is messy. New studies and papers aren’t recently-divined truths that we can treat as mysteries solved, but interactions of fact, theory, and imagination that spur further debate and investigation. Missteps and misapprehensions coexist with new finds and more refined views of old problems. Yet, despite the fact that science itself is a “tangled bank“, science news reports often takes the extremely narrow views – focused on one paper, one technology, one find in the field isolated from what has gone before.
My aggravation with the press coverage of Chatterjee’s talk received doesn’t spring from the fact that LiveScience and other outlets covered the story. I’m not about to tell other writers what they can and can’t write about. But each of the sources I mentioned fumbled in not acknowledging previous work, or including outside commentary. Chatterjee’s presentation is part of a long-running investigation about how pterosaurs took to the air. Ignoring that point, and treating a non-peer-reviewed talk as a new fact to catalog, does a disservice to the science and to readers.
The fragmentation of science news is part of the ailment. Every science writer knows this well. There are relatively few places with full-time science desks where the reporters closely follow a specific beat. As a result, science news goes through a journalistic meat grinder run by journalists with little experience with the fields they are covering. That makes it easy for press releases – parasites in their own way – to find willing hosts.
We need specialized science writers. We need people who know a particular field well, and recognize when a story just isn’t worth reporting. A good science writer is an expert as well as a scribe. Reading papers and attending talks is integral for anyone who wants to achieve that status.
Every now and then a debate breaks out over whether journalists and science writers should read the papers they write about. Cue moans and wails that reading technical papers is difficult and unnecessary. Bullshit. Sifting through the technical literature is essential for knowing who’s working on what, how individual studies fit into broader discussions, whether the researchers actually did what the press release says, and, maybe most importantly, learning how to think like a scientist and not just a storyteller. If you’re a science journalist, your job is to read the paper and find appropriate experts to weigh-in on the findings. Otherwise you run the risk of becoming a stenographer – repeating what journals and universities dictate via email.
This pterosaur flap isn’t major news. The controversy isn’t at the level of Arsenic Life, or even Darwinius. Nevertheless, this isolated instance underscores a persistent weakness in the science news cycle. We need more context, more analysis, and the experienced writers able to bring those values to the forefront. Brief, 500 word missives on new research serve their purpose in disseminating information about what’s new in Nature, Science, and PNAS each week, but what good do these articles do if we don’t infuse them with a guide to the broader scientific perspectives in which they fit? When we dispense with history and context, we obscure the wonderfully chaotic mess of science behind a weak, drab facade of gradual fact accumulation.