‘New Dinosaur Fossil Hailed As Missing Link’

I know this topic has already been covered somewhat (and in a far more entertaining manner) by The Guardian writer Martin Robbins, but I thought I’d shove my own oar in, because it is something that irritates me almost every time I open a newspaper (you may notice that this blog is going a bit ranty at the moment…I blame this on Charlie Brooker (I’ve been watching 10 O’Clock Live and How TV Ruined Your Life lately) and Ben Goldacre (whose book Bad Science I am currently reading)).

Science is very poorly reported in the news, and even institutions that you would expect to take fact-checking and journalistic integrity seriously rarely seem to get it right. And the quality of the reporting seems to go rapidly downhill when they are discussing palaeontology in particular. I have seen new fossil finds hailed as the evidence ‘that finally proves Darwin’s 200-year-old theory of evolution’ (excuse me? Finally proves?! This is a direct quote from a news piece I saw last year (although sadly I can’t remember which particular fossil find they were talking about)), any number of ‘missing links’ which a) weren’t missing to start with, and b) weren’t in fact related to the species the journalist quoted them as being links between, and of course the perennial favourite: any and every fossil animal over 65 million years old being described as a dinosaur.

I am aware that the media have to aim their pieces at the general public who may or may not have a good grasp of science, and that they need to keep things fairly simple, but surely there is no need to call a pterosaur a dinosaur? Everyone can recognise a pterosaur when they see one, so just call it a pterosaur. Most people already think of pterosaurs as dinosaurs, and wrongly naming them as such in news articles just perpetuates this misunderstanding. But I see it all the time. And this is only one example of the level of factual inaccuracy that reguarly crops up in the reporting of biology.

Of course most science journalists are not themselves scientists, and seem to have a limited grasp of their own subject matter, so it’s easy to see how these errors and misunderstandings can creep in. The answer is obvious: hire scientists who can write rather than writers who don’t know science. Or just check your facts before sending an article to press. That is, after all, what Wikipedia is there for.

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