Dangerous quote mines: a cautionary tale

Mathew John Wedel (right) is a palaeontologist who specialises in sauropod dinosaurs. Recently, he was invited to be a talking head for Discovery Channel’s new series, Clash of the Dinosaurs. In the making of such shows, experts are often interviewed for hours on end about a variety of topics, which is later edited down to little more than a pithy one-liner. Sound bites are anathema to the complexity of science. Scientists often feel hard done by, after spending hours doing to their best to explain the science, to see it condensed down to a few words.

However, what happened Matt is much more disturbing. It has been long known that sauropods have a swelling in the sacral region, leading some people to suggest that it may have functioned as a second brain. This idea has been thoroughly debunked. When Matt was asked to comment on this here is how the original unedited conversation went down:
”Ok one of the curious things about sauropods is that they did have a swelling in the spinal cord 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 cord. 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 cord. So it’s not just dinosaurs that are controlling their body with their spinal cord, it’s 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 cord 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 drive 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.”

I can only imagine the shock Matt experienced when this got edited down to:
“This was sort of like a second brain to help control the back half of the body.”

This is not what he said at all. In fact, he said the exact opposite, even going so far as to give the reasons why this is a discredited theory. Not only is this downright dishonest on the part of the producers, it also calls into question the credibility of this professional scientist. More generally, it gives legitimacy to the ‘second brain’ hypothesis in the eyes of the public. Understandably, enraged by what he saw, Matt sent an email form Dangerous Ltd, the production company who were responsible for filming the documentary. He received a reply that amounted to a nopology, even having the audacity to say: “we were simply working on the show ever aware of the demands of our audience.” And what about presenting the facts or fairly representing the views of the scientists? Read More...