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?

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Matt talked to a person high up at the Discovery Channel, who promised that the egregious portion would be promptly removed. Unfortunately, this misrepresentation of a scientist is not an isolated case and we would do well to understand why this happens and what can be done to prevent it. The first thing we should remember is that documentaries are, first and foremost, made for entertainment. As a result, most are written by screenwriters and have a predetermined script. One would think that the scientific facts write themselves but this is sadly not the case. It is the job of the film crew to interview specialists, all the time being conscious of the preplanned plot. Scientists should not be afraid to ask to see an outline of the plot. That way they have an idea of what pieces of information the production team are after. When documentary makers interview scientists they are generally looking for snippets that will propel the storyline. This is the reason why hours of footage eventually get edited down to mere seconds. Naturally, the more time you spend talking the greater the chances of something making it into the finally cut. However, this also means that there is more material that can be taken out of context. It is in the interviewee’s best interest to keep the conversation from wandering off course. This can be achieved by negotiating an hourly fee with the production company prior to any interview. Scientists shouldn’t be shy about demanding money for their time. Film crews will often have a budget for this but are normally not very forthcoming in divulging this information. As long as the film crew are cognisant of their budget, they are more likely to cut to the chase earlier on, rather than fishing around for juicy quotes.

While it is tempting for experts to point out the flaws in refuted hypotheses, they are perhaps better off biting their tongues. This way, their words cannot be contorted to suggest that they are in fact a proponent of a viewpoint they firmly disagree with. However, if you are cornered into giving an opinion on a contrary idea it is perhaps best to let your body do the talking. If you can visibly demonstrate your disdain for a particular idea through your facial expressions, it makes it much harder for the editors to later manipulate your words in such a way that they contradict your body language. This requires scientists to really show and perhaps exaggerate their emotions, but heck, if one truly loves their profession that shouldn’t be too difficult to accomplish.

It is important that scientists speak out against any media distortions of science. It is likely that Dangerous Ltd. felt some heat from the negative reaction of bloggers and commentators, subsequent to Matt’s initial blog post. If we don’t take a stand, we are simply emboldening sloppy science communication. We should email, phone, or write to these companies and let them know that we are not happy with how science is being misrepresented. As a last resort one may consider taking legal action. While scientists give up many of their privileges once they sign a release form, slander is still slander, and as such is subject to legal action.

Good science doesn’t need to be dressed up or distorted, most especially when we are talking about dinosaurs. While some may cringe at the very thought, scientists more than ever before need to become media-saavy. The media is ultimately interested in a great story and will go to extreme lengths to get it. The case of Matt is not new and their will be many more cases like it to come. Only by being more aware of how the media operates can scientists be equipped to deal with such future misrepresentations.

Related reading
Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs
Clash of the Dinosaurs: Dangerous Ltd document their own dishonest editing
Clash of the Dinosaurs: The Discovery Channel steps up
A scientist is QUOTE MINED on a Discovery dinosaur documentary

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