Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Getting Over TriceraFAIL

triceratops
Illo by Homie Bear, via Flickr.

The world-devouring juggernaut that is TriceraFAIL continues to wreak its singularly depressing breed of havoc. Check out this weird piece from the Chicago Tribune. Or this one, from yet another clueless tech site with easily provoked commenters. Like ducks and bunnies on a carnival midway, the mistakes and lazy inaccuracies tick by, begging to be shot down.

TriceraFAIL isn't simply about sloppy, bandwagon-jumping reporters. It's a viral phenomenon, too. It appeals to some strong impulses. There's the distrust of science. There's nostalgia. There's the goofin' around factor. I don't blame the folks who start "Save our Triceratops" campaigns. In a strange way, it's comforting. People still have emotional attachments to these long-dead animals. That's cool! It's unfortunate that their actions have been inspired by crappy reporting, but at least they care.

Despite the debilitating rage I feel when I read another TriceraFAIL story, I think I've finally convinced myself that really, it's not that big a deal. I'm done feeling the need to respond to them. Science has plenty of problems with the media, and this isn't a particularly interesting one; I mean, it has to do with nomenclatural rules. No one who seriously wants to tell science stories thinks that naming standards or cladistics are going to ignite anyone's passion for science (anyone lining up for the first issue of Willi Hennig Adventure Comics?). And that's fine. Part of the challenge of writing about science is figuring out what needs to be communicated. I believe strongly in the elegance of simplicity, and if you look at those moments that nature made the biggest impact on you, I'd wager that most of them were pretty simple. The same goes for learning scientific concepts. That's why Don Herbert is so fondly remembered.

TriceraFAIL is a failure of science reporting, which is bad enough. Worse, it's a failure of science storytelling. It's a lack of imagination. It's being too bored to do more than a perfunctory scan of the source material.

If you're looking for another beacon of light in this TriceraFAIL mess, I have a suggestion. George Hrab deals with the Scannella/ Horner Triceratops paper on the latest episode of his Geologic Podcast, thankfully not misinterpreting the paper or freaking out about it. Instead, he sees it as a sterling example of science's ability to adapt as facts become clearer. There may be an odd little issue here and there - for example, I've heard nothing about the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature ruling on the matter - but such things are easier to forgive in this case. Hrab saw precisely what is wonderful about this story, and didn't get derailed by screams of misguided protest.

10 comments:

  1. David, I love the idea of the elegance of simplicity. One of my clearest memories of nature that impacted me as a child was the delicate shell that the cicada left behind. It felt so light in my hand that I doubt that its weight was measurable. Yet the lacy detail of the shell was a work of art. That image is etched in my mind forever.
    Your love of dinosaurs and the scientific information you share with us is what makes us come back again and again to your blog. We trust that you do your research and your integrity is unquestionable. That's why Love in the Time of Chamosaurs will never be a Failblog.

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  2. I like your sentiment here. Ironically, the only people I know who haven't even really batted an eyelash are the people I know in the paleo and scientific community. From other friends, however, I'm getting a lot of emails entitled "DID YOU SEE THIS?!" with an accompanying article, each as useless as the next. I feel so uninspired to respond to them. Thanks for the coverage :)

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  3. The ICZN gets absolutely NO say in the matter unless and until someone brings a petition concerning the nomenclature (not the science, however: ICZN doesn't get to dictate reality...). In fact, I see no issue that they could address here. The question is simply scientific: are specimens currently labeled Torosaurus a distinct species? If we regard the science as saying they are not, then Toro is sunk. That's that.

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  4. Hi! Thanks for using my now scientifically inaccurate Triceratops pic. Talk about fail, right?

    Cheers!

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  5. If I set up a FB group, "Save the Torosaurus", would anyone join it?

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  6. I cannot believe this is still going on. I'm particularly disappointed in the Chicago Tribune article. With the Field Museum right there, I'm sure someone would have been willing to talk to a reporter and set the record straight.

    But you're right. In the grand scheme of things, it's not that big of a deal so much as it is unfortunate. When people send me links to the story now, I just forward them a bunch of other links (which will now include this one as well) and leave it at that.

    Oh, and just for the record, cladistics DEFINITELY ignites my passion for science!

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  7. Gypsy & T-Rexy - Thanks for the kind words, but I had a very tough time reading your comments - not enough cussing, misspelling, or condescension. Get with it!

    Homie - I love it! I wouldn't change a thing.

    Chris - I've always liked Torosaurus! I'm not particularly happy that it might be a goner.

    David - Yeah, the Trib should know better... but then they all should. and as soon as the first issue of Willi Hennig Adventure Comics is out, you'll be the first to know!

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  8. Haha, awesome. But in all seriousness, is that something you're working on? Cause if not, I might have to make it a side project...

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  9. LOL, not at the moment, so if you've got the time and the will to do it, you have my blessing.

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  10. Another case of the rush for a short, attention-grabbing headline taking over and the facts getting lost in the shuffle. Here is a fascinating scientific question being reduced to an inaccurate title. This is the same process that inspires Congress to create titles such as "No Child Left Behind" to cover up the real issues underneath.

    With apologies to They Might Be Giants and Istanbul (Not Constantinople):

    Triceratops was Torosaurus
    Now it's Triceratops, not Torosaurus
    Been a long time gone, Torosaurus
    Now it's Montana delight on a moonlit night

    Every researcher of Torosaurus
    Studies Triceratops. Not Torosaurus
    So if you've a skull of Torosaurus
    It’ll be displayed as Triceratops

    Even old Apatosaurus was once a thunder lizard
    Why they changed it I can't say
    People just liked it better that way

    So take me back to Torosaurus
    No, you can't go back to Torosaurus
    Been a long time gone, Torosaurus
    Why did Torosaurus get the works?
    That's nobody's business but the ICZN

    Triceratops!

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