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.