Monday, December 7, 2009

Clash of the Dinosaurs

The Amazing Transparent Deinonychus from Clash of the Dinosaurs

The Discovery Channel's hype machine has been in high gear lately in anticipation of the premiere of Clash of the Dinosaurs last night. I haven't had a chance to watch it and probably won't until it comes to Netflix or Discovery puts it on their website. However, reviews are popping up on the paleoblogosphereorama. Matt Martyniuk of Dinogoss, Asher Elbein of The Faster Times, and Brian Switek of Dinosaur Tracking and Laelaps have all posted reviews that are well worth reading.

All three have reservations; they agree that the animated sequences are too short and are repeated too often, and that substantial illustration of the scientific process is all but missing. Animation may expensive, but communicating a scientific concept really doesn't have to be. Discovery has to realize this' look no further than their long-running Mythbusters for an example of a show that gets plenty of science into an entertaining hour.

Martyniuk's review goes into detail about the good and bad points of the dinosaurs' anatomy. This is stuff that the average viewer probably doesn't care about - things like the number of claws on Triceratops' front foot, for example. Keep in mind that this is ostensibly a science program, on a science network, and the producers of the show should be held to a high standard. Comparing COTD to the History Channel's Jurassic Fight Club, Elbein writes, "In both shows, the proportion of evidence to evisceration is badly skewed. What little science is present is hidden in a welter of didactic pronouncements, half truths, and speculation." Speculation like COTD's assertion that "Quetzalcoatlus had excellent vision and could detect the UV traces of urine trails from miles up.” This is a non sequitir; it has no basis in science. I've also heard that Iguanodon was the dinosaur with the best penmanship.

Speculation is interesting and fun. Michael Crichton's frilled, poison-spitting Dilophosaurus was a huge leap. But he was writing a mass-market thriller, which has no burden of accuracy (not only that, Jurassic Park starts with a disclosure of such flights of fancy). If there is some kind of basis for a theory of how a long extinct creature saw, we should be presented with the reasoning behind it. That actually reveals something of the scientific process, and that should be the ultimate goal.

I'm not saying I'm not going to catch COTD the first chance I get. I set grievances aside to watch animated dinosaurs go buck wild. It's one of those cases in which we need a bit of nutrition with our dessert, though. The nice thing is that eventually, knowledge about the natural world exceeds the thrill of spectacle. I know I'm not alone in that sentiment.

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