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The Media, Trash Science, and Paleontology

Jere H. Lipps
Department of Integrative Biology & Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720 USA

Paleontology is the most popular science among the general public worldwide. Only astronomy comes close to it. The recent movies, TV shows, books, and magazine articles based on or including paleontological themes are seen or read by hundreds of millions of people around the globe. That interest and attention puts a good deal of responsibility and obligation on paleontologists whether we want it or not.

Much of what is presented by the media regarding paleontology is simply wrong or misleading. This provides us with a great opportunity, as well as an obligation, to improve scientific understanding among adults and kids alike; most of whom are scientifically illiterate. As paleontologists, we should take every opportunity to correct mistakes and outright foolishness about our subject in the media as well as to praise the good media work we do see. This is getting easier every day, thanks to the Internet and email.

We must be vigilant, for people in general love mystery, conspiracy, and lazy thinking. These make the public gullible! Public gullibility costs societies everywhere in missed opportunities, lost income, destroyed resources, and wasted money. Our science, in fact science in general, is just as intriguing and appealing without the sensationalistic or erroneous content, but we have too few good representatives telling this side of our story. It’s important in the world we live in today that the average person understands and practices scientific reasoning. Paleontology, because of its popularity, can help. But how can we do this? Let me suggest some tactics that work.

When we see trash-science in the media, we should respond immediately with rational and intelligent commentary to the networks, sponsors, producers, writers, editors, and management. You may recall "The Mysterious Origins of Man" (MOM), a so-called documentary, first shown on NBC television and then on the "Learning Channel." MOM used many pseudoscientific and false authority tricks to convince viewers that humans were hundreds of millions of years old, that they lived with dinosaurs, that dinosaurs were still alive today (and they did not mean birds!), and that all this and more was being covered up by the scientific community. Both NBC and the Learning Channel presented it without comment, much like the alien documentaries that ran during the Learning Channel’s "Alien Abduction Week." Had either NBC or the Learning Channel added commentary or real authorities, a genuine learning opportunity might have taken place. But they didn’t. This kind of misrepresentation on a powerful, pervasive medium like television is simply wrong and irresponsible. The core issue is not one of freedom of speech or expression. Rather it is a matter of responsibility. MOM deserved—even cried out for—scientific commentary. However, NBC and the Learning Channel ignored that. As a result, students around America came to their teachers and parents with comments and questions that neither could answer. In the case of MOM, many of you responded to my loosely organized e-mail campaign to contact those in charge. We were successful, too, for we got considerable replies from the producer, some sponsors, and local TV media personalities. Science Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Jose Mercury News all ran stories on the problem and our efforts to correct the errors we saw. Although NBC did not respond to us, TV does take note of these kinds of responses. The MOM incident was an isolated case; but it served to illustrate our profession’s need to develop a general and simple plan for future action.

All commercial media organizations worry about two things—ratings and demographics. All of them hope to be number one or as close to it as they can get with their presentations. Viewer ratings are a measure of their audiences and their audience is what commercial media organizations sell to advertisers. Advertisers are slightly more picky. Not only do they want to be seen by many people, but they want to be seen by the right people—those with money and with an interest in their products. In other words both media organizations and advertisers are very much concerned with their respective bottom lines. This provides paleontologists with powerful tools we can use to make changes.

When television, magazines, newspapers, books or movies misrepresent paleontology (or science in general), we should respond with the facts and proper interpretations. We need to contact the media source (networks, stations, producers, editors, executives, newspeople) and the sponsors. One easy way to do this is by searching the Web for organization/company e-mail and postal addresses. This only takes a couple of minutes, but it can yield everything you need to send the organization and/or sponsor a reasoned, articulate statement about their presentation. Diatribes and insults do not help for the media receive those every day. While most TV producers, newspaper and magazine writers, editors, etc., are as scientifically illiterate as the general population, they still do not like to be wrong; especially if their viewers and/or readers are told about it. Write simple e-mails or letters that clearly state the basis of your objection, what might be done by them to improve not only the specific case you have identified but the general class of presentations, who among their audience cares about it and why, what you intend to do about it, and why the misrepresentation hurts their image and income. Be sure to copy the e-mail to the program’s sponsors or advertisers. Remind them that no one wants to be associated with a loser. Make it short--one sentence for each of the above or less. Then copy it to PaleoNet so others can add their cry. If others follow, change a few words or sentences to personalize the message, then send it again. When the media does a scientific story well, let them know about that too. Encouragement helps enormously because it shows the executives, producers, and editors that good programming is in their best interest. Remember that each media outlet equates a certain number of messages with a much larger percentage of their audience. We can have impact.

Palaeontologica Electronica can help too. Why not a column with reviews, written by whoever sees problems or excellence in the media, that sets the record straight, that calls a spade a spade, and minces no words? Have this as a separately indexed page, so that all the Web search engines pick it up. Have titles on each page with the name of the organization and the reviewed item--like "NBC’s Mysterious Origins of Man." In this way, media organizations and sponsors will become aware that we are watching, that we care, and that we will make our views known widely. All major commercial organizations now track references to them on the Internet, because they know it can hurt or help them. Let’s take advantage of it! Let’s use our new resource to improve our own image.

Paleontology is worth it and we can help scientific literacy at the same time!