Tag Archives: science journalism

What’s in a title? – Eokinorhynchus the spiky, armoured worm

If this were a popular blog and not in its nascent stages I would run this as a competition. Titles for science news articles are tough to write and are not often the choice of the author of the article. They need to be attractive, yet risk being misleading click-bait, and they need to be informative which risks being dull. Here is a recent example that has me stumped and wondering what others might come up with.

The news in question is the discovery and description of Eokinorhynchus rarus, along with other unnamed kinorhynchs, providing the first evidence for phylum Kinorhyncha in the fossil record. It is from the Cambrian period and may prove crucial in understanding the evolution of related groups, not least its own. The scientific paper naturally went for the informative title: Armored kinorhynch-like scalidophoran animals from the early Cambrian.

Image credit: Dinghua Yang

Here are a few examples of science news sites and the headlines they went with. First, I Fucking Love Science:

IFLS kinorhynch

Naturally I did click it when I saw it, but that’s because I am already interested in anything which lived “half a billion years ago”. Calling it a spiky, armoured worm is not helpful at all, especially given the attention span of many of their readers – they often think two different pieces of news are about the same thing, even when the articles clearly state otherwise (I dare you to read the comments). They have published a few articles about spiky, armoured worms from the Cambrian, from many different phyla, so whilst it might be attempting to sound interesting it will inevitably create confusion. livescience went with the following:

Livescience kinorhynch

They have obviously gone for attention grabbing with no hint at the importance of the beast. Possibly my favourite comes from ZME Science:

zme kinorhynch

Yep, you read that correctly. The great news about Eokinorhynchus is that it is “ridiculously” armoured (as armoured as it gets!). The article itself isn’t much better. The South China Morning Post went for the most optimistic and patriotic option:

scmp kinorhynch

It’s the most sensational of the lot and, though it does mention it in the headline, its focus is not the armour of old E. rarus. And finally, forgive me for this, but the Daily Mail seemed to really want to put emphasis on how old it is.

daily mail kinorhynch

Half a BILLION indeed. I can mock the headlines offered by other sites, but I honestly don’t know what would be better. Emphasising its potential importance might not be appealing to the casual reader without risking exaggeration (or capital letters). Trying to sound exciting has focussed on the armour of E. rarus, which doesn’t have wide appeal (and may make some think they know it already). What’s the secret to a good headline for palaeo-news?

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Filed under Cambrian, Palaeontology, Uncategorized

I Chuffing Love Correcting Science Headlines – Namacalathus

Science journalism has a bit of an issue. With science news sites all over the internet, many take on the clickbait approach, sometimes unintentionally. It seems that whoever decides the title has often not read the article itself, and certainly hasn’t read the research upon which it is based. This mismatch would not be as big a deal if people read past the title, but many seem not to bother. One of the repeat offenders for this is the website I Fucking Love Science. In case you were not in the know, it is effectively a site for perving on the sexier side of science, those bits that make the public say “wow” and then go about their day thinking about other things. They do, from time to time, have some genuinely interesting and informative content, but they still need to tighten things up a bit.

My example today is due to their coverage of a story I posted about myself very recently. The late Ediacaran shelly fossil, Namacalathus, has a new interpretation being offered, and this is fascinating for anyone interested in the Cambrian explosion. I took a more conservative approach, much as I have with the title of this post (I actually don’t mind swearing, I just didn’t feel the need), in part because I intend to look at many more putative Precambrian animals, but also because I like to remain sceptical with potentially big news.

The offending article can be viewed here and is actually one of their better offerings, but there are issues. Firstly, they went with the title Newly Discovered Fossil Suggests Complex Skeletons Evolved Earlier Than Thought. It isn’t a huge error, and thankfully the attractive part of the headline isn’t blatantly false, but Namacalathus was described fifteen years ago, which is hardly a new discovery. They don’t even go on to mention that Namacalathus was previously thought to be a possible cnidarian, nor do they mention that this previous interpretation was based partly on the nature of reproduction (asexual budding) which is now used to suggest that the organism within the shell was bilaterally symmetrical. They are dead on with their information about the shell formation (something I personally covered in little detail) but didn’t include this standout gem.

The part of the title which is meant to pique your interest is the fact that these complex skeletons evolved earlier than thought. Yet the quotation at the end of the article, from researcher Rachel Wood, quite clearly says that these complex animals were suspected, and perhaps it would have been worth mentioning the discrepancies between the fossil record and molecular clocks.

There are some other issues which crop up time and again with this subject. The first is that science journalists seem a bit baffled about how to present the Ediacaran biota, which is no surprise, as they are baffling, but the article puts it in a rather misleading way, saying, “Paleontologists still aren’t sure what kind of life they are, but they were likely plant forms, algae, microbial mats, fungi or very primitive life forms called protists.” Putting possible plant affinities first in the list could potentially mislead as this was stated in a sentence after mentioning the Avalon explosion, which involved the arrival of frond-like organisms such as Charnia, an organism which does resemble a plant despite it living too deep for photosynthesis to work. They also neglect to mention many of the attempts to classify Ediacaran organisms which have placed them close to the base of the Metazoa and even within it. They could simply have called them “possible primitive animals” and they would not have been mistaken.

The second issue is that they misrepresent the Cambrian explosion, describing it first as “the period of ancient time complex life appeared to suddenly and rapidly evolve in,” and later as a “sudden appearance of life.” This is especially odd, considering that they provide links along with each statement, the first of which describes most of the change happening in the second and third stages of the early Cambrian, “a period of about 13 million years,” which is hardly sudden. The second link mentions that apparent new evidence suggests that the Cambrian explosion may have involved more gradual change. It is misleading, though common, to state that the Cambrian explosion was sudden, especially without qualifying in its geological context, where “sudden” can mean several million years.

Overall, the article does not do a terrible job presenting Namacalathus in its new light, as it does manage to sound exciting to laymen and gives some good information on the shell structure (even if I did feel that it neglected the reproductive strategy), but it does commit the sins of having a misleading title, a confusing approach to the already confusing Ediacaran biota, and an exaggerated description of the Cambrian explosion. They could also have done with some dissenting or sceptical views from a leading Ediacaran palaeontologist, but that’s not always as easy.

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Filed under Cambrian, Cambrian Explosion, Ediacarans, Palaeontology

“First” Dinosaur and Dodgy Reporting

Today, like many others, I heard the news about the potential dinosaur which has just been described and may be the oldest yet known. Nyasasaurus parringtoni lived around 15 million years before the previous oldest dinosaur, Eoraptor, though N. parringtoni may not be a dinosaur, but even if it isn’t it is clearly very closely related. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about, so if you want more details, some of the press releases can be seen here, here and here. The paper itself is free to read, which can be found here.

I encountered this information in the Metro newspaper, which had this article on page 19. I love seeing palaeontology in the news, so when the reporting is a bit naff it really bugs me (Science Daily often causes me to rant, so expect many more posts like this in the future). I don’t go looking for errors, they are to be expected, for example the dinosaur’s name should have been in italics, but to complain about that from a free newspaper would just be pedantic.

The first thing to note is not a scientific complaint, but just look at the image below, which is found on every press release, and tell me who the artist is. Yep, it is some guy called An artist. Many newspapers just take images without paying the artist, and sometimes they don’t even bother to credit them. Palaeoartists don’t make a lot of money off of their work, so to not even credit them is rather disgusting. Thankfully the website does correct the error by crediting Mark Witton (a friend of mine) and if you want to know more about how the image was produced, see his blog about it here, as it adds an extra dimension to the picture.

Nyasasaurus parringtoni, with Stenaulorhynchus in the background. Image pilfered from Mark Witton (got to make sure I’m not a hypocrite).

But anyway, the short article manages to make a rather silly claim. The second paragraph states that the discovery of Nyasasaurus “may force us to rip up the scientific textbooks”. But why? Very few textbooks mention early dinosaurs, and those which do will simply need some slight revision for any future editions. It simply extends our knowledge of dinosaur origins, whether it is a dinosaur or a dinosauriform. No paradigm shift is needed, no textbooks need to be ripped up, but some reporters need a slap on the wrist. It is needless sensationalism which just paints a poor picture of science. The public often have this strange view that scientists completely throw out entire theories for new ones, but such an occurrence is rare. On a smaller scale old ideas give way to the new, but this is part of the refining nature of science. This article makes it sound like everything we knew about dinosaurs and their evolution was utterly wrong, which is pure nonsense.

The textbook claim was my major quibble, but the title bugs me too (even the grammar). We have an interesting fondness for “firsts”, often talking about the first person to achieve an amazing feat, and palaeontology is no stranger to this. But in evolution it does not really make sense to talk of something as being the first, except perhaps as the first known. The title asks if Nyasasaurus was the first dinosaur to roam the Earth, but evolution occurs gradually in populations, so there is no single first dinosaur, and from a population perspective it makes no sense to talk of a first dinosaur population when it would have been barely distinguishable from the ancestral population. Just a slight change in words can have huge implications, so journalists reporting on science need to be careful.

It really is an interesting bit of news, filling in the gaps in our knowledge of early dinosaur evolution and how they fit into the Triassic alongside many other cool beasts (the crurotarsans are worth looking at). Most of the press coverage seems to be good, but the Metro has let us down with this one.

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