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In early 2011, I got a fun email from a producer at National Geographic TV about a new project they were planning, which involved dissecting a full-scale model of a Tyrannosaurus rex in a documentary to be called “T. rex Autopsy.” Things fell silent for some months, then I got another email saying they were moving forward, then things fell silent again. Three and a half years later I got another email, this time from a producer at Impossible Factual films (working with NatGeo), saying that the show was finally moving forward for real. (This sort of thing is normal for documentaries; time scales can be long and unpredictable, or very fast-paced) This email invited me to be a primary scientific consultant in the design of the creature and show. Of course, anatomical dissection and T. rex are what I’m about as a scientist; two of my major research areas; so bringing them together was like a dream come true and I leapt into that dream with enthusiasm.

(Meanwhile, circa 2010-11, another TV channel filmed me for a different programme in which a whole, fresh-ish T. rex was found weathering out of an Alaskan cliffside and scientists had ~2 days to study it before it fell into an abyss– it’s probably best that that show never happened… there were fundamental flaws.)

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10. Merciful. No images here, just text descriptions, for various reasons. The TV show is not for small children, though. I am guessing that the final programme will be about a 7/10 SCR because of gooey, seemingly rancid, but rubbery (so it doesn’t look overly real, but still looks great) dinosaur vital organs. For pictures, see the links to tweets, trailers and news stories below.

I introduced T. rex Autopsy to you in the previous post, I’ve been tweeting and retweeting extensively since then, and one of my later posts will be a “postmortem” of the show, which airs June 7 worldwide. My feeling is that, if what I’ve seen so far is indicative of the whole show, it will be a landmark moment in palaeontological documentary history. T. rex Autopsy fuses the best aspects of “Inside Nature’s Giants” with “Walking With Dinosaurs”, and without “Alien Autopsy” pseudoscience. Indeed, it seems to be a very science-based documentary (once you get past the requisite conceit that scientists could actually find a very fresh T. rex body– that’s the only sci-fi bit of the show, quickly dispensed with!). T. rex Autopsy is packed with evidence-based palaeobiology, and has consistently been so since I first spoke to producers, which was a great comfort to me.

This post is about my role in the show, my perspective on it, and an attempt at a spoiler-free prelude. I’m willing to go out on a limb a bit and urge people to watch it, because I’m already proud of what was attempted in the show– it was a bold vision by NatGeo and laborious execution by everyone involved. I especially want to give a big shout of respect out to creature designers Crawley Creatures (led by Jez Crawley, who helped create Jabba the Hutt and the Dark Crystal beings, among others). Around 14 people on Jez’s team worked full time for ~4 months to make the T. rex. The designers based the proportions on the Field Museum’s scans of “Sue”, which I helped them get access to (I’d used them for our PLOS ONE paper in 2011). That, and numerous comments on their draft dinosaur’s body proportions and limb positions (e.g. avoiding “bunny hands“), was some of my first major involvement in the programme.

Over 200 emails (I was curious; I counted them!) and a bunch of phone calls and 7 months later, my input on the T. rex Autopsy film shoot and production was finishing. Just last week, I sent what supposedly was my last email of input on the show, about predatory habits (NOT the dumb scavenger debate we’re all tired of; more about ambush vs. pursuit habits). I’d spent many hours going over drafts of T. rex‘s anatomy and function and behaviour from head to tail with the superb Impossible Factual film production team (mainly Assistant Producer Cressida Kinnear). Very often, to their credit, they’d already done a lot of literature searching and speaking with key experts on dinosaur jaws or brains or breathing, so I just had to check the fine details, but in some cases I had to recommend experts to speak to and/or do my own sleuthing and educate myself about aspects of T. rex biology I’d never pondered much.

For example, how big was T. rex‘s heart? I’d been asked the same question about sauropods lately for another show so I had references and an Excel spreadsheet ready to go, and plugged in some values, but the estimates I got seemed too small relative to the thoracic cavity (mediastinum if you must). I had some interesting back-and-forth discussions with the producers and we settled on one size that seemed “right”. No one that I knew of had tried to scientifically estimate the size of a T. rex‘s heart, probably because there hadn’t been a good reason to try. Sauropods get all the dino-love in regards to blood pressure issues and heart size, for good reasons- for them, it should have been a serious biomechanical challenge to pump blood up the long neck to the brain. For an elephant-sized T. rex, it doesn’t boggle the scientific mind so much that blood pressure wasn’t such a major evolutionary design constraint. See the show and find out more about what the intrepid team of dissectors found…

Did T. rex have feathers? This was important to get right, I felt, and not just show T. rex as a leathery or scaly beast, which is outdated. As I put it, it’s more speculative to show T. rex without any feathery thingies than to show it with some. We passed around draft images and thoughts and agreed on a slightly fuzzy, bristly body, especially in some regions of the head/neck, arms and tail tip. I encouraged the design team to go for more colour (I wrote to the designers “Skin colouring: go nuts! Feathery things should be colourful. Big animals tend to be more drab in colour but that doesn’t mean a boring grey/green, and certainly there should be some regional patterning. I like the idea of there being brightly coloured areas on the face”). We can be confident that dinosaurs could see colour like most land animals (except many mammals!) can. All of this is pretty familiar to palaeo-artists and fans of modern dinosaur reconstructions, so I won’t belabour it more. I’m glad that much of this made it into the final design. It’s not your overly familiar Jurassic Park T. rex.

Cheeks, eye pupils, brain/senses, how big a mouthful of meat it could swallow, furcula (wishbone), gastralia (belly ribs- I gave a lot of detailed criticism here), reproductive anatomy and biology, eggs, body fat, growth, air sacs, stomach, and excretory system, among other things: we covered them all in discussing the dino’s design, and I learned a lot along the way.

A memorable part of my discussions with the designers, in early March, was about the intestines and cloaca (rear-end opening): they initially put the cloaca too far forward on the body, I got them to move it backward, then I later realized in a panic that, making a neophyte error, I’d missed a key anatomical feature in the hips that clearly would put the “vent” even further backward, so I send them a hasty email apologizing that I’d missed this and urging that they fix their graphics and animations. I felt bad about this as it was late in the design phase and I’m sure I stressed out the team to make this change, but I thought it would be embarrassing to get the position of that hole wrong. Yet it was also funny to me to be scrutinizing where the “poop hole” of a dinosaur should go, and worrying so much about getting it right… my scatological sense of humour was in overdrive. By the middle of March they had this detail right. Phew!

There is another dinosaur that makes an appearance in the documentary but I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that one dinosaur from another time period and continent was initially chosen, and I (echoed by Dave Hone, I know) urged them not to do that, choosing a more appropriate Hell Creek Formation dinosaur. Phew! Perhaps more about that later.

Finally, of course we talked about legs and muscles and locomotion. I was filmed at the RVC discussing this, and it looks like it will be a cool segment, including an explanation of how the bones reveal the anatomy of the soft tissues of limbs and other parts of the body (i.e. bread-and-butter from my PhD thesis work). I hope that makes the final cut! (Edit: I’m told it has; yay!) There may even be footage of me dissecting a chicken and talking about enlarged and reduced leg muscles in birds, in any “making of” side-programme.

But I was not one of the four people doing the T. rex dissections in the show. That arduous job (2 looooooong days of filming!) fell to vet Luke Gamble and palaeontologists Tori Herridge, Steve Brusatte and Matthew Mossbrucker, with a crew of assistants including some from Crawley Creatures. The clever idea the producers had, as they explained it to me, was to keep my and others’ scientific input on the show’s design separate from the dissectors’ knowledge, so that when the dissection team arrived and cut into the dinosaur, they’d be discovering things without much advance inside knowledge of what to expect to find. We’ll see how that worked when the programme airs– I’ve only seen the trailer and behind-the-scences footage, as well as the first day of filming. Scientists like me aren’t Shakespearean actors so it’s hard to act surprised when you sort of know what’s coming and have to redo takes of that same surprise. But if you come to T. rex Autopsy expecting Oscar-worthy theatrics, you’ve missed the point. :-)

A taxi drove me to Pinewood Studios (west of London; site of filming many blockbusters) on a Sunday morning in late April. I walked into the giant studio where a 12+ meter long T. rex carcass lay in dramatic lighting. Cue the freezing of my giant grin in place and my eyes wide open. I was stunned! It was gorgeous, and the scale of the carcass left me gobsmacked. I’d only seen various incarnations of it during the design phase, from wire mesh scale models to clay sculptures to full-on foam casts and CGI representations; and all of these just as digital files emailed to me. But to see “Edwina,” as she was called, in the pseudo-flesh, was a moment I may never forget. Emailed JPGs definitely didn’t prepare me for that visual splendour. Crawley’s team were still inserting some of the last ~20,000 goose feathers as bristles into the hide, one by one…

I was at Pinewood to spend a day hobnobbing with VIPs and international press visitors as a “tour guide” to the Edwina autopsy event, and then for a day to watch the initial half of filming with the press in a room overlooking the studio. I got excellent hospitality, was called the “on-screen talent” in documents, which felt really weird to me (I’d never been called that in >10 shows before), and I spent a lot of time explaining the show and dinosaur science to that receptive, inquisitive audience. And gawking at the unfolding spectacle before and during filming. And cracking jokes with journalists during long breaks between actual filming of the documentary. It was a surreal, awesome experience and I loved it. (And, as I’ve insisted scientists in documentaries are, I got paid for it.)

This documentary was a blast to be involved in and challenged all my skills as a dinosaur expert and biologist as well as a fan of documentaries, monster movies and anatomical artistry! I give a big hat-tip to NatGeo for taking the plunge on this adventure in the first place, to the amazing creature creators, to the film and production crew, to the many jovial journalists I met, and to the four faux-bloodied, surely exhausted dissectors starring in the show– and to Edwina. This was an impressive collaboration drawing together the best that the media, monster-makers and an international team of scientists (aside from the ones I’ve mentioned already, many others too!) can do together. I feel lucky to have been involved, and I think I’ll be looking back on this event as a highlight of my career, especially as a science communicator; much like consulting on Inside Nature’s Giants is a highlight.

I’m as excited as anyone to see how it turns out. Just 2.5 weeks to go — are you excited too? What would you want to see in a T. rex dissection? Where would your first cut be if you did the dissection? “Jurassic World”, what’s that?

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When does a science story “end”? Never, probably. Science keeps voyaging on eternally in search of truth, and few if any stories in science truly “end”. But as science communicators of any stripe, we routinely have to make decisions about when a certain story has run its course; when the PR ship has sailed and the news cycle has ended. As scientists, we’re lucky if we have to consider this and should be grateful if and when our science even attracts media/science communication attention. But the point of today’s post; perhaps an obvious one but to my mind worthy of reflection on; is that scientists are not slaves to the PR machine– as a flip side to the previous self/science-promotion post, at some point we may have to say “This story about our research is done (for now).”

I routinely reflect on this when the media covers my research; I always have. My recent experience with New Yorker and BBC coverage of our penguin gait research (with James Proffitt and Emily Sparkes as well as Dr. Julia Clarke) got me thinking about this issue a lot, and talking about it quite a bit with James. This morning, over coffee, this blog post was born from my thoughts on that experience.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 7/10 for some mushy penguin specimens; PR officers might also get queasy.

I was waiting for a call from BBC radio one night almost three weeks ago, to do a recorded interview about our penguin research-in-progress, when I woke up surrounded by paramedics and was whisked off to the hospital. I never did that interview or any further ones. I won’t go into what went wrong but it relates to this old story. I’m OK now anyway. But for me, the penguin story had mostly ended before it began. However, I’d already agreed with James that we’d try to avoid doing further media stories beyond the New Yorker one and the BBC one, which was due out the next day and for which James (fortuitously instead of me!) was doing a live appearance on BBC Breakfast (TV). I got a few emails and calls about this story while recuperating in my hospital bed, including the one below, and turned down interview invitations for obvious reasons, with no arguments from anyone– at first.

For Jerry, the story never should have started, apparently. We all have our opinions on what stories are worth covering.

For Jerry, the story never should have started, apparently. We all have our opinions on what stories are worth covering. A “kind” email to receive in one’s hospital bed…

Then, after I recovered and got back to work, we kept getting a trickle of other interview/story invitations, and we declined them. Our PR office had suggested that we do a press release but we had already decided in advance not to, because we saw the story as just work-in-progress and I don’t like to do press releases about that kind of thing– except under extraordinary circumstances.

Finally, over a week after the BBC story aired, a major news agency wanted to film an interview with me about the story, which would get us (more) global coverage. They prefaced the invitation with the admission that they were latecomers to the story. Again I firmly said no; they could use existing footage but I could not do new interviews (these would inevitably take a half day or so of my time and energy). They wrote back saying they were going to go forward with the story anyway, and the journalist scolded me for not participating, saying that the story would have been so much better with a new film sequence of me in it. Maybe, but (1) I felt the story had run its course, (2) I’d had my hospitalization and a tragic death in the family, and (3) I was just returning, very jetlagged, from a short trip to the USA for other work. Enough already! I had other things to do. I didn’t follow up on what happened with that story. Maybe it didn’t even get published. I wasn’t left feeling very sympathetic.

Above: The BBC story

I kept thinking about being pressured and scolded by journalists, once in a while, for not joining in their news stories when they contradicted my own threshold for how much media coverage is enough. This reaching of a personal threshold had first happened to me 13 years ago when I published my first big paper, in Nature, on “Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner.” After ~3 weeks of insane amounts of media coverage, I was exhausted and pulled the plug, refusing more interviews. It felt good to exert control over the process, and I learned a lot from learning to wield that control. I still use it routinely.

But… I am of course passionate about science communication, I feel it is a great thing for science to be in the public eye, and I actually love doing science communication stories about research-in-progress– too much science is shown as an endpoint, not a process. Indeed, that’s why I do this blog and other social media, most of which is science-in-progress and my thoughts about it. So I was and still am thrilled that we got such positive, broad, good quality media attention for our penguin work, but it was plenty.

Penguin bodies awaiting dissection for our latest work. Unfortunately, years of formalin, freezers and thawing cycles had rendered most of the soft tissues useless for our work. Photos here and below are of Natural History Museum (Tring) specimens from the ornithology collection; most collected in Antarctica ~50 yrs ago.

More sphenisciform science in progress: Penguin bodies awaiting dissection for our latest work. Unfortunately, years of formalin, freezers and thawing cycles had rendered most of the soft tissues useless for our work. Photos here and below are of Natural History Museum (Tring) specimens from the ornithology collection; most collected in Antarctica ~50 yrs ago.

Probably to many seasoned science communicators and scientists, my post’s message is blindingly obvious. Of course, scientists have rights — and responsbilities– in deciding how and when their research is covered. This is a negotiation process between their research team, their university, PR officers, journalists/media, funders and others involved– including the public. But less experienced scientists, and perhaps the public, might not realize how much control scientists do have over the amount of media attention they get. It’s easy to get caught up in a media frenzy surrounding one’s science (if you’re lucky enough to generate it at all) and feel the wind in one’s sails, thereby forgetting that you’re at the helm– you can decide when the journey is over (just be sure you communicate it diplomatically with others involved!).

This penguin did not survive the preservation process well; for whatever reason it had turned to mush, fit only for skeletonization. Gag. Its journey was definitely over.

This penguin did not survive the preservation process well; for whatever reason it had turned to mush, fit only for skeletonization. Gag. Its journey was definitely over.

As scientists, we have to balance enormous pressures and priorities: not just science communication and PR, but also our current main research, teaching, admin, personal lives, health, and so on. So we have to make hard decisions about how to balance these things. We should all reflect on what our dynamically shifting thresholds are for how much attention is enough, what priority level a given story has in our lives, and when the timing is right for any media attention. And as collaborative teams; more and more the norm in science; we should be discussing this issue and agreeing on it before it’s too late for us to exert much control.

One of our penguin chicks, in a better state of preservation than the adults. Photo by James Proffitt.

One of our penguin chicks from the Natural History Museum, in a better state of preservation than the adults. Photo by James Proffitt.

Penguin chick's right leg musculature in side view, exposing some nice muscles that gave us some useful data. Photo by James Proffitt.

Penguin chick’s right leg musculature in side view, exposing some decent muscles that gave us some useful data. Photo by James Proffitt.

Much like an over-played hit song, it’s not pretty when a science story gets over-milked and becomes too familiar and tedious, perhaps drawing attention away from other science that deserves attention. And we all will have our opinions on where that threshold of “too much attention” is. If we, as scientists, don’t think about those thresholds, we may end up rudderless or even wrecked on lonely islands of hype. I’ve seen scientists ostracized by their peers for over-hyping their work. It’s not fun. “Hey everybody, John is having a celery stick with peanut butter on it!” Celebrity culture doesn’t mean that everything scientists do deserves attention, and any amount of attention is deserved and good.

A great thing about science is that, in principle, it is eternal– a good science story can live forever while other science is built upon it. Each chapter in that story needs an ending, but there’s always the next chapter waiting for us, and that’s what keeps science vital and riveting. As scientists, we’re all authors of that story, with a lot of power over its narrative. We can decide when to save parts of that narrative for later, when the time is right. With our penguin story, we’ve only just begun and I’m incredibly excited about where it goes next.

How about other scientists, journalists and other afficionados of science? What examples of scientists taking charge of how their research gets covered do you find particularly instructive?

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I am reposting a blog post that I co-authored with Anne Osterrieder in 2012. I’ve always liked this post and been proud that we did it. A colleague brought it up to me yesterday, and I was sad to hear that the blog had been killed by hackers, with the original post lost, but Anne and I reconstructed it and I’ve decided to put it up on my blog, as I still feel strongly about its main points and Anne concurred.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; just words and ideas.

This blog is about freezer-promotion.

This blog is about freezer-promotion.

Here we present two views on public engagement (PE) or public relations (PR) and the thorny issue of “self promotion” in scientific research, from two scientists who might on the surface seem to be as different as scientists can be in regards to PE/PR. Yet we hope to convey the common ground that lies between these “extremes” and use it to explore, and spark discussion in, what self-promotion is and when it is a good vs. bad thing for scientists. Similar points came up in another blog post at around the same time, linked here.

Professor John R. Hutchinson (here, simply John will do!) does research on dinosaurs and elephants and other “celebrity species” (well, some of them anyway; some others aren’t so sexy but he doesn’t care). Thus getting PE/PR is often all too easy. It is often said that “dinosaur” (or fossil) is among the “holy trinity” of media story subjects; space and health being two others. That status lubricates the gears of a science PE/PR machine. Sometimes, even, the problem is keeping a lid on the “sexy” research until it is “thoroughly cooked” and ready for PE/PR, rather than releasing it prematurely. A flip side to this issue is that this easy success with PE/PR means that almost everyone is doing it, albeit with varying aplomb. So it takes some extra effort to achieve relative excellence at PE/PR in John’s line of research, but he’s not complaining. In contrast, many (indeed, most!) scientists might not have it so easy getting PE/PR and hence need to actively engage in it to draw audiences in. However, when they are successful at PE/PR it might be easier for them to then stand out from the crowd.

Dr. Anne Osterrieder (again, let’s stick with Anne for short) is a Research and Science Communication Fellow, doing research on plant cells – – hello? Hello?! Are you still there? Nine out of ten people will react to this revelation with the question: ‘Why do you work on plants? Plants are boring, they don’t really do anything, do they?’ Most plant scientists agree that the apathy or even contempt displayed towards our poor plants stems from a lack of proper engagement, starting with the way plants are taught in schools. As such plant scientists need to make a conscious effort to engage the public with current plant research and highly topical issues such as food security or plant pathology. Cells have a higher ‘fascination potential’, as the huge success of BBC’s ‘The Hidden Life of the Cell’ showed. Communicating current cell biology becomes more challenging however the deeper we go.

 

With those introductions done, let’s see what our two scientists think about self-promotion and PE/PR:

BBC

You might have spotted John and collaborator James Proffitt on the BBC or in the New Yorker lately, engaging in penguin-promotion.

John:

While self-promotion among scientific researchers could be a slippery slope that leads to a spiral of egomaniacal aggrandizements and delusions of grandeur, how justifiable is this seemingly common perception? In extreme instances, namely the stereotyped – but perhaps relatively rare– “media whore” or “press hound” committing the faux pas of science-by-press-release, perhaps it is. But more commonly among scientists it may just be healthy behaviour. Almost every scientist probably does research because it brings them profound joy and satisfaction, indulging their curiosity. Is it selfish to share that positive, personal message? By turning the issue around like this, one might instead wonder, what’s the problem? Put it all out there, fly your science banner high! Screw the cynics.

But as in much of life, there probably is a happy medium of moderation: a middle ground, because both selfish and generous reasons might underlie “self promotion”. Such reasons can and probably do coexist not only in perfectly non-pathological, but highly PE/PR-committed, researchers, but perhaps even in most scientists. The problem is, self-promotion has taken on bad connotations to some, or even many, scientists. It can frequently be seen couched as “shameless self-promotion” when a person promotes their science, as if to apologize for the promotion and commit it in one fell swoop. Why apologize? Just do it?! If you’re having fun with it, someone else probably will too, and that’s reason enough.

And a second issue is what kind of self-promotion is being performed– is it about the individual and their self-perceived, self-appointed glory? Or is it about the science, even in a detached third person view? Or is not even self-promotion, but team-promotion, if we consider that so many scientists these days are vital parts of a team, not lone wolves? Such a distinction of self “vs.” science is too artificial a dichotomy because scientists, as human beings, tend to feel personally enmeshed in their research. Without it, they would lack the drive to do it, even though every good supervisor is “supposed” to warn us to stay objective as researchers. And the subtext behind that “stay objective” is to stay impersonal; i.e. detached, inhuman, drained of character, passive voice and all that. Boring! But there is still some merit in considering both (and other?) sides of the matter, because it is not unreasonable to predict that the first kind of promotion (selfish; aggrandizing) is more dangerous than the second (generous; celebratory), because it is the ego taking the stage rather than the science. At the same time, we need both sides: the human, fallible, witty, emotive ego and the dry, objective, methodical, taciturn science. Without the former; warts and all; science could be too frigid to be fun.

Many researchers probably find it healthy to reflect on how much self-promotion is too much, whatever the reasons (and to some degree the reasons may not matter!). But it is not just the promoters who deserve introspection about their own practice. Those perceiving others’ “self-promotion”, especially in a negative light, could benefit from scrutiny of their own perceptions. What makes them presume that the motivation behind self-promotion is a malignant one, or not? And is the reasoning behind their judgement as sound as they’d apply to other scientific judgements they make on a daily basis– what behaviour are they reading into and how?

Alternatively, why worry about it? Isn’t a good scientist one who celebrates good science, yours, your team’s, or someone else’s? Again, this comes back to how much self-promotion is too much, but from an external perspective. Researchers are likely to judge others’ promotional activities by their own standards, not those of the promoter. They may be making value judgements with no objective basis, or (with colleagues that are not well known to the individual, all too common on the internet) no empirical evidence to go by except a brief press release, blog post, tweet or news article. Indeed, a case could be made that there is no objective basis to such a value judgement, by definition. Semantics and slippery slopes toward postmodernism aside, perhaps there is even no point to judging others’ self-promotions– and why does one wish to judge? An inward look at our own motivations for judging others’ can be salutary.

A major point here is: it is easy to conflate or confuse selfish promotion and unselfish sharing-the-joy-of-science, and to a degree it does not matter. This is because inevitably it is what is presented that matters: the content, not so much as the intent, in addition to the feedback one gets from engaging the public with research. That content-with-feedback is what almost everyone outside of academia says we should be doing—who are we to argue? Maybe we should try harder to put self esteem and other internal issues aside, and enjoy good science promotion for what it is, not what we might fear it could be. Whether a scientist is a lone wolf or team wolf, there’s no big bad wolf’s huffing and puffing to fear from good self-promotion of science. Let’s focus on building a strong house of science, brick by brick; one that lasts, and one that people hear of and care about.

Anne’s great Vacuole Song; plant organnelle-promotion!

Anne:

Whenever I write something about science communication, I feel like I am treading on an extra-slippery slope. Science communication, outreach, public engagement, PR and promotion all can have very different meanings depending on who you talk to. When I was a full-time researcher, I’d never even have thought about that they could mean different things. To me they all were synonyms of ‘Hey, let’s tell the world how amazing our research and science is!’ Since I became involved in science communication, I have realised that promoting our research isn’t necessarily the same as engaging non-expert audiences. While promotion certainly has its place and benefits (for example institutions highlighting their groups’ research achievements in external newsletter and online), real engagement is not so much broadcasting but two-way communication. I would like to point to an excellent article by Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement at University College London in a recent issue of British Science Association magazine ‘People & Science’.  Steve writes: ‘I don’t tell members of the public that ‘science is fun’ or that ‘science has the answers’. I don’t even treat science as one great big unified thing. Instead I help researchers to share what they do. The message is less ‘We’re great!’ and more ‘Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think?’

Participating in this dialogue-centred way of public engagement means however that, invariably, our specific research project will be the centre of attention. Most likely our person would be as well, since science isn’t (yet) carried out by autonomously working nano-robots. I would be very surprised if our audience saw such activities as self-promotion. I predict that they’d rather appreciate researchers ‘stepping out of the tower’ into the public and interact with non-experts. Would our peers see it as self-promotion? Probably not. What if we promoted our activities beforehand on Twitter and other online or offline channels? What if we wrote a summary of the event and reflections on it afterwards? What if we posted links to our content at different times during the day to make sure that different audiences saw it? What if we had several projects running in parallel and did this for all of them? The problem becomes apparent now and I am certain that at this point some peers would drop cynic remarks about ‘self-promotion’ or ‘attention whores’.

So, self-promotion is frowned upon. But if you think about it, our wole current academic system is based on self-promotion. When we submit a manuscript, we need to state in the cover letter why our research is novel and interesting. Even though scientific conferences are supposed to be about disseminating scientific results and initiate collaborations, they also serve the purpose of self-promotion. I don’t recall many talks with mainly negative, confusing or boring results (except maybe if a well established principal investigator was talking about their newest project and asking for feedback). Most early-career scientists would rather not submit an abstract if they haven’t got good data and wait until they can show nice results. Fact is, conferences are a big job interview for PhD students and post-docs. What about grants? Each proposal has dedicated sections for promoting yourself, your research group and your institute to increase your chances of getting a grant. Early-career researchers quickly have to learn how to write these bits, as otherwise they quickly will be at a disadvantage compared to those who can sell themselves well. I believe that there is a certain double standard around the issue of self-promotion in academia. On the one hand researchers accept it as a necessity to climb up the career ladder. On the other hand they might sneer at peers who put all of their Nature and Science references on slides in their talk. ‘What a complete showoff!’

If I follow someone on Twitter whose work I admire, say science writer Ed Yong or blogger Prof. Athene Donald, or who does cool research I am interested in, I want to read everything they publish. I appreciate them linking to their articles and papers, repeatedly, since I am bound to miss it otherwise. I loved seeing John’s BBC clip of rhino foot pressure experiments because I wanted to learn more about his research – and I loved seeing him talk about it in ‘real life’ rather than only reading his words! But if someone at my professional level, who I am competing with for fellowships or grants, was constantly posting links to their achievements, I would probably be less tolerable of them. I’d roll my eyes and think “show-off”! But I admit honestly that this would be based on a less-than-noble notions: envy, feeling threatened and insecurity about my own achievements being sufficient to succeed.

When I talked about Twitter and enhancing your online profile at our departmental Away Day someone said: “Our generation has been brought up as being humble, as not showing off, as not shouting out our achievements. So where is the border between self-promotion and being a complete d***?”  I don’t think that this is a generational thing, as many senior academics have no difficulties promoting themselves. At that time I bounced the question back to the audience and asked: ‘What do the younger ones think?’ There was silence and one PhD student said: ‘I think it’s OK. You have to do it – who else would do it otherwise?’ I suspect that being willing and able to sell yourself might be a personality rather than an age thing and that the line between ‘selling yourself’ and ‘showing off’ subjectively lies in the eye of the beholder. Whatever you think, times have changed and academic positions are getting scarce. Maybe we need another motto next to ‘publish or perish’ – ‘self-promote or perish?’ Having a decent publication record won’t guarantee a research job anymore, as the competition is fierce. ‘Getting your name out there’, enhancing your profile, building a network and being engaged however will make you stand out of the crowd – as long as your self-promotion activities build upon solid achievements and not on hot air. In that case, you might deserve eye-rolling.

Self-promotion is often frowned upon in academic circles. Generally it seems to be all right to promote ‘science’ or a whole field. Numerous times I have seen blogging scientists state – defend themselves! – that in many years of writing they never blogged about their own paper. But why not? If we follow the two-way model of public engagement described above, it would be perfectly fine to write a non-expert summary about one’s latest publication and say: ‘This is what I just published, and the story behind it. What do you think?’ Similarly, the benefit of open access papers embedded in a social media site structure is that it allows discussions with non-experts. This will work significantly quicker and efficient if the authors alert and direct potential audiences to their paper through as many communication channels as possible- an act that again can be seen as self-promotion. Is our academic culture with its subtle or open contempt of self-promotion maybe inadvertently hindering effective engagement?

What do you think? Chime in on the poll below.

If the poll does not show up above in your browser, click the link here to go directly to it (new window):

http://poll.fm/57siz

Conclusion:

Some context, first. As we finished this post together, Anne and John reflected on what got us working on it, back in August 2012:

Anne: “You wrote that you had these thoughts on self-promotion after you returned from the [British] Science Festival. Was there a specific incident that raised these thoughts, or just general thinking?

John: “I often think about what I tweet and the amount of it, and whether “me-tweeting” is such a bad thing as some on Twitter say it is. I was me-tweeting a bunch of responses to my BSF talk and I thought I should, much as I do the same when people post stories about my research papers etc. But in particular this BSF event, which was heavy PE, got me thinking on the train ride home about why some people would (cynically, in my view) see that as PR and shameful self-promotion.”

While the two views we presented above are from different backgrounds and perspectives and such, our thoughts reveal many elements common to both. Perhaps these commonalities apply to most scientists, but, but… There is a hulking science-gorilla in the room: cultural similarities and differences. We cannot neglect the HUGE issue of Western scientific culture that John and Anne and others have in common! In other cultures, self-promotion might be seen very differently; indeed in UK it seems to sneered at more than in the USA, as Brits tend to be less comfortable tooting their own horn (easy, now!). Some other cultures might have no problem with it at all. Others might find it abominable. However, how culture factors into self-promotion and PE/PR perceptions is a huge kettle of fish that we’re not quite ready to tackle, so we will turn that over for discussion in the comments here! How does your culture, whether very local (department?) or very broad (country/ethnicity) factor into this?

Or, if you prefer, please contribute your thoughts on how you handle or perceive the self-promotion vs. science-promotion (false) dichotomy as a scientist, science communicator and/or layperson? How do you determine what is a tolerable level of promotion?

P.T. Barnum said: “Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!

 

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SupraHoloNet Transmission

Year 277 ABY, Fourth Imperial Age

Hoth System (location classified)

From: Dr. Zhonav Diphyryzas, Imperial Corps for Yesterday’s Misplaced Information; Knowledge Harvesters Unit; New Imperial Science Department

To: Dr. John of the Freezers, Unaligned World Contact #1314, Terran system

Subject: Functional Anatomy of Tatooine Megafauna

 

Dear Terran Science-Invigilator Dr. Freezers,

I write to you with the detailed correspondence I promised for your “blog carnival, whatever that is, and in honour of our Fourth Empire’s glorious leader Empress Syrrhosyx—may her inestimably wise and orderly rulership soon grace your distant world as it has our not-so-far-away galaxy. I hope that my Galactic translator continues to function properly with your crude technology. Our Empire’s embrace would grant your culture midi-chlorian-powered devices that would make our dialogue far simpler via intermental transmission, with minimal apparent side effects for you. You need not worry about the apocryphal stories that your people told about our first Imperial Age. That Skywalker kid was a terrorist, pure and simple. However, our inside sources reveal that the “documentary” in progress by the Terran named Jjabrams includes a rather accurate portrayal of the perfidious giant muromorph race from planet Dis’snai. “Baby steps”, as you say.

Our communications continue to be crippled by the mynock infestation that has plagued my orbital facility, and moreso by your own barbarian apparati. Thus the resolution of my images included here is a pale reflection of what our holo-imaging can achieve. But your readers can click the images to enhance their magnitude.

As the subject indicates, the transmission concerns my recent visit to the desert world of Tatooine, stimulated by investigations I conducted in the Corellian Science Museum. In that museum I found rare skeletal remains of the little-studied, reportedly extinct arthroreptile the Krayt Dragon (Tyrannodraconis tatooinensis by your archaic nomenclature). I’ll revisit this further below, because a subsequent discovery changed everything for me. I just wanted to whet your appetite, and this image of museum specimens of krayt dragons may do so:

Two fragmentary skeletons of small Krayt Dragons, from the Corellian Science Museum. (Image source here)

Two fragmentary skeletons of small Krayt Dragons, from the Corellian Science Museum. (Image source here) Note their short necks and quadrupedal limbs.

With growing fascination for the large land vertebratomorphs that are so startlingly diverse on Tatooine, I secured Imperial funding for an expedition to Tatooine, to survey the exotic megafauna and search for fossils of Tyrannodraconis that might further illuminate their evolution. My ensuing report summarizes my trilogy of investigations and discoveries from this “holiday in the suns”:

 

Stormtrooper on a Dewback in the Eastern Dune Sea (image source here).

Stormtrooper on a Dewback in the Eastern Dune Sea (image source here). Note how gracile the limbs are below the elbows/knees.

Investigation 1. Dissection of a Dewback, Mos Eisley

My ample funding (I’m sure you’re jealous) secured and stocked a laboratory for me in the colourful Mos Eisley spaceport, which has seen unprecedented commercial influx in recent years and now largely serves as an adventure park for hyperspace tourists (funded in part by the muromorphs of planet Dis’snai). With coliseum seating for a gathered host of some 1.6 million curiously slavering punters and drunken local yokels, I completed a full dissection of a fresh adult dewback (Iguanomorphus homoplasticus) specimen, illustrated below at its climax: exposure of the great fat body of the tail and the large caudofemoral muscle in the left thigh.  (curse this infernal Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid’s malfunctions!)

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of a common dewback, showing the caudofemoral muscle and tendon, tail fat body, and fibrous pads used while resting on the sand.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of a common dewback, showing (ventral view) the caudofemoral muscle and tendon, tail fat body (obscured by the nearby muscle), and fibrous pads used while resting on the sand.

My main observations support those of prior scholars, even from the Rebel Alliance era (bucking the trend of having to correct all their mistakes!): dewbacks have earned their moniker well by the characteristic water-condensing tissues on their dorsal surfaces. Microdroid explorations of these tissues, which lie within a dimpled midline ridge, house a high density of capillaries in a countercurrent network that surrounds a large number of specialised pores, or stomata, which smooth muscular rings contract to pull open when humidity, temperature and shade are best suited to cooling the surrounding air (via air currents encouraged by the stomata, and by local cooling via the capillary rete).

Previous scholars overlooked this mechanism, which conducts excessive warmth to the heat-emanative fat bodies in the bulky tail and the neck hump (my dissections nicely revealed these; similar tissues are concentrated in the foot pads and sternal pad). The mechanism also allows the body to be up to 20% cooler than the ambient air; an analogous adaptation to that seen in the banthas (below). My peers also failed to realize that the social nature of the dewback is key to its water conservation: while the stomatal rete can draw in some condensed water, it is far more effectively ingested by licking the backs of fellow dewbacks. Lone dewbacks thus are more prone to dehydration. The night-time group-huddling habits of dewbacks to conserve heat that they would otherwise too easily shed in the cool night air is yet another testament to the benefits of their sociality.

As ectotherms, dewbacks are slaves to the hot-cool cycles of the Tatooine wastes, but their sociality liberates them. Further escape comes from their large size (>800 kilograms of Terran mass units), which renders them mostly homeothermic, but never endothermic like some of your otherwise unimpressive Terran reptiles of past or present.

A laser-histology trek by microdroids showed the “scaled” hide around the rest of the body to be composed of siliceous material embedded in the thickly fibrous connective tissue of the skin, forming stereotyped arrowhead-shaped “siliceoderms”, as I term them, shown below.

Curious microstructure of the small "siliceoderms" from dewback skin that I have described-- single 'derm on the left, multiple 'derms surrounding a stomata on the right.

Curious microstructure of the small “siliceoderms” from dewback skin that I have described– single ‘derm on the left, multiple ‘derms surrounding a stoma on the right. To see these structures, one must view the “scales” at high magnification, ideally with microdroids.

I surmise that: (1) these siliceoderms are formed of fused Tatooine sand grains; (2) the grains become embedded into the soft, pliable skin as dewbacks grow, giving them insulation and physical protection; (3) young dewbacks display a previously mysterious behaviour of “sand-rolling” that encourages this embedding during the maturation of a dewback; and (4) the high strength and stiffness of this composite skin not only armours dewbacks but also pressurizes them, ensuring that blood can circulate through their large bodies without backflow or clotting issues, particularly in their gracile lower limbs, which are themselves passively supported by their skin tissues.

With your interest in animal locomotion, you may be curious about tales of how dewbacks can outrun landspeeders, especially in poor weather or terrain conditions. The skin-stiffening agents noted above surely play an important role in this. Indeed, much like your terrestrial varanid lizards, dewbacks do not follow the usual trend of straightening their limbs to support their body more effectively at larger body sizes (improving “effective mechanical advantage” as your field terms it), but they do draw them more closely under the body rather than remain sprawling. I revisit the matter of limb posture toward the end of my transmission.

Furthermore, the huge caudofemoral muscle shown above is able to transmit force from the tail to the thigh, and then its thick tendon transmits the force down the limb to the feet, acting as one strong limb extensor that powers and supports locomotion. No Terran animal does it so well. Banish any thoughts of how the dewback’s wrists and ankles seem implausibly thin– they are pressurized cylinders of dense tendon and bone, more like a Terran horse’s distal limbs than any lizard’s, and linked to far larger tail-to-thigh muscles. The expansive foot pads and reversed first toe (hallux; as in your Terran birds but with no association to arboreality) likewise give dewbacks a stable base of support and spread out their weight over the treacherous desert sands, reducing the work otherwise lost to deforming the sand’s surface and also keeping pressures on their feet at safe levels. Thus dewbacks have many features that explain their reputation for bursts of fast speed (~14 Terran meters/second or 50 kph/30 mph).

Yet whilst during the daytime and over short distances dewbacks can outpace banthas or humanoids on foot, their ectothermic nature causes them to accumulate fatigue too quickly, and thus they must rest. So sans cybernetic enhancements, dewbacks will never be winning any podraces. Nonetheless, I am sure you are awed by how Tatooine’s native reptiliforms, the dewbacks, exceed any living Terran reptile in their size and extreme adaptations to aridity. I have not even described the variations seen in feral, grizzled, cannibal or mountain dewback species, which can surpass the common desert dewback’s. Toward the end of my transmission I will show you animals that exceed even the greatest dinosaurs in sheer glory and ferocity.

Unlike the durable Tauntauns of my home system’s ice planet Hoth, however, dewbacks are ill-suited to cold climates because they are adapted to shed heat, not gain it. But the insulation of the next animal shows a more versatile performance…

 

Convincing image of a Bantha being ridden by a Sand-Person, from your world's fake documentary "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope", from Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox.

Convincing image of a Bantha being ridden by a Tusken Raider/Sand-Person, from your world’s Rebel propaganda film “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”, by Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox.

Investigation 2. Field Dissection of a Bantha Bull

My anatomical study of a large male bantha (Megalingua feteoclunis) was hastened by not only the merciless heat but also by the imminent arrival of a horde of ravenous womp rats. Some quick incisions with my relict lightsaber sped my work. I focused my attention on three issues of scholarly interest: its marvellous tongue and glossopharyngeal adaptations (how does such a tall animal eat in a world that is far below it?), its hirsute integumentary system (what lies under that thick fur and how do banthas cope with the heat while wearing many wookies worth of wooly warmth?) and its peculiar, pillar-like limbs. The spiralling horns that add rings as the bantha grows, the nuchal ligament that supports the heavy head and neck, and the convoluted, multi-partitioned digestive tract that wrenches every last bit of nutrition from the lichens and other flora hidden beneath Tatooine sands are better understood. And with this bull I had no opportunity to study where the famous blue bantha milk comes from, but I have heard stories and no Terran mammal-esque udders are involved, let me tell you that much…

Anatomy of the oral apparatus of the Bantha, which I correct in my report although it is largely right (but how, Terran?). (source)

Anatomy of the oral apparatus of the Bantha, which I correct in my report although it is largely right (but how, Terran authors Terryl Whitlatch and Bob Carrau?). (source)

I don’t know how your Terran science-invigilators managed to get accurate information on bantha tongue anatomy (above) but I have to credit them, they almost got it right. With your can-do attitudes combined with your bungling mistakes, you’d make good Fourth Rebel Alliance members, but don’t get any new hopes. However, as the illustration below shows (and I had to leave the guts in the picture for their sheer impressiveness!), the tongue-projection mechanism extends not around the rear of the skull (occiput) and into the eyes or sinuses, but far back along the giant, spar-like breastbone (sternum) to the hips (pelvis, or propubis).

That mechanism’s powerful projection can extend the tongue as far as 3 Terran meters (10 feet). The tongue is expelled by stretching and then releasing (slowly for precise control, or quickly for a catapult action) a fibrous sac that surrounds the base of the tongue, and this sac then recoils elastically when released to withdraw the tongue. I’ve studied your Terran elephant and chameleon and it combines aspects of both of these, with the tongue having several layers of fine muscle fibres as in the former animal, and the “power amplifier” catch mechanism of the latter, thus providing a superior combination of control and speed. All of these are rightly called muscular hydrostats, but the bantha’s is the best.  You might mention your Terran pangolin as a counter-example, but does that little creature have the spiracle-bearing, ultrasensitive chemosensory tongue and majestic size of the bantha? No. I rest my case.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of a bantha, showing the tongue attachments (note the distal bifurcation), digestive tract and foot structure. The colour variations in the digestive tract seem to be produced by commensal arthroreptiles.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of a bantha, showing the tongue attachments (note the distal bifurcation), digestive tract and foot structure. The colour variations in the digestive tract seem to be produced by commensal arthroreptiles.

A naïve Terran like yourself might wonder why, of all things, a giant desert mammal such as the bantha would evolve to be clothed in thick fur. Here you would reveal your feeble way of grasping about the diversity of pangalactic Nature. First of all, banthas are not mammals as you know them; a Terran word like pseudomammal would suffice. They lack the diagnostic traits of mammary glands, true hair, and inner ear bones that diagnose the Mammalia of your homeworld, but evolution at a giant size in a hot, dry clime has chastened them to become at least superficially similar to a Terran mammal such as an elephant or mammoth. One might be so naïve, even, to think that a bantha is merely a proboscidean in hairy disguise, but drive such thoughts from your rickety cerebral-implant-deprived mind.

Behold, the true nature of bantha fur, as I have seen with microdroid holo-imaging: it is a second, external circulatory system of sorts. Simply put, the hairs have a thermo-conductive submolecular structure that deflects heat (and even, to a degree, the energy of a blaster) and traps cooler air near the body with an intricate network of cross-linking of barbed fibers more like a Terran bird’s feathers than mammalian hair. In this cooler locale, tracts of spongy skin tissue collect condensed water and direct it to absorbent epithelial beds on the chin and lips, belly, and toes, where the bantha imbibes it, or simply sheds it off to carry further heat away. Thus here we have a fascinating case of convergent evolution with the reptiliform dewbacks, but surpassing even that animal’s adaptation and evolving what you would likely call an air-conditioning system. Banthas cool themselves by circulating a slick of cool water around their body inside a heat-resistant fluffy outer mesh. Whether their horn tissues or tails contribute to this system is yet to be investigated.

Lastly, I have conducted holo-viewings of the biomechanics of bantha gaits from numerous remote studies of wild and Sand People-ridden animals, in light of my own dissections of this bull. What strikes me is the phenomenal convergence with giant quadrupeds on your homeworld: like sauropods, elephants and other species, banthas have evolved “graviportal” or weight-bearing adaptations: (1) limbs that are proportionately longest above the elbow and knee, not distally elongated as in “cursorial” animals; (2) heavy, robust bones that lack much of a marrow space; (3) short, thickly padded feet ending in bulky claws or hooves (three toes in the case of banthas); (4) an emphasis on lateral sequence (left hind-left front-right hind-right front) footfalls when walking, extended to a slightly bouncing, rolling “amble” at faster speeds; (5) strongly vertical limbs when walking, using the limbs more like pillars to support the weight more effectively; and (6) slow maximal speeds, limited to ~7 Terran meters/second (24 kph/15mph) at best.

At around 4000 kg of typical body mass, banthas overlap with the masses of your planet’s erstwhile giants that have such features. I did not uncover any “predigits” supporting the feet of banthas as you had in elephants; rather, their “heels” involve dense fibro-elastic cartilage, which works analogously to give shock-absorbing and resilient properties to the feet. This suite of graviportal features reinforces an idea that is now recognized pan-galactically: At huge sizes, land animals must act relatively more constrained by gravity, becoming forced to adapt more aspects of their biology to resist its pull, lest they strain muscles, break bones, snap tendons, or fall and injure themselves. Thus the convergent evolution of banthas and elephants is no surprise. But is there another way to be an imposing giant? Perhaps…

 

Investigation 3. On some remains of the “extinct” Krayt Dragon

Ever since I left my home system, thoughts kept tumbling through my mind like rocks in an asteroid field, concerning the krayt dragon bones I had viewed in the museum on Corellia. With the krayt (Tyrannodraconis sp.) lineage reported extinct since at least the year 22 ABY, following much publicity of its awesome nature, its menace seemed now but a phantom. Consequently I could only fantasize of deeper study. That is, until a rumour came to me while resupplying in the well-preserved city of Bestine: not far off on the edge of the Jundland Wastes, a stormtrooper patrol had taken down a strange, enormous, multi-legged arthroreptile that had gone after their dewback mounts. A quick skyhopper flight and I was there, giddy with the adrenaline of impending discovery.

Another Terran artist renders a compelling illustration, of a Greater Krayt Dragon in life. Where indeed do they get their information from? Bothan spies, I suspect. (Source)

Another Terran artist (one of Terryl Whitlatch and Bob Carrau) renders a compelling illustration, of a Greater Krayt Dragon in life. Where indeed do they get their information from? Bothan spies, I suspect. (Source)

It was a magnificent carcass. Sandworms and scurriers were already attempting to scavenge it, but with little luck and easily driven off with a few shots from my carbine. No stormtroopers remained (alive, anyway), so I didn’t get any details of the fracas that led to this well-timed demise, but the blast points on its body were too precise for sandpeople, and characteristic dewback tracks were everywhere. Even my antique lightsaber seemed poorly up to the task of dissecting this titan: it was over 30 meters (100 feet) long and surely 100 tons of Terran mass if not more; on the scale of your sauropods, but so vastly different in other ways. Right away, from its tracks I could see it had a peculiar mode of movement in life: it had slid up to some rocky cover in these badlands, dragging its belly and bulk along with ten limbs that were slender in comparison to its body, but still each as big as a large bantha’s. I took a deep breath and cut into what was the first Greater Krayt Dragon seen in some 255 years.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of the Greater Krayt Dragon, to extract the Dragon Pearl. The stormtrooper shown forgot the tale that Krayts take 1 hour to die, and so got too close too soon.

Jawa 37C-H4 sketching droid illustration: My dissection of the Greater Krayt Dragon, to extract the Dragon Pearl. The stormtrooper shown forgot the tale that Krayts take 1 hour to die, and so got too close too soon.

If the bantha dissection was a rush job, this one was a sprint. Pockets of gas were forming and erupting while I sliced my way toward the bones and other organs of most interest, with the forces of decomposition slowly winning a race against my science. Oh, if only I’d had a Jawa sandcrawler to repurpose as a mobile freezer! And the sandworms and scurriers were still lurking about, with far nastier things surely soon to be drawn by the carnage out in these remote wastes. Those two days blurred exhaustion and inquiry and disgust and elation into a mire in my mind more pernicious than any on Dagobah. I’m no longer sure of what I saw– you’re probably wondering if I found the fabled krayt dragon pearl in the gizzard, and yes, there was one but I lost it somehow. Same with the venom sacs. Maybe I sipped from one of those; that would explain a lot. I made a sketch that I reproduce here, but then in a crazed, diaphonic state of dehydration and euphoria and frustration I am pretty sure I cut my sketching droid to pieces too, so this is all that remains to bolster my frazzled memories.

Now that I’ve recovered and ruminated, I have come to some conclusions. First, I am left doubting all the little we know about krayt dragons. It is said that they existed in canyon, normal and greater species, and the immense variation of curved horns, clawed limbs and flanged tails lent this taxonomy much credibility in the past. But, call it chronic heatstroke or inspiration as you may, what if all krayt “species” are just stages of a long and repeatedly metamorphic developmental sequence? As my graph below shows, and this is admittedly pieced together from what few museum specimens and documents I have since marshalled to test my hypothesis, krayt traits change uniformly with their body size. As they get bigger, krayt dragons get more multi-legged and longer-necked, diverging from the form of their relatives (in the evolutionary sense of your sciences, sister group or outgroup) from Ruutan, the Kell dragons. The genus Tyrannodraconis, more so than the Kell, betrays its arthroreptile ancestry with their spines, exoskeletal plates, and tendency for polypedality. Their sternum also elongates to support their chest as they change from lumbering, bantha-chasing quadrupeds to slithering, sarlacc-snatching octa- or decapedal behemoths.

Although based on little concrete data, my analysis of known Krayt and related specimens suggests that they change continuously during ontogeny, although leg number may shift more suddenly (I predict this happens during their first metamorphosis at sexual maturity). Strong allometric scaling of neck and total length is evident- if the two lengths scaled as mass^0.33 they would be maintaining shape across the proposed growth series. But they don't.

Although based on little concrete data, my analysis of known Krayt and related specimens suggests that they change continuously during ontogeny, although leg number may shift more suddenly (I predict this happens during their first metamorphosis at sexual maturity). Strong allometric scaling of neck and total length is evident- if the two lengths scaled as body mass0.33 they would be maintaining shape across the proposed growth series. But they don’t.

I return to the best-documented krayt dragon remains: those that even Terrans have seen in the Rebel propaganda film you call “Episode IV”. Dr. Freezers, even your fellow blog-invigilators at SV-POW! discussed it. Witness the large size and long neck of the typical Krayt; whether horns existed or not in that form from the film is uncertain, and I note that these could even be a sexually dimorphic feature, but this is beside the point. Remnants of the body and limbs were never found. But this specimen fits well with my idea that all krayts are one species, or two at most—and how many top predatory megafaunal species could coexist on a desolate arid planet like Tatooine anyway?

What still strikes me is the phenotypic variation in krayts: some large or small varieties have from two to four toes, and different scythe-like horns on their tail tips. This leads me to heap speculation atop my precarious pile of hypotheses: what if krayts are simply phenotypically labile, varying their traits almost stochastically between individuals due to relatively flexible ontogenetic programming, but still following strong overall trends as size increase, like those I have plotted above? Those stronger trends might be more tightly regulated by homeobox-like genes similar to those that have shaped so much of your Terran metazoan diversity, influencing features along the body axis like those I have mentioned (neck, limbs) across growth? I like this idea too much for it to be true, I admit. But if one krayt dragon existed just a short time ago, it is not simply fodder for the cryptoxenozoologists. And so, sooner or later, someone will answer my scientific salvo. I predict that burrows where the krayt dragons metamorphose between life stages, growing new legs and longer bodies, will be found in due time.

However, I have a stronger inference that I present to you as part of our common interest. On Terra and Tatooine alike, larger animals tend to adopt more straight-legged limb poses to improve their leverage, as I outlined with the dewbacks above. I plot existing data for Terran animals with my best estimates (for dewbacks and banthas, quite reliable; for krayts, my guesses) for this “effective mechanical advantage” below. What this shows is that dewbacks and Banthas both fall below the “normal” curve for Terran land mammals, as I explain:

In the case of dewbacks, this decrease of limb leverage seems offset by passive support from their pressurized scaly legs and enlarged whole-limb extensor muscles of their hindlegs, so they are overall about as well adapted to bursts of speed as large mammals from your world, such as buffalo or large antelope, even if their endurance suffers (a tradeoff, perhaps, for their reptile-like adaptations to desert life).

In the case of banthas, they do no better or worse than elephants; all are slow due to their size and “graviportal” focus of adaptations. Like elephants, but unlike dewbacks, banthas do not “invest” more body mass into supportive leg muscle, and so they are slower than they might otherwise be.

Effective mechanical advantage of the limbs, with Terran data for mammals (red+blue) (source 1 and source 2), and my new data for Tatooine megafauna. Past a moderate size, EMA either declines or remains constant. Once the limbs are fairly straight (near the size of a Terran horse), EMA cannot be much improved.

Effective mechanical advantage (EMA) of the limbs, with Terran data for mammals (red+blue) (source 1 and source 2), and my new data for Tatooine megafauna (green). Past a moderate size, EMA either declines or remains constant. Once the limbs are fairly straight (near the size of a Terran horse, or Tatooine eopie; vertical dashed line), EMA cannot be much improved.

But the krayts (young or smaller species aside) suffer more from their size than other Tatooine megafauna, as they do not increase their limbs’ mechanical advantage any more than the others do, and so they must become slower as they grow. This explains, however, why their ecology shifts from being a mobile predator when smaller (feeding on dewback, then bantha-sized prey) to being more of an ambush predator or specialist on slow/immobile prey like sarlaccs as they attain titanic sizes. Their limbs, despite becoming more numerous, must become less able to support them as size increases, as in other Terran and Tatooine megafauna, and thus they are destined to benefit from giant size (in many ways, including near-invulnerability and capacity to take the largest prey) at a cost of athleticism (but with prey like sarlaccs, who needs it?). In the greater, or fully mature, krayt dragons, I suggest that the limbs each become less supportive and more of a stabilizer to prevent their slug-like bulk from rolling over, or a set of “oars” to help them navigate through sandy environments like the Dune Seas. They support their weight not so much with limbs and levers, but with a larger, cuirass-like breastbone system, rings of muscles and fibrous tissue, and their whole elongate body.

The ultimate implications of my biomechanical research are summarized below—I am sure you will agree with my reasoning.

Maximal speed vs. body mass data from (black) Terran animals (source), and (green) Tatooine megafauna (plus non-native Kell dragons for comparison). As size increases past ~100 kg mass, speed inevitably declines.

Maximal speed vs. body mass data from (black) Terran animals (source), and (green) Tatooine megafauna (plus non-native Kell dragons for comparison). As size increases past ~100 kg mass (when EMA in the other graph above is already maximal), speed inevitably declines.

As for those that have said that Greater Krayt Dragons and such are thereby confined to a life as scavengers and nothing more, I would welcome them to explore the Jundland Wastes locales armoured by all the security that this foolish notion provides. I, for one, would enjoy viewing such a visit, but only remotely via a probe droid’s holo-feed.

One of your Terran artists (jeddbub on deviantart) produced a provocative imagining of a Greater Krayt Dragon facing a Jedi. I'd wager for the former.

One of your Terran artists (jeddibub on deviantart) produced a provocative imagining of a Greater Krayt Dragon facing a Jedi. I’d wager for the former.

I submit this report in honour of Empress Syrrhosyx and the Fourth Empire– may you find the contents enlightening and may her rule grace your benighted homeworld before you, too, have nothing left of your megafauna but stories of dragons.

I welcome your comments, and perhaps some of your lauded “freezerinos” would care to comment below—but they must behave themselves, lest I find cause to deposit them in carbonite for hyperspace shipping to a lonely suffering on a lonely planet!

I shall shortly return this “blog” to your control, when the mood strikes me. That is the deal for this correspondence. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

Enjoy your little blog carnival, Terrans…

Pangalactically,

Dr. Zhonav Diphyryzas

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A very short post here to plug BBC Radio 4’s excellent second series of “Just So Science”. These are 15 minute stories involving a reading of parts of Rudyard Kipling’s great British/natural history stories, and then examining how the science of today informs us about the real lives of animals, without resorting to just-so stories a la Kipling (co-opted as a term in evolutionary biology, too!). I was featured last year on rhinos.

I’m featured this year on kangaroos (now available online) and elephants (also available online now). I just listened to the kangaroo episode and it was good fun. I’ve studied the biomechanics of kangaroos a bit, in as-yet unpublished work featured here in a BBC News story (video from that work is below), and we’ve done other work on their bone morphology and how it relates to body size that is sure to come out in not too long.

Don’t blink! Or, for your enjoyment, a looping GIF:

kangaroo hop

My freezers feature heavily in one bit, in which you can hear me vent my frustrations about an unlabelled bag and stacks of specimens– where is the wallaby? And what’s that crinkling noise?

Best beloved, it is the sound of science. Just so. Enjoy!

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This post is solely my opinion; not reflecting any views of my coauthors, my university, etc, and was written in my free time at home. I am just putting my current thoughts in writing, with the hope of stimulating some discussion. My post is based on some ruminations I’ve had over recent years, in which I’ve seen a lot of change happening in how science’s self-correcting process works, and the levels of openness in science, which are trends that seem likely to only get more intense.

That’s what this post ponders- where are we headed and what does it mean for scientists and science? Please stay to the end. It’s a long read, but I hope it is worth it. I raise some points at the end that I feel strongly about, and many people (not just scientists) might also agree with or be stimulated to think about more.

I’ve always tried to be proactive about correcting my (“my” including coauthors where relevant) papers, whether it was a publisher error I spotted or my/our own; I’ve done at least 5 such published corrections. Some of my later papers have “corrected” (by modifying and improving the methods and data) my older ones, to the degree that the older ones are almost obsolete. A key example is my 2002 Nature paper on “Tyrannosaurus rex was not a fast runner“- a well-cited paper that I am still proud of. I’ve published (with coauthors aplenty) about 10 papers since then that explore various strongly related themes, the accuracy of assumptions and estimates involved, and new ways to approach the 2002 paper’s main question. The message of that paper remains largely the same after all those studies, but the data have changed to the extent that it would no longer be viable to use them. Not that this paper was wrong; it’s just we found better ways to do the science in the 12 years since we wrote it.

I think that is the way that most of science works; we add new increments to old ones, and sooner or later the old ones become more historical milestones for the evolution of ideas than methods and data that we rely on anymore. And I think that is just fine. I cannot imagine it being any other way.

If you paid close attention over the past five months, you may have noticed a kerfuffle (to put it mildly) raised by former Microsoft guru/patent afficionado/chef/paleontologist Nathan Myhrvold over published estimates of dinosaur growth rates since the early 2000’s. The paper coincided with some emails to authors of papers in question, and some press attention, especially in the New York Times and the Economist. I’m not going to dwell on the details of what was right or wrong about this process, especially the scientific nuances behind the argument of Myhrvold vs. papers in question. What happened happened. And similar things are likely to happen again to others, if the current climate in science is any clue. More about that later.

But one outcome of this kerfuffle was that my coauthors and I went through (very willingly; indeed, by my own instigation) some formal procedures at our universities for examining allegations of flaws in publications. And now, as a result of those procedures, we issued a correction to this paper:

Hutchinson, J.R., Bates, K.T., Molnar, J., Allen, V., Makovicky, P.J. 2011. A computational analysis of limb and body dimensions in Tyrannosaurus rex with implications for locomotion, ontogeny, and growth. PLoS One 6(10): e26037. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026037  (see explanatory webpage at: http://www.rvc.ac.uk/SML/Projects/3DTrexGrowth.cfm)

The paper correction is here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi/10.1371/journal.pone.0097055. Our investigations found that the growth rate estimates for Tyrannosaurus were not good enough to base any firm conclusions are, so we retracted all aspects of growth rates from that paper. The majority of the paper, about estimating body mass and segment dimensions (masses, centres of mass, inertia) and muscle sizes as well as their changes through growth and implications for locomotor ontogeny, still stands; it was not in question.

For those (most of you!) who have never gone through such a formal university procedure checking a paper, my description of it is that it is a big freakin’ deal! Outside experts may be called in to check the allegations and paper, you have to share all your data with them and go through the paper in great detail, retracing your steps, and this takes weeks or months. Those experts may need to get paid for their time. It is embarassing even if you didn’t make any errors yourself and even if you come out squeaky clean. And it takes a huge amount of your time and energy! My experience started on 16 December, reached a peak right around Xmas eve (yep…), and finally we submitted our correction to PLoS and got editorial approval on 20 March. So it involved three months of part-time but gruelling dissection of the science, and long discussions of how to best correct the problems. Many cooks! I have to admit that personally I found the process very stressful and draining.

Next time you wonder why science can be so slow at self-correction, this is the reason. The formal processes and busy people involved mean it MUST be slow– by the increasingly speedy standards of  modern e-science, anyway. Much as doing science can be slow and cautious, re-checking it will be. Should be?

My message from that experience is to get out in front of problems like this, as an author. Don’t wait for someone else to point it out. If you find mistakes, correct them ASAP. Especially if they (1) involve inaccurate data in the paper (in text, figures, tables, whatever), (2) would lead others to be unable to reproduce your work in any way, even if they had all your original methods and data, or (3) alter your conclusions. It is far less excruciating to do it this way then to have someone else force you to do it, which will almost inevitably involve more formality, deeper probing, exhaustion and embarassment. And there is really no excuse that you don’t have time to do it. Especially if a formal process starts. I can’t even talk about another situation I’ve observed, which is ongoing after ~3 years and is MUCH worse, but I’ve learned more strongly than ever that you must demonstrate you are serious and proactive about correcting your work.

I’ve watched other scientists from diverse fields experience similar things– I’m far from alone. Skim Retraction Watch and you’ll get the picture. What I observe both excites me and frightens me. I have a few thoughts.

1) The drive to correct past science is a very good development and it’s what science is meant to be about. This is the most important thing!

2) The digital era, especially trends for open access and open data for papers, makes corrections much easier to discover and do. That is essentially good, and important, and it is changing everything about how we do science. Just watch… “we live in interesting times” encapsulates the many layers of feelings one should react with if you are an active researcher. I would not dare to guess what science will be like in 20 years, presumably when I’ll be near my retirement and looking back on it all!

3) The challenge comes in once humans get involved. We could all agree on the same lofty principles of science and digital data but even then, as complex human beings, we will have a wide spectrum of views on how to handle cases in general, or specific cases.

This leads to a corollary question– what are scientists? And that question is at the heart of almost everything controversial about scientific peer review, publishing and post-publication review/correction today, in my opinion. To answer this, we need to answer at least two sub-questions:

1–Are we mere cogs in something greater, meant to hunker down and work for the greater glory of the machine of science?

(Should scientists be another kind of public servant? Ascetic monks?)

2–Are we people meant to enjoy and live our own lives, making our own choices and value judgements even if they end up being not truly optimal for the greater glory of science?

(Why do we endure ~5-10 years of training, increasingly poor job prospects/security, dwindling research funds, mounting burdens of expectations [e.g., administrative work, extra teaching loads, all leading to reduced freedoms] and exponentially growing bureaucracies? How does our experience as scientists give meaning to our own lives, as recompense?)

The answer is, to some degree, yes to both of the main questions above, but how we reconcile these two answers is where the real action is. And this brew is made all the spicier by the addition of another global trend in academia: the corporatization of universities (“the business model”) and the concomitant, increasing concern of universities about public image/PR and marketing values. I will not go any further with that; I am just putting it out there; it exists.

The answer any person gives will determine how they handle a specific situation in science. You’ve reminded your colleague about possible errors in their work and they haven’t corrected it. Do you tell their university/boss or do you blog and tweet about it, to raise pressure and awareness and force their hand? Or do you continue the conversation and try to resolve it privately at any cost? Is your motive truly the greater glory of science, or are you a competitive (or worse yet, vindictive or bitter) person trying to climb up in the world by dragging others down? How should mentors counsel early career researchers to handle situations like this? Does/should any scientist truly act alone in such a regard? There may be no easy, or even mutually exclusive, answers to these questions.

We’re all in an increasingly complex new world of science. Change is coming, and what that change will be like or when, no one truly knows. But ponder this:

Open data, open science, open review and post-publication review, in regards to correcting/retracting past publications: how far down the rabbit hole do we go?

The dinosaur growth rates paper kerfuffle concerned numerous papers that date back to earlier days of science, when traditions and expectations differed from today’s. Do we judge all past work by today’s standards, and enforce corrections on past work regardless of the standards of its time? If we answer some degree of “yes” to this, we’re in trouble. We approach a reductio ad absurdum: we might logic ourselves into a corner where that great machine of science is directed to churn up great scientific works of their time. Should Darwin’s or Einstein’s errors be corrected or retracted by a formal process like those we use today? Who would do such an insane thing? No one (I hope), but my point is this: there is a risk that is carried in the vigorous winds of the rush to make science look, or act, perfect, that we dispose of the neonate in conjunction with the abstergent solution.

OK I used 1 image...

There is always another way. Science’s incremental, self-correcting process can be carried out quite effectively by publishing new papers that correct and improve on old ones, rather than dismantling the older papers themselves. I’m not arguing for getting rid of retractions and corrections. But, where simple corrections don’t suffice, and where there is no evidence of misconduct or other terrible aspects of humanity’s role in science, perhaps publishing a new paper is a better way than demolishing the old. Perhaps it should be the preferred or default approach. I hope that this is the direction that the Myhrvold kerfuffle leans more toward, because the issues at stake are so many, so academic in nature, and so complex (little black/white and right/wrong) that openly addressing them in substantial papers by many researchers seems the best way forward. That’s all I’ll say about that.

I still feel we did the right thing with our T. rex growth paper’s correction. There is plenty of scope for researchers to re-investigate the growth question in later papers.  But I can imagine situations in which we hastily tear down our or others’ hard work in order to show how serious we are about science’s great machine, brandishing lofty ideals with zeal– and leaving unfairly maligned scientists as casualties in our wake. I am reminded of outbursts over extreme implementations of security procedures at airports in the USA, which were labelled “security theatre” for their extreme cost, showiness and inconvenience, with negligible evidence of security improvements.

The last thing we want in science is an analogous monstrosity that we might call “scientific theatre.” We need corrective procedures for and by scientists, that serve both science and scientists best. Everyone needs to be a part of this, and we can all probably do better, but how we do it… that is an interesting adventure we are on. I am not wise enough to say how it should happen, beyond what I’ve written here. But…

A symptom of scientific theatre might be a tendency to rely on public shaming of scientists as punishment for their wrongs, or as encouragement for them to come clean. I know why it’s done. Maybe it’s the easy way out; point at someone, yell at them in a passionate tone backed up with those lofty ideals, and the mob mentality will back you up, and they will be duly shamed. You can probably think of good examples. If you’re on social media you probably see a lot of it. There are naughty scientists out there, much as there are naughty humans of any career, and their exploits make a good story for us to gawk at, and often after a good dose of shaming they seem to go away.

But Jon Ronson‘s ponderings of the phenomenon of public shaming got me thinking (e.g., from this WTF podcast episode; go to about 1 hr 9 min): does public shaming belong in science? As Ronson said, targets of severe public shaming have described it as “the worst pain ever”, and sometimes “there’s no recourse” for them. Is this the best way to live together in this world? Is it really worth it, for scientists to do to others or to risk having done to them? What actually are its costs? We all do it in our lives sometimes, but it deserves introspection. I think there are lessons from the dinosaur growth rates kerfuffle to be learned about public shaming, and this is emblematic of problems that science needs to work out for how it does its own policing. I think this is a very, very important issue for us all to consider, in the global-audience age of the internet as well as in context of the intense pressures on scientists today. I have no easy answers. I am as lost as anyone.

What do you think?

 

EDIT: I am reminded by comments below that 2 other blog posts helped inspire/coagulate my thoughts via the alchemy of my brain, so here they are:

http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/post-publication-review-signs-of-the-times/ Which considers the early days of the Myhrvold kerfuffle.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2014/01/27/post-publication-cyber-bullying/ Which considers how professional and personal selves may get wounded in scientific exchanges.

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Yesterday I encountered the question that, as a scientist who has studied a certain chunky Cretaceous carnivore a lot, most deflates me and makes me want to go study cancer therapeutic methods or energy sources that are alternatives to fossil fuels (but I’d be useless at either). I will explain why this is at the end of the post.

The question stems from a new discovery, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and thus expected to be one of the more important or exciting studies this year (no, I’m not going to get into the issue here of whether these “high impact” journals include the best scientific research or the most superficial or hyped “tabloid” science; they publish both, and not in mutual exclusivity). It’s a broken Tyrannosaurus rex tooth embedded in a duckbill dinosaur’s tail bone, which healed after the injury, showing that the animal survived the attack.

If you’re with me so far, you might be making the logical leap that this fossil find is then linked to the hotbed of furious controversy that still leaves palaeontology in crisis almost 100 years after Lambe suggested it for the tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus. If the hadrosaur survived an attack from a T. rex, then T. rex was a habitual predator and OMG JACK HORNER AND OTHERS BEFORE HIM WERE WRONG!

And you’d be right.

My encounter with the question stemmed from an email from a science journalist (Matt Kaplan) that, as is normal practice, shared a copy of the unpublished paper and asked for comments from me to potentially use in an article he was writing for the science journal Nature’s news site. Here, then, was my off-the-cuff response:


“Ooh. I do have a pretty strong opinion on this. Not sure if you’d want to use it but here goes. I may regret it, but this hits my hot buttons for One of the Worst Questions in All of Palaeobiology!

The T. rex “predator vs. scavenger” so-called controversy has sadly distracted the public from vastly more important, real controversies in palaeontology since it was most strongly voiced by Dr Jack Horner in the 1990s. I find this very unfortunate. It is not like scientists sit around scratching their heads in befuddlement over the question, or debate it endlessly in scientific meetings. Virtually any palaeontologist who knows about the biology of extant meat-eaters and the fossil evidence of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs accepts that T. rex was both a predator and scavenger; it was a carnivore like virtually any other kind that has ever been known to exist.

While the discovery is nice evidence, it is not particularly exciting in a scientific sense and is only one isolated element from species that lived for hundreds of thousands of years, which to me changes nothing and allows no generalizations about the biology of any species, only the statement that at one point in time a Tyrannosaurus bit a hadrosaur that survived the encounter. There is no real substance to the controversy that T. rex was “either” a predator or scavenger. It is just something that scientists drum up now and then to get media attention. I hope that soon we can move on to more pressing questions about the biology of extinct animals, but the media needs to recognize that this is just hype and they are being played in a rather foolish way; likewise scientists that still feel this is an exciting question need to move on. Maybe this specimen will allow that. But somehow my cynical side leads me to suspect that this “controversy” will just persist because people want it to, regardless of logic or evidence. (bold font added; see below)

Great galloping lizards, I am so tired of this nonsense. Maybe there is educational value in showing how science deals with provocative half-baked ideas about celebrity species, but scientists in the community need to speak up and say what the real science is about. It’s not about this “controversy”. Modern palaeontology is so much better than this.

Sorry for the rant. Maybe it’s too extreme but I’m just fed up with this non-issue! I suspect a huge proportion of our field feels similarly, however.”


(I later redacted a bit of it where I got a little too excited and used the word “curmudgeon”; a mistake, as that could be seen as ad hominem rather than a term of endearment, and this issue is about the science and not the people, per se. That bit is redacted here, too. I’ve also redacted a sentence in which I made an opinion on whether the paper should have been published in PNAS; that is mostly irrelevant here. I was not a reviewer, and authors/reviewers/editors have to make that decision. This would be a massive tangent away from what this blog post is intended to be about! I know some of the authors and don’t want to offend them, but this is about the science and how it is represented to the world, not about these particular authors or even this paper itself.)

Importantly, Kaplan’s story did include my skeptical quote at the end. I am curious to see how many other news stories covering this paper go that far.

Would a T. rex prey on, or just scavenge, a giant chicken? (art by Luis Rey)

Would a T. rex prey on, or just scavenge — or have a great time racing — a giant chicken? (art by Luis Rey)

I will stop right here and acknowledge that I’ve published a lot on a somewhat related topic: how fast a T. rex could run or if it could run at all. To me, that’s a great scientific question that has consequences not only for the predator/scavenger false dichotomy, but also for general theories of locomotor biomechanics (can an animal the size of a large elephant run as well as or better than said elephant? What are the thresholds of size and maximal running/jumping/other athletic abilities and how do they vary in different evolutionary lineages? And so on.). I’ll defend the validity of that question to the bitter end, even if it’s a question I’ve grown a little (but only a little) tired of and generally feel is about as well settled as these things can be in palaeontology (see my review here). I’ll also defend that it has been a real controversy (I have plenty of old emails, formal rebuttals submitted by colleagues, and other discourse as evidence of this) since I tackled it starting in 2002 and sort of finishing by 2011. I am sensitive about the issue of hyping my research up– this is something I’ve been careful about. I set a reasonable bar of how much is too much, check myself continuously with reflective thought, and I do not feel I have ever really crossed that bar, away from science-promotion into darker realms. This is partly why I’ve stopped addressing this issue in my current work. I feel like the science we’ve done on this is enough for now, and to keep beating the same drum would be excessive, unless we discovered a surprising new way to address the questions better, or a very different and more compelling answer to them.

T. rex: scavenger or predator?” was controversial back  in 1994 when Horner published “The Complete T. rex”, where he laid out his arguments. Brian Switek covered this quite well in his post on it, so I will not review that history. There was a big Museum of the Rockies exhibit about it that toured the USA, and other media attention surrounding it, so Horner’s name became attached to the idea as a result. Other such as Lambe and Colinvaux had addressed it before, but their ideas never seemed to gain as much currency as Horner’s did. But this post is not about that.

What this post is about is a consideration of why this is still an issue that the media report on (and scientists publish on; the two are synergistic of course), if most scientists aware of past debates are in good agreement that a T. rex was like most other carnivores and was opportunistic as a switch-hitting scavenger-predator, not a remarkably stupid animal that would turn down a proper meal that was dead/alive. Indeed, the Nature news piece has a juicy quote from Horner that implies (although I do not know if it was edited or if important context is missing) that he has been in favour of the opportunistic predator-scavenger conclusion for some time. Thus, as Switek’s article notes, even the strongest advocates of the obligate scavenger hypothesis(?) have changed their minds; indeed, that 2011 blog post intimates that this had already happened at least 2 years ago.

For many years, nothing has been published in the main peer-reviewed literature that favours that extreme “obligate scavenger” hypothesis. If I am wrong and there is a scientific debate, where are the recent papers (say within the past 5 years) that are strong, respectable arguments in favour of it? I contend that it is a dead issue. And if it is just about the middle ground; i.e. what percent of its time did a T. rex spend hunting vs. scavenging; we have no clue and may never know, and it’s not a very interesting question.

But who then is feeding off of this moribund equine; this defunct tyranno-parrot?

In thinking about my reply to the journalist over the past 2 days, I am reminded again of my general feeling that this is no longer a question of scientific evidence; the important bit in bold font above. Maybe we just like this “hypothesis” or the “controversy”, or maybe we’re lazy and don’t want to have to hunt for real debates in science.

But who are “the people?” I do not feel that The Public should be blamed; they are the people that The Scientists and The Media ostensibly are seeking to inform about what the state of modern knowledge and uncertainty is in science. So when I get asked about the controversy after a public lecture, I always try to go into detail about it. I don’t sigh and say “go Google it”. Nor do I do this to a journalist. Indeed, I’ve generally headed this issue off at the pass and added a blurb to press releases/webpages explaining my T. rex research to explain how it relates to the non-controversy; example here.

I have to begin turning my finger of accusation away from scientists and toward some of the media, because they must play a huge role in the shennanigans. Yes, scientists should know better then to play this up as a valid, heated, modern controversy. That is true. Yet I have a feeling that the balance of blame should also fall heavily on the side of media (general and science news) that continue to report on this issue uncritically as a real controversy. Thus the general public thinks it still is, and scientists/journals keep issuing papers/press releases that it is, leading to more reporting on this “controversy”, and the beast refuses to die. Switek’s article is a good counter-example of balanced coverage with clear application of critical thinking.

This is trivially different from other non-controversies in palaeontology such as whether birds evolved from a subgroup of theropod dinosaurs and hence are dinosaurs by virtue of descent (consensus = yes). So it is reflective of a broader problem of not calling a spade a spade.

And it’s embarassing, to a scientist, as my quote above expressed, to see dead controversies trotted out again and again, feeding the public perception that they are not dead.

That’s what leaves me frustrated. When do the shennanigans end?

I am reminded of a quote from a Seinfeld episode:

“Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.”– Jerry, from the episode “The Voice”.

But this predator/scavenger relationship-from-hell leaves me, as a specialist working in this general area, feeling like I am trapped under that fridge. Help!

That’s why I started off this long post talking about feeling deflated, or disappointed, when asked this question. I do feel that way. I have to admit, I sometimes even feel that way when a sweet young kid asks me that question. Deep inside, I wish they wondered about something else. I wish that science had reached them with a deeper, more contemporary question. But when a journalist asks me how I feel about a new paper that revisits the “controversy”, I feel embarassed for palaeontology. Can’t we get past this? It makes us look so petty, mired in trivial questions for decades. But we’re not like that. This is a dynamic, exciting, modern field, but every news story about non-issues in palaeontology just perpetuate bad elements of palaeontology’s image.

To the scientists— why don’t we put our foot down more and say enough is enough, this is a dead issue? We have a role not only in peer review, but also in communicating our views about published work to the media when asked (AND when not asked, as in this blog post). But if you call them on it, do they listen? Which brings me to…

To the media (science/general journalists etc; I know this is a huge category and please don’t think I am blaming 100% of journalists or assuming they are all the same; they are not!)– if scientists tell you that a “controversy” is not such, at what point do you accept their judgement and kill the story, or at least use that quote? Does that ever happen? In what way are you at the mercy of senior editors/others in such issues? What power do you have? Is a shift in the balance of editorial power needed, or even achievable, in your case or in good exemplar cases? I’d really like to hear your experiences/thoughts. I am sure there is a lot I am not understanding, and I know many journalists are in a tough situation.

To the public— You’re often being misinformed; you are the losers in this issue. How do you feel about all it? (While this post focuses on a very tiny issue, the T. rex scavenger/predator unending drama, it is also about a broader issue of how the media perpetuates controversies in science after they have already gone extinct.)

What did this post have to do with freezers? Nothing. I’m just (H)ornery. Although I was once filmed for a planned Discovery Channel film about scientists who find a frozen tyrannosaur in polar regions and have to decide what to do with it before it slips into a chasm and is lost forever. Probably better that this never aired; it was cancelled. Segue to this post.

The Berkeley cast of the Wankel (MOR555) specimen of T. rex. Will we ever see the end of the predator/scavenger non-issue?

The Berkeley cast of the Wankel (MOR555) specimen of T. rex. Will we ever see the end of the predator/scavenger non-issue?

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