Posts Tagged ‘media’

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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Hotel Fira Palace: view of the city

Hola from Barcelona, where 500ish of us are telling each other about the latest research in the field of morphology (like anatomy, but broader, deeper, more explanatory; but if you prefer to think of it as anatomy that’s OK by me)!

#ICVM and #ICVM2013 (favoured) are the hashtags, and http://icvm2013.com/ is the website, and there’s Facebook and all that too! You can read the full programme and abstracts here. It’s the best damn conference in the universe and I am not remotely biased. It happens every 3 years somewhere in the world and is always chock full of 5 days of glorious new information on animal form and function and much more, with just too many interesting talks to ever be able to take it all in.

I am speaking a few times and want to share a talk that is about sharing the glory of morphology in public.

Morphology research, that is; please put your clothing back on!

It’s a text-heavier talk than my rules-of-conference-talks normally would allow, but I’m going for it, as that makes it better for sharing because my dulcet tones will not accompany the version I am sharing online. Someday in the future, at a conference venue  that is better set up for reliably live-broadcasting a talk (this is NO FAULT of the excellent organizing committee of ICVM/ISVM!), I would just do it live, but not today, not here.

The point of the talk should be obvious from the first slide (as in my last post). But I’ll presage it by saying that another subtext, which might not come through so strongly in the slides as opposed to my spoken words, is that we need to tell people that we’re doing morphology/anatomy research! We should not be shy of that label because deans or geneticists or conventional wisdom or what/whomever might say (very, very wrongly!) that it is a dead or obsolete science.

While natural history, evolution, palaeontology and other fields allied to morphology do pretty well in the public eye, I don’t see people often reminded that what they are being told about in science communication is a NEW DISCOVERY IN ORGANISMAL MORPHOLOGY and that we are still discovering such new things about morphology all the freaking time! (e.g. my team’s research on elephant false sixth toes, or Nick Pyenson‘s team’s research on whale chin sense organs to name just 2 such studies, both published on the same day in Science!)

Indeed, many of those discoveries such as new fossils/exotic living things with cool features, cool developmental mechanisms that produced complex structures, or insights into how organisms are able to do amazing things are implicitly morphological discoveries, but the fanfare too often goes to natural history, palaeontology, evo-devo or some other area rather than explicitly to morphology.

In contrast, I too often hear people poo-pooing anatomical research as yesterday’s science.

Vesalius's classic skeleton, which is great but to me also conjures misleading connotations of anatomy as a  defunct discipline.

Vesalius’s classic skeleton (from Wikipedia), which is great but to me also conjures misleading connotations of anatomy as a defunct discipline that old dead dudes did.

We need to sell ourselves better not only in that regard, of a renaissance of discoveries and insights in our field, but also in the sense of being in a renaissance that is driven by TOTALLY AWESOME TECHNOLOGICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL ADVANCES, especially computerized tools. We’re just as fancy in terms of techy stuff as any other biologists, but we don’t shout it from the rooftops as much as other disciplines do.

We’re not just primitive scientists armed only with scalpels and maybe a ruler now and then, although that simple approach still has its sublime merits. We’re building finite element models, running dynamic computer simulations, taking high-resolution CT or synchotron scans, manipulating embryos, digging up fossils, sequencing genes– you name it, morphologists may be doing it! (For similar views see Marvalee Wake’s recent review of herpetology & morphology; I’m by far not the first person to make the arguments I’m making in my talk, but I am putting a personal spin on them)

And of course, as the talk is being delivered by me, you might rightly expect that I’ll say that we need to do more of this kind of cheerleading where we have maximal visibility and interaction, which includes online via social media, etc. I’ll discuss one other venue which has featured prominently here on this blog, too: documentaries. Oh I’m not done with that hobby horse, no sirree, not by a long shot!!

ICVM intro

Anyway I should get back to preparing my talk but here is the link to the slideshow (props to Anne Osterrieder for the inspiration to put my slides up here):

Please discuss anything related to this topic in the Comments– I’d love to hear what you think!

I am happy to clarify what my shorthand notes in the slide text mean if needed. There are links in the talk to other sites, which you can click and explore.

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I’ve been meaning to revisit a Rankin-Bass (yes, of The Hobbit animated film fame!) classic stop-motion film, “The Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974). I grew up on it, and now I can share it with my daughter because she’s of an age at which it now won’t scare the shit out of her. Rankin-Bass also did that uber-classic Crimbo flick with Rudolph and the Abominable Snowman– they knew how to handle cold-themed programming, those folks did!

I still think of the “Bumble” almost every freaking time I reach up high to grab something for someone that is vertically challenged– i.e. this scene:

Abominable Snowman

I’m OK with being the Bumble. He’s pretty cool.

ThunderCats was rambunctiously rocking, too– snarf. The Last Unicorn, too. Rankin-Bass, R.I.P., sniff… Anyway, back to “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, and the topic for today.

The film has some fabulous big band music, especially in this sequence with smooth operator Mr. Snow Miser (and that blowhard Heat Miser; you know who this blog favours!). If you’ve never experienced it, or like me it’s been >25 years since you’ve seen it, check it out via the magic of YouTube:

Summer is coming to our northern hemisphere, and winter is coming to the south, so let’s all celebrate the cold/hot dichotomy together now.

Here is the whole film (50 min):

(for once I agree with a YouTube commenter: the Misers steal the show!)

No scientists were harmed in the making of that film. But there was no science in my post, either…

ICVM is coming

I’m writing my talks for the ICVM conference and need some breaks, for which social media is very therapeutic. But I’ll be sharing at least one of my talks from that conference here on this blog, so stay tuned– the blog will be featured prominently in that talk!

Sneak peak here, of the intro slide, to whet your appetites I hope–


Extra bonus plug: Dr. Monica Daley, Senior Lecturer at the RVC’s Structure & Motion Lab, has a team that is blogging about their research-in-progress on using experimental studies of living birds to help build better legged robots — and using the robots to understand the birds, too! Check out their new ATRIAS blog here– http://atriasatrvc.wordpress.com/ and the wonderful video just posted, of Greg the Guineafowl’s excellent running!

(video by Dr. Yvonne Blum, postdoc with Dr. Daley’s research team; I take no credit)

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So in my last post I promised to put up the videos of my cat biomechanics footage online (cut scene from “The Secret Life of the Cat” documentary). Here I deliver on that promise.

Note that all this footage was filmed at 250 frames/second, so it is 10 times faster than conventional UK/EU (PAL format) video and thus it plays 10x slower if replayed at PAL format speeds. Hence it is often called “slo-mo”/slow motion video. However, most experts would call it high speed video due to the high frame rate that gives us higher temporal resolution, ideal for studying fast movements.

It was cold that day; indeed the Colchester Zoo area where we filmed the tiger videos below had been snowed in earlier; so the posting of these videos on my freezer-based blog is DEFINITELY apropos.

First, the cat (named Ricochet, not Rocket, I now recall; I’m sure you’re all ineffably outraged at this mistake in my prior post) that we filmed to show how a standard; if rather shy; cat walks:

Second, here I am goofing off. High speed video is so fun! OK actually I was testing the video camera to ensure it worked; we only got one chance with each of 2 tigers. As you can imagine it’s not easy to get a tiger back in its indoor enclosure when it’s nice and sunny outside! So my gear needed to work, and it did, despite the cameraman’s bum being in the shot here:

Third, a tiger whom we filmed at Colchester Zoo. It nonchalantly strolled out of its indoor enclosure upon release. No drama. It was a bit unnerved by our presence but took its time.

Finally, this is the video that we were really hoping for with the tiger; a dramatic turn and gallop out of the “tiger chute” into its main enclosure:

Pretty nice! And thanks to the magic of blogging, you get to see it, rather than having it banished forever to the purgatorial cutting room floor!

Here are some parting shots of the male tiger happily checking out his snowy paddock upon release, and then…

Tiger outdoors

I turned around and he was checking me out; I was just on the other side of the fence. That was a fun surprise! Some close-up time with a curious tiger.2013-03-12 12.38.13

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This is a rant, but stick with me and this rant might have a silver lining toward the end, or at least a voice of reason within the roiling cloud of bitter blog-scowling. And there are pictures of cats.

My little tiger.

My little tiger.

Like probably almost anyone in the 21st century that does research in a field of biology, I grew up watching nature documentaries on TV, and that influenced me to become a scientist. Doubtless it remains a powerful influence on other people, despite the massive de-science-ification of certain cable channels ostensibly, or at least potentially, dedicated to communicating science and nature (Animal Planet and History Channel, we’re looking at you).

But now I’ve seen behind the curtain. There’s still magic to behold there (e.g. working with early episodes of Inside Nature’s Giants), to be sure. However, some of my experiences have led me to become increasingly discontented with the relationship between TV documentaries and scientists.

Black leopard with motion capture markers on it, and glowing eyes; from our past studies.

Black leopard with glowing motion capture markers and eyes; eerie image from our past studies.

Here’s a common flow of events, and how they sometimes veer into frustration or worse:

Once a month or so, especially concentrated around this time (May-June-ish), I get a call or email from a documentary produced or researcher who is fishing for expert advice as they build a proposal for a documentary. I’m always very happy to talk with them and direct them to the best researchers to speak to, or papers to read, or to aspects of my own work that fit in with their idea for a documentary. Sometimes their idea is a bad one and I’m not afraid to tell them that and try to steer them toward a better idea; on occasion that seems to work, but more often they have their plan already and are reluctant to deviate from it.

About 3/4 of the time, I either never again hear from these nascent documentaries or else hear back maybe one more time (even to meet for coffee or give them a tour of our campus)– presumably, the proposal fails at that stage as it doesn’t excite executives. I’ve easily grown to accept this status quo after some initial disappointments. Much like in science, some ideas just don’t pass the muster of “peer review”, and documentary makers are operating under more of a market economy than science tends to be. Sifting is inevitable, and the time I spend helping people at this stage is quite minimal, plus it’s fun to see the sausage being made in its earliest stages. All fair so far…

Alexis and technician setting up gear for one of our past studies of how cats move.

Alexis and technician setting up gear for one of our past studies of how cats move.

The frustration naturally ramps up the more one invests in helping documentaries through their gestation period. I’m sure it’s very frustrating and stressful for TV makers, too, to spend days or months on a project and then have the rug pulled out from under them by those on high. Hopefully they are getting paid for their time; all I can speak to is my experience. My experience is that all this early input I regularly provide is pro bono.

I used to mention that my time is not cheap, and I had a policy (after a few disappointments and lost time) that I should get paid around £100/hour for my time, even at the early consulting stage. That fee went straight into my research funds to help send grad students to conferences or buy small consumables; it was definitely worth my effort and felt very fair. Since the 2008 economic downturn, I’ve rapidly abandoned that policy, because it seems clear to me that documentary makers of late tend to be working on more austere budgets. I’m sympathetic to that, and the payoff for a documentary that gets made with my input is often quite substantial in terms of personal satisfaction, PR/science communication, happy university/grant funders, etc. On rare occasions, I still do get paid for my time (albeit essentially never by the BBC); Inside Nature’s Giants was generous in that regard, for example.

How the leopard got glowy spots: motion capture markers from our past studies.

How the leopard got glowy spots: motion capture markers from our past studies.

But at some point a line needs to be drawn, where the helpful relationship between scientists and documentary makers veers from mutualism into parasitism, or just careless disregard. I’ve been featured in roughly eight different TV documentaries since 2004, but there were almost as many (six or so) other documentary spots that went beyond the proposal stage into actual filming (easily 8+ hours of time) and never aired; either being cancelled entirely or having my scenes cut. All too frequently, I don’t hear about this cutting/cancellation until very late and after my inquiries like “Any news about the air date for your programme?”

Several times I’ve heard nothing at all from a documentary after filming, only to watch the programme and reach the end credits to find no sign of me or my team’s research (in one embarrassing case that really soured my attitude, the RVC had broadcast to the college to watch the show to see me in action, and upon watching we found out I was cut. Ouch!). At that point I really do wonder, is it all worth it? Hours or days invested in calls, emails, paperwork, travel, arranging and replicating an experiment, repeating filmed scenes and lines, working to TV producers’ scripts and demanding timetables. All that is totally worth it if the show gets made. But if the odds are ~60/40 or so that I get cut, I think I have cause to do more than shrug. The people I’ve worked with on documentaries can be wonderfully kind and full of thanks and other approbations, and they often impress me with their enthusiasm for the programme and their very hard, tenacious work making it all happen. It is jarring, then, to find out “Oh, you’ve been cut from the show, I’m so very sorry, the executives made that decision and it was a bitter pill for us to swallow, believe me– take care and I hope we can work together again.”

Above: Performance art illustrating what it’s like to have your science filmed for a documentary, then cut; graciously acted out by a cat (R.I.P.).

My aggravation has resurfaced after filming with BBC Horizon’s new documentary on “The Secret Life of the Cat,” airing right now. Alan Wilson’s team, from our lab, is featured prominently there, so that is fantastic for the Structure & Motion Lab (also check out his purrfectly timed Nature paper on cheetah agility vs speed, also from this week!). It’s hopefully going to be a nifty show; I’ve seen some of the behind-the-scenes stuff develop. (EDIT: I’ve seen it now and it was pretty good in terms of imagery and showing off Alan’s team’s technology, but the science was pretty weakly portrayed– even laypeople I’ve spoken to said “Cats avoid each other… duh!” and the evolutionary storytelling didn’t convince me as much as I’d like; it came across as arm-waving, which is a shame if the two featured cat researchers actually have built a scientifically reasonable case for it. One could not tell if the “changes” in 1 village’s cats evidenced by 1 week’s observation were happening within a cat’s lifetime or were truly evolutionary and recent. I don’t think I’ll watch the 2nd segment.)

I was filmed for a segment which probably would have been in the 2nd part of the show airing on Friday night, but I found out last week that it got cut with a week left before airing. I will be watching the show anyway, of course. I’m not that bitter. The segment featuring my team’s research was about how cats of different sizes do not do what other land mammals do, which is to straighten their legs as size increases across evolutionary spans. This helps support their body weight more effectively, but I explained in the filming segment that in cats, the lack of a change of posture in size may have other benefits despite the cost in weight support: it can make them more stealthy, more agile/maneuverable (segue to the cheetah paper cited above!), or even better able to negotiate rough terrain. Hence a domestic cat is in a biomechanical sense in many ways much more like a tiger than it should be for a “typical mammal”– an athlete, specialized for the hunt. And smaller cats are relatively much more athletic than bigger ones because they don’t suffer from the reduced ability to support body weight that bigger cats do. This may be, for example, why cheetahs are not very large compared with tigers or lions; they are at a “happy medium” size for agility and speed. But this all got cut, I am told.

Random cat that sidled up to us during some research into cat movements; so meta!

Random cat that sidled up to us during some research into cat movements; so meta!

For my would-be-part in the show, we recreated experiments that I did with then-postdoc Alexis Wiktorowicz Conroy and others (a paper yet to be published, but hopefully coming very soon) that showed how cats large and small use such similar mechanisms in terms of postures as well as forces and moments (rotational forces). In these recreations, I got an RVC clinician to bring her cat Rocket (?IIRC) Ricochet over to be filmed walking over forceplates with high-speed video recording it. The cat didn’t do much for us; it probably found our huge lab a bit overwhelming; but it did give us at least one good video and force trace for the programme. Next we did the same thing with two tigers at Colchester Zoo, and got some excellent footage, including a tiger launching itself out of its indoor enclosure to come outside, while rapidly making a turn past the camera. The latter tiger “ate” (well, ripped to shreds, literally) the rubber mat that covered my pressure pad, too, which was mostly funny — and the film crew has reimbursed me for that as well as for the drive to/from the zoo. The filming experience was good; the people were nice; but the end result was a bummer.

Advantage of visiting Colchester Zoo: meeting a baby aardvark (not a cat).

Advantage of visiting Colchester Zoo for research:  going behind the scenes and meeting a baby aardvark (that’s not a cat).

My segment, as far as I could tell, had cool footage and added a nice extra (if intellectual) context to the “secret life of cats” theme, so it’s a shame that it got cut. I heard that famed Toxoplasma-and-cat-behaviour researcher Prof. Joanne Webster‘s segment also got cut, so at least I’m in good company. I don’t have those cool videos of slo-mo cats and tigers with me now but will put them up early next week on my Youtube channel; stay tuned. They won’t ever show up on a documentary anyway; typically when footage gets cut it just vanishes into TV-land’s bowels.

So I’m not happy. Not at all. Bitter? Yeah, a bit. Spoiled brat scientist? I’d say that would be an overly cynical perspective on it. I do recognize that I am lucky that the research I do has a strong public appeal sometimes; many scientists will never be in a documentary or get much PR of any kind. But I think anyone has a right to examine their situation in life and ask, applying basic logic, whether it is fair treatment under the circumstances. Hence I have become disillusioned and angry about the relationship of documentary makers and scientists. Not just me, but us scientists in general. We’re unpaid actors playing sizeable roles and with major expertise. We give documentaries some sci-cred, too, simply by appearing onscreen with “Professor Snugglebunny from Smoochbridge University” in the caption. Supposedly, and often truly, we get good PR for it, when our segments don’t get cut or are not edited to obliterate the context or due credit. But it’s those latter instances that raise the question of fairness. If the segment gets cut, we simply have wasted our time. And to a busy scientist, that is like jabbing me with a hot poker.

Serenity now!

Serenity now!

[Aside: I’m waiting to hear what has happened to another documentary I was filmed for, and again spent ~2 days on, Channel 5’s “Nature Shock: Giraffe Feast” which should be airing soon… no word yet if I’ve made the final cut but the show’s airing has been delayed; hopefully not a bad sign. I am crossing my fingers… it seemed like a great show with a cool idea, and my segment raised some fun anatomical and biomechanical issues about giraffes.]

I know I’m not alone. I’m going to end my rant and see what feedback it draws.

But don’t get me wrong— it’s not all sour grapes, not by any means. I’ve still had eight-ish pretty good TV documentary experiences (cough, Dino Gangs, cough!).  I’ve had great experiences working with documentaries; indeed, Inside Nature’s Giants was one of the best experiences of my career to date. And I’m sure many other scientists have had positive experiences. In answer to my provocative “Why bother?” in the headline, there are plenty of good reasons to bother working with documentaries if you are a scientist whose research they want to feature… but only if you have some assurance that it will be worth your while, perhaps? How much of a gamble should we be bothering with? That brings me to my main point, a general query–

But what about the bad? And is it all worth it, in your views, given the risks of wasting time? Do we deserve some scientists’ bill-of-media-rights or something; a documentary-actor-scientists’ guild (90% joking here)? What should our rights be and should we push harder for them? Or do we just sit back and take the good with the bad, biting our lips? (I’m obviously not the type…)

I’d like to hear from not only the seasoned veterans who’ve experienced various ups and downs, but also from anyone that has views, anecdotes; whatever. I’m not aware of anyone collecting horror stories of documentary mishaps and mistreatments experienced by scientists, but that could start here. Please do share; even if you just got a call wondering if you’d want to help a documentary and then never heard back. Who knows where it would lead, but I think it’s helpful to bring these issues to the fore and discuss them openly.

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A quick plug here for BBC Radio 4’s fourth episode of “Just So Science”, playing at 13:45 GMT today (this is the link). I was interviewed a few weeks ago for the show “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin,” a la the classic Kipling tale. This series is revisiting Kipling’s tales in light of modern evolutionary science and evidence, whereas Kipling only had crude, Lamarckian or early Darwinian insight. Check out their earlier episodes on whales, leopards and armadillos– good stuff, and with real scientists.  Richard Dawkins may appear again (EDIT: yep! Dawkins manifested) in this episode to provide some gravitas and evolution street cred, too.

And Freezersaurus gets a big plug! From the website: ” Rhinos and horses have much in common. John Hutchinson studies both, but just don’t ask to look inside his freezer.” 🙂  NOTE: I am not a vet (I am a biologist), and definitely not a horse specialist like others in our lab, but I do study horses a little, in a comparative context.

While the original Kipling story focuses on rhino skin, and the producers were interested because of my popular post here on rhino skin, we discussed other issues such as gait, fossil record, feet, and more. I owe thanks to rhino skin expert Dr Tobin Hieronymus for helping me bone up on the unusual skin of rhinos, which has a surprising amount in common with the tough hide of walruses, boars, some water deer, and a few other species. It’s not just normal thickened skin, as Tobin and others have shown. Anyway, I don’t want to give away what’s on the radio programme; afterwards I might embellish this post more with some rhino anatomy and mechanics facts.

Coincidentally, I’m receiving four white rhinoceros feet today from a zoo mortality. So it’s rhino-fest here!

I hope you like the show— please let me know what you think in the comments below! I really enjoyed listening to it, but I’d like to know what you thought.

White rhinoceros forelimb (left), ready for dissection.

White rhinoceros forelimb (left side), ready for dissection.

How did the rhinoceros get her foot tendons?

How did the rhinoceros get her foot muscles?

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