The Squid and the Ape

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On October 14th, 2011, the Triassic Kraken surfaced on NPR’s Science Friday. Show host Ira Flatow had invited Mark McMenamin – the Mount Holyoke College paleontologist who claimed the existence of an ancient, ichthyosaur-crunching, self-portrait-creating cephalopod – on the show. I didn’t tune in. That day I was driving down to Flagstaff, Arizona for the annual Science Writers conference and I always prefer music to talk radio on long drives. And, frankly, I was sick about hearing myself talk about the Kraken. A combination of bad science, unfortunate promotion by the Geological Society of America, and credulous reporting had created a many-tentacled myth of which there was not a shred of actual evidence. There wasn’t any more to be said.

New commentaries about science journalism published this week reminded me of October’s kerfuffle about what actually created the mass grave of Shonisaurus at Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park (as well as a credulous RadioWest interview about Bigfoot, but I’ll get to that shortly). The Nature editorial “The press under pressure” called out the widespread problem of what the British government’s former communications head Alastair Campbell called “agenda-driven journalism regardless of facts.” This isn’t just about politically or ideologically-motivated articles covering topics such as anthropogenic climate change and the safety of vaccines. “More often,” the Nature editorial pointed out, “it is the instinctive overreach of a story-teller who chooses what to include to make their tale as interesting as possible.”

The problem of overreach is frustratingly common in science journalism. Especially in a climate in which newspapers, magazines, and other media sources are struggling to figure out what the future of science writing looks like – hand-wringing over the future of science writing and how to keep it profitable is continuous – there is often a focus on stories that are the equivalent of top-10 radio pop songs. Stories are constructed to be relatively light and contain plenty of hooks. Too much context or detail can result in pitches being rejected as “inside baseball.” Outside of features or longer pieces on popular topics, it can be a struggle to inject context and history into discussions of science. Most often we simply see a string of short reports on new discoveries without really seeing the bigger picture into which those findings fit.

It’s difficult to paddle science upstream – to report accurately and in-depth about discoveries and the process by which those findings are made – when the science communication flow often goes in the direction of fluff that is thought to be more effective at drawing eyeballs to the page or screen. Not all writers or editors float along in this direction, but the science communication community as a whole still faces what the Nature editorial deems “Journalism that favours attitude over accuracy.” The “cottage industry” of forum, Twitter, and blog-based commentators “who point out the errors, the inconsistencies and the confounding factors, and from time to time just scream ‘bullshit’” have certainly become increasingly influential in providing the kind of fact-checking, criticism, and even reporting sometimes absent in the mainstream, but, at the same time, criticisms and corrections from the web often have to be noticed and picked up by mainstream sources to gain wider audiences. When I criticized the overhyped claims about the fossil primate Darwinius and the prospect of tyrannosaur gangs, for example, outlets such as the Times, the Guardianthe Guardian, and BBC’s Radio 4 picked up on my blog comments and gave me a more prominent platform. Had they not noticed, my comments probably would have been restricted to the echo-chambers of my similarly-minded friends and colleagues.

Yet journalists also face the danger of trying to be so objective that they don’t criticize and question scientists like they should. This sort of reporting – which fits within what Jay Rosen has called “the view from nowhere” – is little different than simply providing scientists a platform to espouse ideas without critical input. David Whitehouse touched on this problem in an essay at the Huffington Post.

I don’t entirely agree with Whitehouse’s article. I think his belief that the good old days are past and today’s science writers lack character, skill, and zeal is absolute bullshit. Paul Raeburn skillfully dissected and disposed of this argument in a reply at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. (Keith Kloor also had some additional thoughts at Collide-a-scape.) Where Whitehouse and Raeburn agree, though, is that there is often a problem with reporters being science cheerleaders. Not this kind, but rather writers who get cozy with sources and don’t ask the tough, awkward sorts of questions that often generate insight and understanding into specialized, technical areas of research, especially when controversial claims are involved.

That’s the point that dredged the Kraken out of my memory. I wanted to see how Ira Flatow handled McMenamin’s sensational claims on the radio. (You can find the segment here. It immediately begins playing.)

To Flatow’s credit, he did recognize that McMenamin’s views were controversial and included critical commentary from paleontologist Eric Scott of the San Berndardino County Museum. Flatow even came out of the gate with “You really don’t offer a lot of proof for this, do you?” But I was disappointed with the interview as a whole. Even though Flatow acknowledged the controversy, he never really got into why we should believe McMenamin’s hyped hypothesis. Flatow even pitched a few easy, underhand pitches about whether McMenamin’s mythical squid arranged the remains of their supposed prey and whether such activity indicated intelligence.

Keep in mind that there’s no physical evidence that a giant cephalopod even existed in the Triassic seas of ancient Nevada, much less dined on whale-sized marine reptiles and arranged their bones in a midden. As pointed out by Scott in his clip, the entire hypothesis is based on pareidolia – since McMenamin thinks he sees a midden in the ichthyosaur bonebed, then there must have been a creature that created the marine reptile graveyard. Flatow just let McMenamin rattle off his unconvincing assertions without ever digging in and demanding evidence. (When McMenamin says that he thinks his hypothetical Kraken was related to a vampire squid, Flatow doesn’t question how he knows that without any physical evidence of the animal.) I understand the importance of letting people making exceptional claims clearly state their idea at the outset of a discussion, but I feel that Flatow did little more than give McMenamin airtime to state his case with a minimum of criticism. Stating there is a scientific controversy and actually probing the details of a scientific controversy are different things. What could have been an interesting and exciting exchange came off as a kind of verbal press release.

About a month after Flatow’s interview with McMenamin initially aired, my wife came home and told me I had to tune into RadioWest – a local NPR program broadcasted from right here in Salt Lake City. I asked her what the day’s show was about. “They’re talking about Bigfoot,” she said, “and, they’re, ugh, they’re just being so stupid!”

For the November 11th showthe November 11th showthe November 11th show, RadioWest producer Doug Fabrizio interviewed Idaho State University anthropologist and Sasquatch devotee Jeff Meldrum. The stated point of the interview was to see how Meldrum applied scientific reasoning to the search for a creature that, at best, exists on the fringes of scientific investigation. That’s not what actually transpired.

Even though Fabrizio kept qualifying statements about the ever-elusive Bigfoot with “if”s, he was clearly sympathetic to Meldrum’s efforts to give the mythical North American forest ape an air of respectability. The show was more about how Meldrum became attracted to the cryptozoological celebrity and his feelings as someone trying to prove the existence of a creature that, as far as I am concerned, probably doesn’t exist and has been a persistent focus of interest due to cultural phenomena rather than actual evidence. (As I wrote in a story for WIRED Science, there comes a time in searches for missing or presumably extinct mammal species that returns rapidly diminish and that species is more likely absent than simply elusive. So many have searched for Bigfoot for so long without finding any unambiguous evidence that I don’t see any reason to think such an animal exists.)

Almost all of Fabrizio’s questions were uncritical. Some, such as when Fabrizio asked when the search for Sasquatch supposedly became academically taboo, were even sympathetic to Meldrum’s exceptional claims. When Meldrum retells the story of how he saw tracks that convinced him that Bigfoot was real, Fabrizio doesn’t ask about how Meldrum could tell that the tracks were from a real animal and could not have been hoaxed. When Meldrum goes off about how he has brought Bigfoot into the scientific mainstream through papers, talks at conferences, and the like, Fabrizio doesn’t ask “Well, which journals and conferences? What did you say? How was your work received by your colleagues?” Likewise, Fabrizio lets Meldrum state that there is a lot of photo evidence – albeit poor quality – of Bigfoot as well as hair and scat without digging into the details of those assertions and why those lines of evidence have not done more to confirm the supposed ape’s existence. I didn’t want Fabrizio to be actively hostile to Meldrum’s ideas, but the radio host did not seem prepared to challenge his guest on any point.

The interview was mostly about feelings. What Meldrum felt about this or that aspect of Bigfoot arcana was more important than the veracity of what he was actually saying. I don’t take issue with RadioWest having cryptozoologists or other people who make exceptional claims on the show, but, for FSM’s sake, hold them to account and push them to explain why they believe what they do. If someone keeps saying there’s really good evidence for Bigfoot, Triassic Krakens, ancient aliens, or whatever, we shouldn’t be afraid of pressing them on how good that evidence actually is. To say that evidence is good is one thing. To demonstrate the same is not as easy.

In both the Science Friday and RadioWest interviews, I think the hosts did a disservice to listeners and fellow science communicators by putting on kid gloves and not doing the thing that is essential to good journalism – critically and carefully questioning your sources. That is not to say that Flatow and Fabrizio should now carry the black spot of bad science reporting. I have heard both of them conduct good interviews before. In part, that’s what bugged me. I kept waiting for them to ask the kind of questions that I know they could ask to get behind some of the sensational hypotheses.

There is no single problem with science communication, and there is no single solution, either. Sensationalism, squeezing stories to fit a previously-conceived hook, and writing to be first rather than best are significant problems, but so are the persistent issues of writing from press releases and shrinking back from questioning exceptional claims. Misrepresentation of science and flat reporting of science without critical thinking are two problematic extremes that are sadly too prevalent on the media landscape. Whereas David Whitehouse might see these problems as indicators of a general downturn in the quality of science communication, these bugbears are not new and they will certainly remain with us. Instead, like Paul Raeburn, I draw hope from the growing number of science communicators who work through blogs, newspapers, magazines, radio shows, videos and other outlets – the people who cannot be easily categorized. Many of these people are not only skilled writers, but they are not afraid of lifting up rocks and poking around beneath to see what might scurry out. We need more of these people. There is never going to be a time when explaining science in an accurate, accessible, entertaining, and inspiring way is going to be easy, and if we truly wish to make a difference we desperately need communicators who are not afraid to question the scientific discoveries and processes that captivate them. Isn’t asking “Why?” what drew us to this line of work in the first place?

Top Image: Photo of a giant squid from National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research – NIWA, Greta Point, Wellington, New Zealand, 20 February 1999. Image at Wikipedia.