So apparently, the dinosaurs are extinct. That’s not really news of course (time to let it go, Nessie fans). But what is making the news is some new research about how those terrible lizards ended up shuffling off this mortal coil en masse.
There is quite good geological evidence that some kind of massive catastrophic event occurred around 65 million years ago, pretty much around about the same time that dinosaurs stopped appearing in the fossil record. Most kids today will tell you that this was caused by a large asteroid (a theory known as the Alvarez impact hypothesis), but some scientists argue with these kids and believe instead that those geological remnants are not inconsistent with multiple asteroidal impacts, or perhaps with the world’s biggest volcano going ‘pop’ (or something).
But today we saw reports offering an alternative theory. According to a paper in the scientific journal Current Biology, scientists have computed that the global dinosaur population would have been producing 472 million tonnes of methane each year through flatulence, which is about the same amount of man-made methane produced annually today.
That’s pretty much all the scientists did though. One (i.e., anyone) could speculate about what this production of methane could have caused. For example, you could speculate that it was enough to cause climate change and global warming — to an extent that it made the environment life-threateningly intolerable to dinosaurs. However, the scientists responsible for this paper do not have any evidence to suggest that it did. All they did was add up all the farts to estimate their combined size.
Now I for one think that’s pretty neat on its own. However, the simplicity of the finding presented something of a blank canvass for headline writers. As it turns out, the totality of headlines reveals that there was a wide range of interpretation by the media as to the relevance of this story. Some reported pedantically, others let their imaginations run a little more wildly.
So here it is, a “spectrum” of news headlines on this story, ranging from the most inocuous to the most ridiculous.
SCIENTISTS CALCULATE HOW MUCH METHANE DINOSAURS FARTED OUT PER YEAR (Geekosystem.com)
There’s nothing quite like saying it as it is. This headline from the “geek culture” website, Geekosystem.com, just tells you what the scientists did. The fact that they did something fascinating is evident from the headline. But only if you’re a geek, it would appear. Others apparently wanted something more.
DINOSAURS’ GAS MAY HAVE WARMED THE ANCIENT AIR (Wall Street Journal)
Even though the scientists didn’t do anything to check air temperatures or suchlike, this WSJ headline seems reasonable enough. After all, what else does breaking wind do apart from releasing warm gasses into the air (especially that air immediately surrounding the orifice responsible). Doesn’t seem quite like news though. I knew that already.
Ah, this is a bit more exciting. CBS News decide to extend the hypothesis beyond dinosaur crotches and instead include the entirety of planet Earth. But at least they say “may have“. Journalistic integrity surely requires some equivocation on this one, given the many millions of years’ remove from which events are being reconstructed…
DINOSAUR GASES ‘WARMED THE EARTH’ (BBC News)
Equivocation? Schmequivocation! Why not just say that dinosaur farts actually did warm “the Earth“? After all, on one of the world’s largest news websites, there probably isn’t enough server capacity to include fiddly qualifiers such as “may have“. (However, because we’re the BBC, we will draw the line at saying “fart“, thank you.)
Wha’?! The Dinosaurs “‘gassed’ themselves“? “Themselves?” Here, Fox News decide to ratchet things up to the maximum by invoking a couple of Fox-friendly narrative frames. Firstly, note that the dinosaurs were not entirely the victims here, they were also the perpetrators. Yes, they have only themselves to blame. Isn’t that always the way with popular causes? Secondly, those holier-than-thou dinosaurs killed themselves using global warming. Which just goes to prove that global warming is NOT A NEW (OR MANMADE) GLOBAL CATASTROPHE, a position that several Fox News pundits have been arguing for many years. You see, these things just happen in nature. By themselves. And you can’t stop them. So leave our cars/country alone.
So there you have it. Across the headline-spectrum of today’s science news, what starts off as a mathematical exercise in computing the aggregated volume of dino-farts gets reported as a series of dinosaur sins, with the dinosaurs going from “maybe warming air” to “gassing themselves into extinction“.
Take your pick. If you don’t care about accuracy, that is.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.