Bad science Writing Example A: Linking plesiosaurs to the Loch Ness Monster

An obviously inexperienced science journalist latches on to the mistaken and downright nonsensical idea that plesiosaurs = Loch Ness Monster. Then, media outlets propagate the silliness.

The fossil remains of a giant marine reptile have just been discovered by a team of researchers from the University Of Alaska Museum Of The North. The remains were found in the Talkeetna Mountains and have been tracked back to the late Cretaceous period, roughly 70 million years ago.

The newly discovered Elasmosaur has been officially classified as a plesiosaur, and Patrick Druckenmiller, a marine fossil expert from the University Of Alaska Museum Of The North, instructs people to “picture the mythical Loch Ness monster” in order to get a pretty good idea of what the marine creature looked like.

Source: Alaskan Loch Ness Monster Found In The Talkeetna Mountains

The press release is here. “Picture the mythical Loch Ness monster and you have a pretty good idea what it looked like. This is an exciting find because it is the first time an elasmosaur has ever been discovered in Alaska.”

Elasmosaurs (a kind of plesiosaur) are one of my favorite animals. They are extinct. The Loch Ness Monster is a myth. It is an amalgamation of stories supported by hoaxes and mistaken interpretation of many things in the Loch such as large fish and waves.) So, there is zero reason to connect the two.

The little scientific voice in my head told me that a reputable paleontologist would not really go for comparing a new find in his specialty area to legendary cryptid. So, I contacted Dr. Pat Druckenmiller and asked for his version. He understood my concerns regarding perpetuating a myth that Nessie is a mystery animal/live plesiosaur and admitted while he DID mention that this group of animals bears a resemblance to the mythical Nessie, he was reluctant to use that analogy. I suspect media people love the analogy for its sensational nature and work hard to bring it up in the story. It’s not the first time we’ve seen University press offices make such blunders.

The unfortunate wording was slightly changed and/or repeated at several other sites. The linked article quoted above contains a number of inaccuracies that did not come from Druckenmiller and many clues in phrasing that show the reporter does not know enough to be writing such a story. Druckenmiller states that reporters often mischaracterize quotes, “I feel lucky if 70% of truth actually makes it into mainstream media, even when aided with a carefully scripted press release. It’s a fact of life that I’ve come (reluctantly) to accept as inevitable.”

Even when scientists emphasize that myths are not true, reporters appear to hear some magical words that they MUST USE in the story which then seriously misinforms their audience. It’s tricky to mention an object to help people understand a concept without them mistakingly conflating issues. Most people seem to be familiar with the fictional Nessie images of pop culture, Druckenmiller says, but not so familiar with plesiosaurs/elasmosaurs as an animal group. It’s a tough task to erase such an iconic association.

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Dr. Druckenmiller tells me that he’s lectured on the mythical nature of the Loch Ness Monster trying to get information out there about real creatures instead, “If people chose to believe in the [Loch Ness Monster], the best thing I can do is use every opportunity to point out that it’s a bunch of bunk.”

1930s-nessie-2

So, word to scientists… if reporters try to get you to compare your work to nonsense, just say NO and refuse to discuss it. Not aliens, not monsters, not God. Just don’t do it. Don’t give writers a Get Out of Jail Free card to insert pseudoscience into a science story because invariably, that’s what the public will latch on to and remember. Using sensational headlines or tags are no way to promote legitimate work.

Dr. Pat Druckenmiller is currently involved in a large collaborative project with the University of Oslo Natural History Museum in Oslo to investigate a prolific new site of Jurassic-aged marine reptiles from the high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Check out this link to the Spitsbergen Mesozoic Research Group to learn more. Amazing stuff by dedicated researchers… of REAL animals.

  4 comments for “Bad science Writing Example A: Linking plesiosaurs to the Loch Ness Monster

  1. Christine Rose
    July 27, 2015 at 10:06 AM

    Nessie looks like a floating log?!??

  2. July 27, 2015 at 1:06 PM

    Wasn’t he just saying that, in order to imagine what this creature must have looked like in the past – when it wasn’t extinct – that people could reference the visuals of the mythical Loch Ness monster? He did use the word “mythical”, so…

    I guess the danger is that people took his remarks out of context. I can see how some people would choose to think that this scientist was making a statement for the existence of the Loch Ness monster, but that’s so…well….dumb.

    Poor guy.

  3. Sk3ptik0
    July 27, 2015 at 3:01 PM

    I can see how a scientist would be prone to leverage a mythological creature to guise readers toward a better visualization of their point, but in the case of modern mythology it’s very dangerous. In this era of click baiting headlines there is already too good a chance that the writer’s original piece would be compromised by a silly headline. By the time the story does the round of scientifically challenged publications, it will return as “Scientists say space alien dinosaur alive in Alaska. Nessie’s ET cousin?”

  4. Artor
    July 31, 2015 at 1:26 AM

    “Dr. Pat Druckenmiller is currently involved in a large collaborative project with the University of Oslo Natural History Museum in Oslo…”
    Yeah, right! University of Oslo? You just know he’s really hunting trolls. The paleontology angle is just a smokescreen. Wake up sheeples!!!
    https://xkcd.com/1013/

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