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Dinosaurs, the Media and Andy Warhol

Keith Thomson

From Cuddly to Sad

This past October, as the date for the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology drew near, the world waited for the inevitable sensational announcement that would hog the headlines while a great deal of excellent work was ignored. Predictably, sensation once again found our poor, put-upon friend Tyrannosaurus rex; but this one was a classic. As the London Times trumpeted: "Neurotic T-rex cast in a Woody Allen role." On the web, the Associated Press had spread the news: "T-rex wasn't happy ? T-rex was probably T-wrecks." Obviously someone was getting his 15 minutes of fame!

What happened had started out with good straightforward science. Elizabeth Rega at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona and Chris Brochu at the University of Iowa had read a paper concerning skeletal abnormalities in T. rex, especially the Chicago specimen known as Sue. There was evidence of osteomyelitis of the left fibula, healed rib fractures and healed jaw lesions. They concluded: "While the number of these pathologies indicate that Sue was not healthy during life, the maturity of the specimen and the clear evidence of healing indicate that Sue was a robust individual who successfully survived many insults ?. No evidence of cause or manner of death is apparent." So far, so sober. No drama there and no headlines, either.

Then the Associated Press interviewed Robert Bakker, who was not an author of the paper but who announced the meaning in Rega and Brochu's study that everyone else had missed: "If we did Jurassic Park 4, T-rex would be portrayed in an angst-ridden role—sort of a large Woody Allen character. ? They were beat up, limping, had oozing sores, were dripping pus and disease ridden, and had to worry about their children starving and other T-rexs coming in and kicking them out." And worse, the London Times article wrongly claimed that "Mr Bakker's view is endorsed by Elizabeth Rega," thus adding injury to insult.

Here the gap between the science and the hyperbole is truly staggering. Perhaps it is only some paleontologists, not the dinosaurs, who are like Woody Allen—sometimes combative, sometimes cuddly, bearing the scars of old battles and confused? Perhaps this sort of thing is perfectly harmless or even positive for paleontology, on the grounds that all publicity is good, especially if it remains divided into 15-minute chunks. But the creationists certainly had a field day with the faked "feathered dinosaur."

Admittedly, all progress in science involves the breaking of old stereotypes, and mistakes will be made all along the way. Who knows, maybe even a Tyrannosaurus with true feathers will someday be found; that is what makes science a real adventure. And, as Robert Browning famously wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp" (Andrea del Sarto, 1855). Perhaps, though, both the scientists and the public deserve to travel a less jolting path toward enlightenment.

© Keith Thomson

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