Horner fudges data–and I’m sorry, but even the small things matter

| 34 Comments

Some of you may have heard this story on NPR:

Advertisers are finding new and creative ways to sell their films. Sometimes a movie will be mentioned in the middle of a sitcom, or a star of a film will narrate a documentary, which is paid for by the studio. One studio has even manipulated a scientific discovery to coincide with the opening of a film. A look at some of the tactics studios use to seduce moviegoers to their films.

Specifically, the manipulated discovery was by Jack Horner, who fudged the date of discovery of a T. rex fossil to better accommodate the release date of a Jurassic Park movie. My jaw dropped at that news—that is thoroughly deplorable, and as far as I'm concerned, does serious damage to Horner's reputation, as well as making life more difficult for more ethical scientists.

I'm spared a reason to work up a good rant, though, since you can find a good, thoughtful dissection of the issues at Adventures in Ethics and Science (which seems to be a very fine place to consider the subject of the title, by the way).

34 Comments

Gah! I heard that on NPR this morning too and was really bothered. The idea that Horner was not at all troubled by “fudging” (iirc his term) the discovery date in the popular press to boost the movie PR, just hit me as wrong. Yes, it’s not a peer reviewed article, but come on. Leave out any issues about using science to bolster a movie release (science the movie company was paying for), this really damages the image of scientists as honest brokers. Maybe the headline for the “find” should have read “Universal Studios’ Scientist Announces Dinosaur Find” or something.

We have been slimed!

Opps- wrong movie.

When I had heard about Horner’s greedy streak second hand, I wasn’t too excited. But listening to the NPR report was more disturbing. The biggest problem with this that I heard was when Horner said, “You can take anything to the popular press and they’ll publish it.”

The “popular press” relies on scientists to tell the truth. So that when we say that “Intelligent Design” is just creationism with a paint job, they feel that we are credible.

Horner has just shat on our credibility with the press. The $$ aspect on science in reviewed journals has been a problem which is why people are requirred now to make statements regarding their financial interests.

well, to avoid being like the IDers who prop up their deceitful “leaders”, i suppose we should hang Horner out to dry then.

one has to ask whether the political value of that would be worth it.

In 1999, I heard Horner give a talk in L.A. During the question and answer period, he was asked if it were just as well to speak of dinosaurs being descended from humans as as it was to speak of humans being descended from dinosaurs. Horner said, sure, that would be just as well. I could pick up on the sarcasm in his statement, but I still thought it a crappy way to deal with the public.

Jack Horner sounds like he has one of those “ego problems” that afflict some human beings who find themselves in the spotlight for arbitrary reasons.

Just keep him away from Jim Watson – the earth’s crust isn’t thick enough to hold the weight of their combined inflated “brains”.

What Horner apparently doesn’t realize, and perhaps isn’t even capable of realizing, is that in selling the date of the discovery to Hollywood he sold his integrity not only as a scientist but as a trustworthy man. I hope the “tidy sum” was enough to cover both transactions.

RBH

This story is bullshit. It is, I’m afraid, yet another example of American journalism being tainted by reporter incompetence.

Please see Thomas R. Holtz’ comments on this news item on the Dinosaur Mailing List (“NPR “News” item this morning: A Cautionary Tale, and an Apology” May 11, 2005 8:26 AM) before you jump to conclusions.

For those of us not on the Dinosaur Mailing List, could you give a URL or C&P the text of Holtz’s remarks?

RBH

The May archive is here, but the stuff from the 11th isn’t there just yet.

There is one thing that I don’t get.

From the Adventures in Science and Ethics link

Indeed, he didn’t just delay the announcement – he agreed to fudge the discovery date by several weeks to coincide with the press build-up to the movie’s release.

Delaying the announcement to coincide with the hype?

Big deal. He made the discovery. In the absence of some sort of funding agreement to the contrary, he can announce it whenever he wishes. He can announce it under a Coke banner and sell the rights to name the skeleton on eBay. Whatever.

But I don’t get the “fudging” of the discovery date to “coincide with the press build-up”? Why would anyone lie about the discovery date under these circumstances? How would that add anything to the “hype”?

It seems a little fishy.

Maybe a paleontologist can explain.

I’m not clear how it is that Holtz’s explanation is supposed to maker Horner’s actions okay. I wasn’t really concerned with Holtz’s opinion of Horner’s work, I was more disturbed by the fact that Horner did, in fact, fudge his dates for movie studio PR purposes.

No, he didn’t fabricate a fossil, but I think that his actions reflect poorly on scientific conduct. As the piece also pointed out, the Discovery channel tie ins to movie productions smell funny too.

Thanks for the link RBH.

So Horner (or somebody) did pretend that the bones were discovered at a later date than they actually were in order to “hype” the movie (tho I don’t get how the claimed date of discovery adds any hype if the press announcement itself is timed to maximize the hype).

Unethical? No more than if he was late to the press announcement because he overslept but claimed he got caught in traffic.

It’s just silly. Pointless silly.

All in all, it’s NPR that comes off the least professional by far. That’s not news to me. I find NPR’s journalism and reporting impossibly irritating in the first place and I never listen to it. The most entertaining moment ever on NPR was KISS bassist Gene Simmons stealing Terry Gross’s show and taking it all the way into the end zone.

Some here seem to think the exact time and date of a fossil’s discovery are what really matters (as opposed to the age, the formation it was found in, stratiographic details &c.)–it doesn’t.

A palaeontologist could claim it was discovered in the future, and it still wouldn’t matter. What really matters in the case of fossils is the paper/s that will be published after the fossil is found, wherein it will be described, cataloged, and analyzed.

Most of the papers I’ve read (even ones that cover significant new taxa) do not mention exactly when it was found (or in many cases, at all).

Griping about this is a waste of time. When it was found isn’t science. The detailed analysis and description that follows the discovery is. And honestly, there’s no reason to believe that that will be compromised. (Unless, of course, someone has a non-NPR source that can actually be verified.)

Incidentally, that probably wasn’t the best route to breaking my lurker status. But I’ll probably return to full lurker mode for now.

Personally I don’t think there are many trivial facts. Date of discovery for a fossil may be one of the most trivial I can think of. But what if somebody wanted to improve fossil finding methods by looking for correlations between number/size/whatever of fossils found and angle of sun (time of day and year) or weather, or whatever, at time of discovery. This may be a stretch, but you never know. That is why scientists are supposed to keep accurate field journals, because they don’t know what facts will turn out to be trivial. Plant taxonomists keep good records of the dates of their plant collections. This may have seemed trivial, but now scientists can compare collections from 200 years ago and have found that plants in many areas are blooming earlier today, probably due to global warming.

I don’t see anyone having a problem with Horner sitting on his discovery for a while for publicity or other reasons. The false discovery date is more troubling. Horner implies that he thinks it would be wrong to publish a false discovery date in a peer-reviewed journal. So he doesn’t lie to other scientists. Fine. He does admit to lying to the public through the media and says he doesn’t have a problem with it. Is it ok because it is about a trivial fact? Horner says that the fact that this T-Rex is the largest found is itself trivial - it only matters to 6th graders, not scientists. Since Horner can apparently only be trusted when he says things in a peer-reviewed journal and he has said nothing about this fossil in such a journal, speaking as a member of the public how I am I supposed to know whether to believe that it exists or not?

The media will publish anything, true, but the media has also lost all its credibility with the public.

This is a tempest in a teapot. I didn’t hear the NPR story though I’ve heard that Horner also mentioned that the accurate date would be published in any scientific papers. I’ve been suspicious of NPR for a long time now… untill I hear the report or from Horner about the subject I think I’ll put my trust in Horner first.

Well, I personally don’t see what Horner did was wrong. He didn’t enter this as scientific data, so he didn’t fudge data. There’s always money involved, and you do what you need to get it. One of the other labs in my department did some experiments for those schmucks marketing “pentawater”–water that’s been put through a special mechanical process to make its molecules arrange in pentameric rings that hydrate your body better!–and found no siginficant difference between that and regular ol’ water through some overtly complicated and lengthy tests involving liposomes. Silly, right? Well, the lab said there was no significant difference but the pentapeople turned the data around to make it look like there was so they could market a product. I don’t fault the PI for doing that. Now, if Horner really wanted to be proper about it, he could have gone and announced the find when the theatre wanted and then added “we’ve just finished some tests in our lab to make sure of what we had.”

Now, let’s hear the ID people chime in that they knew it all along–we scientists are just in it for the money, just making themselves mouthpieces for whoever or whatever special interest so they can get funded. Yup, and then let’s reply “oh, and YOU would never twist your statements around to say what your backers wanted to hear… noh…”

Look, I’m not saying hang the guy. Just be aware that this sort of thing is one of the reasons science has a PR problem. I know that pentawater is silly, and YOU know that pentawater is silly, but the knowledge that some lab is basically getting paid to do tests on it and then shut up when the results are twisted around to fool the public doesn’t exactly change my mind about Horner, rather the opposite.

Scott

Incidentally, that probably wasn’t the best route to breaking my lurker status.

The first time is hardly ever as pleasant as one imagines.

Here’s an article from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that helps set the record straight. As indicated here, the reality was that Horner delayed the *announcement* of the discovery, rather than misstating anything about the actual discovery date. And announcements of discoveries are rarely made at the time of discovery (since at that time, you often have no clue as to the significance of the find).

So the whole situation is even a smaller tempest in a teapot than the reporter led me to believe.

Ah, well. In any case, here’s the article: http://bozemandailychronicle.com/ar[…]01horner.txt

This whole thing strikes me as idiotic. It would be unethical for a scientist to claim a “discovery” or publication was made EARLIER than it actually was, in many circumstances. Holding back medical or public safety data for purely economic reasons could be highly unethical in some circumstances as well.

But except in a few circumstances, a scientist is in no way obliged to publish until she or he is good and ready. Scientists “time” their publications all the time for legitimate or personal reasons, as when “Nature” or “Science” put related articles or similar discoveries in the same issue. Whether a scientist delays a potential publication for reasons of perfectionism, cooperation with colleagues, competition with rivals for that matter, upcoming movie releases, or to coincide with Mother’s Day, is really no-one’s business.

What I smell here is the contemporary American double standard. Almost anyone pigeon-holed as a “conservative” can lie until they’re blue in the face, and little will be said. This very much includes creationists, especially “intelligent design” weasels. Meanwhile, any move a mainstream scientist makes a move (note: no matter what the scientist’s personal political beliefs), it will be scanned for the slightest possible ethics violation.

This will be played as “unethical evolutionist” for years to come. I can easily imagine the same thing happening in climatology or cosmology. A legitimate scientist gets a parking ticket while mailing his manuscript to “Nature”, and it’s an ethics violation. A creationist sells lies to the uneducated for $29.95 per DVD, and he’s treated with velvet gloves by the media.

As I said the other day, I don’t have a problem with Horner’s timeing announcements. It was his remark that, “You can take anything to the press…” that is unfortunate.

Thomas Holz

Here’s an article from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that helps set the record straight. As indicated here, the reality was that Horner delayed the *announcement* of the discovery, rather than misstating anything about the actual discovery date.

Ah, at least the truth is revealed and lo and behold! the nonsensical discovery date change turns out to be bogus. Will NPR apologize?

Horner did or said nothing that is questionable. I retract my earlier comments re Horner (but not re Jim Watson ;)

Darwin sat on his discovery a long time before finally publishing. Doesn’t make the theory any less correct. HOWEVER, I find it agonizing that a name-brand popularizer of science would give even the appearance that ANYTHING to do with his expertise was for sale. Sounds like something out of one of Jack Chick’s anti-science tracts. Those of us who value integrity and truth, and damn the lack of it in ID creationism, cannot afford to be cavalier about the meretricious use of information, no matter how trivial.

OK, in light of the foregoing, I withdraw my remarks about Horner selling his integrity (though I might amend them to something about tacky). And, as one reads in today’s NYTimes, it’s not an isolated occurrence:

Not coincidentally, the re-examination of the Tut mummy and the release of the images of the reconstructed head coincided with promotions of a new exhibition, “Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.” It opens June 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and will later move to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Chicago and Philadelphia.

I guess the piper must be paid somehow or other.

RBH

Here’s a much interesting example of what may or may not be the phenomenon of “scientific inertia” where an interesting idea for which there is apparently quite a bit of evidence simply doesn’t take with some scientists

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/artic[…]GQCNTIJ1.DTL

Consider the waggle dance of the honeybee, famed in science and controversial for nearly 50 years.

Most scientists firmly believe the dance is a mysterious coded language that the bees use to direct their hive-mates how to fly toward distant food sources of nectar and pollen. Its insight as “language” won its German discoverer a Nobel Prize in 1973. Scores of experiments over the decades have claimed to support his theory.

But UC Santa Barbara biologist Adrian Wenner, who has been a beekeeper in the Sacramento Valley since childhood, insists that it is just the scent of food that sends the honeybees flying in flocks – and that scientists who believe in the language of the honeybee dance are merely “suckers for the exotic” whose experiments are designed to support the theory and not to challenge it.

The aspect of the waggle dance that always seemed odd to me was that it is invariably shown from the top view – the way a human would see the dance, rather than from the side view through compound eyes in an extremely crowded environment, the way that bees would “see” the dance.

Regardless of what scientists ultimately decide with respect to the bee’s dance, we can all probably agree on the following

“Any experienced beekeeper knows that if you put a transponder on a bee, it will cause a ‘flight’ response, and all the other bees around it will fly in the same direction,” [Wenner] said. “This research has all sorts of problems with it because they’re trying to prove something they think is true – but scientists are suckers for the exotic, and this controversy will go on and on for decades.

Maybe the bees are communicating with mysterious alien beings.

I have to play D’s Advocate here even though, prima facie, I agree that Horner prostituted himself. The other side might be, however, that even the best scientific discoveries are effectively worthless to the rest of us unless we can somehow HEAR about them. Ergo, even scientific discoveries need some marketing promo. There are a goodly number of scientifically significant findings over the last century that garnered scarcely a whimper in the popular media, simply because the latter picks and chooses their stories in humble submission to the almighty dollar. Some discoveries in astronomy and cosmology did not receive much attention until Contact came out, etc (e.g., dark matter). Thus, unfortunately, public knowledge of science is just as hopelessly dependent on the consumerism mill as are Paris Hilton’s catchpenny cosmetic chachkis.

As I said the other day, I don’t have a problem with Horner’s timeing announcements. It was his remark that, “You can take anything to the press … “ that is unfortunate.

Unfortunately he is probably right. Why does it upset you that Horner is most likely accurately describing the MSM? We’ve just seen an example of where several MSM outlets really believed Arnold Schwarzzenegger wanted to destroy the moon! The problem isn’t Horner’s but the MSM and their lazy fact checking.

NPR really needs to be shown the error of their ways. This is despicable. A lazy stupid brain dead report comes out and either thourgh stupidity or laziness smears a great scientist… and this site holds with NPR? Are you people nuts? Horner is a great guy and DESERVES an apology from NPR. A loud and public one. The smear is not just on Horner but on science itself. This part of their agenda ‘Capitolizm bad… corupts science, see.’ is laughable and transparent, and I’m rather surprised that it wasn’t seen through or better checked by this site before they joined in and ignroantly did their bidding furthering this agenda.

Ack, my spelling is atrocious. I did not mean to sound as harsh as this reads to me later. NPR does owe Dr. Horton an apology. I love the site and thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the effort and thought that goes into it. I was in a hurry and that smear from NPR was just the capper to an already rotten day.

Gary writes”As I said the other day, I don’t have a problem with Horner’s timing announcements. It was his remark that, “You can take anything to the press … “ that is unfortunate.”

Gary, what is unfortunate about this, is that is so absolutely true. Granted one should not take advantage of the gullibility of the press, but it happens, not only because the press is gullible, but that they want that gullibility exploited if it will help them sell and increase market share.

In the aftermath of the Great Sumatra EQ of 12/26, a couple of kooks out in Oregon placed on their website their prediction of a huge aftershock wihtin 24 hours of the 12/26 event followed by another huge tsunami. This absolute drivel from people with no training in geophysics was picked up by the media and uncritically passed from one wire service to the next like it was a fruitcake or something. The Indian govt. got hold of it, and given the circumstances, was understandably panicked into calling for an evacuation along its coasts.

THere was no huge aftershock, no following tsunami, and no apology from the media, but hundreds were killed by heart attacks and road wrecks, and relief efforts begun in the aftermath of the great tsunami were hobbled as a result.

THe press is utterly irresponsible. It shouldn’t be taken advantage of, but Horner is right. They’ll swallow any BS at all if it will sell.

Wasn’t there a list about what school teachers worried about a few years ago? One was a recent list with things like guns, knives, and other scary things. The other list was from the 1950’s and had things like gum, talking in class, etc. Neither list was legitimate, but the result of a non-existent study by a non-existent think tank, and the media ate it up with a spoon.

You don’t have to be a big gun in your field to pass crap to the MSM and get them to take it seriously. Just lie enough.

Just a follow up on my posta above:

It is true. There was a bogus list and was extremely widely sited,

I didn’t know it, but when I sat down at my computer terminal to look for the survey’s source, I was pulling in the first squid. I followed citations backward in time, wrote inquiries to editors, browsed in education libraries, searched through computer databases, and in the end collected almost 400 examples of people quoting these lists. Their diffusion was amazing they were surely the most cited educational statistic, used by private citizens, mayors and senators, college professors, and movie stars.

Billy Graham, Rush Limbaugh, Ross Perot, and Barbara Bush used them, as did Carl Rowan, Jocelyn Elders, and Joseph Fernandez. Sports figures Tom Landry, and Mike Singletary, actor Tom Selleck, and financier Michael Milken worked them into interviews and speeches. They’ve popped up in Dear Abby and Ann Landers.

Former education secretary William Bennett became their most active disseminator, featuring them in a statistical report on national decadence and later in an article in Reader’s Digest. All the TV networks reported them, as did the prominent news magazines, with some daily papers reprinting them eight and nine times.

The lists were completely made up,

Eventually I found the source. In fact, no surveys ever were done. One individual made them up.

The lists were an invention, but they were not a hoax. Their creator put them forward solely as his opinion. Later experts portrayed them as scientific surveys, often altering the items, streamlining them, or including a source to make them sound more genuine. William Bennett added the notion that the survey was a continuing one; education researcher William Kilpatrick attributed them to an unspecified 1953 conference in San Francisco; sociologist Amitai Etzioni tacked on a new 1940s offense of children not replacing their chairs under their desks, and so on. The lists became true folklore.

The author of the school “surveys” was T. Cullen Davis of Fort Worth, Texas. One of the wealthiest men in Texas, Davis was arrested in 1977 for a double murder, accused of shooting his ex-wife’s boyfriend and her daughter. After his acquittal he became an evangelical Christian, lobbying against sex education and the teaching of evolution in Fort Worth schools. Around 1981, as part of this campaign, Davis assembled the lists and passed them to fellow evangelicals. “They weren’t done from a scientific survey,” Davis told me. “How did I know what the offenses in the schools were in 1940? I was there. How did I know what they are now? I read the newspapers.”

Horner is right, and the shame is on the MSM for being such a bunch of gullible idiots.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on May 11, 2005 5:46 PM.

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