Fishy news

Words matter; and we should take pedantic exception to their misuse – a common media trait. For example, I read a couple of years ago of the rare catch of a coelacanth, headlined as ‘dinosaur fish’. What on earth is a ‘dinosaur fish’? Dinosaur means frightful lizard, applied to a highly successful group of reptiles that included the occasional ferocious carnivore, but which became extinct some 65 million years ago. However, although some reptiles inhabit the sea, they are not fish – and coelacanths are not lizards, which have backbones. The coelacanth’s lack of a true backbone testifies to its ancient origins, long pre-dating the dinosaurs it survives.

Metaphorical use of ‘dinosaur’ – to indicate outmoded, irrelevant, extinct – is inappropriate here, considering the coelacanth’s scientific significance and the fact that it is still with us. (In fact, referring to anything as ‘dinosaur’ in this fashion is disrespectful and misplaced; the dinosaurs were a highly successful, longevous group of animals that make us human newcomers pretty irrelevant on a geological timescale.) ‘Pre-historic’ or ‘ancient’ would have provided the requisite rhetorical force. If you really want to come face to face with a dinosaur, consider ornithology.

The media give priority to quickly ensnaring and holding the reader. I once attended a lecture by a member of a University’s media office, who listed the key media referents for appealing to readers: Star trek, The X-Files, Dolly the sheep, Frankenstein, medical ‘miracles’, dinosaurs, and other ‘science’ stuff. So, to make a story about the netting of an ancient fish readable, it was assigned to the most ‘relevant’ category. Think how many times you’ve read of ‘Frankenstein science’ (eg animal-human ‘hybrid embryos’), or how often Dolly gets mentioned when ‘cloning’ makes the news.

Does this matter? Yes: it is important on two counts. First, media reporting of science stories contributes substantially to the public understanding, which is thus compromised by such erroneousness. (Imagine a submitted scientific manuscript labelling a coelacanth as a dinosaur; it wouldn’t get out to review.) Second, in the long term, misrepresentation of science in the public domain, although it does little harm to the media, is detrimental to science’s standing in the public eye. Insulting the coelacanth might not induce too much concern, but other things misleadingly invoke the fear factor.

Language evolves, and words do come to take on additional and/or different meanings over time (and distance). (My former aging English teacher used to describe how she once upset a young colleague by referring to him as a gay bachelor.) This is fine, but misappropriating science can result in conflict in the public mind. For ease of conveyance and communicability, the new is shoe-horned into existing knowledge folders conforming to abiding schemata, but with occasional misrepresentation and supposition as consequence. However, this isn’t all the fault of the media. Consider the effect of the word ‘cloning’.

3 responses to “Fishy news

  1. I agree we shouldn’t sink to the level of newspapers to grab attention, but I don’t think anyone expects a newspaper headline to contain facts (certainly not in a certain class of paper).
    I seem to remember some sporting manager thingy person (you can tell I’m into sport), one Mr Taylor, repeatedly being referred to in red top headlines as a turnip, but I don’t think anyone assumed he was a human/root vegetable hybrid, anymore than they assume ‘dinosaur fish’ means the fish in question is in some cladistic sense a dinosaur.
    Your mistake, I think, is in assuming that newspapers are written in English rather than Tabloidese or FleetSpeek…

  2. Hi Brian,
    I do see your point; however, ‘Turnip Taylor’ was deliberately being pilloried by tabloid; the coelacanth story was a ‘serious’ piece in a broadsheet. And I would argue that many lay readers would be led to incorrectly assume that it ‘is’ a dinosaur.
    We should, of course, endeavour to retain a sense of humour; I’m all for wordplay; give me a good malapropism anytime (my mother comes out with some crackers). Cunning linguistics is fine by me. The coelacanth is, of course, blissfully unaware of the slight on its ancestry (however, who knows what affect being ridiculed as a turnip had on Graham Taylor’s psychological well-being?). I use the coelacanth story merely to make the point that sometimes this misinformation can be damaging to science… and I finished by mentioning cloning; for example, The Daily Mail last week would have us believe that the big, bad EU’s scientists are intent on poisoning us all.
    Sometimes we need to buck the status quo.

  3. I think that bringing up “Turnip Taylor” here is instructive. It seems the problem of incorrect terminology is inversely proportional to the rhetorical “distance” from the term to the object being described. No reasonable person would ever assume Mr Taylor to be a turnip in anything other than a metaphorical sense. However, the use of a term such as “dinosaur” to describe an ancient species sounds entirely reasonable to most people (particularly those who are not experts in the area); terms such as “ancient”, “dinosaur”, and “pre-historic” are in some sense interchangeable to many. When no obvious distance separates the object from its descriptor, I would agree that terminological clarity is a must.

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