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Why The Aquatic Dinosaur Theory is Damaging to Science

By Norman Chan

One independent researcher's claim that all large dinosaurs lived in water is taken to task...by science.

The study of science is based on idea that anyone can have a theory, and the exploration and testing of that theory is how we come to a better understanding of how the world works. Unfortunately, some theories are given more attention to others for the sake of sensationalism, even if critical thinking by experts in the field has debunked the claims. That's what happened with the recent revival of the theory that dinosaurs didn't actually live on land, but instead, were aquatic creatures. The theory isn't new--the image of sea-dwelling sauropods had been a staple of popular dinosaur imagery since the 1940s, but paleontologists have long accepted that dinosaurs lived on land, not in water. The science from archaeological digs and study of dinosaur anatomy backs it up.

Brian Ford, a cell biologist with no apparent background in paleontology, brought new life into the aquatic dinosaur theory with a piece written for Laboratory News, positing that dinosaurs had to live in water because their bodies were too big and heavy for muscles to hold up on land. Paleontologists were quick to refute those claims, but that didn't stop the story gaining widespread attention in reports by publications like the Daily Mail and even the BBC. Ford's argument boiled down to "dinosaurs are really big, can't explain that!" which was unfortunately compelling enough to warrant attention from outlets attracted to the romanticized notion of a swimming T-Rex.

Photo Credit: Flickr user loozrboy via Creative Commons

The argument has since been criticized and completely picked apart by science writers, but the damage has already been done. Scott Hartman of the Skeletal Drawing blog sums it up best:

This stuff really matters. We live in a world where huge swaths of people don't understand basic scientific concepts, and this sort of nonsense just makes it harder to teach. Worse, listeners that were sympathetic to the reporting will become disillusioned when they find out the reality of the situation, possibly making them view all science more cynically (or simply avoiding science altogether).

Ford--who also has had a career as a television personality in the UK--doesn't seem to have backed down from his initial claim, and as of last week, continued to post links on his website to articles citing his theory in the popular press.