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#SciFri: Ford vs. Naish

I’ve decided to jump on board with a new weekly blog titled ‘#SciFri’ which will of course also tie in to my social media accounts so keep an eye out on those. On this past Tuesday night I attended a much anticipated debate at Conway Hall, London which I thought was going to rival the great debates of the Victorian scientists. As an early career scientist I haven’t been to many debates, this may also be because they don’t really come about very often. With the topic being dinosaurs and knowing one of the speakers I decided to go along with the friends to provide both moral support and to see what all of the huff was about.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, the debate was between scientist Brian J. Ford and palaentologist Darren Naish (better known for his TetZoo related content that is inescapable on the internet). Ford has just written a book titled ‘Too Big to Walk: The New Science of Dinosaurs’ (which hasn’t yet been released) on his new theory that all dinosaurs were aquatic beasts. Seeing copies of it on display, I wondered how it could be so vast without repeating itself. As I never actually looked in it, the pages may be double-spaced or just full of pretty pictures. Despite the fact that the book has been published by HarperCollins, it didn’t really impress me and to me the debate felt very much like Ford was trying to drum up some publicity for the release of this book.

The cover slide for the debate, organised by New Lands at Conway Hall

Judging by the crowd in attendance at the talk, it would seem that Ford is in the minority with his theory. There is a very good reason for this which Darren pointed out when he made his calm and calculated response which was full of more science than TV and movies from the 80s. The fact is, the theory of aquatic dinosaurs has been tested before in the past and indeed it made some headway for around 50 years befoe our view of dinosaurs changed and we came to learn more about them. All Ford has done is take some ideas that everyone has forgotten about and tried to serve them as something new. Despite the fact that his theory is something of what seems to be an outlandish attempt at some fame before he kicks the bucket, it is wrongly being legitimised by publishers such as HarperCollins and a number of scientific journals which are happy to publish his pseudoscientific ideas as facts.

I know you’re probably wondering what exactly Ford talked about in his presentation as part of the debate, the truth of the matter is he didn’t really talk much about facts. He was more angry at the depictions of dinosaurs in popular culture such as Walking with Dinosaurs and Planet Dinosaur which did not portray them as he thought fit (despite the fact he is wrong). Yes some of the older depictions of dinosaurs are correct, we only need to look at Jurassic Park to see that, but unlike Ford’s viewpoint our idea of things change as more scientific evidence builds up and shows that our old thoughts were wrong. The one thing that I don’t understand is that Ford was taking out most of his anger on depictions of Spinosaurus – a dinosaur we knew very little about until very recently as the type specimens were destroyed when the allies bombed Germany in the Second World War. Yet not at any point in his talk was that terrible scene from Jurassic Park III which very much reaffirms his point of view, if needed ‘evidence’ – why didn’t he use that? According to Ford, all modern palaeoart is wrong and silly with modern palaeontologists also being small minded. This is a pretty unconvincing argument who was trying to convince himself more than the audience.

All I can say is a huge thank you to Darren for stepping up the plate to counter Ford’s delusional views and set the record straight. After half an hour of Ford proclaiming that everyone else was wrong and he was right, Darren showered us in palaeontological knowledge from countless researchers. Yes there were some assumptions that had to be made and I think this where Ford had got the wrong end of the stick, also at no point in his talk did he address any science despite the fact that the word itself is in the title of his new book.

The event was well attended and I think this was in part due to the fact that Darren is quite the prolific demon on social media and the event was well-publicised by the organisers. According to Ford due to the fact that ‘duck-billed’ dinosaurs such as Edmontosaurus had ‘bills’ they must have lived in the water, similarly with Spinosaurus and it’s sail. Boats have a sail and they live in the water – what’s so hard to believe there? The statements about the ‘duck-billed’ dinosaurs is all wrong, new fossils have shown they they don’t have bills but horny beaks instead. Yes isotope readings from Spinosaurus show that they lived a semi-aquatic lifestyle but that isn’t the point that Ford was making, his point was that ALL non-avian dinosaurs were FULLY aquatic. This of course makes no sense at all and how did that giant group of dinosaurs the sauropods live? Well they swam about in swamps and lakes and according to Ford they didn’t need a tails to balance because they are just like giraffes, it was all dead weight, there to help them turn corners. Ford made the statement that dinosaurs were like Harley-Davidsons, good in a straight line and crap at going around corners. Have you seen ostriches run? Need I say any more?

Ford  was happy to ignore a number of points that made his view look more concrete, picking and choosing from scientific articles that only reaffirmed his confirmation bias. The tactics, the poor language and style of presentation was very reminiscent of that of a Young Earth Creationst. Ignoring the majority of science and signing it off as incorrect just so that their own viewpoint becomes more believable in their own head. For those of us in the crowd (most of which have some formal scientific training), his arguments fell of deaf ears and the dismissal of a vast array of modern science just made him seem even more desperate than the personal attacks on a number of scientists ever could.

It was of course hard for Darren to know exactly what cards Ford was going to play, but his talk was well structured and possibly the best counter-argument to the batshit crazy snake oil that Ford has just peddled to us all. Darren offered us all some concrete scientific explanations to the things Ford has spoke about – science which he obviously ignored or dismissed. It was easy to see that Ford cherry-picks his data, with a fine tooth comb lifting a sentence or two from a number of publications that ‘help’ show his point of view. I’m not sure how Ford or his publishers took the answers that Darren presented but I bet they were squirming in their seats in both discomfort and realisation that everything that Darren was saying was true.

The summary slide from Darren’s talk which pretty much sums up the points he had to counter

There was a short Q & A session after the talk where the speakers were provided with the chance to address questions from the crowd,  with both answering the same questions to give both of their differing viewpoints. Like most of the crowd there, I was busy live-tweeting and catching up with the flood of notifications that were coming in but what I did pick up on is that Ford has become even more unhinged and for some reason was bragging it about. The talk then moved onto his choice to wear a bow-tie before getting back on track. It seemed he liked to talk about himself and distract from the actual point of the session of answering questions. To me it seemed like a lot of smoke and mirrors, a facade hiding the shattered remains of an ego. Darren’s answer’s however were more to the point and of course more scientific, addressing concerns that audience members had using all of the knowledge of dinosaurs he has. Seeing as he’s written multiple books on the subject, it’s not dinosaurs are new to him – unlike Ford. Ford mentioned during this time that he had cited over 450 scientific articles in his book after poo-pooing the accuracy of modern science. It seems like the can’t decide what it is he believes in.

Shortly before the Q&A session started, both speakers exchanged some words where Ford also pulled a few punches

It’s clear that Ford has put on all of the theatrics in order to sell books and ‘try to shake up the world of palaeontology as an outsider’. Maybe it’s best for him to stick to the petri dishes that he’s used to. After the somewhat unbelievable evening we all retreated to the local pub for a few drinks before parting ways. Ford wasn’t seen again but I suspect that he retired to his bridge as it did very much seem that for the whole evening he was trying to troll Darren. I’m also sorry that I didn’t get any decent photos of the ludicrous ‘evidence’ Ford was presenting but I was too busy live-tweeting the non-sense  spilling from his mouth. If you’d like to catch up with everything then please do check out the hashtag ‘#FordvNaish’ on Twitter. Also for those of you wondering, the talk was recorded and will hopefully be posted online sometime soon.

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