It is not entirely unprecedented for biology to change chemistry on a global scale. Our atmospheric oxygen spikes following the development of photosynthesis for example. That it has happened before doesn’t change the fact that when it happens, it’s still cool. These changes affect what life follows. Sometimes this changes climate, sometimes this stabilizes climate. So when Science pulls up a paper on gut chemistry in sauropods producing methane on a geologic scale, that’s interesting.

And then we find it on Fox News (emphasis mine).

The researchers calculated that the prehistoric beasts pumped out more than 520 million tons (472 million tonnes) of methane a year — enough to warm the planet and hasten their own eventual demise.
Until now, an asteroid strike and volcanic activity around 65 million years ago had seemed the most likely cause of their extinction.

That seems like a pretty serious claim for Science to have left it out. So what does the actual paper say?

Our simple proof-of-concept model suggests greenhouse warming by sauropod megaherbivores could have been significant in sustaining warm climates.

Nothing of the sort. We know there was (fairly stable) warmer than current climate during the mesozoic. This paper is pretty cool in that it explains part of why the warm climate stuck around for a while in the context of an ecosystem will adapted to a warmer than current climate.

See, the ecosystem the dinosaurs depended on was actually pretty OK in a warmer world; dinosaurs (unlike humans) did not eat wheat. So while the climate of the mesozoic would be catastrophic for us, it’s pretty unlikely that it killed the dinosaurs. As a matter of fact we can be pretty sure it didn’t kill them because they survived to the end of it.

The take home message here ends up being actually pretty sad. What started off as maybe a really awesome conversation about dinosaurs, the infrared spectrum and the interplay between biology and geology ends up wasted by a red herring about an unrelated extinction event. The reason? Nobody called a scientist. I mean, the real thing to do for an honest journalist is to contact the corresponding author or at least someone in the field to check the basic facts. The corresponding author publishes contact information in the paper for that very purpose. But failing that, your middle school science teacher would have caught this.

Drawing your own conclusions on a scientific paper without knowing the field behind it is lazy and should be embarrassing for a paper like this. In some cases it can be outright dangerous if your faulty conclusions get picked up and used for policy or medical advice. Being a journalist gives you access to experts, it doesn’t make you one. For that, you still have to do actual work.

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