Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Ford vs. Naish - 'Too Big To Walk'

Too Big To Walk

Tuesday night saw the much anticipated head-to-head between aquatic dinosaur proponent, Brian J Ford, and British palaeo sense speaker, Darren Naish.

To get you up to speed, Ford has a written a pretty hefty book, published by HarperCollins, which outlines his theory that ALL non-avian dinosaurs were necessarily aquatic, as demonstrated by numerous anatomical details across the whole non-avian group. To promote his book, Ford has embarked on an informal lecture tour, giving talks at institutions and on cruises.

#FordVNaish: a well-attended event. (Photo: G. Monger.)

Ford is very much a lone wolf in respect of this theory, and one might wonder what harm there is in an individual pushing his ideas against the immense weight of established palaeontology. He’s one guy and if his ideas are bat shit crazy, what’s the problem?

Fringe Theory

The problem is basically two-fold:

First of all, Ford is taking his theory directly to his audience, which most of the time won't comprise individuals with any kind of working knowledge of biological or palaeontological principles. A critical and enquiring mind will almost certainly enable an audience member to identify some sweeping and unsubstantiated claims, but many people will take Ford’s claims at face value. After all, palaeontology is not that new a science, and it sounds reasonable that Ford has the benefit of all that available knowledge. In short, there must be something already in the myriad studies to support his claims.

Secondly, Ford’s theory is legitimised by the mainstream coverage it receives. HarperCollins gave him a book deal, fergawdsake! They’re not some loony creationist publishing outfit that only ever publishes anti-science. They’re a big deal. They have standards.

Even the BBC provided him with a platform, much to the consternation of many scientists. Whack-job pseudoscientists touting fringe theories don’t seem so oddball to the general public when an organisation like the BBC helps increase their audience size – or when a publishing house like HarperCollins is happy to associate with them.


So Ford came to London to plug his book at a new regular event dubbed New Lands, held at Conway Hall. In the interest of maintaining some semblance of balance (and, presumably, integrity) the organisers pushed for another speaker to attend in order to defend the ‘dinosaurs are not obligate water dwellers’ position of modern palaeontology. The format was simple and digestible. Ford made his claims and then Dr Darren Naish answered those claims. After a few minutes’ break, the audience and speakers reconvened, and a Q&A session was held.

Thanks in part to Darren Naish’s prevalence on social media, the event was well-publicised, especially among palaeontology workers and enthusiasts, and it seemed (to me, anyway) that it was those people who comprised the majority of the audience. Indeed, many of those in attendance knew each other, and as @scyrene tweeted, it resembled a mini TetZooCon.

Brian J Ford's Presentation

So after Scott Wood's introduction, Ford opened straight away with what boiled down to, “All modern palaeoart is wrong and silly, and palaeontologists hate me and are petty and small-minded, and also wrong.” A more-gentle approach might have helped his cause – and would have been more friendly! – since it’s impossible to denigrate scientific consensus on so basic a level without also seeming to have a pop those people, however informal their interest, who subscribe to those theories. It’s probably fair to say that Ford put a lot of backs up with his opening comments, and it said as much about his attitude towards the scientific community as it did about what he thought of the  model for dinosaurian lifestyles.

Ford adheres to the Greek pronunciation for Triceratops, pronouncing it with a hard ‘c’ throughout. His dedication to classical Greek fell short of dressing like Theophrastus and stalking up and down the lecture theatre making pronouncements from a scroll. (Er, what? - Ed) Ford proceeded to argue that dinosaurs were not dynamic, and the ideas perpetuated in modern palaeoart were ridiculous. Examples were provided, but all I got from that was that he's never seen a large mammal, like a rhino or a hippo, throwing its weight around. Also used as examples were numerous video clips of CG dinosaurs and their relatives, generally used as poor examples of palaeo restoration, in support of Ford's position. However, many of these, such as the WWD clips, are pushing twenty years old. There was a lot of cherry-picking going on, but picking holes in old, or even new, palaeoart is not the same as scientifically disproving a theory.

Edmontosaurus was selected as an animal which definitely lived an aquatic lifestyle, on account of its footprints' proximity to water, and the recovery of its fossils from petrified swamp beds. Also, sauropods didn’t need tails to balance; tails are dead weights, don't you know?! And gigantism always favours an aquatic lifestyle, never mind that sauropod skeletons are nothing like extant giant aquatic vertebrates' skeletons.

Curiously, Ford ignored the vastly disparate nature of the various dinosaur groups. Sure, it must help him make his point if he can ignore as many uncomfortable truths as possible, but ten year olds watching his talk on some Cunard cruise are going to wonder if he really knows his stuff. Some of Ford's anti-terrestriality arguments were based on out-dated reconstruction of Spinosaurus. He then moved to the newer Ibrahim et al reconstruction to point out that he was right all along, but then trashed it when it didn't agree with him.

Take-home: Non-Avian dinosaurs were too big to live on land, and inhabited bodies of water sufficiently deep to support their bodies. And suggestion to the contrary is absurd, and all palaeontologists are silly and small-minded.

Darren Naish's Presentation

Darren's main line of attack was to go through Ford's arguments, and offer some science – which had been sorely lacking for the previous thirty-or-so minutes. He started by giving a very brief overview of the main dinosaur groups and pointing out that the aquatic dinosaur theory is misinformation; the aquatic dinosaur claim is old, familiar, and robustly discredited. Ford cherrypicks his data. (He does; we all sat through him doing it!)

Contrary to Ford's assertions, Tyrannosaurus fossils, their trace fossils, coprolites, and fossils found in association with them, all support terrestriality. Darren pointed out that non-bird dinosaurs lacked aquatic specialisation, with the exception of a couple of weirdo theropods such as Spinosaurus and Halszkaraptor, and we were shown slides showing the evolutionary changes seen in animals which are aquatic.

Despite Ford's claims, aquatic animals do not want pneumatised bodies. They want dense bones. Also, buoyancy studies of dinosaurs support terrestriality. As mentioned, Darren acknowledged that some dinosaurs were likely semi-aquatic. Ford frequently referred to Spinosaurus's sail as a fin, but Darren pointed out that its sail is unlike those in fish. Despite the presence of a sail in chameleons, they're not aquatic either.

Are sauropods too heavy to walk? No - bones and soft tissue support life on land. Were those tails too big for living on land? Their anatomy says no; the tail is not a dead counterweight. it anchors the caudofemoralis muscles for pulling the femur back and powering locomotion.

In order to support his claims, Ford is dismissive of geology - like creationists! The Mesozoic was not a hothouse environment full of deep, warm swamps. The vast majority of dinosaur footprints were made on land and those thought to be made in water are highly questionable.

Critically, the isotopic signature in dinosaur bones supports a terrestrial lifestyle – but not for Spinosaurus.

Take-home: Decades of evidence and studies support a terrestrial lifestyle for non-avian dinosaurs, although a couple of known species show evidence for being semi-aquatic. Aside from those exceptions, no non-avian dinosaurs show any specialisation towards an aquatic lifestyle.

Q&A/Who Won?

The bar was shut during the break, which resulted in the sort of wailing and gnashing of teeth that you would expect from a bunch of scientists. People started sweating and panicking, but then John Conway remembered he’d seen a pub only a hundred yards away, and everybody pulled themselves together.

After the break, a Q&A session provided the speakers with the opportunity to address some of their differences through answering questions from the audience, and New Lands’ organiser, Scott Wood, refereed the responses and kept things on track. Among the many excellent questions were, “Would dinosaurs with heavy bone structures, such as Triceratops and Ankylosaurus, sink in water?” and “If Darren was more outrageous and sweary, would he have a HarperCollins publishing deal?”

Darren Naish and Brian J Ford (Photograph: G. Monger.)
Unfortunately I was still busy live-tweeting, and the faster pace of the Q&A session meant that I didn’t manage to tweet all of the questions, and I didn’t record any of the replies. But it’s fair to say that the speakers’ answers were in line with their presentations, and there were no surprises. That said, there was a fraction of what felt like ‘rolling back’ by Ford, where he made it clear that he wasn’t saying that even the biggest sauropods didn’t migrate to land in order to carry out certain activities, such as egg-laying. This was certainly at odds with his overall tone regarding the preposterousness of dinosaurs living out of water. He worked hard to convince us that these animals simply couldn’t do it, and then, almost flippantly, remarked, “Well, I’m not saying they couldn’t come out to lay their eggs!”

For me, this rather summed up Ford’s theory – and maybe Ford himself. Despite the Boris-eque bluster and theatrics, Ford simply didn’t speak with conviction. Certainly not the conviction of a scientist who has put his ideas to the test. Not even the conviction of the weirdo in the pub who genuinely, genuinely believes that David Icke is right about the Royal Family. Unlike the weirdo in the pub who can quote his subject chapter and verse, Ford cannot. There’s nothing to quote. We were provided with a string of barely-relevant anecdotes, insults and easily-refutable observations.

On that point, I’m not suggesting that all Darren had to do was turn up and list the studies that refuted Ford’s claims whilst trying not be rude, but in many ways, that was all that was required. Ford hadn’t undone any accepted principles. There was no palaeontology-shattering peer-reviewed paper which Ford could roll up and bop Darren on the nose with and say, “Toddle off home, Naish – you’re finished!” We were just subjected to his unsubstantiated ideas, punctuated with playground-style verbal attacks on palaeo workers. Saying somebody else's theory is silly does not substantiate your own.

But Darren did provide as much information as the time and format would allow and was very well prepared, which is to be expected from someone who is an expert in their subject and has already challenged Ford's claims on several occasions. Who won the debate is largely moot, since Ford is promoting a book, the release of which is imminent, and HarperCollins is hardly going to pull it on the strength of Ford's thrashing at the hands of Darren. A win for Darren would be to see the buzz surrounding the debate help inform people before they accept Ford's theories wholesale. Tuesday was about countering Ford in the hope that it will go some way to mitigating the damage that Ford and his book will do to the public's understanding of palaeontology. Hopefully Ford's book will simply be remembered as one of those weird little blips, like Hoyle's and Wickramasinghe's Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery. They enjoy their fifteen minutes but ultimately, no one takes the seriously.

When all is said and done, Ford’s negativity towards the science community is telling. If he isn’t interested in winning over scientists, he’s trying to win over the public. And if he isn’t doing it for science, he’s doing it for money. Too Big To Walk is Brian J Ford’s snake oil.

(Illustration: Gareth Monger.)

After the event, Darren Naish posted supplemental information here. The opening paragraph: "This document corrects various additional claims made by Brian J. Ford and is intended as a supplement to my talk given at Conway Hall on Tuesday 15th May 2018. Needless to say, there was insufficient time in the talk to fit in all of these additional corrections and comments."

For those who couldn't attend, I filmed the event with my co-author, Andy Brain, from my other blog, Beware! The Zine. TetZoo now has the files, and barring a couple of minutes clipped from the end of the Q&A, we hope we got some usable video/audio.

(The details recorded throughout this write-up were hastily posted to Twitter during the event itself, before being presented here. Although I've taken care to post accurately, there remains the possibility that paraphrasing and abbreviating for the live tweeting has introduced slight errors.)

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