April Fools' Day is tomorrow, and I am waiting with mild trepedation over what faux science gags I am going to see on the Internet. What I was not prepared for was to have someone actively try to recruit me to deceive the public in a pretty rotten way.
Let's be clear right from the start, Dear Reader: I love a good prank. I've been on the receiving end of many a gag courtesy of my colleagues. The most recent prank was having my office filled with toy spiders - we refer to it as The Spidering...this happened over a year ago, and I'm still finding spiders. We have a rather cute, so obviously over the top so as not to be taken seriously video that we're going to post tomorrow that is 100% fun, and in no way would ever be confused with real science. What we do not do, nay, what we REFUSE to do is to actively deceive the public with regards to fossil discoveries, fossil heritage appreciation, and fossil conservation.
Enter my phone conversation from Tuesday afternoon.
I'm out of town, picking up some supplies for the up-coming field season. My cellphone interrupts my browsing. It's a phone number from British Columbia. NOTE: As technologically slow as I am, I am pretty good at Googling phone numbers - I know exactly which organization made this call.
I will refer to the person on the other end as Skippy. Skippy was all excited to tell me of their great idea. There is a project that is going ahead somewhere in British Columbia (not in my neck of the woods), and those involved thought that a great way to get publicity would be to announce a fake dinosaur skeleton discovery as a result of said project. This plan was considered a good idea because, well, April Fools' Day. Skippy continued: they even wanted to get the public involved in submitting names for their new fake dinosaur find. Skippy was wondering if they could use our institution's name to lend their April Fools' prank credibility.
Dear Readers, guess how I responded. I think I was quite polite under the circumstances.
The first words out of my mouth were "Absolutely not!" I went on to say a version of this:
There is already a culture of mistrust in the general public towards science and scientists. The public is also deeply interested in fossil discoveries and news, and trusts that when such news is announced, it's for real. Faking a fossil discovery in British Columbia, using the name of a well-respected institution such as ours, would only serve to fuel such public distrust of scientists. There is no way that we could in good conscience take part in such a scheme.
I ended the conversation with Skippy by saying "And I had better not see our names anywhere near anything that you publicize." Skippy's response was "You won't be included," wording that makes me think that they are actually still planning to go ahead with this Scicomm Wrong.
Half-assed publicity stunts such as these give me nothing but anger and frustration. This is nothing more than manipulating people's natural curiosity about dinosaurs and fossils for a project that will do absolutely nothing to further their appreciation of their province's fossil heritage. There is no way that this can be spun as a scicomm opportunity: had our name been associated with this scheme, we would have lied to the public - April Fools' Day or no - and given them a reason to get excited about dinosaurs in British Columbia. People trust us, whether they consciously recognize that trust or no, to give them trustworthy and factual information about the fossil heritage in British Columbia.
I will not apologize for this: I respect and greatly appreciate the public's natural interest in their fossil heritage. For as long we are at the helm of our institution, we will never abuse that interest for the sake of tacky publicity.
British Columbia is only just starting to develop a cultural appreciation and respect for the province's fossil heritage. The idea that the public has a sense of ownership and pride over their province's heritage is not yet at the levels we see in Alberta, where fossils have been part of the cultural identity for decades. Being an institution operating in British Columbia and actively promoting a culture of pride and responsibility for fossil heritage resources is a serious business for us. We also rely on the goodwill of the public to be supportive of fossil heritage protection and conservation. We will not lightly throw that hard-earned trust away for the sake of a "joke".
Unfortunately for many of us scientists engaging in science communication about our respective fields, we are bombarded with examples of credible-looking fake-umentaries presented by organizations that are trusted by the public as providers of accurate information, all for the sake of publicity. Pick your favorite cryptozoology hunter show - my favorite examples are anything involving Bigfoot, which I have written about previously. Newsweek recently put out a special issue on Bigfoot. National Geographic has also jumped into the realm of presenting Bigfoot "research". Discovery Channel's Megalodon fakery. Discovery Channel's Mermaids fakery. These are all communication brands that have the trust of the public, and that trust is manipulated each and every time a fake-umentary or sensationalized show is presented as fact.
Public Service Science Announcement (PSScA): there is indeed such as thing as bad publicity, especially when it deliberately exploits people's science curiosity for the sake of clicks or views.
So, Dear Readers, I will be online this April Fools' Day, making sure that I keep track of this newest plan to exploit the public's love of fossils. I hope the group involved has had a sober second thought and will abandon this plan. Stay tuned.