23 May, 2009

You Talk Way Too Much

What could it possibly be, you wonder?

"What if everything you knew was a lie?" - well, that would clearly be on a par with the moon landing, the New Deal Jesus, Pearl Harbour, JFK assasination, Obamania, 9/11... and some other ones I can't work out, but don't seem too important. Our Air, Our Water, Our Life... Creation! 25/05/09!!! What on earth could this be?

Prepare to be underwhelmed. It's the unveiling of a fossil. Specifically, it's the unveiling of the first Darwinius masillae fossil, a very well preserved one, named Ida:

Ida is a VIP (very important primate) - and as Ed Yong reports, the media response has been nothing short of rapturous. This revolves around the notion of a "missing link" - even before we knew what the discovery was, John Wilkins on Evolving Thoughts had his doubts about this term - he also worries about announcing the "common ancestor of primates".

We are by now very much aware of the hype our media plasters over news stories. To translate them to large numbers of people in an interesting way, in our contemporary news-as-entertainment culture, they have to be blown up to significant proportions, and made 2-D and digestible in the process. It's difficult to imagine a more inappropriate or common example of this than in scientific discovery, where a public that often lacks the scientific knowledge to comprehend the raw importance of discovery needs it processed. This is the root cause of the foodstuff-causes-cancer news story.

In this week's Bad Science column, Ben Goldacre draws attention, as he does most weeks, to shoddy and hyped reporting of science news, including the current "men experience worse flu" story, which has nothing to do with flu (the pathogen tested causes food poisoning), may not be applicable to humans (tested in transgenic mice), and isn't as globally applicable as advertised. Scientific discovery gets mangled into headlines on a near-daily basis.

And in this case, there are even doubts as to the real meaning of this discovery - this article on Laelaps is fairly technical, but the consensus being reached is that the PR-heavy unveiling of Ida is ugly business. PZ Myers on Pharyngula describes it as Barnum-esque, and even to a total layman the comparison to the earth-shattering dates in the advert above seems totally absurd. For one thing, there is no single link between primates and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Ida is a significant fossil that should have been remembered for its incredible degree of preservation, and the energising effect it could have had on palaentology. Instead it could be remembered as a watershed event in our mangling of scientific coverage. Unfortunately, I fear it will be no more than a really great example - both as a primate fossil, and a hysterical headline.


sarah expletive said...

i think the fact that they named the fossil speaks for itself, really. i am kind of confused - is this common?

at least she is pretty.

unfire said...

It's fairly common to give informal names to finds. The press love to plaster these over the place because it allows us to really get intimate with the subject they're reporting on.