May 26 2009

Ida Fizzle

By now most people with the slightest interest in science and not dwelling in the proverbial cave have heard of Ida – the stunningly complete primate fossil unveiled recently in New York. The media hype surrounding this fossil was overwhelming, leading to more sober scientists criticizing the hype, to creationists criticizing scientists, and to the public wondering what all the hubbub was about.

The media was all over the map on this one, essentially revealing the quality of their science journalism. Did they swallow the hype, and maybe even add to it, or did they do their homework to find out what was really going on? On the horrible end of the spectrum was this report by Sky News. This quote should give you an idea of the quality of this reporting:

Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the then radical, outlandish ideas he came up with during his time aboard the Beagle.

Finally!  This is the cheapest and most intellectually lazy form of science hype – pretending that we knew little to nothing of the subject at hand prior to the new discovery, and then exaggerating the significance of the new find. If the quotes presented in this article are any guide, the scientists themselves were guilty of this:

“When Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, he said a lot about transitional species,” said Prof Hurum

“…and he said that will never be found, a transitional species, and his whole theory will be wrong, so he would be really happy to live today when we publish Ida.

“This fossil is really a part of our history; this is part of our evolution, deep, deep back into the aeons of time, 47 million years ago.

“It’s part of our evolution that’s been hidden so far, it’s been hidden because all the other specimens are so incomplete.

“They are so broken there’s almost nothing to study and now this wonderful fossil appears and it makes the story so much easier to tell, so it’s really a dream come true.”

The reaction of the scientific community appears to have been: “Calm down, it’s no archaeopteryx.”

There is a well-known tendency for scientists to over-emphasize the importance of their own research.  There is also a tendency to make any connection to humanity, even if that is not the primary implication of the data. This is an excellent example of this latter tendency.

If the analysis is correct (which is still a big “if” at this point) this fossil provides a connection between primitive primates, those that led to the prosimians such as lemurs, and the “higher” primates, those that led to monkeys, apes, and humans. Therefore this fossil potentially connects the two main branches of primates. It is misleading to suggest that this fossil connects humans specifically to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Immediately there were reports from more responsible outlets putting the fossil into more of a reasonable perspective. Science (the publication from the AAAS) has this to say:

Many paleontologists are unconvinced. They point out that Hurum and Gingerich’s analysis compared 30 traits in the new fossil with primitive and higher primates when standard practice is to analyze 200 to 400 traits and to include anthropoids from Egypt and the newer fossils of Eosimias from Asia, both of which were missing from the analysis in the paper. “There is no phylogenetic analysis to support the claims, and the data is cherry-picked,” says paleontologist Richard Kay, also of Duke University. Callum Ross, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois agrees: “Their claim that this specimen should be classified as haplorhine is unsupportable in light of modern methods of classification.”

Peer-review is a bitch.

There is no doubt that Ida is a beautiful fossil – 95% complete, and preserved in such detail that the fur impressions are still visible.  It remains to be seen if Ida will tell us anything new about primate evolution, or if it will simply confirm some details that were already known. It is unfortunate that the manufactured, misleading, and premature hype is detracting from the genuine value of the find.

The scientists decided to go with a coordinated media blitz – a dramatic unveiling, a website, and a History Channel documentary staring David Attenborough. I am all in favor of showcasing exciting science and trying to make it interesting to the public. But this was so poorly executed, in my opinion, it was counterproductive. This was not hype – it was over-hype. Exaggerating the implications of a new discovery and downplaying uncertainty and existing knowledge does a disservice to the public understanding of science.

I think this episode will go down in the history of science-media relations as an epic fail, almost on a par with Pons and Fleishman’s premature press-conference announcing cold fusion. It is important for it to serve as a cautionary tale – it is good to generate excitement, and to exploit the new media, web 2.0, and traditional media to showcase cool science to the public. But – don’t distort the science in the process or it will come back around and bite you in the ass.

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Ida Fizzle”

  1. daedalus2uon 26 May 2009 at 8:48 am

    Over hyping your results should be considered a form of scientific misconduct. I think it is because it distorts the scientific literature by putting undo emphasis on things via marketing, not by scientific importance.

    Dismissing prior work as unimportant (which is what over hyping is all about), clearly does not give proper credit to prior research. This clearly is scientific misconduct. Even dismissing the work of competitors as unimportant on non-scientific grounds is not giving proper credit.

    It is unfortunate that science funding seems more dependent on the entertainment value of discoveries than on their actual importance in understanding reality.

  2. tmac57on 26 May 2009 at 9:58 am

    Good article Dr N. True believers like to accuse skeptics of only criticizing their beliefs. As you are always pointing out to them, scientists have no problem challenging their peers, and neither do good skeptics.

  3. Sprawnon 26 May 2009 at 12:20 pm

    The hype surrounding this is opening the door for Creationists to file Ida with Piltdown Man. Granted, they would treat it as a hoax or a special case no matter what. When the hype dies down they will forever be able to list this as an example of how “They can’t even agree with each other.” Of course, you can’t control how opposition will misuse information, but Ida is opening a lot of doors.

    I think the terms “transitional fossil” and “missing link” have outlived their usefulness. Right now, we are potential “missing links” between whatever the species was, and what it will become. “Transitional Fossil” seems to imply that evolution has a “goal” that it was trying to reach somehow. And “missing link” implies that these links were rare or unusual creatures. There are “missing links” all around us all the time.

  4. Rogue Medicon 26 May 2009 at 5:59 pm

    I guess they would rewrite this – “If I have been able to see further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

    While science has an interesting way of being collaborative. We criticize the shortcomings of research, and by being able to withstand that criticism, that research is validated. Along with the research being able to be reproduced.

    This is a bit too much of an apparent grab for publicity. Even Einstein, with his gedanken, knew that it was through the testing of his hypotheses, that his work gained credibility.

    Maybe these authors should use this phrase – “If I have been able to see further than others, it is because I have URINATED on the shoulders of giants.”

  5. eiskrystalon 27 May 2009 at 3:26 am

    I did wonder what they thought they were comparing Ida with, if they believed that the rest of the fossils and our knowledge of evolution is so bad.
    Less than a quarter of our knowledge apparently, if the number of traits is anything to go by.

  6. BenAlberton 27 May 2009 at 6:15 am

    Another problem when a news outlet says something as ludicrous as:

    “Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution”

    Is that it allows the creationists to agree with them that before this piece of evidence there was little else. Then all they need to do is criticise this one piece of evidence to declare victory.

    Furthermore they can even take the legitimate criticisms of the overyhyped claim, and only tweak them a little to make their argument.

    So in a sense an overhyped pro evolution article is a gift to the creationists.

  7. caoimhon 27 May 2009 at 10:28 am

    The whole story is very complex. I have been trying to keep up on Carl Zimmer’s blog

    He quotes on of the researchers as saying to the Wall Street Journal:

    “There was a TV company involved and time pressure. We’ve been pushed to finish the study. It’s not how I like to do science.”

    The whole affair seems to have been bumbled from start to finish.

  8. Watcheron 27 May 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Business always makes science hard to do unfortunately.

  9. Willon 27 May 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Web 2.0 is the dorkiest word ever conceived. You shouldn’t say it.

  10. HHCon 27 May 2009 at 4:42 pm

    I read Carl Zimmer’s blog. Too bad he doesn’t have cable with its variety of information sources. The fact that the viewing public thinks Ida is news is great, given the old fossil’s age! I can’t see the scientists getting into too much trouble promoting this find. Its not like you have major fuel sources at odds with one another, or competing cutting edge fission and fusion enmeshed in a duel.@:-)

  11. Steven Novellaon 28 May 2009 at 7:42 am

    Web 2.0 is perfectly cromulent. 🙂

  12. Puppet_Masteron 28 May 2009 at 2:21 pm

    This would be the same as saying after the first roller coaster was built, “finally, definitive proof the crazy theory of gravity actually works!”

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