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.

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