Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hype-driven science

I resisted commenting on Ida (AKA Darwinius masillae), mostly because I didn't have anything to say. It's a pretty fossil, very well preserved. It's a primate, and it's supposed to be a representative of the earliest branch of ape evolution. OK. That's nice. There are lots of fossil primates that are supposed to represent various branches of what would become the human evolutionary tree. This is one of them.

I finally found the hype about this thing a little hard to resist when my mom (of all people) asked what I thought about it. My mom doesn't really follow science news all that closely. So you know if she's curious about it, it must be everywhere. So here's what I think:


Shall I elaborate? This fossil has a movie coming out. With a trailer. Don't like movies? How about an attractive companion book? Still not cool enough for you? Check out their promotional website

I could sort of understand this level of excitement if we just put a man on Mars or cured cancer. But it's a monkey. Yes, it's a neat monkey, and it's unusual, and it's really, really beautifully preserved. But it's a monkey. It's supposed to help us understand which group of primates the great apes evolved from, but even that is already contentious.

Don't find the level of hype obnoxious enough? How about some of the silly things being said:

Jens Franzen: "When our results are published, it will be just like an asteroid hitting the earth."

Yeah, right. Sure it will.

Jorn Hurrum: "This is the first link to all humans."

What does that even mean? Link from what to what? You could say the same thing about Morganucodon, Acanthostega, Australopithecus, or Homo erectus. And it would be just as meaningless.

Brian Handwerk (National Geographic): "At least one aspect of Ida is unquestionably unique: her incredible preservation, unheard of in specimens from the Eocene era, when early primates underwent a period of rapid evolution."

That must mean "unheard of in specimens [OF PRIMATES] from the Eocene." The Eocene Green River Formation has pretty spectacular fossils.

This little tidbit from The Australian is perhaps most disturbing of all: of Dr Hurum's co-authors, University of Michigan paleontologist Philip Gingerich, said the team would have preferred to publish in a more rigorous journal such as Science or Nature.

Dr Gingerich told 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".
That's great. Cut corners on the science so you don't slow down the self-manufactured media frenzy.

Guess what? It doesn't seem to have worked all that well. The article from The Australian focuses on the disagreements about the fossil's significance. The New York Times article focused on the promotion of the fossil. No one seems to be buying the idea that this fossil is going to completely change our understanding of human evolution. Because it isn't. It might clarify a few points, but that's it. No revolution here.

I guess I'm just sort of a purist about science. Scientific issues deserve to be hashed out between scientists before being promoted to the general public. I see science journalism as more of a thorn in the flesh than a benefit to science. Too often stories are oversimplified and one-sided, with their significance (sometimes preposterously) overinflated. Reporters and editors are looking for ways to attract readers, and they're not interested in the nuances that make scientific research tentative and interesting. To see actual scientists engaging in this kind of hype-driven science - and even allowing the hype to dictate how the science is published - is really distasteful.

Let's get even more personal: This is the typical tactic of creationists, and it's a tactic that I've never approved of. We constantly publish our "research" (such as it is) in books or websites targeted at the general public. And don't say that evolutionists don't let us publish in journals, because that's why we have our own peer-reviewed literature! There's no excuse for putting primary research into books that don't even appear to be reviewed. I'm not saying we can't discuss research in public venues or popular media, but we need to be sure that what we are giving to the public is the best we can possibly do or is conveyed with an appropriate level of tentativeness. That means more eyes than just ours and our buddies looking at our work. We have to deal honestly and fairly with legitimate criticism, not just blow it off as satanic attacks. That also means not jumping straight to the hype before the dust settles on our research results or overinflating the importance of our results.

I guess you can tell this dead monkey really struck a nerve in me. The real loser in this whole thing is Ida. She's a really beautiful fossil, and she deserves better than what she's getting.

Franzen et al. 2009. Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723