So-called “missing link” Ida hit the media in a major way on Monday of this week. Yet within a few hours of the unveiling of the fossil, the better media outlets began to report the real story.
So-called “missing link” Ida hit the media in a major way on Tuesday of this week, with even search engine Google falling prey to the hype and modifying its search page banner to show Ida. We quickly responded with a full article, “Ida (Darwinius masillae): the Missing Link at Last?”
Yet within a few hours of the unveiling of the fossil—coordinated to coincide with the publication of the scientific paper on Ida1—some better media outlets began to report some worrying things about the research. It seems as though the scientific process had been rushed and the claims exaggerated in a bid to promote a new documentary and book on the fossil. Sadly, media pressures sometimes trump full research integrity (something we’ve seen before), and careless media sources reprint explosive (and unjustified) quotations without consulting as many scientists as they should. Thankfully, though, many in the scientific community are questioning the research and beginning to become more vocal about their concerns regarding how good science and media aren’t the best mix.
But don’t just take our word for it—read these amazing excerpts that reveal the Ida hype for what it truly is.
Jørn Hurum, at the University of Oslo, the scientist who assembled the international team of researchers to study Ida is relaxed about using the phrase [“missing link” to describe Ida]. “Why not? I think we could use that phrase for this kind of specimen,” he said. “[People] have a feeling that if something is important it is a missing link.”
[I]n the paper published in PLoS ONE from the Public Library of Science on the fossil [the author] is more circumspect. “Darwinius masillae is important in being exceptionally well-preserved and providing a much more complete understanding of the paleobiology of an Eocene primate than was available in the past,” the authors wrote.
“[The species] could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved [the line leading to humans], but we are not advocating this here.”
The paper’s scientific reviewers asked that they tone down their original claims that the fossil was on the human evolutionary line.
One of those reviewers, Professor John Fleagle at Stony Brook University in New York state said that would be a judgment for the scientific community. “That will be sorted out or at least debated extensively in the coming years once the paper is published,” he said.2
[D]espite a television teaser campaign with the slogan “This changes everything” and comparisons to the moon landing and the Kennedy assassination, the significance of this discovery may not be known for years. An article to be published on Tuesday in PLoS ONE, a scientific journal, will report more prosaically that the scientists involved said the fossil could be a “stem group” that was a precursor to higher primates, with the caveat, “but we are not advocating this.”
All of this seems a departure from the normal turn of events, where researchers study their subject and publish their findings, and let the media chips fall where they may.3
University of New England paleoanthropologist Peter Brown remains skeptical. He pointed to a story in the Weekend Australian in which one of [coauthor Jørn] Hurum’s coauthors, 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 rings all sorts of warning bells,” Professor Brown cautioned. He said that however it was prepared, the paper did not provide sufficient proof that Ida was the ancestral anthropoid.
“It’s nice it has fingernails, something we have, as do most primates . . . but they’ve cherry-picked particular character[istics] and they’ve been criticized (by other scientists) for doing that.”4
“On the whole I think the evidence is less than convincing,” said Chris Gilbert, a paleoanthropologist at Yale University. “They make an intriguing argument but I would definitely say that the consensus is not in favor of the hypothesis they're proposing.” . . .
“The PR campaign on this fossil is I think more of a story than the fossil itself,” said anthropologist Matt Cartmill of Duke University in North Carolina. “It’s a very beautiful fossil, but I didn’t see anything in this paper that told me anything decisive that was new.”
Most experts agree that the find is significant, if only for its impressive degree of completeness, but some were put off by the bells and whistles that went along with the publicity campaign around Ida. . . .
“It’s not a missing link, it’s not even a terribly close relative to monkeys, apes and humans, which is the point they’re trying to make,” [Carnegie Museum of Natural History curator of vertebrate paleontology Chris] Beard said.5
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 . . . 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.”
Other researchers grumble that by describing the history of anthropoids as “somewhat speculatively identified lineages of isolated teeth,” the PLoS paper dismisses years of new fossils. “It’s like going back to 1994,” says paleontologist K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has published jaw, teeth, and limb bones of Eosimias. “They’ve ignored 15 years of literature.”6
Science is supposed to be methodical, and usually it is, sometimes to the point of being dull. But there are times when a little hoopla is called for. Major discoveries that rewrite the textbooks deserve big headlines and ubiquitous media coverage and lots of scientific slaps on the back and all that.
The discovery of the “Ida” fossil, announced this week as though the 47-million-year-old lemur-like female were a rock star, seemed at first like one to celebrate.
Today we know better. . . . [T]here are doubts about whether [humans are] really descended from Ida. Problem is, most of the coverage is done, and the public could be left with the impression that Ida is a rock-solid missing link in the human evolutionary chain. . . .
“It’s not a missing link, it’s not even a terribly close relative to monkeys, apes and humans, which is the point they’re trying to make,” said Chris Beard, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. . . .
The debacle started to unfold when the finding, cloaked in secrecy while a media engine was being primed, leaked out in The Wall Street Journal, and then in London’s Daily Mail. Then The New York Times wrote about the media circus that was to ensue. All this was published before anyone but the research team (and its tightly controlled media team) knew the details of the finding. . . .
Ida’s unveiling was highly scripted (with some “Barnum and Bailey aspects,” said paleontologist Richard Kay of Duke University). More important, it can now be said the findings may well have been significantly overstated. We won’t know for sure until further research is done. But if this event causes the public to distrust science and media, that distrust is well placed.7
Dr Chris Beard, curator of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and author of The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey, said he was "awestruck" by the publicity machine surrounding the new fossil. . . .
But he added: “I would be absolutely dumbfounded if it turns out to be a potential ancestor to humans.”8
[W]hat sets this episode apart from the norm is the extent of machinations involved to hype this discovery before the public.
And also, there’s the underlying question of whether such publicity-mongering is good or bad for science?
. . .
Rock music and athletics are poor models for scientists to emulate when thinking about how to raise public interest.
. . .
Discussion now centers on how significant the find actually is. Clark Spencer Larsen, head of anthropology at Ohio State [University] and once a student in a graduate course given by one of the Darwinius discoverers said simply, “I think it is being overly hyped.”
Scott McGraw, a colleague in the same department, said, “The exciting element of this story is the completeness and preservation of the new specimen, not the information content of the fossil itself. By and large, the fossil offers little new information . . . [s]o it is—at best—an old and distant cousin—but not a direct ancestor [to humans].”9
Prior to the press conference, only a handful of select reporters got an advance look at the scientific paper, and they were sworn to secrecy until the unveiling.
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The behind-the-scenes leaking of the paper to some select journalists was handled by Atlantic Productions, the company that had produced the documentary for the History Channel.
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What seems clear is that an early version of the journal paper was handed off to Atlantic Productions by someone on the research team, contrary to typical behavior among scientists, to help facilitate the media blitz.
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Then consider The Link, the documentary that aired for two hours on Monday night. . . .
What is, perhaps, most distressing was the overbilling of the program. Promos touted it, comparing it to other milestones in history, including the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President John Kennedy, and the Apollo program’s landing on the moon. . . .
Such exaggeration doesn’t help promote science. It hurts it! Surprisingly, there were no comparisons to earlier scientific discoveries.10