Laelaps

Late last week I received a rather curious e-mail. It read;

WORLD RENOWNED SCIENTISTS REVEAL A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING

Ground-Breaking Global Announcement

What: An international press conference to unveil a major historic scientific find. After two years of research a team of world-renowned scientists will announce their findings, which address a long-standing scientific puzzle.

The find is lauded as the most significant scientific discovery of recent times. History brings this momentous find to America and will follow with the premiere of a major television special on Monday, May 25 at 9 pm ET/PT chronicling the discovery and investigation.

Who: Mayor Michael Bloomberg; International team of scientists who researched the find; Abbe Raven, President and CEO, A&E Television Networks; Nancy Dubuc, Executive Vice President and General Manager, History; Ellen Futter, President, American Museum of Natural History

“The most significant scientific discovery of recent times”, eh? What could it be? Life on Mars? Time-travel? Teleportation? The Higgs Boson? A diet cola that doesn’t taste absolutely awful? Well, no. It’s all about a little primate from Germany.

Last week periodicals like the Wall Street Journal and the Mail Online heralded the discovery of a 47-million-year old adapid primate from the famous Messel deposits in Germany. These deposits are well-known for containing exceptionally well-preserved mammals, and this particular lemur-like primate fossil contains soft tissue impressions and gut contents.

An exceptionally preserved fossil primate is pretty exciting, but that’s not why the publicist for tomorrow’s AMNH event wrote one of the most overblown press releases I have ever seen. No, the paper, which will be released in PLoS One tomorrow, claims that this particular primate is of vital importance to the origin of anthropoid primates (or monkeys and apes, with our species being included in the latter category). As might be expected during this significant year, it is going to be called Darwinius masillae and you can get a “sneak peek” at it here. According to the authors of the paper Darwinius supports the hypothesis that anthropoid primates evolved from lemur-like animals.

I have yet to see the paper, but I am skeptical of this conclusion. First, one of the main authors of the paper is Philip Gingerich, who has been maintaining the evolution of anthropoid primates from adapids for years despite evidence to the contrary. (See Chris Beard’s The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey for a good review.) This is directly related to the second problem, which is that adapids were strepsirrhine (popularly called “wet-nosed”) primates more closely related to modern-day lemurs, lorises, and bush babies. Instead anthropoids and the stock from which they arose are haplorrhines (“dry-nosed” primates), with tarsiers and an extinct group of tarsier-like primates called omomyids being much closer to them than the adapids.

According to preliminary reports Gingerich et al. link Darwinius to anthropoids by saying that it lacks a tooth comb and a toilet claw, two characteristics of strepsirrhine primates. As the author of A Primate of Modern Aspect writes, though, the lack of these two features does not automatically make Darwinius a transitional form from adapids to early anthropoids. It could be, and may be more likely to be, a unique part of the adapid family tree, and I will be very interested to see if the new paper contains a cladistic analysis. (I was a bit disappointed that Gingerich’s last major descriptive paper on the early whale Maiacetus did not contain a cladogram).

I have the feeling that this fossil, while spectacular, is being oversold. This raises an important question about the way scientific discoveries, particularly fossil finds, are being popularized. Darwinius is just the latest is a string of significant fossils to be hyped in the media before being scientifically described (or at least before that information is released to the public). Other recent examples include “Dakota” the Edmontosaurus, the pliosaur “Predator X“, and “Lyuba” the baby mammoth. I am glad that these finds are stirring excitement, but I am a bit put off by the way they are presented.

Companies like National Geographic and the History Channel are taking a larger role in how these discoveries are being presented. Each of the fossils I mentioned above have had books, feature articles, documentaries, or some combination thereof produced about them before any scientific description of them has been published. These promotional materials make grand claims but are vague on details, which are reserved for later academic publications. This can potentially create problems for effective science communication.

Consider, for example, the grand claims made about finds like Darwinius. It is being heavily promoted but scientists have not yet had a chance to see the fossil or read the paper describing it. When they get a call from a journalist or are asked their opinion on it, then, it can be difficult to discuss the find because they do not know the details. This can be harmful as it can not only lead to the spread of overblown assertions but it can also make us look foolish if these finds do not turn out to be all they were cracked up to be. This could especially be the case with Darwinius. Though heralded in documentaries and in the news as one of our direct ancestors, it is probably a very interesting lemur-like primate on a different evolutionary branch. I can only imagine the field day creationists are going to have if this is the case, and I am frustrated by the way mass media outlets manage to bungle genuinely interesting scientific discoveries.

Comments

  1. #1 Zach Miller
    May 18, 2009

    I totally agree on all points. The public should be made aware of these “mind-blowing” discoveries AFTER the scientific community has had a chance to digest them and offer reasonable criticism and opinions on them. This new Darwinius might have an overblown press release, but I have yet to forgive the media for blowing Dakota totally out of proportion. I have yet to see any published, peer-reviewed material on her, and I’ve long since given up on seeing any. I suspect it’s all smoke and mirrors at this point.

  2. #2 James F
    May 18, 2009

    This will be the second paper published by Gingerich and colleagues in PLoS ONE this year that stirs controversy in the blogosphere. I wonder if skeptical reviewers are bouncing these papers from Science and Nature, or for that matter, PLoS Biology? I’m just worried that some of the grander claims are being taken at face value.

  3. #3 MAL
    May 18, 2009

    A find that will change everything? You’d think they’d discovered anti-gravity or something. Thanks so, so much for writing this, Brian – the horrid over-promotion of discoveries like this really begs to be taken to task. If PLOS One hopes to be taken seriously as an open access journal containing legitimate scientific work, I think they should really take their authors to task for 1.) not following embargoes and 2.) shamelessly (and groundlessly) claiming more than they can support in their papers. What a shame, especially when discoveries that genuinely do deserve the attention but don’t have a giant PR machine behind them are essentialy ignored by the media and therefore public at large.

  4. #4 Chris Beard
    May 18, 2009

    Although I have not yet seen the fossil, I strongly suspect that the points you raise in this post are accurate. Darwinius is cited in the popular press as retaining primitive features (such as the absence of a toothcomb) that have been modified in lemurs, making it appear to be more anthropoid-like. But this is equivalent to stating that, because it retains five fingers and toes, it appears to be an early monkey. Note Science magazine’s take on this issue below.

    Science Policy Blog
    ScienceInsider
    News and Analysis from the World of Science Policy

    May 15, 2009
    World’s Most Overhyped Science Headline, Part 2

    It’s hard to keep a hot fossil under wraps. A public relations firm issued a breathless press release yesterday about “A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING,” to be announced Tuesday at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. But news of the discovery—a 47-million-year-old fossil primate—has leaked out already.

    An article in The Wall Street Journal this morning quoted paleontologist Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who described the potential significance of the “spectacular” complete skeleton of a young female primate that was discovered 2 years ago near Frankfurt, Germany. Gingerich proposed that this fossil may be the earliest anthropoid—or the common ancestor of all later monkeys, apes, and humans.

    Gingerich tells ScienceInsider that his interview with The Wall Street Journal was off the record until the press conference Tuesday. He and other researchers on the team are now refusing to talk to any reporters about the paper, which will be published by the Public Library of Science also on Tuesday. “We can’t say anything,” says paleontologist Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum in Norway, where the skeleton is kept.

    Gingerich also gave an interview to the Daily Mail of London, which ran a story about the fossil last Sunday. The story describes the fossil, named Darwinius masillae, and a documentary about it by David Attenborough for the BBC and The History Channel. The PLoS paper had been leaked to the Daily Mail, Hurum says.

    Tuesday’s press conference will be attended by the mayor of New York City as well as Ellen Futter, president of AMNH, which opens a major exhibit on mammals tomorrow.

    How is the news being anticipated in the scientific community? “I honestly think this is an incredible job of marketing,” says paleontologist K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has not seen the report but has read the news. He points out that other fossils of similar age from China, Myanmar, and India have also been proposed as some of the earliest anthropoids. “At this stage, color me skeptical.”

    —Ann Gibbons

    Update (5:40 PM): Gautam Naik, the reporter who wrote the story for the Wall Street Journal, emailed last night with the following explanation: “Gingerich gave me the information freely, and it was only at the very end of our conversation that he suddenly said his comments were “embargoed” until Tuesday.” Standard practice in journalism is that a conversation is off-the-record only if both the reporter and the interviewee agree on that before it begins.

  5. #5 Lilian Nattel
    May 18, 2009

    I’ll be interested to hear what you say after you’ve read the paper. I don’t see why journalists can’t wait and also why it can’t be exciting enough as what it really is. Why does everything have to be exaggerated in this way? It’s the same in literature, ie every single books is a “tour de force”. It becomes meaningless. Why not simply applaud what it is, and take the little bit longer it takes to describe what it is? Science is amazing because the universe is full of amazing stuff. It doesn’t all have to be about us explaining us to us. Oh–it also reminds me of the trailers for Dr. Phil. “This will be a life changing show; you can’t miss it!”

  6. #6 Pierce R. Butler
    May 18, 2009

    … Nancy Dubuc, Executive Vice President and General Manager, History; …

    I wasn’t aware that History was managed, but it certainly seems like a slipshod job of administration so far. Let’s hope Ms. Dubuc takes some firm steps to improve efficiency, design and customer satisfaction from now on!

  7. #7 Peter
    May 18, 2009

    If this is how the press reacts to a cool monkey fossil, how will they react to something that actually does “change everything” such as extraterrestrial life or time travel?

  8. #8 ~L.K.
    May 19, 2009

    I would find that they often obscure the truth–the general media or those casual to reading about science and discoveries would get a false idea. Most people don’t bother to look into research or read more than the first two paragraphs of something.

  9. #9 zertrat
    May 19, 2009

    Adapids may not be strepsirhines. That is the whole point. Some people have believed they are, and the author of this review bought into that whole leap of faith. There are no fossil wet noses. Even putting that point aside, the best, recent genetic analyses cannot find confident support for a “haplorhine” clade anyway. The issues raised by the new discovery are more interesting and complex than this reviewer comprehends. Indeed, this review stands as an excellent example of the worst in science: accepting a position because of previous belief or authority, and waxing righteously about it, rather than testing beliefs against empirical evidence. Read the paper when it comes out and learn.

  10. #10 Laelaps
    May 19, 2009

    Zertrat; As far as I have seen there is more support that adapids are strepsirrhines (primarily based upon postcranial remains). I don’t think the lack of features like a tooth comb or toilet claw change this. That I think adapids are steprirrhines is not simply a “leap of faith” and I am not talking about fossilized “wet noses.” (I simply used the term to help people unfamiliar with the terminology understand.)

    If you think this post represents “the worst in science”, so be it, but it would be foolish to ignore Gignerich’s previous work and what has already been leaked to the media. The way in which the media has hindered, rather than helped, the public to understand this find was more of the point of this post, in any case. With so much hype surrounding this fossil I think it would be irresponsible to sit by and wait rather than express valid concerns over the conclusions that are being drawn. If this fossil is THAT impressive, I’ll change my tune, but I don’t think it is going to rearrange strepsirrhine/haplorrhine relationships in the way you suggest.

  11. #11 Thomas Lee Elifritz
    May 19, 2009

    The public should be made aware of these “mind-blowing” discoveries AFTER the scientific community has had a chance to digest them and offer reasonable criticism and opinions on them.

    Why do you hate America and Americans for their freedoms?

    That’s the dumbest thing I have heard on these blogs lately, and I hear a lot of really stupid things written by so called scientists here, but denying results from the public that were paid for by the public is beyond the pall.

    Who do you think pays for this kind of work?

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    May 19, 2009

    And getting a misrepresented, sensationalized, distorted and generally useless view of the science their tax dollars paid for benefits the taxpayer how, exactly?

  13. #13 Glenn
    May 19, 2009

    They really should turn the publicity over to Geraldo Rivera and just be done with it.

  14. #14 Karen James
    May 19, 2009

    James F wrote, ‘I wonder if skeptical reviewers are bouncing these papers from Science and Nature, or for that matter, PLoS Biology?’

    Another possibility is that, since rejection by peer reviewers would have thrown such a huge spanner in the works of this carefully orchestrated and tightly controlled project with lots of money to be made (and therefore lost), they purposely submitted it to an lower tier journal to maximise the possibility of acceptance.

    And I agree with Thomas Lee Elifritz – not with that bit about ‘why do you hate America…’ which is just silly – but that the way to stop the hype machine is to make science more open not less.

  15. #15 Zach Miller
    May 19, 2009

    I think my comment was taken the wrong way. The media shouldn’t REPORT on scientific findings until the paper has been released and they can get informed quotes from the authors and other experts in the field. Of course the public has a right to know, but they should be getting informed opinions, not gut reactions.

    Also, is the PDF coming up as “broken, and could not be repaired” for anyone else?

  16. #16 cromercrox
    May 19, 2009

    I have seen the paper. There is no cladogram. In addition, a taxon in an online-only source is not valid, according to the Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Just sayin’

  17. #17 Karen James
    May 19, 2009

    No cladogram? How can you “CHANGE EVERYTHING” without a cladogram?

  18. #18 Blake Stacey
    May 19, 2009

    Of course the public has a right to know, but they should be getting informed opinions, not gut reactions.

    Exactly. And in this modern age, where would a diligent but largely uninformed reporter — one of the many “general news” journalists who has to cover science stories — look for someone to interview? Where do you find scientists who know their stuff, are probably willing to take the time to explain it and have experience doing so?

    Gee, I wonder.

    Giving a little time for blog entries to appear in response to a paper could benefit everybody. And how many of these discoveries are time-critical, anyway? Sure, in finance or international politics, you might need an expert opinion immediately, but the story here is about dead animal bones. They’re not going anywhere between now and Sunday.

  19. #19 James F
    May 19, 2009

    Karen #14,

    I hadn’t considered that, very good point.

  20. #20 James F
    May 19, 2009

    Peter #7 wrote:

    If this is how the press reacts to a cool monkey fossil, how will they react to something that actually does “change everything” such as extraterrestrial life or time travel?

    Probably like this.

  21. #21 curious
    May 19, 2009

    i got this release, but i somehow suspected that, following the announcement (or in this case, the leak), i would be able to identify a few things that have not in fact changed.

    predictive skillz: i gots ‘em.

  22. #22 jumpugly
    May 19, 2009

    Well done Mr. Switek. Your points are well taken. There is a long way to go with discovery before we can accept it as scientific gospel.

  23. #23 David Marjanović
    May 19, 2009

    a taxon in an online-only source is not valid, according to the Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

    True. Does PLoS ONE deposit “100 identical and durable copies in public libraries on at least five continents”? Then the name is valid. Otherwise… buh-bye.

  24. #24 John Hawks
    May 19, 2009

    I have seen the paper. There is no cladogram.

    Uhhh….

    Figure S7.

    Cladogram to show systematic position of Darwinius masillae, n. gen., n. sp. based on characters discussed in the text and numbered in Table 3.

    (4.73 MB TIF)

  25. #25 Richard Eis
    May 20, 2009

    Interestingly the news report i saw in England said it wasn’t a direct ancestor and that that was just speculation. Go the evening news.

  26. #26 Monado
    May 20, 2009

    Science by press release just raises warning signals.

    I found it’s on Wikipedia’s main page but with cautionary comments, even a link to this article.

  27. #27 Monado
    May 20, 2009

    The Google logo was done in a hurry; it doesn’t have their ususal nomenclature for special days.

    Look on the bright side: the public is being made aware that there are excellent, well-preserved transitional fossils and that science is exciting and newsworthy. Arguments about dry-nosed monkeys vs. lemurs vs. tarsiers can come later and might even get some coverage (like H. floresiensis) thanks to this initial splash.

  28. #28 Dan
    May 21, 2009

    Why do you think the journalists should wait until after the scientists look at it? Most of the “news analysis”t that we see these days is gut reaction from various bloggers and talking heads. There is nothing about a scientific discovery that makes it any less prone to this than a political scandal or an event in Iraq. The difference is only that you as an expert in the field have an obligation to critique this.

    Maybe you can get a headline next year (“Major breakthrough in Fossil Record found to be bogus!!!”)

    The notion that the public needs to be protected from the information until the experts have had their debate is just not right.. and it pretty elitist. The deal is that everyone’s opinion should be out there, and let the reader beware.

    There is no question, that any responsible reporter of this news should point out that the discovery and its interpretation were from only one POV but I think in this day and age we cannot assume that any group has control over the release of information, even if their intent is to validate that information.

  29. #29 Stephen
    May 21, 2009

    THIS DISCOVERY HAS COMPLETLY REVOLUSIONIZED THE WAY I LIVE MY DAILY LIFE THNK U SIENCE!!!111!

  30. #30 marie
    May 25, 2009

    Hi,

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  31. #31 Sikiş
    August 25, 2010

    Interestingly the news report i saw in England said it wasn’t a direct ancestor and that that was just speculation. Go the evening news.

  32. #32 sikişme
    September 23, 2010

    zaza huhu ak

  33. #33 canlı sikiş
    September 30, 2010

    of be adam gibi bir şey olamadın

  34. #34 lezbiyen
    September 30, 2010

    buda başka işte çaktırma

  35. #35 hayat
    October 5, 2010

    koy be gitsin yuvarlak dünya

  36. #36 health
    October 14, 2010

    salla cakam saa :)

  37. #37 nakliyat
    October 22, 2010

    ne yazıkki biz insanlar dünyamıza pek sahip çıkamıyoruz doğayı koruyamıyoruz

  38. #38 evden eve nakliyat
    October 22, 2010

    düya ve doğayı korumak hepimizin görevi olsa gerek

  39. #39 porno
    November 21, 2010

    Interestingly the news report i saw in England said it wasn’t a direct ancestor and that that was just speculation. Go the evenin

  40. #40 seks izle
    November 27, 2010

    This will be the second paper published by Gingerich and colleagues in PLoS ONE this year that stirs controversy in the blogosphere. I wonder if skeptical reviewers are bouncing these papers from Science and Nature, or for that matter, PLoS Biology? I’m just worried that some of the grander claims are being taken at face value.

  41. The first very surprised when I saw

  42. #42 seks izle
    December 27, 2010

    I would find that they often obscure the truth–the general media or those casual to reading about science and discoveries would get a false idea. Most people don’t bother to look into research or read more than the first two paragraphs of something.

  43. #43 Yarışma Misyon5ice
    December 30, 2010

    I don’t want read this post. Because, You must a discovery.

  44. #44 sibel kekili
    January 10, 2011

    I would find that they often obscure the truth–the general media or those casual to reading about science and discoveries would get a false idea. Most people don’t bother to look into research or read more than the first two paragraphs of something.

  45. #45 bedava porno
    January 14, 2011

    Interestingly the news report i saw in England said it wasn’t a direct ancestor and that that was just speculation. Go the evening news.

  46. #46 dizi izle
    January 17, 2011

    Most people don’t bother to look into research or read more than the first two paragraphs of something.

  47. #47 canlı maç izle
    January 24, 2011

    evet doğayı korumak hepimizin görevi..
    Doğa için ele ele

  48. #48 grtrp
    April 9, 2011

    yes right
    A fatal flaw was that they failed to have any representative posts ready to go up when the blog went live.

  49. #49 dfs
    April 9, 2011

    yes right
    A fatal flaw wa

  50. #50 sac ekim
    April 23, 2011

    This is a really stupid question but what language does the script need to be in?
    tr..

  51. #51 Çene Estetiği
    May 2, 2011

    And getting a misrepresented, sensationalized, distorted and generally useless view of the science their tax dollars paid for benefits the taxpayer how, exactly?

  52. #52 kepçe kulak
    June 9, 2011

    This will be the second paper published by Gingerich and colleagues in PLoS ONE this year that stirs controversy in the blogosphere. I wonder if skeptical reviewers are bouncing these papers from Science and Nature, or for that matter, PLoS Biology? I’m just worried that some of the grander claims are being taken at face value

  53. #53 Saglik
    August 28, 2011

    saglik la sana diom

  54. #54 sac
    February 29, 2012

    bende bmc var ama ayni tadi vermez

  55. #55 dis
    March 19, 2012

    bende de tofas var. ama dogan gorunumlu.

  56. #56 Med Biller
    April 4, 2012

    I understand the point about having the findings properly reviewed by the scientific community. It leads to a more correct and therefore trust worthy scientific fact.

    It won’t mislead people. However, I don’t think we can prevent the media from popularizing unfounded stories because for them getting the headline out there is more profitable than digging for the truth for years. For the media it’s all about viewership. So unless the media gets paid for digging for a truth more than they get paid from endorsements and audience share, I don’t think things will change soon.

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