Oh, man. I’m willing to keep saying that Darwinius masillae was an important discovery, but the PR machine is making it hard to do so without cringing. Carl Zimmer has the History Channel ad for their program on it.
Oh. My. Dog. “The most important find in 47 million years”? “A global event: this changes everything”? This is not helping. It is inflating a good discovery beyond all reason, and when the public hears the creationists declare that it’s one fossil of a monkey-like creature, and they’re right, it’s going to damage the credibility of science.
Seed Media has a bit of a scoop: they’ve got an interview with a PLoS One editor, a History Channel executive, and Jørn Hurum, the scientist behind all the promotion. It’s appalling. They’re bragging about how a “production company got in on the ground floor”. Shall we anticipate the brave new world when paleontologists have to beg for McDonald’s happy meal tie-ins to get funding?
And I’m sorry, but Hurum comes off as a complete ass.
But in order for the story and the film to pack the most punch–and to reach the public–Hurum and the production company knew they had to keep it secret. Hurum seemed particularly preoccupied with the way the blogosphere is able to dissipate a story, mentioning an Arctic excavation he worked on several years ago that was picked-up by a blog in Japan within three hours of posting his pictures on the internet. “I’ve seen Chinese specimens of dinosaurs and so on destroyed like this with lots of bad early descriptions [from] blogging,” he says. Hurum wanted to subvert the system and take his story straight to the masses in a way that would appeal to the average person, especially kids: “If we really want kids to get involved with exciting scientific findings, no matter what kind of field, we really need to start [thinking] about reaching people other than [our] fellow scientists. This paper could have been drowned in other papers and would have been read by 15 people around the world.”
That’s revealing. The fossils would not be destroyed by someone blogging about it prematurely; what would be destroyed would be Hurum’s chance to play P.T. Barnum and make himself the center of the show. Apparently, those are the same thing to him. And he thinks it a problem that his paper would be “drowned” in a large volume of papers on the fossil? Jebus. This is what we want in science, lots of open discussion.
And if he thinks a few bloggers chatting prematurely about a find would ruin it for him, he should take a look at the damage this commercial hype and bogus hysteria about the specimen is doing. Misperception is rife, and the exaggeration is diminishing the importance of other finds.
It gets worse. Here’s the trailer for the show.