Monday, June 08, 2009

Missing Linkage

The evolution of the brain not only overshot the needs of prehistoric man, it is the only example of evolution providing a species with an organ which it does not know how to use. ~ Arthur Koestler

An interesting new fossil has been discovered that should have a lively discussion on possible hominid ancestors. Instead, thanks once again to the desire to publish quickly and the desire to make a buck by getting it on television, we have flawed science surrounded by a bloody circus.

The fossil is called Darwinius masillae, and it's 47 million years old. It is remarkably well-preserved and has been surrounded by hype worthy of a Simcha Jacobovic production. David Attenborough, who should know better, threw together a special program for the BBC, which I guess is the one that was shown on the History Channel. The National Geographic, who really should know better, whipped out this article, which was pretty typical of the hype surrounding the discovery made by Jorn Horum. The operative phrase in all of the articles was "missing link."

The funny thing is that no one could get hold of the paper written by Horum's "dream team", to use his phrase, to actually have it checked out by some experts in the field. Once it was, the hype began to die a prickly death.

Let's get something straight up front. As is pointed out quite correctly in this piece, there is no such thing as a "missing link." When people talk use this phrase, they are either talking about transitional species or, more likely, an early common ancestor of two or more species. But people, including many learned types, have been tossing around the phrase forever. The "discovery" of Piltdown Man really pushed the "missing link" idea into the forefront of public thinking, and it's been stuck there ever since.

Now, the use of an inaccurate phrase could be forgiven if the basic conclusions about the possible common ancestry to hominids and lemurs could be justified. The trouble is that it can't, no matter how many times they said it in the TV show.

What really stinks about this whole deal is that, once again, science has been folded, bent, stapled, and mutilated for the sake of television exposure. Horum, the star of the show, clearly has designs on becoming a media star. His employer probably got all glassy-eyed at the thought of grant money flowing in to support his coming researches. Sadly, a perfectly good discovery is now going to be ignored since it couldn't live up to the hype.

What is really sad is that at least one member of this "dream team", Phil Gingerich, had misgivings about the whole process. He is quoted in this story, which, by the way, does a good job summarizing the whole mess. Gingerich's says that there was time pressure because a TV company was involved. He says, "It's not how I like to do science." Well, sir, there was a simple solution to that problem: Don't do the science that way.

I have frequently complained about the nature of science and history programming. Sensationalism is what sells, not knowledge, so the more outrageous the claim that can be made, the more likely to garner viewers. The trouble is these viewers are going to leave this sort of program with misinformation, which will be retained because they don't take the time to check things out further.

Worse, it's almost a sure thing that the program will migrate from History to Discovery to the Science Channel, being shown over and over. If you don't think that's likely, just watch the endless shows about King Tut that still continue to prattle about assasination plots, despite the well publicized (on TV, no less) research that pretty much settles that Tutankhamun died as a result of a severe injury to his leg. Few if any assasins normally tried to kill someone by breaking his or her legs.

And yet, not half an hour ago, History or History International was rebroadcasting some canard about "King Tut's Curse", one of those half-baked "investigative" reports where some guy you've never heard of claims to have "solved" something that didn't need solving. In that program, they once again rolled out Tut's "murder", possibly making him the first victim of his own curse.

That's so stupid as to be laughable.

It's not that these channels don't come up with some good programming; they do. But, when you're claiming to impart serious knowledge, you have a responsibility to ensure that the information is accurate or at least clearly delineates which information is fact and which is speculation. Also, the programs need to be peer-reviewed as much as the research that inspired them.

There is quite enough ignorance and misinformation in the world already.


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