Paleontology and the media

May 19, 2009 • 12:15 am

by Greg Mayer

The New York Times is reporting some major media event at the American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday concerning a 47 million year old primate fossil from Germany.  There’re reports of secrecy, exclusivity, and high priced documentaries. It seems a tad curious, since by available reports, the American Museum has nothing to do with the research or the fossil, which is in the collection of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, and the fossil was already reported on by the Times a few days ago and by the Daily Mail over a week ago. The fossil is from the Messel shale an important lagerstatte. Keep an eye out for the reports later today.

(PS The American Museum has what seems to be a really neat new mammal exhibit, reviewed here.  If you’re in New York, go see it.)

Update. The press conference has been held. The BBC has a few videos here. The specimen is a very well preserved, nearly complete, articulated skeleton, with remnants of fur and stomach contents (as is often the case in specimens from the Messel Lagerstatte), of a basal higher primate (i.e. near the ancestry of monkeys, apes, and man). The authors of the paper made a taxonomic faux pas in allowing the name of the new creature, along with a description, to be published prior to the appearance of their paper. The authorship of the name, and its date of publication, are now murky.

Update 2. As I feared, a big media roll out is not always conducive to getting the story right.  Just now on the Rachel Maddow Show, the features reporter said that the new primate might be the missing link between man and ape. It is of course nothing of the sort, and the authors never said it was, but using the term “missing link” as the key descriptor of the find (see the Daily Mail link above for an example) was bound to lead to some such misunderstanding. He also stressed that it could be “upright”, which many may take to mean bipedal, but, of course, it wasn’t. Laelaps and PZ concur about the doleful effects of the media hype. More from Laelaps here. The hype is even more overheated than I realized: from the promoters: “WORLD RENOWNED SCIENTISTS REVEAL A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING | Ground-Breaking Global Announcement”. Money quote from Laelaps:

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.

Update 3 (May 20). Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong add to the critical pile on. A sample of Ed Yong’s wonderful satirical evisceration:

Around the world, signs that everything has changed have already begun to appear. Jeanette Gould from Stoke-on-Trent was shocked to discover the outline of Darwinius emblazoned on her morning toast. “Well, it ruined breakfast,” said Ms Gould, failing to appreciate the detail of the creature’s stomach contents outlined in bread crumbs. “I couldn’t very well spread raspberry jam over the direct ancestor of my children, could I?”

There is a wonderful accompanying illustration of the piece of toast.

9 thoughts on “Paleontology and the media

  1. O.T. MSNBC Warrant issued for mom of boy resisting chemo

    MINNEAPOLIS – A Minnesota judge has issued an arrest warrant for the mother of a 13-year-old boy resisting chemotherapy after the pair missed a court hearing on his welfare.

    Brown County District Judge John Rodenberg also is ordering that Daniel Hauser be placed in protective custody so he can get proper medical treatment for Hodgkins lymphoma.

  2. Wrong thread MelM. There were 2 other threads that covered that.

    On this topic:
    I read all the BBC write ups and watched the videos of Ida, but no one ventured a guess as to what she would have tasted like.

    Why so much controversy and speculation when this fossil has been around for years in a private collection? Apparently many wish to study it. I enjoyed seeing the virtual reconstructions.

  3. Having just watched the NBC and CBS evening news coverage, it was nice to see that neither tempered the evolutionary language.

  4. Thanks for the links, Jerry. This whole thing has been one big circus. It is a fantastic fossil, but it seems to me that it was rushed through the publication process to meet a media deadline.

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