There’s been a spate of stories demonstrating some rather craptacular journalism lately. So keen are they to be first on the story, they’ll bypass all the footwork/phonework that used to be required to verify a report prior to publishing.
It’s not just pranks and stupidity getting to the top of the headlines. Scientific discovery is always one of those topics where journalists leap on early findings and never seem to get around to checking back about their later accuracy. This goes for health breakthroughs, new pills, the next food that will kill you, and on and on.
For the purpose of this post, though, it’s an paleontology correction and not the fault of journalists screaming “Eureka!” and launching themselves out of the tub without considering the need for caution on a wet floor.
Remains were found some months back that suggested the skeleton, nicknamed Ida, could be a distant relation to humans and possibly lemurs. Richard Dawkins makes a point in his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, that every species can be linked to another if one were to trace genetic heritage back far enough, so the hypothesis isn’t too flawed. So what happened? Well, I guess they were mistaken. The New York Times recently published an article about research correcting their initial hypothesis.
Remember Ida, the fossil discovery announced last May with its own book and television documentary? A publicity blitz called it “the link” that would reveal the earliest evolutionary roots of monkeys, apes and humans.
Experts protested that Ida was not even a close relative. And now a new analysis supports their reaction.
In fact, Ida is as far removed from the monkey-ape-human ancestry as a primate could be, says Erik Seiffert of Stony Brook University in New York.
Dr. Seiffert and his colleagues compared 360 specific anatomical features of 117 living and extinct primate species to draw up a family tree. They report the results in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.
Ida is a skeleton of a 47-million-year-old cat-size creature found in Germany. It starred in a book, “The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor.”
Welcome to the wonderful self-correcting world of science. Too late for the documentaries and publishers, but it’s not the first time the buzz got ahead of the bee. This is science at its most basic, trustworthy best. Finding a better answer to the riddle this thing poses is still a success and should be advertised as one. But how does one who is against evolution treat the new findings?
When anthropologists find fossils that “prove” evolution, it is always front page news. Then, when the findings are later overturned, the news is less publicized.
The fossil doesn’t “prove” evolution. It just allows researchers to study its resemblance to things living today, and other fossil remains found already. That their initial assumptions proved to be wrong about Ida’s relation to us doesn’t mean the whole of evolution is “overturned” or anything. Evolution still happens no matter what animal can claim Ida as an ancestor.
If I get tired of seeing that argument, I wonder how scientists feel.
I agree with the rest of the comment in terms of how corrections get reported; it’s unfortunate that people might not see a correction article. It probably happens in far more stories far more often than it should. Regret the Error can’t possibly collect them all, but they’re trying.