Posted by: Rob Lester | June 21, 2011

Real science versus tabloid “science”

In May 2009 a new fossil was unveiled with a media circus unlike anything before. “Ida” was presented to the public as the most important “missing link” yet in human evolution from monkeys. Ida has since been shown to be nothing more than a variety of lemur with no connection to human ancestry, as many creationists knew it would be. But even evolutionary scientists were not far behind in their skepticism. Answers in Genesis reported: “Yet within a few hours of the unveiling of the fossil—coordinated to coincide with the publication of the scientific paper on Ida—some better media outlets began to report some worrying things about the research. It seems as though the scientific process had been rushed and the claims exaggerated in a bid to promote a new documentary and book on the fossil. Many paleoanthropologists quickly voiced their doubts about this new find. “University of New England paleoanthropologist Peter Brown…pointed to a story in the Weekend Australian in which one of [coauthor Jørn] Hurum’s coauthors, University of Michigan paleontologist Philip Gingerich, said the team would have preferred to publish in a more rigorous journal such as Science or Nature (instead of PLoS ONE—RL]. Dr. Gingerich told the Wall Street Journal: ‘There was a TV company involved and time pressure. We’ve been pushed to finish the study. It’s not how I like to do science.’ Professor Brown cautioned, ‘That rings all sorts of warning bells.’” Brown also noted that other scientists had criticized the Ida team for “cherry-picking” data favorable to their conclusions. ScienceNow reported, “Many paleontologists are unconvinced. They point out that Hurum and Gingerich’s analysis compared 30 traits in the new fossil with primitive and higher primates when standard practice is to analyze 200 to 400 traits and to include…newer fossils…which were missing from the analysis in the paper.” Paleontologist K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania said the Ida team had dismissed many recent fossils which challenge their hypothesis and that they had “ignored 15 years of [scientific] literature.” Jørn Hurum, at the University of Oslo, the scientist who assembled the international team of researchers to study Ida, was forced to admit, “[The species] could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved [the line leading to humans], but we are not advocating this here.” British news source The Guardian reported, The paper’s scientific reviewers asked that they tone down their original claims that the fossil was on the human evolutionary line.” New York Times writer Tim Arango observed, “All of this seems a departure from the normal turn of events, where researchers study their subject and publish their findings, and let the media chips fall where they may.” Strange indeed. Robert Britt, reporter for LiveScience accurately stated: “But if this event causes the public to distrust science and media, that distrust is well placed.” The media circus surrounding Ida brings to mind the words of another person familiar with the circus business—P.T. Barnum, who famously said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It appears that several who are over-eager to believe humans evolved from monkeys got suckered in by a lemur.



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