Friday, May 22, 2009

How bad journalism hurts science; the 'Darwinius Masillae' foofooraw

As you readers will come to find out, if you haven't figured it out already based on the description and first post of this blog, I am a proponent of reality.  I do not take comfort in abject devotion to imaginary sky fairies made up over 2ooo years ago by nomadic goat-herders from the middle-east. If those are your beliefs, so be it... more's the pity.  But I stopped believing in magic and fairy-tales when I was about 12.

So needless to say, I have a fairly obvious position in the debate over evolution vs. creationism.  Actually... as far as I'm concerned, there is no debate.  Evolution, as a scientific theory, has over 100 years of research and literally mountains of evidence supporting its premise.  It meets all the same criteria that any other widely accepted scientific theory, for example, Gravity, meets.  Creationism has no more supporting material than the Greek mythologies of the ancient world that we so easily dismiss now.  Yet somehow a large portion of the population still rejects evolution as an affront to their religious beliefs.  Someday we'll grow up as a race... but anyhow, I digress.  

The purpose for that preface was to give some background for this post.  Recently, a significant fossil discovery was released:  Darwinius Marsillae.  See the image below:

As you can see it's a spectacular fossil... I'm not an expert, so I'll leave it to PZ at Pharyngula to give you more of the details as to why this particular discovery is important.

The problem is not so much with anything in the discovery.  It's an important and relevant find.  The problem came with the media circus that surrounded the find, and the backlash from the religious / Creationist community.  Some of what follows comes from a comment I made at Pharyngula, so I apologize if any of this seems familiar: When the discovery was announced, the media went hyperbolic, and claims of "the missing link" being found were tossed about.  This, of course, made the science community cringe, because as any real scientist knows, "missing link" is a completely useless phrase.  There is no missing link.  There never will be.  The fossil record is quite definitive in the lineage that leads to homo sapiens.  No missing link is required.  Also, many media outlets reported that this discovery "proves Darwin was correct", or "proves evolution".  This could not be more laughable.  We have over 100 years of evidence, fossil records that show quite thoroughly that evolution is correct.  This fossil does little more than adds another piece, albeit a spectacular and significant piece, to that growing mountain of evidence.  

What the over-hyping of this find does is actually puts undue significance on an otherwise important find for the wrong reasons. And this is dangerous for the credibility of the science in the eyes of the layperson public.

So, the find is announced, and it is beautiful and stunning in its preservation, especially considering its age... but a frenzy-driven, revenue-conscious media gets a hold of the story, and a fame-grabbing "scientist" unleashes undue hyperbole, and terms like "missing link" get thrown around. This grabs the attention of the general public, many of whom are fence-sitters on the whole "evolution vs. creation" debate, mostly because all they know they get through the mass media. Unfortunately, after the initial awe of the first reports wear off, you start to have reactions from all sides. And in this case, all sides are reacting to the initial report fairly negatively. Scientists are reacting to the fact that this find, while significant, is simply another piece in the mountain of evidence for evolution, and doesn't in any way represent any "missing link". Creationists react negatively, as expected, dismissing the find as meaningless and using the same tactics they've used to try and ignore and discredit other significant finds. So there are all sides of the issue, all reacting negatively to the find, and all the general public hears is "this is no missing link"... and as a result, for many, this equates to a negative perspective on evolution, and becomes an easy item they can point to and say "well, they thought that fossil they found back in '09 was the missing link and it turned out to be nothing". Which is a complete mis-representation of the facts. All sides have problems with the way the story was presented by the media, but for completely different reasons.

Had the story been reported accurately, and hailed for what it was: a significant find that adds another piece to the evidence in the fossil record; then the science community would have nothing to complain about, and the Creation community wouldn't be getting its public exposure, while all up in arms. And what we'd be left with is a beautiful specimen ripe for study and discovery, which is really all we should be looking to get from Ida.


  1. the fossil record serves only to show complete creatures, no transitions.

  2. anonymous, this is completely false. There are a boatload of transitional fossils in the fossil record. You can find a well documented list of them here:

    please do some research and then come back if you'd like to discuss your statement further.