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Can We Please Ban the Evolution Article Template?

This article just pisses me off, as has almost every article in the media about evolution, especially human evolution, for as long as I can remember. I swear there must be a template in Microsoft Word for such articles, where the meaningless term “missing link” is already there, along with a title that announces how this changes everything we thought we knew about (fill in the blank).

The headline reads: “Missing link found? Scientists unveil fossil of 47 million-year-old primate, Darwinius masillae.” No. The missing link was not found, because there is no missing link. That absurd idea suggests that if we could just find that one crucial fossil, we would finally have proof of evolution. That’s nonsense. It is an interesting fossil, to be sure, and it does fill in a gap in the full fossil record. But that is a mundane, almost daily event in paleontology.

Feast your eyes on what a group of scientists call the Holy Grail of human evolution.

A team of researchers Tuesday unveiled an almost perfectly intact fossil of a 47 million-year-old primate they say represents the long-sought missing link between humans and apes.

Officially known as Darwinius masillae, the fossil of the lemur-like creature dubbed Ida shows it had opposable thumbs like humans and fingernails instead of claws.

Scientists say the cat-sized animal’s hind legs offer evidence of evolutionary changes that led to primates standing upright – a breakthrough that could finally confirm Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Stop it. Just fucking stop it. No, this doesn’t “finally confirm” the theory of evolution; that theory has been confirmed every day for the past 150 years with so much evidence that only the ignorant or the deluded could possibly deny it. And no, this is not a “missing link between humans and apes” — humans and apes diverged within the last 10 million years or so, not 47 million years ago. It is a specimen of a relatively early primate, but that predates the evolution of apes by millions of years. It’s part of the long lineage (no, that doesn’t mean it was a direct ancestor) that led to the development of both humans and apes much later and that makes it an exciting find. But everything else about this is bullshit.

And I wish scientists would stop saying shit like this:

“This specimen is like finding the Lost Ark for archeologists,” lead scientist Jorn Hurum said at a ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History.

“It is the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail. This fossil will probably be the one that will be pictured in all textbooks for the next 100 years.” …

His colleague, Jens Franzen, hailed the discovery as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Again, stop it. Science isn’t public relations, for crying out loud. Stop engaging in such absurd hyperbole in order to get your name in the New York Times or on the Discovery channel.

Comments

  1. Trebuchet says

    Every “missing link” found just creates two more. It’s one of those transitional fossils the creationists say don’t exist. Of course, pretty much ALL fossils are transitional.

  2. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I have to admit, I’ve read bad articles about science that are printed in the popular press, but this one is fairly spectacular even for those fails.

    I’m not surprised that it’s from the NY Daily News, though. You really have to go to the papers of large cities or small states to find things this horribly wrong.

    Of course, when I want news about science, the most popular-press leaning periodical/site that I visit is NewScientist. Anything less accurate or more “popularized” (read: incorrect for the benefit of sounding cool and boosting circulation/hits) is just not worth reading.

  3. laurentweppe says

    humans and apes diverged within the last 10 million years or so

    Strange: last time I checked, we were still apes

  4. Doug Little says

    This specimen is like finding the Lost Ark for archeologists,”

    No it isn’t. The people who routinely look for the Ark are not archaeologists. Con men or severely deluded followers of con men would be a more apt description.

    It is the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail

    What? scientific and Holy Grail should never appear in the same sentence. The “of the” in the middle must have mighty strong word glue in order to stop each end of the sentence repelling far far away from each other.

  5. laurentweppe says

    scientific and Holy Grail should never appear in the same sentence

    Yeah: and scientists should never uses metaphors: so no more relativity theory, no more big bang, no more people taling about quantum zombie cats, no more quoting Einstein because using metaphors is sooooooo unscientific.

  6. left0ver1under says

    I’m not suggesting the ignorance of evolution is unimportant, but one of the biggest problems in media is “journalism” degrees. It’s a problem because it’s not just limited to the science page.

    “Journalism” programs do not produce people capable of thinking or being investigative reporters. They teach people how to edit for 30, 60 and 90 seconds, to produce video, to capture sound bites and how to present themselves. They are not reporters, they are stenographers and art students. The only classes they might take regarding science, politics, business or medicine are introductory courses that familiarize them with vocabulary, but do not provide any real understanding of the topic.

    Professional journalists of the past came from a variety of fields, and learnt on the job. They were people capable of – and willing to – ask uncomfortable questions. They were more interested in the scoop than in their careers. And media in the past was the Fourth Estate, a public service. None of that is true anymore.

    Nowadays, those who are assigned to the “science desk” or “political desk” have no knowledge of the topic, and what they “learn” is usually from people who invite reporters on junkets (read: bribe them with hotels and holidays).

  7. zippythepinhead says

    From the article, “The unveiling of the fossil came as part of a carefully-orchestrated publicity campaign unusual for scientific discoveries.” Obviously some kind of fund-raising stunt. If the worst science is science by press release, the worstest science is science by fund raiser.

  8. Michael Heath says

    Crip Dyke writes:

    I’m not surprised that it’s from the NY Daily News, though. You really have to go to the papers of large cities or small states to find things this horribly wrong.

    Except for the fact the very scientists quoted are making absurd assertions, which enables and misinforms the very reporters covering such stories. [Assuming those reporters don't have a science beat, which most who report on science in mainstream media don't.]

  9. Lowcifur says

    A little creationist paperclip pops up when they start typing one of these articles:

    “It looks like you’re misrepresenting evolution and perpetuating the popular misconception that it’s ‘just’ a theory. Would you like some help with that?”

  10. Sastra says

    To be fair, the scientist’s/journalist’s motivation might be more than the desire to create a sensation, raise funds, or get their name in the paper: it might also be a bad “framing” strategy.

    Let’s say you’ve got a low opinion of the public in general and the religious in particular and figure hey, they’re just never really going to get a grip on how evolution works, how well-established it is, and how totally bonehead stupid it is to think there needs to be a “missing link” between every related species and we’re all in a fevered “hunt” for them. Fine. So, get them on board with accepting the consensus of experts by playing right along with their childish fantasy:

    “Oh yeah, up to now the Creationist have had a good point — but hoo boy, NOT ANYMORE! Game over! You can all change your minds now, okay? I mean, now it all fits into the scenario where you’re not naiive or kinda stupid. You get to think you’ve been right up to now — and you can continue to be right if and only if you accept the goddam Theory of Evolution already, okay???

    It’s basically from the same Accomodationist School of Strategy as the popular “Hey, you know what — believing in evolution strengthens faith and makes a whole lot of people love God EVEN MORE!!!”

    To think this will work, you have to be willing to fudge truth; you also have to think people are easily-led idiots. Like you, I hate the template and want it to go away. But maybe I can see where they’re coming from — assuming I’m right about the “frame.”

  11. badweasel says

    I suspect that any sports or gossip columnist that knows as little about their subject as many science writers do would quickly lose their jobs.

    Its all rather depressing to think about.

  12. says

    Also remember that reporters are not above making up quotes that suit them or asking leading questions and editing the answers for sensationalism. “Do you think this could be the Holy Grail of fossils and be in the text books a hundred years from now?” answered, “Er, I suppose it’s possible that it might be phrased that way. But it’s rather unlikely.” could have led to that “quote.”

  13. gvlgeologist says

    @ left0ver1under:

    You made very good points.

    I can’t begin to guess how many journalism majors or business majors I’ve had in my geology/oceanography/earth science classes. Quite often, I’ve heard them say something to the effect that they don’t understand why they need to take these classes. Generally I respond that they might at some point be involved in either a story or a business that deals with that topic, and wouldn’t it be nice if they actually knew what they were talking about. Sometimes, they understand that.

  14. cottonnero says

    Finding the missing link in evolution is like finding the smoking gun for World War II.

  15. M Groesbeck says

    zippy @ 11 –

    If this were a chemical instead of a fossil, I’d suspect that a drug company had a patent and was looking for a possible application so that it could be marketed. The “let’s pump up the hype so that we can get bigger grants” sort of science just seems adorably pathetic next to the industrial-strength version.

  16. kraut says

    “– a breakthrough that could finally confirm Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

    “Except for the fact the very scientists quoted are making absurd assertions, which enables and misinforms the very reporters covering such stories.”

    The first quote shows the idiot is the journalist, as I cannot conceive of someone calling himself a scientist that would still maintain that the by now expanded theory of evolution (it ain’t just Darwin’s theory anymore, dear moronic idiotic and bloody ignorant fool of a journalist)is still in need of confirmation after over 150 years.

    As to confirming theories – I really encourage that particular band of “science” journalist to all congregate at the top of the highest building available and jump off to falsify “Newton’s” theory of gravity.
    Good riddance to some arseholes.

  17. jamessweet says

    And it’s been sticking in your craw for three years?

    I was going to ask that same question. I read Ed’s opening lines and I was like, “Oh geez, another one of these stories, like when D. masillae was discovered a few years back.”

    Hey Ed, 2009 called, they want their old news back.

  18. says

    “Again, stop it. Science isn’t public relations, for crying out loud.”

    It’s perfectly acceptable, even mandatory at times, for scientists to engage in public relations. They need to show their work to the public and, one hopes, get the public excited in what they do. After all, the public is paying for it. And besides, scientists think what they’re doing is extremely cool, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. So of course they’re going to make a big deal of it.

    Now maybe calling it “the 8th wonder of the world” is completely over the top. I have no idea. But it’s an extremely important find, and the scientists have every right to brag about it.

  19. Midnight Rambler says

    Well, at least you got me to look up whatever happened to Darwinius; I’d completely forgotten about it. And I see from reading the Wikipedia article why they may have hyped it up so much – the museum spent $1 million to buy it from a private dealer. And someone also took the partial counterpart, made it into a fake complete specimen using the real one as a template, and sold that to another museum.

  20. Midnight Rambler says

    Now maybe calling it “the 8th wonder of the world” is completely over the top. I have no idea. But it’s an extremely important find, and the scientists have every right to brag about it.

    Except the thing is, it’s not an extremely important find. It’s interesting if you study early primate evolution, and it’s neat because it’s so complete. Sort of an Archaeopteryx of lemurs. But contrary to all the hype, it actually doesn’t really change anything that wasn’t already known about how the groups diverged.

  21. timpayne says

    left0ver1under @ 10 says: “Journalism” programs do not produce people capable of thinking or being investigative reporters. They teach people how … to capture sound bites and how to present themselves. They are not reporters, they are stenographers and art students.

    Molly Ivins, a Columbia J-school graduate much admired around here, would probably disagree with you. But you’re not entirely alone – Mike Huckabee said almost exactly the same thing as you on his Fox news show.

  22. grumpyoldfart says

    It’s not always the scientist using terms like “Lost Ark”, “Holy Grail”, or “Eighth Wonder”. Often the interview goes like this:

    Reporter: Would you say this is like finding the Holy Grail?
    Scientist: No, not really.
    Reporter: But it is an exciting find?
    Scientist: Yes it is.
    Reporter: So you can understand why some people think of it as the Holy Grail.
    Scientist: Yes, it’s a cliche often used in these situations.
    Reporter: So do you think some people might be saying that this fossil is the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail?
    Scientist: Yes, some people are probably saying that.

    -

    Stop the interview. We’ve got our headline:

    Scientist agrees, It is the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail.

  23. Childermass says

    An blog on the stupid use of the term “missing link.” Oh goody, those usually appear when a major new fossil find is discovered. Between looking at some of the better science new sites and blogs by those who are qualified to talk about fossils, I will be able get the scoop.

    Click.

    May 19, 2009. That was years ago. And a case where the “science” turned out to be almost as bad as the “journalism.”

  24. jj1800 says

    Well, although I agree with Ed’s (and the comments) points, sometimes you have to consider the source. This was “The NY Daily News.” At the time I’m writing this their headline is, “Teacher’s mermaid tattoo leads officials to believe student’s claims of affair.” It’s almost like being shocked at a supermarket tabloid reporting the third case of alien-human hybrid being born this month. Yes, it’s so not right that it isn’t even wrong but, it’s kind of what you expect.

  25. Ichthyic says

    28 has the jist of it.

    Can’t tell you how often this kind of thing happened when I was working on sharks and got interviewed by the media.

    the only way is to hope there is some competition, and favor the journalists that actually, you know, PUT DOWN WHAT YOU ACTUALLY SAID.

    still makes me grit my damn teeth, even 15 years later.

  26. says

    “I suspect that any sports or gossip columnist that knows as little about their subject as many science writers do would quickly lose their jobs.”

    Well you do have those hybrid sports/gossip columnists like Skip Bayless and his “posse” on “First Take”. They’re like the male “The View” without the charm.

    “And it’s been sticking in your craw for three years?”

    It takes some of us a bit longer to work the Kubler-Ross Model. I’m STILL pissed about that fucking dirtbag potter screwing George Bailey’s uncle Billy out of $8K.

  27. chrisreynolds says

    The news item is easy to understand if you realise that much of science has become a commercial industry which sells “new” information about some aspect of the world we live in. While many “pure” scientists may abhor this, the market place is becoming dominated by the the need to publicise your self-styled successes in order to grab a larger share of the funds and prestige in a highly competitive market.

    Even if you remove any newspaper journalist hype in the article it states that the researchers concerned saw the fossil as the opportunity for a History Channel film, a book release and a slew of other documentaries (probably none of them properly peer reviewed). What they did was what any commercial business would do if it came up with a “me-too” product which looked a bit different – which is to shout very loudly about how important the difference is.

    Funding pressures affects what people do in all areas of research, including which areas a student can find an opening to enter research. Wild life research may well have been significantly advanced by innovation in the development of miniature cameras and the ways of using them – and as a result the public pay (directly or though associated advertising) for the research into animal lives. So far so good – but does this mean that the emphasis of the research moves away from the careful analysis of, for example, the analysis of the species diet and health through a study of their droppings, towards looking for visually spectacular but exceptional events which will sell to the TV networks. I am sure the same bias towards the market goes for palaeontology and other areas related to a better of the ways in which evolution has shaped our environment.

    Looking back on my own career as a scientist I am sure I would have been far more successful life if I had actively explored the market place, rather than trying to be objective and deliberately critical of my own work in order to see if there were flaws before I went public. However I am sure I would not have been such a good scientist.

  28. says

    chrisreynolds:

    I agree with the bulk of what you say. Science, as an “industry” goes back a lot further than television and the intertoobz. The real problem, though, isn’t that some scientists misrepresent or allow others to misrepresent their findings. The problem is that the “journalists” are not only lazy in most of their “reporting”; they are, quite simply, unable to understand what they’re being told by the scientists. Add to that the competitive nature of the “news” business and you get situations like one Ed’s OP is about.

  29. d cwilson says

    Molly Ivins, a Columbia J-school graduate much admired around here, would probably disagree with you.

    I’m not sure how you’d ask her without a seance, but okay.

    I’m sure when Molly Ivins got her Master’s Degree from Columbia in 1967, that would have been true. Today, it’s a different ball game.

  30. ambulocetacean says

    Once upon a time a lot of science and medical reporters (those two rounds have now largely been merged) had some qualifications or at least knowledge of/interest in their subjects. But now with newspapers ever more rapidly going down the toilet, the science/medicine round is increasingly tossed to the last person in the newsroom who hasn’t already been assigned a specialist round.

    A lot of these people don’t really give a rat’s arse about science or medicine and are in any case so constantly dragged off to do non-science stories that they will never even remotely get across their round.

    My local capital-city broadsheet ran a story about a local fossil whale find that the science reporter wrote “seems to go against Darwin’s theory of evolution” simply because the whale was smaller than the ones from which it was thought to have descended.

    I emailed her to point out that evolution in no way dictates that animals should always get bigger, and she replied to the effect of “Thanks, I don’t really know anything about it.”

    It ain’t gonna get better. At least not until newspapers shitcan the science round altogether and take all their science stories from wire services such as Reuters. And then we have to hope that the wire services will still have science reporters who know their stuff…

  31. hertfordshirechris says

    (Sorry I have just discovered that for some reason my last message appeared under the name ChrisReynolds. I will try and find out how to change things so I only use one name in future.)

    Demmiecommie:

    I don’t deal in wild generalizations, such as the one you have just made about journalists. There are good and well-informed journalists (backed by good sub-editors, and editors) and there are bad ignorant journalists, sub-editors and editors. Such differences in competence this applies to all groups of people – and despite what you say scientists are not immune.

    When I was doing my Ph.D. over 50 years ago I wasted a whole year because of errors in a paper (in a top peer reviewed journal) which had been “inflated” by including unsubstantiated claims. I went on to find many cases where experimental scientists has included citations to theoretical research where it was clear they didn’t understand the theory. In the same way theoreticians would cite experimental research which supported their theory – ignoring all citation which might suggest their theory might need revision – or in some case down-right wrong. In no cases were journalists involved in the inclusion of poorly understood and misleading material in the papers. Of course such papers got passed the peer-reviewers because, for example, the experimental papers were targeted at experimental journals and only reviewed by experts in experimental research.

    It is important to realise that science has grown so big and subdivided into very narrow specialities to the extent that many trained scientists cannot understand and accurately report on the work of colleagues who work in a different but related discipline. Do you really expect a journalist who has to cover a wide range of science disciplines to have a perfect understanding of those disciplines? He needs to understand the principles underlying scientific research and be a good listener, who asks for explanations when necessary

    While I have always worked as a scientist I can understand the problems facing the science journalist. My first science job included preparing research and development reports for an international company selling wide range of veterinary products, insecticides, etc, around the world – so that I needed to be able to understand topics as different as how ostriches were farmed in South Africa, and the way that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved new chemical products. I not only had to try and extract the essence of each news item, but had to report it in such a way that would not cause offence, as the report circulated internally to the managers who submitted the original reports. For instance many of the reports from the South African Research Team contained rather dubious statistics, and I needed to find subtle ways of describing the results “accurately” while at the same time including sufficient detail to alert the people who were reading the report that the statistics might need checking.

    Later, when working at a university, I wrote book reviews and controversial “Opinion” pages for the New Scientist and articles for other magazines, mainly on scientific subjects. The top priority (if you want to be paid) is that the piece is going to be attractive to the reader – and you need to grab his attention in the title, the first line and (not normally my responsibility) any graphics or illustrations. If you don’t get it right a sub-editor may well “revise” your text to make it “more exciting” or it will get spiked. You may also have to try and convey the essence of a quite complex research project in no more than 500 words of everyday English.

    Poor science journalism is likely to occur when a journalist with limited knowledge of the relevant speciality is working with a scientist who thinks all journalists are fools – especially if the scientist is desperate for publicity – as seems to be the case in the news item which started this thread. Things get even worse when the news paper/magazine editor/proprietor is only interested in increasing sales by over-hyping stories – but when this happens this is not necessarily the fault of the journalist.

    I can’t comment on the States, but in the UK there a big differences between papers, and the problem is far more likely to be with an editorial policy to over-hype every possible story (not just science) rather than with the poor journalist who was sent out to gather material for the story.

  32. hertfordshirechris says

    Apologies to Democommie for misspelling his name in the last post. I prepared the body of the text offline and when I came to post I had browser/cookie problems logging in and was in a hurry because I wanted to get to the lighting of the local Jubilee Beacon and made errors in the rush.

  33. says

    “There are good and well-informed journalists (backed by good sub-editors, and editors) and there are bad ignorant journalists, sub-editors and editors. Such differences in competence this applies to all groups of people – and despite what you say scientists are not immune.”

    That there are good and well informed journalists is a given, they are an endangered species. Outside of peer reviewed scientifc journals or a few decent publications that actually vet their articles, there is little if any understanding of anything but the most basic scienc, on the part of the “reporter”. Such a lack of understanding on the part of the journalists is one of, if not the primary, cause of people conflating “climate” and “weather” in AGW debates; evolution v all sorts of Wholly Babble based nonsense; the abortion/choice battle and numerous other divisive conflicts in public policy and politics. And it is precisely the case that there IS no understanding of the science that allows entities like FuckTheNews’Corpse* to simply tell lies and get away with. Scientific credulity is, unfortunately, all too common–and the U.S. is one of MANY places where the top echelon of policy makers rely on that fact.

    misspelling my name is of no moment; capitalizing it is inexcusable! {;>)

    * You may know them as Fox News.

  34. Skip White says

    I believe we’ll stop hearing about the missing link when they find the fossil remains of Australopithecus Jesus riding a brachiosaurus holding a perfectly-preserved rough draft of the U.S. Constitution explicitly stating that the U.S. is a god-fearing Christian nation.

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