Clearly, bloggers need to take over science journalism

Aaargh. When will the media learn? National Geographic is running this ridiculous headline right now: New Fossil Ape May Shatter Human Evolution Theory, in which the reporter claims a discovery of some teeth could “demolish a working theory of human evolution.” It’s not true. Where is this nonsense coming from?

I read the article. It’s titled “A new species of great ape from the late Miocene epoch in Ethiopia.” The exciting news is that the “combined evidence suggests that Chororapithecus may be a basal member of the gorilla clade, and that the latter exhibited some amount of adaptive and phyletic diversity at around 10-11 Myr ago.” It concludes with a suggestion that we need to do more research in sediments appropriate to Miocene apes. There aren’t an exploding paradigms or revolutions suggested.

I read the associated news article in Nature. It’s titled “Oldest gorilla ages our joint ancestor.” It says that this discovery pushes back the time of divergence of the gorilla lineage from our own. This is just ordinary science.

Now read the blogs — they’re doing a much better job of evaluating this work than the traditional media. For one thing, they’re actually looking at it critically. Afarensis points out that these are only a few teeth, and it’s awfully thin grounds for a substantial revision of the timeline. John Hawks makes a similar point, but also highlights the fact that there is an unresolved problem — we need to reconcile paleontological and molecular dates. Even John Wilkins, a “mere” philosopher, weighs in sensibly that teeth are plastic characters in phylogeny, and deplores this peculiar media habit of taking a recalibration of a historical detail as a major reformulation of theory. All these discussions are sober and interested and most important of all, accurate.

The lesson is clear: when you see some wild and crazy claim of scientific revolutions and the demolition of long-held theories, go immediately to the science blogs for some clear-eyed sanity and informed evaluation from experts.


  1. pough says

    No, no, no. The bloggers are hacks and the journalists are professionals. Never trust a blogger over a Real News Source. Human Evolution Theory has been shattered like the Hockey Stick. It says so right in the title!

  2. daenku32 says

    I’m not a biologist, but I think they were doing well back when they were using Carl Zimmer in the past couple editions.

  3. kristen in montreal says

    The topic of evolution is such a hot button issue that anything that seems to ‘rock the boat’ (or could be twisted into an idea that rocks the boat) will be milked for all it’s worth. Personally, I like to think that science journalism is more concerned with accurate reporting than the average piece of media, but this is probably not as true as I’d hope.

    It really bugs me when people like Andrew Keen write books bashing the blogosphere. As if the traditional media were some beacon of truth and the rest of us are just monkeys on typewriters.

  4. darnfoolkid says

    One of the advantages of the web is the ability to do some basic research on something (if that item is of interest). I just received a bunch of emails from my family about the “two moons” phenomenon. Hello! these people taught me to think critically. Especially to Question Authority (just not their’s).

    What today’s journalism is missing is critical thinking, no surprise, but come on people, think! Get off your skinny butt and ask questions! sheesh.

  5. Grant Canyon says

    It’s a simple rule. If your possible choices are: 1) a shatteringly momentous event occurred in science, and 2) the journalist doesn’t have a clue about what is happening, it is always wise to hold the latter as your working assumption.

  6. says

    I believe I’ve found the most ridiculous headline of all, even worse than that in National Geographic. The offender is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which reported the story with the breathless headline…

    World’s oldest fossil challenges evolutionary beliefs

    I’ve written to them about the incredible irresponsibility of even implying that these teeth might be the “world’s oldest fossil.” I also kvetched about it over at my blog, and the original article (and a link for others to leave comments) can be accessed here.

    I’m still waiting to see the Creationist spin on this one. Any bets on how they’ll try to turn this into another “death knell for Darwinism?”

  7. says

    Well, National Geographic has been a slick, obnoxious presence on television for long enough that I’d only assume it would filter down into the writing. They’re sort of like Discovery Channel, just a lot of watered-down pop-science now.

  8. JoshV says

    This is why I’m going to become a science journalist: Because I hate the way the media treats sciences with laziness and “treated both sides aa equal is automatically fair!”

  9. says

    This doesn’t have anything to do with science, but I was watching Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List the other day, and she was so thrilled to see the headline in the enquirer that said something like “Kathy Griffin Goes To Jail”.

    Well she hadn’t gone to jail for bad reasons, she’d gone to do one of her standup shows.

    It’s something you’d expect from a grocery store rag like that, but probably not something we’d expect from a more respectable magazine like National Geographic. I’d rather they go back to disks in mouths and naked people in the deserts of Africa than sensationalist advertising.

  10. kristen in montreal says

    “This is why I’m going to become a science journalist: Because I hate the way the media treats sciences with laziness and “treated both sides aa equal is automatically fair!” ”

    You just reminded me of my old debating coach who used to lecture me about the difference between equity and equality. I think this distinction is particularly relevant for most of the recent discussion on this blog.

  11. says

    That means everything has to be put back.

    Yes, the National Geographic article wraps up that nicely. The whole theory of Darwin, that we are descended from monkeys, has been finally debunked. It was ridiculous from the beginnning and I dont know why it took so long to discredit it. Yet, the journalist/scientist does not imply that the Creation theory has been confirmed, but reading between the headlines one gets exactly that idea. Quod erat demonstrandum to show that I too am somewhat of an amateur scientist.

  12. says

    I just read the article, or the beginning of it, on New Scientist. They talk about how it pushes the point of divergence back a couple of million years, but no mention that it invalidates evolution.

  13. Sastra says

    A while back I had a letter to the editor printed, and for some reason the heading for the letter implied a point very different than the one I was making. People who later replied to my letter addressed the implication in the headline instead of what I actually wrote. I don’t think they didn’t bother to read the letter: I suspect that they were so sure they knew what I must be saying that they “fit” everything I wrote into their misperception. Headlines matter.

    Human evolution theory has now been “shattered.” Sheesh.

  14. Gregg says

    This type of hype only makes sense if you think a scientific theory is a type of dogma. I am not a scientist, but I learned enough in high school to know that scientific theories are not the same as religious faith.

  15. says

    DaveX @ comment 9

    I’ve always kind of liked the National Geographic Channel (especially the one series they have that debunks pseudoscience, Is It Real? or something like that). Granted, they have some documentaries that aren’t so good, but from what I’ve seen, they’re better than most other documentary type channels (and head and shoulders above the History Channel). So I’m just wondering, if you consider that channel to be slick and obnoxious, are there any educational TV channels you actually like? Or are all educational channels on TV a waste of time?

  16. says

    P.Z.: Pick up the phone, call the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., find out who edits the blog or on-line stuff, talk to them.

    If that starts to take time, call the president of the society.

  17. arachnophilia says

    quite simply, journalists have to go for the whiz-bang headlines to attract the attention. they go for controversy, often making it up where there is none.

    the internet is more democratized.

  18. says

    Re: Mike O’Resal at #8

    CBC seems to have changed the headline to “world’s oldest gorilla fossil” but it still claims that it challenges evolutionary beliefs.

  19. Mike P says

    Well, I am a working science journalist, and it’s sh*t like this that makes all the scientist jump up and down and decry the whole field of science journalism. So, I know from experience that it’s next to useless on this blog, but I would ask for just a tiny bit of restraint before calling for the demolition of the entire industry of science journalism. There are quite a few excellent science journalists doing excellent work, asking questions, being skeptical and writing responsibly.

    Chris Mooney has an English degree, no science degrees, and worked principally as a science journalist before becoming the blogger he is today. He’s a terrific science journalist, as I think most of you would agree. Natalie Angier is another good example of a science journalist from a journalism background, not a science one, though she did study physics. Actually, just about anyone on NYT’s science writing staff does a damned good job. And there are plenty more out there.

    This Nick Wadhams is not a science journalist; at least, I’ve never heard of him. There’s a very good chance he’s a very average journalist who just happened to be in Nairobi, so he got the scoop. It’s unfortunate, but it shouldn’t reflect strongly on the field of science journalism a whole.

  20. says

    King Aardvark:

    They must have done it within the last three hours (the last time a blog entry was made using the old title). Now maybe they’ll think about cleaning up the rest of the gross inaccuracies in the body of the article, such as claiming that the teeth are those of a gorilla, that they “challenge evolutionary beliefs” or “defy earlier assumptions.”

    Better yet, maybe they should just save their time, pull the whole article and leave reporting on it to someone who has some small grasp of what the new data actually signifies, the many questions left unanswered by it, etc.

    Too much to hope for, I know. Thanks for the heads-up.

  21. Craig says

    People go to blogs intentionally. If blogs had to capture readers by snaring their attention on a newsstand, they would have lurid headlines too.

    I remember when National Geographic meant something though. Nobody ever threw out the magazines. The specials were an event, Elmer Bernstein’s music actually could give me butterflies of anticipation.

    Things have changed. A recent Nat. Geo. program was “The Secrets of Shaving.” There was another one a few months back that I skipped, I can’t remember exactly what it was but it was something like how hot dogs are made.

  22. Stephen says

    The moment I heard this on the car radio a couple of hours ago, I thought I’d be popping in here for a bit more sense on the issue.

    To be fair, given the heated arguments that were involved in reaching the current divergence date (Roger Lewin’s “Bones of Contention” is a good read) a change by 2 million years would deserve rather more attention than a mere recalibration. But “shatter theory”? Aaaaargh.

    Anyway, pending further data I’m certainly going for convergence and just another twig on the bush. Nice twig, though.

  23. Mike P says


    I would agree; it’s a damn shame they’re engaging in so much fluff. I think there’s been a trend toward the tabloid-ification of science in many magazines. NatGeo, New Scientist, Discover at times, and Psychology Today has always been that way. But science stories in the New Yorker are often quite good. The NYT’s science section is regularly excellent. Discover is, for the most part, a good publication. Seed’s alright. The problem is a lot of these pubs are only as good as the journalists working there, and unfortunately there’s only a limited number of specifically-trained science journalists.

  24. Chad says

    Of all the f-ing publications! Why don’t they just go over to the creationist side since they’re giving them false ammunition!

  25. caynazzo says

    The Guardian had a similarly bombastic headline: Great ape find forces rethink on man’s evolution.

    However, the meat of the piece showed appropriate skepticism–actually ends by quoting a skeptic–reminding us that journalists don’t write their own headlines. It’s a marketer’s job.

  26. Josh says

    The people at Geographic have been emailed.

    This is an aside, but did folks notice that Sam Harris had a letter in the issue of Nature today, calling for scientists to band together in order to fight off the religious nutballs?

  27. Brian Axsmith says

    Don’t be so hard on NG. They are providing funding for paleontology during a time when it is very hard to come by. The headlines may be over the top sometimes, but they must appeal to a broader public than science blogs.

  28. frog says

    Now here’s some bad science reporting GLOBAL WARMING FEARS: Norway’s Moose Population in Trouble for Belching.

    So moose release a lot of CO2 when they belch – then this wire story goes on to imply that this is a major source of “Global Warming CO2”.

    No one points out that moose eat wild plant life. It’s a closed loop! But this’ll feed right into the global warming denier nuttiness. The journalist who started this story has earned herself some real bad karma points on this one.

  29. JJR says

    Journalists work for employers who are selling eyeballs to advertisers somewhere along the line, so they’ve got to engage in a little showmanship (read: lying) to move copy.

    Science Bloggers are under no such obligation and are in it for the sheer love of the subject.


  30. Gil says

    “Journalists work for employers who are selling eyeballs to advertisers somewhere along the line, so they’ve got to engage in a little showmanship (read: lying) to move copy”.

    Also applies to the post on National Geographic.

    But if science bloggers should take over science journalism, whose going to take over for the readership absorbed by false controversy (read: propaganda) who guarantee profit from fallacy, fabrication and falsehood in the first place?

  31. John Wilkins says

    “Mere” philosopher indeed! You biologists only have to learn one discipline – I have to learn biology, history and philosophy…

  32. says

    “I would ask for just a tiny bit of restraint before calling for the demolition of the entire industry of science journalism. ”

    Me too. As a science journalist, I realize it’s easy to find examples of terrible science writing–but it’s a little ironic to take it on the chin from what may be the worst group of writers in the world: working scientists, most of whom, to put it charitably, couldn’t write their way out of a Glad Bag. (Not you science bloggers, of course!)

    The thing to bear in mind is that, despite appearances, National Geographic is not now, nor has it ever been, a science magazine. My advice is, look at the pretty pictures, and skip the text.

  33. scorebert says

    Dirkh, to the contrary I’ve learned substantially form the magazine.

    Even so, seeing this tabloid headline, I don’t want to ever promote the magazine again. The article comes round to sense, and the ownership does not appear to be Rupert Murdoch but the National Geographic Society still.

    So they can has 1, 2 more strikes of tabloidism versus the sacred Chao. Then they’re no good.

  34. Caledonian says

    Science Bloggers are under no such obligation and are in it for the sheer love of the subject.

    ScienceBloggers are in it for, among other reasons, love of attention. And most of them aren’t above a bit of exaggeration, deception, and outright lying to get it.

    They’re only human, after all.

  35. Stephen says

    it’s a little ironic to take it on the chin from what may be the worst group of writers in the world: working scientists …

    I see you haven’t read much that has been written by programmers. (You may prefer to keep it that way.)

  36. Steve LaBonne says

    The worst writers in the world, by far, are English professors. Just try to read a “literary theory” paper if you don’t believe me. Go ahead, I dare you. Even articles in scientific journals written in English by non-English-speakers are better than that.

  37. Josh says

    *but it’s a little ironic to take it on the chin from what may be the worst group of writers in the world: working scientists, most of whom, to put it charitably, couldn’t write their way out of a Glad Bag.*

    Could our perceived lack of writing prowess perhaps result from us being so busy trying to ensure we have our numbers straight and that our conclusions don’t overstate what the data actually tell us that we lack the energy to devise lots of cute little phrases in the text? Maybe it is related to the amount of time and energy we spend generating the figures for the manuscript? Nahh…of course not. We simply suck at writing.

    Incidentally, I emailed the appropriate people at Geographic and the headline has been changed.

  38. says

    My apologies for generalizations meant to be dryly humorous. I’ll happily add programmers and English professors to the list of the famously unintelligible.

    Josh, my geologist wife offered the same argument as you when I showed her my post. All I would say is that effectively communicating the work is an important function as well, no?

  39. Josh says

    Dirk, I would very much agree that communicating the work beyond the five people who care about the journal article is really important…I’d even argue AS important as writing the damn thing in the first place. And, despite the sarcasm in my earlier reply to you, I would agree, sadly, that some (?many) of us indeed cannot write ourselves out of plastic lunch transport vessels.

    It is more complicated than just writing ability, however:

    Only a few of the scientific papers I’ve written have been submitted to venues that lacked either a word or a published page limit. Most of the time we’re fighting against that wall just to get the main point properly supported

    We’re really encouraged to write in a passive manner, which tends to, at least for me, encourage longer more complicated sentences than active voices do.

    Pretty much every time I’ve written a sentence in a scientific manuscript that I really liked for being sort of clever, the journal editor has managed to come along and piss on it, cutting it down or rewording it to make it more direct and less interesting.

    Other people I’m sure have had different experiences.

  40. Steve LaBonne says

    All I would say is that effectively communicating the work is an important function as well, no?

    Have you noticed the large number of excellent popular science books published in recent decades by working scientists? And these authors are heirs to a long and distinguished tradition.

    But if you think it’s the function of a journal article to communicate science to the general public, you’re very confused. It’s- necessarily- a form of writing as specialized as a legal brief, and for somewhat similar reasons. Which is why “English translations” of such articles by gifted bloggers like PZ are so useful.

  41. says

    Good points all around.

    I first became seriously interested in science, from the layperson, liberal-arts-guy point of view, by reading the likes of Aldo Leopold and Lewis Thomas, working scientists who were magnificent writers. And yes, journal articles are a specialized form of technical writing, which makes the challenge of readability all the more formidable. And editorial gatekeepers can really muck things up, something that I have experienced my share of as well.

    Writing clearly about science and technology is one of the things I have tried to do in my professional life. It ain’t easy, and I applaud those like PZ, who can translate complex ideas into a language accessible to those of us outside the tribe.

  42. Arnosium Upinarum says

    Brian Axsmith #33 says,
    “The headlines may be over the top sometimes, but they must appeal to a broader public than science blogs.”

    And then we wonder why science literacy in this country sucks. This kind of thoughtless remark makes it even more annoying. Dammit, NO. That’s not a valid excuse. Never has been, never will be. Misinformation is misinformation.

    You DON’T have to sex up some routine (if fascinating) scientific development with a breathlessly ditzy reference to the fashionable controversy of the day. Does doing that help draw readers? Undoubtedly. So what? But deception isn’t honest.

    Mike P: I’ve got nothing against a few (a VERY few) good science journalists. Some of these are excellent. But THEY aren’t the problem. I DO fault “journalism” in general, which is infested with a marketing mentality imported directly from Hollywood and Madison Avenue (for you youngsters, that latter used to be a synonym for advertising agencies, which was once concentrated there in New York. Ad/promo concerns have since spread like a serious cancer). The profit motivation compells these imbeciles to liberally sprinkle what I call “The Reek” about. It has absolutely nothing to do with “journalism” as, say, Ed Murrow understood it.

    Aside from the obvious problems posed by gross scientific illiteracy amongst the vast majority of journalists, why the hell can’t EDITORS (whom we should all expect to be significantly less scientifically illiterate than the average writer in order to hold that position in the first place) stick to the facts. News, in and of itself, surely draws anybody who may be interested. It needs no REEKY nonsense to draw additional flies.

  43. says

    NG is in the side of the “good guys” and no one here is being too hard on it. But …I remember when National Geographic meant something though. Nobody ever threw out the magazines. (Craig). How true. How sad.