August 23, 2007

Science Reporting: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

I always find it interesting how science reporting, particularly when it comes to the subject of anything related to the evolution of humans, varies by source. It's an emotionally-charged subject for a lot of people, particularly for those outside of scientific inquiry because many people take these things personally.

A very good example of this is the new find of nine teeth from what appears to be a 10,000,000 year old common ancestor of humans and great apes. These were discovered in Ethiopia's Afar region, most famously home to Lucy. The teeth have been examined on a number of criteria including morphology, molecular analysis and radiometrics, to place them chronologically in the Miocene Era and phylogenetically in the ape family tree. It's an exciting find, to be sure, for those working on clarifying our picture of primate and human evolutionary history.

There are any number of ways of reporting this find to the general public, the vast majority of whom will never read a paper published in a refereed journal. I've chosen three examples that represent extremes. The first article, published by The Natural History Museum of London, seems to me a level-headed, relatively balanced piece that does a good job of explaining the find and putting it into context for the lay person without hyperventilating over it:

Ancient ape fossil found

...'The ancestry of humans is increasingly well known,' says Prof Peter Andrews, human evolution expert at the Natural History Museum. 'But the fossil evidence for the evolution of our closest living relatives, the great apes, is almost non-existent.'

'It is really exciting, therefore, to find a fossil ape from this time period. There is only one other fossil ape known from this time, the more complete Samburupithecus ...'

This finding, says Dr Suwa, suggests that the fossils belong to a new species of ancient ape in the gorilla group. This would mean the time period when the ancestor of gorillas split from a common human-ape ancestor must have been more than 10 million years ago, rather than the current thinking of around eight million years ago.

However, other scientists say these teeth structures occur not just in gorillas, but in other apes too. 'These structures appear on at least three independent lineages of apes, including gorillas,' says Prof Andrews. 'And they could relate to a dietary shift rather than indicating a new genetic trait.'

'It is stretching the evidence to base a time scale for the evolution of the great apes on this new fossil.'

These findings do, however, provide more data supporting the theory that humans and modern apes originated in Africa...
And there you have it; it's an interesting find that provides supporting data for some hypothesis or set of hypotheses and further investigation is required. The author of this piece hasn't dressed up the story as being something earth-shaking that has scientists running about waving their arms and hoping that the sky won't fall on them. Even the headline is calm and factual.

Contrast this with another piece written about the same discovery published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:
World's oldest fossil challenges evolutionary beliefs

The world's oldest gorilla fossil has been found in Ethiopia, defying earlier assumptions about ape and human evolution, scientists at the National Museum of Ethiopia announced Wednesday...

The fossil also represents the first discovery of a great ape in Ethiopia...
That headline has got to be one of the most overwrought and factually inaccurate in the entire history of science reporting. A 10,000,000 year old fossil of anything is hardly the world's oldest. In fact, the fossil record contains microscopic remains of life forms that were present on the earth more than 3.5 billion years ago. Nor does the new find challenge "evolutionary beliefs," it simply supports one hypothesis and refutes another, and these hypotheses themselves are only a tiny fraction of those that exist in the absolutely huge context of evolutionary theory which, after all, itself doesn't consider humans and apes any more or any less important to the big picture than it does ferns and badgers.

The material after the headline does somewhat contradict it, but it's still misleading to say that it "defies earlier assumptions about ape and human evolution." First of all, that assertion reveals an appalling misunderstanding of how science works; data doesn't defy anything, it either supports or contradicts, and models — provisional truths, if you will — are adjusted as new data comes to light. In terms of evolutionary theory, that's all these teeth are. They're one more data point (or perhaps nine, out of millions) that clarifies our understanding of history.

Nor is this new find known to be a "fossil gorilla." It may be an ancestor of modern gorillas, or it may be an ancestor of one or more other great apes that form a clade which may or may not include gorillas. There is evidence to support either view right now and, as the first article indicated, more investigation is required to fully understand what this ancient ape was in terms of what its descendants evolved into. Note that the article claims several times that it's a gorilla, which is a modern ape, and that isn't true and nobody but the author of this sloppy article claims that it is. That hypothesis certainly isn't being endorsed unanimously, so this is essentially nothing more than outright misreporting, and those who read such an article without understanding this point will be the ones who make up their minds that scientists, defined as a nebulous crowd of bespectacled old men in white lab coats, either don't know what they're doing or are intentionally trying to deceive them if it later turns out that Chororapithecus abyssinicus wasn't really a gorilla after all — even though that conclusion would certainly have been reached by scientists!

I started by saying there would be three examples given here, and there will be, although the third will be in a separate entry. Rest assured that, even as you read this, there are some people rushing about and waving their arms, but they're not thinking about the sky falling on them. Instead, the arm-wavers in question are Creationists of various stripes who are attempting to spin this data point into some kind of twisted version of evidence that "Darwinist" evolutionary theory is wrong. They want to wave their arms hard enough to bring the sky crashing down on science, at least in terms of popular and political opinion.

How will they form the third corner of this little triangle of "the good, the bad and the ugly?" I can't predict anything about their method because their reasoning is so far from anything scientific, or even logically valid, that it could be absolutely anything! I can predict, though, that we'll see some kind of response from one of the pointy-headed fellows of the Discovery Institute or the Bible-thumping dullards of Answers in Genesis before the week's out. Perhaps they'll cherry-pick bits from the worst of the science reporting in the popular press and cobble it together into a twelve-line deception that takes both the find and scientists' statements about it as far out of context as a hula dancer on a Greenland glacier. Maybe they'll just make something up whole-cloth. They've got to find a way to make these ancient ape teeth a problem for "Darwinism," precisely because the real theory of evolution doesn't have a problem with them at all.

Stay tuned; we should have an announcement from the Creationstan Daily Crackpot any time now.

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