‘Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon.’ Fodor, J. ‘Why Pigs don’t have wings,’ London Review of Books, 18th Oct 2007

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The 'fiasco' of Ida. Has the BBC helped deminish science?

The repercussions over Ida continue. Although I have as yet only seen the first few minutes of the BBC programme about Ida, a telling statement by Attenborough raises concern about the way the science behind Ida is being conducted. Attenborough commented that scientists had been working in secret, but are now going public in a big way on how important this find is, that is before peer review has even begun in a meaningful way. Brian Switek writes as follows.

" If Ida does turn out be more closely related to lemurs than to humans, creationists may use the hype to paint evolutionary scientists as glory hounds who care more about publicity than accuracy. Ida would not be an “icon of evolution”, as Dr Hurum hopes, but a public embarrassment that creationists would surely use to sow further doubt about evolution. Likening Ida to the Holy Grail and the Lost Ark only compounds the problem; creationists will undoubtedly argue that these metaphors reveal that evolution is a religion with its own holy relics.

What could have been a unique opportunity to communicate science has quickly developed into a fiasco. Science proceeds through discovery and debate, and hypotheses do not become accepted by flooding the media with press releases. Scientific scrutiny of Ida has only just begun, and regardless of who her closest living relatives are, I hope the debate surrounding her will not sink away from sight. She truly is an amazing find, but for now I think that she has taught us more about science communication than our ancestry."

Ida the Lemur-like creature, has had some high praise from leading Darwinists. David Attenborough announced with confidence that the missing link ‘is no longer missing,’ but the way the evidence has been presented and handled has raised questions about media manipulation, especially from the London Times science correspondent Mark Henderson; he seems quite miffed.
Mark Henderson reports that doubts have arisen now that others have finally been given access to the fossil and suggests that Ida is related to ‘nothing that exists today.’ Although Ida is an important fossil, he writes that ‘she isn’t all that’ and complains that the researchers haven’t provided sufficient evidence to justify their claims. He argues that this is…

‘…especially serious given the publicity blitz behind Ida…a popular book, a documentary, a website and an exhibition have been launched on the back of this find, before it has received full scientific scrutiny.’

Henderson comments that the researchers appear to have rushed their work ‘to fit with the media schedule.’ Rights were sold to some media outlets, including the BBC, and this has shaped the way the evidence has been conducted and presented. Science journalists without that privileged access to data were given insufficient time to properly evaluate the story. Henderson writes;

‘Is it really right that full embargoed access to important and controversial research findings should be restricted on the say-so of the authors, to media that best suit their publicity strategy? Especially when money has changed hands?’

Henderson ends by correcting a previous statement;
‘there was an unfortunate error in the graphic accompanying my piece in the paper. An early draft was printed by mistake. Darwinius masillae is not a direct ancestor of both lemurs/lorises and apes/monkeys. It seems to lie on the ape/monkey branch, after the last common ancestor of both groups, and it may well be a direct ancestor of nothing at all that exists today.’ (emphasis added)

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