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Friday, May 22, 2009

IDA - Darwinius masillae

So, a few days have passed since all the hubbub over the hubbub over Ida, and Ida herself. I finally got around to reading the article (reading scientific papers on a friday night; I'm going in the right direction) and I just want to assure everyone; the paper was thorough and did not indicate that the hype was to compensate for lack of quality or to hide faults. It deserves some hype, although it still seems a bit unusual and over the top.

One of the authors of the paper and the man who curated the fossil for Oslo's Natural History Museum has held a few lectures for us in our Evolution class. They were all good, and one thing that shines through about this guy (Jørn Hurum) is his love of science, and his wish of communicating it to lots more people in a fun way. In a way you could say he thinks science needs better PR-agents, and he's working on it himself since no one else seems to be doing it.

He is also the guy behind the discovery of the largest Plesiosaur, found on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. He also worked with the History Channel on that project (as on this Ida-documentary that will be released soon), and the trailer for the Svalbard-monster-documentary is quite fabulous.

Have you ever seen such blatant disregard for the fact that paleontology is perceived to be the second most dry and boring subject in the world? (Second only to geology in public opinion.)

Just recognizing the kind of guy Jørn Hurum is (a fun, lively guy who thrives on science) makes the way they appealed to the mass media a bit easier to understand.

But, I guess I have to agree with a lot of the critics out there, that certain media were not ready for hardcore science back on their newsdesks and they really messed up. Also, too many scientists were completely unprepared for the incorporation of websites and bling into publication of tweed-smelling papers, and the shock may have led some to be extra critical, and assuming the fuss was there to hide some horrible lack in science.

For example, PZ Myers writes on the Panda's Thumb:

When Laelaps says, “I have the feeling that this fossil, while spectacular, is being oversold,” I think he’s being spectacularly understated. Wilkins also knocks down the whole “missing link” label. The hype is bad news, not because Ida is unimportant, but because it detracts from the larger body of the fossil record — I doubt that the media will be able to muster as much excitement from whatever new fossil gets published in Nature or Science next week, no matter how significant it may be.

Go ahead and be excited by this find, I know I am. Just remember to be excited tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, because this is perfectly normal science, and it will go on.

It's a valid point, but at the same time I think Hurum and his crew are catching up on some long overdue publicity for science.

Mediocre media

Now, over to the media and their scientific illiteracy. Norwegian tabloid VG's headlines were:

Norwegian scientists dropped bomb: This is "The missing link"

Made breakthrough findings
* Found 47 million year old monkey skeleton
* Claims it can explain evolutionary theory
* Named after scientists daughter "Ida"

Only one of the three statements is correct, the one regarding the naming. And even that is imprecise, as Ida is only a nickname.

In the article i link to above, they even manage to claim that she may be the answer to how we developed from apes to humans. There were no apes 47 mya. Apes lack tails, like gorillas, chimps, and us.

The middle statement is pretty far out as well, as if there were a single fossil that proves evolution. And as if evolution wasn't already fact. But then again, I don't know what I expect from a paper whose headline directly beneath this was "Flight attendants take off clothes. See their naked stunt."

Update: This commentary in Norwegian nicely sums it up.


  1. Can't wait to see the documentary on NRK1 9:30 pm tomorrow (Tuesday 26th of May).

    I don't have History Channel so I can't see the world premiere tonight :p

  2. Agreed! That should be fun. Have you seen the sneering comments from Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers on a faked promotional video for it? It took the opening graphics from the History Channel, and added some loony stuff in the middle. Like dates of major events like Pearl Harbor, 9-11, and that the end, they displayed "MAY 25th, 2009 : This Changes Everything"

  3. Here is the link for the fake video:

    The real one can be found on the History Channel Site.

  4. Haha, will check it out tomorrow ;D

    Thanks for the link!