The Hollywoodization of Science

The Hollywoodization of Science May 21, 2009

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, there’s a new fossil find that’s just been published in PLoS One, a 47 million year old specimen called Darwinus masillae, or more casually, Ida.. I suspect you’ve also heard that scientists have finally found the “missing link” and that the find “promised to change everything that we thought we understood about the origins of human life.” Trouble is, this is all bullshit.

Yes, it’s an extraordinary find. Yes, it provides evidence that fills a gap in our knowledge and will undoubtedly help us understand the development of primates more completely than we did before. But this find has been announced with the kind of hype and distortion usually reserved for movie premieres and newly improved laundry detergents. They did everything but have Billy Mayes declare that Ida will take the wrinkles out of your clothes.

As soon as I saw a link to the first article about the find and the words “missing link” I was annoyed. As John Wilkins correctly points out, this is an absurd idea based upon a misunderstanding of how evolution operates. Any time you encounter that phrase in an article about evolution, you know you’re dealing with mostly ignorant bullshit.

Then you see all the absurd hype being shoveled out even by the scientists who wrote the paper, all of them very well respected. Jorn Hurum, who should know better, calls Ida “the first link to all humans.” Phillip Gingerich, who really should know better, says the find is “a kind of Rosetta Stone.” And Sir David Attenborough tells the press, “The link they would have said until now is missing … it is no longer missing.”

And you notice that even before the paper was published and available for other scientists to examine and critique, there’s already a documentary about the find being aired on the BBC and the History Channel. And a book already written about it. And you realize that the Hollywoodization of science is now complete.

The other Science Bloggers have been all over this one. Brian Switek at Laelaps does an excellent job of cutting through the hype and looking at the facts and analysis of the paper itself. Brian writes:

Is Darwinius important to understanding primate evolution? Of course! It is an exceptionally preserved specimen that could do much to aid our understanding of adapid evolution and paleobiology. The grand claims about it being our ancestor, though, can not be upheld as true. The researchers simply did not do the work to support their case, and even if their language was more reserved in the technical paper they have gone hand-in-hand with the History Channel to create an aura of sensationalism around the fossil. I hardly think this is a responsible way to conduct or communicate science…

It’s not. It’s highly irresponsible. Unfortunately, some of the authors of the paper seem to be caught up in this hype.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

No. No we don’t. Science doesn’t have the same goal as a pop band or an athlete. Scientists are typically very careful not to overstate their case. The practice of peer review has largely acted as a break on such hype and exaggeration; a scientist who overclaims the evidence and offers shoddy analysis of it loses credibility with their peers. And this is at is should be. The goal of a pop band, on the other hand, is to sell records and make money. The goal of an athlete, in this context, is to get endorsement deals. Truth has no little to do with such pursuits, while it has everything to do with science.

Carl Zimmer does his usual excellent job of cutting through the nonsense as well. And he quotes a couple of other scientists as being rather annoyed by this PR blitz. Chris Beard of the Carnegie Museum says, “I’ve been deluged today by journalists regarding this. It is a marketing campaign for the ages.”

Switek sums it up perfectly:

This is a shame. I would have hoped that this fossil would receive the care and attention it deserves, but for now it looks like a cash cow for the History Channel. Indeed, this association may not have only presented overblown claims to the public, but hindered good science, as well. As Karen James has suggested, the overall poor quality of the paper and the disproportionate hyping of the find make me wonder if this research was rushed into publication so that the media splash would occur on time. The paper tried to cover so much, so quickly, and contained so many shortfalls that I honestly have to wonder why it was allowed to be published in such a state. Perhaps we will never know, but I am sickened by the way in which a cable network has bastardized a legitimately fascinating scientific discovery, with the scientists themselves going along with it every step of the way. I can only hope that Darwinius will eventually receive the careful analysis it deserves.

In this age of hype and glitz, scientists and the universities that pay their salaries have hired publicists and those publicists are doing what publicists do – get publicity. But if they can only get that publicity by exaggerating and distorting and pretending that every find is revolutionary, the public’s understanding of science will be even further diminished from its already paltry state.

Just as bad, they are handing ammunition to the creationists, who are more than happy to use it. Stop it. Stop it now.

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