Not Even Science Journalism

Not Even Science Journalism December 4, 2013

Over at Violent Metaphors, Jennifer Raff discusses red flags of sensational pseudo-science that are thrown up by the MFAP Hypothesis and its recent coverage in the Daily Mail and the Alex Jones radio show.

If you haven’t heard, the “MFAP Hypothesis” stands for “Monkey-Fucked-A-Pig hypothesis,” and it is seriously as bad as the moniker makes it sound. It’s primary proponent is Eugene McCarthy, who suggests that certain characteristics of homo sapiens are easiest to explain by positing a hybridization between a primate ancestor and an ancestor much like a boar.

PZ Myers panned the hypothesis on its most fundamental level: there’s no way for pigs and chimps to hybridize, and any hypothetical progeny would not be the clear mix of traits that McCarthy is looking for. Despite McCarthy’s claims at being a geneticist, it seems like he has a simplistic grasp of heredity.

The Daily Mail produced an article that primarily fluffs McCarthy’s kooky theory and “compelling” evidence. Alex Jones picked up on it, and on his radio show he presented it as something near to the scientific consensus. He used this to attack the theory of evolution and favor his own alternative theories.

Raff does a good job of pointing out the red flags that should warn you that you’re dealing with pseudo-science being presented as an accepted theory.

This is the problem I see, and I’m not sure how to solve it: there is more money to be may in titillating an audience than is educating them. As Will Oremus at Slate pointed out, the Daily Mail has risen to the top of the online newspaper world by providing click bait. A sensational and essentially content-less article with a crank scientist and his fringe theory about monkeys and pigs is just the sort of eye-catching fluff they need.

Alex Jones is just a provocateur who will grab on to anything that will allow him to attack an established theory. He’s willing to inflate McCarthy’s importance in order to make other scientists look bad. This is the style that has made him a celebrity, and he has no interest in providing any kind of balanced commentary.

It seems like we’ve got a horrible set of incentives here. It you got rid of Jones and the writers at the Daily Mail, within a month something much like them would show up. The system is created in such a way as to make them inevitable. But I can’t see a way to adjust the system that produces enough quality science journalism to swamp the sensationalists and cranks.

Just to end it, and because I can’t resist the title, here’s dobro master Jerry Douglas performing his tribute to Peador O’Donnell, “Monkey Let the Hogs Out:”

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