In today’s Science journal there’s an update (Gibbons, 2009) on all the hoop-la associated with the unveiling of 47-million-year-old Darwinius massillae (aka ‘Ida). I commented earlier that the hugely overblown press coverage that accompanied the publication of Ida’s description in PLoS One was a worrying thing. It described Ida as a ‘missing link’ (a claim that the authors of the paper itself wisely chose not to make).
As an example of ‘framing’ science for public consumption this is not good. Jorn Hurum, a co-author of the formal paper, remarked that the scientific work involved in describing D.massillae & determining her place in our family tree is too hard to discuss in a press release. He says that If you want kids to be interested in science, we need to start packaging it in many different ways (Gibbons, 2009), using this to justify all the hype. I certainly agree that we need to look at how we communicate about science (& I disagree that the underlying science is ‘too hard’ to get across: look at Carl Zimmer’s wonderful article) – but he’s really taking a calculated risk with this particular approach.
You don’t think so? The risk is that when the dust settles, & the scientific consensus turns out to be that Ida’s a lovely fossil but really nothing special, the public will have yet another example of ‘scientists getting it wrong’. And this is important, because it will only add to the perception that science often doesn’t really know what it’s doing & is, after all, just another way of looking at the world & of no particular worth. Which is a very long way indeed from the reality & significance of scientific endeavour.
A.Gibbons (2009) Celebrity fossil primate: missing link or weak link? Science 324(5931): 1124-1125 doi: 10.1126/science.324_1124