The Hubbub About Ida

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It's been a fascinating week here in the world of science communication. By now you've heard of Ida, the beautifully fossilized 47-million-year-old primate that may or (more likely) may not be a human ancestor? It's a gorgeous fossil from an important era of primate evolution, and its presentation should have made for a major news story.

But somehow this major news story got turned into something else, something that, in the measured, self-serious world of science, is almost scandalous. The problem started with this caricature of a press release:




Ground-Breaking Global Announcement
What: An international press conference to unveil a major historic scientific find. After two years of research a team of world-renowned scientists will announce their findings, which address a long-standing scientific puzzle.
The find is lauded as the most significant scientific discovery of recent times. History brings this momentous find to America and will follow with the premiere of a major television special on Monday, May 25 at 9 pm ET/PT chronicling the discovery and investigation.
Who: Mayor Michael Bloomberg; International team of scientists who researched the find; Abbe Raven, President and CEO, A&E Television Networks; Nancy Dubuc, Executive Vice President and General Manager, History; Ellen Futter, President, American Museum of Natural History

This was met with groans from most journalists, especially those with any experience covering science. Unless SETI had gotten a call-back from another planet, somebody was exaggerating.

But the hype worked, up to a point. Carl Zimmer (who wrote a nice story for Smithsonian a few years ago about life on early Earth and (potentially) Mars) reviewed the early coverage of Ida on his blog The Loom:

If the world goes crazy for a lovely fossil, that’s fine with me. But if that fossil releases some kind of mysterious brain ray that makes people say crazy things and write lazy articles, a serious swarm of flies ends up in my ointment.

And he later reviewed an ad for the television show about the fossil that, like the press release, seemed to be a caricature of itself.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker is continuing to update an valuable analysis of the news coverage.

Aside from questions about the hype, there are questions about whether the scientific interpretation of the fossil is solid. Our own Brian Switek, who blogs for Dinosaur Tracking, summed up the technical points nicely in his personal Laelaps blog. And today he describes some of the problems in The Times of London:

Ida is undoubtedly a spectacular fossil. A nearly complete fossil primate, with a body outline and stomach contents, she is the sort of discovery palaeontologists dream about. It may come as a surprise, then, that Ida does not change everything we thought we knew about human evolution. Indeed, she may tell us more about the origins of lemurs than our own species.

The term that seems to be evoking the most cringes among scientists, a term that's even more misleading than "revolutionary," is "missing link." Another fossil to earn this outdated title was Tiktaalik, which is a transition form between fish and land animals. Neil Shubin spoke with us a few years ago and explained one of the reasons why the term is problematic:

When people call Tiktaalik “the missing link,” it implies there is a single fossil that tells us about the transition from water to land. Tiktaalik gains meaning when it’s compared with other fossils in the series. So it’s not “the” missing link. I would probably call it “a” missing link. It’s also no longer missing—it’s a found link. The missing links are the ones I want to find this summer.

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