Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Brian Switek on the Darwinius Affair

Brian Switek is an undergraduate at Rutgers University in New Jersey (USA). He's the man behind Laelaps.

Brian knows a lot about fossils and the history of life so it's no surprise that he has an opinion about "Ida" the new fossil primate being hyped in the media. Read his article in The Times of London (UK): The dangerous link between science and hype. Brian covers all the bases from whether the science is correct to whether the media hype is justified.

Brian calls himself a science writer and that's a good choice. This is science writing at its very best.

[Photo Credit: Laelaps]


  1. Good article, but his shirt is better...

  2. I noticed that John Hawks had some serious disagreements about Brians interpretation of the paper. In particular John took issue with Brians complaint that only 30 morphological features were used in the comparison of Ida with skeletons of the various branches of the primate tree and challenged Brian to name particular features that the authors should have included.
    This is the sort of thing that wouldn't survive a decent peer review in a published journal yet it readily gets through scienceblogging or science journalistic review (basically because there is no review - whatever the author says, goes).
    I like Brian Switeks writing and have read his blog for the past couple of years. He's a talented guy and probably has a career ahead of him as a science writer but lets be careful here. This single article in The Times will probably be read by more people than a lifetimes worth of paleontology manuscripts (if Brian went down that path), yet the scientific opinions are presented as facts where they really are only Brians views and not some sort of consensus view amongst the scientific community.

  3. Martin; As I responded on my blog to Hawks' comment, the main issue is that I don't think 30 characters (some of which cannot even be seen in Ida) compared to living genera of primates is sufficient. I am not going to rattle off hundreds of characters, especially if Ida was not compared to other fossils. It should also be kept in mind that Hawks is listed as the editor of the paper.

    Yes, my article did not go through "peer review", but I am not just blowing smoke (as you imply). I have read the paper carefully and do not think that it supports the grand claims being made. Surprise, surprise, professional anthropologists specializing in early primates have not been convinced either. (See the piece by Ann Gibbons for Science, for example - http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/519/1)

    It does help to be aware of what section of the newspaper this was in. It is an op-ed; it is my opinion on the matter, not a peer-reviewed science paper. I am waiting for the scientists behind this whole Ida fiasco to prove me wrong with some real data.

  4. Brian, there are a lot of competing interests regarding this particular piece of research. I am in no way qualified to say whether you or John Hawks are the closest to the truth on the cladistics (give me some sequence and I'm fine, bones, no chance). He does sometimes comment here so I would like to here his take on the matter in a little more detail than was evident on your blog. I think its also important to emphasize that there may be important differences in what is stated in the paper and what the scientists involved state on camera as part of the publicity drive for their documentary and book. I guess nearly all of us agree that the scientists themselves went completely overboard with the post manuscript publicity and overblown claims about the fossil. As for whether the journal Plos One similarly failed? That's a much more open question and one open to political considerations).