Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Darwinius Affair

The Darwinius Affair is getting messier. Not only did some scientists commit a serious breach of scientific ethics by exaggerating their claims about the fossil, but they also prevented legitimate science journalists from doing their job.

As most of you know, I think that science journalists should examine the claims of scientists in order to ensure they are accurate. They should not just take the word of the scientist, no matter how famous he or she is.1

In order to do their job, the science journalists need access to the scientific paper before it is released to the public. This is standard practice. Journalists are used to, and respect, news embargos.

In this particular case, it appears that scientists and the editors of PLoS ONE prevented journalists from seeing the paper until the press conference and all the associated hoopla was under way. Carl Zimmer has the story at Science Held Hostage.

Shame on PloS ONE, on the scientists who wrote the paper, and on everyone else who is associated with this media event. This is not how science is supposed to work. This is not how we should be communicating with the general public.

Franzen, J.L., Gingerich, P.D., Habersetzer, J., Hurum, J.H., von Koenigswald, W., et al. (2009) Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723]

1. Most professional science journalists don't do this, but that's another issue.


  1. Larry,

    I think the photograph that goes with your post should have this caption: "Ida, the real victim....."

    .. because it really is a lovely fossil, and it is important and useful. My own writeup of it does not touch (except very briefly at the end) on any of the meta-stuff about how the publicity was handled. I just talk about the fossil. But so much of the coverage ended up being about the coverage that a) there was more coverage than usual even for a cool find but b) most of the coverage is just about the coverage.

    So, from a framing perspective, I suppose everything went pretty well....

  2. Check The Loom again....last 4 posts or so ;-)

  3. Why is this "serious breach of scientific ethics by exaggerating their claims about the fossil". Exaggerating claims has more or less become the norm, and does much more harm when applied to biomedical science (claims of cancer cures, eradication of infections like HIV, and such). This is a cool find and the PR-job was designed (to my knowledge by a PR-company)to reach wide and have the largest possible impact. That's a success isn't it ? And the attention serves our cause as biologists/biochemist trying to promote science over religion. I really do not see the problem here and I suspect jealousy over the attention may be at the root of all the criticism.

  4. "And the attention serves our cause as biologists/biochemist trying to promote science over religion."

    Well, dunno about your cause, but my cause has something to do with old-fashioned stuff like a search for truth (not some sort of abstract final Truth, but as close as we poor humans can conscientiously get). Science will only succeed (and only deserves to), versus religion or any other philosophy or habit of thought, IMHO, to the extent it serves our halting progress toward the truth of things.

    Which is kind of a high-flown way of saying I want to **know**, and any sort of hype that stands in the way leaves me frustrated and dissatisfied.

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  6. The biggest surprise to me was the revelation that its been hanging on someones wall as an art piece for the past two decades. Its a sad verdict on the scientific education of the general public that nobody until very recently seems to have realized the scientific value of it.
    The hype of its discovery is being replaced by some equally overblown false outrage over the original publicity.