Sunday, October 04, 2009

Ardi and Ida

 
"Ardi" is the nickname of Ardipithecus ramidus, the recently described hominid fossil. "Ida" is the nickname of Darwinius masillae, an early primate fossil that made a big splash last year.

The "Darwinius" affair has become notorious as a bad example of scientists getting into bed with book publishers, movie producers, and PR professionals [see The dangerous link between science and hype].

The "Ardi" publicity campaign seemed to be different. Sure, there's the 11 papers published simultaneously in Science—this clearly involves a coordinated attempt to maximize the impact of this fossil—but this seems like only a minor trangression. Coordinating publication happens lots of times.

But now there's the Discovery Channel documentary that's going to air next weekend.
A DISCOVERY CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE, WORLD PREMIERE SPECIAL BRINGS YOU THE STORY OF THE LATEST NEWS ABOUT HUMAN EVOLUTION

DISCOVERING ARDI airs Sunday, October 11 at 9 PM (ET/PT)

Following publication in the journal Science on the discovery and study of a 4.4 million-year-old female partial skeleton nicknamed "Ardi," Discovery Channel will present a world premiere special, DISCOVERING ARDI, Sunday October 11 at 9 PM (ET/PT) documenting the sustained, intensive investigation leading up to this landmark publication of the Ardipithecus ramidus fossils.

UNDERSTANDING ARDI, a one-hour special produced in collaboration with CBS News will air at 11 PM (ET/PT) immediately following DISCOVERING ARDI. The special is moderated by former CBS and CNN anchor Paula Zahn and includes research team members Dr. Tim White, Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, Dr. Giday WoldeGabriel, Dr. Owen Lovejoy, and science journalist Ann Gibbons

The scientific investigation began in the Ethiopian desert 17 years ago, and now opens a new chapter on human evolution, revealing the first evolutionary steps our ancestors took after we diverged from a common ancestor we once shared with living chimpanzees. "Ardi's" centerpiece skeleton, the other hominids she lived with, and the rocks, soils, plants and animals that made up her world were analyzed in laboratories around the world, and the scientists have now published their findings in the prestigious journal Science.

"Ardi" is now the oldest skeleton from our (hominid) branch of the primate family tree. These Ethiopian discoveries reveal an early grade of human evolution in Africa that predated the famous Australopithecus nicknamed "Lucy." Ardipithecus was a woodland creature with a small brain, long arms, and short legs. The pelvis and feet show a primitive form of two-legged walking on the ground, but Ardipithecus was also a capable tree climber, with long fingers and big toes that allowed their feet to grasp like an ape's. The discoveries answer old questions about how hominids became bipedal.

The international research team weighed in on the scope of the project and its findings:

"These are the results of a scientific mission to our deep African past," said project co-director and geologist, Dr. Giday WoldeGabriel of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"The novel anatomy that we describe in these papers fundamentally alters our understanding of human origins and early evolution," said project anatomist and evolutionary biologist, Professor C. Owen Lovejoy, Kent State University.

Project co-director and paleontologist Professor Tim White of the Human Evolution Research Center at the University of California Berkeley adds, "Ardipithecus is not a chimp. It's not a human. It's what we used to be."

DISCOVERING ARDI begins its story with the 1974 discovery of Australopithecus afarensis in Hadar, northeastern Ethiopia. Nicknamed "Lucy," this 3.2 million year old skeleton was, at the time, the oldest hominid skeleton ever found. As the Discovery Channel special documents, Lucy's title would be overtaken twenty years later by the 1994 discovery of "Ardi" in Ethiopia's Afar region in the Middle Awash study area. It would take an elite international team of experts the next fifteen years to delicately, meticulously and methodically piece together "Ardi" and her lost world in order to reveal her significance.
We all know that this documentary took a long time to make. That means the authors of the scientific papers were cooperating with Discovery Channel (and CBS News?) long before the papers were published. Perhaps even before the papers were accepted.

Something isn't right about all of this. John Hawks senses it too ["Discovering Ardi"].
Oh, my. Well it stands to reason that something this coordinated wasn't just science. I wonder whether anyone will ask the questions about the timing of Science's publication and the documentary release only a week later.

I have to tell you, I've been wondering about all the bogus-looking Darwin paraphrases these guys have been throwing out -- you know, the ones about how Darwin taught us about how chimpanzees changed from their common ancestors, and how fossil humans would tell us about the apes. I can't find anything like that in any of Darwin's publications -- please e-mail if it's there and I'm missing it.

But now I see where they're coming from. It's the tagline from the Discovery show!
I smell a rat.


12 comments :

  1. Shame on you for denigrating an excellent opportunity to get the general public excited about science and human evolution. You should be jumping on the human evolution publicity bandwagon instead of carping about the shape of the wagon's wheels.

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  2. Anonymous says,

    Shame on you for denigrating an excellent opportunity to get the general public excited about science and human evolution. You should be jumping on the human evolution publicity bandwagon instead of carping about the shape of the wagon's wheels.

    Promoting bad science is no way to teach science. If we want a scientifically literate public then we have to tell them how science actually works, not the Hollywood version, but the real version.

    Shame on you for sacrificing accuracy on the alter of hyperbole. This will come back and bite you in the long run.

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  3. Promoting bad science is no way to teach science. If we want a scientifically literate public then we have to tell them how science actually works, not the Hollywood version, but the real version.

    The goal for the general public is to popularize science in an honest way so that the take-home message comes across. Trying to make the public scientifically literate is a fool's errand, along the lines of trying to make the public medically literate. If the people really want to be scientifically literate, they can major in science in University, but give everyone else a chance to share in the excitement.

    Shame on you for sacrificing accuracy on the alter of hyperbole. This will come back and bite you in the long run.

    Science is being bitten right now by a public that has been disenchanted and uninspired resulting in flat and declining budgets for public science funding everywhere. There isn't going to be a long run to be around for if the public can't be engaged. Discoveries like Ardi are once in a generation events. Don't miss the big picture while you quibble over details.

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  4. Anonymous sounds like Chris Mooney; Larry and John are right to be critical for the reasons both outline. This is too much science by PR or media release (the studies may be fine of course but the marketing frenzy stinks)

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  5. I'm not exactly sure how the discovery channel special is promoting "bad science." What is the bad science? Or are you just against popularization of science in general?

    Gingerich and the rest of them tried to sell us a damn lemur as the greatest discovery in 65 million years. Surely it's obvious that it's quite a different case with Ardi?

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  6. I disagree with you here, Larry. Everyone in anthropology knew Tim White and Owen Lovejoy had this brilliant pelvic reconstruction and 11 papers in preparation, and the Discovery channel probably wanted to do a special for a long time but had to wait for the papers to be published. Tim White and Owen Lovejoy spent most of their adult lives digging around in deserts on their bare knees--they're not media whores searching for cash.

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  7. From my reading of the Ardi anatomical papers, the research team took many equivocal positions. It is not an obvious inference that Ardi is on the human lineage. There's no good evidence for bipedality, the "small" canines all fall in the size range of apes, the molars are within the range of thickness and size found in many Miocene apes. The papers recognize and in many cases reinforce this ambiguity -- one reason why they push so hard on the "common ancestor wasn't like chimps" explanation. If so much of the Ardipithecus anatomy is primitive for African apes, then how would we tell if it were on the human lineage?

    We have not seen any of this ambiguity in the press. There it has exclusively been the "earliest human ancestor". No question it's not an ape.

    Right now, I'm listening to Mike Rowe tell me in a Discovery promo about how Ardi is the earliest hominid skeleton. We already know the documentary can't have any Ardi skeptics, because until three days ago there weren't any!

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  8. You have to admit that they waited 15 years (that's when they found the fossil) to publish these papers, so it's somewhat different from the "Ida case"

    Having said that, a special issue of Science dedicated to this implies that it is of the same importance as other things that have gotten a dedicated issue of Science or Nature, one that immediately comes to mind is the human genome. And that's definitely not the case. Sure, it's an important fossil worthy of a CNS publication, but if it wasn't for it being such an easy sell for the journal and the authors, we would not be seeing this...

    Another sad case of overselling a finding and marginalizing it in the process...

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  9. Anonymous wrote: Trying to make the public scientifically literate is a fool's errand....

    Oh, please. Healthy skepticism and a bit of rational thinking, along with some experience of media tendency toward overstatement, is not nearly as rare among members of the public as you imply. Though I'm a non-scientist, as soon as I heard the media reports about Ardi (ref John Hawks' We have not seen any of this ambiguity in the press. There it has exclusively been the "earliest human ancestor"), I said out loud to my wife, "I'm skeptical of that claim."

    On a slightly different aspect of the matter, while I'm aware of the long slog involved in developing the wonderfully interesting science we're all discussing here and would never denigrate White and Lovejoy as "media whores," I do have to say that (1) they certainly seem to be enjoying their moment in the sun; and (2) whether they believe this is the way the game must be played or for some other reason, when I saw White interviewed pretty extensively on public television here in the USA, he did nothing at all to correct the misimpression that it's certain Ardi is in the human lineage.

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  10. anonymous says,

    Science is being bitten right now by a public that has been disenchanted and uninspired resulting in flat and declining budgets for public science funding everywhere.

    I wonder why the public is disenchanted? Could it be due to the fact that they've been inundated with news about cures for cancer at the rate of about one a week for the past thirty years?

    Could it be due to the fact that every new discovery is touted as a "breakthrouogh" that will cause a "paradigm shift" in science? The general impression one gets from those kind of stories is that scientists are clinging to a bunch of silly theories that are about to be overthrown by a single new experiment appearing next week in Nature.

    Do you see the problem? I think the public's view of science is the fault of the media (in collusion with scientists) so I'm not looking for more of the same-old, same-old, in order to fix the problem.

    There isn't going to be a long run to be around for if the public can't be engaged.

    I agree. We've done such a poor job in the past that the situation may not be salvageable. The good news is that it's the people who blew it (science writers) who are losing their jobs. Maybe we can rebuild after the purge.

    Discoveries like Ardi are once in a generation events. Don't miss the big picture while you quibble over details.

    Don't exaggerate, this is not a once-in-a-generation discovery.

    There's a way to engage the public while reporting on new discoveries without simultaneously distorting the science.

    And I'm not quibbling over "details." The press reports convey the message that, up until last week, scientists thought that humans evolved from chimps. Now, with the publication of the Ardi papers, scientists have to change the textbooks and teach that chimps evolved from humans.

    Is that really what you want the general public to think? It makes us look very stupid and the public has a right to ask what other false notions about evolution are being taught in the universities.

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  11. The Ardi hoopla is looking to be a Charlie-Foxtrot.

    Anonymous said:
    "The goal for the general public is to popularize science in an honest way so that the take-home message comes across."

    Yes, and the press releases are inherently dishonest. They present a caricature of evolution, the same caricature, in fact, seized-upon by creationists to sew doubt about evolution.

    "Trying to make the public scientifically literate is a fool's errand, along the lines of trying to make the public medically literate."

    But that's not really the point. Scientists and science journalists can popularize the subjects that excite them without invoking "breakthroughs" and "paradigm-shifts" with every announcement, nor do they need to make everyone scientifically literate. They can make accurate claims rather than presenting a false impression that plays on crude caricatures popularized by the very people that seek to destroy science and science education.

    "Science is being bitten right now by a public that has been disenchanted and uninspired resulting in flat and declining budgets for public science funding everywhere."

    Maybe. Or maybe the "public" is fed up with 'cold fusion' breakthroughs and false promises. Maybe scientists quick to publish by press release have so discredited good hardworking people that the public no longer trusts scientists as the once did overwhelmingly. Lovejoy may not be a "media whore" but he sure made some idiotic claims to the press. Ardi overturns nothing and it certainly does not imply that extant great apes evolved from hominid ancestors. The damn thing is from ~4 MYA and our closest ancestor with chimps lived over ~6 MYA for cryin' out loud! It may turn out to be another interesting branch,in the great ape tree, like the robust australopithecines, or an important hominid sharing significant ancestry with us. That determination awaits a thorough analysis of the research.

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