Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Arguing over Archaeopteryx

I have written before (perhaps ranted would be a better word) about the fact that the anti-evolution crowd claims to "disbelieve" in evolution, when amazingly few of them actually seem to understand the what it is exactly that they're disbelieving in.  This is why they are still launching the same pseudo-arguments that they were using fifty years ago, and generating the same weary responses on the part of the evolutionary biologists, leading me to speculate that whatever else you can say for the anti-evolutionists, they are not particularly good listeners:
  • If humans came from apes, why are there still apes?  (My ancestors came from France.  Why are there still French people?)
  • Why aren't there any transitional fossils?  (There are.  Thousands of them.)
  • Organs like the eye are irreducibly complex; they won't work if all of the parts aren't created simultaneously.  (Actually, the evolution of the eye is quite well understood, and even in today's animals you can see a progression from the flatworm [which has a light-sensing membrane] to the chambered nautilus [in which the membrane has curved into a sphere with a hole in the front, acting like a pinhole camera] to the vertebrate eye [in which the sphere has closed and various types of lenses have evolved].)
  • Radiometric data, such as carbon-14 dating, is inaccurate.  (Prove it.)
  • Dinosaurs and humans coexisted.  (Prove it.)
  • And anyway, evolution is only a theory.  (They call it "music theory," and that's not because they think that music may not exist.)
Another point I've made before is that the popular media, in their search for sensationalized headlines, don't help at all.  I found some particularly good examples of that this morning when I was perusing the headlines of the science section of Yahoo! News, and saw the following headlines all in a neat row:

"Famed Fossil Isn't a Bird After All, Analysis Says."
"Flap Flop: First Bird Isn't a Bird After All."
"Ancestor of All Birds Knocked From Its Perch."

It turns out that if you read the story, it has to do with the classification of Archaeopteryx, the famous proto-bird/feathered reptile whose fossil was discovered about 150 years ago.  The gist is that a group of Chinese scientists have used an analysis of Archaeopteryx and a related, and recently discovered, species (Xiaotingia) to support a fairly minor shift of Archaeopteryx from one branch of the bird/reptile clade to another.  Further along in the article, the writer quotes evolutionary biologist Julia Clarke (University of Texas - Austin), as saying, "moving it a couple of branches isn't a huge change, and whether it's considered a bird or not is mostly a semantic issue that doesn't greatly affect larger questions about the origin of flight."  Lawrence Witmer (Ohio University) states, "The proposed reclassification of Archaeopteryx wouldn't change the idea that birds arose from this part of the tree, but it could make scientists reevaluate what they think about evolution within the bird lineage itself."

And finally, the writer of the article states, "The Chinese scientists acknowledge they have only weak evidence to support their proposal."

Note that I take no issue with any of what the scientists have said; such questioning, reevaluation, and tentative proposals of new ways of thinking are what science is about.  Some of those weakly supported hypotheses have later gone on to win widespread support, and others have been disproven and shelved.  That's how the scientific process works.

What bothers me here is that the headlines give people who are uninformed about how evolution works more fodder for claiming that "those idiot scientists in their labs have no idea what they're doing."  If you only read the headlines (which, sadly, a lot of people do), what do you come away with?  "They've been telling us for years that this thing is a bird, and now they say it isn't!"

Never mind that the reality is, early birds basically were feathered reptiles; any distinction you make between them is semantics.  Many people never delve deeply enough, or think deeply enough, to realize this.

I know that it is not incumbent upon reporters to educate the ignorant, but I think they should at least take it as their responsibility not to deliberately mislead.  And such headlines are, by their nature, misleading.  I realize that a headline of "Archaeopteryx Classification Shifted Slightly" doesn't sound nearly as sexy as "The First Bird Wasn't Actually a Bird!"  But it sure as hell gives people a better idea of what is really going on - and I thought that was what the purpose of media was?

No comments:

Post a Comment