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, May 20, 2013

Breaking news: precision matters.

I keep telling myself not to expect much from how science is covered in commercial media.  They are beholden to sponsors, who pay attention to only one thing; how many people partake.  So if media can get more sponsors (= more money) by sensationalizing scientific news, that's what they do, however it misleads the gullible and undermines the reputation of science as a whole.

I guess I just thought that National Geographic would be above that kind of thing.

Yes, National Geographic, that venerable institution that sends out the monthly glossy, yellow-edged magazine that from its density appears to be printed on sheets of lead.  That wonderful source of information and photographs from exotic locales that teenage boys the world over peruse in the hopes of seeing a topless native woman.  Yes, National Geographic.  Even they have succumbed.

I came to this realization when I was perusing the News section of the online National Geographic, and I saw the headline, "New Sea Monster Found, Rewrites Evolution?"  It happens that this particular turn of phrase is one that really grinds my gears -- it seems like every time some paleontologist finds a new fossil, the media shrieks that it's going to "rewrite everything we know about evolution!"  And, of course, it never does.  Given that what we have from the fossil record represents a tiny percentage of the living things the Earth has seen during it's three-odd-billion-year hosting of life, it's only to be expected that we'll find new and amazing things in fossil beds, more often than not.  And surprisingly, astonishingly, the evolutionary model has survived, intact, despite all that "rewriting."

Now, to be fair, this discovery was pretty cool -- a new species of ichthyosaur, Malawania anachronus, so named because it dates to 66 million years after its nearest cousins were supposedly extinct.  But like I said: this is interesting, but hardly earthshattering.  A group of seagoing prehistoric carnivores were still around more recently than scientists thought.  No "rewriting of evolution" necessary.

Also, must they always call them "sea monsters?"

Now, you may well think I'm overreacting, here.  But cut me some slack; given that I'm a biologist, it's to be expected that precision in speech on this particular topic is something I value.  But seriously, you may be saying; does anyone take that "rewriting evolution" thing as more than hyperbole?

You have only to look at the comments section on the article in question to see that the answer is "yes."

"As most scientists now know who are brave enough to admit it, the entire 'theory' of evolution needs to be rewritten," said one commenter.  "As long as we try to cover up its many problems, we are the problem."

"Evolved animals 'appear' in the Jurassic or whatever period...I guess out of nowhere," wrote another.  "As if by magic without numerous specimens leading to the found fossil.  You would think that life on earth after 3 billion years of evolution would look like the 'Island of Doctor Moreau' of blended animals."

One person, at least, tried to bring some sense into the discussion.  "Oh come on, National Geographic, pul-eezzze stop using the word 'monster' in your headlines to suck in readership," he wrote.  "That's tabloid journalism, and National Geographic should know better.  A ten-foot long aquatic reptile is not a 'monster' in any sense of the word.  This animal was a sleek, efficient predator of fish and has many characteristics of already-discovered fossils of similar animals.  And while it may ADD valuable information to our understanding of how evolution has worked, it will NOT 'rewrite evolution' as the headline further claims.  That would seem to shred Charles Darwin's masterpiece of science, and is plainly not what's happening here. "

Unfortunately,  he was immediately shouted down.  "Stop whining," one person responded.  " If you don't like the headlines here, go elsewhere and complain."  Another said, "So, you are complaining about how they try to suck in readers with the word monster, yet you were here, reading this article. Think ahead before you comment mouse brain."

Herein lies the problem, and it's not just an issue of civil discourse.  Precision matters, especially when writing about topics that are, by their very nature, controversial.  I'm guessing that the author of the piece, Christine Dell'Amore, had no intention of giving fuel to the fire of the creationists -- but what are the anti-evolution crowd supposed to think, when every other week there's an article with the headline, "Evolution Has To Be Rewritten?"  However much I lambast them for their anti-science, anti-rational stance, you have to admit that anyone would begin to wonder about a scientific model that has to be "rewritten" every time some tiny new piece of evidence is found.

Okay, I'm ranting.  But really, it's National Geographic.  I expect better from them.  I've completely written off the Discovery network, for example, which has just announced that ANIMAL PLANET'S MONSTER WEEK BEGINS TODAY.  (Capitalization theirs.)  And despite the fact that to a biologist, the word "animal" means "a type of real, live creature, i.e. not fictional," they are going to kick off the week with a special about...

... mermaids.

Just 'scuse me while I go pound my forehead on the desk.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the sentiment. Make sure to point the trembling finger of blame where it belongs, though. Journalists' proposed story titles are more often than not replaced by editors before the story sees print. Christine might be as horrified as you are.