Field of Science

Palaeontology in the News: Between Fox-Whale and Tyrannosaurus ate my brain

Despite the fact that earth sciences should play a major role in our modern society, they are chronically under- and misrepresented in the media. The most prominent examples regard natural disasters, like earthquakes and volcanoes, and climate change. Unfortunately here the promoted ignorance and resulting misconceptions can have important political and social implications.

In the field of palaeontology the results of bad information maybe are not so imminent and disastrous, but nevertheless such journalism is shameful and can have later "complications".

It is (in part) understandable that local, not specialized newspapers don't employ professional natural scientists as authors or editors. The field of journalism is also, maybe because of the assumed more specific qualification, dominated by scholars with a background in human sciences. The major problem is that natural and human sciences differ in the method how they approach the available informations. In part the latter rely strongly on an anthropocentric view of nature, also they knowledge of geological and paleontological concepts are limited. Even if the appropriate use of "words" can be learned, it's much harder to understand and adopt the thinking method of geologists.

A common error of news releases is to got the time or the ages wrong, it's happens fast that some zeros got lost, marking the extinction of dinosaurs some 100.000 years ago. For us common mortals there is not really a difference between 100.000 or 1.000.000 years, but it matters for earth history. Also the concept of phylogeny and cladistics is a hard one, supposed "missing links" are inserted regularly between complete different systematic hierarchies, like ape and humans, or dinosaurs and birds, or portrayed as a sort of mixture between two modern species (like the crocoduck).

It's seems also that there is no sceptical inquiry of whatever regarding official press-releases dealing with natural sciences:

In 2007 researches announced the discovery of an early relative of the lineage that led to modern whales: Indohyus. This information was propagated by the standard press-release in English language to the national news-agencies. Already at the beginning of the dissemination the main information's were strongly simplified, the original text for example compares the reconstruction of Indohyus to a modern animal, presumably known by the public, a deer, referring to it as a "deer-like animal".
The most important Italian newspapers, maybe unwittingly or simply uninterested in the facts behind the news, translated uncritically the press-release of the Italian national press agency ANSA, who regarding Indohyus affirms that "it looked like a fox (?!)", as follows:

* Paleontologia: una volpe è l'antenato della balena.
Palaeontology; a fox is the ancestor of the whale
* La La balena discende dalla volpe.
Whale descends from the fox

From there these headlines spread by copy-past to local newspapers, online newsletters, blogs and forums:

* Yahoo notizie Paleontologia: è una volpe l'antenato terrestre della balena.
Palaeontology; a fox is the ancestor of the whale

This obvious translation error and resulting misinformation got debunked immediately on most private forums and blogs, and even Italian creationist after a first try to use these articles to ridicule evolution understand that they couldn't' t rely on such obvious crap.

Regarding the "professional" journalism, the notion of the fox-whale is still to be found on the homepage of the major Italian newspapers - it is still there, 2 years later, and presumably, for the next 1.000.000 years.

Can it get even more worse?

"BEIJING - According to news agency Xinhua, the remains of a giant flying dinosaur have been discovered by Chinese archaeologists in the Gobi desert. The discovery, archaeologists claim, sheds new light on the evolutionary process of the dinosaurs. It is believed that the animal called gigantoraptor erlianensis, was eight meters long and weighed 1,400 kilograms. Standing, it was five meters high, more or less like a tyrannosaurus, an animal that ate human flesh."


THERWISSEN et al. (2001): Skeletons of terrestrial cetaceans and the relationship of whales to artiodactyls. - Nature 413: 277 - 281
THERWISSEN et al. (2007): Whales originated from aquatic artiodactyls in the Eocene epoch of India . - Nature 450: 1190 - 1194


MANUCCI, F. (2010): DIVULGAZIONE, DINOSAURI E PALEONTOLOGIA IN ITALIA prima parte. Jurassic Italia Blog. Accessed 02.07.2010

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