Field of Science

The Darwinius haunted world: What we can learn about science communication from the IDA-Hype

"The P.R. campaign on this fossil is I think more of a story than the fossil itself"
Matt Cartmill

Brian Switek, the well-known freelance science-blogger and author published a paper in which he analyses the relationships between science blogs, media and paleontological news-release based on the IDA case – considering the collection of opinions on the geosphere I think it’s an appropriate addition to the discussion of the role of blogs in science business.

After May 19, 2009 the announcements of Darwinius masillae as an genuine impersonator of the two branches leading to early primates and anthropoid progenitors was enforced by the general media, who indiscriminate adopted catchwords like "sensation", and last but not least the "discovery" of THE "missing link".

Aside the discussion of the exact position of D. masillae in the evolutionary tree, the story displays the intricate relationships and conflicts between science communication, the interest of researchers to promote their work, the interest of media to sell their news, and genuine science as tool to interpret the facts.
D.masillae got a professional marketing strategy, despite the perfect chosen genus name in the year celebrating Darwin, it got a catchy nickname (but to be honest that's not so unusual in palaeontology, remember Lucy) and it got media coverage in form of articles, documentaries, online appearances ( under the official website “The Link” !) and books before and after the announcement.
The Museum of Oslo was not new to such tactic, in a earlier case - the plesiosaur remains denominate "Predator X" it was successfully adoperated, and plans were made to promote the new acquired primate fossil in a same, if not better way, even before the scientific study on Darwinius was completed.

Finally the fossil was presented to the public, even with the patronage of well-known science communicator Sir David Attenborough, in a form that induced even many bloggers to mock about it. The news release stated following:


In contrast to the broad media coverage, the scientific paper was severely controlled by the respective media agency, and not released to journalists or the public until the official presentation.
The paper later published online itself generated some critics; the most content is of descriptive character and the results of the anatomical properties analysed for the systematic of Darwinius are not conclusive, or at best not conclusive enough to sustain the media claims.

These problems are in part the result of the professional management of the discovery, the paper was not available to extern experts or they were not allowed to discuss it and the research team was pressed to observe certain deadlines.

Switek concludes that there was and often still is a conflict between (maybe an idealized) science and personal interest. Fantastic claims can bias and damage the perception that science has in the general public (concept introduced by Carl Sagan in his “Demon haunted world”), but the case also introduced blogs as a useful tool to analyze the claims and their impact on the public, and where necessary to correct them.

It’s seems however that the MSM did not learn much from the case.
In 2009, just some months (October 2009 and then April 2010) ago the discovery of yet another "missing link" was announced - Ardipithecus ramidus (2009) and Australopithecus sediba (2010).

Fortunately this time from many comments and online discussion I read it seems that most "common people" where much more critical regarding the first claims.


SWITEK, B.J. (2010): Ancestor or Adapiform? Darwinius and the Search for Our Early Primate Ancestors. Evo Edu Outreach

Online Ressources:
Figure from Darwinius masillae article on Wikipedia

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