Fascinating look at the confluence of science, media campaigns and fact-checking

darwinius by ellenm1

Darwinius versus blog power: A look back
[Via The Loom]

Brian Switek, one of the junior members of the science-blogging-whippersnapper brigade, has written a detailed look back at the saga of Darwinius, the primate fossil that held Mayor Bloomberg captive at a press conference. It was just published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach and is free for the taking. Switek has kind things to say about the impact of the Loom’s coverage of the subject, although I’m pretty sure this blog–and the many others that hopped on this crazy story–won’t stop this sort of fiasco from happening again. All we can do is help set the record straight.

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The article is quite interesting and provides some insight into the self-correcting nature of science, even if those corrections come from unusual channels. Some media purposefully hyped this before the paper was even published. There was announcements of TV programs etc. It was a missing link and was given a pet name, Ida.

Lots of media types lauded the marketing strategy as necessary to get noticed in today;s media world. This was all before the paper had even been printed and subjected to the sort of scrutiny really necessary to actually be claimed such a find by researchers not directly involved.

In addition, journalists were not even allowed to see the paper pre-publication, even under an embargo. Usually, reporters can get access to the papers and just not write about the until the embargo is lifted. This was like a movie not allowing reviewers to see it before it opens. With movies, this is usually an indication that the movie is a dud and the producers want to get it out without bad word-of-mouth causing it to tank. It appears something similar may have happened here.

The published paper failed to live up to the hype. As the Switek states:

In public Darwinius was being presented as one of our ancestors—particularly by Hurum— while the scientific study offered a different hypothesis which its authors did not feel fully comfortable advocating. The fossil primate seemed to have two distinct identities: Darwinius, the object of scientific scrutiny; and “Ida,” the media darling.

The authors of the paper claimed they had no competing interests in this fossil. But it was well apparent that they had been involved in the media campaign drawn up well before the paper. In fact, one of the authors stated that the pressure from a TV production pushed them to rush preparation of the paper. This association was not mentioned inn the publication of the paper.

It was also revealed that the original draft of the paper matched the hype of the media campaign and was only toned down at the request of reviewers. And after some initial controversy, a more complete statement of competing interests was appended to the paper.

Most of these revelations happened through the vigilance of some online journalists. While somewhat unseemly, the fact-checking afterwards helped establish the science behind the discovery and reduce the power of the media hype that had occurred.

But what happened next is purely science-driven. Another group described another fossil that seemed to indicate that not only was it related to Darwinius but that both were not really part of the human family tree. so it is very possible that the entire media hype, fostered by people with a financial interest in the hype and not the science, was totally wrong.

This is an interesting story, not only dealing with leading edge science but also how the science can be vetted after publication by a range of novel avenues for criticism. This included blogs written by scientists and those written by journalists.

Perhaps these new approaches will be able to help stem some of the misinformation spread by hyped media campaigns. Something to watch out for.