Monday, 5 March 2012

Another Daily Dose of Science Journalism Fail

Care of The Telegraph comes this sensationalist little blurb:

If the fact that the "earliest human ancestor" is eel-like doesn't push your incredulometers into the "Something Isn't Right Here" zone, then consider this line from the article: 
"Fossils dating back 505 million years preserve the relics of tiny, slithering animals which are the oldest life forms ever discovered with primitive spinal cords.
As the precursor of vertebrates the species is also believed to be the direct ancestor of all members of the chordate family, which includes fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals."
Ah, well, that makes much more sense! But, that means the headline is incredibly misleading. This fossil is not simply the ancestor to humans, it's the ancestor to all chordates! That includes bats, bears, dogs, cats, aardvarks, aardwolves, all manner of fishes, frogs, salamanders, dinosaurs, eagles, parrots, rats, mice, koalas, kangaroos, bison, pigs, get the idea. Yes, Chordata does include humans, but it includes anything with vertebrae (and some things without them).Calling this the "earliest human ancestor" is yellow journalism, as far as I'm concerned. That's not to say that this finding isn't interesting. It is! But to define it in the context that the The Telegraph has done is misleading and sensationalist, and only further drives my conviction that science communication should be left to the scientists.