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.


Anonymous said...

The fact that you, the author, do not understand the material does not invalidate it. I suspect you are hostile to any refernce of Darwinian biological evolution, but if you can get your head right into understanding how life evolves, simply run the process backwards in your head and you will eventually come to a worm or ell like creature with the earliest evidence of a central spinal cord or nervous system or anything making the creature bilaterally symmetrical. 505 million years isn't a span of time the human mind can grasp easily.

C.W.G.K said...


It amuses me that you seem to think that I'm some sort of creationist. "Hostile to any reference of Darwinian biological evolution"? Hardly. I'm a biologist; evolution is something I'm quite intimite with and accept. I think you need to reread what I was saying. I am not denying that this creature is the very distant ancestor of humans; I'm saying that it's the very distant ancestor of all chordates, humans included! My argument was that the headlines the newspapers were running with, calling it the "earliest human ancestor", were framing the discovery in the wrong light in an attempt to grab readers.