Critiquing the News: New Fossil Find Foul-ups
The LA Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post all reported the new find of Australopithecus afarensis fossils yesterday. Since I’m not qualified to say much about the fossils themselves, I thought I’d critique how I felt the stories were presented and what I would have found important. Perhaps the most informative if slightly misleading lede came from John Noble Wilford in the NYT who started with:
If the fossil Lucy, the most famous woman from out of the deep human past, had a child, it might have looked a lot like the bundle of skull and bones uncovered by scientists digging in the badlands of Ethiopia.
Thee paleontologists who are announcing the discovery in the journal Nature today said the 3.3-million-year-old fossils were of the earliest well-preserved child ever found in the human lineage. It was estimated to be about 3 years old at death, probably female and a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species, the same as Lucy’s.
First, a rundown of the science I got from the articles.
The fossils were originally found in Ethiopia in the year 2000. Scientists have been working on them ever since with the results are just now being published in Nature. These are both the oldest fossils of a child hominid as well as being the most complete individual specimen of Australopithecus afarensis. The rare fact that the fossils come from a child gives key insights into the development of the species.
Perhaps the most interesting results show that while the shoulders most resembled those of a young gorilla, the legs were already adapted for walking upright. A fossilized bone from the throat, the hyoid, appears more ape-like than human indicating that the child probably sounded more like a chimp than a child. Finally, though studies on adult afarensis skulls show a comparatively slow brain development, the child’s brain size was comparable to the that of a chimp of equal age.
[If you work in this area, please leave a comment telling me what I got right (or wrong) on the science. And perhaps more importantly, why are you reading this?]
Now I’d like to make a couple of comments about the stories themselves.
First off what was wrong with the lede in the NYT? I feel that an uneducated reader (or those who are quote mining) might conclude that Lucy and the new fossil (named Selam or ‘peace’ in several Ethiopian languages) were contemporaries. This is patently wrong. Not only are the fossils dated about 150.000 years apart [WP], but both were found in completely different areas in Ethiopia [LAT]. I predict that is going to cause grief for evolution supporters forever.
After complaining about the lede in the NYT, I should probably even things out by finding something wrong with the other two articles. I give the worst slant award to the LA Times with the article starting:
No one knows how her body found its way into the stream or how long her distraught parents may have searched the shallows for the missing 3-year-old.
And ending with the dramatic note:
Did she stumble foraging among the reeds and drown? Was she escaping a predator or caught by swift flood currents?
Of this, her bones reveal nothing. Death came suddenly. Burial in the sand was almost as quick. She was lost for eons and then found.
Can’t you hear the sound of the 24-hour news service intro-music now. Child lost – film at 11 .
No criticism would really be complete without picking on the worst soundbite as related in the Washington Post.
“Before this, you didn’t know if it was like you might have the arm of a Danny DeVito and the leg of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” [Rick] Potts [of the Smithsonian Institution] said.
Great, now the ID-iots will claim that scientists think we descended from DeVito and Abdul-Jabbar.
Perhaps more disturbing are the inconsistencies between the articles.
Only the LA times seems clear on the time it took to recover (3 field seasons) and clean (5 years) the fossils. The NYT gives a general idea of 5 years and the Washington Post seems to have calculated an average by mentioning 4 years.
Perhaps worse is how this find is placed in relationship to the other discoveries of hominid child remains. The WP tries for the young earth creationist award by claiming the oldest child fossils to be from 60,000 year old Neanderthals. The LA Times felt it unnecessary to pin down an age letting readers ‘do the math’ by dating Selam to 3.3 million years and claiming she was 3 million years older than comparable fossils. (There is no mention of Neanderthals.) Clearest on this point was the NYT pinpointing the type (Neanderthal), the age (less then 300,000 years) and the location (Syria) of the oldest previously recovered fossils.
Why is all this important? Because even though scientists would prefer otherwise, how science is presented is just as (or perhaps more) important as the science itself. The contradictions in these articles caused both by bad science writing and perhaps ambiguous press releases, is just grist for the creationists mill. We have to get this stuff right the first time every time.
Or maybe we should just be glad that the fossils were found and that the foul-ups were most likely journalistic and not scientific.