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Missing Link or Piltdown
June 20, 2009 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Jørn Hurum, who brought the world the alleged missing link, Ida (previously), has been described by colleagues as "a bit of a showman". While Hurum maintains his assessment of Ida is correct, others have said his claim at finding the missing link is "seriously likely to undermine the credibility of science in the public eye". posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (19 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Evolution isn't Pokémon, dammit. They're all missing links!
posted by nasreddin at 4:22 PM on June 20, 2009 [8 favorites]


But if evolution were Pokémon ... who would be Bidoof?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:28 PM on June 20, 2009


What douchebags. This kind of bullshit is seriously likely to undermine the credibility of science in the public eye. Going around claiming that you’ve found the missing link—not to fellow scientist but to the public at large—is very dangerous: when it turns out that your monkey-thing is not a little human, the incident will only add gasoline to the anti-evolution fire. If it really is the missing link, let your fellow paleontologists make those statements.

"Monkey thing is dangerous with fire," said the non-fellow paleontologist.
posted by Brian B. at 4:32 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Piltdown? I don't think anyone has ever claimed that this was another Archaeoraptor, just that it's been overhyped by Hurum and his team, and by at least some media (no idea how this was reported "over there", but local media quickly toned down the hype). And I'm not sure fighting "missing link" hyperbole with "seriously likely to undermine science" hyperbole is a good use of anyone's time.

(But reading the New Scientist links you posted is a good use of anyone's time, though, so thanks for the post!)
posted by effbot at 4:38 PM on June 20, 2009


THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A "MISSING LINK". PLEASE STOP USING THAT TERM. THANK YOU.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:58 PM on June 20, 2009


I still stand pretty much by what I said in the earlier thread: that he's not engaging scientists with this hype, but a different discourse entirely. Of course 'Rosetta Stone' and 'eighth wonder' are just hypy nonsense, and even 'missing link' isn't particularly great (we know what it's supposed to mean, even if it that doesn't exist). However, his team has also put out an academic paper for the discovery, and are continuing to work on the fossil properly. Can't he do all these things without people getting angry?

Hurum claims that he’s only hyping in this fashion in order to help get children intersted in science. But clearly, his base motivation is to make himself rich and famous. Yes, we should get children excited about real science, but not at the expense of scientific integrity.

I think is pretty much libellous, you know?
posted by Sova at 5:05 PM on June 20, 2009


we know what it's supposed to mean

And that is...?

Even if it does convey something meaningful to someone with a decent grasp of evolutionary theory, do you think the average person reading the news articles understands it that way? I'd wager not. The average person's understanding of evolution (in America, anyway) is abysmal, and terms like this only mislead them further.

So what's to be gained from using the term, other than sensationalism? There are certainly ways to describe the find which are much more meaningful to those who do understand evolution, and if the less informed people don't understand these more precise terms—well, they weren't getting anything accurate from "missing link", either. An opaque article certainly wouldn't be any worse than a false one, you know? At least with the more precise terminology, they could look it up and learn something.

Maybe I'm cranky. I've just never seen accurate, responsible science journalism and the term "missing link" in the same article.
posted by ixohoxi at 5:20 PM on June 20, 2009


and if the less informed people don't understand these more precise terms—well, they weren't getting anything accurate from "missing link", either. An opaque article certainly wouldn't be any worse than a false one, you know?

I disagree. If the term "missing link" was misused all these years in order to make a false claim by critics of evolution then there is nothing misleading about a counter-claim with a speciman that debunks the original false claim. To put it another way, if there is no such thing as a missing link, then claiming to have the one they say is missing is logically sound.
posted by Brian B. at 6:06 PM on June 20, 2009


It's interesting how evolutionary biologists always feel like they're under siege all the time, at least in the U.S. I kind of wonder why, since no one serious actually believes in creationism, yet often blogs and writing by biologists is infused with a sort of paranoia about creationists and their dastardly ways. They're constantly crouching their statements to make sure that they can't be twisted to oppose evolution and they're constantly mocking creationists.

It's kind of an interesting phenomenon. But I would bet that scientists in other countries might not feel the same way. So Jørn Hurum probably never thought that his over the top showmanship and claims of a "missing link" could actually damage the entire enterprise of evolutionary biology. He probably didn't have the kind of 'siege mentality' that lots of U.S. biologists have.

To put it another way, if there is no such thing as a missing link, then claiming to have the one they say is missing is logically sound.

Only if you mean people all 'have' the empty set of missing links (which is to say, you have none of the fossils which are not missing links*), then that might be true, but Jørn not only said he had the missing link but obviously made the claim that "Ida" was it.

*technically, you may have some fossils, but you can partition your fossils into "missing links" and "not missing links". All of your fossils are in the "not missing link" group, and your "missing link" group, which is empty, has none of the fossils which are not missing links and therefore has "all" of the fossils which are missing links. But Jørn implied his "missing links" partition was non-empty.
posted by delmoi at 6:48 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


since no one serious actually believes in creationism

I am jealous of whatever magical part of the US you live in.
posted by ixohoxi at 9:07 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am jealous of whatever magical part of the US you live in.

How do you define "serious"?
posted by delmoi at 10:23 PM on June 20, 2009


It's interesting how evolutionary biologists always feel like they're under siege all the time, at least in the U.S.

Well, many intelligent and successful people I've had the misfortune of hearing from about "evolution" think it's a theory about monkeys turning into humans, and they don't generally think it's been "proven" (as well they shouldn't, given their understanding of the theory, however erroneous). The fact is that evolution is a very complex idea and cannot be conveyed in a few slogans. Unfortunately, the American who gets his/her news from TV has only slogans to work with.

since no one serious actually believes in creationism

Unfortunately, the media thrive on controversy, and have unwittingly been tools in the creationists' "teach the controversy" program. Practically everyone I've ever talked to about evolution has expressed the idea that either monkeys turned into humans, or the Christian god created the universe and made it look old, and those are the only two alternatives. They said things like this not thumping their bibles, but just with the assumption that either the "evolutionists" or the "creationists" were right, and there were no other possibilities.
posted by Maximian at 10:39 PM on June 20, 2009


er, "many intelligent and successful people I've talked to". Sentence as-is didn't make too much sense. Must preview more carefully.
posted by Maximian at 10:46 PM on June 20, 2009


It's interesting how evolutionary biologists always feel like they're under siege all the time, at least in the U.S. I kind of wonder why, since no one serious actually believes in creationism...

No one other than over half the general population and, apparently, a larger percentage of state, local, and national legislators. All of whom have considerable influence on just where funding comes from and how its spent.

But, other than those groups, yeah.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:57 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


>since no one serious actually believes in creationism

Our country was being run by people who believed in creationism, who censored government scientists and decided the country's environmental and health policies. They planted stories in the national press and encouraged the ignorant to speak. They may not have been serious, but they were dangerous.

Still kind of jumpy, hoping the long nightmare is finally over, and very disappointed at the poor coverage of science in newspapers. The missing link thing makes me angry, since I always think science is interesting enough alone that it doesn't need hype.
posted by acrasis at 9:01 AM on June 21, 2009


se⋅ri⋅ous adj … 3. being in earnest; sincere …
posted by ixohoxi at 9:51 AM on June 21, 2009


evolution is a very complex idea and cannot be conveyed in a few slogans

Isn't that kinda like saying "Never mind the man behind the curtain..."

God, faith, even creationism specifically, are also very complex ideas that cannot be conveyed in slogans.

But that is not a proof or a substantive argument for EITHER point of view. And more importantly, the pith of either point of view needs to be accessible to everyone, not only scientists or priests. The complexity has to be able to be boiled down and be explainable, otherwise what's the point?

The conversation needs to be elevated above snark and snarl.
posted by metacurious at 7:01 PM on June 21, 2009


I can't speak for others, but I'm not trying to prove anything about evolution, or anything else. (There's already a mountain of empirical evidence for those who care about empirical evidence; it's not like creationists will be convinced if we throw just one more fact on the pile.) I'm simply asking journalists to use accurate, meaningful terminology instead of cartoon imagery. It's not about the evolution vs. creationism debate; it's about responsible science journalism.

I'd object just the same if science journalists fundamentally misrepresented some aspect of computer science or chemistry so they could provide a pre-chewed article for lazy readers. (And they do exactly this quite frequently.) Yes, it's sometimes necessary to gloss over complexities, but (a) you should make your readers aware when you're doing that, and (b) that's not what this is.

The complexity has to be able to be boiled down and be explainable

Well, sure. But:

1. There are often ways to simplify things without misrepresenting those things; and

2. when a concept can't be simplified any further without misrepresenting it, maybe it's time for the reader to bring something to the table.

This applies to everything—not just science. Let's say you're simplifying your notes about the Iranian protests (a complex sociopolitical phenomenon) into a brief article for general readers. Somewhere along the way, you realize that something you wrote—intending merely to make a complicated idea more accessible—has actually obscured the facts of the situation, and is likely to mislead your readers.

What do you do? You take a step back, and either find a way to simplify the idea without distorting it; or you leave the original, complicated idea in there, and trust that your reader is an intelligent human being, capable of dealing with nuance and complexity. Nothing can be simplified indefinitely.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:01 AM on June 22, 2009


ixohoxi, I wasn't trying to suggest dumbing things down.

I was trying to say that it seems that people from either side of the spectrum talk past each other. The prejudice the "true believers" feel for the opposing POV is all too apparent, be they creationists or evolutionists.

Genuine and challenging dialog would be a welcome change to the thinly veiled contempt and suspicion either "side" has for the other. But few want to bend an honest and authentic ear to the opposing view point.
posted by metacurious at 9:35 AM on June 22, 2009


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