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Thursday, 25 June 2009

NEWS: 'Missing Link' found, heads lost

Ida the fossil made such a splash in the science world it was difficult to separate the scientific reality from the hype.

TSR readers – like everyone else – are unlikely to have missed the recent ground-breaking discovery: Ida a.k.a. Darwinius masillae a.k.a. the 'missing link'. Given the controversial territory of early primate origins, it is unsurprising that Ida sparked scientific debate. But debate within the media?

Few contested that Ida was indeed an important find and an astoundingly complete fossil. It even got Sir David Attenborough excited. And when was the last time a new scientific discovery inspired a Google logo?

Interestingly, the story was a non-story from the start, with the Daily Mail announcing their scoop over a week before the official unveiling in New York. This didn't stop reporters contacting press officers around the world about this 'worst kept secret', with calls for more information and non-disclosure agreements signed left, right and centre. This did little to aid science, but fueled the fire of a media frenzy --and one that some felt undermined the reputation of science journalists.

Both Nature and Science criticised the oversell of the paper and the 'missing link' claims by the researchers and the Public Library of Science press office, though interestingly not Atlantic Productions, the production company behind the History Channel and BBC documentaries on Ida. The blogosphere was less kind. Brian Switek posited that this may be the first in a long line of science hypotheses becoming accepted not through convincing evidence, but by flooding the media with eye-catching press releases. Carl Zimmer and PZ weighed in similarly, while the whole circus provided ample fuel for Ed Yong's satire.

Was the hype necessary? Is Ida really that great? We can now judge for ourselves, with a replica of the 47 million-year-old fossil on display at the Natural History Museum in London. One thing is for sure: the media storm got coverage (and visitors to the Natural History Museum, the American Museum of Natural History and their Oslo equivalent). There may well be more such 'revolutionary finds' to come (with critics no doubt asking, at what price?). Perhaps this is the future of science communication, with TV producers at the back, rubbing their hands.

Claire Gilby
Briefings, ABSW