Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Hyping the dubious Homo naledi

by Rob - September 20th, 2015.
Filed under: Keynotes, Science.

The lede is buried in this excellent article by Ray Hartley from South Africa’s Rand Daily Mail. The meat begins with the tenth paragraph, which starts, “There was only one moment during the press event when the giant bubble of hype was threatened by a sharp question.”

Read from that point down, at least, then come back here; I’ll wait.

I often give keynote addresses at science conferences, and in September 2011, I gave the keynote at the Annual Meeting of the Science Media Centre of Canada, in Ottawa. My theme was that science journalists owe it to the readers, and to the science itself, to not be breathless shills for every person wanting press coverage.

It’s still an issue. All the current headlines about Homo naledi “rewriting human evolution” and “upending everything we thought we knew” are not only premature but feed right into the zealots who want to say that science is on shaky ground.

The case in point I used in 2011 was the then-current claim that the speed of light had been exceeded in a laboratory experiment. As I said to the audience of journalists, it’s got to be a measurement error, every one of you knows that it’s almost certainly that, and yet you peddle it as though it were celebrity gossip, requiring no more basis in reality than, “Someone said Brad and Angelina had a fight last night.”

In the case of Homo naledi, we have a paper that was rejected by peer-review, multiple scientists saying the new taxon is invalid, and no dating info available yet, and science “journalists” reporting the hype instead of the facts. Ugh.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

3 Responses to Hyping the dubious Homo naledi

  1. Well, yes…

    But a couple of points in the Harley article disturbed me:

    ‘Deutsche Welle interviewed anthropologist Christoph Zollikofer, who said: “…Assuming that it is two million years old, you could say it is an early Homo erectus, but not a new genus.” ‘

    Shouldn’t a qualified anthropologist know the difference between genus and species? Nobody has claimed it’s a different genus, and I suspect if they had there’d have been a whole lot less political hype.

    Also dismissing the site as a burial chamber, because of the difficulty of access, seems nonsensical. We (H. sapiens) go to obscene lengths to handle the bodies of our dead. If anything, that’s an argument IN favor of it being a burial chamber.

  2. The “genus” gaffe caught my eye, too, but having frequently been misquoted myself (my favourite “Sawyer says he’s devoted to astrology” when I said, “I’m really into astronomy”), I always assume an incorrect paraphrasing in cases like this. And, in this particular instance, it’s a German newspaper (Deutsche Welle) interviewing a scientist in Switzerland; it may be a translation error. It’s inconceivable that Zollikofer doesn’t know the difference between a species and a genus, after all.

  3. It’s funny to read this today. Last Friday I used the speed of light experiment to cast doubt on recent experiments (or at least, my flawed understanding of those experiments). I hadn’t ever heard anything about the speed of light experiment being proven wrong. Just assumed so when nothing further came from it.

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