Science, Science Reporting and the Manufacture and Maintanance of Myth

Sorry for the alliteration…

A news story that came out some time ago reports new analysis of a Spanish Neanderthal (Neandertal) site called El Sidrón. I think this is an interesting example of how scientific information reported in a peer reviewed journal is transformed into “copy” that generates or supports the public’s mythical view of science in general, and in this case, human evolution in particular.

This example speaks for itself. I’ve copied here the web-published excerpt of New Scientist article and the abstract of the original journal article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). (I’m not picking on the New Scientist. This could have been virtually any science-for-the-public magazine or web site.)

For each source, I’ve bolded specific text. I invite you to read over each source, and focusing on the bolded information draw a conclusion about what is being reported and what it means.

Neanderthals’ fight for survival revealed

New Scientist. 09 December 2006; Rower Hooper; Magazine issue 2581

The view of our sister species as brutes is tempered by findings suggesting that they were often forced to make the best of a desperately tough life

CLUMSY, stupid brutes with little in the way of developed culture. That harsh view of our sister species Homo neanderthalis is being tempered by findings suggesting that they were often forced to make the best of a desperately tough life.

A team led by Antonio Rosas of Spain’s National Museum for Natural Sciences in Madrid studied 43,000-year-old Neanderthal remains found in the El Sidrón cave in the Asturias region of northern Spain. The teeth of eight individuals from El Sidrón examined by the team showed evidence that during growth they had probably gone through a period of starvation (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0609662104).

Cuts on some of the bones examined by the team suggest that the Neanderthals practised cannibalism, but Rosas points out that this does not mean that the group concerned were savages. “One possible explanation is that ecological conditions forced these people to eat …

Paleobiology and comparative morphology of a late Neandertal sample from El Sidrón, Asturias, Spain

Antonio Rosas, et al.

Published online before print December 12, 2006
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0609662104

Fossil evidence from the Iberian Peninsula is essential for understanding Neandertal evolution and history. Since 2000, a new sample {approx}43,000 years old has been systematically recovered at the El Sidrón cave site (Asturias, Spain). Human remains almost exclusively compose the bone assemblage. All of the skeletal parts are preserved, and there is a moderate occurrence of Middle Paleolithic stone tools. A minimum number of eight individuals are represented, and ancient mtDNA has been extracted from dental and osteological remains. Paleobiology of the El Sidrón archaic humans fits the pattern found in other Neandertal samples: a high incidence of dental hypoplasia and interproximal grooves, yet no traumatic lesions are present. Moreover, unambiguous evidence of human-induced modifications has been found on the human remains. Morphologically, the El Sidrón humans show a large number of Neandertal lineage-derived features even though certain traits place the sample at the limits of Neandertal variation. Integrating the El Sidrón human mandibles into the larger Neandertal sample reveals a north-south geographic patterning, with southern Neandertals showing broader faces with increased lower facial heights. The large El Sidrón sample therefore augments the European evolutionary lineage fossil record and supports ecogeographical variability across Neandertal populations.

Now I will state the obvious. The New Scientist tells us that there is a prevailing view which is now being questioned by new findings. (But not, nota bene, being overturned … rather, tempered. To overturn it would mean we can’t keep using it as part of the myth!). The original publication tells us the prevailing view is enhanced and supported by these new findings, and more importantly, our current view is being fleshed out but not in ways that are unexpected. The two stories (about the same exact thing) could not be much more different in their tenor.

As an educator, I feel that our role is not just to inform students about “what is important” in science, or to teach students (get them to memorize/internalize) details. We also should (and mostly do, I think) strive to help students understand what science produces and how to understand it. Is it necessary for us to steer students away from public news sources? Our jobs would certainly be easier if students had avoided these sources before ever coming to class! Essentially, we need to generate a wiser and more critical public … not just critical in the way that term has come to be abused, but questioning, inquiring, restless. This new public, the one that I am imagining, would not accept myth making and myth maintenance as news. Yes, I suggest we harness market forces to improve science reporting!

The other rather depressing thing this comparison brings to mind is the partition between scientists reporting their findings and reporters reporting to the public. Anybody with a radio, a TV (especially cable TV) or a newsstand down the street can get the mythologized version — and in fact, can’t avoid having it foisted upon them as part of the day to day news stream. But the scientific journals … having been taken over almost entirely by pirates … oops, I mean publishing companies … have become inaccessible due to cost. The “real truth” (as it were) is not directly or easily available to the general public, but they, the public, are steeped in the mythology.

The solution to this, of course, is OpenSource publication of scientific research.

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