On Tuesday, The New York Times ran its second article about a 47-million-year-old skeleton that is being described as “the most complete fossil primate ever discovered.”
The monkey-like creature, an entirely new genus and species, might be a “missing link” between modern primates—such as monkeys, apes and humans—and the descendants from which they evolved. But that was the tale of the Times’s first article, published Saturday on page A11. The “bigger” story, as evidenced by Tuesday’s front-page follow-up, which was almost twice as long as its predecessor, is the massive media blitz intended to make “The Link” a pop-science sensation.
Researchers unveiled the fossil, nicknamed Ida, at a high-profile ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan on Tuesday morning. The event coincided with the journal PLoS ONe’s publication of a peer-reviewed analysis of the skeleton, which was found a number of years ago in Germany. The Times described the museum ceremony as:
[T]he first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel [which will show a two-hour documentary on Memorial Day], including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, and exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site. … All of this seems a departure from the normal turn of events, where researchers study their subject and publish their findings, and let the media chips fall where they may.
[Update, May 22: At his blog, Carl Zimmer has a must-read explanation of why this departure from the norm has led to “Science Held Hostage.” Basically, neither PloS or Atlantic Productions (which producted the History Channel’s two-hour documentary on Ida) made the research paper available to reporters until just before the promotional event at the Museum of Natural History. This effectively hindered reporters’ ability to consult with outside experts and favored articles based only on the press conference, where the fossil was hyped as a “missing link” (which is almost always a spurious claim paleontologyically speaking). Zimmer includes some excellent commentary from reporters who were frustrated by the way the paper was withheld, as well as a fairly weak explanation for doing so from the managing editor of PLoS One. In another post, Zimmer does the legwork and speaks to a number of paleontologists. Conclusion: Ida is an incredible find, but the analysis published in PLoS did, indeed, have shortcomings, and the skeleton is certainly no “Holy Grail.”]
“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it, told the Times. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”
Indeed, the effort is “a publicity tsunami relative to traditional science communication practices,” wrote American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet on his Framing Science blog. It is a strategy that Nisbet and co-author Dietram Scheufele call “going broad” in a paper currently under review. The goal, according to an excerpt of the paper, is to move science communications “beyond elite audiences,” where they usually stop. Nisbet and Scheufele cite a number of Pew Research Center reports showing that the nightly television news, as opposed to newspapers, and outlets such as The Discovery Channel, as opposed to science magazines, are the predominant sources of scientific information for most people.
“Therefore, in order to reach non-traditional audiences, scientists and their organizations need to be on local television news,” Nisbet and Scheufele write. “To do so, major national communication efforts should be closely coordinated across local media markets, with specific scientists, institutions, or organizations serving as the local angle and spokespeople. … New documentary genres and storytelling techniques are also an important mechanism for going broad.”
Nisbet and Scheufele also highlight the potential value of non-traditional news sources such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, as well as one communications juggernaut completely outside the realm of journalism: Hollywood. The recent release of Angels & Demons has, for instance, inspired a number of articles about the film’s depiction of particle physics. (There are, in fact, myriad examples of the silver screen prompting a surge of media and public interest in the sciences, as I noted last week in a column about the fiftieth anniversary of The Two Cultures debate.)