“Long used as a strategy for engaging the public on public health issues,” Nisbet and Scheufele write, “active involvement with Hollywood in the construction of messages about science can lead to a range of outcomes including informal learning, enhanced interest and attention to science in news coverage and other media, the modeling of positive behavior related to environmental sustainability or energy use, the favorable framing of controversial issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools, or even a spike in news or policy attention to a scientific topic such as climate change.”
Of course, it would not be surprising to find that there are many more examples of Hollywood totally confusing the public’s understanding of science instead of improving it. To that end, Nisbet and Scheufele cite an interesting program recently launched by the National Academy of Sciences, called “The Science & Entertainment Exchange.” According to the program’s Web site, it “provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.” The goal is to improve the accuracy and clarity of science’s portrayal in the arts.
It’s already doubtful that entertainment executives promoting Ida, the 47-million year old primate fossil, will strive for a similar degree of accuracy and clarity. [Update, May 22: In fact, it has become readily apparent that they did just the opposite.] In their paper, the researchers who analyzed the skeleton noted that it could represent a primate “stem group” from which today’s monkeys, apes, and humans evolved, but carefully added that “we are not advocating this.” As such, The New York Times article responsibly pointed out that:
[D]espite a television teaser campaign with the slogan “This changes everything” and comparisons to the moon landing and the Kennedy assassination, the significance of this discovery may not be known for years.
Nisbet also noted that his “chief concern” about promoting the fossil is that the media blitz will overstate its import. “The careful balance between innovation in public engagement and the avoidance of hype is something that [Scheufele and I] also address in the working paper,” he wrote. “In particular, when this type of ‘going broad’ strategy is applied around a single discovery or finding rather than a broader scientific subject or body of research, the probability of hype is deeply magnified.”
That last bit of advice is especially sage. Ida is certainly unique and important enough to warrant a major media blitz. But one hopes that her promoters will characterize the fossil remains as a single fascinating piece of evidence among many others. And they should add that, far from settling the debate about our primate ancestors, the latest analysis raises more questions than it answers.
Fortunately, most newspaper accounts have played the story pretty straight, stressing that Ida is a monumental discovery while adding appropriate words of caution. [Update, May 22: Zimmer is, of course, right to stress that many reporters, especially bloggers, failed to contact outside paleontologists for comment. But, as Charlie Petit has observed, while the History Channel documentary is suspect “… it appears that relatively few major outlets went along with, or boosted, the hyperbolic exaggeration of the scientific significance of this wondrously well-preserved specimen as related to them by publicists from outfits deeply invested in making money via Ida’s sudden new status as commodity.]
Coverage, however, has been fairly limited so far (relative to stories without the benefit of a massive promo campaign, at least), casting some doubt the emergence of a “mediacene age,” as the Times put it. [Update, May 22: This post was published shortly after the kick-off event at the Museum of Natural History. Coverage swelled to a fairly impressive level in the hours and days since then, culminating, as Zimmer put it, in “the ultimate triumph of pop-culture consciousness, having become for the moment the background image on the main Google search page.” Still, I can’t help but notice that the number of Google News returns for this story isn’t that much higher than it was other for science sensations such as Mars Rover’s discovery of ice or the opening (and crash) of the Large Hadron Collider – but I could be mistaken.]