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Author Topic:   Stupid evolution headline of the day
Member (Idle past 724 days)
Posts: 1800
From: Prague, Czech Republic
Joined: 10-22-2008

Message 1 of 5 (852579)
05-13-2019 3:27 PM

While I have no intention of actually updating this daily, I thought it would be useful to have a thread to capture examples of the disservice the press does to public understanding of evolutionary biology, through an apparently wilful determination on the part of new editors to understand as little as possible.
The particularly egregious example that prompted this:
Extinct flightless bird came 'back from the dead' because of a quirky evolutionary process
In case you're wondering what weird evolutionary process can resurrect an extinct species and are tempted to click, then don't bother, because obviously no such thing is possible.
The story being garbled is quite interesting, though. In brief, rails from Madagascar colonised the remote island of Aldabra. Here, safe from predators, they lost the ability to fly. As the climate changed and the sea waters rose, this flightless population was driven to extinction.
Fast forward several millennia, and the waters receded. A new population of rails arrived from Madagascar, and under the same selective pressures as their predecessors, evolved the same adaptations - forming the island's current population of flightless rails.
I was thinking 'Creation/Evolution in the news' would be most appropriate.

Member (Idle past 724 days)
Posts: 1800
From: Prague, Czech Republic
Joined: 10-22-2008

Message 3 of 5 (868694)
12-17-2019 6:29 AM

Dog walker discovers 65 million-year-old fossil after pets sniff it out
What, you may ask, is stupid about that?
Well, the fossil in question is an ichthyosaur. If the headline was true, this would be a really exciting find, since current understanding is that ichthyosaurs went extinct much earlier. It would extend the ichthyosaur fossil record by some 25 million years.
Of course, it's not true. The fact that it's not true is evident even from within the very brief article. The fossil in question dates to the Jurassic period (201-145 million years ago).
How then, did the 'journalist' come to the conclusion that the fossil was 65 million years old? He seems to have got that from a quote attributed to the guy who first stumbled across this remarkably preserved fossil. He informed journalists how exciting the experience was, to find something that 'has been there for at least 65 million years.'
So, random member of the public knows, off the top of his head, that ichthyosaurs have been extinct at least as long as dinosaurs, and thus his fossil must be older. A journalist somehow confuses this terminus ante quem based on common everyday knowledge for an age estimate and ran with it. This despite the fact that the pitiful excuse for research that went into the article had already provided them with enough information to know the fossil is about 100 million years older had they thought to, say, look up the word 'Jurassic' in Wikipedia.
What's concerning, is not just that one journalist is shit at his job and that his editors are shit at theirs (original source was the Daily Mail, after all), but that of the 7 'news sources' that simply copied the Daily Mail's story, only one put enough thought into their rewrite to remove this basic, glaring error. The other 6 all blithely inform us that it's a 65-million year old Jurassic fossil.

Replies to this message:
 Message 4 by dwise1, posted 12-17-2019 6:06 PM caffeine has replied

Member (Idle past 724 days)
Posts: 1800
From: Prague, Czech Republic
Joined: 10-22-2008

Message 5 of 5 (868749)
12-17-2019 6:28 PM
Reply to: Message 4 by dwise1
12-17-2019 6:06 PM

One thing that came out was that there is often a disconnect between the article's headline and the contents of the article itself. In many cases, the article did a proper job of citing sources and weighing both sides, etc, but the headline reflected none of that and would a times even contradict what the article said. One conclusion we arrived at (I forget whether the lecturer, an MD, had alluded to it) was that the person writing the headline was different from the person who wrote the article. IOW, a journalist wrote the article applying whatever skills and scruples a journalist would apply in conjunction with reporting the facts -- IOW, what would be important to the journalist would be the story that he is telling. But then it was the editor who wrote the headline and what was important to the editor was basically to create clickbait, to come up with a headline that would grab the readers' attention and entice them to read the article. Far too many of us, myself included, will gather much of our news by scanning headlines and not by actually taking the time to read the articles.
While this is, of course, true, it does not absolve the journalist in this case. The '65 million year' claim was taken from the text of the article. Interestingly, the subeditor who wrote the headline to the original piece is the only one of the 7 who did not include this in the headline. The original Mail headline was 'Dog walker stumbles upon five-and-a-half foot long Jurassic fossil on Somerset beach', which is much more accurate. All the copies included the journalist's dating error in the header, but I don't know if that's because this detail somehow appealed to them or because most were secondary copies of the original copy.

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 Message 4 by dwise1, posted 12-17-2019 6:06 PM dwise1 has not replied

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