Meet Ida. The now famous 47-million-year-old primate fossil sent shock waves world-round with her formal introduction this week: “MEDIA ALERT: WORLD-RENOWNED SCIENTISTS REVEAL A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING.” In other words, scientists suggest the little gal is ‘The Missing Link’, the earliest ancestor of all living monkeys, apes and people.
Leaving the impact on Darwin’s debate (and the all-cap announcement, really?) aside, the message was meant for the world at large and seemingly boasted enough bravado to carry it across the coasts of all seven continents. The unveiling of the fossil came as part of a carefully-orchestrated publicity campaign at the American Museum of Natural History; a History Channel film on the discovery will air next week; a book release and a slew of other documentaries will follow — unusual for scientific discoveries.
Jorn Hurum, a Norwegian paleontologist involved in Ida’s discovery, positioned the publicity by suggesting: “Any pop band is doing the same thing.”
But here’s the problem: in their quest to generate greatness on a global scale, Hurum & Company may have overstated the significance of their skeleton. “It’s an extraordinarily complete, wonderful specimen but it’s not telling us too much that we didn’t know before,” paleoanthropologist Elwyn Simons of Duke University said of the fossil.
University of Michigan paleontologist Philip Gingerich, one of Dr Hurum’s co-authors, said the team would have preferred to publish in a more rigorous journal such as Science or Nature. Dr Gingerich told The Wall Street Journal: “There was a TV company involved and time pressure. We’ve been pushed to finish the study. It’s not how I like to do science”.
The extensive hype heaped on the findings has shifted focus from purpose to presentation, thereby diminishing both. The question the scientific work must now withstand: did the discovery drive the story, or did the desire for splash refine the results?