missing link?

June 16, 2009 at 7:20 am | | science and the public, science community, scientific integrity

I read this interesting editorial in Science about the media hyping of a recent archeological find. Just look at Jørn Hurum, the team leader:


The report of finding the intact skeleton of a monkey-thing was reported in PLOS One, but not before the media hype started. There is a TV documentary of the find and the research on the fossil, and the group is touting the find as the next Rosetta Stone and the “missing link” between apes and humans. For instance, here are a few quotes from the team that reported the find:

“This specimen is like finding the lost ark for archaeologists. It is the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail.” –Jørn Hurum

“[It is] like the eighth wonder of the world.” –Jens Franzen

What douchebags. This kind of bullshit is seriously likely to undermine the credibility of science in the public eye. Going around claiming that you’ve found the missing link—not to fellow scientist but to the public at large—is very dangerous: when it turns out that your monkey-thing is not a little human, the incident will only add gasoline to the anti-evolution fire. If it really is the missing link, let your fellow paleontologists make those statements.

I find this type of grandstanding by the authors scary, and very reminiscent of the Fleischmann and Pons cold fusion debacle. In fact, I recently watched a 60 Minutes episode about cold fusion, in which Fleischmann stated that his only regrets were naming the effect he saw “fusion” and holding a press conference. In other words, if he and Pons had not overhyped their results directly to the media, then maybe they wouldn’t have been run out of science when their science turned out to have fatal flaws.

Hurum claims that he’s only hyping in this fashion in order to help get children intersted in science. But clearly, his base motivation is to make himself rich and famous. Yes, we should get children excited about real science, but not at the expense of scientific integrity.

Or maybe this little monkey-thing will end up being seen as a great scientific discovery for generations. But I doubt it.


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  1. I’m still waiting for the missing links that were supposed to come with my Grand Slam breakfast.

    Comment by Kendall — June 16, 2009 #

  2. Amen.

    Although the label “monkey-thing”, with the included hyphen, made me shoot my lunch all over the coporate computer. Awsome indeed, sir.

    Comment by organikchemist — June 16, 2009 #

  3. If grandstanding leads to public awareness of fossilized transitional species, then I support it. It is a transitional species unless it’s fake, and fakes (especially fakes of boney fossils) are identified by X-ray.

    Comment by wm — June 16, 2009 #

  4. That’s “Mr. Monkey-Thing,” Sam. Respect your elders.

    Comment by jordan — June 16, 2009 #

  5. if they keep discovering these missing links, pretty soon there will be no fossil record at all.

    for instance, for each new link, they generate two new gaps, on on either side of the current discovery. if you look at the limit of # links/ #gaps, as the # of gaps diverges, the ratio goes to zero. this means the density of the fossil record goes to zero!! they’ve got to stop discovering more fossils before the fossil record disappears!!!

    we have to destroy the fossil record in order to save it!


    Comment by rob — June 16, 2009 #

  6. what a timely post! i went to see this at the Museum of Natural History and was very very disappointed. First, they charged a huge extra fee to see this fossil. It was a part of the “extreme creatures” exhibit which was very thin on content and very full of eXXXtreme signage. [Spoiler: the most extreme creature is MAN]

    All in all, a disaster.

    Comment by ilya — June 18, 2009 #

  7. You are completely incorrect about cold fusion. It did not have any “fatal flaws.” On the contrary, it was replicated thousands of times in hundreds of major laboratories.

    I have a collection of 1,200 peer-reviewed journal papers on cold fusion copied from the library at Los Alamos, and 2,000 other papers from national laboratories, the U.S. Navy, conference proceedings and other sources. I suggest you review this literature more carefully before making assertions about it. You will find the complete bibliography and 600 full text papers here:


    Comment by Jed Rothwell — June 20, 2009 #

  8. I am not incorrect.

    The first paper included plots that were missing tell-tail peaks. There was a second paper published later with corrections. On top of that, cold fusion has not yet been accepted by most experts as correct. That’s a pretty big flaw.

    I think that most scientist will be thrilled to accept cold fusion as true when they see compelling evidence coming from credible laboratories. But extraordinary claims deserve extraordinary evidence!

    Anyway, my point was that the cold-fusion press conference did more damage than good!

    Comment by sam — June 21, 2009 #

  9. You wrote:

    “On top of that, cold fusion has not yet been accepted by most experts as correct.”

    That is incorrect. Most of the papers written by experts accept that the effect is real. There are many scientists who say the effect is not real, but they have not read the literature, reviewed the experiments or published papers on the subject, so they are not experts. An expert would be someone like the late Heinz Gerischer, a leading electrochemist and the director of the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. He met with researchers and reviewed the literature and concluded:

    “In spite of my earlier conclusion, – and that of the majority of scientists, – that the phenomena reported by Fleischmann and Pons in 1989 depended either on measurement errors or were of chemical origin, there is now undoubtedly overwhelming indications that nuclear processes take place in the metal alloys.”

    Another expert would be Robert Duncan, the expert in calorimetry and energy and Fellow of the APS who was sent by 60 Minutes to review experiments. His conclusions are entirely positive. He recently gathered ~30 experts at U. Missouri for a 1-day seminar on cold fusion, which you can see at the university web site on video. At the end of the day all of them agreed that cold fusion is real.

    “I think that most scientist will be thrilled to accept cold fusion as true when they see compelling evidence coming from credible laboratories.”

    As I mentioned, thousands of papers have been published by credible laboratories. You can find 1,200 in any university or national laboratory. Only a few hundred of these describe failed experiments; the rest are what you demand: compelling evidence from credible labs, such as tritium at levels 10E8 times background, or heat at ~100 W with no input. Until you review this information carefully I do not think you are in a position to contradict me.

    “But extraordinary claims deserve extraordinary evidence!

    This is not a principle of science. It is made-for-TV pop science. It was coined by Carl Sagan for the 1980 “Cosmos” television series. Conventional scientific standards dictate that extraordinary claims are best supported with ordinary evidence from off-the-shelf instruments and standard techniques. All mainstream cold fusion papers present this kind of evidence.

    “Anyway, my point was that the cold-fusion press conference did more damage than good!”

    Perhaps it did. Fleischmann thinks so. But that has no bearing on the peer-reviewed literature. I suggest you ignore press conferences, newspaper reports, Wikipedia, Internet rumors and the like, and judge this issue based on scientific literature instead.

    Comment by Jed Rothwell — June 21, 2009 #

  10. I read the PLOS article and lingered over the photographs. I thank Hurum for not publishing in the public realm; he could have had a prestigious article in Nature. The paper is appropriately dull, emphasizing only morphology and not making any big claims.

    The fossil is amazing and may be a link between lemurs and monkeys. Just based on it’s beauty it will likely become an icon, like Archaeopteryx.

    Comment by ed1897 — June 21, 2009 #

  11. I meant to say I thank the authors for making the publication in the public realm.

    Comment by ed1897 — June 21, 2009 #

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