November 5, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Dumbing Down the Science Reading Public

In their rush to grab attention-getting headlines, are reporters doing more harm than good?  An essential part of science education is critical thinking.  Some headlines and articles state ideas that far outstrip the meager data on which they are based. 

  1. Fingers do the walking:  Science Daily blindly reproduced an audacious claim from the University of Liverpool that Neanderthals were promiscuous on the basis of – what? – their finger bones.  “Neanderthals Were More Promiscuous Than Modern Humans, Fossil Finger Bones Suggest.”  The thinking was that a thick finger bone suggests larger amounts of male hormone during development, which in turn suggests that the men were more masculine, therefore aggressive, therefore promiscuous.  Not only that, the same scientists concluded that Australopithecus was monogamous, and Ardipithecus was promiscuous.
  2. Cometary omens:  Charles Q. Choi in Live Science took the occasion of Deep Impact’s flyby of Comet Hartley 2 (see JPL for photos) to tell a story: “How Earth May Owe Its Life to Comets.”  The origin of earth’s water and the origin of life are major unsolved problems for secular scientists, and comet impacts could inflict more damage than aid, but for the purposes of reporting, comets make nice objects that “suggest” benign effects on earth history, though seeing a cyanide jet coming out of Hartley 2 causes a minor problem.
  3. Axe-ing a question:  Observation: some stone tools in a South Africa cave show that the inhabitants had pretty good craftsmanship.  Conclusion: “Our ancestors had to grow bigger brains to make axes,” said Catherine de Lange at New Scientist.  She took the word of scientists at Imperial College London that “putting together more complex language requires you to have more complex structured thoughts, in the same way that making more complex tools requires more complex actions” – true enough, though she left it unclear how the need to grow a bigger brain led to the correct sequence of random mutations to bring it about.  Perhaps it was a decision by the cave council.
  4. Universal warming:  Live Science announced, “Black Holes Gave Our Baby Universe a Fever.”  PhysOrg followed up with a trendy headline, “Astronomers find evidence of cosmic climate change.”  Let’s hope they don’t blame humans for that.  The focus of the articles might have been on the quandary facing cosmologists for detecting anomalous heat in distant galaxies, and for invoking unobservable black holes to account for it.
  5. Lively Mars:  Is it even possible for a science reporter to write about Mars these days without using the L-word life?  Maggie McKee at New Scientist couldn’t break the habit.  The mere presence of hydrated silica on the sides of a Martian volcano was enough to set off the hallucinations: “Silica deposits on Mars could entomb possible life.
  6. Missing blink:  “Missing link” is second only to “survival of the fittest” as a phrase capable of conjuring up the bearded visage of Charles Darwin.  The missing link in PhysOrg’s story, though, was not an apeman, but a chemical element: phosphorus.  It was apparently enough floss for us to be told, “Phosphorus identified as the missing link in evolution of animals.”  Just add phosphorus, and presto: animals.  According to a geochemist at the University of Alberta, who claims he divined a rise in phosphorus in the world’s oceans 750 million years ago, “That establishes our link between phosphorus and the evolution of animals.”

Radical conclusions are not neutralized with wiggle words that the data “suggest” the conclusion.  The data could suggest many other conclusions – even opposite ones.
    One of the few paleoanthropologists willing to chastise his colleagues for unscientific notions is Professor John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he does it with alacrity.  On his John Hawks Blog entry for today, he pointed out an inherent circularity in the argument that human mutation rates can determine the time when the human-chimpanzee lineages diverged.  After providing details from published literature, he exclaimed, “So much of the literature in this area is ultimately circular, I’m pulling out my sparse hair reading through it.  It’s turtles all the way down!” (see humor page).

Since mainstream science reporters have proven themselves utter dupes of the Darwin Party, drunk on Darwine and acting like court jesters gulping toads in the Darwin castle, it’s up to us readers to do the critical thinking.  The ultimate irony in all this is that these very reporters and Darwin-worshipers think of themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment, rationalism, science, and free speech.  If the town drunk fancies himself the reasonable man, what are the truly reasonable to do in a town run by the drunks?

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