News Advisory and Embargo Policy Feed Rampant Speculation About Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life
NASA issued a news advisory earlier this week announcing that timed with a paper embargoed for publication at the journal Science, that the agency would be holding a news conference at 2 p.m. on Thursday “to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.”
The news advisory immediately sent in motion rampant speculation among bloggers leading some mainstream outlets to follow in similar fashion. Examples include this article at Fox News.com: "Rumor Roundup: Has NASA Discovered Human Life?" and this article at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.com: "Has NASA found life near Saturn?"
As Curtis Brainard describes at the Columbia Journalism Review, the speculation put many science journalists in an odd fix. With advance access to the paper, they were in position to comment on the accuracy of the speculation but bound by the Science embargo policy to do so in only very limited and indirect ways. For example, Atlantic Senior Editor Alex Madigral tweeted: "“I’ve seen the Science paper. It’s not that.”
As Brainard adds in his report on the cycle of speculation:
Indeed, the embargoed Science paper, which I have also seen, is quite terrestrial in nature and will come as a disappointment to those breathlessly waiting for news that E.T. has phoned home. It’s an interesting piece of research, but certainly not one that is bound to make the front page, or perhaps any page. One science reporter I talked to (who’s also seen the paper, but didn’t want to comment on the record) felt that it was “actually quite dull.”
Later in his analysis, Brainard offers the following insight from astronomer-blogger Phil Plait:
In his post for Discover, Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait noted that he didn’t have any concrete solutions, but that faulty press releases have created problems many times in the past.
“I don’t want to blame anyone,” he wrote, “but I do sometimes wish the press folks at NASA were more aware of what kind of cascade a line like [the one about extraterrestrial life] provokes (like the one from a few weeks ago which said it was about “an exceptional object in our cosmic neighborhood” but it turned out to be a supernova/black hole 50 million light years away). When announcements like these go public, it’s bound to be disappointing when the actual news gets out and it’s not a black hole right next door or actual life on Mars.”
That, Plait said, can lead to “news fatigue.” It can also erode trust in science and journalism. Understanding that, the only hope may be that all sides—scientists, press officers, and journalists alike—will tread more carefully. Scientists and press officers need to avoid cryptic yet proactive news releases. And journalists (as well as amateur bloggers) must resist the temptation to jump to conclusions without first checking their facts.
For readers with university library access, a useful model for understanding this particular case of blog-driven speculation appears in a paper by science communication scholar Bruce Lewenstein. His paper at the journal Social Studies of Science examines the cold fusion controversy and how at that time fax technology served as the connective communication tissue by which scientists and journalists sorted out the veracity and nature of the escalating number of claims. An abstract is below:
Science in the mass media is usually interpreted in terms of traditional, linear, dissemination and translation' models of science communication. Using the cold fusion saga that began in 1989, this paper argues that communication among scientists uses many media, which interact in complex ways. A more appropriate model for modern science must account for the permeable boundaries between formal publications, preprints, electronic computer networks, fax machines, mass media presentations and other forums for scientific discussions. The new model must account for the paradox that increased communication activity may be associated with instability rather than stability, at least in the preliminary periods of a scientific controversy.
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.
- What distinguishes humans is social learning — and teaching.
- Crucial to learning and teaching is the value of free expression.
- And we need political leaders who support environments of social peace and cooperation.
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