The media’s coverage of the Martialis discovery

Here’s something that bugs me.  Instead of emphasizing the real significance of the find, a discovery like the “Mars ant” Martialis heureka is usually condensed down to  “Wow, this ant is weird!”.

I’ve pasted below a sampling of leads:

Newly-Discovered Bizarre Ant – Boing Boing

‘Ant From Mars’ Discovered in Amazon Rainforest – Fox News

‘Ant from Mars’ found in Amazon jungle – Science News

But weirdness misses the point.  We have weird ants already.  The suicidal exploding Camponotus is plenty weird.  So are the gliding ants, and the ants that swim.  The real story here is the evolutionary position of Martialis.  Among the first things that happened after the emergence of ants was speciation into two lineages: one leading to Martialis, the other leading to all the other ants.

What’s the point? The important scientific findings are those with implications that reach beyond the immediate discovery.  Having this new lineage attached to the ant evolutionary tree is all fine and good in its own right, but this new branch will allow for all sorts of new evolutionary studies.  Biologists use evolutionary trees to measure rates of changes in key traits, and to test hypotheses about the sequence of evolutionary events and the processes behind them.  For students of evolution, the significance of Martialis is akin to the launch of a new space telescope for astronomers. We’re in a better position to test some of these ideas we have about how insects evolve.

I don’t mean to tar the journalists here.  Some news outlets get it.  Nature news, for instance, draws an appropriate analogy by calling Martialis the myrmecologists’ platypus, and Discover’s headline reads “Ant from Mars Offers Clues to Insect Evolution.”

Instead, the fundamental problem is that most non-biologists don’t understand what evolutionary scientists do.  Journalists may or may not understand evolution, but they have to write for the untrained public.  So the main point is too often dumbed-down to a simple, yet irrelevant, “Darn, that’s strange”.

15 thoughts on “The media’s coverage of the Martialis discovery”

  1. 1. Didn’t you hear, “evolution” will be replaced with “creationism” once Palin comes into office? Who cares what we can learn from a discredited science? 😉

    2. I can understand Fox News or some other mainstream organization doing that, but kinda disappointed that Science News would also fall into that trap.

    3. Weirdness sells. Most people would fall asleep is they started talking about measuring evolutionary rates of change.

  2. themarvelousinnature

    I agree with point #3 by asj. The problem is not that the reporters are missing the point, or are “dumbing it down”, but rather they’re reporting the story in a way that will catch the attention of readers and therefore sell more copies. The average joe-on-the-street probably really couldn’t care less whether this ant was a sister species to his common garden ant or a whole new evolutionary line, but will be fascinated by its bizarre appearance (for the same reason, that’s why the ones who did report on its evolutionary significance also happen to be the ones oriented to science enthusiasts, those people who care about such things). It’s the same thing, I guess, as the traveling freak shows of the old days. The people who came out to gawk weren’t all that interested in whether it was a malfunctioning pituitary gland or a recessive gene combination, they just thought it was bizarre. A shame, really, but that’s human nature. I suppose the equivalent is my total ignorance of, say, the stock market, or manufacturing processes, or farming practices. As long as they all work and I have what I need to survive, I don’t get all caught up in the details.

  3. I wonder whether at times like this, the media is dumbing it down to a point that they, themselves understand it in addition to the untrained public.

  4. Yahoo News may have posted the worst of all: http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080916/od_uk_nm/oukoe_uk_germany_ant
    I especially like this line “The last discovery of a new ant species was in 1923.”

    Roberto’s contribution is also a gem. Here’s my favorite line from that one: “La hormiga “marciana” se diferencia de sus congéneres mas modernas en que, entre otras cosas, tiene unas pequeñas pinzas junto a los maxilares con las que captura a sus presas.” I can’t wait to see what Univision does with it on “Despierta America”.

    On the other hand, here’s a reasonably good account from the Brazilian press: http://ultimosegundo.ig.com.br/cultura/2008/09/15/nova_especie_de_formiga_cega_e_descoberta_no_amazonas_1844974.html It even mentions the importance to evolutionary biology: “Segundo Rabeling, a descoberta ajudará os biólogos a compreender a biodiversidade e evolução das formigas, que são insetos abundantes e ecologicamente importantes.”

  5. The best coverage has to be the one in the German TAZ:

    Insekt in Doppelripp
    Wissenschaftler entdecken primitivste Ameise der Welt
    KARLSRUHE dpa/taz Karlsruher Forscher haben im brasilianischen Regenwald die primitivste Ameise der Welt gefunden. Das Tier erschien ihnen so fremd, als stamme es aus einer anderen Welt. Daher wählten sie den Namen Neucoellnis heureka – was in etwa bedeutet: “Hurra, ich habe die gefunden, die aus Neukölln stammt”. Die Wissenschaftler beobachteten, dass die primitive Ameise mit Vorliebe in einem verschwitzten Doppelrippunterhemd auf einem durchgebeulten, speckigen Sofa sitzt, sich am Sack kratzt, Dosenbier trinkt und Pornos guckt und zuweilen laut und vernehmlich rülpst. Den Insektenkundlern fielen noch weitere, hochinteressante Eigenarten der neu entdeckten Ameise auf: Sie kann fluchen wie ein Rohrspatz, benutzt dabei die unflätigsten Begriffe, pfeift Mädchen hinterher und haut ihnen auch schon mal auf den Po. Danke, Wissenschaft!

    Sorry for the German but there seem to be many readers of this blog who speak several languages. If you can read it you will love it.

  6. “Sorry for the German but there seem to be many readers of this blog who speak several languages. If you can read it you will love it.”

    I already love the way google “translated” it. Complete gibberish….

  7. Instead, the fundamental problem is that most non-biologists don’t understand what evolutionary scientists do.

    Exactly! This is why graduate programs need to train future scientists in journalism, so the next generation doing all the cutting-edge research can more effectively translate their research and results to a general audience. This is also why media needs to hire such scientists as staff writers too.

  8. This is why graduate programs need to train future scientists in journalism, so the next generation doing all the cutting-edge research can more effectively translate their research and results to a general audience.

    Please, no. Every time somebody says that scientists should spend more time and effort talking to the public / journalists / politicians / children / etc. I think “What has to be cut?”.

    Scientists are almost universally very busy people, graduate students especially. During my PhD, I consistently put in 80 hour weeks (yes, 80 hours, that’s 7 days of 11 to 12 hours per day, with the occassional 16-hour day thrown in), no weekends, no holidays. And in my particular case, that level of work was not sufficient to get everything done that needed to get done.

    What should I cut to devote time to journalism or public-communication training? Labwork? Preparation for fieldwork, or the fieldwork itself? Time spent learning the nuances of the theoretical framework I was following (i.e., meetings with professors and other classes)? I would have loved to drop all the administrative BS in favour of a journalism class, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I didn’t have time for anything at all outside of my PhD – I didn’t visit with friends more often than once a month, I didn’t speak to my family on the phone more often than once a month, and the conditions inside my apartment slowly deteriorated from neglect – I didn’t feel like washing the bathroom when I got home from the lab at 11:00pm on a Saturday night.

    Train the journalists in basic science, instead. From my (biased) point of view, the need looks greater at that end.

    Thanks for putting this up, Alex. I came here from Catalogue of Organisms, this is an interesting discussion.

    Personally, I think the gee-that’s-weird aspect of some of these science news stories is mildly positive. It’s better than totally ignoring it, for one thing, and I think a big part of the general ignorance of the general public is in appreciating just how different things are in the world out there. I was asked recently, in all seriousness, if yeast were unicellular, and if most organisms were multicellular. If you never spent much time with a microscope, these are serious questions.

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  10. asj — Don’t blame the Google translator. The German account is a farce, such as one might read in “The Oniion”, surely not meant to be serious journalism.

    Others — I’m all for teaching journalists more basic science, but don’t have much hope for the ones that go through journalism schools. It seems to me that most of the good science journalists usually enter journalism as an afterthought to studying their first love — the wonders of science and / or nature.

  11. I would very much welcome some teaching in journalism and scientific writing for students of biology at German universities. But in this special case here – the media coverage about Martialis – the problem was not bad communication on the scientist side. The piece on Yahoo is based on a news item by Reuters and the Reuters “journalist” did a very sloppy job. The problem is the general decline of quality in journalism. No training in journalism for scientists will overcome this. I guess the “success” of journalists is nowadays measured by how many words they produce per minute and not the content of their articles (or was that scientists?).

  12. The US National Science Foundation is putting more and more emphasis on the “broader impacts” statement of grant proposals. These statements explain how the public will be impacted by the research through public outreach, education, training of students, etc.. Paying journalism students to work with scientists as part of the grant is an obvious strategy that at least some schools/ labs are using. This approach at least exposes journalism students to the scientists doing the work and ensures that some press releases, etc. are worthwhile.

  13. Pingback: Martialis heureka: the not-so-flashy but important news | Archetype

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