Headline writers need to be poked with a sharp stick

By Phil Plait | September 9, 2009 3:30 pm

Generally, in the news biz, both online and in print, the journalist writes the article, and the editors write the headline.

Therefore, we should not want to shout obscenities at David Derbyshire about the dumb and grossly inaccurate headline for his article, "Ancient skeletons discovered in Georgia threaten to overturn the theory of human evolution". Unless he did write it, whereupon he should then be tied to a chair and forced to read Chick tracts for three hours or until his brain melts.

The story is actually interesting, about hominid fossils found in (east European) Georgia indicating that diaspora patterns of our early primate cousins were very different than currently thought. However, this certainly doesn’t "overturn" anything about evolution. Instead, if it pans out, it will be another piece of the vast puzzle that is human prehistory. That’s how science works.

It’s obvious that the headline was written in an attempt to garner attention by hyperbolizing an otherwise already-cool story. Of course, the Daily Mail is well-known for this sort of shenanigans. You’d be better off getting your science news elsewhere. Where, you ask? I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?

Blogs.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (57)

  1. I just read this earlier, and I thought it referred to the US State of Georgia. It is only as you get into the article, and see the map, that one realizes he is talking about the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. If I were a Creationist, the headline enough would have been enough to make me wet myself with glee. However, isn’t this the nature of science? When new evidence arises, it causes us to re-think and re-examine theories and realize that, as you say, the diaspora patterns were different than previously thought.

  2. Schwa

    The idiot at the Daily Mail has a fig leaf of plausibility – it could overturn the current theory of hominid migrations into Europe, which is a theory of modern human evolution. It’s not sensationalism with no regard for facts. It’s just deception.

  3. vanderleun

    I am so glad you’ve come home to blogs and realizing their place in the media universe.

    Just the other day I was concerned about a bit of cognitive dissonance when you wrote “That doesn’t mean we have to give them a voice in the mainstream press.”

  4. vanderleun

    How about “A skull that rewrites the history of man” from The Independent

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/a-skull-that-rewrites-the-history-of-man-1783861.html

    Then again the usually trustworthy New Scientist is “jes askin'” with

    Did early humans evolve in Europe, not Africa?

    And the NZ Herald is arguing for a little more origin diversity with

    Skulls suggest Africa not sole cradle of humankind

    Me I’m waiting for Weekly World News to weigh in before picking a favorite.

  5. forced to read Chick tracts for three hours

    Eep! Remind me not to cross you, Phil. Er, Dr. Plait. Sir.

  6. “blogs”

    Yes, because you’d never get hyperbole or exaggeration on a blog ;)

  7. However, isn’t this the nature of science? When new evidence arises, it causes us to re-think and re-examine theories

    Yes. A significant number of people consider that a weakness.

  8. James

    The thing with blogs is that they’re similar to editorial pieces – you know there’s going to be some bias there, and they (generally) don’t pretend to be completely objective like mainstream news does.

    Everyone’s biased a little, and generally it’s the people who pretend they aren’t biased at all that actually have the most extreme biases.

  9. ShoeShine Boy

    In my experience, most blogs don’t do any actual reporting. They just comment on reporting done by others.

  10. @James: And open blogs like this one will get people in the comments pointing out those biases pretty regularly.

  11. Doug

    Wait … is “blogs” a word already?

  12. Chick tracts are awesome… for their stupidity…

  13. @ShoeShine Boy: Unfortunately, most reporters don’t do any actual reporting either, being content to uncritically regurgitate press releases and anonymous statements.

    I suppose the lesson is “follow multiple sources”.

  14. If we poke them with a sharp stick, do we have to stop applying pressure if we feel resistance?

  15. Wait … is “blogs” a word already?

    It’s been in the Oxford English Dictionary since 2003, if I recall correctly.

  16. Anne V

    My first thought was that the skeletons were marching along with spears… weird visual.

  17. Chris A.

    AFAIC, Chick tracts are nothing less than hate speech in graphic novel form.

  18. tacitus

    Nice to see the creationists (and the “ancient alien Gods” crowd) getting dinged hard in the comments for the article. So much so that they’re having to turn the negative red down arrow against their comments into a badge of prideful honor.

  19. vanderleun

    “Chick tracts are nothing less than hate speech in graphic novel form.” Really? Wow! Forehead slap! Who knew? I’m burning my complete collection now.

    http://www.weirdcrap.com/chick/archive.html

  20. As much as I value blogs, I have to agree with ShoeShine Boy.

    Blogs generally don’t do reporting, i.e. speak with relevant experts on a per-story basis, extract key information from those interviews, organize that information so an audience can understand it, and majorly stick out necks in some cases. Key word: generally.

    What blogs most often do is comment on reporting, offer extra insights into that story/topic, or simply bring reports to the attention of others.

    I think most readers don’t realize is that almost all stories these days (science stories, anyways) come directly from institutions at the hands of public affairs/public information officers. Reporters — in a rush to “be first” and drastically increase page views — change the tone, style, and add a new sentence or two to press releases. And that’s it.

    In the rare event that there’s 30 minutes or so, news org employees may be able to call one person up for comment and write their own stuff. Been there, done that, and my sense is that it hasn’t gotten better since I took a big step out of that simply crazy arena.

  21. ARJ

    Anyone know if this chap is related to British writer John Derbyshire who holds to some rather conservative notions?

  22. For those commenting on reporting done by blogs, I’ll note that this is precisely what I do when I write about astronomy and space issues here. In general, I get the info first hand from the journal paper if I can, and as a scientist and professional astronomer I usually have enough knowledge to write about the topic as well.

    So yeah, blogs.

  23. tacitus

    Anyone know if this chap is related to British writer John Derbyshire who holds to some rather conservative notions?

    I hope not, for his own sake.

  24. tacitus

    As with newspapers, you have to be discerning about the blogs you read too.

  25. Jeff in Tucson

    Phil (Comment #22) FTW

  26. Ray

    So its wrong to write misleading headlines? Or does that only apply when other people do it?

  27. For a minute, I thought Phil was calling the journalist to task for conjuring up Jason of the Argonauts-esque imagery: hordes of skeletons marching upon an academic establishment.

  28. Brian T.

    I can’t believe no one has posted this yet. (Mouse over the red button for additional goodness)

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1623

  29. Thanny

    Aside from the sensationalism in the headlines, the content seems to be rubbish, too. A 1.8 million year old hominid in Europe? This is not new. We’ve known for quite some time that Homo erectus left Africa a long, long time ago, and that none of the modern human populations are descended from them (DNA shows this beyond a reasonable doubt).

  30. Mike Wagner

    Off-topic but freakin’ amazing :)
    Just watched the ISS go over, with an expected magnitude of -3.4
    But the heck with that. It flared to at *least* -10 a few seconds after it appeared.
    I thought the -8 Iridium flare I saw was bright, but this was insane.
    I love heavens-above! What a great site for sights :)

  31. I happen to be in the middle of some self-education on paleoanthropology (whew!) after reading “The First Human” by my close personal friend, Ann Gibbons (no smiley, I’ve known her for decades). It would seem that the writer of this newspaper piece was long on hype and short on research (so what else is new?). Java Man (a variant on H. erectus) was discovered in 1891 and has been dated to more than a million years old. If they were in eastern Asia by 1.2 mya, why is it so surprising that the were still thousands of miles closer to Africa 600,000 years before that?

    BTW, “The First Human” is a great read if you have any curiosity at all about where we came from. It’s not so much about paleoanthropology itself as it is a collective story about the scientists who are currently leaders in the field and what they go through to practice it. I’ve been following it up with “The Last Human” which shows reconstructions of what the earlier hominids may have looked like starting with the Ardipithicus and continuing up to the present H. sapien. The last human of the title is, of course, us since we’re the only specie of the genus left. If you’re going to read this one, though, read Ann’s book first to give you a needed background on the subject.

    – Jack

  32. Well, at least in this article, the Mail didn’t completely butcher and misrepresent scientific research to tap into a culture war topic. Because their previous big story did exactly that:

    http://worldofweirdthings.com/2009/09/09/good-science-meets-terrible-journalism/

    And as for blogs being a good source for science news and in depth information, I’m going to agree with Phil and counter the criticisms thusly:

    “In my experience, most blogs don’t do any actual reporting. They just comment on reporting done by others.”

    Sometimes I will do actual reporting, asking for interviews with the NCSE, the Texas Freedom Network, a space tourist and once upon a time even Phil who for some odd reason decided to accept my request. =)

    But it’s a matter of budget and standing. I don’t have the time, the cachet or the cash to track down all the primary sources I want and put together a story due next week. That’s old school reporting and as anyone who worked in the news biz will tell you, it’s expensive. So instead I end up doing a fair bit of commentary and secondary research, much of it being fact checking and correcting errors made by publications that are supposed to know better.

    Still, I will take time and look at the source data and the original papers, sticking to topics I know and understand well enough to provide a qualified comment. And of course, I do have to mention that since anyone can start a blog nowadays, you have to be careful who you read on scientific matters and never take what you see as gospel.

    “What blogs most often do is comment on reporting, offer extra insights into that story/topic, or simply bring reports to the attention of others.”

    Dave, considering how you described the mainstream news publishing process, that’s our value as bloggers. Today’s journalistic institutions decided to stop half-way at reporting the story. We’re there to do the analysis, the fact-checking and the other heavy lifting that comes with an important article.

  33. I see that Thanny @28 beat me to the same comment while mine was in its 15 minute quarantine. Oh, well. Great minds and all that.

    – Jack

  34. MadScientist

    Does that include blogs like the climate change denialist blogs? How about anti-vax blogs? How do people know what blogs are worth reading? I’m told (I don’t care to check the veracity) that many people make use of things like “digg” but people skew statistics and ‘bury’ stories because they have some agenda. Obviously the public at large and people with a bias cannot be trusted to provide useful information. So who you gonna call?

  35. If only mainstream media headlines were accurate summaries of the article just like blog headlines are – such as, say, “Headline writers need to be poked with a sharp stick”

  36. toasterhead

    I don’t think this conflicts with the prevailing wisdom – it’s been known for a long time that earlier homo species left Africa for Europe and the Middle East long ago. The neandertals were there long before humans, why not homo erectus?

  37. gruebait

    “…forced to read Chick tracts for three hours or until his brain melts.”

    Jeez, that’s harsh. Not even Chuck Norris could take 3 hours of that, and he enjoys Vogon poetry.

  38. Damon

    Southeast-European Georgia sure sounds a lot more interesting than Southeast U.S.A. Georgia.

  39. The Ill Tempered Klavier

    @gruebait: Chuck Norris does not read. He stares at books until they tell him what he wants to know.

    Actually, a headline chosen more to attract attention than accurately indicate the content of the article seems to be the usual case. This one is just exceptionally annoying.

  40. Helioprogenus

    I had the pleasure this summer to actually visit areas in northern Armenia (bordering Georgia) with recently uncovered tools of Homo Erectus (Homo Georgicus?), probably of the same make dating to approximately 1.8 million years. Papers on the subject have yet to be published because access to Western archaeologists is only just becoming relatively common. Basically, what you can say about Georgia, you can say about Armenia as well.
    Dmanisi, where the skulls were found is approximately 20 kilometers away from the Armenia border and an amazing landscape of canyons, small limestone caves, forests, and rolling hills.

    However, if you want to be pedantic, the area of Georgia where the skulls are found is South of the Europe/Asia divide, and technically considered part of Asia. Geographically, the North-Western segment of Asia has nominative difficulties. What do you call the area South of the Caucuses Divide, North of the Zagros mountains of Iran, West of the Caspian, and East of Anatolia? I guess Transcaucasia, but then, you’d be leaving out the Armenian highlands (othewise known as Eastern Anatolia). Generally, the initial outward migration led to a wintering limit at the Caucasus. I propose calling this area Hurromontania, since it’s mountainous and influenced by the Hurrians of the middle Bronze Age.

  41. Gareth

    “You’d be better off getting your science news elsewhere. Where, you ask? I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?

    Blogs.”

    You’d be better off getting your science news from the Children’s Big Book of Nursery Rhymes than the Daily Mail.

  42. John Morales

    “Blogs.”

    My respect for Phil goes up yet another notch.

    (And my respect for “Discover”, too, for allowing him this freedom.)

    <relurk>

  43. Steve A

    While I can see your issue with the Daily Mail, your point is too general, Phil. Not that print articles are perfect, but I think you’re taking one bad paper and applying it to everyone. You are especially taking as your basis a UK paper, which often are much more editorial in style than US papers.

    Here is an example of what I feel you did in reverse, which by the same logic shows that bloggers are the worst science reporters:

    The Daily Tech (http://www.dailytech.com/NASA+Study+Acknowledges+Solar+Cycle+Not+Man+Responsible+for+Past+Warming/article15310.htm) this past June cites “new research” that shows the sun is responsible for global warming. However, when you look at what it references, it’s a study that is over a year old and the Daily Tech author at several points contradicts the study results in his report.

    Now, I don’t think this is typical of all bloggers, but should it be an example of all of them? If I read an anti-vaxxer blog on Huffington Post, does that mean that all blogs are scientifically worthless? As all blogs are not equal, the same is true of scientific reporting.

  44. Alex Witze

    The 1.8-my remains at Dmanisi are indeed significant but have been known for years. Reporters, in addition to headline writers, deserve the sharp stick for this one:

    http://network.nature.com/people/henrygee/blog/2009/09/09/not-so-much-news-as-olds

  45. Mapnut

    I don’t know who the readership of the Daily Mail is, but the voting on the comments about the article are very strongly in favor of the scientific.

  46. Gadfly

    Doug was wondering if “blogs” is a word. It was coined from two words orginally “web log”, which, when scrunched together and then unscrunched came out “we blog”.
    That’s the origin of “blog”.

  47. Tom Jones

    My immediate impression from this is that we had to get out of Africa in order to develop. Could Africa be a kind of ‘Bermuda Triangle’ where advancement is lost, never to be heard from again?

  48. ChadS

    In this case I’m not sure we can blame the headline writer for a bad headline. It seems to me that the headline lifts a quote from the main body of the story. In the main body of the article right beneath the picture of the skull we read: “Archaeologists have unearthed six ancient skeletons dating back 1.8 million years in the hills of Georgia which threaten to overturn the theory of human evolution.” Perhaps it’s a case of the journalist and the headline writer meaning two different things but to purely blame the headline writer doesn’t seem fair in this case.

  49. Buzz Parsec

    Usually the picture captions are written by the headline writer (or editor), not by the reporter.

  50. Jar JarBinks Killer

    Headline writers need to be poked with a sharp stick

    If by that you mean headline writers need to be run through with a spear …

    … Then I’m right with ya BA! ;-)

    Of course, that may really need to be sharp wooden stake through the heart … ;-)

    ****

    Recalling an incident some years ago when apparently, according to my local rag, “astrologers” rather than *astronomers* discovered a new pulsar. :roll:

  51. Ginger Yellow

    “Anyone know if this chap is related to British writer John Derbyshire who holds to some rather conservative notions”

    John Derbyshire may be extremely conservative, but he’s very much pro-evolution. He’s slapped down creationist and pro-ID nonsense from his NRO colleagues on many occasions.

  52. Ian

    Did they dig up a Raptor as well? Dunno how they’d keep after 150,000 years.

  53. Hilarious stream, I have to say!
    And I will also say that the only reason I read this far is because of the headline. Perfect!!
    I wonder if headline writers are making less these days due to the economic downturn and the effect on the newspaper industry…”you get what you pay for” sound familiar?

    Phil, you did a great job with this one! Thanks for catching my attention…..

  54. I'd rather be fishin'

    I started reading this blog because of my interest in astronomy. I found my self reading and enjoying what many others complained were off-topic posts. Keep up the good work Phil. Your allegedly off-topic posts more often than not cause me to read the science behind the posts. This was one of them. Now I know lots about hominid fossils and little about what I want to teach my kids tomorrow. Thanks Phil, thanks a lot.

    I would agree with Phil IF I get to do the poking with the sharp stick. The local tabloid rag just phoned while I was typing the 1st paragraph offering me a month’s free paper if I get a year’s subscription. I explained that the most intellectual writing in the paper is found on the comics page and the most accurate information are the sports scores. The guy thanked me and asked if I wanted the special deal.

  55. ChadS

    Buzz in this case the line I was referencing appears in the text below the picture, but it is not part of the caption to the picture. I meant it to be more of a visual reference since page or paragraph numbering isn’t available for a more precise reference.

  56. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    The idiot at the Daily Mail has a fig leaf of plausibility – it could overturn the current theory of hominid migrations into Europe, which is a theory of modern human evolution.

    Then again, the recent cladistic analysis of H. floresiensis overturns this as well. [Which I won’t link, to get around the spam filter.]

    Earlier multifactor analysis placed floresiensis close to australopithecines. And the cladistic analysis places it as either split off between H. rudolfensis and H. habilis or as split off from the later.

    This is presumably consistent, as for example Leakey claims from his finds that habilis and erectus are coexistent and AFAIU thinks it likely that habilis was an australopithecine. (A. garhi made tools too and would properly then be a Homo as I understand the definition of it.)

    In any case, unless the unlikely happened that the earlier (but perhaps partly overlapping) habilis migrated later, erectus wasn’t first out of Africa.

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