Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why is public reporting about science often so frustrating?

Reading a bit of ABC online over breakfast, I was surprised at the claim, to quote the title of the piece, that a "pregnant reptile fossil suggests bird ancestors gave birth to live young". Wow, that would be quite something, if the ancestor of the birds had given birth to live young and then later down the lineage they had re-invented egg laying. I would not have thought something like that possible, Dollo's Law and all.

Closer examination of the article shows that the title is quite a bit at variance with the rest. There is no mention of the reptile in question being the actual ancestor of the birds. It is sitting on a side branch of the phylogeny, and the conclusion made by the authors is merely "scientists can at least rule out the possibility that animals in this group", i.e. the clade that birds and crocodiles belong to, "were somehow incapable of evolving the ability to give birth to live young". They actually show the phylogenetic tree from the original paper and it shows the relevant reptile on a side branch.

So the title is not merely misleading but actually downright wrong. Don't science journalists know what an "ancestor" is? Did they not show the final article to somebody who knows that stuff and ask for feedback?

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