A newspaper repeats fake science news

With fake news such a hot topic in public discourse, the mainstream media are trying to sell themselves as the superior, “curated media”. They establish “fact checking units”, positing themselves as the last word on what is true and what isn’t.

It’s a pity then, that they so often publish self-evident bollocks.

In few other subjects is mainstream media bollocks more obvious than in science reporting. This is partly due to scientists trying to “sex up” what is often pretty uninteresting stuff for a general audience, but mostly because most journalists just don’t know that much about science.

A particularly egregious example of fake science news comes from a newspaper. Quote:

All modern humans descended from a solitary pair who lived 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, scientists say. End of quote.

That’s a pretty remarkable claim. As such, you’d expect it to be getting a lot of attention. A quick search only turns up the original Daily Mail article and a whole bunch of obscure blogs. Clearly, something is amiss.

So, I found the original paper (helpfully online for free). Not surprisingly, it doesn’t make that claim at all.

It does quote another paper, saying that “The reduced variability of small populations is not always due to accidental gene loss, but sometimes to the fact that the entire population was started by a single pair or by a single fertilized female”. Then it goes on to state that the data cannot decide between “the extreme bottleneck of a founding pair, or via sorting within a founding population of thousands that was stable for tens of thousands of years”.

Interestingly, the Daily Mail article that a newspaper has reprinted so uncritically contradicts its own headline: Quote:

The study has been misunderstood by some religious parties who thought it meant that we all came into being in some seminal Big Bang-typed event 100,000 ago, but this isn’t what the findings actually suggest. End of quote.

Having sneered at “religious parties”, the breathless journalists then try and yoke the paper to their own religion. Quote:

“At a time when humans place so much emphasis on individual and group differences, maybe we should spend more time on the ways in which we resemble one another and the rest of the animal kingdom.” End of quote.

Aww, it’s a small world, after all, folks. We’re all the same, under our skins. Take that, Drumpf!

Except, that’s not even what the paper is about. Its real content is actually pretty dull stuff. Quote:

The paper, which I believe is poorly written and highly speculative, is an attempt to make sense of the fact that mitochondrial DNA bar coding is useful in identifying species…this also implies that there is very little variation of mtDNA within the individuals of any species. The purpose of the paper is to suggest hypotheses as to why the latter observation is true…

The authors of the original paper never discuss “origin” or beginning of species. They simply suggest that one or more bottlenecks have happened to a large majority of species within a relatively short time frame. End of quote.

Scientists need to stop making exaggerated, attention-seeking claims to try and sex up their papers.

More importantly, a newspaper should have read the whole thing – and read and understood the source material – before repeating a splashy, attention-seeking – and entirely fake – headline.

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