Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Neanderthals in the News

Something that really irks me is the way that Neanderthals are potrayed in the popular media, even in science based outlets. Sensational titles like,
  • "Neanderthal Males had Popeye-like Arms" (Discovery News)
  • "Neanderthals Were More Promiscuous Than Modern Humans, Fossil Finger Bones Suggest" (ScienceDaily)
  • "Neanderthal man 'sang and danced'" (BBC)
  • Or, even, "Was Neanderthal man the original metrosexual? New study suggests he wore make-up" (to be fair, that last one was from the online version of the Daily Mail, Mail Online so we can't expect much!)
These titles suggest a whole lot more than the content the article actually discusses, much less findings of the research the article is written about.

It's true titles like these serve their purpose and grab the readers attention, and of course misleading titles altered to be more suprising or shocking pervades media on other topics too. But the result is that the message the reader takes away can be a very mislead one.

Yesterday an article on Neanderthals was published in ScienceNOW called "Neandertal Brains Developed More Like Chimps'". To the reader, this would have a very suggestive implication that Neanderthals brains are somehow chimp-like, and attrubute them with chimp-like behaviour. But really, what the article is about (http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2010/11/neandertal-brains-developed-more.html?rss=1), is how human brains are different from other primates, with a unique brain growth pattern early on in child brain development. Science Daily covered the same story with the title, "Brains of Neanderthals and Modern Humans Developed Differently", and Discovery News with, "Human, Neanderthal Brains the Same Until Birth".

It is facinating to look to our past in amusement when the first Neanderthal bones were uncovered in Germany in the 1850s, and how the image of the arthritic lumbering cave man emerged in popular culture. With todays media, however, that image looks no nearer to a true picture of our late sister species.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. While it is irksome to observe the popular misconceptions, without a degree in palaeoanthropology, such misconceptions are a natural part of the public's engagement with a topic that their understanding is limited on. For instance, my grasp of particle physics is very very slender, and the only engagement I have had through the television has led me to believe that particle physicists are slightly madcap inventors, living in underground science facilities, chasing invisible, possibly non-existent particles. I'm aware that this probably isn't true. Yet, without a formal engagement with the discipline, it will be all I know.

    So the public, who do not know, and have no reason to really know (say, if I am an accountant, whether ochre represents paint or prehistoric foundation is irrelevant to my life), I do not find particularly irksome. I agree with you though that, easily more annoying is the journalist, who tends to fulfill the role of a Jack-of-All-Trades (master of none), who confidently communicate information (read as: misinformation) they know they cannot themselves grasp.

    An equally annoying phenomenon is that of 'public perception...' dissertations. Occasionally these can be fine products of scholarship worthy of first-class marks (I have seen such pieces beautifully executed in at least a couple of cases). But the subject premise seems also to attract people who don't have an actual passion or interest within the discipline. The only attraction I see for these people towards this premise is that it is clearly quite a simple idea that can be executed without any real depth of reading (not as it should be done, I might add), and that interpretations can be made very easily without fear of contradiction on qualitative data you collect yourself!

    I have read such pieces, and the lack of reading shows, the lack of legwork and the lack of actual engagement with qualitative research methods shows. It is a slight insult to HE in general that the expression of basic survey skills, poorly executed, well within the remit of a GCSE Business Studies project, would be dignified with anything more than a third.


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