Thursday, November 20, 2008

You're Not Helping

Some careless reporting and some unfortunate quotes and I see this thing is going to turn into a joke for the christian right creationists to use to poke fun at evolution. Of course the general scientific community will not be affected nor most readers, but at some level it's better not to encourage them I think.

"Kangaroo genes close to humans" is the sensational title of the article. But what does 'close' mean? This, of course, is all relative. Closer to humans than squid are, yes. Closer than fungi, absolutely. Close like primates? No fucking way, not even close.

Saying that "much of it was similar to the genome for humans" means nothing of course alone.
We humans have genes that are nearly identical to those in yeast.

At the end of the article there is an attempt to put it in perspective, but again with the one-liners I just can't see how the lay-reader will make any sense of any of this:

"Humans and kangaroos last shared an ancestor at least 150 million years ago, the researchers found, while mice and humans diverged from one another only 70 million years ago."
"Wait, what?" one might think "I thought we were like kangaroos. But now we're more like mice? Does that mean twice as much like mice?"

But then the end of the article is the worst of all:
"Kangaroos are hugely informative about what we were like 150 million years ago," Graves said.
No context. No explanation. An image is conjured of kangaroos walking around 150 million years ago and then evolving into humans. No no no. It's rather all very indirect and 'we' is thrown around loosely. Now coincidentally having had he opportunity to hear this very Jenny Graves speak at a top scientific meeting outside of Brisbane a few years ago (Great talk by the way and the closing talk of the meeting), I would say that if in fact that quote came from her without more context, she did it on purpose just to mix things up and get people talking. (And to of course bring spotlight to her unique research into the genomes of endemic Australian species).

But this article is just generally useless. Does anybody get anything out of it? "Kangaroo genes close to human" and then nothing. gah. It's time more mainstream press took the initiative to actually understand the science behind these discoveries and make an effort to explain it to the population. People aren't stupid. They can handle it.

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