So I couple of weeks ago I wrote about the ‘Oriental yeti‘ (itself redundant really) story in the media. What was, and remains, rather obviously a normal mammal (and many people have independently pinned down as most likely being a civet) suffering from mange. I noted that the story was pure hyperbole and built on not only the ignorance of the media spreading the story, but also their apparent refusal to do the obvious thing and actually ask someone who might know what it was. Instead, the opposite was effectively true as the phrase ‘scientists baffled’ did the rounds. They weren’t baffled, they simply weren’t asked.
I suggested that once the news broke that it was in fact not interesting at all, it would either be ignored, or the scientists might come in for further criticism for apparently not having got it right immediately. Well, 2 weeks have passed with no word from anyone. It should take only a cursory glance at the real animal to see what it is, and the alleged DNA tests that were to take place should really have been done by now, even if they were no ones’ priority. It was not said which lab said animal was going to be sent to or who would look at it, so it’s hard to find out what happened exactly, but since it is (i rather assume) the job or journalists to find things out as well as report on them, then it doesn’t look like anyone has been trying very hard to follow it up.
What I can say is that after a couple of weeks there has been no new news story on the animal since it initially broke. No follow ups have appeared anywhere that I can find. Good ‘ol Google is quite revealing – search for “Oriental Yeti” and you get more than 215 000 hits. Add ‘civet’ to that and you get less than 6000.
That’s quite a difference and really illustrates the power of the media to spread misinformation and poor science (however unwittingly or unintentionally). Hundreds of thousands, if not millions or even tens of millions, of people will have seen the story about the baffled scientists and the incredible / bizarre new animal. A few tens of thousand might have heard that it’s just a mangy civet. Even if the media do know by now, they clearly aren’t in any hurry to follow this story up and publicise the fact that they clearly presented something very boring as very interesting, that they didn’t bother to (or apparently even consult) any actual scientists on the subject and had (if somewhat lightly) accused them of not working out what it was in the first place.
This of course massively distorts the information going out, but also the distribution of that information. You know, you just *know* that there will be people out there, years or even decades from now, saying “well they never worked out what that Chinese thing was, did they?”. They’ll assume that this has remained a mystery or was something new when it was commonplace. This distorts the scientific process, the work and attitudes of scientists to this work, and paints a very unflattering picture of their abilities.
People worked out what this was minutes after the story broke and 2 weeks on there has been no correction, no follow up, no new stories, no (dare i say it?) journalism. And that’s how the media cover science. Great eh?