Sensationalising nothing

In the UK papers at least, this story has been doing the rounds. A hunter in China has trapped something rather odd looking and instantly all kinds of stupid is being stated about it. Wild speculation doesn’t even seem to be least of what I’ve spotted. ‘Last of its kind’, ‘new species’, ‘unlike anything else’ and more. Most annoyingly, the Times lead with a headline ‘scientists baffled’.

This is just sensationalist nonsense and indeed, all but libellous. Read the story and they reveal that the thing is still where it was captured and has yet to be sent for researchers to view. And there are no quotes for any researchers anywhere, just the hunter who caught it. Obviously ‘scientists are apparently baffled by something they haven’t seen yet and may not even know exists’ would be an infinitely more accurate headline. Claiming ignorance of a third party is not really fair.

Of course once you cut out the wild speculation and look at the (limited) evidence things become much clearer. I’m no expert on Chinese mammals, but some things here are obvious and they demonstrate only the ignorance and credulity of the reporting, not the apparent and alleged bafflement of researchers. A decent mammalogist will probably identify this in second.

So what do we know? First off, this animal has mange or some horrid skin condition. Some fur remains, but mostly it’s gone and so too are the whiskers. The skin is in poor condition too, emphasising that this is likely a disease, not a natural pattern. It’s also from central China, though that as a statement doesn’t narrow the range down much, or the local climate / environment.

Well, there’s no scale bar, but the wire on the cage is thin and the general shape of the shot makes it look like a small animal, maybe 2-3 feet total length. It’s also probably a carnivoran of some kind, but not a cat (wrong face, and the claws are not retracted) and not an otter either (too long a face, no webbing). It’s probably not a dog of some kind either given that the hind legs look much longer than the fore (a good look at the teeth would really help sort this out).  The body looks too stocky for a typical small mustelid like a weasel or somesuch. This leaves us with larger things like badgers, or my current best guess, a binturong (since it’s the largest civet in China I can think of with round ears). (Late break, the Guardian happily savage much of this nonsense and suggest it’s a civet, and of course demonstarte that scientists are not baffled by actually asking one).

I could be quite wrong, and without my mammal books and more information it’s hard to be sure. None of the supposedly weird and wonderful characteristics make any sense. The kangaroo-like tail cannot be seen, and in any case a wide variety of animals have surprisingly bulky and muscular tails once the fur is missing (especially arboreal ones). The strange noises are probably the result of this being an unusual animal, that is seriously ill, being dumped in a small cage for people to stare at. Lots of even very common animals make odd noises when stressed.

Now, this might be a new species, it’s always possible. But it does look like a generalised carnivoran / mustelid even from a single, bad photo with limited ancillary information. I’ll be most surprised if this turns out to be anything unusual at all. The supposedly unique and bizarre features are noting of the kind and what can be seen all fits with what we know about Asian mammals in general.

So in short, someone who knows nothing about basic anatomy or living mammals (even less than me, imagine that) and cannot spot a catastrophic disease assumes that this is weird and wonderful and will baffle anyone else who sees it. Then sensationalises said non-information and profound ignorance into the *most read* story on the Times website. Ask someone with just a bit of biological knowledge and they’d point out just how unlikely this is to be anything new or exciting. It’s also depressingly familiar to the ‘sasquatch’ that turned out to be a mangy bear a years or so back, and the ‘monster’ that was just a dead raccoon – this has happened very publicly before. What’s more, I can pretty much guarantee that when this does turn out to be something really not very interesting, there will be no coverage of this at all, and if there is, (based on previous experience) this might well be blamed on those same ‘previously baffled’ scientists who now are spoiling the fun.

It’s easy to be overly critical of these things but it’s hard to see their value. Is this turns out to be new and interesting, great, there’s a story there. But even the most basic bit of actual journalism (i.e. asking someone who knows even a bit about mammals) would reveal just how unlikely this is. It’s simply a non-story. There’s no evidence beyond ignorance that it is anything odd or unusual and the information that is available suggests that it isn’t. Yet, it’s spun into the most amazing and unusual thing in years which will turn out to be a great new discovery.

6 Responses to “Sensationalising nothing”

  1. 1 Bob Strauss 08/04/2010 at 9:55 pm

    Sounds like a reprise of the Montauk Monster (which, unbelievably, now has its own Wikipedia page):

    Gotta love all those cryptozoologists out there…

    • 2 David Hone 09/04/2010 at 9:38 am

      That was the raccoon I was referring to. Same issue, ignorance vs actually asking someone who might know something = nonsense.

  2. 3 John Scanlon, FCD 14/04/2010 at 12:06 pm

    Last time I saw a Binturong, at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, it was sleeping on a tree branch with head hidden. Looked like someone had left a detached arm off a mountain gorilla, just a mass of long black hair. Obviously a very different look, but no excuse for ignorant reporting (which also reminds me of the ‘snake with a leg’ story lest year).

    • 4 David Hone 14/04/2010 at 3:05 pm

      I have a real soft-spot for binturongs, they always look so mournful (when not asleep, which is quite rare). I always try to see them in zoos that have them, though as you say, typically all you get is an untidy pile of fur.

  1. 1 Has the media worked out it’s a civet? Not yeti they haven’t… « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 24/04/2010 at 10:16 am
  2. 2 More on science reporting « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 06/10/2010 at 8:14 pm
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