Hobbits? What hobbits?

Homo floresiensis

My attention was drawn yesterday to a press release issued by North Carolina State University announcing the publication of a study that we are told “debunks” claims of “hobbits” once existent in the Micronesian archipelago of Palau. The paper was published today in an open-access journal, and a gripping read it is too.

In recent times I’ve noticed in science press releases an increased use of hyperbolic language, and I reacted against the NCSU one for this reason. Later in the day I noticed that the release had been removed from an online directory for journalists, and replaced by another from the University of Oregon, which you can read here. One of the co-authors of the journal paper is based in Oregon; the other two are from NCSU and the Australian National University.

What struck me about the first press release was the use in the title of the word “debunking”. The body text was fine, and the author did an excellent job of précising the science in 300 words. The problem for me was the notion that a previous scientific study, which may have flaws in it but was published in good faith, requires “debunking” in much the same way that technologically-minded bloggers might ridicule 9/11 conspiracy theories.

The new paper by Scott Fitzpatrick, Greg Nelson and Geoffrey Clark concerns the remains of small hominids found in Palau. Note that the researchers go out of their way to stress that they are not questioning the work done on the Lesser Sunda island of Flores, which you may have heard about from stories of hobbit-like creatures living alongside modern humans. The discovery by Peter Brown, Michael Morwood and others of a possible distinct species on Flores has been subject to much criticism, and as far as I know the jury is still out.

The scientific debate surrounding Homo floresiensis is fascinating. Even if the existence of a distinct species of diminutive hominid contemporaneous with modern humans is disproved, the finding could teach us something about the nature and evolution of Homo sapiens. And the same goes for the work done by Fitzpatrick et al., who say that close examination of skeletal remains found in Palau reveals normal-sized individuals. This squarely contradicts the claim published earlier this year by Lee Berger and others that Palau had once been home to a dwarf-sized population of hobbits.

I do not want to get into the scientific details here; it is beyond my competence, and there remain too many gaps in my reading for me to see clearly the bigger picture. What interests me is the way in which the science is being presented, and what comes across as a public display of bad feeling in the archaeology community. Consider, for example, the following quote from Fitzpatrick Nelson (sorry, Scott & Greg!), taken from the Oregon press release:

“I think Berger’s primary mistakes were his not understanding the variation in the skeletal population in which he was working, using fragmentary remains again in a situation where he didn’t understand variation, and stepping outside his own area of expertise, which, I think all scientists try not to do but sometimes we do.”

Now you may consider the above to be no more than mild criticism. But, believe me, when it comes from scientists this is the equivalent of a sharp kick in the goolies. I’ve heard similar said in the physics community against people who have had the temerity to stray into areas hitherto the preserve of others with strongly held views. It illustrates beautifully that science is done by human beings who can behave in all too human ways, even where they uphold the highest standards of scientific method and critical analysis.

When I first read the NCSU press release, I wrote to its author and raised my objection to the title. The writer courteously replied stating his belief that “debunk” accurately reflects the content of the paper. On reading that paper for myself, I can see what he means. In my view the language used by Fitzpatrick et al. is excoriating and in some places sarcastic.

There is a danger here in overstepping a line that has to do with the language used in scientific debate. In the case of Palau, Flores and their hobbits, we are not talking about crank science for which “debunking” is a perfectly valid approach. What we have here is serious science, and serious scientific debates can get heated enough as it is without the use of language best left to argy-bargy online forums.

I somehow doubt that we have heard the last of this, and it will be interesting to see what Berger has to say in reply to his critics. Let’s just hope he doesn’t escalate the war of words.