“THE UNIVERSAL RULE OF GRADUATE WORK–MAKE SURE YOUR DATA SUPPORTS YOUR CONCLUSIONS!”
When I was doing research for my master’s degree, that statement was posted on the graduate studies bulletin board at Indiana University. I have no idea who put it there, but I can tell you it got a pretty strong response from the school’s dean. Unfortunately, there is more truth to it than most of us would like to admit, and it is not just graduate students to whom it applies.
One of the problems any scientific researcher has is getting funding for the work, and you don’t get funding unless you produce results. There have been several cases in National Geographic where the magazine reported some incredible find by a researcher they were funding and later discovered that the claimed discovery was a hoax. We have reported on these in the past. (For example HERE, HERE, and HERE.)
One of the disciplines where this problem has been very apparent is in the finds of fossil humans. In 1974 Donald Johanson found pieces of a skeleton in Ethiopia. While they were excavating the fossil, the radio was playing the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Johanson decided to name the specimen “Lucy.” The find was announced at the Nobel Symposium in 1978 and was hailed as the first ape to walk upright, and thus it was a proven link between apes and humans.
The primary evidence that Lucy walked upright was a knee joint, which was clearly from an individual that walked in an upright position. Evidence that the rest of the skeleton was clearly from an ape included a V-shaped mandible, a very small brain, and a humerus and femur that were the same size. Lucy has made the covers of numerous magazines and even toured the United States.
It has now been announced that the researchers found the knee joint, which they used to prove Lucy was walking in an erect position, more than two miles from the rest of the skeleton. It also came from a stratum 200 feet lower than the one where the rest of the skeleton was found. Richard Leakey, the Director of Kenya’s National Museum, said that “the evidence for the alleged transformation from ape to man is extremely unconvincing. It is overwhelmingly likely that Lucy was no more than a variety of pygmy chimpanzee.” Johanson has agreed that Lucy was not related to humans at all.
Why does this kind of thing happen? Researchers tend to accept a theory and then look for evidence to support that theory. They adopt the philosophy “make sure your data supports your conclusions.” The media wants instant gratification, and the result is that front-page stories are frequently not factual. Several books have addressed this problem. The Fossil Chronicles by Dean Falk is a useful resource. See The Wall Street Journal for October 8, 2011, section C6 for a review by Brian Switek.
The researchers are victims of the system, but atheistic attacks on the Bible that depend on the media stories are obviously vulnerable to this issue. We need to have our brains engaged when we read anything, and that is true of the Bible as well as scientific reports in the media.
— John N. Clayton © 2020