Science is supposed to be all about demonstrable proof through experiment.  Should some scientists get away with confabulation – mere storytelling?  Look at these recent headlines published on science news sites and consider whether some serious housecleaning is in order.

1.  Baby apes’ arm waving hints at origins of language:  New Scientist had no problem with the suggestion that arm waving by chimpanzees led to the Sermon on the Mount and every other great work of moral or conceptual communication. “Actions speak louder than words,” wrote Nora Schultz cheerfully, as if that justifies scientifically what she is about to say. “Baby chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans – our four closest living relatives – quickly learn to use visual gestures to get their message across, providing the latest evidence that hand waving may have been a vital first step in the development of human language.”  Then why did apes get stuck at such a simplistic vocabulary?  Michael Corballis (U of Auckland) came to the rescue with this confabulation: “I suspect apes have evolved their own idiosyncratic gestures since they diverged from hominins.”

2.  Whiskers marked milestone in evolution of mammals from reptiles:  With no evidence of a bewhiskered reptile anywhere, PhysOrg published notions coming from “research” at the University of Sheffield that whiskers led to an explosion of possibilities in the mammal world.  On what evidence is this based?  Merely that a grey short-tailed opossum “has many similarities to an early mammal that would have lived more than 125 million years ago; that is, around the same time that the evolutionary lines leading to modern rodents and marsupialsdiverged.”  No such mammal is found in the fossil record.  But wait: aren’t marsupials and rodents both mammals?  Where are the reptiles claimed in the headline?  “This evidence suggests that some of the first mammals may also have whisked like a modern mouse or rat, and that the appearance of moveable whiskers was pivotal in the evolution of mammals from reptiles.”  In other words, no evidence for transitional forms was presented at all – just the assumption that mammals evolved from reptiles.  And that’s not all: a “professor” piled on additional miracles: “This latest research suggests that alongside becoming warm-blooded, giving birth to live young, and having an enlarged brain, the emergence of a new tactile sense based on moveable facial whiskers was an important step along the evolutionary path to modern mammals,” said Tony Prescott.  “Although humans no longer have moveable whiskers they were a critical feature of our early mammalian ancestors.”  According to this confabulation, bearded men can only regret that they are devolved remnants of some imaginary power-whiskered reptile with a great future ahead.

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