Developments in Malaysia are being covered by world media.
The behavior of the world media will probably not be chronicled
by the world media, but it is a story in itself.
It is a relevant issue, because media pressure has affected organized
scientific inquiry on this subject in the past.
In 1995 the Anthropology Department at Ohio State University (OSU)
halted DNA tests on possible giganto hairs from China because of
the disruptions caused by a wave of press inquiries.
The amount of phone calls and visits from journalists seeking to
quote the scientists involved in the DNA study was extremely disruptive
to the normal workings of the department. The scientists involved
in the study were also professors, who didn't have loads of spare
time to begin with. Handling the wave of press contacts became a
full-time job, for people who already had full-time jobs. The department
also began to worry about negative news stories from vindictive
journalists who weren't getting their calls returned.
After a certain point, the Anthropology Department at OSU began
answering the calls and telling inquirers, without explanation,
that the department was not going to continue with the DNA analysis.
It was the easiest way to make the problem go away.
It will not be a good thing for the progress of science if the same
thing happens in Malaysia. Hopefully the Malaysians involved will
learn from history and hold steady, and not let antagonistic media
or occasional critics deter them.
The Malaysian officials and naturalists involved are doing their
jobs, speaking openly and providing information to questions from
reporters. They speak about it because they are asked. The officials
are not trying to push the story, but we can already see some arrogant,
smug journalists accusing the Malaysians of "staging a publicity
stunt." A recent Reuters.UK
article carries that spin.
The spin is disgusting. It is arrogant. It is the sort of thing
that interferes with scientific inquiry.
The inquiry in Malaysia is not occurring for the purpose of press
coverage. Rather, it is occurring in spite of press coverage.
It is dispicable for a journalist to accuse government officials,
in this case, of creating publicity when it is journalists themselves
who are causing the publicity. The hypocrisy of the Reuters contributor
is his implication that the Malaysians are cooking up the story
because of the new King Kong movie. It is the Reuters contributor
who is taking advantage of the new King Kong movie.
Malaysian villagers are reporting sightings of giant apes
("bigfoots"). Giant apes were thought to be extinct by western
scientists. Malaysian officials are taking their citizens seriously and
letting them know it is important for them to report these sightings.
This is the type of respectful, encouraging, official stance that is sorely
lacking in other countries where these sightings occur.
Should the matter be ignored by Malaysian officials? Is
it a "publicity stunt" for them to openly state that their citizens
are reporting sightings, and that there's a real possibility, and that
it might be a good thing for the country?
Unlike most American scientists, Malaysian scientists do not stick to
a party line that assumes all their major fauna have been discovered.
It is not a career-killer for Malaysians to consider that some large animals
might not be catalogued there.
Long-ago some crude, urban, American journalists reported about some footprints
in Northern California. They began to refer jokingly to a lonely, giant
character, which they named "Bigfoot" in the late 1950's.
Newspapers far and wide have had fun with that character ever since. Over
the years the "Bigfoot" name and image has been used to sell
products, like tires, shovels and RVs.
The most prominent use of "Bigfoot" has been in headlines of
"The Weekly World News" (WWN). People don't often buy the WWN,
but every American and Canadian looks at it at least sometimes. WWN headlines
have excellent penetration among rural people who don't read newspapers,
or watch TV, or listen to the radio. We don't know if the WWN was created
for this purpose, but we do know it had the effect of shaming rural
people from trying to ask serious questions about these animals.
After years of "Bigfoot" being presented as a joke, it has become
difficult for American journalists to separate the tabloid character from
the rest of the story. It requires a good bit of reading now to understand
some basic facts about it. Reading and research does not work well for
ignorant, simple-minded American TV jounalists these days, especially
The Malaysian situation may proceed differently. Their officials, scientists
and naturalists might not submit to pressure from arrogant, ridiculing,
western journalists. The sightings might be taken very seriously from
this point forward, even if the witnesses are just poor villagers who
don't have any physical evidence to prove what they saw.
There is an individual's story in the background of the Malaysia story.
For some time Malaysian environmentalist Vincent Chow had lobbied Malaysian
authorities to take the sightings seriously and speak openly about them.
Chow eventually succeeded, where no man had succeeded before. It was like
moving a huge, heavy stone that had seemed unmoveable to everyone else.
We wish we could have been a "fly on the wall" during that divine
moment when Chow finally made officials see the light, and think rationally
about the sightings, and the enormity of what they may point to.
How many other current stories from Malaysia are being followed in this
(Click them to see the articles)