Evaluate this: Newsweek’s Update on the Atacama Mummy

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I’m always on the lookout for articles that will help my students practice their evaluation skills. My preference is for anything intriguing that manages to dodge politics. Even better if the article challenges advice I’ve given students regarding how to determine a source’s credibility. Newsweek’s July 20th article by Aristos Georgiou describing the controversy around recent DNA testing of the Atacama mummy does all of that and so much more.

Found in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 2003, the tiny skeleton with strange features was cited by UFO believers as evidence of extraterrestrial life. That’s an information literacy lesson in and of itself (read Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland for an in depth history of America’s love affair with conspiracy theories and magical thinking). According to Georgiou, in 2013 a team of scientists from Stanford and UC San Francisco determined that the tiny remains were indeed human, and just this March the same team published a paper in the journal Genome Research attributing the skeletal irregularities to various genetic mutations, as determined by DNA testing.

Looking at the abstract on Genome Research’s website provides an opportunity to lead students through an exercise in lateral reading. What kind of reputation does this journal have? What do the author affiliations tell us? Can we verify these reputations and affiliations by opening new tabs and searching elsewhere? If I asked students to tell me why I should allow this journal, these authors, to convince me that this is not an alien skeleton, they would tell me that Genome Research is an established, peer-reviewed journal and that the authors are highly educated scientists affiliated with prestigious universities. Which is great.

Was great. Until another team of scientists called out the Stanford team in the International Journal of Paleopathology this month, casting serious doubts over their findings and questioning their ethics in the handling of human remains.

This is where it gets good. In March, the alien theory was debunked and the explanation for the skeleton’s strange appearance had been established. Case closed. Score one for the truth. Four months later, the truth has changed. Will it change again?

No easy answers here, but plenty of fertile ground for discussion. It reminds me of Carl Bernstein’s way of saying that journalist’s strive for “the best obtainable version of the truth.” The pursuit of truth – by journalists, scientists, historians, academics – is long and messy and subject to revision. The story of the Atacama mummy reminds us of that.

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