The on-going vicious debate over dinosaur extinction


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Link here. The article is a very well-written and detailed description of the large doubts held by many paleontologists about the theory that a single asteroid/comet impact in Mexico caused the entire dinosaur extinction 65 million years ago. Key quote:

Ad hominem attacks had by then long characterized the mass-extinction controversy, which came to be known as the “dinosaur wars.” Alvarez [the man who first proposed the impact theory] had set the tone. His numerous scientific exploits—winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, flying alongside the crew that bombed Hiroshima, “X-raying” Egypt’s pyramids in search of secret chambers—had earned him renown far beyond academia, and he had wielded his star power to mock, malign, and discredit opponents who dared to contradict him. In The New York Times, Alvarez branded one skeptic “not a very good scientist,” chided dissenters for “publishing scientific nonsense,” suggested ignoring another scientist’s work because of his “general incompetence,” and wrote off the entire discipline of paleontology when specialists protested that the fossil record contradicted his theory. “I don’t like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they’re really not very good scientists,” Alvarez told The Times. “They’re more like stamp collectors.”

Scientists who dissented from the asteroid hypothesis feared for their careers. Dewey McLean, a geologist at Virginia Tech credited with first proposing the theory of Deccan volcanism, accused Alvarez of trying to block his promotion to full professor by bad-mouthing him to university officials. Alvarez denied doing so—while effectively bad-mouthing McLean to university officials. “If the president of the college had asked me what I thought about Dewey McLean, I’d say he’s a weak sister,” Alvarez told The Times. “I thought he’d been knocked out of the ball game and had just disappeared, because nobody invites him to conferences anymore.” Chuck Officer, another volcanism proponent, whom Alvarez dismissed as a laughingstock, charged that Science, a top academic journal, had become biased. The journal reportedly published 45 pieces favorable to the impact theory during a 12-year period—but only four on other hypotheses. (The editor denied any favoritism.)

In 1999, almost twenty years ago, I wrote a long article for a magazine called The Sciences describing this very same debate, including the efforts at the journal Science to push the impact theory and damage the careers of any dissenters. At the time I found the doubts by paleontologists to be widespread, backed up by lots of very credible evidence, including the fundamental data from the fossil record, which simply did not show an instantaneous extinction.

I also discovered that the planetary science community and many in the press were responding not with good science but with ad hominem attacks aimed at destroying anyone who disagreed with the impact theory. I also discovered that the editor at The Sciences who was assigned to edit my piece did not want me to reveal these facts. He was very liberal, had bought into the impact theory, as well as global warming, and like so many liberals I have met in my life he preferred squelching facts rather than allowing the facts to speak. In this case, he was not the editor in charge, and was unable to prevent my article’s publication, as I wanted it written.

Now twenty years later, the same debate continues, though under the radar because of the successful public relations effort by those on the impact theory side to bury the debate. If you were to ask almost any ordinary citizen what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, they would immediately say a asteroid/comet impact, and would assume that all scientists agree. Sadly, that is not the case, and has never been the case.

Read the article. It details this story quite nicely, and reveals once again the corruption that began permeating the science community in the 1980s and now warps so much research.

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12 comments

  • wodun

    This happens time and time again in science and it boggles the mind that people view science as the new priesthood. Also, academics can be quite vicious to each other even when there isn’t some big issue at hand.

  • Phil Berardelli

    Bob, as you might recall, in the mid-1990s I wrote a profile of a microbiologist who related a personal story about being ridiculed for daring to want to pursue research into the possibility that retroviruses infected humans as well as animals. At the time of his experience — the late 1970s — the vast majority of the microbiology and virology communities considered it settled science that human retroviruses were nonexistent, and they hounded, harassed and ridiculed any research who proposed otherwise. It was only through the heroic efforts of a few dedicated scientists that human retroviruses were indeed discovered, the most famous of which we all know as HIV. I suspect these phenomena — of scientific communities engaging in groupthink — stem from the basic human psychology of tribalism. What’s unfortunate is that even scientists never seem to learn from these past experiences. The whole human race dodged a bullet called HIV because a few brave individuals refused to accept settled science and conventional wisdom and seek the truth independently, and God bless them. I tend to believe the asteroid-impact explanation for the K-T boundary, particularly because of the coincidence of the iridium layer. But I would never ridicule anyone who found evidence to the contrary and subjected it to rigorous and honest scientific review.

  • Phil Berardelli: You should read the article at the link. It outlines in great detail what paleontologists have always know, that the data simply doesn’t fit with the impact theory. All the iridium layer proves is that an impact occurred at that time. It does not prove the extinctions. In fact, it provides zero evidence of them. To make the impact theory work, the fossil record has to show a very tight correlation with that layer. It does not.

    What the fossil record has always shown is that the extinction event had been ongoing for many millions of years prior to the impact, aligned very well with the occurrence of the giant long-term volcanic event in India dubbed the Deccan Traps. At best, the K-T impact added one last knock-out punch, though there is fossil evidence that it did not completely finish the job.

  • wodun

    I suspect these phenomena — of scientific communities engaging in groupthink — stem from the basic human psychology of tribalism.

    It is really hard to be self aware, even for smart people. It can sometimes be harder for smart people because they can be over confident in what they actually know. You can see it in how many atheists in the sciences act as if they follow a religion and don’t understand that even if they don’t believe in a traditional religion, they still engage in magical thinking.

    It doesn’t matter how smart a person is or what they believe about the nature of the universe, they are still human and have all the same attributes as other humans based in large part in how our physiology interprets reality.

  • Phil Berardelli

    Bob and Wodun: No argument here, except to say there is scant fossil evidence of the continuation of dinosaurs above the K-T boundary except in (apparently) dramatically reduced numbers. Agree that it isn’t a smoking gun. But it does provide a whiff of gunpowder.

  • wayne

    I understood the asteroid strike to be a necessary, but not sufficient causal factor for the finishing-off of dinosaur’s, however most Mammal’s, Birds, and some exotic sea creatures survived, as well as cold climate adapted plants. That doesn’t back-up sudden global-wide catastrophism.
    (The Mexico impact isn’t the only one but I’m fuzzy on the date-ranges for the other large strikes.)
    That being said, there are perfectly good reasons to implicate mass Volcanism in the demise as, and I understood they (dino’s) were already one their way out for a variety of Selection Pressures having nothing to do with asteroids or volcanos.

    I rather think it’s a multi-causal thing’ and this scientist-guy is being a complete jerk, he had his 15 minutes of fame and then apparently went insane.

  • Phil Berardelli: You understanding of the fossil record is incorrect. The numbers were dropping for a very long time prior to the impact, in significant amounts. Moreover, the uncertainties of the methods of dating do not provide us with any evidence that there was a sudden increase in extinctions linked to a single moment in time. If anything, the data suggests a slow more spread out increase, beginning as much as several million years before the impact.

    Moreover, in recent years there has been some fossil finds outside of North America that appear to come from after the impact. We must understand that until recently there was a significant bias in the fossil record, centered on North America where almost all paleontology work was being done. This is also the area that would have been impacted by the impact the most. Finds in South America and China in recent years show evidence that some dinosaurs survived post impact.

  • hondo

    My under-graduate degree is in Geology. Alvarez is our “hero” primarily because of the feeling that we don’t get enough respect from the other sciences. Many however always had doubts about the impact being the sole cause. Concentrating near exclusively the K-T boundary in North America (global region of impact) is similar to cherry-picking for desired conclusion.
    Note however that Alvarez and his theory was attacked extensively when proposed, because of the catastrophism aspect – a concept dismissed prior as pseudo-religious in nature – a single earth shattering act of God.
    Alvarez was an improvement – leading to acceptance of other cataclysmic events in the mix across the board.

  • wayne

    hondo-
    Good stuff.
    –I’ll retract the “he went insane” comment.– This makes a little more sense now.
    (I like Geologist’s, I married one!)
    – And I do empathize with the “rock stars” in one’s discipline. I’m a Skinnerian Behaviorist (with a Cognitive bent) and we have some whacky, although genius, ‘heavy-hitter’s’ that don’t always comport themselves public-wise, in an entirely admirable fashion.
    He appears to be however, acting like a jerk in these situations.

  • Phil Berardelli

    Bob, my understanding of the fossil record notwithstanding, my main point was to illustrate how scientific consensus in the past has caused great harm both to the general public and to science itself. Your ongoing vignettes about “the uncertainty of science” have continued to illustrate how supposedly solid thinking has been upended by surprising new developments. The case I mentioned, about the existence of human retroviruses, could have killed hundreds of millions of people had not a small group of dedicated scientists persevered in their research in the face of withering personal attacks. God bless them for their courage.

  • Ryan Lawson

    This map has always been to me one of the more fascinating ones to study in geology. Are those skidmarks on the ocean floor from the movement of the Indian plate? Think of where India was when the Deccan Traps were being formed.

    https://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/ocean_age/data/2008/ngdc-generated_images/whole_world/2008_age_of_oceans_plates.jpg

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