Dinosaurs, Dissent, and the Nastiest Feud in Science

Dinosaurs, Dissent, and the Nastiest Feud in Science August 14, 2018

The scientific consensus on what happened to the dinosaurs is going the way of the dinosaur!

For decades now, the scientific consensus has been that the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago when an asteroid struck the Earth. The Atlantic just published an article called “The Nastiest Feud in Science” that interviews some of the dissenters from that consensus. For all I know, the article may be overstating the significance of the challenge from proponents of the theory that volcanic activity was responsible for the mass extinction. However, the story of how the “impacters” established and maintain their dominance should be an eye-opener for people who think science is all about the “evidence.” In fact, there are plenty of cultural, professional, and personal issues that shape the debate.

Farewell To Charismatic Megafauna

The facts should be familiar to any science fan: physicist Luis Alvarez discovered the iridium layer at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, and published a paper in 1980 in which he concluded that the worldwide stratum was formed by an asteroid impact whose aftermath destroyed the dinosaurs. Ten years later, researchers pinpointed the impact at the Chicxulub crater in Mexico.

The impact theory provided an elegant solution to a prehistoric puzzle, and its steady march from hypothesis to fact offered a heartwarming story about the integrity of the scientific method. “This is nearly as close to a certainty as one can get in science,” a planetary-science professor told Time magazine in an article on the crater’s discovery. In the years since, impacters say they have come even closer to total certainty. “I would argue that the hypothesis has reached the level of the evolution hypothesis,” says Sean Gulick, a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the Chicxulub crater. “We have it nailed down, the case is closed,” Buck Sharpton, a geologist and scientist emeritus at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, has said.

But [Princeton paleontology and geology professor Gerta] Keller doesn’t buy any of it. “It’s like a fairy tale: ‘Big rock from sky hits the dinosaurs, and boom they go.’ And it has all the aspects of a really nice story,” she said. “It’s just not true.”

When Celebrity Becomes Authority

The consensus formed quickly and confidently for a lot of reasons that had little to do with “evidence.” Alvarez was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was an important contributor to the Manhattan Project, and had witnessed the Hiroshima detonation personally. His stamp of approval on a proposal carried a lot of weight in scientific circles.

Physics chauvinism reinforced the idea that Alvarez had gotten it right, since the main source of opposition to the impact theory was earth scientists such as geologists and paleontologists. According to the article, Alvarez was cruelly dismissive of these researchers. “I don’t like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they’re really not very good scientists,” was how Alvarez expressed his disdain for his critics in an interview with The New York Times. “They’re more like stamp collectors.” His attitude was one of arrogance and presumption, not to mention anger at having mere rock-chippers question his mathematical, macho physics know-how.

Futility, Thy Name is Woman

It also didn’t help that the main voice of dissent was a woman. Gerta Keller couldn’t muster up enough support to make a difference, especially among scientists understandably worried about the consequences for their careers and reputations should they come out publicly in support of a vociferous woman whose views ran counter to the prominent and accomplished male scientific elite.

Science has a long track record of excluding and marginalizing women and de-emphasizing their accomplishments. Even today, women are targets of harassment and bias in scientific fields. According to Keller, she has been subject to insults and threats for her vocal opposition to the impacters.

Where’s Your Evidence? That’s Not Evidence!

The article describes the debate between the impacters and the volcanists not as the sort of dialogue between open-minded professionals that the believers in “bias-eliminating,” “self-correcting” science like to think is prevalent in the history of scientific inquiry, but as an acrimonious mudslinging match between rivals who refuse to give an inch.

The matter of “evidence” seems largely beside the point, since each camp denies that the facts marshaled by the other camp even constitute evidence at all:

The greatest area of consensus between the volcanists and the impacters seems to be on what insults to sling. Both sides accuse the other of ignoring data. Keller says that her pro-impact colleagues “will not listen or discuss evidence that is contrary to what they believe”; Alan Hildebrand, a prominent impacter, says Keller “doesn’t look at all the evidence.” Each side dismisses the other as unscientific: “It’s not science. It sometimes seems to border on religious fervor, basically,” says Keller, whose work Smit calls “barely scientific.” Both sides contend that the other is so stubborn, the debate will be resolved only when the opposition croaks.

The Death Star vs. The Flintstones

Of course, it can’t be gainsaid that in 1980, a theory that speculated that threats from space caused the demise of the charismatic megafauna had popular appeal far beyond its scientific merit. In the age of Star Wars, the impacters appeared to be serving up something so tailored to public acceptance it bordered on pandering.

However, let’s not overlook the fact that what the asteroid-impact theory says about extinction is also something we prefer to believe: that it’s sudden, random, and totally unanticipated. Keller’s theory about massive volcanic activity in the Deccan Traps of western India involves a broader time frame than the asteroid-strike theory, and perhaps we—as arguably the dominant species on Earth today, and filling the atmosphere with the same deadly chemicals that the volcanists claim killed the dinsosaurs—don’t want to think of mass extinction as something we could ever deny is happening. In the era of anthropogenic global warming, it may be more comforting to think that our mass extinction will be sudden and inexorable.

What do you think? Is there truly a debate about the demise of the dinosaurs, or is the case closed? Is evidence truly the sole relevant factor in establishing scientific consensus, or are there cultural and professional aspects to the unanimity of opinion in scientific circles?

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  • Tawreos

    I thought it was a bit of both. Volcanoes had changed the atmosphere which was placing huge amounts of stress on the dinosaurs and when the meteor came it pushed them to the breaking point and allowed the rise of mammals. I will admit that this is going from memory and I don’t have time to go look it all up right now, but that is the last theory about the whole thing that I remember hearing.

  • Bob Jase

    It’ll never be completely closed – hell, some of the dinosaurs prolly died from falling down stairs too. Just be grateful its’ not happening now.

  • Bob Jase

    Accomodationist scum – die!

  • Tawreos

    I have some free time around 2:30 this afternoon will that be a good time? =)

  • Depends on how often birds die from falling down stairs.


  • As Keller points out in the article, though, it is sort of happening now. The same sorts of toxins that allegedly killed the dinosaurs according to the volcanism theory—namely mercury, lead, and carbon dioxide—are being pumped into the atmosphere thanks to human industrial endeavor. The asteroid-impact theory might be comforting to people who don’t want to have to acknowledge that we may be in the middle of a mass extinction event of our very own making.

  • Blind comfort, IMO. We’re very much obviously in the midst of a mass extinction. The fate of the dinosaurs has nothing to do with what is happening now, and people who’d think otherwise are either deluded or lying.

  • Anthrotheist

    It almost seems to me to be the same gut reaction that makes us recoil at chemical weapons but never blink an eye at drone strikes. They both result the same, but one being a bit more protracted seems to spark outrage somewhere in our lizard brain.

  • I don’t think it matters what happened to the big prehistoric critters so much as it matters that they’re gone.

    and nevermind the dinos, you know how big the arachnids and insects were in those days? *yikes*

  • Is there truly a debate about the demise of the dinosaurs, or is the case closed?

    The way I see it, as an absolute scientific layperson, is that there should always be debate about scientific findings. There should rarely be any truly closed cases. Everything should be tested and examined more closely in as many ways as we can imagine. We should never be afraid to rethink our views, when new evidence comes to light. We should always strive for ways to prove ourselves wrong, because only then can we hope to approach answers that are right. That, to me, is the entire reason the scientific method is the best philosophy ever created by human beings.

    On the flip side, of course, is that, with sufficient evidence, certain things become more firmly grounded. Take evolution, for example, there’s such a wide and deep amount evidence, that it does not seem realistic to me to question the fact of evolution (anymore than I’d question the fact of Newtonian mechanics), but smaller pieces of the puzzle (even unlikely ideas like the mostly unaccepted “aquatic ape” hypothesis of human development) should be examined with no end. I personally don’t think the aquatic ape hypothesis is correct (no fossils have been found in environments that would cause such a thing, for one), but it is definitely within the spirit of science to keep on asking questions. Let’s keep exploring the limits of natural selection and sexual selection; let’s keep trying to figure out the importance of epigenetics. Let’s never be satisfied with the knowledge we have, let us always search for more.

    The extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs (and other critters around the same time) is the same thing to me, made even more difficult by the vast gulf of time between us and them. There will always be questions, and there always should be, and we should remain open to whatever evidence comes to light. Right now, I lean toward a multiple-cause concept, including volcanic effects like the Deccan Traps and possibly other factors, with the impact-induced climate change being the Great Big Thing that pushed a weakened global ecosystem over the edge. But, hey, that’s just me, and I’m just a blue-collar schmuck with little formal education (but an immense love of books). Most things in life, as far as I can tell, are never either-or situations. I don’t see a need to become emotionally invested in any particular scientific idea (I am, however, proudly emotionally invested in the process of the scientific method). Which brings us to your other question.

    “Is evidence truly the sole relevant factor in establishing scientific consensus, or are there cultural and professional aspects to the unanimity of opinion in scientific circles?”

    Ah, now there’s the rub. Evidence should be the most important factor, but humans are humans, limited and flawed in so many ways. Even the same evidence can have multiple interpretations (which, makes me reply: Keep asking questions! Keep searching for evidence! Be okay with uncertainty in the meantime!), and people tend to get hung up on their preferred opinions. There will always be cultural influences at play, too; we just can’t help it. And the professional aspects can be even worse, like Einstein snarking about God playing dice because he didn’t like the idea of true randomness in the universe; IMO, that most brilliant of human beings was just stuck on the ideas that made up his life’s work, and so he had difficulty being open to the findings of the quantum level.

    The most annoying version of this for me is when scientists argue about names.

    “This fossil is obviously Homo heidelbergensis,” says one.

    The opponent replies, “No! It’s Homo antecessor!”

    “You both are wrong,” intones another. “It is clearly Homo rhodesiensis!”

    We see it in astronomy, too, as another example. Are brown dwarfs “really” stars or planets? Are Pluto and similar objects planets or not?

    My slightly rude response: JFC, people, these are human terms, created for our convenience, why on Earth would you expect (or want) the universe to fit into neat little categories? Grow up.

    But people like comforting certitude. People like the reassurance of apparently solid knowledge. And, yes, people like having their work validated and their egos stroked. That’ll never change.

    We’re all vulnerable to these sort of influences, no matter how educated we might be. It sucks, on many different levels, but human nature is what it is. When I read scientists arguing about such things, I can’t help but roll my eyes. I am merely the very definition of a science fan, and I will never be a scientist, but even I can say with confidence that the point of the scientific method is to keep asking questions, keep looking, keep experiment, keep honing our accumulated knowledge like a razor until it’s sharp enough to cut through the veil of ignorance and give us knowledge. Maybe one day the question will be 100% settled, maybe not. It doesn’t matter too much, I think. What matters is the search for answers. What matters is that we keep asking those questions.

    Granted, I’m an idealist. Personally, I don’t want to be anything else. It does break my heart a little bit to see brilliant people arguing about uncertain matters like medieval scholastics arguing over minute theological nonsense, but I figure that people are people and c’est la vie. Ultimately, expecting perfection from human beings is nothing more than an invitation for pain, so I try to avoid it. Sometimes I fail; sometimes we all do, in every aspect of our lives. But we’ll muddle through, and we’ll keep searching for answers, even if they are impossible to find.

    Sorry for the verbosity; I’m stuck in a place with little to do, so I feel like just letting the fingers fly.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Couple of thoughts.
    First, the “asteroiders” don’t generally claim today that “boom, they all died in a week.”
    Second, something like Rinne’s idea sounds plausible. Any volcanic add-on to the asteroid impact would be lethal.

  • people give short shrift to the flood and revelations, but indeed it seems that when humanity destroys itself, it will be in floods and famine and fire, pestilence and war.

  • The article does mention attempts to reconcile the two theories, and it’s true that there’s nothing necessarily mutually exclusive about them. However, to hear the proponents tell it, theirs is the only scientific explanation, full stop.

  • I’ll take vats of foaming goo any day.

  • fortunately, the atmosphere that allowed those giant bugs to be possible isn’t around anymore, except maybe in Tampa. =D

  • adhoc

    The links in the blog wouldn’t open for me, so I’m not sure what the controversy is exactly about. Is it just how they died out, not when? I hope they don’t think that The Far Side accurately portrayed smoking to be the cause for extinction.

    Look if something that big hits our planet, it will cause other things to happen around the globe, both in the air and plate tetonics. The earthquake that caused the tsunami in Japan tilted the Earth just a little bit, a big asteroid will mess things up much worse.

    Not all life went extinct from this event, but it did change the planet enough to wipe out a great number of animals.

  • adhoc

    I thought that passage made it should like the asteroid knocked the heads off the dinosaurs that were too tall. Or the only dinosaurs effected were in the immediate area of impact.

  • Not trying to nitpick, but I’d qualify that with “many proponents” since there are so many differing views, and I do think that most paleontologists accept that it took a while for dinosaurs to die. Admittedly, I’m no expert (on anything) but there’s plenty of evidence for what has been poetically termed “dead clades walking” (including post-K-T non-avian dinosaurs) that is accepted by scientific consensus. It’s easy to focus on the extremes in any debate, but I think in this one, the general view is more nuanced than the (relatively) few hardliners like to believe.

  • Nanotech caused extinction? Gray goo, as they say. Sounds like loads of fun.

    /s (if anyone is strange enough to not detect it)

  • Evidence should be the most important factor, but humans are humans, limited and flawed in so many ways. Even the same evidence can have multiple interpretations (which, makes me reply: Keep asking questions! Keep searching for evidence! Be okay with uncertainty in the meantime!), and people tend to get hung up on their preferred opinions. There will always be cultural influences at play, too; we just can’t help it.

    I appreciate your comprehensive response. This was the only complaint I have: I think it’s wrong to conceptualize evidence as something pure, pristine and objective, waiting out there somewhere for us flawed humans to discover it. Scientists are historically and culturally situated, and their endeavor is what creates facts and evidence. We impose structure and meaning onto the chaos of reality.

    That’s why our knowledge always bears the marks of the methods of inquiry used to create it, as well as the mindsets of the researchers who created it.

  • i’m strange enough to categorize tiny organizisms as organic nanotech.

    serendipitous nanotech if you will.

    it’s tiny, amazing technology. anyone who claims it isn’t tech is merely overlooking how many ideas we engineer from nature. velcro, da vinci’s flying machine (the proto-helicopter) etc. in the near future, the tech of life will drive more and more of our own human invention, as we “catch up” with it.

    Some of the best genius is simplicity, and nature is great at producing simple genius. (and complex genius)

  • SocraticGadfly

    Right … “winning” sets in.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Humpty Dumpty: “Who’s to be the master: you or the word?”

    At the same time, words do give us handles on things. Take Pluto’s status. The IAU and related folks have a definition of what a planet is, and by criteria it uses, Pluto ain’t one. I’m OK with calling it a dwarf planet or whatever. But I think the IAU definition is a good one.

  • You aren’t wrong at all, but I do worry sometimes that many people miss the nuances of matters like this.* Too many people would hear this entirely accurate statement of yours and then use it as a means to disregard the multitude of advantages of the scientific method. Maybe I’m just worried that people tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater too easily.

    And the opposite is equally frustrating to me, such as when people act as though the “laws” of nature are really “things” instead of just definitions that we apply to what we see.

    How do we walk that tightrope successfully? Maybe we can’t. Maybe trying to is the really important thing.

    It seems that essentialism is too ingrained in us for this to ever become easy.

    Kinda like how “fact” is one of those squirrely terms that pretty much everyone misuses from time to time. To use the old example, it is a “fact” that we perceive the sun as ascending from one direction and descending in the opposite; everything else is theory, at best. We want to have “facts.” We crave certitude. It can be extremely difficult, sometimes even impossible, for us to accept that this desire is futile.

    Nonetheless, IMO, it is foolish to argue for geocentrism, if for no other reason than because heliocentrism has been measured in ways that transcend (I hesitate to use that word, but I can’t really think of a better one and don’t worry too much about semantics) cultural biases. Only people who are utterly ignorant of little things like trigonometry think the sun revolves around the Earth. Mathematics, as far as I can tell, is our best bet for rising above the limitations and weaknesses of the human mind. Ultimately, I guess that “if it works, then use it” is about as good as it gets.

    This goes back to looking for perfection in the real world. We’ll never have it, ever, in any way. All we can do is strive to get as close as possible, which I believe the scientific method does, better than any other method of exploring our surroundings. Most of the time, close enough is good enough.

    I want to say, too, that while I don’t always agree with you, I do always enjoy reading your work. You’re thought-provoking, and for a guy like me, that’s the highest of compliments.

    *Which is why, methinks, you occasionally receive such strong comments from people (including me once or twice, as you may recall). Maybe we get a bit defensive about science, because so many people deny its usefulness and benefits, and it’s easy to think that you are denying it, too. I do not think that you are (correct me if I am wrong); I just think you appreciate these nuances way more than most folk.

  • I, too, agree with the IAU definition, if only for convenience. If Pluto’s a planet, then there are likely a few billion other things out in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud that would be, too. And that just makes things to complicated for kids, among other things. We need the benefits that come from discrete categories; it just drives me nuts when people who should know better take those categories too seriously.

  • I don’t think that’s strange at all. Really, we’re all just big piles of nanomachines—me, you, the dog at my feet, the tree behind my back and bacteria in my gut.

  • Anat

    I think the ‘how’ entails also ‘how long did it take (for conditions to get that bad)’.

  • You’re right about my attitude toward science. I don’t support conspiracism of any kind, but I’m wary of the way we idealize and whitewash scientific inquiry. I have no problem with what you say about our problematic yearning after perfection and certainty, either, and that’s just the issue I have with scientism.

    I’m not an idealist. I don’t think it’s useful to conceptualize an “objective reality” to which our knowledge keeps nearing ever closer. That makes it easy for us to de-emphasize or deny the social, communal processes of inquiry and justification that create our knowledge. Appealing to the authority of “reality” is pretty complacent when the only access to reality we have is through our ways of modeling and studying it.

    I realize that not everybody wants to take the time to understand what I’m saying, so I appreciate the props, and right back atcha. You’ve given us plenty to think about.

  • Hear, hear! I’m also not an idealist about “objective reality” … but I am one about humanity. We’re one messed up species much of the time, but I think we’re alright. I think we’re improving, even if it is a slow, painful process (and even if we are, as a species, massively destructive and disrespectful of our planet and its wondrous living things).

    Keep up the good work. I look forward to reading it for a long time to come.

  • Priya Lynn

    I thought the scientific consensus was that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event of our own making. Certainly appears that way to me.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Agreed. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci talks about the “demarcation problem.” Sometimes boundaries are fuzzy, among other things. Plus, on the issue at hand, there’s no reason it can’t be a both-and, anyway.

  • Adrian

    IIRC, the really gigantic nopes were long before the dinos, but I’m no specialist.

  • yeah i was a bit fast and loose with my choice of words, but i realize they were different periods. more i just meant early prehistory when all those critters were still a thing

  • also <3 at gigantic nopes. perfect.

  • This is a helpful reminder that scientists are fallible, too. They occasionally show the lesser instincts that we ordinary mortals have. Maybe their egos are sometimes bigger or more sensitive than average. And I’m sure we can think of other examples. I understand that plate tectonics took 50 years to become accepted. Quasicrystals is another example. You’re giving us a snapshot in the middle of what those debates might’ve been like.

    But are you going anywhere beyond this? Is this a critique of science or the scientific method or our confidence in the scientific consensus?

  • > Too many people would hear this entirely accurate statement of yours and then use it as a means to disregard the multitude of advantages of the scientific method. Maybe I’m just worried that people tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater too easily.

    > And the opposite is equally frustrating to me, such as when people act as though the “laws” of nature are really “things” instead of just definitions that we apply to what we see.

    Too right, however if i may, i’ll suggest that comfort and belonging are primary motivators. We gravitate toward easy, generally. Except those of us that are drawn to suffer (which isn’t such a bad thing – it helps us learn and grow when it comes down to it) – but we generally like easy – it’s … easy.

    And yet, Truth as a concept isn’t so easy. Leaving Plato’s Cave, especially once you get to realizing they’re one cave after another, takes work, and maybe some luck and even some talent for thinking abstractly to really get there.

    TL;DR version: Most people won’t get there if only because there’s a path of less resistance available (not even a criticism, i don’t have a personal problem with that, but it’s not for me)

    And I for one, don’t know how to change that.

    You’re neat. I like how you think. For the same reason I like how Shem thinks.

    So if you have any ideas on how to realistically change the dynamics of least resistance where people are concerned, i’d love to hear them.

  • I love Max Planck’s TL;DR version of this, to wit: “Science advances one funeral at a time”

  • Derek Mathias

    Back in the 1980s when I was working on my degree in evolutionary science, we covered both theories–although the impact theory had the edge. But some non-avian dinosaurs lived for hundreds of thousands of years after the Chicxulub impact before going extinct, which didn’t fit the impact theory well. So there was no “definitive” answer at the time. It seems there still isn’t.

  • Well, I consider it a corrective to the idealized view that scientific disagreements are always settled by evidence. In fact, there are lots of factors besides hard data acting here.

    It’s interesting to think that something we’ve been told is a done deal still has some lingering questions.

  • safetynet2razorwire

    Facepalm. How dense must one be to fail to see that the asteroidal and volcanic hypotheses not an either/or – are,in point of fact, mutually supportive.

    If we explore the volcanic hypothesis we must, early on, ask ourselves “what caused such a seismic anomaly?” An anomalous event is a logical answer.
    And there are few events that fit the bill as effectively as the extremely rare impact of a truly massive asteroid.

    If, on the other hand, we explore the asteroidal hypothesis it becomes immediately obvious that a consequence of such a momentous seismic anomaly
    would be earthquakes and volcanoes on a scale well beyond the norm. Ecologically devastating seismic events altering conditions on land, in the seas,
    and in the air.

    I’ve been waiting for some goombah to find dinosaur remains that point to death by drowning and assert “not an asteroid – nor volcanoes – a tsunami!!!”
    when, hello, tsunamis are natural consequences of displacement (asteroid) and seismic shifts (earthquakes and volcanoes). Facepalm. Facepalm. Fa…

  • Do you know the split between volcano and meteor advocates?

  • Not offhand. Should that really matter if the only relevant aspect of scientific inquiry is the “evidence”? Is science done by vote?

  • Thank you for the compliments. I like the way you think, too. Especially, “Leaving Plato’s Cave, especially once you get to realizing they’re one cave after another…”

    Very well said.

    I’m not sure that the dynamic can be changed. I’d liked to think that education and critical thinking can make a difference, but even that seems like a spotty cure (or maybe just a platitude on my part). Human nature is a tricky thing, and I figure that the most we can do is try to change ourselves. For me, that’s all about books—all sorts of books—but I realize that most people barely read at all, and even habitual readers tend to limit their subject matter.

    “…comfort and belonging are primary motivators,” oh, now that’s absolutely true. We humans will often sacrifice anything for comfort and belonging. I guess I had an unfair advantage in this regards; I was a military brat growing up, always the new kid, never quite belonging anywhere. Even now, after nearly sixteen years of living in the same part of Northern California, after making many friends and putting down roots, I still feel like an an outsider, figure I always will. I won’t claim that it was the best way to experience childhood and adolescence, but I have always felt somewhat liberated from the need for comfort or belonging. I never expect to have either, nor do I see them as very important.

    If only I could figure out a way to share the benefits of my perspective without the drawbacks.

    But we’re all on our own journeys. That’s maybe a bit trite of a statement, but I do think it is true.

  • Thank you too, for the kind words, neighbor.

    > Human nature is a tricky thing, and I figure that the most we can do is try to change ourselves

    You’re not wrong. I’ve written about this in so many different ways since i got my mind blasted open and went beautifully mad.

    and what you said about being the outsider – a profound amen. in fact that’s my raison d’etre such that i have one. that’s *the* topic as far as I’m concerned, pretty much always. The outsides, the messy, the difficult – being one – and understanding them, and showing effective mercy toward them (we all cast people out – a lot of people here would exile Trump given the chance, and i don’t blame them)

    without getting into my messy, sometimes bloody, and odd life, i was sent into exile when i was very young, and then again, and then again. I was supposed to be, as far as i can tell.

    Moses had his desert. I got mine. I spent a lot of time on fire. It was necessary and i’m foolishly stubborn. But suffering can lead to growth. And a world without it sounds great until you start looking at what we’d be giving up.

    The more you write, the more i dig you. that’s a rare talent where i’m concerned. haha, i’m picky. i can’t say that about a lot of folks i run into, even online.

    Just a heads up, i often express things through scripture. I’m schrodinger’s atheist and certainly not religious. I’m only bringing it up because if we wax philisophical i figure i should warn you. i think i might be a bit odd or even off, for some folks. but i’m mostly harmless.


  • “A Gun for Dinosaur” is a time travel story written by L. Sprague de Camp. It tells the story of four men who travel into the past to hunt and kill dinosaurs.
    It was first published in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction for March, 1956, and first appeared in book form in the anthology The World That Couldn’t Be and 8 Other SF Novelets (Doubleday, 1959). Seems that a radio adaption was broadcast by NBC on March 7, 1956.



  • I’m a fan of scripture (from a historical and literary perspective), so I will never be bothered by anyone using it to express ideas or feelings. Like Dawkins in God Delusion, I think that it has been such an important part of humanity for so long that we should all learn about it—especially atheists like me. One cannot understand Western civilization without understanding Christianity; the same is true of all peoples and their religions. And while there might not be literal truth in any of them, often there are poetic truths and philosophical truths and real wisdom (mixed in with abhorrent nonsense and dangerous misinformation, unfortunately).

    So keep on being you, and never apologize for it. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.

  • that’s wise. i try to teach it to atheists, because the woodenly religious have fashioned an idol out of it.

    but mythos is cool as a form of expression and communication because it enables fuzzy matching and higher level pattern matching using allegory.

    but mythos evolved and refined through generations of oral history and tradition is *really* cool, because it creates evolutionary wisdom. it’s what kept us going all this time, even in prerecorded history, before the Great Forgetting (as some of my accomplices have referred to it as)

    I’m not saying it’s the be all end all, but if you take something grown to the point it achieves adaptive complexity, then write it down – especially with some ambiguity, for example, not writing down vowels with hybrid glyph/alphabetical language, you can find out some amazing things.

    it’s not religion. it’s the closest thing to a grimoire or spellbook we’ll ever hold.

    That’s not quite an endorsement of the supernatural, any more than Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” was.

    It’s just heckin useful for seeing really far and across whole chains of choice and consequence, action reaction.

    Genesis 19 explains the frequency of mass shootings for example.

    But the fools, being like the Pharisees or the drunkards of Ephraim take it line by line, precept by precept, fashion an idol out of it, and then miss the entire point (see also, Isaiah 28) – that’s basically what western christianity, and much of islam is. Judaism has resisted this more than others, but that’s not saying much.

  • Insomnus

    I’m pretty sure scientific convention has pinpointed the mass extinction to a combination of the Siberian traps and the impact on the asteroid. I don’t think anyone still clings to the ‘asteroid only’ scenario.

  • Science follows the evidence. Laymen follow the votes.

    If it’s 50/50 between two scientific alternatives or even 70/30, then who cares which one you as a layman pick? But if it’s 99/1 for an issue that is important in society–obviously, I’m thinking of evolution here–then you don’t get to pick your science based on preference.

    I have some Creationist friends who reject that. Of course, they don’t say it that way. They don’t say that they’re picking their science because the consensus makes them unhappy. But a layman saying, “I reject the overwhelming scientific consensus in a field that I don’t understand for reason X” is going to have a hard time finding a plausible reason for the X.

  • Yeah, but we’re not talking about creationists or hoaxers here. We’re talking about scientists. The dispute between volcanists and impacters isn’t based on religious numbnuttery or conspiracy theory nonsense.

    It’s enough to make you think that maybe it’s not all about the evidence.

  • TinnyWhistler

    I’ve heard that from multiple places as well.

    Ars was reporting on this in May:

  • Gregory “Wolfe” Woodbury

    The way “science” is viewed by many folks, especially non-scientists, is that it has some sort of monolithic structure and rigidity.
    What is is, really, is a methodology of knowing things about some presumed “objective reality.”
    As a process done by humans interacting with each other, politics, and other factors, will affect the process.
    The proper question should be . . . “What best explains the facts.” when folks do not want to agree on what “the facts” are trouble follows.
    It could be that an impact helped trigger a volcanic event, and subsequent climate change is what killed of the noted classes of species. Heck, science has become such a tarpit of politics and personalities (as it has been “forever”) that it will take time for a consensus about TRUTH emerges — we just struggle and follow along until the best hypotheses and theories are formulated.

  • Agreed. If you want another example, I hear that the quasicrystals one is pretty dramatic, with scorn used rather than evidence to defend the status quo. After much work, the original quasicrystal proponent received vindication with a Nobel prize.

    I was making the distinction between scientists’ approach, which you document in your post, and laymen’s approach.

  • Dax Williams

    Depends on how much they’ve had to drink.

  • Adrian

    That’s the official nomenclature, if you believe imgur.com and 9gag.com (which you probably shouldn’t, but still, it’s a handy term :P)

  • Adrian

    Oh, they still are in some areas, for example in Nopestralia. Maybe not quite as big as during the Carboniferous era, but still plenty big.

  • yeah, the continent that tries to eat people.

    where the spiders are so big, they have health-meters and game-boss music.

  • i’m here for it. =)

  • Adrian

    Well, to be fair some parts “only” want to poison people or kickbox them to death, not actually eat them.

    The funny thing is that somehow, the locals still felt the need to invent some pretty weird/messed-up cryptids, as if reality wasn’t surreal enough down there.

  • LOL. Yeah cryptozoology stuff seems rather pointless when you live on a continent that already jumped that shark.


  • Adrian

    That shark, a saltwater croc and a few other abominations ^^”

  • “Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ―myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ―myth’ theories.” ―The New Testament Documents, F. F. Bruce, Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, England

    “No one. No one in scholarly circles dealing with ancient Judaism and early Christianity, of any religious or non―religious persuasion holds the view that Jesus never existed. You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own truth.”—Larry Hurtado, former Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology (University of Edinburgh)

    “Jesus did more than just exist. He said and did a great many things that most historians are reasonably certain we can know about today. …. A hundred and fifty years ago a fairly well respected scholar named Bruno Bauer maintained that the historical Jesus never existed. Anyone who says that today ― in the academic world at least ― gets grouped with the skinheads who say there was no Holocaust and the scientific holdouts who want to believe the world is flat.” ―M A Powell

    So you see, trying to deny the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is like trying to deny the Holocaust. Truth be told, there is more historical evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ than there even is for evolution.

  • You’re engaging in equivocation, a dishonest rhetorical tactic. Kidnapping anyone and then selling them was punishable by death in ancient Israel. (Exodus 21:16 cf. 1 Timothy 1:8-10)

  • You’re being irrational. For you to operate from inside your materialistic, non-transcendent worldview and then demand materialistic evidence for the non-material, transcendent God (which invariably exists outside your perceived worldview) is a logically fallacious category error since it requires material evidence of the non-material, non-transcendent proof of the transcendent. It is exactly like asking to have an idea put on a scale. It does not work as they are completely different categories.

  • This isn’t the place for God-is-God-ain’t slapfights or meme wars. Stick to the topic or play elsewhere.

  • Okay, so I assume you’ve been banned at Bob’s blog and now you’re cyberstalking him all over Patheos.

    Not my problem.

  • So you see, trying to deny the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is like trying to deny the Holocaust. Truth be told, there is more historical evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ than there even is for evolution.

    With bait this stale, I’m not surprised they got tired of you at Cross Examined.

  • You’re being irrational.

    Metaphysician, heal thyself.

  • Bob Jase

    But he had a list of believers professing belief – what more proof could therebe?

  • I realize that. His evidence was so ironclad that I had no choice but to delete it and pretend it never existed, to perpetuate the materialist cover-up of the Truth about Christ’s Resurrection.

    Don’t breathe a word of this, you understand?

  • ugluk2

    I’m late, but that Atlantic article was one of the worst pieces of science writing I have ever seen. I am not a geologist, but I nearly did my physics dissertation on the atmospheric effects of asteroid impacts— my advisor steered me away as he didn’t feel he could advise me well in that area. I have read many of the scientific papers and understand much of them, though as I said geology is not my field. Personally I think that both the asteroid and the Deccan volcanoes contributed to the mass extinction. It was a perfect storm of bad things happening.

    The article was of poor quality on too many levels for me to cover. Basically it was more about gossip— she made virtually no attempt at explaining the scientific issues as a decent science writer would try to do. Yes, people have behaved badly, but on both sides. The article mentions this, but only details bad behavior by the asteroid side. The asteroid theory initially had to face snide dismissals similar to those voiced by Keller and the author. Officer, a geophysicist mentioned in the article as a supposed martyr, was consistently wrong. He initially denied that the iridium layer was from an asteroid and then, when a crater of the predicted size was discovered, refused to admit it was an impact crater, which is beyond dispute. Keller’s claim that the asteroid hit 300,000 years before the extinction hinges on disputed interpretations of sedimentary layers relatively close to or even inside the crater, where there certainly would have been massive underwater landslides and gigantic tsunamis. Further away the iridium layer matches precisely with the extinction. I am going to give a link to a dissertation from an impact theorist. Note that the author is a woman. The pretense that the volcano theory is a feminist cause is stupid and offensive.


    The article gives the impression that the asteroid theory is widely held because of bullying tactics and because it is cool. That last part is actually the sort of snide dismissiveness it had to confront. There was considerable irrational emotion on the side against the asteroid theory ( and yes, I am speaking mainly of male scientists). The fact is that theory is widely held because the physical evidence shows that the largest impact of the past 600 million years hit the earth at the same time many species died out. People have tried to link other mass extinctions to asteroid impacts, but have failed to win much support because the evidence isn’t there. The volcano theory has a lot of support for the Permian and Triassic extinctions and Keller is quite likely right that volcanoes played a major role in the Cretaceous one as well. But the evidence for an asteroid role is also compelling. The question is how big a role each played.

  • ugluk2

    This is exactly what is wrong with the article. It was presented as a morality play, of feminists vs misogynists and of childish (no doubt male) people who like big explosions vs. mature folk who see a similarity between what volcanoes did then and what we are doing now. I think you picked up on exactly what the writer was trying to do. This is a horrible way to approach science. But if a scientific theory is only of interest because of its sociological or political value, then cheer up. The asteroid theory was the inspiration for the nuclear winter theory, which argues that a nuclear war would have catastrophic consequences even for countries thousands of miles away.

  • ugluk2

    One other point. You can actually find some of the papers of the people mentioned in the Atlantic article online. You can read the debate between the volcano advocates and asteroid impacts ( the two extremes) with many of the names mentioned in the article. Failing that, if you have access to a decent university library you could find it there. You should be able to follow some of the details. Peter Schulte was the lead author of a pro asteroid review article in Science in 2010. Some issues later they got replies from Keller and others. Schulte replied to the reply.

    If you are genuinely interested in some scientific topic it is better to get the information firsthand than it is to trust some journalist writing clickbait.

  • tophilacticus

    The hyperbole in the article is a bit much. Also it is much more about personalities than actual scientific work. Sure what has undoubtedly happened to Keller is pretty toxic and nasty, but there are far worse political games and more contentious disputes than this, especially in the Earth sciences. I wonder how many graduate students were used as pawns by Keller, Alvarez, and the various parties involved. See any article on David Marchant’s assaults of women while doing work in field work in Antarctica. And they were his graduate students. As far as contentious disputes in geology/Earth sciences – paleoanthropology is probably one of the more heated subdisciplines, and the stories make this seem tame.

    There have been a stream of media articles promoting Keller as this big revolutionary and a rebel. Perhaps she is, but in my view it is a bit much. What is troubling with this view is this is the exact same methodology of persuasion that the Discovery Institute used and climate-deniers now use. Ted Cruz had a quote a while back saying global warming ‘alarmists’ were like the flat-Earthers branding Galileo (the noble climate denialist like Cruz) a heretic. Granted, publishing a paper where scientists sign on to “prove” the Chixhulub impact event was the cause is absurd, but I find the portrayal of a rebel as silly.

    There are some flaws to the Deccan traps as the significant cause of the end-Cretaceous extinction. Simply, there were larger episodes of volcanism that had little to no known effect on diversity. The point being that the Chixhulub vs. Deccan traps “controversy” is overblown. The example Keller gave of a middle ground is the most absurdly out-of-this-world possible middle ground. My hope is the flowers killing the dinosaurs theory gets resurrected so we can combine them all into the Chixhulub-Deccan Honeytraps. Because that is exactly what both are – honeytraps. Seductively simple solutions to a complex question – the cause of the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction – that has a more appropriately complex answer that we probably will never definitively know.

    p.s. I am surprised the author didn’t actually use the word misogyny to describe what Keller experienced. Within the larger arc of what is also going on in society at large – the author really missed the boat.

  • I think the article at least challenges our notion that science is decided merely on the basis of evidence, as if data points have some sort of magic power to compel consensus.

    I don’t think the author is trying to badmouth scientists. Anyone even reasonably averse to idealizing science and whitewashing the process would find little to object to in the article. All it’s saying is that there are a lot of factors—from personal animus to institutionalized sexism to the hubris of prestigious scientists—that are in play when it comes to scientific inquiry that have nothing to do with data points.

  • there are far worse political games and more contentious disputes than this, especially in the Earth sciences.

    Really? I’d be interested to hear about them.

    This article was a real eye-opener. I’m not as interested in the anecdotes of personal misconduct as in the way these battles are more about personal, professional and cultural factors rather than evidence.

  • tophilacticus

    I am not 100% clear what you are asking, but I read it to say you are interested in the scientific battles like these that are largely personal, professional (both being driven by probably by ego) and cultural, rather than the evidence of the debate or simply stories of personal misconduct. I am not so sure the latter is easily distinguishable from a feud as ultimately they share the commonality of being more about power than anything else.

    Hence numerous scientists joining together to express that their idea is definitive and conclusive – like the K-Pg impact in the story here – is essentially bullying (with misogyny sprinkled in), as is Keller’s plight as a rebel is also about power. I may have written before that the Earth Sciences are one of the whitest and male-dominated fields in science. There was a recent article in Nature Geoscience about this with the data. I can look it up and share if you are interested.

    Paleoanthropology had more extreme examples than withholding samples (like in the Atlantic article, that included things like publishing other people’s work and on their specimens, sometimes on material graduate students were studying (which happened a fear years ago in my discipline) and much more contention in peer review (which is realm of personal hostility and vendettas on its own level).

    To me this display of power is not abused anywhere more than in the grad student/advisor relationship. I am biased, as looking back in my own experience, I was often used as a pawn between my advisor and department head. It doesn’t have the seductive attention grabbing headline of being also a debate about science, but in the end it produces the same result: it impedes what science is purported to be- a pursuit of knowledge. In these cases many grad students who who were driven to a subject, to the intensity of graduate school because of a passion to learn, only to be driven away because of how people behave, not something integral to research they lacked. I brought up the Marchant story because I know of nothing nastier that is out there than that.

    I won’t give more than generalities about a couple stories I know, because these are their stories to detail. A fellow grad student could not publish his master’s thesis for years, because his advisor on that project disagreed with him (on some level), but since that advisor was the world’s preeminent expert in that specialty, the manuscript had to be reviewed by him, regardless of journal. That issue may have been about a personality clash, after some time he was able to publish it. The power a few can have shocked me. Another colleague, a female, was blocked from getting her PhD by her advisor because the results of her work contradicted what he had spent years researching. She had the unfortunate accident of losing her data, but she collected again, found the same results, and again was denied her PhD. Both persevered and continued on to do research but many I know, became disenchanted with that type of working environment and either left before completing their work or once done, like myself, moved beyond academia.

    Hopefully I addressed what you are asking…

  • tophilacticus

    Another feud I was thinking of – which seems a bit more heated, and relevant culturally today is Napoleon Chagnon and his ethnography of indigenous people in Brazil. His work has had a profound impact on the field and is filled with controversy, especially it relying upon a sociobiological framework.

  • Thanks for responding! I really just wanted a general sense of what other disputes are out there. I really like hearing about legitimate disagreements and theoretical battles in science, Kuhnian that I am.

    Nothing interests me less than online slapfights with creationists, because that’s not really about science at all. However, science fans only seem to get excited over their futile factoid-wars, and they blanch at the notion that there are real scientific disagreements between the experts. Look how affronted Bob seemed by my bringing this up; he wasn’t saying (as you are) that the article blows the matter out of proportion, he was truly offended by someone having the poor taste to bring up the fact that there may not be scientific consensus on an event or phenomenon. My discussions about the Dawkins-Gould rivalry generated very little discussion, persuasive evidence that the average science fan cares about scientific knowledge only insofar as he can weaponize it against his online foes.

    Thanks again.

  • tophilacticus

    I may have mentioned the book Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks, it is an intriguing look at the history of science – especially how scientists behave in ways they are not typically portrayed. I find the perspective of the book intriguing and a few of the points I have brought up – like the post World War II re-branding of scientists as the objective dispassionate answer to our future among them.

    Speaking of Gould, the rivalry between him and E. O. Wilson around sociobiology has been heated, and one could argue this is much more profound debate than the K-T mass extinction….both of which will likely never be resolved.