Today I spotted an interesting article by Tom Avril (Scripps-McClatchy News Service) titled in our local paper: Researcher counters meteor versus dinosaur theory of extinction.
The focus of the piece is a geoscientist, named Gerta Keller, who questions the universally-held belief that an enormous meteor that crashed into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula eons ago was what wiped out the dinosaurs.
No one, including Dr. Keller, disputes the fact that the meteor did indeed crash near the Mexican coast, scattering molten debris as far as New Jersey. Likewise, no one, including Dr. Keller, disputes that a mass extinction event occurred in which the dinosaurs precipitously lost their dominion over the earth. The question, at least in Dr. Keller’s mind, is whether the two events are joined in causality.
She doubts, because she and her colleagues claim to have found evidence of the Mexican meteor’s debris embedded in sedimentary layers in locations in Texas and Mexico deposited 300,000 years before the dinosaurs became extinct. In the great scheme of 65 million years, 300,000 years plus or minus is only a 0.5% error, but in absolute terms, it’s a long long time.
She presented her evidence to her fellow wizards, who were mostly not amused:
Keller did not provoke angry shouts Tuesday, as she has in the past, but there was vigorous skepticism from some in the audience of several hundred scientists.
Obviously, she isn’t the first (nor will she be the last) scientist to shake up and anger the establishment with a view outside the mainstream. Galileo springs to mind. His travails with the ruling establishment of his day (which happened to be the Catholic Church) are the stuff of legend. And we all know who turned out to be right. Innovation rarely comes from the mainstream. If you’re interested in reading a fabulous book about his struggles, check out Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter. I read it years ago when it first came out and still find myself thinking about it.
But I digress…back to dinosaurs and meteors and embattled scientists of today.
When asked why she felt her novel theory generates such rancor among her peers, Dr. Keller responded:
“So many people have invested so much time on one theory,” she said of the Mexico-meteor concept. “It was a very sexy, very nice theory…Everybody can identify with it. Except the details don’t fit.”
And those last two lines really got me; I could identify with her plight. Advance a scientifically sound theory that runs counter to the mainstream view and get vilified for your trouble? Been there…got the T-shirt.
It hasn’t happened to us often, but I still recall one early morning radio interview years ago in which I was repeatedly called “Dr. Death” by my interlocutor, because I recommend eating meat as the cornerstone of a healthy human diet. It was a set up piece, as it turned out, in which the station manager interviewing me was a card carrying PETA vegan.
No amount of scientific evidence that I offered to support our meat-eating origins–not our obligate dependence on vitamin B12, found only in food from animal sources; or the structure of the human GI tract, much more like a carnivore’s being relatively short, with only one very acidic stomach and a gall bladder; or the carnivorous set of our eyes on the front of our skull; or the pointy canine teeth we still sport; or the many nutrient deficiencies of a vegan diet–could sway her beliefs.
She had her very nice, very sexy theory that she and her compatriots could identify with. And she didn’t give one whit that the details don’t fit. Her mind’s made up; don’t confuse her with the facts!
That’s blind adherence to an ideology and it’s dangerous. Unfortunately, it’s not so unlike the rabid fervor that surrounds the lipid hypothesis of heart disease or the firm belief that serum cholesterol must be artifically pushed lower and lower with medications or that the low fat diet is the healthiest diet or that saturated fat is evil incarnate. Positions firmly entrenched, widely believed, and canonized as sacred by an overwhelming percentage of the populus who seem not to care a whit that the details don’t fit. But woe be it to anyone who dares to suggest that maybe, just maybe the science isn’t there to support them.
As Dr. Keller put it: So many people have invested so much time on one theory…
Fortunately for us all, Mr. Avril’s article points out that there are at least a few open minds still left in the scientific community. One in the person of Dr. Kenneth Lacovara a paleontologist from Drexel university, who moderated the geoscientific session in which Dr. Keller presented her findings. As Mr. Avril reported:
Lacovara readily admits that science is not conducted by majority vote. The truth emerges when a researcher’s results are repeated. He directed his Drexel graduate students to attend Keller’s session so they could see science in action.
Because, as Dr. Locovara himself stated:
“This is really the scientific process. Gerta may be wrong. Most people say she’s wrong. But you put it out there… I may not agree with her, but I think it’s great what she’s doing.”
And so from this sane scientist, my quote of the year:
Science is not conducted by majoriy vote.
Words to live by.