"The Nastiest Feud in Science"

Margaret DeLacy's picture


Below is link to and excerpt from a story that appeared in the Atlantic. The story analyzes the disagreement between geologists who believe the now well-established theory that the mass extinction of the dinosaurs was due to the impact of an asteroid that struck near the town of Chicxulub on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and a smaller group of geologists, led by Gerta Keller of Princeton, who argue that the most important causes were gigantic volcanic eruptions.

The ongoing disagreement has raised long-standing questions about the nature of scientific method, the meaning and interpretation of evidence, and the value of personal reputation in establishing a scientific theory.


"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.... Each side dismisses the other as unscientific... Both sides contend that the other is so stubborn, the debate will be resolved only when the opposition croaks. “You don’t convince the old people about a new idea. You wait for them to die,” jokes Courtillot, the volcanism advocate, paraphrasing Max Planck. Smit agrees: “You just have to let them get extinct.”

All the squabbling raises a question: How will the public know when scientists have determined which scenario is right? It is tempting, but unreliable, to trust what appears to be the majority opinion. Forty-one co-authors signed on to a 2010 Science paper asserting that Chicxulub was, after all the evidence had been evaluated, conclusively to blame for the dinosaurs’ death. Case closed, again. Although some might consider this proof of consensus, dozens of geologists, paleontologists, and biologists wrote in to the journal contesting the paper’s methods and conclusions. Science is not done by vote....."

Bianca Bosker, "The Nastiest Feud in Science, " The Atlantic, September, 2018https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/09/dinosaur-extinction-debate/565769/