In the trillion-dollar global warming controversy, how objective is the science community? Scientists claim to be a priestly and virtuous caste concerned for truth and for the welfare of the planet. Ex-PM Kevin Rudd’s formulation went that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was the work of 4000 “humorless guys in white coats”.[i] Human-caused global warming is so contentious that it’s hard to step back and look objectively at the white-coated practitioners. So let’s switch to a less important science controversy and observe how scientists behave.
Here’s the case study: Was it an asteroid or volcanoes that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago? The topic doesn’t get anyone emotional. The arguments have nothing to do with electricity bills, there is no cause for dumping prime ministers, capitalism is not at stake, and world government is not required. My dinosaur-debate text is a 9000-word blockbuster by Bianca Bosker in the latest (September) issue of The Atlantic. which informs us that the dinosaur researchers’ behavior is appalling. Name-calling. Blackmailing over academic careers. Data-tampering. Boycotts. Grant-snaffling. Peer review corruption. Consensus-touting… As you discover the details, you might notice parallels with the climate wars. Just one tiny example: $444m taxpayer money thrown to purported Barrier Reef saviors, while James Cook University sacks Professor Peter Ridd who challenged the reef alarmists’ data.
Now back to dinosaurs. In 1980, Luis Alvarez, who had already won the 1968 Nobel Prize for physics, made his claim that an asteroid’s hit finished the big lizards. This pitted the “Impacters” against the “Volcanists”, who blamed eruptions. The Impacters say a 9km-wide asteroid hit at Chicxulub by the Gulf of Mexico with the force of about 10 billion Hiroshima bombs, creating fireballs, earthquakes and a long darkness: an Old Testament version of hell, as The Atlantic puts it. These Impacters insist the science is now settled to near-total certainty. It’s as settled as evolution, they say, “The case is closed.”
But the minority Volcanists continue to argue that colossal eruptions of volcanoes in Western India’s Deccan Traps caused the extinctions. Their leader is Gerta Keller, 73, who has published about 130 papers on the extinction (and a similar number on other specialties). Her disruptive data has caused some Impacters to have second thoughts about Alvarez’s theory. The Atlantic’s Bosker writes,
Keller’s resistance has put her at the core of one of the most rancorous and longest-running controversies in science. “It’s like the Thirty Years’ War,” says Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Impacters’ case-closed confidence belies decades of vicious infighting, with the two sides trading accusations of slander, sabotage, threats, discrimination, spurious data, and attempts to torpedo careers. “I’ve never come across anything that’s been so acrimonious,” Kerr says. “I’m almost speechless because of it.”
Keller keeps a running list of insults that other scientists have hurled at her, either behind her back or to her face. She says she’s been called a “bitch” and “the most dangerous woman in the world,” who “should be stoned and burned at the stake.”
Keller endured decades of ridicule. But as one colleague told Bosker, “It’s thanks to her [Keller] that the case is not closed.” In the bitter feud’s most ugly aspects, dissenters feared for their careers. Bosker quotes other scientists complaining that “the feverish competition in academia coupled with the need to curry favor with colleagues — in order to get published, get tenure, or get grant money — rewards timid research at the expense of maverick undertakings…” Bosker puts it this way
Ground down by acrimony, many critics of the asteroid hypothesis withdrew — including two of the most outspoken opponents, [Dewey] McLean and [Chuck] Officer. Lamenting the rancor as ‘embarrassing to geology,’ Officer announced in 1994 that he would quit mass-extinction research.
Though McLean did ultimately get promoted, he said Alvarez’s ‘vicious politics’ caused him serious health problems and that he couldn’t research Deccan volcanism without ‘the greatest of difficulty’ because of fear or a health relapse… “I never recovered physically or psychologically from that ordeal.” Impacters had warned some of Keller’s collaborators not to work with her, even contacting supervisors to pressure them to sever ties. Keller listed numerous research papers whose early drafts had been rejected, she felt, because pro-impact peer reviewers “just come out and regurgitate their hatred.”[ii]
The Impacters pushed their “consensus” — that word again — attested by 41 of them signing a paper to Science in 2010. But Bosker writes, “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.” A blind test of fossil samples was organized for six researchers in 1997. They disagreed 3-3. Further, polls of scientists involved in the debate variously went 60-40 (Impacters) or 30-70, merely demonstrating that it’s a live issue. Keller’s group accused Science of bias, favoring Impacters’ pieces by a tally of 45 to four articles. The editor denied bias.
The vituperation spread as different disciples, such as physicists got involved, and people couldn’t agree on standards of evidence. From The Atlantic
“Where the physicists trusted models, for example, geologists demanded observations from fieldwork. Yet even specialists from complementary disciplines like geology and paleontology butted heads over crucial interpretations.”
Keller claims Impacters tried to squash debate before dissidents could get a hearing. The acceptance of the Continental Drift theory of Alfred Wegener took 60 years but Alvarez was claiming settled-science within only two years, she said.[iii] Keller in her research suggests an analogy with Iceland’s Laki eruption of 1783, which blanketed the Northern Hemisphere with fumes and ash, causing three years of famine. She argues that a single eruption of the Deccan era was thousands of times worse, and those eruptions happened many times over 350,000 years before the dinosaur die-off. Bosker writes:
As Keller has steadily accumulated evidence to undermine the asteroid hypothesis, the animosity between her and the Impacters has only intensified. Her critics have no qualms about attacking her in the press: Various scientists told me, on the record, that they consider her “fringe,” “unethical,” “particularly dishonest,” and “a gadfly.” Keller, not to be outdone, called one Impacter a “crybaby,” another a “bully,” and a third “the Trump of science.”
Meanwhile the impact theory solidified, and volcanism was largely abandoned, Bosker writes. The dispute, she says, shows how the science process, while “ostensibly guided by objective reason and the search for truth, is shaped by ego, power, and politics.” Both sides claim their respective camps will win only after their opponents have literally died off.
I have no idea which of the dinosaur theories is right. But I’ve certainly learnt from Bosker that scientists, like everyone else, don’t deserve automatic trust. For what it’s worth, Keller is a CO2 warming catastrophist, believing the dinosaur-extinction story is template for our own demise. This notion “terrified” her interviewer.
Afterthought: Like to know more about Gerta Keller? Try these biographical details:
- She grew up hungry with 11 siblings on a farm in Switzerland. Her mother stewed a pet cat and another time gave Keller’s older sister some “mutton” comprising Gertha’s pet dog.
- When Keller came to Australia in 1965 as a young woman an “Australian official” tried to put her in a rag-trade sweatshop, attempting to negotiate a cut of Keller’s pay “in perpetuity”, Keller claims rather implausibly. She stayed here three years.
- Returning from a picnic near Sydney’s Gap cliffs, she crossed paths with a fleeing bank robber who casually shot her near-fatally through the chest. She woke in hospital with a priest administering the last rites. The SMH headline was, “Woman Shot for No Reason”.
Tony Thomas’s new essay collection The West: An insider’s tales – a romping reporter in Perth’s innocent 1960s, can be pre-ordered here.
[i] For the crucial chapter of the Fourth IPCC Report (WG I chapter 9), which claimed to attribute warming to human activity, there were a mere 53 authors, 40 of whom were either work or academic associates, or were joint co-authors of published papers. The crucial second draft was reviewed by just 55 reviewers and seven governments. The other 2900 authors and reviewers (not 4000 as claimed) largely accepted chapter 9 at face value, the other authors doing so before chapter 9 was written so they could write their own chapters in parallel. As Donna LaFramboise has shown, not all IPCC authors were recognised experts in their fields, some were yet to obtain their PhDs.”
[ii] Compare with two of the most famous Climategate emails between scientists Phil Jones and Mike Mann when sceptics were published in peer-reviewed journals. Mann to Jones, 11/3/2003: This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that–take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal…
Jones to Mann, 8/7/2004: The other paper by McKitrick and Michaels is just garbage—as you knew. De Freitas is the Editor again. Pielke is also losing all credibility as well by replying to the mad Finn as well—frequently, as I see it. I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC Report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow—even if we have to redefine what the “peer-review literature” is!