Doomed Planet

The Scientific Method: Hate, Spite, Spleen

dead dinoIn 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!

[iii] The global warming scare got under way only a few years after the end of the ‘global cooling’ scare of the 1970s, long before any serious research was undertaken.

12 thoughts on “The Scientific Method: Hate, Spite, Spleen

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    The last thing I saw on the Dinosoar extinction event controversy is that they could both be right.
    A bolide triggered volcanoes.

    Although the birds made it out of the flames.

  • en passant says:

    Gerta almost persuaded me until she praised someone by calling them “the Trump of science.” (thus mistaking commonsense for an insult. Also, as she is clearly so stupid as to believe the ridiculous hoax that CO2 is a problem, her credibility and reasoning powers are suspect.

    Two years ago (when I had nothing better to do) I took a course in Paleontology through Hong Kong University. I don’t know what killed off the dinosaurs so rapidly, but it was unlikely to be an asteroid. There are several other super volcanoes that are contenders from Yellowstone, to Siberia and the Deccan Traps.

    I won’t take up the space, but the composition of the atmosphere is another possibility as CO2 plummeted, plants died off and the dinosaurs might just have starved.

  • says:

    It seems Volcanoes can provide lots of history. Mt Hekla comes to mind in SO2 studies. Woods Hole core samples and so many others provide good evidence. There are so many differences between people and humans. AlanIO

  • lhissink says:

    Indeed the geological academia behaves horribly when heretics manage to lob a couple of rotting ideological corpses over the battlements, such as the debate over the K-T extinction event. In one corner are the impact proselytisers, the other the volcanicists and their Deccan Traps, each arguing from their data that their theory must be correct. The irony is that both are correct but not for the reason most might think.

    The acrimony in the geosciences is the simple fact they are not sciences but technically sophisticated religions. It is certainly not understood that the geological chronology we use today is a religious artefact. Creation, of course, is intrinsically unobservable, but why any scientific effort needs to be based on a theological underpinning has more to do with the demands of the dominant culture than simple “truth”. Every culture seems to have its share of creation myths, and ours is based on the Judeo-Christian faiths, so we have to have a biblical creation, like it or not. Given that observation of geological processes today more or less falsifies the biblical fundamentalist opinion that everything was created some 6000 years ago, Creation still remains part of the modern geological paradigm, this time as the astrophysical Big Bang event dated some 14 billions of years in the past with the Earth formed 4,500 years ago.

    Creation, the process by which something is formed from nothing, is nothing other than an abstraction, an imaginal invented by the human brain. A short diversion. How do humans think? By memorising sounds that are mapped or associated to physical objects. The utterance “chair” is specific – it maps audibly a thing one sites on. Sounds such as “dog” or “cat” mean specific physical objects. Other sounds represent observed activities such as reading, walking, running, etc. Again real physical actions represented by sounds that are memorised as words by the human brain. Thinking is then the retrieval of words (sounds) and thoughts are words arranged according to the rules of grammar to yield ideas or statements that have meaning. Not understood is the fact that all thoughts are extrapolations from the human memory and intrinsically fabricated from the past. Which means we cannot think of something that does not exist physically, since we cannot have a word for it based on experience.

    Our civilisation is believed to have evolved from the Grecian-Roman civilisation and those peoples were pagans, worshippers of many gods or authorities. In particular worship of the planets meant that physically those planets had to have made a physical impact on the humans of the time. Mars as the god of war, for example; how did humans arrive at naming this planet as a destructive one? From actual physical observation during some catastrophe that sundered their world at the time. A Velikovskian scenario.

    Today the planets are in, seemingly, non-threatening orbits and for most of us, now irrelevant and the memories of the violent past archived in our forgettery, as one political wit offered not that long ago. But others did not get on with their lives, and instead became obsessed with their memories, unable to put them into the forgettery. As the physical planets were now absent, but the memories of them still vivid, those humans who became addicted to their memories, codified them as religion along with the creation of an abstract alter-ego of the previous violent planet. These people became physically addicted to their memories, and reality then became described through the intellectual window of their addiction; religion in other words.

    Back to the issue in hand. The geological timescale was originally framed to describe the progress of creation over time starting from simple beginnings, a long, long time ago, to the present via the Darwinian mechanism, which itself is also a fabricated abstraction, since it hasn’t actually been observed. Actually Charles Lyell first enumerated his geological evolution which Charles Darwin then used as the basis for his theory of how life arrived at its observed diversity over incomprehensibly long periods of time. Biblical creation under the sway of infinite time as opposed to the alternative of instant creation, or at least over seven days. The geological timescale was then fabricated to display this biological evolution from the simple to the complex.

    This was achieved by cherry-picking the evidence. Lyell achieved this, but inadvertedly, by assuming that present day observed sedimentation rates operated over all of time, and not just the immediate present. This was done by dismissing descriptions of previous catastrophes such as the universal deluge, as literary ploys or parables to explain theology by metaphor or parable. Except that his assumption was wrong. Present day river systems don’t move bottom sediments downstream – not even under flood conditions. While these river systems do transport the extremely fine-grained suspended silts and muds during floods, forming varve layers in lakes, for example, mass transport of the sands and gravels in their channels and courses doesn’t happen; the water, even under flood conditions, simply flows over them. Yet what Lyell saw, he interpreted as physical reality, and if it took extremely long periods of time to erode and transport mountains by rivers then so be it. Except that the existence of the sands and gravels in the river beds and banks were not put there by the existing water flow system; instead these deposits were formed by an earlier, but not occurring in the present, process. So in a strictly scientific sense Lyell was correct in assuming the present was the key to the past; except he did not realise he was dealing with a Russian Doll model, in which the outside doll hid an interior doll that itself also hid another smaller interior doll. Hid cherry was that he formed it by excluding the past.

    By purging geology of catastrophes, Lyell fabricated a static geological system that moved more slowly than e spilt bottle of treacle on a cold dining plate. If the present day river sediments were not created by the water in the present, but then inferring those waters did, Lyell ended up with the dilemma of almost infinite periods of time in which to form geological features and events. And Darwin’s model of biological evolution also required infinite time. And both were exercising their brains in the fantasy world of their minds, the abstract world where the terms of engagement involved the use of words that had no physical meaning. Similar to a Cheech and Chong movie, one guesses, but with a more proper attitude for the Victorian times they lived in.

    As for the Keller controversy, the K-T event was caused by an impact that was shortly exacerbated by the eruption of the Deccan Traps and also massive kimberlite eruptions, accompanied by enormous emissions of CO2 and water.

    The physical evidence is there in the rocks but Keller and her opponents were using the wrong calendar. They used the Lyellian Calendar when they should have been using the Velikovskian one, that of intermittent global catastrophes separated by periods of quietude during which nothing much seemed to happen, and informed Lyell’s book “Principles of Geology”.

    Both debaters are right.

    The meteorite impact proponents were right and shortly afterwards, the effect of the impact caused the global eruption of the Deccan Traps and other related volcanic eruptions, which their opponents argue for, but not over a period of hundreds of thousands of years, but within one or two years. Keller and her opponents are arguing over anachronisms caused by the dominance of the Lyellian paradigm of Uniformitarianism.

    (Incidentally this very topic was earlier raised by me a couple of decades ago when I pointed it out to the then WMC Senior Research geologist, who then replied that they were not allowed to think like that. No funding from industry, alas).

  • padraic says:

    An interesting post above. I always wondered about the Romans and their interest in planets to such a degree that they named the seven days of the week after them…… Die Lunae, Die Martis, Die Mercurii, Die Jovis, Die Veneriis, Die Saturnii and Die Solis. The Brits kept Moon day, Saturn day and Sun day but the others are related to Norse gods. Can anyone explain why the Romans plumped for planets as names of weekdays?

  • rosross says:

    The corruption of science goes far beyond Climate Change. It is perhaps most corrupted in the realms of medicine, where powerful vested agendas distort, deny and diminish research into vaccines and medications. Those who dare to raise questions, particularly about vaccines, an industry which now has cult-like status and form, will be pilloried and ‘burned’ at metaphorical stakes.

    Any dissent and you are likely to lose your job, your prestige and any position you might hold. Doctors are struck off for dissenting; scientists are dismissed as ‘quacks’ for raising concerns about vaccines and the general public, those few who dare to question, are mocked.

    The scientific method has lost any objectivity and integrity it might once have had. It has become a fundamentalist religion for many and is as irrational and destructive as any god-botherer system has ever been. Indeed, the potential for destruction is far greater.

    Lies, damned lies and science is now the way of it.

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