Asteroids vs Volcanos (Dinosaur extinction)

From the Atlantic: The Nastiest Feud in Science: A Princeton geologist has endured decades of ridicule for arguing that the fifth extinction was caused not by an asteroid but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions. But she’s reopened that debate.

I’m not up on all this stuff, but I’m curious. Is this a legitimate scientific uncertainty, with the proponents of the predominant view (asteroid) joining forces to suppress a viewpoint that they disagree with? Or is this really a settled issue, with a few (volcano) outliers clinging to an outmoded and insupportable idea in the face of overwhelming evidence?

The Atlantic is strongly on the side of the first view, and AFAIK they are a reputable publication. But the Atlantic is not a scientific publication, and they also seem more focused on the personal and heroic story of Ms. Keller, which makes me suspicious.

I was watching a rerun of Nova yesterday and they seemed to make it pretty clear it was an asteroid using geologic evidence.

But you know how catty those scientists can get.

Maybe it was both? The asteroid definitely hit. The volcanoes at the Deccan Traps definitely erupted. Last I heard dating was not accurate enough to know exactly how these things were related in time.
Walter Alvarez’s book on this covers the controversy (from his side of course.) Odd that the article never mentions him (as far as I got) since it was he who made the discovery, while Luis helped.
I got to see Luis Alvarez give a talk on this at Princeton in 1981, before they found the impact site. I don’t remember anyone yelling at him.

The meteor was presumably large enough to cause a lot of disruption of the crust and upper mantle, which would lead to increased volcanic activity. There is little doubt that a meteor crater of the right size is associated with the K-T extinction event. It is far more likely that it caused the volcanic activity than the volcanic activity started on its own and the meteor just happened to hit.

Antipodal focusing theory means we can have both.

While the asteroid causing the volcanic activity is very tidy, it appears that the volcanic activity probably predated the strike, and went on for some time. I was hoping for a correlation, but it appears not to be so. Too bad. Maybe the meteor did make the volcanic activity worse though.

Which lends credence to my competing theory that the volcanic activity caused the asteroid strike! :slight_smile:

I just read Steve Brusette’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World. He’s a leading paleontologist and presumably up to speed on the latest evidence. He’s emphatic that a meteor caused that extinction.

*The Atlantic *is unquestionably a good magazine, but it has a penchant for stories that counter conventional wisdom. Sometimes those pan out in the long run, but often they inflate the controversy when it’s a distinct minority opinion.

What I can say is that scientists are not above suppressing viewpoints. They are smart people under constant pressure to produce who frequently dedicate long stretches of their careers to single theories. When confronted with evidence that refutes their work, sometimes they accept it and sometimes they double down. We know with reasonable certainty that a large amount of peer reviewed work comes to its conclusions due to spurious logic and statistical chicanery. I believe it was the Lancet that said over half of all studies are fatally flawed.

In this particular case though? Who knows? I think the asteroid theory does seem a little too clean and too neat. Is that because it’s just that clean or is it because of wishful thinking? I’m not a paleontologist or geologist, so I’m not qualified to say. If my kids ask, I’d probably say it was likely an asteroid strike, but we can’t be certain.

I think you’re mixing up two different types of error.

It’s certainly true that being a contrarian can hurt careers. What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, by Adam Becker, contains a long indictment of physicists for harming careers of those who disputed the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, to the point of driving some from physics.

The *Lancet *investigation was of individual articles, however. Many articles do get written just to run up the score on number published and contain little to no new or good information. But those play little part in forming the consensus of scientific opinion.

I personally think that popular science articles written by people with little scientific training are far more damaging to understanding than journal articles that everybody will ignore. (Most will literally never be cited by anyone ever.) Journalists can’t be trusted to present the scientific arguments and sides accurately. The better story will win out in every case.

Paleontology in particular is a field in which older consensus has been overturned numerous times as new finds are presented. (A unknown dinosaur species is found, on average, every week.) Brusette spends a lot of time talking about this. He also states unequivocally that the previous, Permian–Triassic, extinction that led to the dinosaur era had been caused by volcanoes. He gives details of the difficulties pinpointing the transitions. I have no idea of whether he is right in every interpretation, but the lay reader will come away with a sense that gleaning details from a fossil skeleton is, so to speak, a far more exact science than reading rock layers.

There are lots of different errors. Some of it is making up data to fit a theory which is obviously egregious and I personally don’t think particularly widespread. The most widespread though is p-value manipulation. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. A lot of it is that scientists as a whole really, really don’t understand confidence intervals (I think it’s the name that’s confusing, they think a 95% confidence interval means that they are 95% confident that their work is correct and 95% of future values will fall within a predicted range-that’s not really what it means.) in most scientists undergrad education, they will not have any statistics classes or at most an intro to statistics with most of their statistics knowledge just being sprinkled into other classes. In grad school, they’ll begin using SAS or SPSS without really knowing what it’s doing. Their body of knowledge is about say rock strata rather than hypothesis testing. Good researchers will team up with a statistician to evaluate their claims during the course of their work, but there aren’t as many good statisticians out there as you’d think and it’s simply impossible for every paper or even the majority of papers to be thoroughly vetted and frequently it’s not desirable especially if you don’t have a statistician on board from the beginning. If you just spent four years of your life doing a study and SPSS appears to tell you that it’s fine, you really don’t want some guy from a glorified math department to tell you that you’ve wasted your time especially considering that the people that are reading your paper are just as clueless as you about the statistics.

I doubt if many scientists doing peer reviewed studies are ignorant of that. But IME an enormous percentage of lay people are ignorant in exactly this regard.

Maybe, but this article seems to imply that they don’t.

A few words here. If this were literally true, it would be difficult to explain how science has made the strides that it has, and why we are not in fact all living in caves still trying to figure out how to light a fire. It would be difficult to explain how we live in a highly advanced technological world that is intimately dependent on science, and why technological advancements are growing at an exponential rate. It’s ludicrous to try to refute the premise that science works, and that the scientific method is the most successful path to knowledge that has ever been discovered.

Here’s how to reconcile the apparent dichotomy between that irrefutable fact and those papers.

The Lancet is a medical journal and the article you’re remembering was just a one-page rumination by the editor prompted by a symposium on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research, an editorial that he titled What is medicine’s 5 sigma? [PDF]. The second article you cite was written by a professor of medicine and health research policy, and also a professor of statistics. Do you see a commonality here?

The title of the second article is clearly ridiculous and obviously intended to be provocative, but whether either of those authors explicitly acknowledge it or not, what they’re implicitly talking about and have certainly been highly influenced by is biomedical and pharmaceutical research, fields that have long been fraught with unmanageable complexities and difficulties and which arguably have a greater reliance on statistics than just about any other field of research. A classic example from pharma research is the “decline effect” in which drugs that seem to have high efficacy and successful clinical trials later on turn out to be much less effective, a mysterious reality for which there are probably multiple explanations but no clarity.

The New Yorker article cited actually has a discussion with John Ioannidis, the author of that ridiculously titled paper (“Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”). He attributes things like the decline effect to “significance chasing” by researchers in the early stages of this kind of drug evaluation, which may be partly true.

The point is that some of the unique problems in biomedical research, and some rather hyperbolic attention-getting articles that have been written about them, have a narrow focus and shouldn’t be interpreted as being more than what they really are, such as would be the case if one really took the title of that paper literally.

One example that touches on some of these issues that comes to mind is the famous paper by Michael Mann et al. on global temperature reconstructions for the past millennium. This was the landmark paper that first produced the “hockey stick” graph showing a huge modern-day temperature spike. Naturally, climate “skeptics” got their shorts in a knot and sought to attack the paper as “junk science”.

To make a long story short, the two vectors of attack were (a) that some of the temperature proxies Mann had used were unreliable, and, more damning – and what made me think of that paper here – was (b) a full-on attack on his statistical methods, the cheerleader for which was a climate change denier who was, by happy coincidence, a statistician, something that Mann was not. The argument there was that Mann had applied a technique called de-centered principal component analysis to the data which, it was argued, could be manipulated to produce a hockey stick shape in virtually any data set whatsoever.

So think about that, especially if you’re a climate skeptic disinclined to believe the science: this key paper was reputed to have used bad data and bad statistical methods, and then we have all this other evidence that “Most Published Research Findings Are False”. It’s a trifecta of badness! Would you be inclined to believe the paper?

Probably not. In fact you’d probably laugh at it.

And you would be wrong. Very wrong.

A lot of things happened because of the importance of Mann’s results and the volume of opposition trying to discredit it. One, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a thorough review of all his data and methods. Two, other studies tried to replicate his results, and to address the criticism of bad proxies, results were compared with and without the suspect proxy data. To address the criticism of de-centered PCA, results were presented unprocessed.

The upshot of it all was that the NAS review vindicated Mann’s results. They did not fully endorse his statistical methods but stated they did not affect the results and conclusions. In confirmation, the replication papers showed essentially the same results with and without the suspect proxies, and with and without PCA. Today there is a vast body of new data supporting Mann’s pioneering work, and he is one of the most respected climate scientists working today.

So my philosophy is, unless there is persuasive reason to do otherwise, I trust the science. And if the science is wrong, it will correct itself. In the long run, science prevails over human bias.

A shitload of volcanoes erupting would have been a bad day for the dinos. An large asteroid impact would have been a pretty bad day, too. Both at once would be a REALLY bad day for dinos and everything else.

Except cockroaches.

I couldn’t find quite that claim in your linked article. The closest I see is the statement that “there is a widespread notion that medical research articles should be interpreted based only on p-values”, but that’s not quite the same thing. (Specifically, you cold be aware of the technical meaning of p-values, but nonetheless be overly focused on them for various reasons.)

But perhaps I missed something.

Except, of course, that dinosaurs did survive and became/continued as birds. And mammals survived to take over the land. And lizards and fish and amphibians survived. Some of everything, pretty much.

Brusette offers a few words about how burrowing and water animals were more likely to survive these extinction events but I really wish he had spent a lot more time on this. His accounts of the damage done to the land and atmosphere are so thorough and harrowing it’s hard to understand how so many species did make it through. Birds, he says, could peck hard-case seeds out of the scorched earth. That hardly seems sufficient. I guess a need to read a book specifically on survival to get the answers.

From what I recall, most scientists who study this stuff think it was not a single event that caused the ‘dinosaurs’ to become extinct. Instead, a lot of species were already on the decline (reasons vary) before the asteroid strike. The asteroid strike was probably the decisive blow that finished off many species already struggling. Volcanoes could have plausibly played a role as well, either before, during or after the asteroid strike. So, we could have our cake AND eat it too wrt the two theories. You could have viral or biological factors as well, climate change or a number of other things as well.

The article mentions him multiple times and very prominently, so I suspect you didn’t read very far into it.

To me the article didn’t go deep enough into the science for me, as a lay person, to really judge which theory is correct. But it did mention that Alvarez in his lifetime was a very popular “pop scientist”, maybe akin to a Neil Tyson today or a Carl Sagan during his lifetime. Alvarez was more than happy to wield his public standing to suppress research into any alternatives to the impact hypothesis, including specifically calling out any geologists or other researchers who continued researching the volcanism theory to their employers to pressure them to reject them from tenure track positions etc. The article makes a compelling case that Alvarez using his popularity to launch a series of personal attacks on anyone who didn’t immediately embrace the impact theory to have significantly stifled the willingness of researchers to risk their careers continuing to look into alternatives or to second guess the impact theory.

How true all that is I don’t know, but it painted Alvarez as kind of a dick, and if he really had such a stifling effect on research I think it’d make it very difficult to know which theory is correct since one of them hasn’t had the benefit of being researched as heavily.

To the contrary, I believe you are confusing two different Alvarezes. (Walter is mentioned once in passing, based on a search of the webpage.)