Disputing the Dinosaurs
In a time during which most individuals go to extreme measures to avoid controversy, scientists involved in the dinosaur debate have taken off their gloves, and now are letting the allegations fly. For many years, the prevailing theory regarding what happened to the dinosaurs revolved around an asteroid that slammed into the Earth, which caused massive fires that polluted the atmosphere with soot and dust, and resulted in a drastically reduced temperature in which dinosaurs could not survive. Of course, this explanation did not answer all questions (such as why some animals survived while mainly dinosaurs were selectively annihilated), so other researchers held to a variety of differing views—suggesting that the dinosaurs died out gradually as the Earth’s climate changed. What started out as different scientific theories has now escalated into full-scale warfare.
The heated dispute centers on a core sample that was recovered from the Earth in April 2002. This particular core sample came from the Chicxulub crater on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Buried under a half mile of rock is believed to be the exact location where a huge asteroid impacted with the Earth—the location that many believe marks the site of the dinosaur-destroying asteroid’s impact. Researchers hoped that by studying core samples from this area they could help answer the question of what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. In April 2002, drilling teams finally reached a critical section that scientists were eager to analyze. When they removed this key core sample, researchers began to battle for access to segments in order to carry out their research. With previous core sections, researchers were able to select their samples, secure them for research projects, and leave. But with more scientists wanting samples from this key section, things became heated. To the disgust of many scientists, the key core sample was entrusted to Jan Smit, a geologist at the Free University of Amsterdam, and a leading supporter of the asteroid hypothesis. Rather than give out samples on location in Mexico, Smit decided to take the whole thing back to Amsterdam, claiming that he could do a better job of cutting the core in his laboratory.
Robin McKiethe noted that Smit promised, “to cut up the samples and distribute them to project scientists…. A year later, many scientists were still seeking the promised samples” (2003). In writing about the hot tempers that have erupted over this sample, Rex Dalton commented:
In June 2002, Smit took the boundary-core section to Amsterdam to cut specimens for analysis. The agreement, confirmed by Smit in a 3 July letter to Urrutia [Jaime Urrutia Fucugauchi, team leader for the National Autonomous University of Mexico—BH], was that Smit would distribute boundary-core samples to project scientists worldwide by 15 August, and return the remaining core material to Mexico by 15 September. But those deadlines were missed, and Urrutia says that he regrets entering into the agreement. “I now believe Smit wanted to control that segment,” he claims (2003, 425:14).
When some of the scientists finally did receive samples, many found them too small for the tests they wanted to perform. Erika Elswick of Indiana University in Bloomington lamented: “We were dismayed. There was no explanation given, no apology” (as quoted in Dalton, 2003, p. 14). One scientist, Gerta Keller, a palaeontologist at Princeton University, continued pressing Smit until he finally relented and sent enough samples for her to study fossilized marine plankton. Her analysis clearly showed these creatures prospered long after the impact. Thus, Keller concluded that the Chicxulub impact could not have caused the mass extinction.
In viewing how things have been handled regarding the data and the feuding among scientists, Norman MacLeod claimed: “It’s not about science. It’s about people’s reputations” (425:14). MacLeod is keeper of paleontology at London’s Natural History Museum. He further commented, “This affair has become an object lesson on how partisan and unethical the whole dinosaur controversy has become. Young scientists are now refusing to get involved in this field because no matter what they say it will offend someone and damage their careers” (as quoted in McKiethe, 2003).
The American Heritage Dictionary defines science as: “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena…. Knowledge, especially that gained through experience” (2000, p. 1560). What is currently taking place regarding the dinosaurs’ demise is not science. Researchers are entering into experiments with preconceived ideas, evolutionary bias, and personal agendas. As Smit demonstrated, if anyone challenges those preconceived ideas, then researchers simply will “take the ball home and not let anyone play.” Sadly, MacLeod is right. This isn’t about science. It’s about people’s reputations.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000), (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin), fourth edition.
Dalton, Rex (2003), “Hot Tempers, Hard Core,” Nature, 425:13-14, September 4.
McKiethe, Robin (2003), “Fur Flies as Dinosaur Experts Feud,” The Taipei Times, September 8, [On-line], URL: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/world/archives/2003/09/08/2003067003.