Friday, March 5, 2010

Scientists REALLY REALLY Know What Killed the Dinosaurs! Well, Kinda...Maybe...

What Bryan at In Terra Veritas said (and he said it better, but read on if you wish!)...

What's going on? Another group of headlines on scientific topics/events and the media response that I've been complaining about in the last week: a tendency to overstate, overhype and overdo things. A week ago it was the Chile earthquake and resulting tsunami. This week is a perennial favorite topic of the media: what did in the dinosaurs?

An article in Science (abstract only, check your library for access to the whole article) titled The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary would seem to be attempting to put an end to the ongoing debate about what did in the dinosaurs 65.5 million years ago. I can't really speak to the merits of the paper, I haven't read it and I am not an expert in the area, but in my mind I immediately had questions.

The paper had 41 authors. Forty-one! I immediately wondered who they were. Were these 41 people the most prominent researchers on all sides (not "both" mind you, because there are not just two sides, but "all") of the decades-long debate? Was this the surrender of the opposition, and a final nail in the coffin of the hypothesis that an intense episode of volcanism in India caused the extinction? Was this a paper by the volcanism researchers agreeing that theirs was a failed hypothesis? Or were they all experts on the potential effects of asteroid impacts trying to present the final argument of the prosecution, presenting an overwhelmingly powerful case backed up by new evidence? I look forward to hearing from my paleontologist friends and colleagues. I'd like their take on this study.

My source of irritation is the response of the media. The headlines of the articles include phrases like "It's Official...", "Scientists Settle...", and "Mystery Solved!" that suggest that the matter is settled. I could be wrong, but I strongly suspect it is not. Bryan's take on the article strongly suggests that the debate is fated to continue. It's exceedingly rare for a single research article to be the final word on any debate in science. There are few of those "eureka" moments in science, but a great many bits of incremental advances of understanding brought about by newly emerging evidence. But for some reason, the media seems most often to miss the distinction.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the media articles that do a better job of placing the report in proper context: Popular Science notes at the end of the article that the debate really is continuing, and the title ("According to New Comprehensive Review, a Giant Meteorite Caused the Dinosaur Extinction") is less sensationalistic. In the same way, an AP story also carries a more appropriate headline: "Researchers reassert that impact killed dinosaurs".

At least no one is going to die if the media gets the framing of the story wrong on this issue....

Today's picture focuses on some dinosaur tracks found near Moab, Utah, along the Colorado River.

UPDATE: Scientific American has a good review as well, but the subtitle would have made the better title ("remains the best explanation").
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