Science Wars

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The dark side of Paul Feyerabend's anarchistic philosophy of science — the observation that researchers often try to resolve scientific questions by political means, in the most negative possible sense of "political" — is confirmed all too often by experience. Linguists can point to the excesses of the The Linguistics Wars of the 1970s, and to plenty of other doctrinal disputes, including the Great Recursion Squabble of recent memory. So it's paradoxically a comfort to read Bianca Bosker's article "The nastiest feud in science", The Atlantic 9/2018, about Gerta Keller's struggle to argue that the Fifth Extinction was caused by volcanos rather than by a meteor:

The impact theory provided an elegant solution to a prehistoric puzzle, and its steady march from hypothesis to fact offered a heartwarming story about the integrity of the scientific method. “This is nearly as close to a certainty as one can get in science,” a planetary-science professor told Time magazine in an article on the crater’s discovery. […]

While the majority of her peers embraced the Chicxulub asteroid as the cause of the extinction, Keller remained a maligned and, until recently, lonely voice contesting it. She argues that the mass extinction was caused not by a wrong-place-wrong-time asteroid collision but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions in a part of western India known as the Deccan Traps—a theory that was first proposed in 1978 and then abandoned by all but a small number of scientists. Her research, undertaken with specialists around the world and featured in leading scientific journals, has forced other scientists to take a second look at their data.[…]

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.”

And the story of Keller's life is an inspiring one: growing up in a poor farming family in Switzerland, she avoided a nunnery, apprenticed with a dressmaker, quit her job at 19 and hitchhiked through Europe and North Africa, took a ship to Australia and worked as a nurse's aide and a waitress, was shot and nearly killed by a fleeing bank robber, and eventually fetched up in San Francisco, where

She enrolled in community college, telling the registrar that her academic records had been destroyed in a fire, and later transferred to San Francisco State University, where she majored in anthropology, the most scientific field she could enter without a background in math or science. Her passion for mass extinction began with a geology class she took during her junior year. The professor told her that if she liked rocks and enjoyed travel, she should become a geologist—“because there are rocks everywhere, and you can always dream up some project to do and someone will fund it for you” […]

There's a brighter side to Feyerabend's anarchy — from Against Method:

Unanimity of opinion may be fitting for a church, for the frightened or greedy victims of some (ancient, or modern) myth, or for the weak and willing followers of some tyrant. Variety of opinion is necessary for objective knowledge. And a method that encourages variety is also the only method that is comparable with a humanitarian outlook.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 11:46 am

    (Gerta Keller, punctuation, and the Chicago Manual of Style). I followed Mark's link to Gerta Keller's Princeton-hosted web page, and was horrified to read at the end of the first para. in the left side-bar "a mineral called “akaganeite,” iron oxide loss, and a spike in mercury levels (mercury spikes seem to be a consistent signature of several LIPs)". Now I know that the Chicago Manual of Style mandates that (in general) punctuation should be placed before a closing string quote rather than after, and much as I disagree with its recommendations, I do not normally go out of my way to comment on it. But in the "IN THE NEWS" sidebar, it really makes no sense — the second item of the comma-delimited list is clearly "a mineral called “akaganeite” — why, then place the comma before the closing string quote, thereby making it (the closing string quote, that is), the first element of the third item in the comma-delimited list rather than the integral part of the second item that it really is ?

    [(myl) The passage that evokes your ire was not written by Gerta Keller, but rather by Howard Lee, and was published in Scientific American. So you need to take your problem up with that publication's editors and proofreaders.]

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 11:49 am

    Sorry, I know it's very rude to post twice in succession, but I have just read this in the second para. of the sidebar and cannot allow it to pass without comment : "Most Geoscientists can recall the large bolide impact and mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs and gave rise to the Age of Mammals". Really ? Most Geoscientists must be much much older than the rest of humanity, then …

    [(myl) The OED's gloss for recall, "To call or bring back (a circumstance, event, etc.) to one's mind", doesn't necessarily imply personal lived experience. One of the cited examples is

    1798 J. Ferriar Illustr.Sterne 247 We now begin to recall the Gothic labours of our ancestors.


  3. Jonathan Badger said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    Generally the most acrimonious debates in science are those where there are roughly equal numbers of supporters of two theories and the evidence is ambiguous which (if either) is the correct one. Then there are whole camps of scientists and their students who feud over generations until the matter is resolved when sufficient data is available. This doesn't seem to be case here. While I'm a biologist rather than a geologist, Keller seems to resemble the sort of "maverick" scientist that most fields have — If there's something which 99% of the people in your field believe, they'll believe the opposite. On very rare occasions they'll turn out to have the right idea, but in most cases you have to wonder if even they really believe what they are saying rather than just trying to get their name out there by being controversial.

    [(myl) Apparently in this case the field is now about evenly split — from the article:

    Adatte told me about a recent conference where several researchers had debated the validity of Deccan volcanism versus the impact theory in front of an audience of their peers, who had then voted, by a show of hands, on which they thought had caused the extinction. Adatte said the result was 70–30 in favor of volcanism. I heard later from the paleontologist Paul Wignall, who’d argued for the impact side, that Chicxulub had won 60–40, though he conceded that the scientists were essentially split—clearly, the question was far from resolved. When I asked Wignall who had rescued Deccan volcanism and helped popularize it, he said, “If you were to name one person, you would name Gerta.”

    And the article also makes clear that Keller's reasons for arguing the volcanism thesis against the impact thesis were empirical not psychological.]

  4. Thornton Hall said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

    People intuitively know that one small set of not very diverse people decideinh what’s true and what’s false is a horrible way to get to truth.

    Then they are given a choice: agree with the New York Times or be wrong.

    Everyone in academia and the media supports the Post War model of college educated reporters deciding what objective truth is. But it’s a recipe for resentment. Unfortunately, the people causing the problem blame everyone but themselves.

  5. David L said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

    The famous maverick I'm most familiar with is Fred Hoyle, who was a genuinely original astrophysicist in his youth but in his later years hung on to the Steady State cosmology far beyond reason, and embraced wacky ideas such as flu epidemics coming from meteorites. He objected to evolution because, as he once put it, if a tornado blows through a junkyard it doesn't create a jumbo jet.

    In line with Jonathan Badger's comment above, it's fair to say that Hoyle had a maverick personality — he liked to think of himself as an outsider even after he had climbed to the top of the academic ladder. Acrimony against him arose in large part because he stuck to the same tired and erroneous arguments no matter what, and harped on a few point that were hard for early Big Bang cosmologists to deal with while steadfastly ignoring the glaring deficiencies of his Steady State model. In short, he staked his claim and refused to let go. Whether this was self-delusion or dishonesty — or merely, as JB suggests, a desire to remain controversial — I don't know.

  6. Y said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    I haven't been following the extinction literature for a while. Based on what I read here, the problem seems to be the insistence on a black-and-white: "the bolide caused everything, and the Deccan traps caused nothing", or vice versa. This kind of argument usually settles into a recognition of a more complex scenario than either side had clung to at first.
    The case of the linguistic wars is quite qualitatively different, ultimately because the nature of the evidence is different, and because the mechanisms underlying language are still mostly unknown, in contrast to those of geology.

  7. Jonathan Badger said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 3:20 pm

    Yeah, like in immunology. There used to be a debate on whether the immune system was based on phagocytic cells eating pathogens or was based on antibodies binding to them, but it turns out *both* are true.

  8. ~flow said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 5:18 pm

    It's probably more than just a funny incidence that Der Spiegel ( advertised some new episodes over at the affiliated site, one of them featuring an interview with Gerta Keller. Now, DCTP has some reputation for a sometimes wacky view on things, and also for their wacky style (a friend of mine who is a theater and film actor loves it because it is so 'refreshingly different' when compared to the mainstream stuff, and I think he's got a point there). The link to the interview is

    I will say that when I realized Ms Keller was doubting the impact theory, in public, I thought to myself 'ah OK, another wacky scientist on this channel'; unfortunately, I was unable to listen in very closely for a number of reasons, so that judgment just stuck. It's incredible how the scientific community's estimate of likelihood filters down to the layman. Unnecessary to add that I'm not remotely able to entertain a well-informed opinion on the subject (but of course I still do it, right).

    Since this is Language Log, let me add the observation that from her name and her English accent I had indeed thought that Gerta Keller had a German background, but interestingly, she answers all questions in English. Annoyingly, there's a live interpreter who is quite good but since the translation is simultaneous, you almost don't get to hear Ms Keller herself.

  9. bks said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 6:51 pm

    Conrad Hal Waddington thought he did some of his best work when he was inflamed by an urge to "get the other guy" with whom he had some scientific clash.

  10. David L said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 7:28 pm

    I finally got around to reading the Atlantic article, and I think that although it sheds some light on the psychology of various people it doesn't even to begin to convey a sense of the scientific questions involved. The pro-impact people get a paragraph or so; everything else is about Keller and her supporters. The article conveys various criticisms of the impact model but (to my mind, anyway) it barely makes the case that the Deccan Trap model provides a better explanation.

    It's a complicated question, no doubt, but the article is extremely one-sided.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 1:21 am

    @ ~flow:
    Given the summary of Keller's background in Mark's OP, it's likely that she is not very comfortable in Standard German. Growing up in a "poor farming family in Switzerland", she will have acquired some variety of Swiss German as her native language, and since then she seems to have spent nearly half a century (and her entire professional academic career) primarily in the English-speaking world. It's not surprising that she preferred not to answer questions about her professional work in Standard German.

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 2:13 am

    From the Atlantic: She has crisscrossed dozens of countries doing field research and can claim near-death experiences in many of them: with a tiger in Belize, an anaconda in Madagascar, a mob in Haiti, an uprising in Mexico.

    Tigers in Belize? Anacondas in Madagascar? Escaped from zoos, perhaps.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 3:11 am

    Every year for the last several decades, some popular medium discovers Keller and presents her work as something new… and every year the evidence stays just about the same. Keller reminds me first of all of the people (Alan Feduccia, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, and… that's about it nowadays) who continue to insist that birds can't possibly be dinosaurs.

    Tigers in Belize? Anacondas in Madagascar? Escaped from zoos, perhaps.


    There are of course jaguars in Belize, but while Madagascar has four species of boas, individuals longer than about 3 m have not been reported…

  14. Kristian said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 5:32 am

    Very interesting. In the article one scientist is quoted as saying that the asteroid hypothesis was "nearly as close to a certainty as one can get in science". Surely this is preposterous. Does this person really think that it's as well established as, say, the atomic theory? Any story we tell about specific events and their effects tens of millions of years ago is likely to be speculative.

    Another one says "the hypothesis has reached the level of the evolution hypothesis". Great. Lots of people are going to read this article and think, oh, if this isn't true then maybe evolution is false too.

  15. Ed Rorie said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 5:48 am

    A tornado blowing through a junkyard doesn't create a jumbo jet because it doesn't have the time.

  16. MattF said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    In fact, the 'lone dissenter who turned out to be right' is a pretty common scientific storyline– I can think of several examples. My favorite is Tom Gold, who believed that oil deposits are the result of deep geological chemistry, rather than decay of ancient fossils.

    He was also extremely sceptical of extra-solar planets that are 'discovered' by doing Fourier transforms of observed data. I've often wondered how he'd respond to current trends in that area.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:50 am

    MattF: Gold turned out to be right?

    My first example of "lone scientist who turned out to be right" is Alfred Wegener on continental drift.

    Philip Taylor: It's not just the Chicago manual. Americans are taught in school to put commas and periods inside quotation marks, no matter what, and just about all publishers follow the rule except in computer science and linguistics. The reasons given are based on esthetics and tradition. (Some of us Americans don't follow that rule, though.)

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

    Mark, Jerry — thank you both for your comments. What I was wondering when I posted my comment was whether any reader of Language Log would actually defend the comma placement in this particular example, or whether there is tacit acceptance that "it is wrong, but that's what CMS requires …".

  19. MattF said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

    @Jerry Friedman
    Re-reading my comment, I can see that it leaves the impression that Gold was right. That was not my intention. However, I approve of Gold's always-sceptical approach– and I don't shut my eyes when I do a Fourier transform.

  20. Jonathan Silk said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    @MattF, Jerry Friedman,

    I was also thinking of Thomas Gold, and then read down to your comments, already mentioning him. I'm not qualified to offer any opinion about the oil hypothesis (but it certainly appears that the test wells *did* yield oil, and if the process of formation is purely biological in origin it seems difficult to explain extraterrestrial hydrocarbons — but here, again, I confess my ignorance!), but there are other examples in Gold's career of him being squarely against the established theory and turning out to be right–one can get some sense of it even from the Wikipedia page on him. That does not, of course, mean that every nay-sayer will turn out to be right, quite needless to say, and Gold was not a crank from out of left-field, quite far from it. But I do think that evoking his name and his experiences is quite a propos here.

  21. David Marjanović said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

    Gold may have been right that larger hydrocarbons can be produced by geological processes. After all, it is now acknowledged that methane can be produced in such ways and may account for all the methane recently discovered on Mars. Gold may merely have overestimated the quantity produced by such processes by a bunch of orders of magnitude – and somehow overlooked the well-known remains of such things as chlorophyll in petroleum. No geological process is going to produce a porphyrin.

    A tornado blowing through a junkyard doesn't create a jumbo jet because it doesn't have the time.

    There wouldn't be enough time within the age of the Earth, but that's completely beside the issue. Like an ordinary creationist, Hoyle misinterpreted the theory of evolution as saying nothing more than "it all happened by chance". That's where the error is. Mutation and drift are random, but selection is not – it is determined by the environment.

    My first example of "lone scientist who turned out to be right" is Alfred Wegener on continental drift.

    He discovered the phenomenon and amassed a lot of evidence for it, most of which still holds; but the mechanism he proposed was pretty much completely wrong, much as his skeptics thought in his lifetime. His conception of the Earth's crust was quite wrong, too: he thought the oceanic crust (to translate his terminology into today's) was a continuous sphere around the Earth, on top of which the continents slowly slid around; instead, there is no layer of oceanic crust under continental crust, and oceanic crust consists of plates delimited by midocean ridges, subduction zones and continents.

  22. David Marjanović said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

    I should mention that Wegener wasn't all that lonely. The (geo)physicists dismissed his idea because the mechanism he proposed was bunk; but among the biologists continental drift quickly became pretty popular, because it simply explains so much.

    it certainly appears that the test wells *did* yield oil

    Yeah, it's not that surprising that looking for oil in a crater surrounded by known oil-bearing sediments can be moderately successful.

  23. Ed Rorie said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

    You could also argue that the raw materials for a jumbo jet are not available in most junkyards, but arguing with a creationist on any level is like arguing with an infant who believes "everything is mine." Jokes are my only refuge when the whole conversation is ridiculous.

  24. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 5:19 pm

    I doubt that most U.S. readers would see commas and periods inside quotation marks as wrong, or even notice. That's not something the Chicago Manual, or the AP Stylebook, has imposed on an unwilling public. It's simply what we do here (though not everybody, and not in every field, of course). One is entitled to one's preferences, and one can argue, if one likes, that the British style is more logical. (I suppose it is, in a rather trivial sense.) But either way, it's a convention; there really isn't any right or wrong about it. And I'd be hesitant, myself, to accuse a whole country of getting its orthography wrong. It just seems rather bad manners, like telling a German waiter that this isn't how they make sauerbraten in Iowa City.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 5:48 pm

    My point is not that the CMS convention is wrong (I think that it is, but that is not my point). The point that I was trying to make is that in this particular context, blind obedience to the Chicago convention is wrong — the construct is a comma-delimited list, and each item within that list should be complete, but as punctuated in the sidebar, the second item is incomplete, lacking the closing string quote around "akaganeite". "Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the blind obedience of fools", and in this particular instance, I think that the writer was foolish to obey Chicago's dictat.

  26. RfP said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    As a technical writer, I work with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who give me the information I need to explain their technologies to my readers. But I'm _also_ an SME—in the field of language and communication.

    I take this responsibility seriously and pay a lot of attention to what it takes for my readers to understand me, including in the area of punctuation.

    We also have a house style that we all have to follow, which until recently mandated the use of the serial comma. Because of this, I experienced a tremendous amount of inner turmoil having to use a serial comma in places where I felt that it inhibited comprehension. And I felt truly liberated—in a small way, at any rate—when that stricture was lifted. So I care about this stuff—deeply!

    Having said that, the comma placement you refer to (which holds for commas and full stops, but not for question marks; exclamation points; or colons and semi-colons) is strictly a notational convention, and people reading and writing in the U.S. have internalized that convention pretty thoroughly, as far as I can tell. So if I were to place the comma outside the quote, it would just plain look wrong! It would grate! And that goes for your example. It just wouldn't look right!

    And it wouldn't improve the logic of the list, because it's a notational convention pure and simple in a situation like this. The practiced eye skips right over it.

    However, if I need to place a string of symbols—for example a line of computer code—inside quotation marks, I will definitely place a comma or full stop that is not part of that string *outside* the quotes. That impacts readability, and leaving the punctuation inside the quotes could even lead to disaster, under the wrong set of circumstances.

    Having said that, there is a growing tendency in engineering circles to move the commas and full stops outside of the quotes, and that convention may change in the very near future. If so, I'll be more than happy to follow it.

    By the same token, if I were to work for a British company, with a British audience, I would switch notations right away.

  27. RfP said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

    (And someday, I hope to remember how exactly to create italics and bolded text before I post a comment…)

  28. JG said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 1:51 am

    "Tigers in Belize? Anacondas in Madagascar? Escaped from zoos, perhaps."

    Not to mention that the jaguars who do live in Belize rarely ever kill anyone, and none of the medium-sized snakes in Madagascar (can't even call them large) ever do. Nor is it very plausible that a scientist would have an unreported near-death encounter with an anaconda anywhere in the world, as to my knowledge no confirmed fatalities exist at all, and any meaningful attack would be BIG news.

    On top of that, near-death experiences from (I assume food/water-transmitted?) hepatitis in Algeria and food poisoning in India would be…unusual to say the least. Both ailments are common, both are almost never fatal even without any treatment at all.

    I actually wrote the author about that soon after the article went live. Still waiting for a response. It's worth knowing whether it indicates some errors by the journalist, a bit of exaggeration, or wild fabrication.

  29. Rick Rubenstein said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 2:07 am

    So has the theory espoused in The Far Side fallen out of favor?

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 2:52 am

    (RfP) Thank you for your helpful and constructive comment. As a possibly-useful aside, I have (very) recently taken to vetting my comments in "JS Bin" to ensure that my HTML markup is correct before pressing "Submit".

  31. Ed Rorie said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 8:25 am

    In the sidebar, use semicolons instead of commas to separate the items. A semicolon looks just fine following a quotation mark. The last item is a word salad, and semicolons help make it clear that it is one item in a series.

  32. mcswell said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 10:56 pm

    @Rubenstein: I don't believe tobacco had evolved back then.

  33. JG said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 10:19 am

    "There are of course jaguars in Belize, but while Madagascar has four species of boas, individuals longer than about 3 m have not been reported…"

    The Atlantic has issued a correction and changed it to "a jaguar in belize, a boa in Madagascar…"

    I find it very unlikely that a true near-death experience involving a jaguar occurred (jaguar attacks are so rare as to be quite newsworthy when they occur), and completely impossible that a near-death experience involving a ground boa occurred.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 11:01 pm

    David Marjanović: Belated thanks for your comments on Wegener and Gold.

  35. Rodger C said,

    August 17, 2018 @ 6:53 am

    Also belated: The jaguars in Spanish America are called tigres everywhere I know of.

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