Scientists are “Skeptical” About Possibly the Greatest Scientific Find of the Millennium. Should They Be?

Last week, the New Yorker published a long form story melodramatically titled “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” about perhaps the most important paleontological find since 1822, when Dinosaurs were first discovered.

It’s a lengthy article, but what it details is fascinating.  Essentially, paleontologist and Robert De Palma discovered what he believes to be a perfectly fossilized “record” detailing the account of the distinct DAY the six mile wide asteroid hit earth and led to the demise of the last dinosaurs.  It’s a crazy assertion, but the evidence in the article seems compelling and one might say, conclusive.  If true, this solves a myriad of problems in the scientific community.  That said, the way the article lays the story out one might say…is TOO good to be true.  Everything about the site is perfect, and that hardly ever happens in paleontology.

The evidence though, once again is compelling.  I’m not going to rehash everything the article says, you’ll have to read that yourself, but it’s pretty damning.  In a good way.  The core evidence relies on both fossils and granules of glass called microtektites.  Microtektites are pieces of dirt that fly in the air upon massive impact, get super heated into glass, and fall back to earth.  De Palma’s site is full of them, and also the tiny fossilized craters they made.  Their geochemistry also correlates almost perfectly with microtektites found in Haiti that are confirmed to be from the asteroid. Like any industry though, science is an extremely competitive one.  It’s a perpetual race to present new theories and data to back them up.  No one has ever known the specific events of what happened immediately after the asteroid hit.  Hell,  there aren’t any Dino-fossils anywhere on earth within 3 feet of the layer of strata laid by the massive space rock.

Until now.

De Palma’s discovery in that way is groundbreaking.

If it’s true.

Now, with any media marketed to the public the New Yorker has a goal of getting as many clicks as possible which can lead to sensationalism in instances.  When writing in mediums like The New Yorker about science, the article is going to be written towards the general public and not the scientific community.  I know from experience how dry scientific writing is, and no matter how ground breaking something is, if it’s dry as hell and chock full of sciency jargon the targeted audience won’t want any part of it.  This among other things has led to quite the uproar in the scientific community.  Needless to say, the article is drama’d up and the science community no-likey

The article also details how De Palma doesn’t have the greatest track record, which in and of itself brings more scrutiny, as well it should.

Anyways, Paleontology Twitter (I wasn’t aware that was a thing until today) was deservedly in an uproar.  Massive claims bring massive reactions.

Paleontological writer Brian Switek says:

The full thread of his thoughts can be found HERE

Paleontologist Steve Brusatte was just as skeptical:

It’s one thing to be skeptical about such a find, and I admittedly am.  However, I don’t think these people are skeptical for the right reasons.  Switek goes off on a tangent about the article perpetuating the portrayal of the masculine image of paleontology i.e Indiana Jones in the article and then something about Indigenous people.  I have a set of rules for arguing, and one of them is this.

If you bring in emotional appeal from outside the scope of the argument to prove your point, you automatically lose.

At it’s core, nothing about playing Indiana Jones or Indigenous people have ANYTHING to do with De Palma’s finds.  Hell,  a used car salesman knowing nothing about dinosaurs save a side gig of reenacting Indiana at Disney World could have stumbled across this site.  If the site is what it’s claimed to be, that wouldn’t make it untrue.  His whole argument seems a little self-centered and off base.

As far as Dr. Brusatte, an actual researching Paleontologist, his holds a bit more water.  However, once again, it’s easy to refute.

It’s one article.

Of course it isn’t going to all-encompassing.  De Palma said himself that the purpose of this first article is to set the stage and timeline for future publications.

You can’t be so dismissive about this site due to a purposeful lack of evidence.

The claims are gargantuan, and there is reason to be skeptical but allow me to explain how.

  1. The article was published in PNAS.  Nothing against PNAS, but there are better journals to publish finds such as this in.  If you are unfamiliar with this allow me to explain.  Any new scientific find has the possibility of being peer-reviewed and published.  There are a TON of different journals to publish findings in, with some being more impactful than others.  In fact, there is a rating called the “impact factor” that each journal carries.  The higher the rating, the better the journal.  Like the car salesman analogy above, it doesn’t make it any less true that it was published in PNAS (which is still a very good journal) but I would think that with a finding like this the article could be published in Science or Nature, the two industry leaders.  Usually, The higher the journals impact, the higher the standards for publication.  I would imagine De Palmer would try to get these findings published in as big a journal as possible, so why wasn’t it? Was the data inconclusive? Was it shoddy? I have no idea.  Perhaps it’s because of his reputation, which brings me to my second point.
  2. De Palma doesn’t have a sterling status in the paleontology community.  He’s fucked up before pretty big time, and it was also on something new to science.  This isn’t a career ender, but it does lead to the community regarding you with intense scrutiny on any future finds.  Once again, it doesn’t make it any less true per se, it simply brings the need to exercise caution.

These are two reasons you should be skeptical.  Not because the paper was underwhelming and certainly not because of how he dresses or Native Americans.

I will be watching this closely because on paper it’s the find of the millenium, and also to see how it plays out among the scientific community.