The Scientist at the Center of a Heated Scientific Feud

AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

Many Americans learn in school that a giant asteroid crashed into the earth and destroyed three-quarters of Earth’s species, including the dinosaurs. Scientists even found the supposed site of impact down in Mexico. For The Atlantic, Bianca Bosker writes about Princeton paleontologist Gerta Keller, whose 30-plus years of research contradicts the asteroid scenario. Volcanic eruptions, Keller says, not a celestial body, altered the earth’s climate so severely that it destroyed most life on our planet. Keller’s research has upended a scientific institution, revealed the fundamental difficulties in discerning scientific facts, and caused its own massive eruptions that have spewed noxious gas within scientific history.

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.”

Understanding the cause of the mass extinction is not an esoteric academic endeavor. Dinosaurs are what paleontologists call “charismatic megafauna”: sexy, sympathetic beasts whose obliteration transfixes pretty much anyone with a pulse. The nature of their downfall, after 135 million years of good living, might offer clues for how we can prevent, or at least delay, our own end. “Without meaning to sound pessimistic,” the geophysicist Vincent Courtillot writes in his book Evolutionary Catastrophes, “I believe the ancient catastrophes whose traces geologists are now exhuming are worthy of our attention, not just for the sake of our culture or our understanding of the zigzaggy path that led to the emergence of our own species, but quite practically to understand how to keep from becoming extinct ourselves.”

This dispute illuminates the messy way that science progresses, and how this idealized process, ostensibly guided by objective reason and the search for truth, is shaped by ego, power, and politics. Keller has had to endure decades of ridicule to make scientists reconsider an idea they had confidently rejected. “Gerta had to fight very much to get into the position that she is in right now,” says Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, a collaborator of Keller’s from Heidelberg University. “It’s thanks to her that the case is not closed.”

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