Massaging Extinction Narratives with Microfossil Divination
When you look at the details of the research,
the basis for confidence evaporates.
Some scientists have way too much confidence in their abilities. Their universities let them get away with their bravado, because it’s in their interest to make their scientists look good. University science departments stand to get more funding if they publish dramatic results. More students will want to come, too. With these perverse incentives, universities often let their scientists boast and brag excessively. They write press releases prominently showing the scientists in the field, using rhetoric adorned with creative artwork and announcements in bold headlines. Today we examine a sample over-hyped claim from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, featuring two of their researchers. Feel the tingling emotion in the lead paragraph by press office reporter Giselle Galoustian:
A groundbreaking study led by researchers at Florida Atlantic University and an international team of scientists conclusively confirms the time year of the catastrophic Chicxulub asteroid, responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs and 75 percent of life on Earth 66 million years ago. Springtime, the season of new beginnings, ended the 165-million-year reign of dinosaurs and changed the course of evolution on Earth. Results of the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, greatly enhances the ability to trace the first stages of damage to life on Earth. FAU’s Robert DePalma, senior author and an adjunct professor in the Department of Geosciences, Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and a doctoral student at the University of Manchester; and Anton Oleinik, Ph.D., second author and an associate professor, FAU’s Department of Geosciences, contribute to a major scientific advancement in the ability to understand the massive impact that brought an end to the dinosaurs.
Such breathless use of superlatives makes one thing clear: Galoustian’s favorite dinosaur is a Thesaurus.
And Now, Back to Reality
It’s necessary to deflate the rhetoric in press releases to analyze what their work shows or does not show. What did the research consist of? First of all, DePalma and Oleinik went a long way from Florida up to North Dakota, and looked at some microfossils. Why there? According to the consensus narrative (that an asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs but not the butterflies), a spot called Tanis Research Locality in North Dakota has “one of the most highly detailed Cretaceous-Paleogene (KPg) boundary sites in the world.” Notice that the site is some 2,000 miles from the alleged Chicxulub impact site in the Yucatan, but that’s not a problem to them, because it was supposed to be a global catastrophe.
The press release claims that DePalma and Oleinik, with additional helpers, used multiple independent methods to pinpoint the season when the asteroid hit: it was springtime, they decided. One fine spring day, out of the blue, a fireball hit two thousand miles away. Gasping under choking soot and smoke, the dinosaurs all died, but not the butterflies.
Normally, it is good to have multiple independent data points to support a thesis, but when a thesis floats on a pre-existing narrative, it cannot be said to be anchored to reality. The Chicxulub narrative is a popular story that has garnered quite a following among evolutionists because it gives them a way to explain the disappearance of dinosaurs (but not the butterflies) that had dominated the earth for 165 million Darwin Years. This FAU study is anchored to the consensus narrative and floats with it.
Using radiometric dating, stratigraphy, fossil pollen, index fossils, and a capping layer of iridium-rich clay, the research team laboriously determined in a previous study led by DePalma in 2019 that the Tanis site dated from precisely the time of the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact.
The same study documented that a massive surge of water, triggered by the impact, was the cause for the rapidly deposited drape of sediment that locked the event in time and preserved the only known impact-caused vertebrate mass-death assemblage at the KPg boundary. The densely packed tangle of plants, animals, trees, and asteroid ejecta enabled a unique opportunity to work out the fine details of the KPg event, the biota that succumbed to it, and the environment in which they lived.
It sounds impressive. Iridium-rich clay has long been thought by evolutionary biologists and geologists to indicate debris from an meteor impact. They have that. They have some radiometric dates. And they have pollen and “index fossils” plus evidence of a mass death event. They’re looking busy in the press release. They smile for the camera, holding an unspecified fossil that looks like a glob of dino dung or something. With apparent humility, they express the unselfish benevolence of their work.
“The beauty of any great discovery such as this is that it is a chance to give back to the scientific community, and to the world,” said DePalma. “It not only answers important questions, but also sparks new minds to reach forward and achieve.”
And Now, Back to Evidence
Is the Chicxulub story the only hypothesis to explain the evidence? A good scientist shouldn’t want to imitate the proverbial man with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail. There are some overused hammers these days—climate change, evolution and asteroid impacts among them (this story uses all three). Does this work really support the Chicxulub story, or could some other catastrophic event explain the fossil bed? A wide variety of causes are available to explain mass-death assemblages. One should look for a non-circular explanation that does not assume the evolutionary narrative at the outset.
Surprisingly, the paper in Nature‘s open-access journal Scientific Reports* says little about dinosaurs, and more about fish. The bulk of their actual research is recorded in microscopic images of fish fins and gills, on which DePalma performed divination, conjuring up images of asteroids, tidal waves, mass death, extinction and millions of years of evolution.
*DePalma and Oleinik et al, “Seasonal calibration of the end-cretaceous Chicxulub impact event,” Scientific Reports 11:23704, 8 December 2021.
It appears they relied on other evolutionists for their opinions about the dates, the asteroid impact, and the “course of evolution.” The sturgeon and paddlefish they examined, and the mayflies, haven’t evolved much in 66 million years; they are virtually the same as extant (living) individuals.
The fossil site is described as part of the Hell Creek Formation that extends into Montana, where creation scientists and evolutionary scientists have found dinosaur bones near the surface, some with soft tissue remains inside. The Tanis site contains fossils in a coarse bed capped with a layer of iridium dust that presumably fell after a tsunami carried the fossils to the site. The bed contains freshwater species assumed to be autochthonous (grown in place) with marine fossils assumed to be allochthonous (transported from a distance).
The massive water surge, possibly originating from the nearby WIS [Western Interior Seaway], entombed the remains of autochthonous freshwater fish, turtles, reptiles, dinosaurs, and plants, mixed with allochthonous marine organisms including fish, ammonites, dinoflagellates, foraminifera, and marine reptiles, all intimately associated with impact ejecta emplaced via primary deposition.
It makes for a great story. Fish with spherules (presumably from the asteroid) in their gills, buried with dinosaurs and turtles. It must have been that darn asteroid from Mexico. It seems to fit the narrative if one omits problematic counter-evidence. For instance, geologist Tim Clarey at ICR has pointed out this past April that there is little iridium at the Chicxulub site, too little melt rock, and no disturbance to underlying structures that should have been obliterated by such a large impact. Volcanic or intrusive events, he says, could have produced the features at Chicxulub.
Most problematic is the selective death from this asteroid, if the story were true: how can an asteroid kill dinosaurs but not more delicate creatures? Creation Ministries International responded last April to an inquirer who asked about the Chicxulub theory:
All secular theories for the extinction of dinosaurs face numerous problems, including the Chicxulub theory. For example, if an asteroid hit the earth leading to a nuclear winter, how did the photosynthesis-dependent plants survive? Why did delicate bees and butterflies, or even sensitive amphibians such as frogs and salamanders survive? If volcanic activity and toxic gases filled the earth after an extinction event (such as with the volcanic or carbon dioxide theory of extinction), then why did the birds survive?
Another serious problem is the presence of soft tissue in the Hell Creek dinosaur bones. This clearly indicates recent burial. Those fossils cannot be 66 million years old (31 March 2021, 5 July 2021).
Other questions not asked by DePalma and Oleinik should be brought back into the discussion:
- Why is Tanis “thus far the only known preserved grouping of Chicxulub ejecta and articulated macro-organisms that died at the KPg boundary”? For a story about a global catastrophe affecting dinosaurs all over the world, shouldn’t this be the rule and not the exception?
- Could a smaller impact have produced the same iridium, spherules and fossil assemblage found at Tanis? Was an impact required at all?
- Why are you asserting that evidence for a springtime season (pollen, insects and fish fins) corroborates the Chicxulub narrative? Isn’t that begging the question? Springtime occurs every year.
- What does this have to do with evolution? Why do the press release and paper both assume evolution and classify this as an evolutionary subject? Saying that the impact “changed the course of evolution” begs the question; it’s like asserting that “asteroids cause birds, flowers and human beings.”
- What does this have to do with climate change? The press release asserts, “The impact triggered the third-greatest extinction in Earth’s history, dramatically changing global biomes in ways that directly relate to current global ecological crisis.” Explain how asteroid impacts relate to human activities.
- Isn’t it presumptuous to make sweeping generalizations about the history of all life on earth from “Histological and histo-isotopic data from acipenseriform fishes at Tanis”? How does that differ from divination?
- Where is the radiometric dating information in the paper?
- Did you look for preserved soft tissue in any of the specimens? If not, why not?
- Why does your paper never deal with objections to the Chicxulub theory?
- Why does FAU not teach the value of epistemic modesty in its science classes?
- Why was your funding not disclosed?
Conclusion: This is imprecise, poorly-reasoned and negligent work, concocted to support a consensus narrative. The evidences presented can be explained by other causes. The authors should have honestly considered competing theories and answered objections.
Readers, beware: you are often being handed a bill of goods in science these days. When it comes to powerful consensus positions that are politically correct, there are perverse incentives to support the narratives. You can’t trust the press offices. You can’t trust the science media who regurgitate the press releases.
Science needs critical thinkers unaffected by the pressure to do the hard analysis and ask the questions the majority inside the echo chamber prefer to ignore. Remember, these consensus lackeys are the same people who push abortion, worship the Stuff Happens Law and think that 95% of the universe is stuff we know nothing about.