Measured Against Reality

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Dinosaur Conspiracy

The extinction of the dinosaurs has long been considered a crime committed by a lone gunman: an incoming asteroid that struck the earth 65 million years ago, filling the air with sun-blocking dust. Now, however, controversy is being stirred anew as evidence suggests that the asteroid might have had a partner in crime: volcanoes, massive ones, blasting clouds of toxic gas from the bowels of the earth and poisoning much of the planet's life.

When I saw that description I had to laugh. I instantly knew that it was talking about the Deccan traps, which were actually a hypothesis for the dinosaur extinction before the Alvarez meteor hypothesis. It also says, "Their evidence was compelling...", but it wasn't really, not for about 20 years. Their evidence was good, meriting more investigation, but not compelling for a while, specifically until the crater was found at Chicxulub, before that there was still a decent battle between the volcano and the meteor.

Anyway, the article goes on to say that the Deccan traps are making a comeback, but I've read tons of papers on this, and they're entirely unconvincing (unless they've discovered something new, and it doesn't sound like they have). I wish I could remember specifics better, but there are plenty of holes in the Deccan trap model, and most it can be a minor player in the mass-extincts at the KT-boundary.

But there were a few problems in the article, like volcanic sulfur causing warming, it usually causes cooling (which is why it has been suggested as a solution to global warming). And saying that algae blooms at 300,000 years (a date whose precision I find suspect) definitely show her time-line is just weird. If the volcanoes stopped erupting at 300,000 years, the heating would last millennia. It wouldn't coincide with the bloom. Although the objections raised in the article are good enough for me, I'd be quite surprised if the traps were very important.

If the Deccan traps had any effect on the extinction of the Dinosaurs, which is possible, it's just one of a half-dozen different factors. People have argued that they were already in decline anyway (for many different reasons), and the meteor was just the final straw.

It rather reminds me of the fall of the Roman Empire, what caused it? The real answer is never that there was one cause, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in The Black Swan, we look back and attribute causes to things, and argue endlessly over them. We might be able to find distinct causes, but we will never know the whole story, or even if there is a whole story.

Anyway, those are some thoughts on this topic.

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