Sunday, March 29, 2009

Must see mammoth TV

This Tuesday, the mammoths go extinct -- again.

I wonder why they thought I'd be interested in this.

I just received a press packet from WGBH in Boston, the producers of the venerable science show NOVA (this is my first press packet; I'm so excited). Tuesday's new episode looks at the latest entrant into the "what killed the mammoths" sweepstakes. This is the theory that a comet or a meteor exploding over the Laurentide ice sheet in Canada led to the sudden extinction of the Quaternary megafauna in North America, ended the Clovis culture, and started the Younger Dryas cold climate phase. I wrote about it here, when the theory was first unveiled at the May 2007 meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The promoters of this theory have done an excellent job of rolling it out. They have recruited supporters across a wide spectrum of fields all of whom find something in the theory to solve a vexing problem in their discipline. Hardly a season goes by without a supporter presenting a paper or chairing a session at a scientific conference. These papers are skillfully promoted in the science press.

I imagine their very success has engendered some of the resistance to the theory. Many science practitioners and observers have an instinctive aversion to science by press release. It smells too much like the tactics of the supporters of intelligent design, anti-vaccination, and climate change denialism. Scientific theories should stand or fall by proving themselves to specialists who understand all of the issues at stake and not by winning public popularity contests. At the same time, grand theories that solve all problems from paleontology, to history, to mythology, to personal hygiene are always suspect.

However, neither of these widespread reservations means the theory is wrong. I'm still on the fence about it. It will be interesting to how NOVA approaches it and what the more knowledgeable science bloggers have to say about it.

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