Random Tusks

Unfiltered: Surovell – Holliday in PNAS, 2009

To a great degree the Tusk itself was a response to my frustration with Todd Surovell and Vance Holliday’s botched 2009 PNAS journal article, An independent evaluation of the Younger Dryas extraterrestrial impact hypothesis, published three months before this blog began.

Despite my early understanding of the sloppy work of the authors, however, I did not have the data or original research at that time to do much about my frustration. The word had gone out quickly after the publication that the Surovell study was flawed. But appeals to properly follow lab protocols, the root of the matter, are simply not compelling when made by pajama bloggers. You can imagine then my soul-settling reaction following this week’s publication of LeCompte et al.’s, Independent evaluation of conflicting microspherule results from different investigations of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis.”

At the time of the Surovell-Holliday publication their paper was considered a credible effort to replicate the measurement of the relative abundance of tiny “microspherules,” as separated by Firestone from the magnetic fraction of sediment taken from points along the vertical walls of various well-dated archaeological sites.

 Electron microscopy from LeCompte, Surovell-Holliday’s work was entirely optical 

Two years earlier in 2007 the YDB team authors had shocked the scientific world by publishing evidence that simlar sampling had revealed a dramatic peak of microscopic spheres in the stratigraphy representing the onset of the Younger Dryas, a critical period always worth googling. These peaks and similar peaks in other materials suggested to Firestone that the spherules were the molten and quenched, largely terrestrial ejecta, following a catastrophic cosmic event, in many ways like the K-T event that brought an end to the era of dinosaurs.

It is not surprising that Surovell and Holliday, well published and respected archeologists who built careers studying Paleo-America, stepped up in 2009 to replicate or refute Firestone. What is surprising is the sloppy, unprofessional work which ensued in their names — and the ignorance and rank condescension which characterized their conduct going forward.

Surovell and Holliday did not find any spherules at any of the sites they and Firestone tested. And of the sites they tested independently, only one location yielded any spherules at all. So the study was bloody water to the skeptics and fence sitters circling since the 2007 introduction of the theory. A variety of characters, many with academic reputations at stake, had been cautiously waiting for the first chance to bury the living. Which they proceeded to do.

But, as referenced earlier, it was quickly apparent to the original authors — and thank goodness others — what had happened. Surovell-Holliday had failed in several ways to follow the testing protocol provided by Firestone for follow-up researchers. LeCompte documents six serious “Deficiencies” of the Holliday-Surovell study.

LeCompte emphasizes the importance of following the original protocol (**This is the 2011 protocol**) for “size-sorting” the little bits of material which have been previously separated from the archeological sediment. Size-sorting is a simple to understand but tedious process. The Firestone authors called for passing the grains through a sieve which excludes any grains >150 microns. Surovell-Holliday missed this simple prescription and passed the material through a sieve nearly ten times times more accommodating — a 1 mm mesh. (LeCompte later found the best results using 50 micron mesh).

Page 6, LeCompte, 2012

While there were five other serious deficiencies, size sorting was a fatal flaw. Indeed, LeCompte et al. made the same mistake early on, and also came up empty-handed:


Page 7, LeCompte, 2012

“Surovell’s work was in vain because he didn’t replicate the protocol. We missed it too at first. It seems easy, but unless you follow the protocol rigorously, you will fail to detect these spherules. There are so many factors that can disrupt the process. Where Surovell found no spherules, we found hundreds to thousands,” said Malcolm LeCompte, lead author of the new study, who is professor at Elizabeth City State University. — ‘Big Freeze’ nearly 13,000 years ago caused by comet explosion over Canada, Yahoo News, Sep. 19, 2012

The upshot is that when you sort out the largest of the material the peaks are noted in the finer particles, and the finer the better. Unless you sort down to a properly small size, your sample — and the task of picking through the chaff for the wheat — is greatly burdened by the many thousands of additional non-diagnostic larger particles you have collected.

If you are looking for tennis balls — it wise to remove the basketballs — particularly when there are orders of magnitude more basketballs.

When this and other equally serious shortcomings became apparent shortly after publication, there was some hope among the original authors that respectfully pointing out the deficiencies at a forthcoming meeting of AMQUA in Laramie, Wyoming might bring to light the proper methods and encourage some reappraisal of the results by Holliday and Surovell.

Only if it were so.

I accompanied Drs. Kennett, West and others to Laramie in 2010 with hopes of a fair-minded exchange of information and perhaps collaboration. What I found, frankly, was an atmosphere seething with a petty mix of intellectual cowardice and academic condescension that committed me more deeply to my new blog – and chills me to this day.

Dr. Holliday could barely contain himself during Allen West’s respectful and guileless presentation of the deficiencies, hurrrumphed his way through the talk, and refused to engage in a sincere Q & A afterwards. It was as if Holliday were channeling fabled charmer Aleš Hrdlicka in a final tour of the American West. His cynicism was largely reflected by the crowd, whose cliquish nature — including furtive huddles and giggles in the halls — was more in keeping with Mean Girls than Socratic dialogue.

Surovell’s reaction was most disappointing when recalled today after three years. As with all conferences there was plenty of opportunity to gauge reaction during the inevitable sidebars and auditorium chatter. West’s critique had clearly affected Todd. I will not commit my memory to his exact words here, but I will never forget his physical bearing and his message afterwards. Todd hung his head, groaned deeply, and said he simply did not have the time to do the work again correctly, tedious as it is.

Naif that the Tusk is, I thought Todd meant he had no time available right now — and that he would get to it in time. I understand now, three years later, after 26 citations of the flawed article, and thousands of repetitions of it’s intellectually destructive message, that Todd meant he would never have time to correct his mistake. Not in the next issue of PNAS, not at the next meeting of AMQUA — he meant never.

That keeps me writing.

Counter-criticism aside, outsiders are walking away from the mammoth-killer impact in increasing numbers. “I spent 16 months in the lab and found very little evidence to support their hypothesis,” says Surovell. “I have other things to worry about.”  — Nature, August 30, 2010



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