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The K-T asteroid versus volcano debate went pathological at the K-TEC II Conference (19-20 May 1981) where the two theories clashed for the first time. Already, at that time, NASA was using the asteroid as basis for a Spacewatch Project. At a time when President Reagan was putting the budgetary axe to the space agencies, cataclysmic death from the heavens provided new opportunities for funding ($50 to 200 million dollars a year; Science 1995, v. 268, pp. 1562-1563), and careers.
The first morning at K-TEC II, I proposed that the K-T iridium--the sole basis for the asteroid impact theory--was possibly volcanic in origin. I had previously proposed that the Deccan Traps volcanism released the K-T boundary iridium at the Toronto AAAS National Meeting in January, 1981. I equivocated the source of the iridium, and thus the basis of the Alvarez impact theory.
Luis Alvarez's response was to personally threaten my career if I opposed his impact theory publicly. I had written the first paper (Science, 1978) showing that greenhouse warming can trigger global extinctions (for the K-T). Our civilization is facing a potential modern greenhouse. I felt obligated to continue my work. Alvarez warned what happened to a physicist who had opposed him: "The scientific community pays no more attention to him." Alvarez followed through on his threat.
A few months after the K-TEC II meeting, I learned that Alvarez was trying to wreck my credibility with other scientists and with the news media (he had helped wreck Robert Oppenheimer's career after WW II). Vicious politics by Luis Alvarez, and his two closest paleobiologist supporters were injected into my department, and used to undermine me in the early-mid 1980s. They nearly destroyed my career, and my health. (See my 6/1/88 Letter to Luis Alvarez).
Malcolm Browne's New York Times article, "The debate over dinosaur extinction takes an unusually rancorous turn" (1/19/88), exposed Luis Alvarez's vicious attacks upon his opponents. (See my 6/1/88 Letter to Luis Alvarez and my 2/1/88 Open Letter to Luis Alvarez).
Science magazine is probably the most prestigious, influential, and widely-read science magazine in the world, and has influenced the public perception of the status of the K-T debate. But, has Science presented a fair and balanced coverage of the K-T debate for the vast AAAS membership, and the public that reads it to keep informed on scientific breakthroughs, and exciting, controversial topics? I wrote letters expressing my feelings to the Science editor, and to staff writer, Richard Kerr, who has covered the K-T debate since its inception in 1981 and who has had major impact on molding public impression of the status of the K-T debate. It was not until 1991--ten years into the debate--that Kerr informed the readers of Science magazine that volcanism may have been a factor in the K-T extinctions. (See Science Coverage of the K-T Debate).
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Copyright © 1996 Dewey M. McLean