Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mammoth Hunter

13,800 years ago giant mastodons ruled the Pacific Northwest, while other creatures cowered in fear. At this time someone figured out that humans, working together as a group, could bring down a mastodon. A mastodon's tusk could be sharpened and fashioned into a spear. At first he or she was ridiculed and told it was impossible. Eventually the human tribe faced the mastodon in a fierce battle. One brave human flung a spear into the beast's ribs and brought it down. Many centuries later the mastodon would be extinct and humans would rule the Earth.

In 1977 paleontologist Carl Gustafson came upon a giant tusk that had been found by a bowling-alley owner in Washington's Olympic Peninsula. After a few hours' digging Gustafson uncovered the mastodon's skeleton, buried for thousands of years. He also found a fragment of tusk jammed between the ribs, as if it had been fashioned into a spear and thrust there. After running some tests, Gustafson concluded that humans had brought the beast down with a spear nearly 14,000 years before.

For 35 years Gustafson's discovery was ignored or ridiculed by the scientific establishment. Anthropology was stuck in a Clovis-first model, which stated that "Clovis people" predated humans in North America. Challenges to the Clovis-first model were subject to great criticism. Unfortunately Gustafson's evidence was not completely convincing. Radiocarbon dating at the time left large margins of error. The spear fragment could be interpreted as just a bone. Gustafson reached retirement age before his ideas were accepted.

"I was pretty bitter about the whole thing for a long time," Gustafson said recently. "I don't like saying it. I never really admitted it except to my wife. It was so frustrating. But I'm very humbled and happy it turned out this way."

Gustafson produced very few papers about his discovery. In his defense, publishing a groundbreaking idea in peer-reviewed journals can be nearly impossible. Only recently other scientists put Gustafson's fragments through modern DNA, CT and dating tests. The samples were sent to other labs to check the results. In a new paper in the journal SCIENCE, researchers concluded that Gustafson was right all along.

One colleague has called Gustafson the J. Harlan Bretz of anthropology. Bretz was a geologist who in the 1920's theorized that Eastern Washington had once been covered in a giant flood. 50 years would pass before other scientists realized that Bretz was right. A more apt comparison might be to Alfred Wegener, who concluded that Earth's continents drifted and was also ridiculed for decades. New and groundbreaking ideas can take decades or longer to be accepted.

13,800 years ago humans learned to make a spear and conquer the mastodon. 35 years ago Carl Gustafson found the buried evidence. For decades Gustafson's discovery was ignored. He was frustrated well into his retirement. Finally other scientists with modern tools realised he was right all along. Like many new ideas, Gustafson's discovery took a long time to be accepted. Hooray for Carl Gustafson and all the brave Carls in the Northwest!


Blogger Kea said...

Hah, yeah, like all the world's starving and tortured people are supposed to feel sorry for some privileged white dude with a wife who makes him dinner.

1:36 PM  
Blogger nige said...

I insist on cooking dinner and wouldn't dream of asking a wife to cook for me.

1:44 AM  
Blogger nige said...

"... publishing a groundbreaking idea in peer-reviewed journals can be nearly impossible."

- Louise Riofrio

Before you can get past peer review, you must convince the "peers" to listen, which is impossible if they believe in an "alternative" which has no evidence to support it (you can't discredit something that's not scientific to begin with):

“Scepticism is ... directed against the view of the opposition and against minor ramifications of one’s own basic ideas, never against the basic ideas themselves. Attacking the basic ideas evokes taboo reactions … scientists only rarely solve their problems, they make lots of mistakes ... one collects ‘facts’ and prejudices, one discusses the matter, and one finally votes. But while a democracy makes some effort to explain the process so that everyone can understand it, scientists either conceal it, or bend it ... No scientist will admit that voting plays a role in his subject. Facts, logic, and methodology alone decide – this is what the fairy-tale tells us. ... This is how scientists have deceived themselves and everyone else ... It is the vote of everyone concerned that decides fundamental issues ... and not the authority of big-shots hiding behind a non-existing methodology. ... Science itself uses the method of ballot, discussion, vote, though without a clear grasp of its mechanism, and in a heavily biased way.”

– Professor Paul Feyerabend, “Against Method”, 1975, final chapter.

“The notion that a scientific idea cannot be considered intellectually respectable until it has first appeared in a ‘peer’ reviewed journal did not become widespread until after World War II. Copernicus’s heliocentric system, Galileo’s mechanics, Newton’s grand synthesis – these ideas never appeared first in journal articles. They appeared first in books, reviewed prior to publication only by their authors, or by their authors’ friends. ... Darwinism indeed first appeared in a journal, but one under the control of Darwin’s friends. ... the refereeing process works primarily to enforce orthodoxy. ... ‘peer’ review is NOT peer review.”

– Professor Frank J. Tipler, Refereed Journals: Do They Insure Quality or Enforce Orthodoxy?

“Centralization of information and decision-making at the top has been destructive to most organizations. The Greeks had a word for the notion that the best decisions can only be made on the basis of the fullest information at the highest level. They called it hubris. In a living scientific organization, decisions must be pushed down to the lowest level at which they can be sensibly made. ... Leadership would be decentralized throughout, not concentrated at the top. ... It would also facilitate the downward transmission of goals, the only things that can be usefully passed down from above, and make room for the upward transmission of results, which should be the basis for reward. It should be obvious that this structure need not be imposed from above. There is no reason to await a decision from the top to do so. Everyone in the chain has the flexibility to organize his own life and thereby to decide whether he is to be a manager or a leader.”

- Gregory H. Canavan, The Leadership of Philosopher Kings, Los Alamos National Laboratory, report LA-12198-MS, December 1992.

3:25 AM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

We need not feel sorry for Gustafson. Great points, nige. Even Einstein's great papers of 1905 needed the approval of just one editor, Max Planck. After a bad experience with peer review later in his career, Einstein never again submitted to peer-reviewed journals. Nige is right that peer review only became prominent following WW2.

6:33 PM  
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