Seeking the Truth

Panama satellite photo

As an undergraduate engineering student I was taught that science is never settled. The very core of the scientific method is to always be testing and confirming, or discovering something new. It is how progress is made. A recent fossil discovery at the Panama Canal is shaking up the scientific community over the date the Americas joined together. There’s a lesson for policy makers on the meaning of “settled science” in the controversy, if they cared to listen.

Writing at Wired, Lizzie Wade explains in great detail how a fossil discovery at the Panama Canal has called into question over a century of orthodoxy in the geological sciences community. She explains how Carlos Jarmillo, while digging for fossils, wasn’t expecting to end up rewriting scientific orthodoxy on when the Americas came together. The “settled science” pinned the date at around 3.5 million years ago. Jaramillio’s discoveries kept calling the date into question.

But as Jaramillo and his team dug deeper into the rock around the canal — firmly on the North American side of the prehistoric divide — they kept finding animals that didn’t fit the 3.5-million-year story. Before that date, the mammal fossils were mostly of North American origin, but Jaramillo’s team kept uncovering snakes, frogs, turtles, even trees that were native to South America. At the time they lived, these species were supposed to have been separated from Panama by hundreds of miles of deep ocean, but here they were, on the other side of the gap, millions of years ahead of schedule.

Slowly, carefully, Jaramillo started whispering to his colleagues about what the new data seemed to be telling him: That land connected Panama and South America as far back as 10 million years ago. Alexandre Antonelli, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, first heard the rumors at a conference in 2011. “I couldn’t sleep that night. I was completely overwhelmed,” he says. “It was mind blowing.”


According to Wired, “the 3.5-million-year date for the isthmus formation, which has been around for more than a century, is as close to a fact as science gets.” Therein lies the lesson for policy makers using “settled” climate science to drastically change the way the economy works, and people live their lives. Politicians, and regulators should be open to listening to skeptics of the orthodoxy when it comes to any scientific conclusions. When science keeps out skeptics, and boasts of being settled it stops being science and becomes a pseudo-religion.

While there are many scientists who disagree with the new theory as to when the Americas came together, Wired says that most agreed that a “gut-check” and new look at the theory was necessary.

When science keeps out skeptics, and boasts of being settled it stops being science and becomes a pseudo-religion.


Wired explained further:

A shakeup like this can serve an important role: alerting researchers to their own confirmation bias. Some scientists are jarred, realizing that clues for an older date were in front of them all along. “The data was there, we just weren’t seeing it,” says Antonelli, the evolutionary biologist who couldn’t sleep after hearing about Jaramillo’s hypothesis.

Biologists, for example, have long known about so-called “herald species” that somehow found their way from South to North America long before 3.5 million years ago. Sloths crossed around 9 million years ago, and terror birds, a (now extinct) 3-meter-tall carnivorous bird, spread from South America to as far north as Texas by 5 million years ago. Antonelli also points to genetic evidence that plants began to spread across the isthmus long before 3.5 million years ago, as well as a study that showed that many marine species on either side of Panama became isolated from each other much earlier than the old model allowed. “Now with the older closure, things have become much easier to explain,” he says. Biologists like Antonelli now feel liberated to consider explanations that wouldn’t have even crossed their minds just a few years ago.


Current climate science is potentially riddled with confirmation bias. Funding is given by governments to confirm the theory that man is causing irreparable harm to the planet. Data that goes against that theory is routinely thrown out and scientists who find contradictory data are ostracized.

This week’s article in Wired reminds us all that science is rarely settled, even if the “facts” have been orthodoxy for over 100 years. We should all pay attention to that and be open to challenging anyone who says any science is settled. That includes science that is being used to drastically change our way of life.


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