Were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by an Asteroid?

October 20, 2021

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Pseudoscience, Religion

Retraction Watch (opens new window) has documented a recent debacle where an open access journal from Nature, called Scientific Reports, published an article (opens new window) titled "A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea". Tunguska, for those who’ve never heard of it, is the site in Russia where there was a suspected asteroid airburst 100 years ago. I love the Tunguska event - it’s one of those mysteries that looks so cool. Scientists were expecting an impact crater, but what they found was burned upright trees at the epicentre, and 80 million trees further out that had been knocked down - all facing away from the epicentre.

The article argued that bone and pot fragments found in Jordan by the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project (opens new window) constitute good evidence that an asteroid exploded over the site around 3,600 years ago, and that this is evidence of the truth of the bible.

This is one of many biblical archaeology papers that are written not as a search for the truth, but as an attempt to prove the existence of the Christian god. And it’s not good when science gets subverted in this way.

Thankfully there have been some who have been willing to critique this paper and its conclusions. Mark Boslough, who wrote an older paper on asteroid air bursts that this Sodom paper references, had a lot to say about the legitimacy of this paper, especially as it’s been published in a journal owned by the prestigious Nature.

Boslough pointed out issues with the science (opens new window) in the paper, and I have no reason to doubt that he knows what he’s talking about. But what interested me more was how he detailed his history of interactions (opens new window) with some of the scholars involved in writing the paper, the authors’ credentials (opens new window), and the specifics of the University (opens new window) which has been organising the archaeological dig in Jordan.

Boslough listed each of the paper’s authors, saying for each of them "...is not a geologist", followed by details such as:

  • "his PhD is in polymer science from University of Southern Mississippi"
  • "his PhD is from an unaccredited evangelical Christian institution that currently operates out of a small strip mall office with no evidence of students or faculty"; and
  • "He is a blogger from North Carolina. His blog profile says he has a BA in political science from U. North Carolina"

The only exception to this is a single geologist, and I love the way that Boslough worded the description of his colleague:

"All his degrees are in earth science from reputable universities. I've done fieldwork with him at Tunguska & he is a careful & competent field researcher. I respectfully disagree with his interpretations."

This is such a polite put-down of a colleague, and I respect that.

Other scientists with relevant expertise have jumped in, including Dr Chris Santis who wrote (opens new window):

"The authors have created this story of a blast wave incinerating and flaying exposed flesh, shattering bones into small fragments that scattered and were buried in a destruction layer, and charred anything exposed.

What do I see? I see a few bodies intercut by new building over time, no secure dating, and small bones of indeterminate species that are more likely to be dominantly local animals."

On top of all this, it turns out that someone helped to make the images in the paper look pretty by filling in unsightly gaps using a cloning tool in a piece of image manipulation software. As much as this looks like a genuine mistake rather than a deliberate effort to doctor the evidence, it shows how rookie the team are that they thought it was okay to just edit the images without disclosing their changes.

Looking at the group that has been running the excavation project, their website says that the project is run by Trinity Southwest University’s College of Archaeology. What I’m having problems understanding is how a University with a "campus" and "departments" is run out of a shop front in a strip mall in Albuquerque. Wikipedia (opens new window) to the rescue, describing this particular university as an "unaccredited evangelical Christian institution of higher education". It all makes sense now - this is a quirk of the US education system, one of those religious diploma mills that are somehow legal to operate, even if the degrees they produce aren’t worth the paper they’re written on (let alone the thousands of dollars it likely costs to enrol).

So it’s looking very much like this paper is a bust. The science is shoddy, the evidence has been compromised and misinterpreted, and the authors have a fixed conclusion that they’re working towards - the bible is the true word of god, and the site they’ve been working on for fifteen or more years is proof of one of its stories.