Introduction by JAC: Peter Nothnagle sent me an email with a lot of the information below in it, and I realized that a). he already knew more than I about this issue (for one thing, despite quite a few readers sending me the link to the original paper, I didn’t read the paper, though Peter did), and b). he should get credit for his analysis. Therefore I asked if he could write a short post about the issue of the meteorite/bolide exploding in the Middle East, creating damage that could have given rise to the myth of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorroah. Peter kindly obliged, and I turn you over to him:
Sodom and Gomorrah In the News
Professor Ceiling Cat (emeritus) tells me that he has received “gazillions” of emails drawing his attention to a recent scientific paper that proves – yes proves! (to some readers) the Biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here’s the scoop.
A few weeks ago an article was published in Scientific Reports (which appears to be part of Nature) which discussed discoveries at the archaeological site of Tell el-Mammam, near the Dead Sea. Its conclusion was dramatic, and stated right in the title, A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea. The authors examined many lines of archaeological evidence, including an alleged 1.5 meter-thick “destruction layer” containing “high-pressure shock metamorphism”, “high-temperature melted minerals”, and even “human bones in the destruction layer”. The destruction was dated to about 1,650 BCE. They conclude that a large meteor or comet exploded in the atmosphere and destroyed the city and surrounding towns. Although the authors primly state that connecting the site with God’s smiting of Sodom and Gomorrah as described in Genesis 9:1-28 “is beyond the scope of this investigation”, that seems to be where they’d like to lead the reader. It just might be an example of the common definition of Biblical archaeology, “a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other”.
Now I’m no expert in any of this stuff; I’m just an interested reader. Archaeology is, however, a hobby of mine, and I did smile at the discovery of “human bones in the destruction layer” – heck, I’ve found human bones where a water pipe was being repaired on a side street in Poitiers, France! Human bones are just part of the “background noise” of any place that’s been occupied for many centuries. If the authors of this article don’t know that, I wonder what they do know!
Oh, I answered my own question. Retraction Watch is on the case, and in a piece critical of the article they noted that “the senior author of the study was one Phillip Silvia, an ‘engineer, theologian, archaeologist’ and the director of publications at Trinity Southwest University, an apparently unaccredited evangelical school located in a strip mall in Albuquerque, whose motto is ‘Flexible Adult Higher Education Upholding Biblical Authority.’” Retraction Watch also uncovered some obvious evidence of Photoshopping in the article’s photos. Fishy, to say the least.
Another internet sleuth has written a hilarious series of tweets about this story. Trinity Southwest University is located in Albuquerque, where he himself lives, so he paid them a visit. It turns out to be a storefront in a strip mall, “conveniently located between a Chinese take-out place and a nail salon”, but sadly he found it locked up tight. The university’s phone number is 505-33-BIBLE. The article’s author’s PhD. Is from… Trinity Southwest University, and his dissertation topic was. . .this same archaeological site.
The author is quoted in the Retraction Watch piece partially answering his critics, calling it “a classic example of character assassination substituted for a rational discussion of the evidence”. It’s an interesting point – when does examining a researcher’s possible biases go too far, become an unfair and prejudicial ad hominem? I look forward to readers’ discussion in the comments.
I brought this matter to PCC(e)’s attention as it seems to be another blot on the integrity of scientific journals. The publisher of this article, Nature‘s Scientific Reports, may be familiar to WEIT readers. They say that every submission goes through screening by one of their editors who is “an active researcher in your field”, then peer review, and a final editorial review, before publication. Maybe so, and to be fair, the rest of the articles look pretty legit to my untutored eye. But they sure seem to have missed some obvious problems with this one, and they didn’t sniff out glaring and unreported conflicts of interest by several of the article’s authors, who have books for sale covering this same topic. By the way, publishing an article in Scientific Reports will cost you two thousand dollars – that’s their “article processing charge”. It must take a lot of processing!
Postscript by JAC: I asked a friend who had published in Nature Scientific Reports about the quality and vetting of papers by the journal, and got this reply:
Scientific Reports is an open access, pay-to-publish, low-review intensity journal, on the PLoS One model. In other words they don’t publish anything but they will accept any coherent paper with a low threshold for rejection. The whole point is to make money. Science has a similar model (Science Advances).