When Reputation Outweighs Data

"Large pharmaceutical companies, for example, routinely fund research into new drugs in their own research laboratories," they say in their forthcoming report. "Academics engaged in human trials of these same drugs are often funded by the pharmaceutical companies. Government agencies approving new products for public consumption routinely rely on information supplied by these companies and academics as to the safety and efficacy of their products."

Plenty of opportunity for the Exxon factor to raise its ugly head there.

The issue is not whether, in the end, the brilliant scientist at Exxon or Harvard or anywhere else turns out to be right or wrong. The issue is how the idea became accepted, and whether the evidence was made available to outside peers who also did their job by scrutinizing it carefully.

The verdict isn't in yet on the Exxon theory, which is still hotly debated in geological circles. Andrew Miall is convinced it is flawed. Others think it is a valuable tool.

Shifting Shoreline?

The theory is based on the idea that sea levels have changed periodically throughout history, and each time the seas rose the shoreline was pushed inland, and each time the seas dropped the shoreline moved farther out. That's significant to petroleum geologists, because shoreline deposits form rocks that make very good oil reservoirs. That's why major oilfields are in areas that were formerly under the sea.

According to the theory, sea levels changed consistently around the world with the melting and re-freezing of glacial ice. That would mean that the formation of potentially oil-bearing rocks would follow the same pattern globally. So if you know precisely when the rocks in the oil-rich coastal fields of Texas were formed, all you have to do is find similar dates in other areas of the globe and bingo, you've got oil.

"You could establish sort of a template that you could then use to lay against other areas anywhere in the world," Andrew Miall says. "It would enable you to do very quick comparisons and facilitate the business of predicting where reservoirs would be found."

The theory swept across the petroleum community like wildfire, and even Miall "published a textbook in 1984 in which I swallowed this stuff completely."

But somewhere along the way, he and others began to have doubts. Sea levels wouldn't change consistently around the world, they argued, because conditions vary from one location to the next. If the tectonic processes that build mountains caused one continent to rise faster than the increase in sea level, then the sea level along that shoreline would actually drop, Miall argues.

Others argue just as forcefully that the theory has merit and can be a valuable tool in screening for areas that might yield oil deposits.

Lacking Data

But the fact remains, according to the Mialls, that the data that has been made public in support of the theory is still woefully lacking all these years later.

"It was the reputation of Exxon that lent credence to the work that was coming out of there," Charlene Miall says. "The kind of validation that was given to it by scientists outside of Exxon was based almost entirely on non scientific factors."

In short, the "Exxon factor."

By the way, that's not the sin God will not forgive. But maybe it should be.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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