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When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience 214

Posted by samzenpus
from the drifting-to-the-truth dept.
Lasrick writes "I Love this article in Smithsonian by Richard Conniff. One of my geology professors was in grad school when the theories for plate tectonics, seafloor spreading, etc., were introduced; he remembered how most of his professors denounced them as ridiculous. The article chronicles the introduction of continental drift theory, starting a century ago with Alfred Wegener. From the article: 'It was a century ago this spring that a little-known German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener proposed that the continents had once been massed together in a single supercontinent and then gradually drifted apart. He was, of course, right. Continental drift and the more recent science of plate tectonics are now the bedrock of modern geology, helping to answer vital questions like where to find precious oil and mineral deposits, and how to keep San Francisco upright. But in Wegener’s day, geological thinking stood firmly on a solid earth where continents and oceans were permanent features.'"
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When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience

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  • by sideslash (1865434) on Monday June 04, 2012 @09:04AM (#40208295)

    "I Love this article in Smithsonian by Richard Conniff. One of my geology professors was in grad school when [...]

    It's always the little details that insufferably nag you. For example, after reading this poorly written (or edited) summary, I will always be haunted by the ambiguity of whether Richard Conniff was actually the submitter's geology professor, or if those two references without any explicit tying together are just that. I will carry this burden to my grave.

    • by catchblue22 (1004569) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:49AM (#40209445) Homepage

      I took a geology course a decade ago, and my professor discussed the previous theories of geology. Geosynclines [wikipedia.org] were part of the idea to explain what we geologically observe. I don't have too much of an understanding of it, but it amounted to saying that landslides and similar types of sediment transport were responsible for the underwater landscape. My professor said that even back then it didn't make too much sense.

  • theories (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @09:06AM (#40208309)

    So the OP's professor was in grad school circa-1912?

    Also, a lot of people don't realize (and the OP confirms) that almost all geological science to date has been funded by oil and mining companies.

    • Re:theories (Score:4, Interesting)

      by sideslash (1865434) on Monday June 04, 2012 @09:38AM (#40208683)

      So the OP's professor was in grad school circa-1912?

      No, there are two theories spoken of here -- the original idea of continental drift a century ago (which showed up without much of an explanation, hence viewed by some as pseudoscience), and the more modern theories about plate tectonics and seafloor spreading, which serve to validate and explain continental drift. The latter were evidently emerging when the prof was in grad school.

      • Re:theories (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Rogue Haggis Landing (1230830) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:27AM (#40209235)

        No, there are two theories spoken of here -- the original idea of continental drift a century ago (which showed up without much of an explanation, hence viewed by some as pseudoscience), and the more modern theories about plate tectonics and seafloor spreading, which serve to validate and explain continental drift. The latter were evidently emerging when the prof was in grad school.

        The theory of plate tectonics was developed in the 1950s and 1960s [wikipedia.org], as people worked through the implications of the older idea of continental drift and worked out mechanisms for it, and as things like sonar mapping of the seafloor came into being.

        My father is a geographer and was in grad school from 1966 to 1971, and he's talked about the fighting over plate tectonics going on among the geologists and physical geographers at his university. At the end of his time in grad school there were a few older geologists who adamantly refused to buy into the idea. Most people in the profession were convinced very quickly of the reality of plate tectonics, once there were good tests of the theory (like the Vine-Matthews-Morley hypothesis [wikipedia.org]). But the "anti-drifter" stance was only killed off by attrition, as the people opposed to it either retired or else died with their boots on.

        It's a pretty interesting example of the emergence of a major new idea that completely reshapes a field of knowledge, and does so very quickly once a good explanatory mechanism is found. There's probably a good book-length study of it, and if there isn't then there should be.

        • Are you qualified to say why this is wrong?

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJfBSc6e7QQ [youtube.com]

          • Re:theories (Score:4, Insightful)

            by kbg (241421) on Monday June 04, 2012 @12:33PM (#40210803)

            You don't actually believe this? There are so many problems with this idea. Where did the extra mass come from? Where did the water come from? If you look at the animation you can see that the continents are actually morphed in all possible ways to fit with the preconceived model. Of course it fits if you just morph it any way you like. There is science and then there is just crap like this with nothing to back it up.

            • I don't believe any of it. I think this is a novel theory, though, and provocative.

              I have no idea where the theoretical extra mass comes from, but I wouldn't think it unreasonable that the Earth is gaining mass from the Sun. Although, it wouldn't really even need to have extra mass if the earth was just less dense. Not unreasonable to suppose the Sun causes that sort of effect either...

        • by onion_joe (625886)
          the book-length study of scientific revolutions you are referring to is "The structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn. IIRC he coins the term "Paradigm Shift" and using many anecdotes including plate tectonics devises a theory of how scientific revolutions occur. Its really interesting you mention attirtion as being necessary for the acceptance of a theory because thats basically the crux of his theory: for the final phase of the paradigm shift to occur you need the proponents of the old theor
      • A vaguely related question that nags at me whenever the talk goes geological, is this:

        I was taught that the eastern Canada and New England were probably slowly rising in a rebound effect after the weight of the last Ice Age glaciers was removed. And that the southern part of the eastern seaboard was slowly sinking due to a concomitant seesaw effect.

        Whether that is true or not, it does have me wondering what the increase in sea level may be doing to plate tectonics. Is the weight of this increase enough

        • IANAG[eologist], so I may be totally off base, but it seems like ordinary ocean tides are already a phenomenon that should account for as much or more of differences in water weight on the underlying rock, so at least intuitively I wouldn't expect to see huge changes with a rise in sea level.
        • Re:theories (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Will.Woodhull (1038600) <wwoodhull@gmail.com> on Monday June 04, 2012 @02:06PM (#40212051) Homepage Journal

          Ok, I had been too lazy to do the math. But I now feel shamed into it.

          The Earth's ocean surface area: 335,258,000 sq km (from worldatlas.com [worldatlas.com])

          A conservative estimate of the amount of sea level rise from AGW over the next 75 years, give or take, seems to be around 10 cm.

          Volume needed to raise the ocean surface area by 10 cm: 3.35*10^13 cu m

          Weight of 1 cubic meter of water: 282.5 lb (Pardon the change from metric to english, but I am more comfortable with the measures I learned as a kid. Especially as I want to talk about weight and not mass.)

          Weight of the increased water: 9.5*10^15 lb, or 4.7*10^12 tons.

          That seems like an awful lot of weight to take off of Antarctica and Greenland. If the continents are actually floating on the mantle, then these two would become more bouyant as all that ice melts away.

          So the question for geologists is to what extent would the rise of Antarctica and Greenland affect the plate tectonics? Bearing in mind that this weight has been transferred to the ocean floors at roughly 14,000 tons per sq km?

          (It would not hurt my feelings if someone would check my math.)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      "Also, a lot of people don't realize (and the OP confirms) that almost all geological science to date has been funded by oil and mining companies."

      [Shrug] So? If you want to find stuff in the Earth, then you hire a geologist. Where do you think the silicon in the chips, the gold in the connectors, the indium in your lcd display, and the plastic in your computer comes from? To find things in the Earth that people need, geologists develop theories to better understand how the Earth works, and how natural

    • Grad school prof.. maybe? I dunno. I remember in public school ~2000 I had a teacher was adamant that continental drift was an impossible pseudoscience. Spent a whole day's lesson explaining its flaws. The bizarre thing was he was supposed to be teaching U.S. history from the revolution to the modern day.

      • by Sulphur (1548251)

        Grad school prof.. maybe? I dunno. I remember in public school ~2000 I had a teacher was adamant that continental drift was an impossible pseudoscience. Spent a whole day's lesson explaining its flaws. The bizarre thing was he was supposed to be teaching U.S. history from the revolution to the modern day.

        Bizzare drift frightens Continentals. Silversmith Paul Revere rides warning Red Hot Coats drifting this way.

        Did he have a lesson plan for that?

        Did this happen in PS2000? Is he in one of New York's celebrated Rubber Rooms?

        • No, a Pennsylvanian school with a habit of promoting looking for good coaches and giving them teacher positions to save money. This guy was softball. The football/chemistry showed "Remember the Titans" weekly after he got tired of doing chemistry labs. Not that the other chemistry teacher was much better. Replace "Remember the Titans" with self-written poetry readings. There were a few more, but that is not here or there.

          • Re:theories (Score:5, Funny)

            by idontgno (624372) on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:59AM (#40210359) Journal

            Not that the other chemistry teacher was much better. Replace "Remember the Titans" with self-written poetry readings.

            OMG. You got a Vogon chemistry teacher. My hearty congratulations and deeply-felt respect on surviving that captivity.

          • by Sulphur (1548251)

            No, a Pennsylvanian school with a habit of promoting looking for good coaches and giving them teacher positions to save money. This guy was softball. The football/chemistry showed "Remember the Titans" weekly after he got tired of doing chemistry labs. Not that the other chemistry teacher was much better. Replace "Remember the Titans" with self-written poetry readings. There were a few more, but that is not here or there.

            What is it that uh (he pretended to fumble for the word) qualifies you said one student in the coach's English class.

    • by Rostin (691447)
      If the submitter is 60ish and went to college in ~1970, he could have had an 80ish year old professor who would have been in grad school in the 1910s. I'm currently in grad school, and I took a class from a professor who is now close to 90. He regularly regaled us with tales of famous now-dead physicists and chemists (like Pauli) whose seminars he attended when he was a graduate student and post-doc.
    • So the OP's professor was in grad school circa-1912?

      No. Pretty much the whole point of TFA is that it took a half-century for Wegener to be vindicated. Continental drift theory was not generally accepted until the 1960s, and I remember that in the 70s there was still considerable debate about whether or not it really explained the modern shape and placement of the continents. It's not at all surprising that he ran into someone who still dismissed the whole idea as nonsense if he was in grad school in, say, the mid-60s -- or even up to the 80s, if the pro

      • Re:theories (Score:5, Informative)

        by proslack (797189) on Monday June 04, 2012 @01:04PM (#40211233) Journal
        Wegener presented plenty of evidence that drift had occurred in the past but didn't have a reasonable driving mechanism. His book "Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane" has remarkable detail, discussing isostasy in terms of mineral density, triple junctions (e.g. Red Sea region), and the boundaries of the plates. He just didn't have enough evidence (no fault of his own, it just wasn't available) to cause a major paradigm shift (ala Kuhn http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions [wikipedia.org]); instead, he laid some of the groundwork for future acceptance. The hypothesis was not dismissed out of hand or completely; instead, it was batted around with varying levels of interest until the 1950s, as evidenced by scholarly citations of his various pertinent articles and books. Scientists are typically occupationally conservative and require a preponderance of strong evidence to advance a hypothesis (Continental Drift) to a theory (Plate Tectonics); that Wegener was working out of his primary field of meteorology didn't help either. If Wegener had known about seafloor spreading, I think things would have turned out differently, but that had to wait for Harry Hess and his USN sonar.
  • by Hartree (191324) on Monday June 04, 2012 @09:12AM (#40208385)

    Wegener's idea of continental drift was correct, but he didn't have a good mechanism for how these continents could plow through oceanic crust to move. That takes a massive force, and there wasn't enough energy to do it.

    Later it was realized the continents were relatively light and floated atop moving plates. That provided a mechanism where the internal heat engine of the earth could provide enough energy to make them move.

    It wasn't just stodginess that kept Wegener's idea from being accepted. It was also real physical objections. Until the 50s/60s and the discovery of seafloor spreading from the patterns of magnetisation in the seabed, the dynamics just didn't work out.

    Now, in hindsight, it's "obvious". But it certainly wasn't at the time. The matching of geological features was intriguing, but without a mechanism for the continents moving, it couldn't overcome the objections.

    • Science is a process, not the fact.
      Real Scientist will follow the Scientific method, and based on the method it will either prove or disprove their hypothesis. For continental drift. You are going on the fact the contents would roughly fit together like a puzzle, so perhaps they were at one time put together. That is all fine and good, you now have model to base your hypothesis on. Now other then just a though experiment, you need to go to the next steps and try to prove your theory. If you are unable

    • by Peter H.S. (38077) on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:54AM (#40210285) Homepage

      Wegener's idea of continental drift was correct, but he didn't have a good mechanism for how these continents could plow through oceanic crust to move. That takes a massive force, and there wasn't enough energy to do it.

      Later it was realized the continents were relatively light and floated atop moving plates. That provided a mechanism where the internal heat engine of the earth could provide enough energy to make them move.

      It wasn't just stodginess that kept Wegener's idea from being accepted. It was also real physical objections. Until the 50s/60s and the discovery of seafloor spreading from the patterns of magnetisation in the seabed, the dynamics just didn't work out.

      Now, in hindsight, it's "obvious". But it certainly wasn't at the time. The matching of geological features was intriguing, but without a mechanism for the continents moving, it couldn't overcome the objections.

      Excellent summary of the usual excuse for why leading geologist snubbed Wegeners theory. But there are several problems in this excuse; first of all, while Wegener didn't have a mechanism for explaining /how/ continental drift worked, neither did his opponents when it came to explain their opposing theories! They had to invent suddenly raising land-bridges that spanned 1000 of kilometres between all the continents to explain away the identical fossil records, land-bridges that appeared and disappeared without any trace or explanation, or without any known mechanism to cause them. The "anti-Wegeners" had even more severe problems than the "continental drifters" when it came to "mechanisms" explaining the data.
      Wegeners theory could explain a lot of observed geological and biological data at the same time, while the "anti-Wegeners" had to invent many different theories to explain the same data, many without any explaining mechanisms or any physical evidence like the land-bridge network between all continents, or hot water streams that conveniently appeared when it came to explain why temperate fossils appeared in Arctic regions, or why /identical/ rocks didn't come from the same source. Wegeners idea wasn't armchair speculation, he had lots of hard data from many different sources, data that had baffled scientist before.

      Newton didn't have any "mechanism" or explanation on what gravity was or what caused it in his "Principia..."; he only described its effect, yet his work was widely accepted. Darwin didn't have any mechanism explaining why beneficial traits to be inherited by the offspring, since DNA wasn't known, yet his work was widely accepted because it explained the observed data so well.

      I think a much better explanation of why continental drift was suppressed with quite some vigour, is Not-Invented-Here syndrome, group-think, and conservative and stagnant leading scientists suppressing new theories, rather than any sensible scientific process.

  • by Hentes (2461350) on Monday June 04, 2012 @09:14AM (#40208401)

    Continents don't "drift" on the ocean like Wegener imagined, rather the motion of continents is caused by continental and oceanic plates engaging in tectonic events.

  • What I find interesting about the account is the way a formerly iconoclastic scientist became part of the establishment that Wegener had to overcome:

    Like Wegener, University of Chicago geologist Thomas C. Chamberlin had launched his career with an iconoclastic attack on establishment thinking....But he had also become besotted with his own theory of earthâ(TM)s origins, which treated the oceans and continents as fixed features.

    • by rrohbeck (944847)

      That happens all the time. Remember Einstein's resistance against quantum physics, even though his paper on the photoelectric effect was what started it.
      Scientific revolutions don't happen by convincing people but when the old guard dies.

      • I don't think that's all that correct either. Plenty of naturalists that objected initially to Darwin were won over in his own lifetime, and most certainly while Einstein objected to QM, some of his own peers accepted it in due course. The "old guard" is not some homogeneous band of group thinkers, but is as diverse in view as the new guard is. Even Einstein himself modified some of his views, calling the cosmological constant that he had inserted into GR "the biggest mistake" of his career (of course, the

        • by rrohbeck (944847)

          Of course. But there is always a core of older scientists who don't get it, which keeps any new theory from being universally accepted until those folks die. In the meantime the nonscientific folks say "See, it's controversial!" or worse.

          • I don't buy it. Give me an example, because the one's provided so far; Einstein's objections to QM and Victorian naturalists objections to Natural Selection, don't prove your point at all, quite the opposite, they indicate that scientists, when presented with a good theory, will give it due consideration. Einstein may have had his objections to QM, but even his own peers were giving away to it, because it explained observations very well.

            If what you said was true, theories would come in fits, only when the

  • Pseudoscience? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by i kan reed (749298) on Monday June 04, 2012 @09:16AM (#40208429) Homepage Journal

    I believe the term "Pseudoscience" is reserved for "not even wrong" type things. The scientists of the era considered him incorrect in his conclusions, not pseudoscientific.

    • I wish I could mod this up to +6: insightful

      The scientific method is based on the idea that you create theories, present them to the world who tear the theory apart and examine it, then create better theories if they can. Putting forward a new theory that gets challenged, argued over and torn apart is not pseudoscience.

      • The scientific method is based on the idea that you create theories, present them to the world who tear the theory apart and examine it, then create better theories if they can. Putting forward a new theory that gets challenged, argued over and torn apart is not pseudoscience.

        I agree entirely. I think even among people who like science, there's a lack of appreciation for the philosophy of science and the value of wrongness. In fact, even in the scientific community, we don't dedicate enough effort to assuming hypotheses might be wrong. Confirmation bias is a harsh mistress and we don't do enough to fight her.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @09:21AM (#40208497)

    Wegener was correct about the continents moving around, and amassed plenty of evidence that the continents were once grouped together into the supercontinent of Pangaea (e.g., similar land animals and plants in rocks of the Carboniferous and Permian on continents now separated by wide oceans). But he was completely wrong about the mechanism. He proposed that the continents were plowing through the ocean crust kind of like icebergs floating on the sea, but when you work out the physics of that situation, the ocean crust is too strong to allow that to happen (continental lithosphere is too weak, and you'd crush them before being able to push them through the oceanic lithosphere even if a suitable force were applied). So, without a valid mechanism that made physical sense, geologists rejected his model. Plate tectonics didn't originate until the 1960s or 1970s when people realized that, essentially, the oceanic lithosphere was moving along with the continents, being formed at mid-oceanic ridges and destroyed at subduction zones, so the physical problems with Wegener's original continental drift no longer applied. People often think continental drift and plate tectonics are the same theory, but they are fairly different. The largely rejected original theory transformed into the new, modern one. Wegener still deserves a lot of credit for bringing together the evidence that the Earth's surface really did move, and by the 1970s that motion was directly measurable. It's pretty cool to imagine that every year the distance between, say, Europe and North America, gets a few cm longer.

  • I sensed, more than saw, a comparison between global warming and Wegener's model. In my opinion that would be far fetched, because no one had a penny in Wegener's theory, whilst global warming has spawned an "industry" across accademia, manufacturing, tax farming that only in Italy, where I leave, is worth 110 Bn Euros a year, and in Germany approximately twice that.
    • by Deadstick (535032)

      whilst global warming has spawned an "industry"

      ...which is in direct competition with the fossil fuels industry for the same dollars.

    • Citation needed. That is 7% of Italy's GDP, and seems an awfully high number.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Don't mix politics with science.

      Anthropological Global Warming (AGW) is a scientific theory, that has been shown to be quite correct over last number of decades.

      Carbon taxes, crap and trade, green subsidies, etc. are ALL political inventions about how to *fix*, which generally involve funneling money into their pork spending projects.

      Personally, I believe revenue neutral carbon taxes are the only way to go. Subsidies for specific "green" industries are just a plan for an economic boondoggle of historic prop

  • A point of caution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Monday June 04, 2012 @09:34AM (#40208633) Journal

    I understand and very much appreciate the point of the article.

    A similar situation happened, as I understand it, with the idea that ulcers were caused by h.pylori - a huge level of institutional resistance to a clever new insight, eventually realized to be true to the point of "how did we not see how obvious this was"? Heck, germ theory itself and the idea of sterilization fought the same uphill battle.

    Nevertheless, when reading the always-popular stories about the "outsiders" with the "radical" new theory fighting uphill to achieve fame and ultimate confirmation and vindication, it's always important to keep in mind that this DOESN'T imply any sort of validation for every crackpot theory that's out there. There are a lot of very, very stupid ideas that are reviled BECAUSE they're wrong.

    Being very self-assured and certain you're right has nothing to do with actually being right. Life isn't a storybook. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. In the case of the OP, it took the discovery of evidence that made the energy-level math work out. Before that, even though the theory (today) seems to be right, it was CORRECT that mainstream science rejected it until it was supportable.

    Sometimes you might have a great idea, and you might even be right, but it may take longer than your lifetime for it to finally be proved.

    • by Jiro (131519)

      The ulcers story is in fact another example where the outsiders with the radical new theory really weren't. There was a Skeptical Inquirer article which fortunately was on the web.

      http://www.csicop.org/si/show/bacteria_ulcers_and_ostracism_h._pylori_and_the_making_of_a_myth/ [csicop.org]

      Summary:
      -- research studies take time. Given this, scientists accepted the theory reasonably fast.
      -- the scientist who tested the theory on himself didn't develop an ulcer.
      -- existing non-antibiotic treatments did work, though they wer

    • by swell (195815)

      Well this gives me hope that my theory will be accepted in my lifetime. I can't yet prove that zombies are visitors from our own future or that they evolved due to excessive use of facebook, twitter and cell phones. I'm getting pressure from certain manufacturers and service providers who conspire to dumb down the masses. I hope to survive the threats and innuendo long enough to see acceptance of my theory and a revival of good healthy Old Time Radio.

    • "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." -- Carl Sagan

  • by bhlowe (1803290)
    And now Expanding Earth Theory [expanding-earth.org] is considered pseudo-science...

    I am not a geologist, but I find it a pretty interesting theory.. and the author makes a good case.. The site is interesting reading and is a good example of thinking outside the conventional norms. And is also another example of scientists ridiculing a theory while (seemingly?) failing to debunk it.
    • There's a list of problems here [wikipedia.org], including several measurements that imply Earth has had approximately the same radius for a long time.
      • by GeoGreg (631708)
        Wegner identified strong evidence for continental mobility; it was then needed to find a mechanism. The mechanism was seafloor spreading and subduction, which were discovered in the post-WWII era (but hypothesized at least as early as 1928). Expanding earth has the problem that there is no evidence that the earth is expanding (as the list linked to in the parent documents).
  • I remember (Score:4, Interesting)

    by boristdog (133725) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:12AM (#40209077)

    My sister's science fair project in 1972 was on "continental drift" and she had to add "theory" to the title because several of the district science fair judges did not believe that it could possibly be true.

  • The scientific method as I was taught...

    observe a phenomenon
    repeat
    devise a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon
    test the hypothesis
    until( the hypothesis is proven )
    adopt the proven hypothesis as theory

    What sometimes happens...

    observe a phenomenon

  • by craw (6958) on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:34AM (#40210041) Homepage

    TC Chamberlin who oppose the concept of continental drift, previously opposed another hypothesis. This would be the age of earth put forth by Lord Kelvin who based his estimate on the time it would take a molten earth to cool down. Chamberlin, in opposition, wrote the following.

    The fascinating impressiveness of rigorous mathematical analysis, with its atmosphere of precision and elegance, should not blind us to the defects of the premises that condition the whole process.

    Kelvin's defect of the premises was that he did not include heat due to radioactive decay. And in a bit of irony, it is this heat that causes convection within the earth, which causes seafloor spreading/plate tectonics. So Chamberlin got one thing right, and one thing wrong.

We warn the reader in advance that the proof presented here depends on a clever but highly unmotivated trick. -- Howard Anton, "Elementary Linear Algebra"

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