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Science

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 Hartree (191324) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:12AM (#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.

  • Pseudoscience? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by i kan reed (749298) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:16AM (#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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:19AM (#40208463)

    He was, of course, making irrational stuff up, that accidentally happened to turn out to be correct. Kind of like the ancient greek version of atomic theory.

    If real, usable, economic warp speed spacecraft propulsion is ever invented, that doesn't mean the "star trek" writers should get credit.

    You were aware that he actually had a fair amount of evidence for continental drift, right? Including fossils (particularly plant fossils) and geography on both sides of the continents that had drifted apart? The fact that he didn't have a mechanism doesn't make it irrational.

  • by brennanw (5761) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:20AM (#40208485) Homepage Journal

    for advancing heliocentrism.

    Because when he did, he insisted that all orbits around the sun were perfectly circular. He rejected the idea of elliptical orbits -- an idea that had already been proposed. As a result, the mathematics involved in his model to calculate the "movement" of the stars was significantly less accurate than the then-current and accepted model using epicycles.

    But he was right, generally, even if he got the specifics wrong.

  • by gadget junkie (618542) <gbponz@libero.it> on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:22AM (#40208513) Journal
    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 bug1 (96678) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:26AM (#40208547)

    He was, of course, making irrational stuff up, that accidentally happened to turn out to be correct. Kind of like the ancient greek version of atomic theory.

    Kind of like you are doing now...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:30AM (#40208591)

    You are a fool. You mistake not understanding how things work for not knowing that they work.

    You are the same kind of person that would have thrown Galilleo into jail for not explaining how things work.

    Science is NOT about showing how something works first, then detecting it. Instead, real science is about DETECTING SOMETHING, proving that it is REAL, then figuring out how it works.

    We looked at the earth, found clear evidence in multiple forms - similar plants, animals, land shapes, fossil records, etc. etc. that showed continental drift. That is more than enough to prove something. Otherwise you are the idiot who says bumblebees can't fly despite the clear evidence that they do (Note, they fly using the same principles of a helicopter, not a air plane).

    Having someone say "You must be wrong because we don't know how it works" is not science, it is arrogance.

    The people that thought plate techtonics were stupid and foolish - ignoring the actual evidence obvious to any three year old looking at a map of Africa and South America, because they didn't understand how something could happen as opposed to checking to see if it actually did happen.

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

    by argStyopa (232550) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:34AM (#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.

  • Re:Exoplanets (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:36AM (#40208659)

    Why did scientists go down that road? An old and decidedly not funny joke is helpful:

    Three scientists were walking near the lab where they worked during lunch one day.

    One pointed to an animal on a nearby hillside and said, "Gee, I didn't know there were black sheep around here."

    The second said, "Don't jump to conclusions -- all you've seen is ONE black sheep, so you don't know if there are others."

    The third said, "Don't jump to conclusions about that one sheep. So far, all you've seen is one side of one sheep that appears to be black from this distance."

    In short, scientists have to be this fussy about reading things into data, even when the conclusions they reach were "obvious" to lay people (like me) much earlier.

  • Re:theories (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:50AM (#40208829)

    "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 processes have concentrated minerals into economically useful deposits. But it is an exaggeration to say that "almost all" geological science is funded by companies looking for economic deposits. Much of it is studied for purely scientific reasons, and the other major reason is for the sake of human safety hazards, such as earthquakes, tsunami, landslides, volcanic eruptions, etc. and environmental hazards such as ground water contamination. It's a fairly diverse field in terms of study and funding sources.

  • by tverbeek (457094) on Monday June 04, 2012 @10:51AM (#40208837) Homepage

    Making an observation that something appears to have happened, but failing to explain the mechanism for is not "making irrational stuff up". It's "presenting an hypothesis", which is part of the scientific method. It's an entirely different thing from imagining something fanciful out of nothing factual because you want it for a work of fiction. It's perfectly rational to say "we can't fathom why or how yet, but let's see if this might be true". For example, Newton didn't have any real explanation for what makes gravity work (nor did anyone else, for centuries), but his formulas describing his observations of orbital mechanics were genuine science being practiced, not "making irrational stuff up".

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday June 04, 2012 @11:22AM (#40209181) Homepage Journal

    If real, usable, economic warp speed spacecraft propulsion is ever invented, that doesn't mean the "star trek" writers should get credit.

    Actually, it just might. That's how we got self-opening doors. When TOS came out and Disney was planning EPCOT, they saw Star Trek and their "imagineers" went to Paramount to find out how they accomplished it. They were discouraged when told that the "self operating" doors were opened and closed by stagehands, by hand. Less than ten years later they were on almost every grocery store.

    I'd say that if someone came up with a way to warp spce, Star Trek should get some credit.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @12:06PM (#40209657)

    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 proportions.

    Anywa,y AGW just tells you the earth is warning because of sequestered carbon emissions back into the carbon cycle. This simply means reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels will stop AGW from progressing. But how this is achieved is politics, not science.

  • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday June 04, 2012 @12:42PM (#40210151) Journal

    Let's not forget that Einstein's work didn't come out of thin air, but was based on previous work like Lorentz and Maxwell. We have mythologized Einstein to some extent, just as we did with Newton and Galileo, tending to forget that these men, while instrumental in scientific advancement, built upon previous work.

  • by Peter H.S. (38077) on Monday June 04, 2012 @12:54PM (#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.

  • Re:theories (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kbg (241421) on Monday June 04, 2012 @01:33PM (#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.

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