Tuesday, September 13, 2011

John McPhee, pre-1960 geology, and the climate consensus

A previous post refers to my semi-fruitless quest for a precedent of science in any field being as incredibly 100% wrong as the denialists claim is the case for climate. Commenters there suggested geology before plate tectonics as the best shot. Someone mentioned McPhee's Assembling California for context examining the history of the science of plate tectonics, a book I've had sitting around and unread.

Off to the races!
[Wary of multiple theories by some geologists for what made mountains rise,] many more geologists would not venture further than than to say (indisputably) that "earth forces" or "orogenic forces" had lifted the geosynclines, and that these forces were "not well understood".

[regarding different California mountain geosynclines thrust on top of each other,] "that was the Golconda Thrust. No one knew how this 'orogeny' happened."

[on one side of a mountain range geosyncline] there were shallow-water sediments followed by deep-water material, but there was no other side. "That was never explained".

"the geosynclinal cycle was said to be about two hundred million years. In the Overthrust Belt in Montana, forty thousand feet of Precambrian sediment had been thrust over Cretaceous sediment. As students, we wondered why all that Precambrian was still there. What had the source geosyncline been doing sitting there for a billion years when the cycle was two hundred million? There was no answer."

Halls's idea [orogeny not from tectonics] was not preposterous. It was incomplete. There was, after all, marine rock in mountains. Between the geosyncline and the mountains, though, something was missing, and what was missing was plate tectonics.
(text excerpts pages 38-40).

I think the picture isn't of a scientific field that's confident in a wrong paradigm, but one that has many acknowledged, open questions and hadn't yet accepted a solution that was proven with the subsequent accumulation of evidence. This isn't a matter of overconfidence, the claim made by denialists against climatology.

There's also the issue of whether European geologists were more open to tectonics than Americans prior to 1960, something I don't know anything about.

Granted, this is a pop-sci book, but McPhee's pretty good, so I'll see what else he has to say on this subject.

UPDATE: some great comments below. Read them! In particular, I did wheel reinventing from a 2008 comment at Deltoid:
[tectonics is] a good illustration of one flavor of paradigm shift, in this case, where plausible hypotheses were identified early, but evidence just didn't get strong enough for a long time, but when new kinds of evidence popped up, the discipline pretty much changed views in a decade.

But indeed, the evidence for AGW is (by now) immensely stronger than the evidence for continental drift in 1920. After all, Arrhenius was talking about Greenhouse Effect over 100 years ago, and that wasn't accepted instantly either :-)

And also this:
For a proper comparison in your search for "a precedent of science in any field being as incredibly 100% wrong as the denialists claim is the case for climate.", you really need to consider the supposed "wrong-headed" theory in the light of the existing evidence base. In other words we want a theory that is "bone-headed" in the context of the knowledge-base pertaining at the time.

So Newtonian dynamics isn't a teribly good example since it was a theory that was entirely consistent with the existing evidence base).


David B. Benson said...

Brian --- The best example I can think of is astronomy --- epicycles and all that there.

My quarter of geology was in the spring of 1960, from Robert Sharp. Seismology was emphasized along with the more usual (field) geology basics. I didn't come away with a sense of anything but the answers would be forthcoming. Indeed the quarter course caused me to become a lifelong amateur geologist.

Tom Curtis said...

The two most obvious examples are Newtonian Dynamics pre-relativity; and biology pre-Darwin.

Brian said...

Tom - yes, maybe. By the mid-19th Century, physicists knew they had problems with light's behavior. And evolution was known, if disputed, before Darwin (he derived natural and sexual selection).

Getting into the 19th Century is starting to reach back pretty far for precedent.

Doug said...

A bit longer ago (19th century), before we had better explanations, mainline explanations of diastrophism particularly as it was expressed through orogeny included both thermal and gravitational shrinkage or compaction of Earth.

I don't think these can really be termed "wrong" so much as they were provisional.

Anonymous said...

For geology, I as a hobby try to buy second-hand ancient geology manuals. What I found is that, in the thirties, the "consensus" theory was that Earth cooling caused folds.
When they found out that some surface rocks have been created dozens of kilometers below the surface, they began to devise "superthrusts" : sediments in the ocean weight enough to pull the crust and thus as balance make underground material appear near the surface. But they apparently weren't very satisfied in the fifties with this theory, as it is exposed with extreme caution in scholar books.

So the big fight in the sixties was not to hold on a "wrong idea" (since the "old" ideas were dubiously considered - and I do not even speak about the paleontologic "superbridges" who got a very short life) but to show that this time we really got the correct theory. And, at least in France, it was a bit hot : shift was made later than in other countries, in fact with the undersea mission FAMOUS in 1968 when Xavier Le Pichon could give first hand data confirming the theory. After this mission, consensus was reached. Mattauer told me it was hot, but I suspect he was a wee exagerating - he liked to make a show of himself, even though he was really a pionner and a talented geologist.

In short, denialists using this example are wrong, very wrong.

And I may respectfully disagree with Tom Curtis : Newtonian dynamics may look wrong (since "Einstein the genius found the Truth"), but it works really well as long as you do not flirt with c speed. NASA sent people to the moon using Newton and rulers, after all ; and 99.9% of engineers do not bother with special relativity (and I do not even mention the general relativity) without having problems. So, in my opinion, this is not a "wrong" theory, but a correct theory within limits fixed by a better (but heavier) one.

PS damnit too slow.


John Mashey said...

re: plate tectonics: McPhee is good ... but:

See discussion @ Deltoid. I referenced Naomi has she was a working geologist in Oz, then did a PhD in geosciences and science history not a common combination.

"Her early work examined the 20th century transformation of earth science, in The Rejection Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science (Oxford, 1999) and Plate Tectonics: An Insider's History of the Modern Theory of the Earth (Westview, 2001)."

Many people understand this quite poorly.

EliRabett said...

Newtonian dynamics works well in the environment it was discovered v/c<<1. Not even close.

willard said...

This overview provides references:


For those uninterested in philosohy of science, Oreskes and Allègre are cited.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to offer a tangent here: John McPhee as a stylist. Go to Assembling California, the paragraph that straddles pages 257-258. The details are of time and data across a variety of scales, and McPhee shuffles them together like a card sharp.

As for analogies to the resistance to AGW, one need only go back to the link between tobacco and cancer. There is no actual scientific skepticism along the lines of plate tectonics. It's manufactured from a collection of hired guns and shopworn rhetoric.

Jeffrey "It's Kool Inside" Davis

willard said...

Oh, and epicycles helped create ephemerides that were quite precise.

One might find commonalities between adding an epicycle and adding a dimension in string theory.

Horatio Algeranon said...

"One might find commonalities between adding an epicycle and adding a dimension in string theory."

With the one (minor) detail that epicycles allowed one to make testable (and even correct!) predictions about the real world (the future positions of the planets in the sky)

But there is the one rather striking similarity: that epicycles and string theory both involve loops (Some -- not Horatio mind you -- might even go so far as to call them "loopy".)

Anonymous said...

McPhee 'pretty good'?

He's the Louis Auchincloss of science writing, and the greatest stand-up fly fisherman since Calvin Coolidge.

Writes prose about science worth reading as prose, and catches shad to boot.


willard said...


The most strinking similarity one can find between epicycles and string theory is that Lubo is ready to defend them:


My favorite hypothesis as to why he likes both is that he wants to be invited in Other World Kingdom.

Horatio Algeranon said...


Many (many) thanks for not making that an active link.

Though Horatio has noticed that Lubos sometimes appears even when ordinary (nonhypertext) references are made to his site.

We'll consider it an experiment (at least it's testable, right?)

Mitch said...

I posted this last night but right now posting doesn't seem to be working for me in Firefox or Chrome browsers. It seems to work in Safari.

Nothing in newtonian dynamics was shown to be *wrong* when Einstein developed relativity. In fact, the one of the first things you do when learning relativity, special or general, is to show that newtonian mechanics and gravitation respectively are their limits when one takes c -> infinity.

To parametrize better Prof. Rabbet's quest - This is what would be required for us to take seriously the skeptic arguments regarding consensus: we would have to find a situation in which three conditions apply, viz (a) There was a consensus that a particular scientific theory was valid, (b) The theory made specific predictions with respect to an observable phenomenon and these were not regarded as tentative or provisional (As an example, the Standard Model of electroweak interactions predicts a single Higgs boson with certain properties, but scientists do not regard these prediction as necessary or even likely. The electroweak theory is well established with respect to the W and Z particles and the quarks, but the Higgs boson part of it is not.) Lastly, (c) subsequent discoveries showed that predictions the theory made were *wrong*, not merely incomplete.

Clearly, Newtonian mechanics passes (a) and (b) but fails (c). Prior to Darwin, by my understanding (and I am not an expert) we don't even have (a).

Likewise, with Plate tectonics, we don't have (a) - there was no consensus regarding what was going on.

Assuming that there was a consensus rejecting Wegener's ideas, which I don't think is quite the right way to look at it, it still doesn't mean that we have the three conditions. The right question to be asking is has there ever been a positive consensus regarding a scientific theory that was wrong, not merely that someone with a new idea had a hard time getting heard and having the ideas established.

Anonymous said...

For a new press release on "polarbeargate" go to:


chris said...

There's something missing from the discussion (at least it hasn't been stated explicitly). For a proper comparison in your search for "a precedent of science in any field being as incredibly 100% wrong as the denialists claim is the case for climate.", you really need to consider the supposed "wrong-headed" theory in the light of the existing evidence base. In other words we want a theory that is "bone-headed" in the context of the knowledge-base pertaining at the time.

So Newtonian dynamics isn't a teribly good example since it was a theory that was entirely consistent with the existing evidence base).

In fact there might not actually be an example of the sort you are searching for since the wilfully-bone-headed theorizing is very much a product of the age of denial. The misrepresentation of science with respect to ciggie smoking or aspirin taking in kids with respect to Reyes syndrome are examples from the age of denial. One of the things I'm pleasantly surprised at is the essential openness of people in at least the 19th century "developed" world to consider scientific evidence on its merits. The general acceptance of the scientific validity of Darwinism, given the wealth of evidence, even on the part of (some of) those with quite strong religious viewpoints is very interesting.

Not sure you'll find what you're looking for in pre-cynical eras!

chris said...

Actually, a minor example from the pre-cynical era comes to mind; i.e. the dismal theorizing concerning degradation of national intelligence associated with the eugenics "movement". Of course theories of intelligence and psychology are always a lttle tough given the limited scope for objective experimentation and the strong influences of the particular fashions of the age....

...in fact we might consider that the eugenics movement was an early portend of the age of cynicism - e.g. an example of pseudoscience misused to support dismal agendas

Anonymous said...

Snow Bunny

In the mid-60s I'd hear old geologists whispering to each other at the back of an AGU session after, for instance, Atwater spoke, "But do you believe in continental drift?"

I was told at the time that the American geology schools taught students that some crazy meteorologist thought the continents had broken up. The South American-African paleontological data does not support it. It is a career wrecker to believe such nonsense. I was told that the European schools were not so hostile to the idea. Also, the preeminent geophysicist of the time, Sir Harold Jeffreys, said it was impossible for continents to move except up and down. (As far as I know, I'm not up to date, there still is no good theoretical explanation.)

It was geophysicists who used the seafloor data to transform geology. I've a friend who still doesn't believe Wegener was right. He was taught before 1960.

Geology before plate tectonics was a very insular subject. PhD candidates did a thesis on the characteristics of a very small area and often remained studying local areas. With the exception of oil and mining geologists who were focussed on discovery techniques.

I definitely think the rejection out-of-hand of continental drift was a case of a field unreceptive to a new idea, at least in America.

Climate science is the opposite of insular. The cross-fertilization is enormous. Many fields, biology, disease spreading, glaciology, chemistry, etc, etc, have data consistent with the predictions of the climate scientists.

Furthermore, the changes are noticeable in everyday life. I just called condo management about weeds growing in my gutter. She said they are swamped with calls like that; the 'unusual' storms have tree debris in everybody's gutter. This is the wonderful world of global warming.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

OMG, the second interview is even worse! May goes on and on about the contents of the abstract! The abstract for gods sake! And somehow in his little pin mind not mentioning everything in the results and conclusions in the abstract is some sort of horrid scientific crime.

I'll leave it to others to comment on the contracting stuff, but it seems to be in line with what has been mentioned by others familiar with the process.

anthrosciguy said...

First of all, it wasn't plate tectonics but continental drift. Plate tectonics is the mechanism, which was discovered in the 50s, after which continental drift was widely accepted. Continental drift had a mixed reception, with scientists dealing with the southern hemisphere (where the evidence was stronger) being more likely to think it was so, but the big -- really big -- problem is that no one had a remotedly credible mechanism, and this lasted for decades.

People attempting to use continental drift as an analogue for their unaccepted ideas often conflate continental drift and plate tectonics, but one is "what happened" and the other is the mechanism. These are very different things. Wegener lacked a credible mechanism, as did his supporters (the ones they suggested were obviously inadequate, as even Wegener admitted in the 4th edition of his book).

This makes it a poor analogue for climate science, in which a very credible mechanism exists and in fact has existed since well before the concept of human-induced global warming was studied.

John said...

Naomi Oreskes, historian of science, best known today for Merchants of Doubt, a profile of AGW deniers, earlier chronicled the discovery of Plate Tectonics. Her book on Plate Tectonics is available at Amazon.
Alfred Wegener proposed in the 1920's that continents could drift. However, he had no mechanism to explain how something as massive as a continent could drift. He suggested gravity could allow continents to drift, but physicists calculated the forces involved, which were far too weak. The sea floor at the time was believed to be solid rock.
What changed? The discovery that the sea floor had spreading zones where new sea floor was being formed, and also subduction zones where the sea floor was diving into the earth. The continents were floating on plates of less dense rock, which moved on a more dense liquid layer.
Until the discovery of the mid-Atlantic ridge, subduction zones, and the like, geologists were not wrong to reject Wegener's theories.
The new data blew away the old objections - the forces proposed by Wegener really were too weak to explain continental drift.

Disclaimer: I may have stated some of the details inaccurately, but I have the main ideas correct. If not, I'll hear from the bunnies, I'm sure.

Doug Mackie said...

Some years ago in an exchange of letters in my local rag a denialist trumped me by saying "[380 ppm is too small to have an effect*] unless the laws of chemistry have changed since I was at university in the 1940s."

In 1939 Pauling came down from Mt Sinai with On the nature of the Chemical Bond and chemists saw that it was good. It was a culmination of 20 years effort from the good Prof. Ascorbic and did not overturn anything as the previous understanding was recognised as imperfect.

However, it took a while (so my elders and betters taught me) for the knowledge to percolate to the right angle corners of the flat (but expanding) Earth. So it seems likely that the 'laws' of chemistry had changed since my correspondent last had chalk to slate.

I am still waiting for my invitations to Stockholm AND Oslo so maybe I shouldn't criticise. Sickle cell anemia? +10. But spherons? The word came down from a demigod and the community smiled and nodded and politely ignored it because it didn't work. And that, dear readers, is how science works.

* "like a small boy farting during a thunderstorm" was the exact quote from the denialist who declined my invitation to sup of a concoction containing 380 ppm of an added 'flavour'.

Geoff Wexler said...

Pre-science provides some possible examples but you might disqualify them e.g. Alchemy and astrology.
Newton was a practioner of the former and some astronomers
accepted astrology.
Theory of the elements e.g.earth fire air and water with various modifications.
Cavendish and Priestley discovered pure phlogiston and de-phlogisticated air.
The caloric theory of heat which Carnot tried to reconcile
with his theory of the heat engine?

David B. Benson said...

Great comments, some with the well-known places where various
hypotheses were found lacking.

However, I continue to hold that pre-Galilean astronomy was 100% wrong, near enough. Yes, by adding ever more epicycles the epicyclists could make slightly better predictions. They were obtaining approximately correct answers for entirely the wrong reasons.

KAP said...

I suspect the previous record for being wrong, for the longest period of time, is the idea that phlogiston was a substance (rather than being merely the lack of oxygen). 1667-1783.

Geoff Wexler said...

Re my previous comment.

Perhaps rule out non mathematical examples and non predictive sciences because they are not analogous to climatology? The only surviving member of my list would then be the last one referring to the caloric theory which was supported by quantitative experiments and a conservation principle. But since the fault lay in the conservation principle, which was not a bone headed blunder, considering the available evidence, this example too may have to be ruled out?

The almost useless subject of pre-Galilean dynamics, not to be confused with the astronomy, would have to be ruled out too, because of its non mathematical nature. Euclid's Optica looks more promising, because it was both mathematical and seriously wrong. The rays were supposed to travel from eye to object, but perhaps it does not qualify because it was not 100% wrong?

Maybe the '100% wrong' condition should be reconsidered?

guthrie said...

Doug Mackie - it is amazing how many denialists don't want to breath air containing 10ppm of Chlorine or 0.1ppm of any number of nerve gases. As you know, intellectual consistency is not one of their strong points.

Horatio Algeranon said...

The assumption of the existence of a "luminiferous aether" is a good example where the scientific consensus was (demonstrably) wrong.

Interestingly, despite all the implausible (impossible?) things that one had to believe (eg, the aether's extraordinary properties) and even after the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, most scientists continued to hold onto the idea (with at least one notable exception, of course) and simply redoubled their efforts to introduce ad hoc (and sometimes quite contorted) assumptions in order to preserve it.

...not unlike many of the ad hoc/contorted assumptions we see being proposed by climate "skeptics" these days to preserve their own "theories" about what is causing warming.

Mitch said...

With all due respect, I disagree with Chris's formulation that "we want a theory that is "bone-headed" in the context of the knowledge-base pertaining at the time." The denialists would simply say: sure the AGW theory is plausible in terms of the data that is here now, but that data is wrong. This is in fact quite similar to what Richard Lindzen said in his talk (posted on this blog) where he debated Andy Dessler.

The question should be posed as I described above: did a consensus ever develop that was subsequently shown to be wrong? So far, of everything here, the only possible example seems to me the phlogiston case, but I don't know enough about it to evaluate.

BTW, the existence of the luminiferous ether was most certainly *not* such a consensus. The understanding of the time was that the luminiferous ether was a very strange, incomplete hypothesis. No one would have said that it was a well-developed theory around which there was a consensus. They understood that they couldn't think of anything else, but there was quite a bit about the luminiferous ether hypothesis that was known not to work at the time.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Perhaps Horatio missed the requirement that the "precedent of science in any field being incredibly 100% wrong" had to be "a well-developed theory".


Horatio Algeranon said...

An interesting presention by science historian Naomi Oreskes

"The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?

Page 33:

"Numerous examples from history of science of consensus, overturned
•Geocentric Universe
•Fixity of species
•Absolute nature of time and space, pervaded by luminiferous aether
•Deterministic character of atomic interactions
•Fixity of continents"

Anna Haynes said...

Barbara McClintock discovered & published about transposons, decades before other researchers saw the evidential light.
(caveat: my biology/genetics knowledge is out of date, so check before running with this)

But this example isn't really "a precedent of science...being incredibly 100% wrong", it's more a case (like failure to accept continental drift) of the field being slower than we might like, in advancing.

Anonymous said...

The obvious example of a field of science that pursued a wrong theory, held a consensus view that was the result of 'group think', scientific fraud and an ideological conspiracy driven political belief is Lysenko-ism.

Of course the Lysenko theories on biology were a local aberration, not a global one like AGW.... that would only be abandoned when the forces of Nature refuted its predictions and the policy choices that were made by famine.

This I suspect for many who reject AGW theory this would be the parallel case of a politically driven false science.

Of course Lysenkoism can also be mapped onto the denialists, possibly with similar prospects of future refutation.


David B. Benson said...

Good comments.

John Mashey said...

People might read, not just the Wegener example I used, but the first section of Deltoid post, i.e., the Great Wall of Science.

Mitch said...


I don't think the examples Ms. Oreskes is using are relevant to the discussion here - in fact, I think it's somewhat misleading of her to say that these scientific consensuses were actually "wrong".

There was no consensus regarding anything of substance about luminiferous ether. It had been well established that light was a wave, and it was thought necessary that waves travel *in* something, and thus, ether. It sounded beyond strange to the scientists of the time to make the post-relativity statement "light is a wave that doesn't travel in anything". But there was no consensus about any predictions that would have been made about ether specifically, largely because the properties that it had to assume were so strange. Accordingly there were many suggestions for experiments, which were done and ultimately rejected the hypothesis of ether.

Regarding the "Deterministic character of atomic interactions", this is also not analogous. It is rather odd to say that scientists were "wrong" because they didn't invent quantum mechanics before there was evidence for it. In fact, there was no consensus regarding what the nature of atomic interactions were. If you had asked scientists about atomic properties in 1890 you would have gotten all sorts of answers - in fact, there were still anti-atomist scientists at that time.

But most importantly, climate science is not fundamental physics. None of the physics or chemistry is challenged even by skeptics (or at least, the non-insane ones). This is just a question of whether the scientific community can apply well-understood theories to a specific problem and assess their ability to make predictions. Has there ever been an example like that where there has been a wrong consensus? I haven't heard it. The continental drift discussions sound the closest of everything mentioned here, but so far as I am concerned it is close but no cigar.

Graeme said...

and how were the folks wondering about the apparent exceptions treated in the peer-reviewed literature? I recognise that this is an impossible question to answer, since peer-review did not dominate in those days. But would people who discussed

"[on one side of a mountain range geosyncline] there were shallow-water sediments followed by deep-water material, but there was no other side. "That was never explained"."

have got published in respectable journals? Just asking? We can only conjecture according to whether they would have beenj published today. But it is still interesting.

EliRabett said...

JJ Thompson's plum pudding model of the atom!