Monday, September 12, 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).