When Scientists Drift into Pseudoscience

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Plate Tectonics - A Case Study

The paranoid tone of pseudoscience occasionally surfaces in the works of orthodox scientists; not, as one might expect, in the works of scientists who are trying to bring about a scientific revolution, but more often than not in the works of scientists who are resisting change. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, for example, as the opinion of most geologists was swinging in favor of continental drift (as it was still called), a few conservative geologists fought a rear-guard action against its acceptance. Interestingly enough, the more the evidence favored drift, so that one could be justified in referring to opposition to drift as pseudoscience, the more striking the parallels became between the writings of the anti-drifters and the tactics we see in other pseudoscientists. There was, for example, the familiar tactic of downgrading findings to the level of "hypothesis" or "speculation". And of course there were charges of ulterior motives and unscientific conduct. A few quotes will suffice to illustrate the general tone of the attacks.

From the preceding, it must be clear that the drifter theoreticians are too much in the habit of elaborating on moving ocean floors, of navigating the continents, of producing physical anarchy with their clashing ocean cells, of postulating apparently fixed midocean ridges from which they direct crustal segments in mutually contradictory voyage directions (but refuse to voyage with them as they create contradictory motions elsewhere), and of disregarding the fundamental frame of the earth itself. Thus they have created an incoherent global picture, ignoring even such basic considerations as geography, geology, logic, and common sense. They imagine that they have found a panacea; they have opened, instead, a Pandora's box.
It is very difficult for me to believe that arguments presented without regard to simple rules of geometry, physics, and logic can long survive in serious science.
Finally, I am of the opinion that the proofs against continental drift--presented here and by others whose work I have cited--are overwhelming; that drifters should return to the world of reality and reconsider the feasibility of drift, or sea-floor spreading, or plate tectonics.
The advocates of continental drift have gone to unbelievable lengths to explain and rationalize a unified, unique, fossilized global system of oceanic and continental lithic structures.

Although the scientific knowledge of these writers is immeasurably greater, the rhetoric is scarcely distinguishable in tone from that of any other pseudoscientists. I was going to graduate school at Columbia University when these papers appeared. The Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory of Columbia University was one of the research centers most heavily involved in the research that led to the confirmation of continental drift. The reaction of the Lamont scientists to the anti-drift articles was not so much anger as amused, open-mouthed incredulity that any scientist would actually put his name on something like that.

One of the attacks on continental drift had to do with maps showing the reconstructed positions of the continents in the geologic past. Of necessity, such maps have to be presented on a flat page with inevitable distortion. One major critic of drift wrote:

Incredible as it may seem, not one earth scientist .... has utilized the mathematics of a sphere in discussion of earth tectonics. The treatments of (here he lists a large number of researchers) deal with flat-surface projections of spherical bodies ... Therefore, conclusions based on such treatments of plate tectonics are interesting exercises in plane geometry, but unrealistic in terms of the actual earth.

The clear impression is that researchers cut pieces out of flat maps, pieced them together and ignored the distortions. It does seem incredible. It's also totally false. Every researcher on continental drift used the mathematics of a sphere. Maps that show the former positions of the continents show the continents that were at high latitudes distorted, but the distortions are not the sorts of distortions one sees on a present-day map. The maps are, and always were, prepared by first plotting the continents on a sphere (either a real sphere or the mathematical equivalent in a computer) and then portraying the sphere on a flat map projection.

The opposition to continental drift has enormous relevance to the common claim that science suppresses dissent. By about 1970, geologic opinion was solidly behind continental drift. Geology not only let the anti-drifters air their views, it actually bent the rules in their favor. Taken as a whole, the anti-drift literature must surely rank among the worst rubbish ever printed in a major scientific journal. No scientist could possibly have published remarks as absurd as those we have just seen on any other topic in geology--it's as if the journals had simply waived quality control entirely when it came to allowing the anti-drift camp to have its say. (Actually, that's exactly what happened - one of the leading drift opponents was editor of one of the journals involved.) And, although space is at a premium in scientific journals and papers must be condensed ruthlessly, yet some of the major anti-drift papers ran over fifty pages.

The only people since then that have found the anti-drift papers useful have been scientific creationists, who cite them as "proof" that the continents don't drift. (If the continents formed a single supercontinent 200 million years ago, then the earth can't be only 10,000 years old, can it?)

The last hurrah of organized opposition to continental drift or plate tectonics came in 1974 with the publication of Plate Tectonics - Assessments and Reassessments. A review by the well-known geologist Warren Hamilton pretty well sums up its quality. One major anti-drift paper is "filled with assertions that mostly are incorrect, misleading, or irrelevant", and contains "many denunciations of individual and collective drifters as lacking in honesty and knowledge". He sums up the overall quality of the book this way: "The compilation here will, however, be appreciated by any professor who wants his graduate students to learn how weak are the arguments against plate tectonics". Compared to what the anti-drifters said, this is pretty mild criticism.

How a Real Scientist Opposed Plate Tectonics

Continental drift had its opponents in the U.S.S.R., too. Soviet science was a good deal more authoritarian and hierarchical than science elsewhere, and at the top of the heap in Soviet geology was the tough and brilliant V.V. Beloussov, who for a long time was a severe critic of continental drift. Yet Beloussov stands not only head and shoulders, but knees and ankles above the other critics we have read. Beloussov thoroughly understood the evidence that was being used in support of drift, and he realized that he not only had to point out errors in the drift theory, but come up with some other interpretation that worked better than continental drift. He made a serious effort to try, and if he did not succeed, it was not for lack of effort or ingenuity, it was because he was backing the wrong side. Being wrong is no crime. Sooner or later every scientist makes a mistake. Being militantly and arrogantly wrong, like most pseudoscientists, is the crime.

Beloussov's accomplishments in science would be the envy of most scientists; if he is remembered for his opposition to continental drift it will be as a responsible and honorable dissenter.

Where Else Might the Cranks Rule?

It is possible to find other examples of scientists using charges of persecution and vested interest that seem more in keeping with Velikovsky or creationism that with mainstream science. In addition to the attacks on continental drift, I have seen very similar attacks made against relativity, the quark theory of particle physics, the notion that meteor craters exist on the earth, and the idea that some dinosaurs may have been warm blooded. There is an interesting pattern here. In every ease, the remarks are being made, not by a scientist challenging the Establishment with a revolutionary new idea, but by conservatives who are trying to block the acceptance of a new idea and who rationalize their minority stance by believing that all their colleagues have been carried away by an excess of enthusiasm. This pattern, surprisingly, is fully in keeping with the nature of pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is not revolutionary, as it so often claims to be, but reactionary.

So here goes with a list of some academic disciplines where the rhetoric suggests that some participants have crossed the line into pseudoscience. In every case it's the conservatives.

Extreme Paleolinguistics
The attempt to recover or reconstruct a proto-language once spoken by the earliest humans may not succeed. Random noise probably limits how far back we can reconstruct root languages. But some critics dismiss the entire field far too casually. (Note that it is possible to reconstruct ancestral root languages for less remote times.)
Communication with other Species
A chimp using sign language may merely be exhibiting a learned response with no real cognition involved. The problem is you can make exactly the same argument about a scientist delivering a paper at a meeting (I've seen some examples where it may well have been true!).
Quasicrystals
Linus Pauling, who derived some of the fundamental rules of crystallography in the 1930's, insisted that quasicrystals don't exist. A classic case of a great scientist failing to realize that science has moved beyond his own accomplishments.
Humans in North America
It takes time for any species to expand its range, even Homo sapiens. Humans didn't get here until recently, but the arguments by those who think they only got here at the very end of the Ice Age (only 10,000 years ago) are getting progressively more desperate and ad hoc. Recent discoveries of sites older than 15,000 years are being touted in the press as "revolutionary." They're revolutionary only to junk scientists.
Biblical Artifacts
The antiquities market is awash with forgeries but the idea that every single inscription that turns up with the name of a Biblical character is a fake just plain strains credulity.

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Created 8 July 1998, Last Update 9 July 1998

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