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The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science 1st Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195117332
ISBN-10: 0195117336
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Editorial Reviews


"Oreskes (Univ. of California, San Diego) argues that 'science is about how belief gets formulated,' and that the criteria used in the formulation of belief are historically contingent and play a significant role in constraining the boundaries of scientific knowledge in a cultural and social context. Using the history of evolution of the continental drift theory, she discusses how US earth scientists came to reject this theory in the 1920s and '30s because accepting the ideas supporting it would have forced them to change their methodological beliefs and valued forms of scientific practice. Oreskes utilizes the case of the history of continental drift to show that scientific methodology is diverse and evolves through time, and that the mechanics of scientific research and the context of discovery are important, just as the context of justification is important in evaluating the generation of scientific knowledge. . . . An exemplary resource. Recommended. All levels."--Choice

"With all their resources, American geoscientists do much of the world's best geology. Thus some of them may be embarrassed that their predecessors were so slow to embrace continental drift or convection currents in the mantle and were initially so resistant to the doctrines of plate tectonics. Although there must be historical reasons for this reluctance to accept mobilist doctrines, hitherto they have not been examined in detail. Now Naomi Oreskes has accomplished the task in The Rejection of Continental Drift. Based on extensive archival research and Oreskes's studies over the past 20 years, her admirably clear and well-illustrated account is scientifically, philosophically, historically, and sociologically well-informed. All is achieved without recourse to esoteric detail or any mathematics: she is after concepts."--Science

"During the 1920s and '30s, prominent American geologists were generally opposed, sometimes virulently so, to continental drift, a new theory proposed by Alfred Wegener. On the opposite side of a furtively widening transatlantic schism, earth scientists were inclined to explore the idea, or at least to regard it with more muted skepticism. Wegener's original 'theory' was incomplete and mechanically unsound, and some of his European colleagues actually bent their effort toward developing physical models in support of drift. After all, the theory did summarize a set of observations that hinted at a broader vision of geological mapping than was currently in vogue. However, Americans appear to have been committed to demonstrating the impossibility of drift. Naomi Oreskes has carefully sifted the archival ashes of the early stages of this conflagration, producing an analysis of scientific practice that challenges previous accounts of the drift controversy."--American Scientist

"On April 7, 1998, there was a note in Eos by David Stern that included a perceptive and amusing quotation from Teddy Bullard on the question, which has been recently reached something of a culmination in an important new book, The Rejection of Continental Drift, by Naomi Oreskes and published by Oxford in 1999."--EOS

About the Author

Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195117336
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195117332
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #983,768 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Naomi Oreskes has written a fascinating explanation of why the American geology community rejected, for half a century, what is the most important unifying principle in geology and arguably of science in the 20th century: continental drift. This book is brilliant storytelling, the history of science at its best.

Of course we all know the right answer. Continental drift seems so intuitively obvious now, the cornerstone of so many of our planet's processes, that it seems incomprehensible any intelligent person could have rejected Alfred Wegener's explanation, first published in 1912. The mystery deepens when we read that the concept was suggested earlier by an American geologist (Taylor) and that several highly respected American geologists did in fact accept it enthusiastically, as did the great majority of geologists in Europe, South Africa, and Australia.

Oreskes lays out for the non-specialist the history of related geological concepts as well as the drift controversy per se. She thoroughly punctures the myth that continental drift was rejected simply because Wegener had not proposed a causal mechanism, even though her citations show that this was used as an excuse after the fact. She explores and convincingly presents the deeper reasons. Her conclusions are not complimentary to either the American psyche nor to the scientific method. (Lord Kelvin's arrogant parochialism, rejecting all field data and bullying geologists with his theoretical calculations based totally on a naive model of simple heat conduction, seems particularly shallow.
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Format: Paperback
This thorough and well written books is a very interesting examination of the idea of continental drift in American geology. Oreskes is particularly interested in the question of why American geoscientists were particularly resistant to the idea of continental drift. This apparently narrow question leads to both an interesting history of continental drift as a theory and some interesting discussion of the what makes scientific theories successful. In terms of the general history of continental drift, there is a really interesting discussion of prior theories of general earth history which connects continental drift with prior general theories of earth history. The age of the earth, whether the earth was cooling or had a major internal heat source, and some major geophysical questions were all part of the important background of continental drift theory. The conventional view of continental drift history casts Alfred Wegener as a heroic outsider ignored by the geologic community and whose ideas triumphed in a fairly abrupt post-WWWII revolution. In fact, Wegener was a widely respected geophysicist, his ideas were anticipated by others, including some American theorists, and his ideas were widely and usually respectfully discussed. Many influential geologists recognized the strength of Wegener's arguments.

There was, however, a distinct difference among different national communities in the reception of the idea of continental drift. Among British and continental European geologists, there was considerably more acceptance of continental drift as a strong idea than among American geologists, Some prominent non-American geologists, like the Engishman Arthur Holmes and the South African Clarence Du Toit, were strong advocates of continental drift.
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Format: Hardcover
I am keenly interested in the science history, and Professor Oreskes has created, in "The Rejection...," the most well-written science book--by far!--I have had the good fortune to encounter. It is remarkably thorough and extraordinarily lucid, yet seems lean in its presentments that made this reader wish for more information, for multiple volumes of this amazing story by this outstanding author. "The Rejection" teaches discovery, history, scientific factions in competition, and it traces as true-to-life drama on an international scale how science really does advance, confound, retreat, and clarify an expanding body of essential knowledge. I recommend this tremendous work to each who has similar interests, and to all who simply appreciate the best of truly outstanding writing.

I lent my copy away, and miss it like a close friend lost.

PD Gonzales
Corvallis, OR
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Format: Paperback
I don't typically review books, but this one strikes me as so good as to require it.

This book has as good an explication of the imperfections of the "scientific method" (as practiced collectively by a discipline) as any book I have ever read. The discussion of the history and philosophy of individual Earth scientists from 1850-1950 is also particularly well done here.

Any practicing geologist will likey find this to be a useful read, and it may also be useful for a graduate class on scientific methodology.
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