- 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 (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #812,079 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science 1st Edition
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"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 at New York University.
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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. Holmes articulated a mechanistic model of drift that anticipated many of the features of modern plate tectonics and Du Toit provided powerful geologic evidence for drift. Even some important American geologists, like Reginald Daly (a Canadian by origin), entertained drift. By the end of the 1920s, however, the American geoscience community has largely rejected drift. Why did Americans reject drift so firmly?
Oreskes looks to a combination of factors. These include a distinctly American tradition of resistance to major deductive theoretical approaches to geohistory, another distinctly American emphasis on pluralism in developing hypotheses, a sometimes dogmatic emphasis on uniformitarianism, and what might be called a bad case of physics envy. For reasons that Oreskes lays out well, American geophysicists played a prominent role in rejection of continental drift. Despite the strong traditional geologic data for drift, geologists tended to be deferential to geophysical arguments. This combination of factors led to resistance to the idea of drift that was overcome only in the postwar period. The apparent sudden shift in American attitudes towards continental drift is less a Kuhnian paradigm shift than something of a generational change and American geologists catching up with the rest of the world. Oreskes has some nice discussions of what the history of American rejection and later acceptance of drift means for theories of scientific progress.
One factor that Oreskes may underplay is the role of general contingent factors like the Great Depression and WWI. In reading her account of the relevant research in the 1930s, one gets the impression that impressions were starting to shift in the 30s. I wonder if the Great Depression reduced the volume of geologic research and slowed the pace of change. The outbreak of WWII shifted the attention of geologists. Normal research did not resume until well after the war. Without the Great Depression and WWII, change might have come much earlier and appear less abrupt.
I lent my copy away, and miss it like a close friend lost.
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.) Remarkably, the author manages to present a sympathetic side to the human dilemmas of the story, while not at all mitigating the really profound implications of a story that goes far beyond geology - the weakness, even fragility, of the scientific method.
This masterfully told story suggests a paraphrase of arch-conservative William F. Buckley's critique of capitalism and capitalists: the trouble with science is scientists.
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This book has as good an explication of the imperfections of the "scientific...Read more