The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science
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In the early twentieth century, American earth scientists were united in their opposition to the new--and highly radical--notion of continental drift, even going so far as to label the theory "unscientific." Some fifty years later, however, continental drift was heralded as a major scientific breakthrough and today it is accepted as scientific fact. Why did American geologists reject so adamantly an idea that is now considered a cornerstone of the discipline? And why were their European colleagues receptive to it so much earlier? This book, based on extensive archival research on three continents, provides important new answers while giving the first detailed account of the American geological community in the first half of the century. Challenging previous historical work on this episode, Naomi Oreskes shows that continental drift was not rejected for the lack of a causal mechanism, but because it seemed to conflict with the basic standards of practice in American geology. This account provides a compelling look at how scientific ideas are made and unmade.
proved," he wrote, "we must go back one step further in the earth's geological history and try to unfold a rational hypothesis regarding the configuration of the earth's surface." 40 That, he suggested, was fissiparturition. Unlike many of his geological colleagues, Bowie was clearly sympathetic to theory-driven science, but he recognized that overt advocacy of a particular theory might prove counterproductive. He thus retreated to a rhetorically diffident stance, allowing that "all of this is
nineteenth century, there was substantial pressure for the Survey to justify its continued existence. The 1886 Allison Commission Hearings into the role and organization of science in the federal government (named for the Alabama senator who chaired the proceedings) eventually confirmed the value of the agencies it investigated, but not without first demonstrating that governmental support was predicated on clear evidence of utility.' 6 In 1867, the Coast Survey's powerful director, Alexander
it could have had practically no geological history at all," which obviously was not the case.131 This left three options: it was continuously heating up, it was continuously cooling down, or it was alternately accumulating and discharging heat. "That we are here at all to investigate the problem is sufficient proof that the earth is not continuously growing hotter," Holmes noted dryly. Theories of progressive cooling, on the other hand, while boasting a distinguished pedigree, gave no real
a hard worker was a compliment, not an insult. T. C. Chamberlin was widely recognized by his colleagues as a brilliant man, perhaps a genius, but when he died Bailey Willis denied that he had come to his theories through the flash of insight. Rather, like all good scientists, he came to them through careful and gradual analysis of facts. Discussing the planetesimal hypothesis, Willis wrote that "this fundamental discovery," like all of Chamberlin's important contributions, was "the result of
Europeans achieved scientific rank through privilege or personal fortune, Americans would achieve it through diligence and commitment. And this was not purely a myth or an abstract ideal: although many American scientists hailed from elite backgrounds, many others did not. Chamberlin was the son of a middle-class midwestern preacher; Charles Schuchert, a self-educated son of impoverished immigrants, never attended college yet became a professor at one of America's foremost universities. While