Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jack Oliver and the Passing Parade

"All of the pieces suddenly made sense - *if * you believed plate tectonics was going on"

The above quote  from the obituaries noting the recent passing of Jack Oliver, one of the few remaining fathers of Plate Tectonics, is a rather illuminating one for the uncertainty couched in the iffy qualification in the tail of the statement, which makes it perfectly clear which way round the status and logic of the present consensus of Plate Tectonics should be read, and for which the current generation of Plate Tectonicists will probably not thank him.  But then the Grim Reaper has a way of extracting honesty when he makes his rounds.

[D.F. - The posting says, "All of the pieces suddenly made sense if you believed plate tectonics was going on," said Larry D Brown, a professor of geological sciences at Cornell who was a former student of Oliver.  <and this from Lynn R. Sykes>   " I had been told as an undergraduate at M.I.T. that good scientists did not work on foolish ideas like continental drift,” recalled Lynn Sykes, an emeritus professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia. <...>    Dr. Sykes said he thought that his adviser, Jack Oliver, was also not a believer in continental drift.  ."]

Well, ..of course "all the pieces make sense if you believe Plate Tectonics is going on".   So do all the gifts that appear under the Christmas tree make perfect sense too, if you believe in Santa Clause.  And the shiny coin under the pillow if you believe in the tooth fairy.  And crop rings if you are into UFOs. There is no end to the power of belief in making things make sense.  And rightly so, since it underpins the religious institutions of the world.

Belief however is not a credible foundation for science  You begin with the facts, and for all that the facts are notoriously difficult to divorce from one's perception of them, you try your hardest to do exactly that.  Belief, if ever that condition should be allowed to colour the scientific mindset, develops only by the most critical (and honest) analysis of what you think you know, and why you think it, and should always be held at arms length in any case; rational thought, not belief, is the hallmark of science.  Belief is for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.  It has no place in science.

He puts it very well, does he not?  ...and no doubt very intentionally so too.  To my way of reading it highlights the uncertainty that the fathers of Plate Tectonics must have felt when trying to grapple with a problem that most nowadays don't give a second thought to, since we already have an answer packaged and supplied, which was the implication that followed from the realisation that the ocean floors were everywhere young,  that the Earth must have enlarged by the extents of the ocean floors since Mesozoic times.  The force of this must also have been emphasised by exactly this position being vigourously asserted by Sam Carey <also Google-up>.  

However, rather than confront the detailed geological evidence that supported this (as described by Carey), the grapplers took the shortcut as they had done before with Wegener, and took refuge in their own ignorance claiming "No Mechanism", and in a classic case of narcissistic reversal, heaped the substance of their ignorance on the victim, saying in effect, "We can't think of a mechanism and you can't either,  .. and what's more, ..we are masters of the college", a claim given some weight at the time by the awe in which physics was held following the recent advances in understanding the atom.

And in essence that is the state of affairs of Plate Tectonics today, a triumph of ignorance in geophysical understanding of the interior workings of the planet (that we can't see) over the empirical surface geological facts that result from it (that we can see), which  are telling us in no uncertain terms the Earth has indeed got bigger.  Very suddently.  Very recently.

Or maybe not, if you are a paid-up member of the aforesaid Congregation, and  "believe Plate Tectonics is going on..."

For even then not everyone involved in the "New Global Tectonics" did, notably Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp who put together the maps of the ocean floors. It is a brave voice however, that is prepared to make a stand for certitude bred of ignorance, ..that for which we have no explanation today, but for which we may have an explanation tomorrow. It smacks too much of religious faith.  Evidently that was not a course the Big Ship of physics was prepared to chart, .. to admit ignorance in the face of the facts and leave clarification to the future, and so it invented a solution and adjusted the facts to suit.

Facts lacking explanation do not easily find their way into scientific debate, but by the same token, whatever their beguiling colour, shape or form, explanations should not be held paramount over the facts.  Facts rule, ..particularly when they are geological ones that embrace all scales, compared to the raw facts of geophysics, which when boiled down amount to little more than the trace of the shake of a shaky pen at the end of a seismograph when an earthquake happens - fertile ground indeed for all sorts of imaginings and hypothesising, ... "if you believed plate tectonics was going on."

..The trace of the shake of a shaky pen...    A fact?  Or a representation of a fact.  And what value then the pyramid of assumptions and assertions balanced on its inverted tip?

(Belief, ..the opus moderandum powering the Big Ship, ..The Noah's Ark for the Congregation of  Plate Tectonics. One has to wonder where it's 'Mount Ararat' will be, ..when the waters run off from underneath it, and leave it high and dry, and it finally has to face the reality - of run-off from a once Big Flat Land.   Was Mount Ararat really a mountain?  Or the sea floor....  ??

[ See also Expanding Earth blog at  ]

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