Thursday, February 3, 2011

Big Lie #8 Oblivion - The Hero's Journey

"The most powerful lie is the lie by omission"

Let's be very, very clear about this. The reason why Plate Tectonics was developed as a theory did not come from any astute evaluation of the geology.  It developed precisely *in spite of* astute geological evaluation.  It developed because Hess could not accept expansion despite it removing his three most serious dificulties in dealing with the evolution of the ocean basins, claiming it to be (according to him) "philosophically unsatisfying" (on account of a lack of a mechanism).
Hess, (1962):-
"..While this [expansion] would remove three of my most serious difficulties in dealing with the evolution of ocean basins, I hesitate to accept this easy way out. First of all, it is philosophically rather unsatisfying in much the same way as were the older hypotheses of continental drift, in that there is no apparent mechanism within the Earth to cause a sudden (and exponential according to Carey) increase in the radius of the Earth. .."
[The second reason was about the extra water needed - see Hollywood Cowboys post]
...and so he tarred it with the same 'no mechanism' brush as had previously been done with Wegener's observations of palaeogeological reconstructions for continental displacement ( 'drift' by the way was the term others attached to Wegener's work).  Hess's reason was "philosophical dissatisfaction", ..nothing to do with the geological facts that Hess (according to his admission that it would explain his three most serious difficulties) nevertheless clearly found intrinsically appealing.

A point for today's Plate Tectonicists to consider, ensconced as they are in the certainty of Plate Tectonics, is what would have happened had Hess overcome his "hesitation" and accepted those points.  Not only would his view have aligned with that of others who favoured expansion, notably Carey, but also with that of Heezen, Tharp, reportedly Jack Oliver; Tuzo Wilson (before his capitulation to the Plate Tectonics camp), and no doubt others who would then have seen which way the wind was blowing. The Earth Sciences would almost certainly be fifty years further advanced in the direction of expansion. There would be no Plate Tectonics theory, and no derived, abortive geological explanations  - no mountains built of colliding plates, no plates even, possibly not even any convection.  It would also have forced the physics community to address their destitute lack of understanding of the physical processes that caused the Earth to rapidly extrude a mantle bubble the like of which there was no precedent in Earth history.  And possibly by now there would indeed be understanding of a 'mechanism'.

Or would it?  Was Hess so big, that he could have had such an influence as coercing the physics establishment to put their house in order and find one?  As it was, Hess's "hesitation" (/"philosophical dissatisfaction") led him to choose the 'lose-lose' option : "We (/I) can't think of a reason; you can't have your geology".

It is difficult to assess the full legacy of this.  On the theoretical side certainly, there is half a century of misadventure in the Earth sciences (and a commensurate waste of resources) that will need to be revised.  Economically could be included the dearth of supply to the labour market following the drop in enrollments leading to the closure of geology departments, because students see little point in studying a subject that has little more than kindergarten 'soup-in-a-pot, rumplecloth' appeal underpinning it, ..that has arrived at its destination and has nowhere else to go.  As well there is the stymying of research in physics that might explain a rapid massive mantle blow-out of the planet.

Who knows?...    Given the drama described by Moores at Carey's lecture, Hess's 'hesitation' may simply have been due to the 'not invented here' syndrome.  Hess was a geologist concerned with the geophysics of the ocean floors.  Carey was a geologist of global orientation who had not only been teaching Plate Tectonics for twenty years but had, with good reason, discarded it as unworkable, and moved on to convincingly demonstrate that from a geological perspective expansion was the only viable option.

So what was going on? What *is* going on still?   Hess with his 'convection' in 1962 after all was essentially just making a pitch for the standard status quo of continental drift that had been in Arthur Holmes book Principles of Physical Geology since 1944, and which was a standard student text (and Carey by 1956 had been teaching for twenty years).  What subtexts were at work that made Hess turn away from Carey's forward position that would overcome his (Hess's) three main problems, and choose the lose-lose option?

Here's what I think is the reason.  Almost certainly Hess would have placed himself in an extremely precarious position had he accepted Carey's conclusion. And would have known it.  Right or wrong was not the issue.  Carey was a free-thinking flamboyant maverick of a geologist with a big idea and even bigger geological data to support it, and was visiting from the other side of the world.  Hess, a geophysicist, was by all accounts much more reserved and conservative, and was reportedly struggling to understand his ocean-floor data, which only clicked when the penny dropped with the publication in 1960 of Bruce Heezen's (who favoured expansion) work in the Atlantic.  (For the resistance Heezen's work generated, and the pivotal role played by Marie Tharp, read this.) It was all very well for Carey to propose expansion (and even soundly support it with empirical geological data). It was quite another for a resident (geo-) physicist "to catch that particular infection" (Armstrong quote in 'cowboys' post), and have to cite it to a funding body on his home turf as a basis for research. Such would almost certainly have been committing what some saw Carey (albeit from the other side of the world) as already having done - "professional suicide".
"..From 1930 to 1960 a scientist who supported it knowingly committed academic hara-kiri. S. W. Carey of Tasmania, a major figure in igniting the revolution, could not get his papers published in reputable scientific journals in the 1950s. "He had to run them off on a mimeograph machine and distribute them himself," Wilson says.  (By Robert Dean Clark, Society of exploration geophysicists).
Why should Carey have been perceived as "committing professional suicide"?  After all, according to Moores, Carey had blown their minds with his exposition of palaeomagnetism and polar wander paths to the extent of obviating all further discussion on the point, and Moores and Armstrong both conceded Carey's pivotal role in formulating Plate Tectonics.  What Carey had done, surely, was the stuff of the cutting edge (what's more, he followed it up by writing three books on the subject).  Why should that have been regarded as professional suicide?  Far from it, Carey's place in the history of Earth science is assured.

And why was Tuzo Wilson himself warned that he "was headed for the wrong side of the scientific tracks" by choosing geology over physics?  "at [a] time [when] students were told what they could bloody-well do"?  [And, by inference, what they couldn't].  Whatever it was, it would certainly seem to shed light on the scientific establishment's intolerance of  innovation, and the importance of 'institutional kudos'. Funding is perhaps not uppermost in the public's mind when they think of science and scientists, but it most assuredly is for those who have chosen it as a career.

And here we must  reflect briefly on this much: Science is a thing unto itself and chooses the people who do it, by setting a high bar of commitment.  

It is very important here to recognise the schism between the 'geo' and the 'physics' on which this argument for expansion turns.  The positive arguments for expansion lie in the empricial geology; refutation lies, not in any positive achievement of physics (or geophysics), but in the FAILURE of physics to understand how it can happen.  'Geo' - 'physics'.  (+   - )  =  0  (Neutered.)

Surely we can (and must!) commend Carey for his geological acumen and commitment to his conviction of global expansion, ..for speaking up forcefully for geology, ..but we must also spare a thought for Hess and see the difficulty he would have been in had he adopted Carey's position. [Edit revision here in relation to "Hess as geo-physicist":- Basically the reason seems to have been simply the 'not-invented-here' syndrome, as well as giving legitimacy to the "No Mechanism" bugbear of expansion in the face of the emerging importance of geophysics.]  It was all very well for Carey, a geologist from the other side of the world, to talk, but for Hess, a senior figure in an enterprise heavily involved in geophysics to give it legitimacy could have been fatal to his career.  In my view it was this realisation that focussed Hess's mind keenly on the need to reject expansion. He had little choice.  Even today it is an area that invites professional suicide for those 'career artists' who might venture into it.

Thus we can understand the "hesitation" (denial even), from a physics point of view.  But not from a geological one.  It is not cloth-headedness that makes geologists go along with Plate Tectonics, but pure expediency.  Few would take the route Carey did for the sake of geological principle, and Carey might not either had his position in far-off Tasmania been apparently secure. Expediency begets necessity; Carey did after all withdraw elements from his thesis, that as a graduate student he knew if included would have cost him his degree.  Carey well knew the heat in the potato he was holding, and the challenge it posed to the establishment in general, and to Hess in particular, and would therefore have also well undertstood Hess's dilema.  Whether he was sympathetic or not is another matter.  My guess is he probably was, though with some natural misgivings regarding what we might call the 'workings of the system'.

I do wonder therefore, ..was Hess doing the heroic thing under the circumstances and talking in code, when he conceded that expansion would remove his three most serious problems?  After all, he needn't have said that. Was he in fact throwing out a message-in-a-bottle so to speak, to the geological community when facing his moment of truth and the realisation that in having to choose the lose-lose option he was going to have to scuttle his Big Ship, or, which amounted to much the same thing, have it fated to sail the geological seas like the Marie Celeste, a ghost whose geophysical achievements would be forever consigned to oblivion in the face of the geological storm that appeared to be looming on the horizon?  That concession from Hess of a 'three-problems solution' was no small thing.  It is one too that subsequent comment has gone to considerable trouble to eradicate. To the best of my knowledge all retrospectives focus on Hess's "rejection by no mechanism", and ignore his coded(?) "acceptance of expansion" that would solve his problems in understanding the evolution of the ocean basins.

"The most powerful lie is the lie by omission"
 ~ George Orwell

 Lie?  Certainly one that Hess could not explicitly state. It is also one that the current crop of Plate Tectonicists would do well to consider when contemplating the foundation of their 'no-mechanism' position.  "No mechanism" has no place in science, concerned as it is with the collection and collation of observable empirical facts, and no geologist should be conned by that mantra. To cite "no mechanism" over the geological evidence is to support the wall-eyed ignorance of physics and to advertise ignore-ance of the geological facts - and the principles on which it is founded.

Hess, by putting the +  and the -  together like that was laying bare his dilema, and by both = 0 thereby stating that he had virtually no option but to stay with the status quo and reject expansion, for otherwise was to commit the hara-kiri Carey was perceived to be doing. From a geological perspective of course Hess would have been doing no such thing, but from a physics perspective he was. Was this why he jumped from his seat in agitation?  Bruce Heezen (geologist / oceanographer) working in the Atlantic had already published on the huge dilation there and, Hess knew, supported expansion.  Indeed it was that very work on which Hess built his own.  But then it wasn't Heezen providing the grand synthesis and bludgeoning the audience with it. Hess would probably also have known the trouble that Heezen's work was landing him in ("read this" link above).

What was Hess to do?  What he in fact did (in terms of mechanism) was to simplistically restate convection in terms already well known, and attempt to taint others' views in terms identical to those levelled against Wegener forty years earlier - of "continents ploughing through the oceans etc etc."
"..The continents do not plow through oceanic crust impelled by unknown forces; rather they ride passively on mantle material as it comes to the surface at the crest of the ridge and then moves laterally away from it."
...exactly as Holmes had stated it in 1944 (and earlier in 1928).  Hess was saying nothing new here.  In my view it was wrong of him, in 1962, to represent by then current views of convection the way he did, but in context we can see why he might have done so - and why others in review might have allowed him to; indeed might have tacitly encouraged him to.  For all the ostentatious trumpeting, invention of a new vernacular, and prize-givings etc., that have gone on since, convection as represented by Hess - indeed even as it is understood today, is little different from Holmes' day.  The way I see it, it was an attempt to tart up the 'geo' element  of geophysics in order to deflect attention away from the destitute-in-knowledge 'physics' part, by people who didn't seem to have much of a clue as to the Pandora's Box of geological conundrums they were opening by doing so.

Or perhaps they exactly did, .. and were far more willing to face the geological conundrums than consequences of the physics ones. 

And that is the reason why I think Plate Tectonics exists today, a blousy old lush of an empress, tarted up in incongruous geological rags for anyone who fancies having their geophysical way with her - a mute lush for all seasons, stood over by an ignorant pimp.  

Seen against this background the prizes for Plate Tectonics and calls for prizes are little more than a cop-out, .. sustenance for scientists afraid to face the unknown when facing it spells oblivion for whoever does.  The receiver is the fall-guy, the sacrifical lamb.  It is the audience that applauds, who benefits.

Basically, geophysicists are in a bind.  They cannot use geological evidence to support expansion even if they believed it, for basically the same reason Hess couldn't.  It's actually in a double bind because of the way that physics operates.  Physicists proceed from hypothesised mechanism (as many as are needed) to explain the facts (and Plate Tectonics embodies many that are contradictory).  Geologists proceed from the facts, and using the Principle of Uniformitarianism, conclude mechanism (if mechanism must be known). But the lack of known mechanism in no way subverts the arrangement of the facts, if that arrangement is made according to sound logical principles.

So long as geologists allow the tail of physics to wag this dog, there will be no advance.  Everyone will be the loser.  

Plate Tectonics as an achievement?  (I think I'll go fishing...) (..with me mate George.)


[ See also Expanding Earth blog at  ]

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