Friday, June 17, 2011

Origin of Plate Tectonic Theory

 The party's over, Rover.  
  ( ... Lifting the wool from the eyes .. )

If you search the web for the origins or history of Plate Tectonic theory you get the wool pulled over your eyes.  Contrary to the proferred geological story, the development of Plate Tectonic theory was virtually wholly sociological in its origins, little to do with geological evidence.  Had it to do with *geo-logic*, it would unequivocally have gone in the direction of Earth expansion.  But it was the social and political contexts back in the days of the Cold War, that pulled it in the wrong direction.  The much vaunted "no mechanism" aimed first at continental drift and later against Earth expansion was just a cop out, .. an excuse to avoid what was obvious even then - that the Earth's crust (in respect of continental drift) had been displaced in relation to the ocean floors, and that (in respect of Earth expansion) it had been dilated, the support for the latter being primarily the continental retrofits on the smaller Earth as proposed by Carey and others.  It was a cop-out because if the path of geo-logic had been followed, research would have included considerations of continental geology instead of just mapping guyots (which Hess was good at) and the topography of the ocean floors generally.  This would have meant putting a big question mark over the funding, which was available, not for abstruse geological research, but for getting on with mapping the ocean floors and dodging guyots, which had military reasons (sailing submarines), not geological ones.

In Europe, the concept of mantle convection with continents riding on top, colliding in some places and pulling apart in others was well known and well accepted well before the Plate Tectonics 'revolution'.  Arthur Holmes textbook 'Principles of Physical Geology', had been a standard student textbook in Britatin at least for fifteen years by the time Plate Tectonics was developing in America. The last chapter of the book was devoted entirely to convection as a hypothesis for mobile crust developing the ocean basins and mountain belts.

However, if we are to read the preface to Naomi Oreskes' book  (1999), 'The rejection of continental drift, theory and method in American science', we would get the impression that American geologists who were wholly responsible for Plate Tectonic theory, might have been oblivious to this.
"..  (By 1978) I had completed two years as a geology major at a leading US university and counted myself lucky to have chosen a field of science heady  in the wake of revolutionary upheaval: geologists around the globe were reinterpreting old data and long-standing problems in the new light of plate tectonics.  It seemed a good time to be an aspiring young Earth scientist.  Imagine my surprise - and dismay -  to discover in England that the radically new idea of plate tectonics had been proposed more than half a century before by a German geophysicist, Alfred Wegener, and widely promoted in the United Kingdom by the leading British geologist of his era, Arthur Holmes.  The revolution that had been described by my professors in the United States as the radical revelation of a dramatically new vision of the Earth was viewed by many of my professors in England as the pleasing confirmation of a long-suspected notion."

How did it happen that Naomi's professors gave her such an impression?  From today's perspective it seems hardly credible that  Wegener's 'continental drift' was not common knowledge in America by the time of 'The Great Plate Tectonics Revolution' in the 60s.   And of course, it isn't (credible).  Nor was it then.  Even in the antipodes, the last stop before the polar wastelands of Antarctica, Sam Carey had been teaching mantle recycling as a model for crustal tectonics for almost two decades before that revolution, before giving it up as unworkable and moving on to the next contextual framework for geological advance - Earth expansion.  It is simply inconceivable that Harry Hess, as one of those "senior geologists", though much earlier than Naomi's day and who would later claim the mantle of Plate Tectonics for himself, or his contemporaries, or those following, would have been unaware of the works of either Arthur Holmes or of Sam Carey; the latter in fact spending some sabbatical time in America at the invitation of Hess.
(Sam Carey [on continental mobility]) : "Through the 30s and 40s and 50s if you dared to propose this sort of thing in America you'd be laughed at, you're a ratbag flat-earther. And there was no chance of getting a job if you had that kind of idea. But by about 1956 I could see the glimmerings of the recognition that something was wrong, and then of course I was invited several times to Princeton. Harry Hess was the Chairman there and he and I became warmest of friends. I always stayed in his home, and in the many lectures I gave in Princeton, Harry realised it had to be, and later he became the leader in selling plate tectonics."   and click 'show transcript'
[ Interestingly, H.W. Menard, 1986, writing from personal recollection on the development of  Plate Tectonics and commenting on how Tuzo Wilson arrived at the idea of transform faults says, "Writing textbooks is not doing what counts, which is one reason why the older scientists in the United States never thought to read Holmes's text of 1944. Revising textbooks is an even drearier patching of new data on old ideas." (The Ocean of Truth', p.243.) ]

A strange observation surely, considering that the structuring of significant data and events is what one does from the perspective of more advanced years, and which by his book is precisely what Menard is himself doing. I guess he means that everybody was creaming themselves over the interpretations of new data to such an extent that everything previous was just indiscriminately swept away.  Maybe too that after coming back to Earth from the stratospheric heights of speculation and realising that the conceptual framework was already common knowledge in sophomoric textbooks, life *was* a bit "dreary".   Best to steer clear of textbooks if you're in America?  (But what about the young guys that were developing this?  )

Oreskes attributes this apparent oblivion of American scientists to the different ways that American and British /European geologists actually do science, telescoping those ways into the words 'inductive'  and 'deductive'.
"My English training and Australian experience had inculcated in me an inductive methodology, in which scientific problems originated in the observation of geological phenomena in the field, but many of my American professors disdained inductive science and what they pejoratively dismissed as "outcrop" geology.  They encouraged me to pursue a deductive strategy, and to rely primarily on the tools of laboraytory analysis.  This was particularly true of younger professors and those who had achieved a high level of professional recognition."
... but I don't think she has it quite right. I think the reasons are far more personal /political than can be explained by dedication to 'method'.  It would appear from historical considerations that those "younger professors" she mentions would have been those riding on the back of the triumphal deductive methodological American way of doing science , .. so to address the question "why the difference?" it would seem that we have to return to the sociology of an earlier day.  But first some clarification of the methodological difference might be in order.

In the inductive method you gather the data and make a judgement how they fit together. It's like doing a jigsaw, but in a kind of 'top-down' way, where previous experience, knowledge and understanding is brought to bear on how the pieces are likely to fit. In other words you build on what you already know.  This cognitive faculty is analogous in a way to being armed with the picture on the front of the box.  You've seen it before (or something like it), you know what it is (or something like it), ..  so where's the problem?   Well, one problem is  that it is seen as highly subjective; one's experience is unique and non-repeatable, and non-repeatability is eschewed in science.  Or to put it another way, science (of the mainstream sort) denies the individual.  'Big Science' is a Team effort, underpinned by institutional kudos.  Repeatability is an aspect of the deductive method consequent on the tools and apparatus of the laboratory.  But in the field of geology, and observation and the intellect of the individual, .. if you *do* know what it is, and you *have* seen it before (or some aspect of the picture on the front of the box), the inductive method works very well.  (Ask Louis Pasteur.) (Or Albert Einstein.) Or indeed the main players devising Plate Tectonics (!) [Note to develop Jack Oliver, Peter Molnar, John Dewey + ?others.]

One order of magnitude down from this is where, absent of Experience Understanding and Knowledge, an explanation of the data is simply formulated, .. fished from the air as a best guess as it were,  and tested against the data. The potential for circularity and junk (formulating conclusions around original assumptions) is obvious, but neverthless this method enjoys respectable currency as 'the scientific method'.  The obvious problem lies again in the guesswork, in the quality of hypothesis used to explain the facts.  Anybody can have an idea, after all, .. indeed usually more than one, .. and more than one typically does fit the facts.  So which idea is better than another? .. the one that might appear to fit the facts better?  .. or the one proferred by greater experience, authority and knowledge?  And who amonst those lacking such cognitive 'preparation' as advocated by Mr Pasteur, will be the arbiter?  And if all ideas /hypotheses are partly right (according to the method of multiple working hypotheses) what is the underlying synthesis, the explanation, ..the paradigm, incorporating all?  And how is this to be distinguished from 'just another idea'?

And then there is the 'deductive' approach where any allusion to the 'picture on the front of the box' is purposely eschewed.  Attention is given wholly to fitting the 'contours and matching patterns'  of the pieces themselves: the jigsaw is built from the bottom up as it were. The key thing here, is that it is not the *perceived* matching that is important, but the *actual* matching - in other words the degree of certainty involved, not one's perception of it.

This approach is admirably suited to the technological aspect of laboratory science - we stand back and let the tools do the job of unequivocally matching the contours and patterns of the pieces, e.g., the use of computers to do large calculations on large amounts of data.  The 'hands-off' objective approach thus offered is lauded.  However this deductive method suffers similarly from two things, firstly the 'being driven by the machinery' syndrome, i.e., the indiscriminate use of, and inappropriate reliance on, tools.  In geophysics this is the 'black box' syndrome; ..  because a tool was used, the interpreted result must, because it was objectively derived, be valid.  Secondly (which is really much a restatement of the same problem) the hubris of their drivers, exemplified in the garbage-in garbage-out factor and wacky interpretations that purport to be significant by those explaining their data.

Technology that can infallibly match contours and patterns of 'jigsaw pieces' is of course a boon to science  By all means we should stand back and let the algorithms of search-and-match do their stuff.  But we have to know that the designers are competent, and in particular that they are not failing to take account of alternative patterns of matching.  There is more than a little irony in Plate Tectonics claiming validity on account of the technologies that defined "sea-floor spreading when that 'spreading', inclusive of what is happening along the ridge as well as across it, also axiomatically defines the growth of an expanding Earth.  It is also disturbing that Plate Tectonics hides behind the gratuitous shibboleth of "no mechanism" and retreats from discovery, when evidential reality points in the direction that a mechanism should be sought.  As an explanation of natural phenomena "no mechanism" has no place in science, but going where no man has gone before is a (highly) risky business in science.  The mantra offers security by closing off no-go areas of research.

No greatly sophisticated aparatus or deductive methodology is needed to confirm the upwards growth of the ocean floors.  It is as obvious at a glance as continental fits support separation in the Atlantic.  Are we to believe that this simple observation of along-ridge spreading there and elsewhere was overlooked by those developing Plate Tectonic theory? I think not. I think this is the unspoken lie (of omission) of Plate Tectonics that will torpedo the Big Ship, because it goes to the heart of the difference between sea-floor *spreading* and sea-floor *growth*, and chooses growth as the logical option, thus negating convection as the driver for Plate Tectonics .

We wait to see therefore what geophysicists will invent to deny this (for they haven't done thus far; they seem oblivoious to this implication) just as they denied Wegener his continental drift, and Carey his expanding Earth.  Having twice before snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by self-serving denial, what aspect of deductive 'rationalism' will it take for geophysicists to overcome their denial this time, to once again claim (eventually) as theirs Earth expansion as the forward position of deductive Earth science?

What will it take?  Again we get some idea from Naomi Oreskes' assessment of the sociology of the day:-
"The choices these scientists made, moreover, were self-ratifying.  American earth scientists chose not to pursue the field-based observational evidence relevant to the question of continental drift; instead they solicited the partronage of private institutions and miliary bureaucracies in support of instrument-driven science. Not surprisingly, then, little new observational evidence in support of the theory was gathered, while reams of instrumental data were.  And when these instrumental data were made public and their support of moving continents became evident, earth scientists were satisfied that they had made the right choice.  Yet had the Navy not been interested in supporting marine geophysics - had submarine warfare not existed - earth scientists would necessarily have taken a different route, and perhaps been well satisfied with that too."

[ H.W.Menard, 1986   " ..Moreover, success had become a trap.  An astonishing fleet of research ships had been created, and it had hungry crews.  Research laboratories were proliferating, and into them flocked eager graduate students who needed support.  In Washington agencies were created to grant funding.  The accepted way to finance a few kilobucks of thought by a senior scientist was to spend a megabuck at sea, and that took lots of time.   ('The Ocean of Truth', p.297) ]   (.. and money : me)

... from which it would seem to take some fortuitous coupling of technological apparatus and the security of funding to support its development to tell us what, from a much simpler and inductive commonsense coupling, is clearly apparent - that the Earth's crust has indeed been distended by the extents of the ocean floors.  Hopefully the background of war will not be an additional sociological ingredient, as previously was the case.  For it was *exactly* in this wartime coupling (and funding) that lay the evolution of Plate Tectonics; and whence better for that security of funding (in the days of the cold war) than from military sources through the tools that had proved their wartime use?

Moving on from this particular circumspection to questions of more geological import the question then arises, what difference would it have made had Hess (as captain /admiral of the Big Ship) accepted Carey's inductive *geo-logical* conclusion of Earth expansion, instead of as he did, reverting to the well known convective model of Holmes?  Hess did after all recognise the value of inductive empirical geology of Earth expansion in solving his three most pressing problems regarding the evolution of the ocean floors.  .. So why did he not go with it? 

Personally I think again the answer comes back to the security of funding.  Hess as a senior naval man knew full well that who pays the piper calls the tune, and that in the political milieu of the day the military were solely interested in securing and maintaining dominance, not answers to questions whether the Earth was expanding or not, nor even if ocean floors were spreading. The new tools that had been developed during the war for detecting ocean depths and the presence of submarines were obviously ones to develop in a new era of Cold War tension, where submarines were now armed with nuclear warheads and the threat of massive annihilation at the press of a psychopathic military button, was very real.  

Menard (Ibid. p.38) writes : -
"Before the war there were three oceanographic laboratories in the Unites States: Scripps, Woods Hole, and the University of Washington.  They had a total budget of less than $250,000. and with it supported three ships.  In 1948 the Navy poured about $600,000 into oceanographic laboratories, which was a sizeable expansion even after allowing for inflation.  Up to 1958 it spent a total of $46 million on academic research in oceanography.  The number of laboratories multiplied, and the Navy spent about $300 million for ships, facilities and equipment.  The Navy disbursements for three laboratories of the most interest here are shown in Table 1.

Lab          1948      1950     1952     1954      1956     1958        Total

WHOI       300       550     1,100    1,020     1,420    1,300      10,600
LGO           35       410        420       360     1,040       520        4,600
SIO           200       305     1,010       450     2,040    1,040        9,900

"By the end of the decade, NSF money was becoming abundant, and Scripps also received significant funding from the State of California.  The first decade of postwar expansion, to 1958, was only the beginning.  In the next seven years the Federal support for SIO and WHOI would triple to more than $10 million per year.  The total for all academic oceanography from ONR and NSF would reach $25 million per year = just 100 times what it ad been in 1941.   In 1948 no one knew that this would happen.  Even then, when funding had only doubled, Columbus Iselin, Director of Woods Hole, wrote, "The effects of this great outpouring of money on oceanography are by no means all healthy.  In the first place nobody knows how long it will last."  (SIO= Scripps Institute of Oceanography; WHOI=Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; LGO=Lamont Geological Observatory. NSF=National Science foundation?) "

How long it would last would depend on the reason for it.  The degree of funding, both directly by the Navy and by specially created Federal grants committees, suggests that it would last as long as Cold War exigencies deemed it necessary.  Military imperatives one way and another would have been central to funding.  Any geological understanding that may emerge was entirely spin-off, and had to be regarded as such by those dependent on it (if not the public paying for it).  There was a need to keep the focus on the ocean floors, and the methodologies that defined them.  Reds were under beds everywhere, and the navy was equipped to  nuke 'em, provided they didn't bump into seamounts, the ocean floor, or other submarines of opposing sort.  In terms of providing the funding for exploration of the ocean floors, Harry Hess, captain of the the Big ship, was (to the community of geophysicists) unquestionably an *admirable* hero.  No question.  If Hess's wartime experience had not happened, and Hess's military rank (as captain and later admiral) not been considerable, it is highly probable that Plate Tectonics would never, .. *could* never, have arisen in the face of the emerging geological paradigm of Earth expansion.  As Oreskes (above) rightly observes,  "Earth scientists would necessarily have taken a different route, and perhaps been well satisfied with that too."

"Different route"?  There was only one alternative - the one that Plate Tectonics has resolutely refused to countenance (Earth expansion), because to do so would be to admit that the Big Ship of physics didn't have a clue about mechanism, .. and *that* (in terms of funding) was a no-go area back then.  The same is still true today.

It is easy to make a case for Plate Tectonics being a classic example of "being used by your machinery", and Earth science being turned from its 'natural philosophy' inductive roots towards a tool-driven methodology of enquiry.  But as much as anything the course of Earth science exploration was determined by the political / sociological climate of those earlier days when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when later Russia would threaten America in the space race. Military spending from the Cold War to Star Wars has ensconced physics in the driving seat of Earth science, and ensured the survival of deductive methods that have given us the rag-bag apology of Plate Tectonics as a geological model for crustal tectonics and even, as a sop to a barking public seeking 'value for money', the hyped imperative to look for it on other planets. But even though it has provided for many "the gift that keeps on giving", the geological return from it has been poor despite claims to the contrary.  Worse than poor in fact, since it has spawned a false consensus that will require unlearning.

Plate Tectonics has given us starkly contradictory multiple working hypotheses that have served the Earth sciences very poorly, .. that have simply led us up the garden path.  Most of all it has been derelict in its scientific duty of falsification, in failing to give any billing whatsoever to alternative views, especially (amongst other things) the incontrovertible fact (apparent to anyone) that the spreading ridges through geological time have got longer along their length as well as across them, ..  and that transform faults are the brittle expression of this adjustment to growth,  and are *NOT* the so-called "new class of faults" expressing tramrails of convectional mantle flow as continents have separated, as advocated by Mr Wilson.  (Googlesearch : -  Tuzo Wilson, "a new class of faults").  If ever there was a case of the expedient scientific finagle, a magic rabbit from the geophysical hat to maintain a false assumption, this is one - second only to the choice of subduction over its natural alternative, overriding.

It is time to recognise that Plate Tectonics is long past its use-by, that its roots in military funding imposed a myopia that much hampered exploration of important geological questions by keeping the focus on the ocean floors rather than on their relationship to the continents, and that there is a need therefore for Earth science to return to its traditional (inductive) geo-*logical* roots.  In many ways the larger-scale geological questions *can* only be approached by guesswork, and until such time as computers can truly simulate the higher functions of the human brain, logic steered by rational assessment remains the best tool for the job - a tool that from the many contradictions of Plate Tectonics has been woefully absent in the development of that model.  Despite the obvious advantages that technology offers to science, the limitations of deductive methods of tool-driven exploration in Earth science should be recognised, not in regard to the tools themselves which are exemplary, but for the expediencies underlying their use that for decades have maintained a demonstrably false consensus, whose 'success' is unremarkable for anything other than it pays mortgages along the road that leads up the garden path.

Which is laudable enough as regards those who live in the garden, .. but the barking public dog might have something to growl about.

(And piss on the lamp post!)

See also blog for Earth expansion at :-]


  1. I'd just like to highlight this: "Hess as a senior naval man knew full well that who pays the piper calls the tune, and that in the political milieu of the day the military were solely interested in securing and maintaining dominance, not answers to questions whether the Earth was expanding or not, nor even if ocean floors were spreading."

    I'm not knowledgeable about Harry Hess and his times and works. But what you're describing here - whether a good thing or less so - is just how our world works. An excellent idea to trace this theory back to its all-too-real, sociological origins!

  2. Had the geological questions been addressed (instead of trying to finagle some way to deny them - replacing them instead with a liberal measure of "philosophical dissatisfaction" and some "geopoetry" laced with "no mechanism") we'd have more of a framework to be asking questions about the origins of matter, and its transmutation into the various sorts of 'stuff' we call rock. As it is we have the word 'lava', which is another word that helps us avoid the issue, because when you put all the escaped volatiles back in, and repressurise it, what is it exactly like, .. this 'lava', .. this 'ignimbrite', in terms of *physical chemistry* (/ atomic physics) instead of geological playdough? Or as Plate Tectonics would have it with its 'convection', .. "mild steel" ??

    You really do have to wonder, .. about the science v. the sociological.