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September 25, 2010


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Innocent? Great tale making a good point. Nicely presented, too. Final question is fascinating. What do you think?

What a great anecdote, thanks for sharing it. I think that's one of the greatest challenges in education -- how to facilitate learning experiences tohat foster critical thinking and analysis skills that we all need!

Your question about the impact of the blogosphere is an interesting one. I bet it would not have significantly affected the outcome or timing of the plate tectonics debate among geoscientists; however the general public might have been slower to accept it due to the easy access to online misinformation and pseudoscience.

Interesting thinking about how the geoblogosphere would have been handling the new ideas. It's easy to say we'd all be open minded, but that's not how revolutions work, really. (Kuhn.) And it's a lot easier when younger, I think, to accept new ideas - not so much previous research time and effort invested, as with some of my undergrad profs. They were good, but not open, and could find the weaknesses because they knew a lot. So, I didn't see much of plate tectonics until one grad course taken as an undergrad in 1975. And then Dewey and Pittman came to lecture for three days at the USGS (later in 1975), and my eyes were opened. Before then, it was all geosynclines for me!

Interesting comments, thanks. 1975?! John Dewey was one of the cast of Cambridge characters when I was there both as an undergraduate and a graduate student (I was seduced back to do my PhD with Alan Smith, working in Greece - an opportunity that I couldn't refuse).

But to the question - one that I've been thinking about since I posed it. There are, it seems to me, a couple of key differences between now and the late 1960s - time and political context. When I referred to rhetoric and zealotry, I didn't have today's geoblogosphere in mind - we seem to be a civil and generally thoughtful and respectful community. Rather, I was thinking about the so-called "debate" about climate science that goes on in today's blogosphere, one that I have been looking into of late. This seems to be an arena in which the freedom of expression that the internet offers is routinely abused, and that what could and should be a genuine scientific discussion degrades into ignorant diatribes.

But there is one of the differences: much more is at stake in climate science than was the case with tectonic theory fifty years ago: politics, policy-making, and funding are not influenced by the fact that Europe and North America will be physically 50 cm further apart twenty years from now - cultural evolution will be far more effective. Plate theory was largely a debate within the scientific world rather than the world at large. But the internet involves the world at large, and plate tectonics was a heresy in every sense of the word: given today's conflict between science and creationism/intelligent design, it seems to me entirely possible that the proponents of plate tectonics would have attracted abuse and that the "debate" would have escalated.

There would have been, as today, pluses and minuses: the scientific discussion, the battles of evidence and ideas, would have taken place more actively and rapidly if enabled by the blogosphere, rather than waiting for conferences and publications. Students would have become more immediately aware of the issues and undoubtedly put pressure on recalcitrant professors to review them. And perhaps time is a difference here. A "chicken and egg" question arises: would the tone of blogosphere discussions have been inherently less abusive fifty years ago - have the cultural norms of free expression evolved, as reflected by the intellectually enfeebled rants that are common today, or has it simply been the availability of the blogosphere that has given voice to what is fundamentally a less than admirable aspect of human nature?

Oh dear - there's another question...

I guess I'll end with a couple of quotations. The first I recently came across is from Les Back, a professor of sociology in the UK, talking about not-unrelated issues: "Our political debates do not suffer from too much doubt but from too much certainty. The task of thinking is to live with doubt in the service of understanding, rather than living with certainty in the preservation of ignorance. Name-calling is not thinking. The temptation to dismiss the view of one’s opponents as “drivel” or “rubbish” is strong but misguided."

And then, as always, Richard Feynman: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

You have made some very good points and raised great questions. What comes (probably too quickly) to mind is the thought that the times are part of the answer.

I think the contents of the issue at hand may play a very weighty role, however. Why did Chas. Darwin wait so long to publish? It may have been the nineteenth century blogosphere pressing on him. It was kind of slow as spheres go today but it sure did its job. And Galileo? I can't help but wonder if perceived threat to our exalted position in the cosmic hierarchy fuels loss of objectivity. Or the ability to capitalize on same. Seems to have sticking power, too. When was the Scopes trial?

Richard Feynman cannot be over quoted.

"Benford's law of controversy," from Gregory Benford's 1980 novel Timescape, states that "Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available."
In fact however, passion is equally prevalent among the highly informed, and your experience could have been as bad as Freeman Dyson's:
I am inclined to suspect that science and society intersect most painfully when money is involved. Even Galileo's and Darwin's foes could see a threat to their jobs. And the blogosphere's influence becomes tangible when multiplied by monetized media: television, print, politicians (a form of marketing), etc.

Money, reputation, "prestige" - and hubris - all make for painful intersections. But so many of the controversies in science are humorous in retrospect (as Dyson's story so eloquently illustrates)and the stories make for great entertainment. Tony Hallam's book, "Great Geological Controversies" is a most enjoyable read.

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