Everything you’ve always understood about science being self-correcting, becoming more accurate all the time as new evidence comes in? Well, that’s absolutely true. At least, it is true over the long term. BUT…
According to James Lawrence Powell in his new book, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth, if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that a new, more accurate theory about a pivotal aspect of science will be fought tooth and nail and resisted with considerable vehemence, not to mention ridicule, possibly for decades, until it is rather abruptly and matter-of-factly accepted as the obvious truth. At least, that’s how it was for four of the most important theories in the history of science, relating to the nature and history of the earth itself.
This probably happens with “smaller” theories too, where one scientist clings to an older theory about the mechanisms of an obscure single cell, while another scientist provides evidence for a different mechanism. But when it comes to the Biggies—theories that are foundational, that account for the environment in which billions of other scientific events take place—oh, those are going to be fought over, you’d better believe it.
The four divisions in Powell’s book sum up these theories very nicely: Deep Time (the age of the earth), Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics, Meteorite Impact (did it happen? can it happen again?), and Global Warming. One by one over a century or two, each of these concepts intruded into the scientific world view, each of them, in a way, setting the stage for the next one. And all along the way, geologists, biologists, and physicists resisted them with a passion. What was almost as intriguing as this great drama itself, though, was the cast of characters. As you progress through each section, you find yourself thinking, about some revered geologist or physicist, “What? He resisted THIS one too, despite the evidence?” The same “old guard” or, as time went on, their students, always seemed to dig their heels in and never accept the new evidence.
Apart from giving us a fascinating read in the history of science, Powell shows us two things about human nature in this book. The first is that it is as rampant in scientific endeavour as it is in any other human activity. Yes, some people cling to well-earned reputations and can’t see why the standard answers that have served for so long should suddenly be thrown out. And no doubt there are some big egos. Some of the ego is about not wanting to be shown to be wrong before the entire scientific community. But some of it is also a desire not to see one’s entire life’s work proven erroneous and all to have been for nothing. It’s hardly a surprise that that can be a bitter pill to swallow; nor is it a surprise when someone fights against that.
But another thing Powell shows us about human nature is that the tactics of deniers of a new major theory don’t change much. Opposers always seem to provide weak theories or explanations to try to preserve the old theory, that don’t stand up to the new facts. And when those explanations don’t repel the change, these people resort to personal attacks on those who promote the new theories.
This may sound familiar to those scientists currently bringing forward the evidence for global climate change. But they can take heart that this understanding of the world will likely be considered the standard understanding in just another few years. (Let’s hope the people in government get with the program too, as soon as possible, instead of continuing to cling to dead theory that could ruin the world.)
James Lawrence Powell, having a PhD in geochemistry from MIT, is in a position to know something about this subject. He taught geology at Oberlin College for twenty-some years, and is currently the executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium. He gives us a compelling and thorough tour of the history of some powerful changes in what we know about the world as well as the wrestlings it took to get those changes recognized.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of how the self-correcting nature of science works behind the scenes, where the facts and evidence, always win—eventually.
2014, Columbia University Press
384 pages USD $31.50/CDN $35.00 (hardcover)