On Ignoring Good Ideas (in Science!) — Part 3

In this series, we’ve been talking about how the scientific establishment frequently ignores good ideas, even if it doesn’t actively shout them down very often. In the first post, I gave the example of Gregor Mendel, who was ignored from 1866 through 1900 (and only fortuitously rediscovered). The second post focused on a more recent example: the theory that Earth has been subjected to cataclysmic asteroid impacts throughout its history. This theory was ignored from 1942 through 1980. 1980 marked the beginning of the shouting-down phase, where the scientific establishment stopped ignoring the theory and started arguing with it, the process that ended in short-ish order with the theory’s acceptance (as it usually does for correct theories).

Our next example is continental drift (aka plate tectonics): the now-accepted theory that the earth’s crust is divided into different plates that drift very slowly on top of the earth’s lithosphere.

People usually tell the story of the fight over continental drift as a rare example of the scientific establishment disagreeing with a good idea for longer than the 10-or-so years that seem to be typical for paradigm shifts. And you can definitely read it that way. You can cite German climatologist and rugged arctic explorer Alfred Wegener, as one of those rare iconoclasts who got it right in the face of a hostile establishment.

Alfred Wegener, left, on his final expedition to Greenland in 1930.

Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift in 1912, arguing that South America and Africa fit together and that rocks on the two coasts had corresponding geological properties. In telling this story, you can talk about how the second edition of Wegener’s book was “received so poorly that the American Association of Petroleum Geologists organized a symposium specifically in opposition to the continental drift hypothesis.” And you can conclude by talking about how it took until the 1960s for scientists to stop arguing against Wegener’s theories and start taking the mounting evidence for plate tectonics seriously—even in 1955, prominent geologists were mocking Wegener in print for basing his theory on “an apparent correspondence in shape between certain continents.” (The story, told this way, nearly always includes the fact that vindication came too late for Wegener himself, who had already died, somewhat mysteriously, on an expedition in Greenland.)

From this perspective, continental drift isn’t an example of science ignoring anything; instead, it is the rare example of science being on the wrong side of an argument for roughly fifty years. And there’s some truth to that perspective. As the Smithsonian Magazine put it

geologists largely chose to forget Alfred Wegener, except to launch another flurry of attacks on his “fairy tale” theory in the middle of World War II. For decades afterward, older geologists warned newcomers that any hint of an interest in continental drift would doom their careers.

But I want to take the focus off Wegener—larger-than-life figure notwithstanding—and instead focus on a particular 20-year period. From the 40s through the 60s, science did ignore (rather than reject) the best evidence—for the simple reason that the best evidence came from non-scientists.

One of the key pieces of evidence for continental drift came from paleomagnetism: When magma cools into rocks, iron-rich crystals line up with the earth’s magnetic field. Then, after the rock has finished cooling, the crystals can no longer move and so form a lasting record of how the rock was oriented however-many millions of years ago it was formed.  This evidence showed that huge blocks of the earth’s crust had spun around like ballerinas, pirouetting relative to one another; it also showed that the magnetic history of Africa and South America lined up precisely, vindicating Wegener’s view on those two continents.

All this magnetic evidence lead the scientific community to eventually accept continental drift, based on studies in the early 60s focused on a the magnetism involved in phenomenon called seafloor spreading. So, science eventually—in the 60s—got the hint and shifted to a new paradigm.

Yet this evidence had been known outside the scientific establishment for decades at this point. The magnetometers used to analyze seafloor spreading in the 60s weren’t new—they were actually developed in World War II to help hunt for Nazi submarines. And shortly after the war, oil companies started using the the same devices to find oil: they would trace out, from existing oil deposits, where unknown oil “should” be based on the magnetic history of the surrounding rocks.

A Short History of Nearly Everything puts this point especially well: to make their predictions, the oil companies “had to allow for exactly the sort of surface movements that were implied by plate tectonics. But oil company geologists didn’t write academic papers, they just found oil.” And thus, the scientific establishment missed out on the fact that oil companies were finding oil exactly where the theory predicted, and so missed out on a key piece of evidence for continental drift. It took science 20 years to catch up to the insights of the oil geologists.

Obligatory xkcd. We could add “continental drift” to the left, “finding oil” to the middle, and a confident checkmark to the right.

So, for those of you keeping score at home, here’s how I would evaluate the continental drift debate. First, in the big picture, it shows that science does, at least sometimes, yell at a good idea for decades. Zooming in to the role of magnetometers, however, it provides a third example of science ignoring well-grounded experimental results—whether through ignorance of those results or apathy to their significance.

We’ve now talked through three examples of the scientific establishment ignoring good ideas rather than shouting them down. I don’t intend to prove anything with these examples—I know how easy it is to give an abundance of examples even of false ideas. Instead, these examples were there to get us all on the same page. Now that you know what type of phenomenon I’m talking about when I say “ignoring good ideas,” next time we’ll turn to the question of how common this problem really is.



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