Monday, April 21, 2008

Science vs Establishment - a case history

My recent posts have called to account the problems when politicians and scientists get together and "cook the books".  The latest debacle with climate change science has plenty of precedents with several that are close to my own profession - geology.

The early geologists, often thought of as natural historians, soon found that they could not easily reconcile their observations in the field with what they had been taught.  Namely the Old Testament explanation of the history of the planet could not be supported with factual evidence from the field.

Many of the early natural historians did sterling work on the six days a week they did not work at their principle job.  Yes, they were ministers of the cloth!  So the lack of coherence between the Old Testament and their observations must have been of great concern.

Just what would the bishop say to a rector or vicar who wanted to publish a heretical treatise on the age of the earth?  Learned professors at institutions like Oxford University sided with the Church and denounced the many heresies that stacked up against them.

Charles Darwin was so concerned with his theory* of evolution that he was reluctant to publish the Origin of Species until persuaded by many of his learned friends (and in fact it was the threat that parallel researcher Alfred Russell Wallace might publish first that tipped him over the edge).  Darwin was then vilified by the Establishment for selling Homo sapiens down river - a mere animal?  What balderdash!

So geology took a while to shake off these shackles which still come back to haunt from time to time.  In 1912 Alfred Wegener noted how the opposite sides of the Atlantic seem to fit together and proposed continental drift.  But Wegener was a "mere" meteorologist, not a geologist, and despite his research turning up solid evidence (fossils from both sides of the ocean matched) his theory was laughed at by, you guessed it, the Establishment.  As a student in the 1960s I witnessed the gradual acceptance and provision of proof that continental drift does take place and the theory of plate tectonics, its direct descendant, is now universally accepted.

There are other Establishment mindsets alive and well in geology today and no doubt they will be debunked in the future as individuals stake their reputation and risk it all on a new approach to old subjects.  Just like the modern day climate change debate!

[* An important point about evolution.  DNA techniques have, in recent years, allowed the theory of evolution to be proven]