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How to Think About Minority Science Views — The Case of Plate Tectonics

plate tectonics

The idea that continents drift is now taken for granted, but it wasn’t always. In fact, when the theory was proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, it was mocked, until decades later after Wegener had already died, when the theory was ultimately accepted. The issue was one of mechanism. Wegener couldn’t adequately explain what was driving the continents apart. He did know that the evidence, including the way continents could be pictured as fitting together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, indicated strongly that they did so.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The debate about intelligent design is in many ways a replay of the controversy around Wegener’s theory. Historian of science Michael Keas with the Center for Science & Culture notes the parallel in an illuminating conversation with Robert Crowther on ID the Future. The context is a discussion of methods for teaching about scientific controversies. Listen to the podcast here.

Of course, Discovery Institute urges against teaching about ID in public school settings, but not because ID isn’t a theory able to hold its own against the competing idea of unguided Darwinian evolution. Yet to attack ID’s standing as a legitimate scientific theory is a favorite tactic of evolutionists. Over the question of a mechanism, one of the more childish Darwin activists calls ID “Oogity Boogity.” University of Toronto biochemist Laurence Moran has issued the same challenge, though in reasonable adult terms. We’ve addressed the subject before. See, for example, Ann Gauger’s articles:

A fascinating thing about Wegener is that calling his proposal a “theory,” or a theory in development, later proved right, is now uncontroversial. Indeed, even our axe-grinding friends over at Wikipedia have no problem calling it that. I don’t foresee them erasing  Wegener’s entry (as they recently did to paleontologist Günter Bechly) despite the fact that Wegener had no convincing “mechanism.” As Michael Keas points out, he considered the question one that could be left in abeyance. Against this background, the language of the Wiki article on “Plate tectonics” is telling.

On the “Development of the theory”:

[W]ithout detailed evidence and a force sufficient to drive the movement, [Wegener’s] theory was not generally accepted: the Earth might have a solid crust and mantle and a liquid core, but there seemed to be no way that portions of the crust could move around. Distinguished scientists, such as Harold Jeffreys and Charles Schuchert, were outspoken critics of continental drift.

Despite much opposition, the view of continental drift gained support and a lively debate started between “drifters” or “mobilists” (proponents of the theory) and “fixists” (opponents). During the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the former reached important milestones proposing that convection currents might have driven the plate movements, and that spreading may have occurred below the sea within the oceanic crust. Concepts close to the elements now incorporated in plate tectonics were proposed by geophysicists and geologists (both fixists and mobilists) like Vening-Meinesz, Holmes, and Umbgrove. [Emphasis added.]

On the “Driving forces related to mantle dynamics,” as more currently understood:

For much of the last quarter century, the leading theory of the driving force behind tectonic plate motions envisaged large scale convection currents in the upper mantle, which can be transmitted through the asthenosphere. This theory was launched by Arthur Holmes and some forerunners in the 1930s[15] and was immediately recognized as the solution for the acceptance of the theory as originally discussed in the papers of Alfred Wegener in the early years of the century. However, despite its acceptance, it was long debated in the scientific community because the leading theory still envisaged a static Earth without moving continents up until the major breakthroughs of the early sixties.

Notice how both the emerging minority view, and the dominant majority one it toppled, are both recognized as “theories,” right from the beginning.

Today in the evolution debate, instead of upstart theorists dismissed as “drifters,” we have proponents of the minority view criticized as “ID creationists.” However, as anyone knows who has read Meyer, Denton, Axe, Dembski, Wells, and other leading proponents, intelligent design is not “creationism” and has ample “detailed evidence” to debate about. Whether intelligence, the source of which science can’t presently identify, constitutes a “sufficient force” to instantiate design in nature is a fruitful question to discuss.

Will ID, like Wegener’s theory, win the day against the majority view? And if so, how soon? Of course, that’s impossible to say, partly for reasons that go beyond science. One distinction between the theories is that the history of the continents and their arrangement has no particular significance for philosophy, whereas the history of life, how biological novelties emerge, obviously does. In the differing treatments of the ideas, at Wikipedia and elsewhere, that distinction probably makes all the difference.

Photo: Alfred Wegener, by ByLoewe, Fritz; Georgi, Johannes; Sorge, Ernst; Wegener, Alfred Lothar (Archive of Alfred Wegener Institute) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.