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Continental Rift

Daniel Stein

The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science. Naomi Oreskes. 368 pp. Oxford University Press, 1999. $29.95 (paper).

During the 1920s and '30s, prominent American geologists were generally opposed, sometimes virulently so, to continental drift, a new theory proposed by Alfred Wegener. On the opposite side of a furtively widening transatlantic schism, earth scientists were inclined to explore the idea, or at least to regard it with more muted skepticism. Wegener's original "theory" was incomplete and mechanically unsound, and some of his European colleagues actually bent their effort toward developing physical models in support of drift. After all, the theory did summarize a set of observations that hinted at a broader vision of geological mapping than was currently in vogue. However, Americans appear to have been committed to demonstrating the impossibility of drift. Naomi Oreskes has carefully sifted the archival ashes of the early stages of this conflagration, producing an analysis of scientific practice that challenges previous accounts of the drift controversy. In the now-familiar language of current critical discourse on the scientific enterprise, The Rejection of Continental Drift states that the theoretical vistas of North American geologists were constrained by pervasive cultural and social factors.

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The book offers an arsenal of examples in support of this idea, now de rigeur in the sociology and philosophy of science. Popping out periodically from thickets of historiographic prose (and particularly in the generous end-notes) are the familiar snipers of the science wars: the contingencies of economics and patronage, "communal standards" and ideological commitments. Oreskes expresses fascination with the fact that American geologists of the time seem to have adopted their methods and interpretations "because they worked" yet ended up taking a wrong turn that lasted for decades. The false step that hindered and the success that eventually followed it reinforce the notion that social and cultural factors are a critical part of scientific developments. What else could explain science's failure to "come up with the right answer"?

For instance, American geologists, facing the daunting task of documenting the mineral and hydrologic wealth of a vast territory, may simply have not had time for grand and idle speculation about geophysical mechanisms. Furthermore, the best field evidence for drift had mainly been collected in distant foreign localities, and in those days there was no believing without seeing for oneself. American geologists, it is suggested, were also theoretically blinkered by their reliance on particular agencies of financial support and the types of instrumentation they opted to employ. Generalities such as uniformitarianism became insufficiently flexible in the wrong hands. Utilitarian yet fundamentally incorrect analytical tools such as the Pratt model of isostasy aided in preserving theoretical commitments to vertical tectonics. These and numerous other historical references are marshaled by Oreskes to suggest, finally, that "scientific judgments are inescapably personal and historical."

Oreskes is burdened, however, with a major contradiction in the thesis of this history. A section subtitled "An Antiauthoritarian Logic of Discovery" (a straight shot of intoxicating deconstructionist jargon!) suggests that "authoritative" European rhetorical styles offended more "pluralistic" American sensibilities. Oreskes thus opines that "the ideal of pluralism . . . central to so many aspects of American political and religious life . . . had also been embedded in the methodological commitments of American scientists. The result was a culturally rooted American philosophy of scientific method, rhetoric, and practice."

Yet this was most evidently a period during which the observations and opinions of a few dominant American scholars determined the direction of tectonic theories in the United Staets. Whatever "pluralism" is supposed to mean in this context, Oreskes seems quite comfortable with numerous examples of how scientists of considerable standing and accomplishment and presumably in possession of a full complement of pluralistic "methodological commitments" can still be authoritarian (and quite loudly wrong!). Perhaps this muddled analysis mirrors the intellectual confusion experienced by her historical subjects, or maybe Oreskes has merely been carried off on the old geologist's warhorse, the method of multiple working hypotheses, with but one foot in the stirrups.

Other historians of science have looked back at this controversy from the perspective of well-established plate tectonics theory. In some of these views, the geological community was succeeding at making itself useful and failing at transforming a systematized but quaint and unimaginative natural history into a physical science of the earth. Oreskes dismisses these other interpretations of this phase in American intellectual history, terming them "the glorification of present achievement through a pejorative portrayal of previous work."

In the penultimate chapter, provocatively titled "The Depersonalization of Geology," we find a science finally able to advance, albeit hostage to alliances with the military and industry.

With no less dogmatism than the subjects of this history are charged with, Oreskes has seized upon an interpretation of the record that is all too obviously bound to the "methodological commitments," not to mention the "rhetoric and practice," of today's trendiest critical theories in the humanities. It is wise for those in the scientific community to contemplate the ways in which their work may be influenced by cultural and social factors. In this capacity, the social critics of science perform a vital function, but at the same time they will likely find themselves subjected to the same intense scrutiny that they apply to their subject.—Daniel Stein, Institute for Crustal Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

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