Expanding Earth “Philosophy”: Fail

The last thing that I was expecting in response to my post on one of the lesser-known falsifications of Earth Expansion was a defence of their position as “valid philosophy”. But that’s just what we’ve got from Nick in the comments. I’m quoting the most relevant bits of his first and second comments below, but if you haven’t already you should go and read them in full.

But the question at hand about the Expanding Earth hypothesis is a bit harder to address, and I’m not quite sure that the blog really does. I have only crossed one EEer who I felt was intelligent enough to really get into it with. He really put it in perspective for me that the basic premise isn’t about the EEer’s need to ‘negatively test’ every hypothesis that is thrown his way, but is rather to point out that a “theory” is a house of cards that falls down when you pull one out. In the EEer’s case, the card to pull is “subduction”. Now, I am a (geologist masquerading as a) geophysicist, so I accept geophysical models of subduction zones. But if I didn’t, the whole tectonic paradigm might seem a bit thin. Each one of Wegner and deToit’s hypotheses is indirect – from the facies correlations to the pmag that came later. WE accept them because we work through them and are led to inescapable conclusions. But an EEer won’t go there, pointing out (perhaps correctly!) that each piece of the puzzle has a flaw…

…The point is that these guys aren’t creationists, they are valid philosophers.

Which brings me back to my point that these guys are practicing a legitimate form of philosophy. Not science, but philosophy. Creationists in contrast are practicing religion and ideology – i.e. not even challenging our science on its own grounds, saying the whole thing is wrong because it conflicts with their faith. A good EEer doesn’t challenge on the basis of their faith in EE, but does so as a cry against “group think” etc… >

I think that this line of argument is mistaken on a number of levels. Firstly, as far as I’m concerned Expanding Earthers are exactly the same as creationists and ID advocates: in both instances, its obvious that they have started with their conclusion. You can see this in the way that they charge around, picking up on any perceived error or inaccuracy and instantly proclaiming the scientific consensus dead. Even if they are accurately representing a real problem, they will never bother to demonstrate how it undermines an entire theoretical framework – apparently its mere existence is enough, even if it can be shown quite easily that this “fatal flaw” makes very little difference (I’ve noticed a similar attitude amongst the climate change denialists in the past). Then, by default – without bothering to present any argument why this should be the case – their own pet theory is “proven”.
There’s nothing wrong with giving the underlying premises which guide our thinking the occasional intellectual poke – there are many examples of times when a scientific field has been advanced by people doing so. But the EEers’ focus on subduction is nothing to do with the relative weaknesses of plate tectonics, and everything to do with the weaknesses of their own “theory”; it’s the one part of plate tectonics that quite clearly undermines an expanding earth. The point of the last post was that, regardless of whether or not we have a good handle on subduction, we have ample geological evidence that very large ocean basins have closed in the past – which is not something that you would see if the Earth was steadily getting larger over geological time. An intellectually honest plate tectonics skeptic cannot be an Expanding Earth proponent, because they would have to acknowledge that the latter theory is even less successful – it explains less and there are areas where it clearly contradicts the facts on the ground.
Secondly, I really, really have to take issue with this characterisation of a scientific theory like plate tectonics as a “house of cards” – knock out one fact, and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. This picture fundamentally misrepresents the way that all the different strands of evidence – the fossils, the palaeomagnetism, the fracture zone trends, the earthquake focal mechanisms, the sundered mountain chains, all the rest – interact with each other. The different individual “facts” are not arranged serially on top of one another, producing a tottering tower that could be sent tumbling by the smallest nudge on any individual part, but in parallel, with numerous independent lines of evidence providing support for the conclusion. This increases our confidence that we are least broadly on the right track; even if you knock out one strand of evidence, the others are still there, not at all dependent on the one you’ve just “disproved”, and requiring an explanation as to why they are all also pointing to the “wrong” answer.
As an example, we can return to those allegedly controversial subduction zones. A skeptic might highlight uncertainties in seismic tomography, which maps areas of the mantle with higher-than average seismic velocity dipping away from subduction zones; because the colder a rock is, the faster seismic waves can travel through it, these zones are usually interpreted as evidence for cold, subducting lithosphere. However, changes in composition can also effect seismic velocity – so how do we know for certain it’s due to temperature? Well, we don’t if you’re just looking at the tomography data, but there’s the fact that earthquakes extend much deeper in these high velocity zones, as you’d expect for colder and stronger bits of the mantle. Then there’s all the earthquake focal mechanisms which indicate convergence, and the fact you have volcanoes behind trenches, with melt compositions that are what you would expect from mantle melting triggered by the addition of water, in exactly the place you’d expect water to start being driven out of cold slab being pushed into the mantle and heated… So, we could be interpreting the seismic tomography wrongly, but the other possible interpretations are not consistent with all the other completely independent evidence. When you consider everything, subduction is the only explanation that works.
So what is a theory like? Not a house of cards, that’s for sure. It’s more like a table with 20 legs, solid as a rock even if you hack a couple away. Of course even that is beyond your average expanding earther; all they do is give the table a few kicks, bruise their shins and run away claiming they’ve turned it into matchsticks, when in reality all they’ve done is annoyed the geologists round the table by spilling a few drops of their beer.

Categories: antiscience, general science, geology, tectonics
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Comments (19)

  1. Fargo says:

    In some ways I regret subscribing to ScienceBlogs. Normally I’m exposed to extreme stupidity in very small doses, but given the right week of posts here it seems likely that I’ll get angry enough to suffer a stroke.
    Seriously, how the hell does anyone with up to or beyond a sixth grade education believe the earth is an ever expanding shell?

  2. BrianR says:

    Chris, you’re last paragraph is a keeper! Well said.

  3. So what is a theory like? Not a house of cards, that’s for sure.

    When I give my invariable lecture on Day 1 of my geology classes, and I go through what the differences are between a hypothesis and a theory, and between evidence and “proof,” I like to give the (very, very generalized, I acknowledge!) cases about how our understanding of the fundamental laws of physics have changed through time, from the relatively simple Galilean (and rough contemporaries) picture to the more complex picture of Einstein to the even more complex picture we’re trying to sort out now. But Einstein didn’t rewrite the older stuff — he just expanded on it. Basically, he showed that the Galilean stuff was fine, but his broader perspective also encompassed stuff that the Galilean perspective couldn’t explain. Similarly, now we’re working on understanding how quantum and more macroscopic “rules” fit together into a coherent, bigger picture — the exceptions of quantum theories in no way demonstrate that any of our previous understanding was wrong…just incomplete, and a larger, more encompassing theory (or set of theories) is needed to explain all the older stuff plus the newer stuff.
    This is my basic problem with people that express themselves the way EEers, and many others, do — they have this notion that any tidbit of evidence that seems to contraindicate what an existing theory (and here I emphasize theory, as opposed to hypothesis, meaning a concept that has a substantial amount of evidence to back it up) states — they really do think that theories are houses of cards that can collapse if one element is removed. Of course, as you pointed out, this isn’t how science works — old theories are generally not overturned, but become components of larger, more encompassing theories that explain not only all the stuff that the theories explain but stuff they don’t, as well. If one must use the house of cards analogy, then they’re houses in which the cards actually stick together, so if one part is removed, the rest don’t necessarily collapse — scientists just work to make the overall structure even more stable. (OK, that’s a crappy revision, but I hope that my students get the point…!)

  4. Kim says:

    I agree with Brian – I love that last paragraph. Especially the spilled beer. (Perhaps that explains why the geobloggers are taking on those guys – geologists like their beer, down to the last drop.)

  5. Maria says:

    The Expanding Earth is not a serious thought experiment in the philosophy of science? Why, next you’ll be telling us that trolling blog comments is not actually sociology!

  6. For a useful review of the expanding earth hypothesis, going back to Francis Bacon in 1620, see chapter 12 of Menard’s “The Ocean of Truth”, available from Amazon for a few bucks.
    While you are meandering through the dustbins of history, try TC Chamberlin’s 1890 classic “Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” re-published in Science (7 May 1965). John Platt’s follow-up “Strong Inference” (Science 16 October 1964) is good instruction in how to sort through the organic overburden (BS). The latter two are available on-line.
    Quoting myself:”Science is an organized activity for going about the business of changing your mind about what you think you already know”.

  7. jomega says:

    WOW! When I first heard about Neal Adams’ ramblings on the subject, I thought he’d invented a whole new brand of crazy. I had no idea there was a wholebranch of Crackpot Geology devoted to this Expanding Earth silliness! Oh well, we still have Neal to thank for some damn fine comic books (though he is responsible for that damn Nasonex Bee).

  8. BrianR says:

    George … the Chamberlin and Platt references are great! I need to reread those again.

  9. Dunc says:

    Good God. I don’t give a damn if your argument is a “valid philosophy” – philosophical arguments have no ontological significance. Didn’t we abandon the Socratic approach to science the best part of a thousand years ago, when somebody noticed that it doesn’t work?

  10. Nick says:

    Since I motivated the blog, let me repeat: I do not advocate the “expanding earth” hypothesis, nor do I think it is good science. I am a strict adherent to deductive, and on occasion inductive methods. My point was just that fringe groups are useful on occasion when they do not try to actually damage society through direct-action activism or terrorism.
    Though not a philosopher, I am pretty sure that a geologist engaging an EEer in a debate falls under their purvue, and by definition is “ontologically” significant. Also, I personally find expanding earth theory incredibly entertaining, as I also find the horror movie “Phantasm” entertaining (the two are related, in fact). More dangerous fringe thinking includes creationism and neoconservatism – arguing with either of those ideologies requires much more preparation and care than Expanding Earth theory (though I agree EEers can be very frustrating to debate).
    I also don’t think Plate Tectonics is a “house of cards”. EEers do. My point was that it is very very difficult to use plaeozoic plate reconstructions as “the solid legs of the table” to kick to demonstrate its sturdiness. Many of the key data were known long before the 60’s after all, and it was only after active plate boundaries were worked out that the geologists had their (our) lightbulb moment (and even then most got it wrong – look at Dewey and Bird more carefully sometime). And even the geophysical data is tough to acquire and interpret, and we are far from having things worked out. That’s what makes science important and exciting!

  11. Silver Fox says:

    Excellent post, Chris. Science and philosophy may overlap in some places, depending on one’s perspective, but study of Philosophy of Science will lead one to realize that Plate Tectonics v. EE is not one of those places. Right on!

  12. Dunc says:

    I am pretty sure that a geologist engaging an EEer in a debate … by definition is “ontologically” significant.

    Nope. You can have all the philosophical arguments you like, but none of them can ever prove the actual existence of the object of the discussion. For that, you need empirical evidence. The oft-mentioned argument about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin does not prove that angels actually exist.

  13. Nick says:

    Dunc (and Chris) – so we agree that we are debating: whether a debate between scientists and fringe-thinkers (for lack of a better word) is a philosophical debate, right?
    My understanding of ‘ontology’ is ‘the study of the existence of things’… whether something exists and then how to classify the various things in existence. So, it seems to me that however radical or even conflicting with empirical evidence something is, the debate surrounding it is, in fact, an ontological exercise. Whether you think that debate is worth having is up to you.
    In the case of EEers, its a totally trivial exercise, but one that can lead to some mental push-ups if you will (going through the strengths and weaknesses of our evidence for plate tectonics is an important exercise that can be very challenging and even disturbing). On the other hand, debating a creationist isn’t trivial but socially important and potentially dangerous. Why is it that folks get so bent out of shape about the Expanding Earth theorist, then? That is the heart of my interest in this discussion – along with my feeling that we tend to overstate what we really understand about Earth’s geologic history (that last point spoken as a scientist).

  14. David Marjanović says:

    What I’m missing is the important fact that continents moving together is something that has been measured. The Alps are getting narrower each year, for example. How that is supposed to work without subduction‚Ķ

    Why is it that folks get so bent out of shape about the Expanding Earth theorist, then?

    What do you mean?

  15. Nick says:

    Hi David (and sorry, Chris, again, for messing up your nice blog site with comments; I’ll beg off here now!):
    What I mean is that the level of frustration, and even anger and vitriol between EEers and Earth Scientists far outweights the significance of the conversation. Poke around the web a bit, and you’d think this was a debate that rivaled Roe V. Wade or something…
    And yes, geodetic measurements are one of several observational data that rule out expanding earth theory, and support plate tectonics, generally speaking. But just because there’s active shortening across mountain belts doesn’t mean there’s ‘subduction’ (and there probably isn’t in the Alps and Himalaya, per se – for example there’s no arc, high density slabs are now deep in the mantle or already exhumed as eclogites). In fact, You could argue that intraplate shortening – or any strain, for that matter – isn’t covered by classic plate tectonic paradigm, and isn’t well understood at all.

  16. BrianD says:

    Y’all can argue with the EEers until you are blue in the face. The only thing you will ever convince them of is that you are all part of a conspiracy to cover up the truth, I think.

  17. Brian X says:

    I think you’ll find that attitude with any sort of denialism, and the more persistent and/or better-funded the denialism the more frustration its opponents will express. Denialism’s stock in trade is finding a plausible way to frame utter bullshit as a legitimate challenge to a very strongly supported theory, and the fact that so many people are at best half-educated and likely to accept a plausible-sounding argument without really giving it a lot of thought or study is what irks scientists, historians, and the like.

  18. Why is it that folks get so bent out of shape about the Expanding Earth theorist, then?
    Because EE begins with theory and then discards any data which undermines it. It’s not science. It is dogma. This is evidenced by the lack of any EE person presenting testable hypotheses and actually … umm … doing the research to test them.
    It carries all of the marks of a pseudoscience.

  19. Ron Willison says:

    As a layman. I would just ask why both cannot be acceptable. The latest from the mainstream scientific community says we are to believe that the universe is expanding exponentially. If that is so. Is not the earth part of that same universe?
    Its been my experience in this past 60 years that when ever a question is in dispute. And human nature is involved. “The answer always lies somewhere in the middle.