glyph 435: Devonian controversy, 1830s . exploratory discourse, argument . sources of knowledge and ignorance (Karl Popper) . methods of error correction . sociability, conviviality, collaboration . disagreement used as a method of collaboration ... science ... history of geology, age of the earth . Plutonists vc/ Neptunists ... Steve Goolsby, Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists (RMAG)


Argument as a Source of Knowledge

Illustration from the History of Geology

An article from "Outcrop" — Newsletter of the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists, Vol. 57, No. 6, June 2008, by Steve Goolsby, President of the Association

As some of you know, I like nothing better than sitting down over a good beverage and debating some contentious issue or other with my friends and colleagues.

Often the issues we debate are controversial subjects that pertain to the science of geology, like global warming or the validity of the basin- centered gas model. I find these debates to be an interesting way to learn about certain issues. I thoroughly enjoy the experience if the conversation is good and the beverages are of the right type and temperature. My wife contends that this form of learning is something no more than courteous arguing, and insists that we refrain from it during our meals at home. However, I don't plan to stop, when I'm out with my friends because I think debating is an important form of learning. After all, "controversy drives the science" of geology. So I think I'll shock you by saying that certain controversies are not appropriate in the science of geology, or within any science, for that matter.

I know that our science was established as a direct result of controversy and debate. The major issue that initially drove the development of the science of geology was a debate about how old the earth is. Western biblical scholars had calculated the age of the earth back to it's formation in 4004 BC. This age was the widely held paradigm among naturalists and philosophers going into the 18th century. However, mounting evidence from observation and experimentation led to the discovery of an increasing number of anomalies in the paradigm. For example, the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc used cooling globes to calculate that the earth had to be at least 75,000 years old. Additional observations, including those from studies of fossils and rock strata, eventually produced enough anomalies to the paradigm that a crisis arose among naturalists, and a paradigm shift occurred in our understanding of the age of the earth.

During this contentious time, the arguments were strong and personal reputations hinged on the support of one side or the other in the debate. People became obsessed with proving that their side of the issue was correct, and they spent a considerable amount of time experimenting and doing field work to prove that they were correct and that their opponents were wrong. This increase in activity led to many breakthroughs in our understanding of the earth, and resulted in geology becoming established as a recognized science. Many other breakthroughs in our science have occurred in the same manner. The Neptunists versus the Plutonists and the uniformitarianists versus the catastrophists are good examples of this. So controversy can be good in be encouraged today, in my opinion. Want to debate that issue?

Much of my understanding of the history of the science of geology is the result of a graduate course I took years ago at Stephen F. Austin State University. This course has had a major impact on my career and my outlook on the science. The course was taught by a lady who did her graduate research in the history of the science of geology. One of the things she had us do was to take a side and debate the merits of the Neptunists versus the Plutonists issue. In our debate, we could only use the data that was available to the naturalists at the time the issue was ongoing. I will never forget handily winning the debate as a Neptunist with that data, and therefore "proving" that rocks were laid down in the great deluge. We all know today that neither side was correct, but the debates and the activity around proving one side or the other drove our understanding of geology forward. So this type of controversy is good for the science.

We also studied the debate about whether fossils originated from past life or whether they were stony objects grown within the earth to resemble living things. This was another great controversy that had folks who expressed strong feelings on both sides of the issue. As part of the course, we studied a case in which a naturalist cataloged all of the fossils that he found in the rocks around his estate to help support his contention that fossils were proof of past life. I forget the man's name, but I'm sure one of our readers will recognize the story and let me know who he was. As I remember the story, he spent a fortune to publish his treatise on the fossils he found, and then became a laughing stock among his peers for his efforts. It seems several people on the other side of the debate found out about his fossil collecting and plans for a treatise on the subject, and went out around his estate and carved shapes into the rocks to resemble fossils. Since the treatise included those fake fossils, he lost his reputation. I'm sure that the people who carved the fake fossils into the rocks thought they were doing the right thing to advance their cause. The end justifies the means, right? But what they did set the science back rather than helping it because it delayed our understanding that fossils are evidence for past life.

When an argument is advanced in a controversy in which the facts are manufactured to support one side of the issue, then that controversy is not helping the science. The same is the case in which one side of a controversy ignores or minimizes the facts that support the opposite conclusions. I feel that this is what often occurs when an issue moves into the popular press or the political arena. For example, I feel that this may be occurring today with the controversy over man-made global warming. Once again, the controversy is a heated one with strong support on both sides of the issue, and I've read quotes from proponents on one side of the issue that essentially say that the "end justifes the means." I've also heard a strong proponent on one side of the issue say that his opponent "is an embarrassment to the science of geology" due to his unpopular stance on the issue. When I heard this quote, my respect did not drop for the person with the unpopular stance, but rather for the person who said the quote.

No matter what the popular beliefs are on an issue, we should all remember that history has shown that paradigms are often wrong and that the unpopular side of an issue often proves to be the correct stance. We should all therefore embrace the controversies within our science, but also reject those parts of controversies that strive to attack the personal reputations of those who support one side or the other in an issue. This is particularly true if that person supports an unpopular side of the controversy. After all, their stance may do far more to advance the science than those who support the popular side of an issue. And I'd be glad to debate this issue with you, as long as the conversation is good and the liquid refreshment is of the right type and temperature.

The Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists is a nonprofit organization whose purposes are to promote interest in geology and applied sciences and their practical application, to foster scientific research and to encourage fellowship and cooperation among its members.

Martin Rudwick's The Great Devonian Controversy, an excellent review by Kelly L. Ross, at:
July 26, 2008; edited/updated November 26, 2015

a list of all glyphs