Sunday, May 11, 2008

SEED and Plate Tectonics

SEED magazine is, in my opinion, one of the better “science popularization” publications out there. I appreciate the emphasis on the intersection of science and people, and the fairly “global” viewpoint the writers often have. And, of course, I am a fan of their large science blogging community, and especially their Earth Science flavored blogs like Green Gabbro and Highly Allochthonous. Sometimes there might be a bit too much reductionism for my tastes, but all in all, I like SEED.

That being said, I have a bit of a problem with a recent feature in their most recent issue (No. 16, May/June 2008).

On page 38 of this recent issue, SEED has published another one of their “Curve of…” features. These are graphical representations that attempt to show the evolution of scientific ideas through time. The X-axis is time, and the Y-axis is a pretty goofy list of “achievements”, apparently increasing in awesomeness upwards. This month’s graph is on plate tectonics, and I’ve scanned it in below for you guys. Gaze upon it, and despair.

Grim stuff, huh? I’ve got a pile of annoyances to go over, so buckle up.

First, and a little nitpicky-ish perhaps: look at the y-axis on the graph. Guys, as geologists, we really need to start trying harder to get plate tectonics into those textbooks! I think undergrads are ready for it, and it’s a pretty good idea and all.

…That is just plain silly! Plate tectonics, the unifying paradigm of all of the Earth Sciences (and beyond), isn’t “one for the textbooks”, eh SEED? Unless your textbooks are being written by Expanding Earthers, I reckon Plate Tectonics is going to get at least a passing mention in an introductory earth science textbook. Beside the fact that tectonics is featured rather heavily in both textbooks AND the literature, SEED itself has already published one of their Crib Sheets for plate tectonic, which sort of implies it’s a fairly big-deal concept. I guess they forgot about that.

The step up from the “textbook” metric is a “free trip to Sweden”; too bad you can’t win a Nobel Prize in geology, huh? Kinda makes that one a difficult step up for their curve.

Another problem I have is the ridiculous linearity of these graphs. If you look at the graph title, SEED makes it known that they are plotting a curve “Because science doesn’t always follow a straight line to discovery”. Despite that, this is exactly what they are doing. They graph the idea of plate tectonics as a progression from a “scribble” all the way up to “one for the history books”. That still implies a uniform progression from the start to the end, as if the vast corpus of science were itself winding its way down the inevitable path of discovery. That’s a pretty Victorian view of science, if you ask me. Interestingly, if you look at the points on their curve, they only ever identify spots where plate tectonics was getting a boost OR hanging out at a plateau; the big valley in their graph (years 1930-1955 or so) isn’t explained. I guess everybody just took a sabbatical or something.

Of course, all of these little complaints really point to the fundamental problem with this graph, namely that it posits that Plate Tectonics has always been some sort of platonic ideal that we’ve been working on. Wegener was not working on plate tectonics. He made some good observations, came up with a problematic and poorly explained mechanism to explain it, and then died tragically trying to make more observations. Others came later, made some more observations, started asking questions that the current geosynclinal model couldn’t explain, and through time began to construct alternative explanations and models. SEED’s pre-Kuhnian view of science is nonsensical in its linear arrangement of work that was only subsequently assembled into plate tectonics. The “curve” of plate tectonics is only visible in hindsight, and SEED is trying to place some weird metric on a fluid, rapidly changing concept that sure as hell didn’t exist in the form it does now in the 60’s, let alone in Wegener’s time.

As a final point, I’d also like to note how North American-centric this graph is. Naomi Oreskes book, “The Rejection of Continental Drift”, pretty clearly demonstrated how European geologists were very comfortable with continental drift in the late 1800’s and early 20th Century. If you did this same goofy exercise on “Plate Tectonics” from a European perspective, you’d end up with a very different graph, which goes a long way to explain how stupid this curve idea is.

It’s a pretty poor graph, an incredibly obtuse view of both plate tectonics and science and general, and a fairly galling example of why more people don’t think of Geology as one of the “hard sciences”. For shame, SEED. For shame.


BrianR said...

Ha! I didn't realize they had these graphs ... so horrible it's funny.

If anyone tells ya you're being to nit-picky ... tough ... if we don't call them out on this stuff, who will? Like you, I also like SEED - most of the time - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't criticize them. If the folks from SEED can't handle it, then they ought not publish about science/scientists ... we live and breathe peer review, we will slap 'em down if it's not up to par.

Ron Schott said...

With crappy linkbait like this SEED is damaging their reputation as a source of science journalism. One wonders whether they bothered to consult their own geobloggers about the validity of this graph. And if they didn't, maybe Chris Rowan and Maria Brumm need to rethink the value of their relationship with this organization.

Eric said...

Man Ron; "linkbait" is harsh. Sounds sorta filthy (it is my new favorite word)

CJR said...

The implication that no-one was even talking about continental drift in the 1930s and 1940s is also a bit silly - southern hemisphere geologists were
definitely rather keen on the idea.

I'm going to bring this up with the Overlords... there is actually very little day-to-day relationship between ScienceBlogs and SEED the magazine - but even if there was, I'm not sure that marching off in a huff is particularly constructive.

Eric said...

I agree Chris; The North Americany-ness of the whole graph is pretty bad.

Also, it is too bad that SEED doesn't make use of its blogger brain stable! Maybe this will herald in a new age of fact checking!

BrianR said...

Chris ... you should totally march off in a huff ... you should walk in, rant for 5 minutes, and then say "good day, sir!" and do an about-face and walk out.

Just kidding ... although the image of that is amusing.

Ron Schott said...

@Chris Rowan: Fair enough. Change from within is a good approach, too. I'd be eager to hear how responsive they are to your input.

CJR said...

So I forwarded our concerns, and received a lengthy response from the person responsible for this thing. It seems that whilst the dates on the timeline were fact-checked, the trajectory of the line itself with respect to the y-axis was based on their own subjective opinion. Said person has a background in theoretical physics. 'Nuff said.

I think I might take this little moment as an educational opportunity... I sense the pernicious influence of the whole annoying 'paradigm shift' mythology.

Eric said...

It does seem like the BASTARDIZED ghost of paradigm shifts has struck again. Poor ol Thomas Kuhn's zombie should come back and strangle everyone who mis-applies his work.

Thanks for taking it to the Man, Chris!

Ron Schott said...

Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight... and apparently a dull butter knife, at that.

What kind of editor assigns a theoretical physicist to cover geology?

Let's see if SEED learns from this...

andrew said...

Now this annoys me a lot more than the title of Lenardic's press release, "Hot climate could shut down plate tectonics." This is pernicious nonsense on many levels, not least of which is sending a cricket player to explain baseball.

Phillis said...

Wow, there is a lot of useful data above!