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Earth Pseudoscience

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Over the years at About.com, I have come across various lines of pseudoscience that involve geology. Just as often, people have brought their pseudoscientific theories to me. In many cases, the theories end up in my list of wild and bemusing Earth theories, although that list also includes real science too. After a while, I've come to notice some telltale things that many of the pseudoscientists have in common.

The Bogus Appeal to an "Open Mind"

Real scientists don't assume that their readers have closed minds. But most pseudoscientists in my experience do. They appear to think that any objections or resistance to their theory can only arise from a refusal to consider alternatives to the consensus. And it's true that thinking outside one's comfort zone is relatively hard. But when it comes to their areas of expertise, real scientists don't have a comfort zone—they know the exact degree of uncertainty of each element in their theoretical framework and rest lightly on their self-assurance.

The way I think of it is that real scientists have a focused mind, carefully open in some directions and widely open in others. Experience, shared through long education, thorough knowledge of the literature and extensive personal contact, is what guides the focus of the scientist's mind.

In my experience, the closed mind belongs rather to the pseudoscientist, who when challenged shows little insight into current theory and less patience to learn its details. The pseudoscientist prefers to discard these inconvenient things instead.

Denigration of the Consensus

Pseudoscientist almost always make a point of complaining about the scientific community and its consensus, or as they like to say, its "dogma." It is true that real scientists are having a slow and careful conversation with each other, and this requires a common understanding of what they're talking about. The consensus—the group of working hypotheses shared by the active community—promotes efficient use of researchers' limited time, energy and resources.

It is true, too, that there's a risk of the scientific conversation wandering off into error. When advancing into the unknown, that's inevitable now and then. Two examples I can cite are mantle plumes in geology and inheritance of acquired characteristics in biology. Mantle-plume theory is a convenient, flexible guide for current deep-Earth research today that at the same time is under a spirited critique by a minority of geoscientists. The outcome is not yet clear, but it's a good example of science being mindful of its own error as it proceeds. In biology, recent research into epigenetics has given new life to the long-discredited notion that environment affects inheritance. It's a good example of science revisiting ideas once considered absurd. In cases like these, we don't consider previous efforts to be wasted. The consensus brought us forward despite everything.

Credentialism

As often as pseudoscientists decry being ignored by professionals, they try to impress readers with professional credentials. One telltale is that they make a point of using the honorifics "Doctor" and (when it applies) "Professor," especially when citing the people who support their theories. They'll even address me with those titles! Creationists and their siblings, "intelligent design" advocates, do this a lot. The object is to impress the public with the appearance of authority, even if an author's doctorate is in an irrelevant field like medicine, law or theology.

Real geoscientists, at least in the English-speaking world, never call each other "Doctor" or "Professor." The only reasons for doing that are sarcasm or, conceivably, deliberate insult. Scientific authority is not a property held by individuals.

Another tactic of pseudoscientists is to point to their publications. These are invariably self-published books or papers in vanity journals. One recent example sent to me was a paper on earthquake prediction that was published in the journal of a local historical society ("one of California's oldest scholarly journals") and "peer reviewed" by two professors in the English Department (both called "Dr. X" of course).

Willful Denial of Facts

Probably the most common feature of geological pseudoscience is a refusal to engage with the solid factual evidence behind current science. The doctrine of abiotic petroleum, for instance, ignores more than a century of painstaking work—and the hugely profitable experience of actual oil drillers—to assert that all of those workers and drillers are simply wrong. The mainstay of expanding-Earth theorizers is a frantic denial of subduction, the plate-tectonic process amply demonstrated by GPS data from every new great earthquake.

Most geo-pseudoscientists, given my experience debating them, would have a hard time dealing with actual rocks at an actual outcrop. Geology is not an easy, armchair science. A few years ago, after a day struggling in the field, I commented, "The work that has been done to advance geology to its present state is immense, and highly skilled, and cumulative over centuries of effort. Things don't reveal themselves in one big 'aha' insight." Creationists are notorious for overlooking the obvious, impossible consequences of having all the world's sedimentary rocks deposited in one great flood a few thousand years ago. Those details just get in the way of the perfect overarching idea.

Slavery to the Idea, Not the Evidence

There is nothing as gripping as a big idea, but those are dauntingly rare. The genius of Isaac Newton was in realizing a great idea and having the intellectual tools to test its truth at a time when his peers could be led to understand it. That brilliant achievement, then, was part luck and part pluck. The rest of us fall short in one or more respects and must give up, but pseudoscientists remain stuck.

In my experience, expanding-Earth thinkers and comet-impact fanciers are the worst of these. Their preferred tool is Google Earth and the naked eye, and their basic argument is "just look at it!" This is a deep-seated mechanism of insight in the human organism, so I respect its strength. But without Newton's ability to competently test their all-encompassing theories, they can only work outward from them as untestable axioms. If the continents appear to fit together, then there's only one possible explanation and the rest of geology must be just wrong. If lineaments on the landscape point to a giant impact, then trying to explain them as ordinary geology must be denying the obvious. If an "intelligent design" adherent cannot imagine a natural explanation for some biological feature, then no one else can either.

But that's not the kind of science geology is. It's still a bottom-up science, close to the rocks. Geologists are happy to play with ideas because ideas are the fount of progress, but they try their hardest to kill them, just in case the ideas are no more than attractive notions. Those who assert the opposite, that scientists cling to their beloved dogmas—a favorite theme among pseudoscientists—are likely projecting their own mental flaw upon others.

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