“crackpots” who were right 17: J Harlen Bretz

At the beginning of the 20th century, the prevailing view amongst geologists was that all features of the Earth developed over millions of years in gradual processes of erosion and rock-forming. For most geological features this is indeed true, but today we know that there are other important processes of change that can take place over just a few years or even days. These include volcanic eruptions and meteoric impacts that shaped the land and had dramatic consequences for life on earth and the process of evolution.

The first evidence that such sudden changes could take place was presented in the 1920s by J Harlen Bretz. After careful exploration he realised that the unusual topography of the Scablands in North-Western America could only be explained by a sudden catastrophic flow of flood water across the landscape. 

Bretz was originally trained as a biologist and worked as a highschool teacher. Later he moved to geology in which he earned his PhD. When he first published his theory in 1923 he was pitting himself against the established works of geologists supported by the authority of respected Ivy-League professors. The idea was quickly labelled as outrageously wrong and his opponents set to work to discredit it.

Another geologist, Joseph Thomas Pardee who worked for the US Geological Survey had identified a large glacial lake that had occupied a region of Montana known as the Missoula Lake. Pardee had written a paper that explained the Scablands as glacial erosion.It was just the kind of formation theory that the geologists preferred, but Bretz looked more closely at the geology and realised that it could not be true. When Pardee heard the evidence he agreed and wrote in support of Bretz. HE thought that the Missoula Lake could have been the source for such a flood, but others would not hear of it. Pardee was dissuaded from supporting Bretz. Under threats to his own livelihood from his employers he had no choice but to be quiet. 

The matter came to a head when Bretz was invited to present his theory at a public forum to the Geological Society of Washington in 1927. Bretz was unaware that six authoritative geologists had been lined up to oppose him with the objective of utterly humiliating him and his theory. Bretz went well prepared and defended his case with good evidence from the field. He pointed out that the channels and bars of the area were too large to have been carved out by the Columbia river over millions of years as others thought. Only a sudden great wave of water could be responsible. But all of Bretz’s potential supporters had been silenced and the debate inevitably went against him.

The conclusion stood for another 13 years before a field trip was organised that was designed to establish the erosion theory beyond any doubt. Before then Bretz himself was the only one who had explored the Scablands as a geologist. Bretz was invited to contribute but his disillusion after so many years of ridicule kept him away. Following the trip a meeting was organised for the geologists to present their findings. Seven geologists described how the landscape fitted in with their uniformitarian views, even though these were not always consistent. Finally Pardee stood up as the eighth geologist and quietly described gravel ripples in the area that stood 15 meters tall and 150 meters apart. They could only have been formed by a vigorous flow of huge amounts of water. The development and end of the ice ages was beginning to be better understood and Pardee believed that the ice of the Missoula Lake has melted but had been held back by an ice dam. When the dam finally broke some 2000 cubic kilometers of water broke free in one catastrophic event, sweeping through the landscape. Pardee stopped just short of making the obvious conclusion that the flood was the cause of the features of the Scabland. Perhaps he still felt intimidated by his colleagues, or perhaps he just wanted to leave it to others to acknowledge their error themselves. The game should have been up there and then as the evidence started to fall into place. In fact the debate continued for some 30 more years before veryone could be convinced.

It was not until 1979 when Bretz was in his 90s that he was at last publically recognised by being awarded the prestigious Penrose Medal.

The most thought-provoking aspect of the case of J Harlen Bretz is the extent to which geologists ganged up against him and tried to publically humiliate him. They used heavy tactics to ensure that anyone who might have supported him was silenced. When we look back today we see this as shameful behaviour. In my view this is very similar to the tactics used by the arXiv today where they sideline work they don’t like into archive categories that they euphemistically label as “general physics” and “general mathematics”. Everybody knows that this is done to imply that the articles are of no value and it is used as a system of ridicule. Furthermore the arXiv uses public threats directed at their endorsers designed to stop them helping outsiders who want to submit to arXiv when their work may not agree with the prevailing consensus. Of course this is even more true where people want to label papers in viXra as the work of cranks and dissuade anyone of submitting to viXra if they want their work to be taken seriously. In my opinion people will one day look back on this kind of behaviour as both harmful and shameful. The only difference with the attempts to suppress the work of Bretz is that they attack a whole community of independent scientists rather than just a few individuals.

6 Responses to “crackpots” who were right 17: J Harlen Bretz

  1. Kea says:

    Yes, science is a bigger enterprise today and the tyrants gang up on whole research groups. What chance does an individual scientist have against such forces? Well, at least we have the internet. Tyrants all have one great strategic blind spot … they underestimate the importance of new modes of communication and technology. This does not necessarily speed up the eventual acceptance of the truth, but it somehow always makes it inevitable.

  2. John.St says:

    Please (spend the rest of your life) compiling a list (just one name per line) of crackpots, who were wrong – or simply the proportion right/wrong.

  3. Philip Gibbs says:

    John.St, I agree that there are also “crackpots” who are wrong and that there is a much larger number of them. This was covered in the introductory post of this seris http://blog.vixra.org/2010/03/03/crackpots-who-were-right/

    I could attempt to compile a list of them and the biggest problem would not be that it would take forever. The biggest problem would be that I am not sufficiently expert in every field of science and mathematics to be always sure I make the right judgment. I would almost certainly end up calling someone a crackpot who turned out to be right.

    I think you also have to consider that even an idea that is completely wrong may have sufficient originality to inspire someone else to come up with something better.

  4. John.St says:

    Philip Gibbs,

    the problem I see with a list of only those “crackpots” who were right is that genuine crackpot scientists use such a list to claim that “lots of crackpots were right” because the proportion of right/’talking through his hat’ is missing. 1 in 20,000? worse?

    Recently I was debating with an upcoming Einstein who claimed that (not: ‘is it possible that?’ but ‘This is how it is’):

    Gravity is transferred as the third component in electromagnetic radiation!

    Really? What happens to gravity during e.g. a solar eclipse?

    That did not deter him, he went on and on and on, moving the goal posts all the time.

    Personally I don’t care one whit if this guy thinks he is right, but that particular forum is meant to inform people with an interest in, but little or no knowledge of, science including astronomy – not to blabber – but we never ban anyone except for bad language so I had to follow and cut his ramblings.

  5. John.St says:

    BTW: You should also include Alfred Wegener (continental drift) in your ‘who were right’ list (I admit that I didn’t check if A.W. is mentioned in it somewhere).

    His theory dates back to around 1912 and unfortunately he died some 30 years before it was accepted around 1960 – with the discovery of tectonic plates.

    As for Galileo, the question is whether he was up against science as we understand it, or religious dogma based on popal infallibility in the disguise of “science”.

  6. Philip Gibbs says:

    John.St, the point of view I take here is that most of the large number of people with ideas that turn out to be wrong do little harm. On the other hand the failure to see the correctness of the people in this series has seriously delayed the progress of science. In some cases the delays had direct harmful effects ( e.g. see http://blog.vixra.org/2010/03/23/crackpots-who-were-right-4-ignaz-semmelweis/ )

    You are free to spend your time trying to convince people they are wrong, but make sure you really know the subject well enough to make that judgment and provide the correct arguments. I see many cases where people (often the IT crowd) are trying to do just that but the arguments they use are not much better than those of the so called crackpot they are attacking. (I do not mean to imply that this is true in your case, just a general point)

    Yes, there are extreme cases where people with wrong scientific ideas could do harm, especially if they become politicians. You have to counter them with rational arguments. If they compare themselves with Galileo it will be a mute point if you can provide a simple fact that falsifies their claims. If that does not convince them it will at least convince many others who are looking on. I do also see the point of correcting people in public forums, but if they won’t listen, move on. Others will have taken your point if it was well made.

    BTW, Alfred Wegener was the second case I did.

    Try this link for the full list: http://en.wordpress.com/tag/crackpots-who-were-right/

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