Thursday, November 5, 2009

Geology, Geohistory, and "Psychohistory": The (Continuing) Debate Between Uniformitarians and Catastrophists

Fact Article by Richard A. Lovett

Lovett looks at the theory that the Minoan civilization on ancient Crete was wiped out by volcanoes or an "earthquake storm" rather than slow decay of civilization. He also writes about J Harlon Bretz's struggle to convince other geologists that the scablands of Washington state were the result of a giant flood. It is a rather sad story how other scientists treated him, but Bretz's flood eventually became the accepted view (an enormous glacial lake formed by an ice dam in Montana drained all at once).

The theme of the article is that scientists, in this case geologists and archeologists, tend to latch on to an over-broad idea and then ignore evidence to the contrary, even if it is one contrary case that wouldn't disprove the idea. He compares Asimov's Foundation series and Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder"in order to link the discussion to scifi, and then does a little hedging at the end as to his own like of gradualism.

The information in the article was interesting, but I have a few problems with it overall. The science fiction references were unnecessary, besides the point, and dragged the article out for no reason. The conclusion I thought he was leading up to: that Chaos Theory (Vibrating String History, etc) type ideas can be a sort of middle ground and are generally more correct than sticking blindly to the idea that either catastrophes don't matter or gradual trends don't matter, is something I heartily agree with, and where most of the article seems headed. And then in the last line, he takes back everything interesting he said: "Scientifically, I like grand unifying theories like gradualism. In fiction? Give me a little bit of vibrating-string chaos, any day." I mean come on, grow a pair Dr. Lovett. So you prefer your science blinkered, but at least Ray Bradbury was a good writer, and Asimov wasn't stupid. How insightful.

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