Those who can’t, teach…

Today, September 25, would be the 171st birthday of Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin. A discouraging character to honour. Born in 1843, by 1900 his ideas about science education and the scientific method came to dominate American science. Not all of his ideas were awful. But many were.

First the good stuff. Chamberlin advocated a system he called “Multiple Working Hypotheses” which suggested that a scientific investigation should begin with a number of potential solutions (hypotheses), any of which might be the correct one. This contrasts somewhat from what we normally consider the modern approach of testing a (single) working hypothesis. But it was Chamberlin’s intention to prevent his University of Chicago students from brashly adhering to a single pet solution. He called such a preference a “parental affection for a theory…  To avoid this grave danger, the method of multiple working hypotheses is urged. It differs from the simple working hypothesis in that it distributes the effort and divides the affections.” As I said, this is good stuff.  Not only that, but let me lift this little piece directly from “Studies for Students: The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” from his 1897 paper published in the Journal of Geology:

“The dearest doctrines, the most fascinating hypotheses, the most cherished creations of the reason and of the imagination perish from a mind thoroughly inspired with the scientific spirit in the presence of incompatible facts. Previous intellectual affections are crushed without hesitation and without remorse. Facts are placed before reasonings and before ideals, even though the reasonings and the ideals be more beautiful, be seemingly more lofty, be seemingly better, be seemingly truer. The seemingly absurd and the seemingly impossible are sometimes true. The scientific disposition is to accept facts upon evidence, however absurd they may appear to our pre-conceptions.”

All of this sounds very enlightened, very progressive. Facts before ideals. The seemingly absurd and impossible are sometimes true. Yet, it would be hard to find a more intellectually conservative scientist, a scientist more wed to ideals than facts, than T.C. Chamberlin. He somehow could not practice what he taught.

Chamberlin was the son of a Wisconsin Methodist circuit-preacher. He became a state geologist and head of the U of Wis geology department. When the University of Chicago was founded, he was invited to set up the geology program there and become its head. He held the job for 26 years, until age 75. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, he founded the extremely influential Journal of Geology (which he used as a personal megaphone) and he was president of the Chicago Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was arguably the most politically powerful scientist in America.

But Chamberlin promoted some strange, unfounded, ideas. He believed humans originated in Europe (“and gave rise to the most virile and progressive branches of the human family, the fair-white and the dark-white races”); he taught that the Earth was formed cold, “not white hot” as nearly all other scientists accepted at the time; and he strongly supported Lord Kelvin’s extremely low estimate of the Earth’s age, even after it was commonly recognized as wrong by a factor of 200. Chamberlin alleged, “individual geologists, reacting impatiently against the restraints of stinted time-limits imposed on traditional grounds have inconsiderately cast aside all time limits.” Being inconsiderate of Chamberlin’s failing and aging traditional ideas about geology could ruin a young geologist’s career. He further complained that some geologists assumed the Earth was ageless, allowing them to explain any process by “reckless drafts on the bank of time.” Chamberlin is especially remembered for his uncompromising opposition to Wegener’s theory. Sadly, it seems Chamberlin based his notions on dogmatic principles and sought to influence discourse by preventing publication of contrary opinions. If there had ever been an example of a scientist in an extremely high position influencing the course of inquiry in a determinedly wrong direction, it was Thomas Chamberlin. Or perhaps his son, Rollin.

T.C. Chamberlin was elderly, but active, when the first American edition of Wegener’s Continental Displacement appeared, so it was mostly left to his son Rollin to dismiss Wegener as a crank. Rollin’s friend F.J. Pettijohn, writing for the National Academy of Sciences in 1970, asserts Rollin “was not an innovator, not one to depart much from traditional thought patterns. He had, indeed, severe handicaps to overcome – having so preeminent a father and remaining in the institution in which he was educated.” As we have seen, Rollin Chamberlin’s father founded the University of Chicago’s Geology Department. That’s where Rollin was an undergraduate, was awarded his geology PhD in 1907 – and spent all but three years of his entire career as a member of that same school’s geology faculty.  Immediately upon his father’s death in 1923, R.T. Chamberlin became editor of his father’s Journal of Geology, a position he clung to for 24 years.

Chamberlin, described as a conservative in every way, opposed Alfred Wegener’s theory so staunchly that very few geologists rose in support of continental mobility. Pettijohn, who also saw no merit in moving the continents, described Chamberlin’s contributions to tectonic theory as based on field studies and on “Philosophical considerations . . . he held rigidly to the notion of the permanence of the continents and ocean basins and he gave short treatment to the concept of drifting continents.” At a 1926 conference, Chamberlin denounced every aspect of Wegener’s drift hypothesis, adding it “does not fit the generally accepted record of geological time. The framework of the present continents was developed in pre-Cambrian time. Geological evidence does not show that a great continental mass split apart.” To be sure he was not misunderstood, Chamberlin added that Wegener’s hypothesis “takes considerable liberty with our globe, and is less bound by restrictions or tied down by awkward, ugly facts than most of its rival theories. Its appeal seems to lie in the fact that it plays a game in which there are few restrictive rules and no sharply drawn code of conduct.”

Later, in 1928, Chamberlin quoted an unnamed colleague, “If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis, we must forget everything which has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again.” He was right, but not in the manner he expected. But his words carried enormous weight and his opposition to continental drift impeded geology for decades. It set back earth sciences for two generations and prevented open, fair, and free discourse about Wegener’s theory of continental drift. All of this from the man who espoused multiple working hypothesis and from that man’s obedient son.

The story of the Chamberlins and their influence on anti-drift theory is covered in more detail in my book The Mountain Mystery.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site:
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