Further, he also suggested that this slow continental creep was still occurring, and could possibly be measured with accurate astronomical measurements or radio wave transmissions. So, the fit of the coastline seemed to agree with many rock features on the continents in supporting Wegener’s idea that all of the continents were once joined together.
THINK : What are some arguments supporters of contraction theory might have had with Wegener’s ideas?
THINK : If you were to test Wegener’s hypothesis, where would you look, what would you look for, and why?
Continental displacement was not brought to the attention of most English-speaking geologists until 1922, when the third edition of Wegener’s book was translated from German to English, with a foreword written by the President of the Geological Society of London at the time. Despite - and partially because of - Wegener’s confidence in his theory, it began to come under heavy criticism from most American and European geologists. American geologists, being heavily influenced by the quantitative and mathematical approach to geophysics, were devoted to the scientific method and saw Wegener as violating it in several ways. Wegener stated himself that he was inspired by the jigsaw-fit of the continents and formed his idea of continental displacement before looking for geologic evidence to support his idea, which Americans saw as a breach of proper conduct. Wegener also made extensive use of books that summarized and generalized geologic concepts, and then further generalized them, which many critics thought was too much conjecture. Scientists, they believed, should examine as much evidence as possible before starting to develop a hypothesis. If one starts with an idea before fully researching the possibilities, they are more likely to “cherry-pick” evidence that supports their idea and ignore evidence that does not. To Americans, data came first and theory second. Wegener’s confidence in his idea limited how much he would consider other explanations, and heavily influenced the decisive and resolute style of his writing. His book did not mention any alternative theories to displacement, and advised that the previous theories that involved global contraction as a driving force be “completely rejected”. Americans disagreed with Wegener’s complete certainty in the presentation of his theory, believing that hypotheses should be presented tentatively and cautiously, allowing the reader to create his or her own opinion rather than attempting to persuade. In short, American geologists in particular were greatly concerned about Wegener’s methodological approach, which called into question the validity of his work.
THINK : As Wegener, how might you respond to these criticisms? What could Wegener have done to please the dissenting geologists, and is that practical?
Philip Lake, an early critic of Wegener’s work, wrote disparagingly about the freedoms Wegener took in rotating the continents and flattening mountains to obtain his jigsaw fit. As he put it, “it is easy to fit the pieces of a puzzle together if you distort their shapes”. This “distortion”, he thought, made many of his other observations such as the apparent connection of the American Appalachian and Northern European Armorica mountain ranges moot and coincidental. Lake published this criticism and later presented his argument to the Royal Geographic Society of London in 1923, the members of which mostly agreed with Lake’s viewpoint. In general, the society recognized that a new theory would be necessary to explain the problems they faced, and that Continental displacement seemed to answer many of these issues, but saw Wegener’s evidence as far too flimsy to make Continental Displacement a viable unifying theory.
Both Americans and Europeans however took issue with the mechanism and driving force behind Wegener’s Continental Displacement, as it was now beginning to be called. Wegener described the continents as plowing through the oceanic floor, which did not seem feasible to most geologists. Wegener also hypothesized that the driving force for the movement of the continents being supplied by centripetal force of the Earth’s rotation, or perhaps friction from movement of the tides. The majority of the scientific community did not see these explanations as practical. Although, in the past geologists had seen evidence of ice ages and accepted that the earth was once covered almost entirely in ice as a fact, despite having no idea what happened to cause it. In other words, geologists were not opposed to accepting a theory with no explanatory mechanism if the evidence was there to support it, so Wegener’s lack of explanation for continental displacement certainly contributed to its rejection, but was far from the only reason.
THINK : Do you think the lack of an explanation for how the continents move sideways counts critically against the theory, or merely opens the way to new investigation and theorizing? Give at least one reason for each view.
Continental displacement was the subject of much debate, with many scientists, especially those in North America, choosing to argue against it. At best they saw it as promising speculation without adequate evidence, and at worst utter nonsense about the workings of the Earth written by a meteorologist with little geological experience. While displacement provided solutions for many of the world’s geologic problems, such as the confusing fossil record, it also seemed to bring with it a lot of new ones.