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I’ve got a confession to make: I love kooks and crazies – I really do. I don’t know if it’s because their propensity for confrontation and drama makes for some interesting reading, or if it’s because by association I just feel that much smarter. (Here’s a second confession: indeed, their stupidity makes me feel that much smarter.) Good thing for me, there’s a world wide web out there that is rife with all sorts of weirdos and intellectual midgets.

Case-in-point, “Expanding Earth Theory” (EET):

(Apart from the fact that YouTube hardly passes muster as a peer-reviewed source, what qualifies a comic book artist to comment on anything science-related?)

I take a perverse pleasure in perusing the comments sections of paleontology/geology news articles around the web, mostly because they often remind me of how important it is to be a sane human being. This particular post is inspired by many of the comments to the CBC article, “Mammals got 1,000 times bigger after dinosaurs” (which is not exactly new information, but still an interesting article). Often the commenters are just clueless creationists used to reading Kent Hovind and Ken Ham, but I’m also noticing an abundance of users who appear to make a concerted effort to seek out and side with pseudo-scientific tangets that stand in opposition to accepted, mainstream scientific theories that are actually backed by evidence.

All of this starts to resemble a phenomenon to which I was recently introduced, which I think is itself relatively new on the scene: denialism. Best explained by denialism blog, the term is thus defined:

“Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.”

The illusion of debate especially stands out in my mind. For instance, consider the discussion page on Wikipedia for EET where a proponent links to approximately 40 refereed (or so we assume) articles in an attempt to argue that EET is a valid theory and a serious contender to plate tectonics. 40 references? Sounds pretty impressive, right? Well, no:

1. Approximately 1/4 of the references date prior to mainstream acceptance of plate tectonic theory. This does not mean they are wrong, but it means the articles were published in an entirely different context than today – one in which EET may have been examined as a possible contender.

2. The remaining 3/4 of the references are historical reviews, or published in either backwater journals no one’s ever heard of (e.g. Annali di Geofisica), journals solely created to give voice to “alternative” theories that cannot get published in reigning journals (e.g. New Concepts In Global Tectonics), or journals which are simply pseudo-scientific in scope such as Journal of Scientific Exploration which features articles on cold fusion, reincarnation, sasquatch sightings, and alien contact.

(It’s worth pointing out that “peer review” does not mean getting someone who’s as insane as you are to rubber-stamp your bullshit.)

3. A couple of the references are actually heated criticisms of EET, such as Briggs (2003) and Briggs (2006), the latter in which the author outlines seven broad problems for EET:

“(1) the Precambrian to Palaeozoic fossil record of marine life indicating extensive oceans, (2) the absence of cracks across the planet caused by expansion, (3) the absence of a drastic fall in sea level that would have been caused by the expansion, (4) the abundant evidence of largescale subduction that absorbed the older sea floor, (5) the lack of evidence for the generation of the internal energy necessary for expansion, and (6) no evidence of the rapid reduction in the Earth’s rotation that would have been caused by such expansion. In addition, his theory fails to pass a rigorous palaeomagnetic test.”

(This is not a debate; this is a wholesale slaughter)

4. A topic search of “tectonics” on Web of Science yields 20,000+ results. This does not include the additional geoscientific articles a GeoRef search would yield, or the thousands of peer-reviewed articles and government survey reports founded upon the plate tectonic paradigm that do not use the overly general “tectonics” keyword in favour of something more specific, and, oh, actually useful.

So is there a debate as the user mentioned above tried to argue? None whatsoever – it would appear that EET is a strong contender for a denialist designation, at least in terms of the above definition.

denialism blog goes on to delineate several more denialist criteria, including conspiracy theories, cranks, cherry picking, fake experts, impossible expectations, and logical fallacies. Since this post is getting long I’ll cut it short for now, but I plan to revisit some of these themes in more detail later (eventually along with other crank geological claims such as a 6,000 year-old Earth, abiogenic oil, etc.). In the meantime, I urge you to take a look yourself.


I’ll admit it: I spent more time in the field this fall mapping a trench for my B.Sc. thesis than was actually necessary. Part of the reason was that I wanted to make sure I collected quality field data for the project, but another part of it was that I enjoyed the excuse to get out there into the near wilderness and spend some time alone. However, now that a respectable layer of snow is blanketing southeastern Manitoba, I suppose it’s time to face reality and start treating some of that data.

The first task? Take my structural measurements – foliations, lineations, joints, and veining – and plunk them into a stereonet. For my joints I’d already done this by hand a few weeks ago (mainly to see how they looked), but for ease of use I opted for GEOrient – stereonet software which is free for academic use. Using software is a treat because you simply export a spreadsheet of your structural measurements into a tab delimited .TXT file from Excel or Open Office, and import it in GEOrient, which itself is an easy task.

Unfortunately, while GEOrient does a nice job of plotting your points on the stereonet, it’s not very robust when it comes to the visual display of pole contours. Consider this plot, for example:

GEOrient foliation plot

It does an excellent preliminary plot, but I notice two things: 1) visually it needs to be retouched A LOT, and 2) there’s a potential problem of the 8% contour continuity across the great circle. The first is no real problem, and no real criticism of the software itself – it aims to plot data, not to be a state-of-the-art graphics package. Things can easily be touched up with other graphics programs such as Illustrator, as exemplified by the final version:

Final version using Illustrator

The second, however, is a potential problem, and I’m definitely going to talk to my advisor. In the original, the contour interval crosses the great circle on the NE quadrant, but does not in the SW quad. In the final version I’ve gone ahead and manually traced it. Additionally, the retraced contours were smoothed in Illustrator to provide a better presentation.

However, this potentially raises another issue: I’ve essentially tampered with the data. By extending and smoothing contours, I’ve taken a representation of the plotted data and altered in a manner that looks better and “makes sense”. That said, I’ve only “tampered” with the data if the original GEOrient plots were correct in the first place. Pole positions are certainly correct – it’s quantitative strike/dip data – but the automated contouring is where the trickiness comes in. Although the final stereonet looks pretty slick from a design standpoint, I have to wonder if the contouring can be accepted with a degree of confidence. I’m not sure it can – I’ll have to give it some thought. I think I’ll also try other software packages, as well as hand plots, to compare results between the two.

Ultimately, from a practical standpoint, a stereonet plot can overcome these minor issues with ease. From my final contours I can confidently assert a general, preferred orientation of my foliations. Yes, there is some scatter, and yes, there are some odd things going on, but this is geology after all – and just a first treatment of the data. I’m thinking the next step will be to break down foliations between lithologies in the trench to see if there are distinct generations, as well as potentially identify different structural sub-domains throughout the linear extent of the outcrop.

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