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.