When I attended Whitman College, I met a wonderful instructor named Dick Clem who awakened the fascination with geology I still feel 40 years later. One thing he showed us on our field trips was the evidence found by J. Harlan Bretz of the great Ice Age floods that sculpted the landscape of what is now eastern Washington.
Ice sheets moving down from Canada had created a huge lake behind the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. Periodically the ice dam would fail sending a wall of water across the land. The floods plucked out rocks to create the coulees of the channeled scablands and piled the rubble in deposits all over the area. There are even gravel deposits as far downstream as Cowlitz County. Once high-level air photography became available the evidence was incontrovertible.
Later, I took a degree in Geology from the University of Puget Sound and did graduate work at Western; lots more about how glaciers had shaped the landscape of the North West.
Bretz's ideas seemed sound to me since it met the most important qualification of a scientific theory: it enabled one to accurately predict what one was going to find. When I came to Cowlitz County I looked for, and found, deposits of water-rounded pebbles containing kinds of rocks that are not found as bedrock within hundreds of miles of here. They are hundreds of feet above the Columbia River, as Bretz's theory would lead one to expect.
But when I had taken glacial geology classes I was startled to find that the evidence that seemed so clear when Dick Clem presented it was not always accepted. According to Dr. Anderson at Puget Sound, Bretz had encountered bitter resistance from other scientists to the idea of an ice dam and the floods. The most widely used book on glacial geology was Flint's massive text. Bretz and the floods weren't even mentioned!
Disagreement among scientists is nothing new. The most any scientist can say is that, "based on the evidence available now, the following seems to be true." And usually only the opinions of the people actually doing the research should be given full weight.
But according to Dr. Anderson the resistance was not based on skepticism about Bretz's evidence, but rather on the fact that it interfered with another agenda entirely.
At the time, many people still thought the earth's surface was shaped by a series of catastrophic floods of supernatural origin. Today, most scientists accept the idea that the forces we see at work in the world around us are enough to fully explain the shape of the earth's surface. The idea is known as uniformitarianism. That idea was not universally accepted when Bretz presented his evidence, and some do not accept it even today.
Flint and other geologists who ignored Bretz's work seemed to have done so for political reasons. They were concerned that evidence that there actually had been great floods would give support to the catastrophe theory. It wasn't until the 1970s that he began to get his long overdue recognition.
Science is a powerful tool. You can make a good argument that the spirit of rational enquiry that grew out of the French Enlightenment and gave rise to the scientific method is the most important difference between the thinking in the developed portions of the world and the thinking of so many people in the parts of the world that has given rise to the terrorists that seek to destroy us. But scientific enquiries are carried out by people and can be twisted and distorted by people who think it is more important to promote an agenda than to seek the truth.
So, if anyone tries to tell you that some area of science is "settled", and there is a "consensus", be skeptical. Be especially skeptical if you are told that politics and self-interest play no part in what scientists say.
This commentary was submitted by William Dennis, a reader of The Daily News.