I’ve been trying to remember the geography lessons I got taught, aged 10, back in about 1960. I seem to remember that there were three kinds of rocks: igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. Igneous rocks came from deep inside the Earth, largely through volcanoes. Sedimentary rocks were the product of the erosion of igneous rocks by water and wind at the Earth’s surface. Metamorphic rocks were rocks that were half way between igneous and sedimentary, or a mixture of the two. And I seem to remember that everything that happened was very gradual and piecemeal. It all took millions of years.
One thing I wasn’t taught was Plate Tectonics. That seems to have only arrived in the 1960s, almost overnight. I think kids are still taught pretty much the same as I was taught, but they’re also taught that the Earth’s surface is made up of a number of plates, which are moving like the conveyor belts in airport baggage carousels, and Africa used to be joined to South America, but they’ve now moved apart, with new rock welling up between them in the mid Atlantic. The surface of the Earth started being regarded as being much like a cappuccino coffee, with continents as islands of foam sitting on a stirred hot liquid. You can watch plate tectonics in a coffee cup.
And that’s a radically new idea. In fact it’s a revolutionary new idea. How come geography and geology underwent such a revolution in such a short time? And such a quiet revolution? How did the old established gradualist geologists get defeated so quickly by upstart radical plate tectonics theorists?
A revolution in thinking seems to have taken place in geology and geography in the 1960s. And it’s a revolution that seems to have been as substantive as the Global Warming alarm that was raised a couple of decades later. Before there had been revolution in thinking about the Earth’s atmosphere, there had been a revolution in thinking about the Earth’s lithosphere. But somehow or other one revolution passed off without much public contention, and the other one has generated strong contention. I’ve not heard of Plate Tectonics sceptics, but there are plenty of Global Warming deniers.
Why was there so little contention about Plate Tectonics, and so much about Global Warming? My answer: the Internet. Back in the 1960s, public debate about these sorts of matters was conducted in newspapers and on TV: we were all pretty much told what to think by experts. But when Global Warming alarmism got under way in the 1990s, the public debate was increasingly being conducted on the internet. There was a growing plurality of different points of view. And there ceased to be authorities, usually in universities, whose judgment was trusted.
Pre-internet and post-internet are two different worlds. They are as different as the worlds before and after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg shortly after 1400. After the invention of the printing press, the world started being flooded with books. And after the invention of the internet, the flood became a deluge.
And one effect of this deluge has been the dissolution of authority. For while there was only one Book, and its custodians were a handful of clerics in a church, and it told one particular story, it was very difficult for any different stories to be told, and everyone believed the one story in the one Book. But once there were two books that told slightly different stories, divisions and disagreements appeared. And the single church dissolved into many different churches, all telling slightly different stories.
And it’s the same today, in spades. With a mounting abundance of competing stories, different points of view, all authorities are coming into question. It’s not the churches that are in the firing line these days: it’s all the established institutions. And it’s happening because people can question things, and increasingly do question things.
Or, to put it another way, you are these days either someone who believes what the experts tell you, or you aren’t. If you think that human-generated carbon dioxide causes global warming, you’re believing the experts. If you think that smoking causes lung cancer, you’re believing the experts. If you think that the Earth is a sphere on whose surface we all live, you’re believing the experts. On any matter whatsoever, you’ll find yourself either believing the experts, or disbelieving them.
No better example of this can be seen than in the emergence of lots of senior figures in US intelligence agencies into public life. I was drawing attention to the strange phenomenon only a couple of days ago. People like James Comey and John Brennan are claiming to be authorities. They’re claiming to be experts. And actually they are experts: they spent their lives in one intelligence outfit or other. They’re asking people to trust them when they say that the Russians interfered in the last US presidential election, and Donald Trump is an illegitimate upstart who should be removed from office. And if you’re someone who implicitly trusts experts, you’ll probably believe them. And if you’re someone like me, who implicitly distrusts anyone who claims to be an expert or an authority, you probably won’t believe them. And there are plenty of other intelligence experts who are contradicting what they say. So there’s a civil war going on inside US politics. And nobody really knows who to believe.
Anyway, my thought this morning was that if the theory of Plate Tectonics had been put forward in 1990 rather than 1960, it would now be a matter of as much contention as Global Warming. You’d be a Plate Tectonic alarmist, or a Plate Tectonic sceptic or denier. You’d probably have strong opinions about it. That you don’t is really only because Plate Tectonics was presented to you as a done deal in about 1970, with all the newspapers and TV and radio channels lined up behind it, not a dissenter in sight. The same happened with smoking and lung cancer a decade or two earlier. But those days are over now. It’s no longer possible to manufacture a consensus with the help of a few authorities in high places. For there are no authorities any more, and there is no consensus.
I mention Plate Tectonics because it’s something I’ve been exploring a bit in recent months, while I’ve been thinking about ice ages. It’s new country for me. I’ve probably been thinking more about geography and geology than I ever have before. I used not to be interested. (I’ve begun to wonder, for example, whether peoples are much more shaped by their physical environments than any of them might imagine. And that if you live on a small damp island like I do, you won’t think like someone who lives in the middle of a wide plain like the Russian steppes or the American Midwest, or a desert or an Amazon forest or a Tibetan mountain plateau. But hey ho…) I’m not an expert. I’m not an authority. Nor am I a Plate Tectonics sceptic or denier. What intrigues me is how some people will first passionately believe one thing, and then a few years later passionately believe something completely different.