Habitual thinking, scholarly freedom and liberal education


NCGT, Volume 4, Number 1, March 2016. ISSN 2202-0039

Habitual thinking, scholarly freedom and liberal education
Karsten M. Storetvedt
Institute of Geophysics, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

“Nearly all scientific research leads nowhere”
– Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar (1969, p. 31)

The Ideal versus the Real

When I was a student and, subsequently, a young researcher, I thought of science as the epitome of reason and rationality – removed from human error and independent of human emotions. But science is generated by scientists – not by robots – who share the norms emerging from social interactions. Thus, research scientists are tied to each other psychologically like members of any social group. In order to be socially accepted, scientists must adhere to the shared values of their research community and refrain from disputing its basic theses. On the other hand, in order to explore fundamental and significant issues in any field of scientific inquiry, it is important to become released from the shackles of conventional wisdom which are often implanted primarily through continual repetition as well as being the consequence of tribal loyalty.

The history of science, and not least of the personality and foibles of most celebrated scientific geniuses, is full of examples of how non-conventional and sometimes ‘irrational’ thoughts led to unforeseen breakthroughs. Summarizing the historical account in Michael Brooks’ book – The Secret Anarchy of Science (2012) – the publisher’s blurb states that “ground-breaking science is rarely the product of painstaking research. Instead, it’s about breaking the rules, ignoring the consequences and celebrating the secret anarchy of science”. Describing the work and personalities of the relatively few scientific revolutionaries, Brooks himself states: “They break all the rules of polite society, trampling on the sacred, showing a total disregard for authority.[…] They conjure up seemingly ridiculous ideas, then fight tooth and nail to show that the ideas are not only far from ridiculous, but exactly how things really are. Some challenge the interests of government and business, occasionally sacrificing their reputation for the greater good. […] These anarchies are behind many of the Nobel Prizes of the last few decades” (Brooks 2012, p. 6).

It is important to be aware that both observations and their interpretations are strongly attached to a pre-existing theory. Thus, both the decision to undertake a particular set of observations and the procedures for doing so (either in the field or in the laboratory) as well as the way in which the resulting data should be interpreted, are intimately tied to a number of pre-conceived standards and hypotheses – constituting a complex web varying from accepted techniques to urban legends about the physical world. In the realm of the geosciences, for example, the overwhelming majority of researchers work confidently within the scheme of plate tectonics that represents the current geoscientific paradigm for which its established rules are given superior importance. Therefore, puzzling or contradictory observations that resist solution within that model, are commonly regarded as mere random anomalies rather than representing falsifications of the paradigm itself (cf. Kuhn 1962) and then ignored; in attempts to keep the paradigm afloat, its suggested structure becomes increasingly incomprehensible in consequence of numerous ad hoc changes of its basic structure, processes, assumptions and deductions. In his historical survey, Thomas Kuhn portrayed science like any human activity, as bound up with strong psychological and socio-political factors. The popular opinion that science is a dispassionate, cool and thoroughly objective enterprise is, of course, manifest nonsense.

To me, the weak non-technical proficiency of fellow scientists was well demonstrated during the General Assembly of the European Union of Geosciences (EUG) in Nice 2004. Despite several attempts, I found it was virtually impossible to start a meaningful discussion of the basic problems of plate tectonics. A sudden rush to attend an ‘important’ talk, concluded many attempts to raise such issues. Another form of reaction was to trivialize the matter, accompanied by laughter directed at the ignorance of the questioner – a familiar trick to salvage a threatened self-esteem. My suggestion that ‘puzzling’ observations could be just artificial problems – which might disappear altogether when the data were related to an alternative basic theory, frequently evoked silence. It seemed reasonable to conclude that my colleagues were reluctant to express thoughts that could be taken as a rejection of plate tectonics. The essence of the conceptual problem seems to be that openness about the factual problems and even consideration of alternative solutions could easily create difficulties in a geophysicist’s academic life. Some high-profile American geophysicists were apparently so closely attached to the terms and framework of plate tectonics that the situation was redolent of a state of fanaticism – an excessive and single-minded zeal. But due to the apparent confidence displayed by their seniors (and superiors), students and young researchers could easily fall victim to false modes of expression and dubious conclusions. To keep the conventional scientific theory in place, contradictory facts are either explained away or artfully manipulated to give the impression of being in accord with the theory.

At the 2004 EUG congress in Nice, I had a revealing conversation with one of the leading British palaeomagnetists of the 1950s and 60s. He asked me if it was true that I had completely given up on plate tectonics – to which I respond affirmatively. But when I tried to explain how the discrepancy between the polar wander paths of Europe and North America could be explained by inertia-enforced and much more moderate relative between-continent movements than that of plate tectonics, he interrupted me quickly by saying: But everything fits so beautifully, and that was even before we had the magnetic anomalies”! Further discussion had no meaning. He had to live in his world and die with his faith. It is obvious that those who have received honours and prestige for their work within the frame of plate tectonics will simply never be ready to rethink outside of that frame.

Unlike the majority of those I met in Nice – who revealed either strong preconceived attitudes, limited insight, or lack of courage (or all three) – a few colleagues showed a refreshing openness about the situation. One of them was Professor Eduard Perchuk of the Polish Academy of Science; he admitted that the two-hours long seminar I gave in Warsaw in 1995 had been a recurrent topic of conversation at his institute. I told him that from my position on the podium, I had observed the audience’s changing moods – expressed by an alternating conglomerate of serious-looking, smiling, thoughtfully nodding, and blushing faces. Eduard Perchuk chuckled over these descriptions which he believed gave a good picture of the scope of the emotional reactions my lecture had triggered. He went on to comment that “Although we are aware of the major problems facing plate tectonics, we are so familiar with this concept that it will take at least another 10 years before we will be emotionally ready to accept something completely new”. This was a rare outspoken statement and an honest assessment of the attitudes of the current generation of working geophysicists as well as a tribute to the stultifying (inhibitory) power of habitual thinking.

The problems of innovation were discussed in a seminar in Bergen on 28 October 2003; in an afternoon series on Science and Philosophy, Professor Per Arne Bjørkum lectured on the classical problems which creative thinkers always have to face and the consequent slow growth of knowledge. The speaker began by recalling the punishment of Georg Simon Ohm [1787-1854] in his native Germany after he had formulated the Law named after him. Ohm’s studies of electricity led him to being dismissed from his post as a physics teacher. He was then unemployed for seven years before the attitude to his work changed, whereupon he quickly achieved status as one of the century’s foremost physicists. In the discussion that followed the lecture, a young local geophysicist pointed out that creativity unfortunately is a big problem in academia. “One is always punished for it”! he exclaimed. He further told how, after having followed a lecture course on the philosophy of science, he had felt discomforted by his own seeming superficiality with regard to bridging theories and the more fundamental questions in global geology. The most remarkable aspect of his statement was, of course, that it was presented publicly.

The lack of academic freedom, the pressure to conform and the associated doctrinal education, is largely due to the fact that the most important leaps of knowledge (within each discipline) always have been associated with a relatively small number of scientific ideas arising from a correspondingly small number of creative scientists and their publications. Insight into overarching theories requires a much broader scholarly  perspective than can be expected as a result of today’s professional disciplinary fragmentation and narrow technical specialization. It is the disciplinary subdivisions that prevail in the scientific world of today, particularly in its teaching, which militates against the deeper understanding necessary to encompass all the available evidence rather than just arbitrary selections. The inflated academic/geopolitical talk about relationships and deep professional insights generally is nothing more than pretty words without professional content. Since the majority of scientists neither invent nor actually test intellectual bridging constructs, the dominant major theories (which, in general, have gained their sway through constant repetition and exposure in the popular press), and despite the lack of clarity as to the fundamental mechanisms involved, may easily become alienating elements in teaching and research – often presenting dogmas that it is impolitic to question. The principle of repetition accompanied by colourful presentations also means that the human critical faculty can be impaired, and thus the most nonsensical allegations may be cited as absolute truths. The advertising industry well knows how to exploit these human weaknesses.

The infirmity in academic culture was featured in an article in issue 8/2003 of the Forskerforum (the house journal of the Norwegian Science Association) where it was argued that the Consequences of cronyism in universities is destructive. It leads to the energy of students and young researchers being channelled away from research and into how to get ahead in a corrupt system”. Further, it was argued that To really tackle the cronyism culture will be considerably more uncomfortable, as the management will have to scrutinize the behaviour of their own colleagues and indeed reprove many of them[my emboldening]. Conditions become even more fraught where the leadership is operating within the same corrupt culture. Time and again, we are surprised by the lack of moral virtues in academia. With the erosion of the necessary ethical standards, we are en route to research communities that can only conform and leads to a cohort or generation of scientists whose thought processes are unfocused, lacking in discipline and demonstrating an aridity of originality.

Academic freedom of speech, or lack of it, was high on the political agenda in Norway in the first decade of this century: in 2006, the Government issued a Document on this problem (NOU 19, 2006). This report referred to what was regarded as a precise and comprehensive formulation of academic freedom – given in a joint statement from the Colloquium of University Presidents (2005), namely:


Academic freedom may be defined as the freedom to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish, subject to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry, without interference or penalty, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead.” (my emboldening).

The Norwegian Government Report stated that the freedom of the individual scientist must have some key elements – such as:

(A) Freedom to ask questions – even those about which the authorities consider to be established knowledge and understanding, and to question issues and theses that involve strong interests or emotions.

(B) Freedom to publish hypotheses, results and arguments. The core of academic freedom can be described as the absence of and protection from sanctions that threaten the researcher’s scientific integrity. (my emphasis)

Academic freedom in Norway was enacted in 2007, when Parliament approved a new paragraph in the University and University College Law obliging institutions to promote and defend this freedom. But how is the situation today? A recent issue of Forskerforum (10/2015) reported on the outcome of a recent EU-study on academic freedom in Europe. In this survey, a little more than 500 Norwegian university scientists participated. According to the report in Forskerforum 10/2015, about 90 scientists (17%) responded that they had experienced bullying from colleagues or psychological pressure from the institution in which they work, as a result of their scientific views. A little over 10% (~ 50 scientists) reported that they had been threatened with disciplinary measures as a result of statements they had given in internal forums at their institution. An equal number answered that their duties had been changed for the same reason, namely where they had exercised their academic freedom within their home institution.

When it comes to academic freedom, there is clearly a major gap between legislation and daily practice. In some professional circles, it looks as if collegiate pressure to conform is a challenge for scientists who are trying to follow new paths. But to be honest, isn’t this the old story all over again? Below I shall report on

the collegiate reactions in the Bergen geoscience community when I began to tell my students about the failing basis of plate tectonics (PT). The following short glimpses of ‘science in action’ are from the period 1979-85.


Educational responsibility clashes with PT indoctrination

In connection with the reorganization and expansion of teaching units in the Faculty of Science in Bergen, my Department of Geomagnetism was invited to establish joint courses with the Seismological Department and the Geological Institute. In the new teaching plan, which was established in the spring term of 1979, I was given the opportunity to lecture to new student groups, particularly within seismology and petroleum-exploration related programmes. But this teaching collaboration turned out to be a conflict area. For my co-lecturers, the plate tectonics model was conveyed in its most glossy version – as it was presented in college textbooks around 1970 – stripped of its major conceptual problems. During the 2nd half of the 1970s, the Bergen geological community attained an attitude to continental drift and sea floor spreading approaching that of holy writ. Contrary to this unrealistic shiny picture, I had (since the late 1960s) gradually become aware that many critical observations were at variance with the predictions of PT, and that all of its fundamental tenets had been allowed progressive mutability. In my own department, my growing insight into the problems afflicting PT had been conveyed to the students in palaeomagnetism, but the factual counter evidence proved to be difficult or, indeed, nigh on impossible for the local geological community to accept.

In the early stages of the planning of an advanced course in Global Geophysics, the local geologists became somewhat agitated, even aggressive, when I mentioned the many unsolved problems with the sea-floor spreading model and for which the course would have to cater; in particular, I referred to data from the trans-Atlantic deep sea drilling campaigns (DSDP) for which the majority of results had turned out to be at variance with the model’s predictions. During discussions on the build-up of the course, I maintained that, from my point of view, a teaching course that did not include the problematic aspects of plate tectonics would be unethical and a betrayal of the students. After all, to explore significant and controversial questions would be an essential pre-condition to fulfil the university’s mission of educating students. However, in the eyes of my adversaries plate tectonics was so unimpeachable that casting doubt on its basis would be wasting time; it was also alleged that introducing caveats would spoil the flow of the lecture course. My colleagues had obviously forgotten that dissemination of idealized theories easily leads to scientific indoctrination, which can only be detrimental to the intellectual development of students. I argued, therefore, that there could be no question of my participating in a lecture course that failed to present substantial contradictory evidence. Despite this fundamental disagreement, which was never resolved, the planned lecture course on global tectonics was established.

In local public talks and discussions, I continued to argue that the major problems with which the ‘new global tectonics’ struggled were primarily a product of observations being forced into an erroneous geophysical framework; in other words, the plate tectonic model did not function as a realistic basis for understanding the geological phenomena and their inter-relationship. However, some local geoscientists resented the fact that I felt free to discuss professional issues, namely those concerning plate tectonics which they considered to be beyond my academic competence or outside my authority. It was therefore obvious that my own professional development represented a latent conflict area with respect to the Global Geophysics course. I gradually realized (in the early 1980s) that my future academic life could not continue along the same gentle path as it had before. There was never really any doubt in my mind that I, in my teaching, had to call a spade a spade. On principle, I would never interfere with my colleagues’ teaching, but the mandatory requirement for my own teaching would be that it gave the most accurate presentation of the hard facts – which nobody could reject but which for the sake of ‘theoretical and educational tidiness’ had been neglected. If I gave in to the ideological pressures, to convey what I considered a fictional geophysical world-view, I would simply lose my self-respect as a researcher and university teacher.

In a basic lecture course on Earth Physics in spring 1980, I gave the new students a summary of the interpretative problems of the linear marine magnetic anomalies – that usually were interpreted in favour of alleged variations in geomagnetic field polarity and taken as a means of dating sea-floor evolution. Consequently, I had questioned some of the most central aspects of plate tectonics. All I conveyed was substantiated with hard facts published in the literature – notably in the Deep Sea Drilling Reports. The students were sitting like live question marks – they could hardly believe what they were hearing! They told me that plate tectonics in its simplistic version was frequently repeated in the various geology courses. All the lecturers presented the same litany of textbook ‘facts’ about the development of the oceanic crust; no one had given them the slightest hint that the favoured model struggled with unresolved complications.

The students must have discussed the matter among themselves because, at the next lecture, they asked about the possibility of having a discussion gathering about the problems I had outlined in my lecture the previous week. I replied that I was in favour of such a meeting to clarify matters. The students thought that an evening meeting in the Geological Club would be an appropriate forum for an open discussion between students and teachers. In the following weeks, however, neither students nor staff mentioned the issue again. However, judging by the facial expressions and the veiled allusions from some of my colleagues in the Science Building, it was clear that I was regarded a ‘disloyal’ colleague. One of the aggrieved seismologists exclaimed “You mustn’t come here and ruin the whole teaching for us”.

The entry of plate tectonics into the geoscientific arena in the Science Building had, as is usual in such cases, not added a deeper level of perception than that being conveyed in elementary college textbooks. On this basis, it had not been possible to arrange an open discussion meeting on PT. With students attending, an open debate could easily have revealed the lack of real insight into the basis of plate tectonics – inevitably resulting in the loss of the teachers’ reputations. Therefore, the matter had to be hushed up. With my critical gaze on most of the central aspects of the new global tectonics, I had fallen in the line of fire. The dilemma with such professional alienation has sometimes been discussed in the philosophy of science literature. In this regard, John Ziman commented:

Institutionalized, collegiate science is always vulnerable to the charge that it is no more than an ‘Establishment’ that defends only its own orthodoxy. The consensus towards which science strives applies, in practice, only to the members of a scientific community already heavily indoctrinated in the current paradigm. Despite all its high ideals and good intentions, such a community must inevitably resist radically new ideas that upset its hard-won position and throw into doubt all the earnest labours of its members” (Ziman 1978, p. 42).


Theoretical alienation exposed on an international arena

In early spring 1981, I received an invitation from the UN Economic Commission for Africa, in connection with a then forthcoming two-week workshop on natural resources in Africa – to be held in Addis Ababa 5-16 May, 1981. At that time, I was working on a palaeomagnetic project in the archipelagos of the eastern Central Atlantic, as well as on a compilation of geological and geophysical data from the NW African continental margin. Until then, my research activities had focused mainly on experimental and analytical palaeomagnetism, though since 1969 I had been increasingly interested in interpretative problems of marine magnetic field anomalies and the many unexpected results from deep-sea drilling in the Atlantic. Thus, I was in an early stage of becoming ‘unfaithful’ to plate tectonics; the basic problems I was beginning to unveil had been discussed with a few foreign geophysicists – particularly in connection with EGS Council and Programme Committee meetings. The late Professor Stephan Müller (ETH, Zürich) was the one with whom I had had the closest professional contact.

The two-week long scientific meeting in Addis Ababa was one of my very first international meetings where my own primary research field – palaeomagnetism – was not a directly relevant theme. Several modern geophysical techniques were demonstrated, including equipment for space geodetic measurements. Practically all the lecturers were well-known western geologists and geophysicists covering a wide range of geophysical expertise. Since the conference was organized as a workshop, the speakers were allotted ample time. My own lecture had the title: Palaeomagnetic and radiometric results from Cape Verde and Canary Islands; Ages of early tectono-magmatic events, possible implications for Atlantic sea-floor spreading, attenuated continental crust, and petroleum reserves.

In my lecture I discussed a range of published data, especially from Deep Sea Drilling in the Central Atlantic, and from seismic profiles along the NW African continental margin. Then I compared the geological development of the Cape Verde and Canary islands. My presentation consisted of factual observations of various kinds, but what was entirely new to the audience was that it could be shown that the total mass of information could be given a simple explanation without plate tectonics playing an appreciable role. I had not completely dismissed sea-floor spreading, but this mechanism had become much less important in my view than it is in plate tectonics. In my interpretation, the Atlantic continents were bounded by relatively wide belts of converted continental crust assuming that relatively wide belts of thick granite crust had been thinned from the bottom upwards and chemically altered. The popular sea-floor spreading model was therefore not relevant in the development of the West African continental margin. We were thus back to the oceanization model of continental crust, initially proposed by Joseph Barrell (1927) and later ‘reinstated’ by Hans Cloos (1939) and Vladimir Beloussov (1962). The slow subsidence of the sea-floor, with its gradual chemical conversion, was interrupted by episodic elevations. The vertical oscillations of the sea-floor could therefore be related to the well-known relative fluctuation of sea-level. Thus, I gave an explanation of the development of the relatively shallow sea passages that periodically had covered larger parts of western Sahara and other low-lying continental tracts.

This lecture in Addis Ababa was my first attempt at addressing more general aspects of crustal development. As I had ignored significant parts of traditional plate tectonic arguments, I expected that my long untraditional talk would be followed by an intense and perhaps dismissive discussion. But the overall tacit reaction from the audience was therefore very surprising. The many experts who had been eagerly engaged in the previous sessions – on everything that concerned instruments, techniques, observations and data analysis, kept silent – apart from two senior academics. Thus, Professor Hugues Faure (Luminy, Marseilles) gave strong support to what I had said about the connection between the tectonic development of the NW African continental margin and the sedimentation history of the Saharan basins, and Professor Stephan Müller (ETH, Zürich) commented that his cooperative group of seismologists had just obtained new data from a sector of the NW African margin that seemed to support my crustal development model: data “which you certainly will love to see“, he said.

Later in the afternoon, Professor Claude Froidevaux (Orsay), admitted that the contents of my lecture had come as a very great surprise to him, but he made no further comments. Also Dr Ron Girdler (Newcastle), who for more than 20 years had worked on the ‘opening’ history of the Red Sea, admitted that my conclusions had been so unexpected that he had been unable to gather his thoughts for a reaction, but his dismissive attitude was clear enough. Another British participant had brought along a recently published book on Atlantic evolution from a plate tectonic perspective, and which he proudly showed off to other colleagues. But when I asked to inspect the book to see what it contained, my request was denied.

In many ways, the meeting in Addis Ababa helped clarify my view of the scientific endeavour. The alienated and irresponsible attitude that the vast majority of participating researchers had to their basic theory – plate tectonics – was completely unexpected but analogous to the situation at my home university. I was obviously facing a universal problem. The many ‘experts’ who were present in Addis were only expert in technical and observational matters in their respective fields – not in interpretation, which is the segment of any science which should lead the way to real insight. If the basic assumptions are wrong, interpretations will naturally be distorted and useless in the real search for truth. Above all, I had understood that the opposition I met at my home university was basically emotional – not scientific, but the lack of insight into the state of plate tectonics was clearly no better elsewhere than it was at my home university in Norway.


Opposition hardens

In September 1982, a group of research students and scientists from many European countries visited my Department of Geomagnetism in Bergen, on which occasion I gave a two-hour public lecture about evolution of the North Atlantic – demonstrating that the palaeomagnetic database easily fitted into a much less mobilistic scheme than that of plate tectonics, and indeed that a great number of deep sea drilling results did not comply with the popular sea-floor spreading model. In the discussion that followed, Professor P.V. Sharma (Copenhagen) said he was very surprised by what he had heard and, since I had submitted so many propositions that were not dependent on plate tectonics, he had to have time to think it over before he could ask specific questions. Later that day, Einar Ådland from the University of Bergen newspaper – News from the University – came for an interview. A few days later, my new views on evolution of the Atlantic had been spread across the campus; it was evident that plate tectonics had a local challenger. My orthodox colleagues in the Science Building now had got extra ‘reasons for concern’. The ‘inspectors’ were preparing a new test of my teaching.

The initiative came just a few days later. I was invited to give an evening talk in the Geological Club on one of my “ongoing tectonic investigations”. For the benefit of a few foreign visitors, I was asked to give the talk in English. The meeting of the Geological Club was held on 2 December 1982, and the lecture was entitled Aspects of the Evolution of the North Atlantic. During my talk, I certainly gave the geo communities in the Science Building a close-up description of my global geophysical standpoint. The underground rumbling, which had been going on for at least two years, namely that I did not communicate the right doctrine, was finally confirmed. “But this is completely different from the way I teach”, one of the geology professors exclaimed. As usual there was no deep academic discussion after my talk. A few questions were asked about the presumed connection between the marine magnetic field anomalies and age of the sea-floor. As I had been interested in this unclarified problem for more than 10 years, the claims put forward in support of plate tectonics were easily refuted.

During the 1980s, my department experienced a relatively large influx of masters’ students, and most graduates were employed by the oil industry. The University expressed great satisfaction with our activity in the Department of Geomagnetism, but some envious colleagues in the Science Building were far from happy about it. In the fall of 1984, I led the public doctoral dissertation of Anker Monrad Berge, a geophysicist from the Seismological Department. Berge had followed my teaching in global geophysics, and I had led him through a special curriculum in marine magnetism. The dissertation was followed by a festive gathering where the geoscientific communities of Bergen were well represented. During the gathering the doctoral candidate came up to me saying: “I must thank you for your teaching; your lectures have been the most useful throughout my studies”! Sadly, this statement came in the hearing of some of my fiercest opponents and, judging by their faces, it was obvious that what Monrad Berge had said would not be to my advantage; my opponents who had no time for any alternative to plate tectonics showed an even more dismissive attitude than before. As is well known, generosity is scarce within academia, especially if one does not belong to a club of scholarly friends.

As the Fall Semester of 1984 drew to a close, lectures were completed, exams terminated, and it was time for censorship. At one of the censorship meetings, it became clear that almost all the geophysics students of the joint course in global tectonics had opted for further studies in my department. This information duly reached the ears of one of the professors present, who trumpeted: “Your success in teaching we will soon bring to an end! To judge from his grim face, it was evident that he was serious about his threats. My five-year long professional openness, about the deplorable situation of plate tectonics, had created uncontrolled emotions and ‘hypertension’ in some circles.

At this time, I had become aware of a local resistance network, and the head man of these activities was easy to identify. This was a person who, since the mid-70s, had tried to place me under his wing – make me an obedient tool of his own ‘greatness’ and part of his empire – but I had been too independent to respond to his uncomfortable pressure. In hindsight, visiting guest scientists told me they had long realized that I had ended up in the envy snares. But as an independent individual I would never have thrived within a conventional authoritarian organization anyway, so there was little I (or he) could do about it. Science is clearly full of embalmed opinions, wishful thinking, friendship cliques, protectionism and ambition.

The protracted conflict that arose due to my identifying the problems with plate tectonics in the course of my teaching gradually came to have quite a serious character, and was discussed with many colleagues from other university institutes. For example, I asked Professor Arne Foldvik: “If in your oceanographic research you discovered serious failures in the basic assumptions of your science, could you then avoid disclosing these problems in your teaching?

The answer came promptly: “No, I could not! Because such a behaviour would be both dishonest and a fraud against the students!

That was exactly how I always had understood my own teaching responsibilities.

Sometimes, even geophysicists from the local resistance groups were open about the dubious situation for plate tectonics. For example, during a regional train journey I was sitting next to Kristen Haugland – a geophysicist and science administrator from the Department of Seismology. On the trip we talked about many aspects of science, and I gave him a summary account of my view of the status of global tectonics – how uncomfortable facts had been swept under the carpet in the name of tidiness. I said that I thought most of the problems were caused by failing expectations caused by a flawed theory. Perhaps, I suggested, it was now possible to arrive at an entirely new theory that could give us both a better understanding of the geological phenomena and their inter-relationship? During my lengthy talk about the problems of PT, Haugland said not a word, but finally he responded:

Karsten, as you now are raging on about the conventional viewpoints in global geophysics, continuously promoting new solutions, it seems quite clear to me that you have no one here in Norway with whom to discuss these issues. It is necessary for you to go abroad”.

Never before had my problem been more clearly expressed. Haugland probably did not mean that Norway lacked Earth scientists with whom I could have had both the benefit and the pleasure of discussing geophysical matters – provided they had the necessary courage. But he realized that when it came to major geoscientific questions, there were hardly any competent scientists in that field within the borders of the Fatherland. But Haugland was probably not aware of the fact that it was not easy to find discussion partners abroad either. Every generation has its doctrinal beliefs – enshrined viewpoints about which it would be risky to ask questions at all. It was nevertheless what I had done, after which a number of jealous and zealous colleagues had entered the arena with what they regarded as corrective measures. My professional development had created disorder in the Bergen geoscience prestige hierarchy.

In September 1985 I was at a committee meeting in England, and on the return journey I visited the Department of Physics in Newcastle. On the way to morning coffee along with two colleagues, Bill O’Reilly and John Mitchell; they were eager to tell me about strong rumours they had heard. There were conspiratorial activities against me in Bergen, they claimed. The intrigues were thus no longer a local Bergen affair – they had propagated abroad. As my informants knew the circumstances in Bergen, it was suggested that my problems were a result of the familiar territorial battle in academia. During a conversation with a third colleague in Newcastle - about conclusions reached during my research stay at Memorial University of Newfoundland in the spring of that year, he eventually said in an unfriendly and angry voice: “Now it is time that you curb your activities so that others can get research tasks to address”!

This, of course, was a pointless, irrelevant and ridiculous reaction – seemingly just an expression of frustration in relation to the harsh competition among scientists for research grants and status. In science, as in many other human activities, the collegiate relationship easily becomes strained by competition and by professional disagreement, in the context of prestige and various forms of survival tactics. Experience had shown me that attacking the plate tectonic doctrine could be likened to a kind of extreme sport. Nevertheless, I was ready to pursue the critical work I had started. No matter what would happen, I would never get to compromise on my integrity and my conscience. At this time, I had no idea that from 1988 onwards I would be busy promoting my own alternative geotectonics theory.


Acknowledgement: I express my sincere gratitude to Chris Argent, London, for his critical editing and improvements of the manuscript.



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