Embrace the Controversy

Controversy can be a good thing, and sometimes, the more contentious things are, the better.

Many great examples of this were discussed in my first geologic graduate course, the subject of which was “The History of the Science of Geology.” For example, the controversy between those who believed rocks were primarily formed by water (neptunism) as opposed to those who supported formation by heat (volcanism) was a good thing.

So bring on the controversy! I myself embrace it. But let’s all keep in mind that, although we may have strong feelings about what AAPG should do going forward, we are all trying to support the best interests of our society.

The theory of neptunism was published in 1777 by the great German geologist Abraham Werner. According to this theory, all rocks were formed by precipitation out of water or redeposition by water (including granites). In contrast, many geologists at the time believed that subsurface heat formed most rocks, although those scientists recognized that water transport and deposition also formed some rocks. The great English geologist James Hutton supported this theory, which he called “plutonism” rather than “neptunism.” (See the Wikipedia article on Neptunism for a good summary of this debate and further references).

The neptunism versus volcanism theories of rock formation were a major subject of the science of geology until the 1830s. Scientific careers, funding and personal esteem were often impacted by the debate. Consequently, the need for data to support one side or the other of the debate spurred an abundance of scientific field work and research.

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Controversy can be a good thing, and sometimes, the more contentious things are, the better.

Many great examples of this were discussed in my first geologic graduate course, the subject of which was “The History of the Science of Geology.” For example, the controversy between those who believed rocks were primarily formed by water (neptunism) as opposed to those who supported formation by heat (volcanism) was a good thing.

So bring on the controversy! I myself embrace it. But let’s all keep in mind that, although we may have strong feelings about what AAPG should do going forward, we are all trying to support the best interests of our society.

The theory of neptunism was published in 1777 by the great German geologist Abraham Werner. According to this theory, all rocks were formed by precipitation out of water or redeposition by water (including granites). In contrast, many geologists at the time believed that subsurface heat formed most rocks, although those scientists recognized that water transport and deposition also formed some rocks. The great English geologist James Hutton supported this theory, which he called “plutonism” rather than “neptunism.” (See the Wikipedia article on Neptunism for a good summary of this debate and further references).

The neptunism versus volcanism theories of rock formation were a major subject of the science of geology until the 1830s. Scientific careers, funding and personal esteem were often impacted by the debate. Consequently, the need for data to support one side or the other of the debate spurred an abundance of scientific field work and research.

We now recognize that there are many mechanisms that lead to rock formation, and that neither of these theories are completely wrong or completely right. However, during this period, the development of the science of geology grew rapidly and made geology one of the major recognized branches of science.

It was the controversy and debate itself that provided the greatest contribution to the science of geology – not the theories.

Why is it important to recognize that controversy can be a good thing – important for AAPG and a good subject for my column in the EXPLORER?

The answer to that question is that controversy can also lead to the growth and improvement of a scientific society. During the recent merger attempt between the AAPG and the Society of Petroleum Engineers, many strong supporters of AAPG became embroiled in a debate around what path forward is best for the society. As I have mentioned in my past columns, AAPG needs to address our problems related to attracting new members and bringing our operational financial budget in balance. Many good suggestions for how we should address these problems have been brought forward as a result of the merger debates. This controversy could become a catalyst for improving AAPG and pushing us forward into the future, just as controversy has done for the science of geology.

Beware the Dark Side

However, there is a detrimental, or “dark side,” to controversy that we all need to be careful to guard against. A good example of the dark side was provided by another controversy in the history of the geological sciences course in which I was enrolled. This controversy revolved around the debate over whether or not fossils were evidence of ancient life or whether fossils formed naturally in rocks. This was another debate that led to increased field work and research and advanced the science of geology.

Johann Beringer spent many years doing research and collecting interesting rocks and fossils around his country estate. He postulated that the rocks might have originated from ancient life, although he recognized other possibilities. This early naturalist eventually published a treatise in 1725 on his life’s work. When some of his detractors on the other side of the controversy heard about his work and his plans to publish a treatise, they went to his field study area and carved fake fossils into the rocks. Unfortunately, the geologist included some of these fakes in his treatise. After it was published the detractors publicized what they had done and Beringer became a laughingstock. He never regained his reputation and spent the rest of his life buying back his books to remove them from public view. Today, we know his side of the controversy was the correct side and that his detractors and their actions were detrimental in the development of the science of geology.

My main point here is that controversy can be good but when one side makes personal attacks on the integrity and reputation of their opponents, it is detrimental to the process. During the debate over whether or not to merge AAPG with SPE, there were personal attacks made against some individuals participating in the debate by other individuals. These attacks were made on public forums such as LinkedIn and on chat during Zoom meetings. There were also efforts made to suppress the expression of ideas on opposing sides of the debate by dominating and disrupting the chat utility during some Zoom meetings.

I personally do not think there is any place within AAPG for personal attacks against a member (or anyone else for that matter) or for suppressing ideas just because they are on an opposing side in a controversy, be it a controversy in our science or in our society’s path forward. I pride myself that AAPG embraces diversity and inclusiveness, and that we comprise professionals and students who have many different backgrounds and perspectives within the geological sciences. To me, this is good for the science of geology and one of our society’s greatest strengths. Right now, we need everyone to be focused on the best path forward to address our problems and lead AAPG into the future, not on attacking each other personally.

So bring on the controversy! I myself embrace it.

But let’s all keep in mind that, although we may have strong feelings about what AAPG should do going forward, we are all trying to support the best interests of our society. We need to work together for solutions to our problems. As long as we are willing to be courteous and listen to all sides of our controversies I think we can come together to find the best path forward to a stronger and better AAPG.

Comments (2)

James Hutton
"The great English geologist James Hutton"? Steven M. Goolsby claims to have used Wikipedia to research "Neptunism": please ask him to try Wikipedia again so that he can identify correctly the nationality of one of the world's best known geologists, James Hutton. Calum Macaulay
9/13/2022 2:18:13 PM
We have more in common than we have differences
In his farewell letter to his country, Senator John McCain said, "...we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. " If we remove the word "country" and insert AAPG. These words apply equally well for us as geoscientists. We all love geoscience, we excel at providing critical energy to the world, and we love sharing our passion for the rocks and the pursuit of the prize with each other as professionals. This gives us an enduring foundation upon which we may build a better, more nimble, more impactful organization. AAPG can not continue as it once was...We must seek our common ground and build from there.
Show more
9/6/2022 12:54:40 PM

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