The social construction of science

Richard Dawkins posted a tweet that cause a bit of a furore in some sectors of Twitter. He did try to clarify, but it still didn’t go down well.

The problem with his tweet is that science clearly is socially constructed. It’s done by people who make decisions that are strongly influenced by our social norms. In some cases, as discussed in Angela Saini’s book Superior, this not only influences how we do science, but also influences the results of some research activities, or how we interpret research results.

If we want to deal with the issues highlighted in Angela Saini’s book, and also improve diversity and inclusion in science, then we need to recognise that science is socially constructed.

However, I also understand why some scientist push back against this framing. It’s either because they think it’s implying that scientific results are social constructs, or that they will be interpreted as being social constructs. The concern being that this can imply that scientific results are constructed (made up) by people, rather than them tending towards properly representing whatever system is being studied.

I realise that the latter is not what those who highlight the social construction of science are actually suggesting, but I do get why it might sometimes seem that way. However, I do think it’s worth scientists trying to understand why it is important to recognise that societal factors play a big in role in determining how we do science, and can – in some circumstances – influence how we interpret scientific results.

However, I also think it’s worth Humanities scholars understanding why there can be push back from scientists. It’s not that they think societal factors play no role in science, it’s more that they think that this doesn’t necessarily imply that societal factors will have a big influence on scientific results, or how we interpret these results. There’s a concern that this can lead to people undermining scientific results when these results seem inconvenient. I think this is a valid concern, even if this isn’t what the social construction of science actually implies.

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53 Responses to The social construction of science

  1. Mitch says:

    Social factors do play a role in science. However, they tend to cause deviations from the objective truth that exists despite the science construct. Mostly the approach is data limited, and often theory gets stuck because of interpretation by the older scientists made in their youth. So science stutters toward a better view of the world. The best example I know of is the replacement of geosyncline theory in geology (vertical movements) by plate tectonics (horizontal translation).

  2. RickA says:

    Science may be socially constructed – but science’s truths are not. Take the speed of light, or gravity or how suns form. All the hard sciences are based on truths which are baked in from the big bang and on. That is what I think Dawkins was referring to. Physics, chemistry, biology and so forth. H2O existed before humans “discovered” it and labeled it H2O. Ditto for pi and e (I would argue). pi is found in any perfect circle – like the cross-section of a black hole (or its light sucking radius). At least that is my opinion.

  3. daveburton says:

    Science is neither a social construct nor a set of truths. It is an algorithm, for the discovery of those truths about the physical world. That algorithm is called The Scientific Method:

    https://sealevel.info/papers.html#whitherscience

    Feynman famously explained it:

    Unfortunately, “scientists” often stray far from that ideal:

    https://www.sealevel.info/Bonferroni-blue_by_Hilda_Bastian_used_by_permission_CC_BY-NC-ND_4.0.html

  4. Dave,
    Yes, I’m well aware of the scientific method. That doesn’t really change that the scientific process is socially constructed, even if the results are not necessarily substantively influenced by these societal factors.

    As you may have discovered here before, my tolerance for posting links to sites that promote scientific ideas that are almost certainly wrong is limited.

  5. nyolci says:

    When the dust settles, (natural) science is a bunch of observations and a few (incomplete and inconsistent) mathematical models. These things, whether we like it or not, eventually “live” inside people’s minds. So in this sense science is trivially a social construct. What Dawkins refers to in his tweet is the physical reality. But that’s not “science”. Just as a photograph of a house is not the house itself.
    Okay, social construct. But of course the observations are constrained by physical reality, and the models are constrained by observations. So there’s not a big room for arbitrariness. Still, Physics has two models (the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics), and in practice we usually use a third one (Newtonian mechanics). Biology, Dawkins’ field, has no mathematical model (yet), it’s still in the observational phase. There is considerable debate about group selection etc.
    And it’s up to society how we use some scientific or engineering result. Of course this “use” is not arbitrary either but there may be considerable room etc. IMHO Dawkins’ tweet was quite silly.

  6. Willard says:

    > take the speed of light

    Not sure that constants are the best examples of truths. Perhaps heliocentrism would be a better one. But even then that model remained problematic before we could observe stellar parallax, something we succeeded to do 200 years after Galileo.

  7. nyolci,
    Yes, if Dawkins had said something more like there is a physical reality and the scientific process can uncover this then I suspect he would have received less flack. By confusing science with this physical reality (for want of a better term) he confused the socially constructed process with this reality.

  8. brigittenerlich says:

    Might it help to distinguish between science as a social practice and science as a(n ever changing) body of knowledge, which includes the laws of physics etc., and where some parts are much more stable than others (those parts that no longer sort of ‘break’ when tested to destruction). And I would avoid at all costs words like ‘construct’ and words like ‘truth’, which have both become strange attractors for controversy and are just not wort the hassle. And of course the social practice of science can be as biased etc. as we humans generally are, but there many many humans and there is a lot of time and space to do science in and gradually find out what works and what doesn’t for most people, most places and most of the time.

  9. Brigitte,

    Might it help to distinguish between science as a social practice and science as a(n ever changing) body of knowledge, which includes the laws of physics etc., and where some parts are much more stable than others (those parts that no longer sort of ‘break’ when tested to destruction).

    Yes, and I suspect Dawkins was using science to mean the latter rather than the former. I think what he said was lazy and did gloss over the complexities of the scientific process, but I also think some of the responses were uncharitable. Of course, there may be reasons why some decide to extend little charity.

    As Chris Colose pointed out on Twitter, this whole discussion seems to be people mostly talking past each other and there’s little profound about the discussion. In some sense, I tend to think that of course there are many aspects of the process that are socially constructed, but that’s pretty obviouus, and doesn’t mean that it strongly influences the scientific conclusions that we draw. However, I do think that there are areas where this is more important, but this may be more to do with research that actually looks at society and, consequently, our own societal judgements can have a big impact on how the research is interpreted.

  10. brigittenerlich says:

    I agree. It’s good to acknowledge the social context in which science happens and the impact this has on science and scientists. But that should not be used to question some of the stable findings that have been laboriously achieved and that remain stable despite all the social hustle and bustle….

  11. I say let the social scientists run SpaceX. As it would appear that social scientists are already running the SLS and James Webb Space Telescope efforts. Or let social scientists run CERN which has been a success to date.

  12. “As you may have discovered here before, my tolerance for posting links to sites that promote scientific ideas that are almost certainly wrong is limited.”

    “The scientist … He formulates … He derives … He devises … He does … he cries … He can … his hypothesis … He can … his hypothesis … He publishes … his data … he discards … his predictions … he’s no … ”

    Nope, nothing wrong there.

  13. Steven Mosher says:

    Social factors do play a role in science. However, they tend to cause deviations from the objective truth that exists despite the science construct.

    Fails to understand the concept of an objective truth is a weird social construct in the west..

    Dr. Rice looks like you’re getting it.

  14. Steven Mosher says:

    What do you do when the science of perception (bruner) shows your that perception is socially constructed

  15. Steven Mosher says:

    What’s the survival value of objective truth.

  16. I do wonder whether it is actually possible to cleanly separate the body of scientific knowledge from the everyday social practice of science. Despite the distinctly corporeal metaphor, much of that body of knowledge lives in the minds of scientists and in the interactions between them – the way they think about the world, how they talk about science, what they teach students, how they write papers, how they interpret what they read in papers, how to boot up the LHC, and so on.

    I’m struck occasionally when reading old scientific papers that – despite familiarity with the topic – they can be almost incomprehensible through unfamiliar organisation, nomenclature and notation, or simply because they seem obsessed with whatever arguments were current in the field at the time, but which are now resolved, ignored or irrelevant.

    If all scientists were to be wiped out tomorrow, then what’s written in text books, manuals and scientific papers would take a long time to return to a state anywhere near what it was, what it currently is. There’s no guarantee, I don’t think, that it would even end up looking the same.

  17. libertador says:

    “By confusing science with this physical reality (for want of a better term)”

    This want for a better term seems to resemble the problem Dawkins has. Is the term “physical reality” defined by physics or what is it referring to? Why did you include “physical” and did not just say “reality”? If it is defined by physics, how to include findings which are not parts of physics: future ones or from other disciplines or we believe, that all science is basically physics. That is a well established hypothesis, but should we take it for granted in the description of science. Some discussion about this in philosophy, as it seems hard to reefer to something beside our current understanding of it.

  18. diagrammonkey,

    I do wonder whether it is actually possible to cleanly separate the body of scientific knowledge from the everyday social practice of science.

    I don’t know about cleanly, but it must be possible to – in many cases – determine things about the world that we regard as essentially true, even if this understanding was developed by a process that is socially constructed.

    I agree, though, that how well we understand different aspects of the world around us is determined by choices we’ve made as to what to focus on. So, if we did lose everything and had to start again, the path we’d take may well be different. I would be very surprised, though, if – given enough time – the understanding that we developed differed greatly from our current understanding.

  19. libertador,
    Yes, I do think part of the problem is terminology. So, should we expect people to be extremely precise in their use of terminology, or should be be willing to try and understand what it is that they were trying to say? The latter is my normal preference, but with a sense that people who do choose to talk about complex topics should try to develop an understanding of the terminology that is trypically used.

    I could, for example, have just used “reality”. The term “physical” wasn’t intended to specifically mean “physics-related”. However, I think I was trying to distinguish between things that satisfy well-defined conservation laws and aspects of society that don’t in an obvious way.

  20. “I don’t know about cleanly, but it must be possible to – in many cases – determine things about the world that we regard as essentially true, even if this understanding was developed by a process that is socially constructed.”

    It depends who “we” are, I guess. I think lots of things are regarded as essentially true because we have scientisty people to act as a sort of guarantor of that “knowledge”. “Scientisty people” is admittedly a very elastic concept, which probably encompasses a broad range of people, but is certainly a social phenomonemenom and depends rather heavily on what we consider important enough to remember and rehearse outside of the more formal confines of science.

    I wonder if anyone has studied what is currently regarded as essentially true.

  21. nyolci says:

    libertador,
    “If it is defined by physics, how to include findings which are not parts of physics”
    I think I was the one who’s brought up this term. I referred with this to the actual “reality”, the “material world” that surrounds us, full stop. Now I regret using the adjective “physical” here, it evidently confused you.
    Anyway, Dawkins is right that Reality has been around and operating since the Big Bang without the help of any society or conscious being and it will be doing so for, well, long-long time 🙂 But he is wrong in conflating reality with science. The latter is the reflection of reality in our minds. Or at least part of this reflection. Including Physics.
    Unfortunately this is not the first time Dawkins is wrong in “scientific philosophical” matters (another term I may regret later). At the same time I can understand why some people are very reluctant to point this out ‘cos, well, this may give “munition” to various science denier movements.

  22. diagrammonkey,
    Yes, that’s a fair point. If we were to lose all the people who might describe as scientists, it might then be tricky for society to then have a sense of what is regarded as essentially “true”. There would probably be the obvious stuff. If you jump off a cliff, you’re going to head down at an increasing speed. But it may well be that there would be things that are regarded as pretty obvious that may no longer be seen as pretty obvious.

    I wonder if anyone has studied what is currently regarded as essentially true.

    Yes, I wonder the same. I think it might be Michael Tobis who wrote something a number of years ago about how things that are obvious within some research community are not always obvious to those outside that community. He was writing it in the context of how sometimes things are dismissed by experts even though they seem like reasonable ideas to non-experts. However, it may also be essentially what you’re highlighting. We don’t have a trivial way of establishing what is essentially true, even though there will be things that a research community would now accept. This may not be something that’s easy to demonstrate to those outside that community.

  23. Hank Roberts says:

    https://www.ssrc.org/publications/view/the-rise-of-the-dedicated-natural-science-think-tank/

    “… Analysts need to take neoliberal theorists like Hayek at their word when they state that the Market is the superior information processor par excellence. The theoretical impetus behind the rise of the natural science think tanks is the belief that science progresses when everyone can buy the type of science they like, dispensing with whatever the academic disciplines say is mainstream or discredited science.”

  24. Tyson Adams says:

    “Yes, if Dawkins had said something more like there is a physical reality and the scientific process can uncover this then I suspect he would have received less flack. By confusing science with this physical reality (for want of a better term) he confused the socially constructed process with this reality.”

    I think your comment here captures the issue nicely, Ken.

    There is this common refrain we hear from the likes of Dawkins and Krauss which oversimplifies science and conflates science with physical reality. This is hardly the first time Dawkins has made comments along these lines, and it is often an attack on the humanities, particularly strawmen of philosophy and postmodernism.

    It’s a nice marketing spin on science, but that is a terrible way to talk about science. It means that any mistakes, any revisions from better data/understanding, and any bad actors can undermine the entire field. We have to acknowledge observer bias, confidence intervals, error margins, monied interests, motivated reasoning, etc, etc.

  25. Steven Mosher says:

    I do wonder whether it is actually possible to cleanly separate the body of scientific knowledge from the everyday social practice of science

    Its more important to challenge the hegemony of science. That’s the main complaint of people in the humanities.
    1 that science is our only way of knowing.
    2. That if it’s not mathematical it’s not acience.
    3. That if it’s not science it’s useless trivial or impractical..

    Go run SpaceX if you can poet philosopher

  26. daveburton says:

    Everett, I guess you’re objecting to the pronoun “he”?

    In English, when the person’s sex is unknown, it is grammatically correct to just write “he.” It does not implies that the person is male, and it has the additional advantage that it drives PC pedagogues nuts.

    If it is not clear from the context that the person’s sex is unknown, then my usual custom is to write “he or she” for the first reference, for clarity, and then simply “he” for subsequent references, for brevity.

    In this case I assumed that it was clear that “the scientist” could be either male or female, but I’ve nevertheless gone ahead and made that change, anyhow, since it apparently wasn’t clear enough.

    Some PC pedagogues recommend substituting the plural pronoun “they,” in such cases, but The American Heritage Dictionary says:

    “Resistance [to singular they] remains strongest when the sentence refers to a specific individual whose gender is unknown, rather than to a generic individual representative of anyone: in our 2015 survey, 58 percent of the Panel found ‘We thank the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments’ unacceptable. A sentence with a generic antecedent, ‘A person at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in, was rejected by 48 percent (a substantial change from our 1996 survey, in which 80 percent rejected this same sentence).”

  27. daveburton says:

    Sorry, I botched the “that change” link (and the grammar in the 3rd sentence).

  28. Can we avoid a discussion about the appropriate use of gender pronouns.

  29. izen says:

    @-ATTP
    “Can we avoid a discussion about the appropriate use of gender pronouns.”

    When gender is a social construct ? Probably not.

  30. Dave_Geologist says:

    things that are obvious within some research community are not always obvious to those outside that community

    Coincidentally, ATTP, I’m catching up on my reading about the start of plate tectonics and the formation of “granite”(TTG*)-greenstone terrains (2010s literature). Those with good memories will recall that it’s been a side-interest since I did an undergrad geochemistry project on it.

    One thing that has bugged me for years is the claim that the presence of “granite” shows a planet like Venus or some exoplanet had surface water in the past, because you need that to make granite. Goes back at least to NASA in the 70s or 80s, from people who’ve out serious study into it and should know better.

    To someone like me who spent a large part of his PhD studying the formation of granite melts, it’s just so obviously wrong. Undergraduate-textbook wrong. You can make a granite completely anhydrously, whether s.s. or s.l., and even from the same source rock (water excepted) as for hydrous melting. It just takes much higher temperatures, and a much smaller degree of partial melting. Equally it’s obvious to any geologist who’s looked at it that the TTG suites which make up most of the planet’s Archean cratons formed by a large amount of hydrous melting in a fairly short period of time. That’s partly because the trace elements fit less well with anhydrous melting (but can be made to fit with a bit of tweaking or special pleading), but mostly because there’s such a huge volume of TTG. The problem is that the planet isn’t big enough to hide 20 TTG volumes of source rock and residue, whereas 3-4 TTG volumes is easy-peasy, in fact a lot of it is not hidden but is in plain sight.

    So in the case of Venus (absent chemical analysis, and of course then you don’t just need granite analyses, you need a reference planetary composition for Venus) the question is not “is there granite”, but “is there lots and lots of granite”.

    * Granite to a geologist has a very narrow chemical definition and forms a tiny fraction of what everyone else calls granite but we call granitoids (at least when we’re being pedantic). TTG is tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite, all of which are granite s.l. but none of which are granite s.s.

  31. Dave_Geologist says:

    Heheh. I’ll pedant myself by noting that hydrous melting means dehydration melting involving OH-bearing minerals. Free water can’t get deep enough as it would leak away upwards. It has to be released at depth from solid phases.

  32. Russell Seitz says:

    Heheh. I’ll pedant myself by noting that hydrous melting means dehydration melting involving OH-bearing minerals. Free water can’t get deep enough as it would leak away upwards. It has to be released at depth from solid phases

    Belay the heheh, Dave– That’s not the case In wet plate boundary suture zones. In those of of Central America and the Caribbean, pressure trajectories can exceed 2.5 Gigapascal at only 75 degrees Celsius !

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281891233_Olmec_Blue_Formative_jades_and_expanded_jade_sources_in_Guatemala

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313183069_The_sourcing_of_Mesoamerican_jade_Expanded_geological_reconnaissance_in_the_Motagua_region_Guatemala

  33. Joshua says:

    Steven –

    My mind is blown.

    But then again it isn’t because nothing I sense actually exists.

  34. Dave_Geologist says:

    Nice find Russell. Although I find a temperature as low as that at that depth not credible. And at that depth there will be essentially zero porosity except during transient earthquake events, so the water will be as OH in hydrous minerals or bound to clay surfaces by van der Waals forces. Or you need to be geopressured due to dehydration reactions and then you fracture the rocks and let the water escape upwards.

    However, TTG formation requires partial melting at depths and temperatures where garnet is stable in the residue and plagioclase feldspar unstable in source or residue. The depth is OK but not the temperature. You won’t melt rocks at 75°C, and in a wet environment garnet would be retrogressed to clay (chlorite and smectites, mostly). You need more like 750°C. A tad below 700°C with full water saturation, but TTGs have moved well up the cotectic plane from the eutectic so you’ll be above 700°C by the time you reach 20-30% partial melting.

    Told you I was an obsessive 😉

  35. Russell Seitz says:

    Dave, if you move deeper, tn 2.5 GP in that suture zone you get blueschist @ 350 C.
    and extreme metasomatism in between Deeper still, the volcanics implode into eclogites. And there are mud volcanoes on top

    The proof of the pudding is is the string of HPLT jadeitite deposits that extends across Guatemala, Cuba and Hispanola, spanning ~ 40 MA of KT orogeny

  36. Russell Seitz says:

    It also features modern maar volcanoes eruping though bluschisat, and glaucophane laced graphite schists a terrane better suited to sledding or riding than walking. The nearest old world analog may be the Cyclades and western Anatolia.

  37. izen says:

    @-SM
    “What’s the survival value of objective truth.”

    I doubt Objective Truth exist along with Objective Morality.

    The closer our subjective truth approaches objective reality however the better our fitness.
    It is logically rational to assume that there IS an objective reality that is discoverable by the scientific method, mathematical modelling, and logical deduction. If there is, then that is the best way to determine it. If there isn’t, then that is the best way of discovering that.

    Our five senses are subjective and limited. Which is why we build instruments that can measure with much greater replicable accuracy. While our basic senses can only ever perceive the ‘desktop’ version of reality, our instruments and mathematical logic have enabled us to begin to determine the quantum ‘machine code’ that underlies that surface perception.
    And enables us to understand we are part of a much MUCH larger system encompassing a region of space and time with stars, galaxies and a pattern of evolution over time that dwarfs our own existence.

  38. Dave_Geologist says:

    350°C at 2.5GPa is fine Russell. About 5°C/km, typical of blueschist terranes. It’s 75°C at 2.5GPa I was questioning. That metasomatising water is, of course, escaping upwards and came from dehydration reactions 😉 (where, at those low temperatures, dehydration includes loss of bound water from clays as they change to more ordered, less-water-retentive phases).

    To prove that some things can be non-obvious even to someone who is (used to be) in the research community, the next paper I read said TTGs have pretty consistent melting temperatures around 700°C. Of course I knew that – isotherms are far apart on the cotectic planes, but bunch together once you move into an end-member field so it’s really hard to move far from the cotectic. It’s one of the arguments used to say they came from mobile melts and did not fractionate at the top of a giant magma chamber, as you see in places like the Andes. The latter tends to result in a cargo of xenocrysts which bias the bulk rock composition away from the melt composition. They get left behind when melt migrates long distances through cracks and crevices.

    I in particular should have known (remembered) that, because one of my study areas was the exception that proves the rule. The intrusion’s composition lies on the cotectic plane, despite evidence that it had formed by a very high degree of partial melting. The plagioclase is as calcic as the proposed source rock whereas normally it would be more sodic. To get that you have to melt virtually all the plagioclase. Its trace elements also require little or no plagioclase in the restite (residue after melting). The combination of calcic plagioclase and high K-feldspar is also wrong for normal igneous rocks. To quote from my thesis:

    One possible means of producing this feature would be to melt a K-feldspar, quartz, plagioclase-rich semipelite, until most of the plagioclase had been consumed. The melt composition would tend to be stabilised near the cotectic plane, because it would need a large increase in temperature to move it into the quartz field.

    Other trace-element features require mica and garnet in the restite, consistent with the quartz-mica-garnet restite at my proposed source site.

    The trace elements are therefore consistent with derivation by partial melting of a semipelite, the restite consisting mainly of mica (and quartz), with no more than about 10% feldspars.

    To go full circle, I probably didn’t mention garnet because it was too obvious to be worth a mention after hammering home garnet, garnet, garnet in precious pages. You only need a tiny amount of garnet in the restite for its influence to be detected: the elements it likes, it really likes. And it’s the chemistry of TTGs which requires garnet in the restite and constrains them to have a basaltic-crust not mantle source, and to have formed at 35km+ depths.

    I didn’t make the point that, just from the frozen melt at the source site, there had to be at least 30% melting plus whatever had been expelled. Probably because that was also obvious, just from the photos. Or (although that’s just occurred to me now), that maybe melting stopped because it ran out of plagioclase rather then due to cooling.

    Now that’s obsessive!

  39. Russell Seitz says:

    Think seawater, Dave: the phase diagrams are pressure dependent , and the rapid subduction and orogeny 9 the Sierra De Las Minas is rising faster tha a centimeter a year) produces dynamically pressurized water that yields albatites in the Motagua SZ. See the papers by Harlow et. al. for the low temperature data.

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  42. Dave_Geologist says:

    I am thinking seawater Russell. Until it reacts with the minerals it’s in contact with. And of course I’m familiar with the phase diagram, although in practice it doesn’t matter for geology as we rarely deal with pressures where it’s not supercritical. And dynamically pressurised water fractures its topseal and escapes. In an oil or gas reservoir that’s been uplifted or unroofed it’s called “blowing its top”.

    In the sort of metamorphic rocks I dealt with we normally assumed 100% water saturation and geopressured fluids because the porosity is so tiny that any water evolved by dehydration (in prograde settings it’s dehydrating almost from the start) overfills the pore space and what doesn’t get taken up in mineral or melting reactions escapes. Surprisingly quickly – even back in my day numerical modelling had advanced to the point where we knew that the permeability of an active metamorphic terrane is about 1 millidarcy, higher than in a tight gas reservoir and the lower limit for a conventional gas reservoir.

    I’ll get back to you on the 75°C.

  43. Dave_Geologist says:

    Oddly enough, now I’ve read a bunch of last-decade papers, there is a relevance to the OP. The things that caused disagreement fifty years ago about Archaean plate tectonics are still causing disagreement. There are places where there is vertical tectonics driven by gravitational instability (basalts erupted on top of granite, and eclogite delamination and drips), places that walk and quack like subduction zones, and places where crustal imbrication implies (micro-)continental collision and hundreds of kilometres of total translation. While there are diehards on both sides, the consensus seems to be moving to a middle ground: intermittent plate tectonics (but perhaps not plate tectonics as we know it) and stagnant lid/plume tectonics, and an evolution in subduction zone and rift style from then to now. And something very, very like modern plate tectonics from about 3By, which is actually a lot of the stuff I looked at for my project. Better modelling has shown how that dome-and-basin style formed, in particular the need for the granites to be softened by 50-100 My of radiogenic heating, and deep seismic has shown the scale and fault dip of the imbricated terranes and ruled out vertical, strike-slip terrane assembly. All of that falls into the objective, there-is-only-one answer part of science.

    The disagreement tends to be between people who haven’t fully thought it through: for example those who argue that the imbrication can happen at the top of a convection cell – it can, but draw a balanced cross section and you find you need a cell ten times wider than the ones on the ground; or those who focus on their bit of subduction geology and ignore the rest of the planet. Or, and here we come to the construction of science bit, over the definition of plate tectonics. I would say that bits of frozen crust moving sideways at the top of convection cells, and being sucked down or sinking under their own weight as they cool, doesn’t count. And yet any lay-person’s guide to plate tectonics will start with movies of lava lakes in Hawaii, where the process is exactly that. My definition requires that “it’s the plates wot done it”. IOW they drive the process, mostly by slab pull but with a little bit or ridge push. And that the length scale of the (largest) plates is several convection cells wide. But there are small plates, and clear examples of, for example, the Iceland plume sitting at the same place on a mid-ocean ridge for 50 My. Does it need to be the whole Earth and not, for example, include connected or disconnected patches of plate tectonics but with half the planet still under a stagnant lid with a super-plume at the centre? But how is that fundamentally different from Pangea? Indeed overheating below a stagnant lid is one of the proposed mechanisms for breaking up supercontinents, and no-one would dispute that being plate tectonics. Does it have to be continuous from then to now or do on-off episodes, perhaps triggered by overturn and collapse of a stagnant lid, count? And so on.

  44. Dave_Geologist says:

    Incidentally, and this may be of interest to exoplanet-hunters and Venusians, I was surprised to see there is a tendency these days to interpret Earth as not having cooled continuously since the LHB, but to have warmed until about 3 By ago because higher radiogenic heat production and less efficient heat loss put the Earth in a positive energy balance, and cooled since. It’s tempting to link that turnaround to the onset of some sort of plate tectonics, as a more efficient way of getting heat to the surface so it can escape.

    It’s supported by a large compilation of mantle potential temperature* derived from basic lava compositions: Thermal history of the Earth and its petrological expression.

    * Temperature of the source region extrapolated to surface along an adiabatic gradient, to allow comparison of rocks with different source depths

  45. Dave_Geologist says:

    This is the best recent summary I’ve seen of the neither-fish-nor-fowl transitional view. Regimes of subduction and lithospheric dynamics in the Precambrian: 3D thermomechanical modelling. Lots of equations but some very nice pictures 🙂 .

    Transition between the two end-members, plume-lid tectonics and plate tectonics, happens gradually and at intermediate temperatures elements of both tectonic regimes are present. We conclude, therefore, that most likely no abrupt geodynamic regime transition point can be specified in the Earth’s history and its global geodynamic regime gradually evolved over time from plume-lid tectonics into modern style plate tectonics.

  46. Hans says:

    I would say the rules that science sets itself are a social construct (but a very effective construct), but ones these rules are set the outcome is determined by nature.

  47. Phil Glynn says:

    Science has had a bad name since Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity for the benefit of English apple growers who were frustrated that their harvests tended to float away. But this left us stuck on the ground when once we had been angels and now he’s gone and he took the secret of his trick with him. I beg your pardon.

  48. off topic, but: This guy David Ravensberger is definitely worth a listen.

    His overview on growth, degrowth, ecosocialism, ecomodernism helped me see the framework for the various movements within modern environmentalism.

    https://kpfa.org/episode/against-the-grain-march-16-2021/

    Happy Paddy’s Day to all

    Mike

  49. Russell Seitz says:

    Nissim Taleb, of Black Swan fame. maintains that , however tall and deep the structure, just 3% of the construction crew can create a popular illusion of deconstruction

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2021/03/what-color-is-your-black-swan.html

  50. David B Benson says:

    A social construction:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel
    Includes images of several paintings not usually shown.

  51. Joshua says:

    Phil –

    > Science has had a bad name since Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity for the benefit of English apple growers who were frustrated that their harvests tended to float away. But this left us stuck on the ground when once we had been angels and now he’s gone and he took the secret of his trick with him. I beg your pardon.

    I see what you did there. And I might add, it was nicely done.

  52. Russell Seitz says:

    What’s worse, Joshua, is that that shameless unitarian heretic arranged gravitation so to the disadvantage of French apple growers that the angels still make off with their share of old calvados.

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