Scientific Telephone

An interesting piece over in FiveThirtyEight that considers how some myths persist in scientific communities (along with pointing out a suggestion that Darwin was late to the natural selection party). Its worth a read.

And so it reminds GG to once again rail against lazy scholarship (yes, this has happened before). So to add to the examples in the FiveThirtyEight piece, there is the story that J.D. Whitney attacked John Muir over his glacial theory for the origin of Yosemite by calling Muir “a mere sheepherder, an ignoramus.” You can google this quote (there are some variations out there); it shows up in many popular publications on the Sierra. This seems to first appear in Francis Farquhar’s History of the Sierra Nevada, where he cites the 1869 Yosemite Guidebook. But unless all the scanned versions of that guidebook online have been edited, that quote doesn’t appear in any of them.

There is good reason that you cannot find such a quote in that 1869 volume.  Muir was indeed herding sheep near Yosemite Valley in the summer of 1869; he had arrived in California in 1868 and seen Yosemite shortly thereafter but had not yet begun to formulate his ideas on the origin of the Valley. Whitney would have had to have been rather prescient to attack the ideas that were brewing in Muir in that summer.

So Farquhar cited a phantom.  Now Whitney most certainly disagreed with Muir, and Muir was certainly attacked for his idea, and it is possible that Whitney did say something that dismissive (it was very much in Whitney’s style).  GG has not turned up the source of the phrase. Muir’s identification of living glaciers in the Sierra was attacked by Whitney’s old field assistant, Clarence King, in his 40th Parallel Survey report:

lt is to be hoped that Mr. Muir’s vagaries will not deceive geologists who are personally unacquainted with California, and that the ambitious amateur himself may divert his evident enthusiastic love of nature into a channel, if there is one, in which his attainments would save him from hopeless floundering.

[If you wonder, Muir was more right here, too].

It would probably be 1870 when Muir’s theories on the glacial origin of Yosemite would have first attracted Whitney’s attention, as it was in that summer that Joseph LeConte met Muir and the two agreed on a glacial role in the origin of the range, with LeConte encouraging Muir to write this up somewhere (this led to Muir’s firs published writings). Yet the Yosemite Guidebook would not change with regard to any theories on the valley or those theories’ advocates.

Whitney did eventually respond in his book, The Climatic Changes of Later Times in 1882, but even here Muir’s name is absent (as would be fair, LeConte also having written in favor of a glacial origin): “It seems surprising that a theory so utterly averse to the facts should have ever gained currency, and it is almost humiliating to be obliged to enter into an argument to prove that the Yosemite Valley was not dug out of the solid granite by ice.”

Interestingly, there were no hard feelings.  The Sierra Club elected 10 honorary members shortly after being formed in 1892.  Among them were Whitney and King; Whitney wrote back thanking them for the honor.

Like many of the scientific rumors mentioned in the FiveThirtyEight piece, this isn’t exactly something that would challenge the core assumptions of science, but it does nicely illustrate the hazards of relying on secondary sources. If it matters, it is worth tracking down the original source.  You might be surprised by what you find.


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  1. Eocene Telephone | The Grumpy Geophysicist - April 30, 2016

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