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Fear of controversy

jkhgHistory of debate, or chronicle of the ridiculous?  Mike Ridd thinks the Society has become a little - conformist.

As a student in London in the 1950s, I recall the vigorous debates that used to take place at the Geological Society’s meetings - often, it seemed, involving the Scottish Highlands. Whether that lively controversial approach was encouraged by the ‘parliamentary’ layout of the meeting room in those days, I don’t know; but controversy was generally welcomed.


Thomas Gold FRS (1920-2004) may no longer be a familiar name to Fellows of this Society. But about 40 years ago (long after the meeting room was changed to its present layout) I was asked by the Society to chair a discussion session in which this controversial physicist would argue his case for an abiogenic origin of petroleum. The meeting was a lively one, although he made few, if any, converts to his theory that organic molecules such as methane emanating from deep in the Earth migrate via fractures to near-surface traps where they accumulate and are transformed into petroleum. A few years later, backed financially by supporters, he sought to confirm his theory by drilling deep into the Siljan meteor crater in southern Sweden where favourably fractured granite was predicted to exist at depth. The results were inconclusive, and over time Gold’s theory was largely forgotten.

The important point is that the Geological Society was willing to give a platform to Gold and his maverick ideas. It leads one to wonder if nowadays the Society has veered away from facilitating controversial debate.


In 2010 I was a member of the Society’s External Relations Committee. A working group had been assembled to formulate an official ‘Position Statement’ on climate change; but it was clear to me that it did not represent the views of the entire Fellowship. Professor Iain Stewart, also on the Committee, suggested a poll of Fellows to assess the Statement’s level of support, but this idea was rejected; as was my proposal that at least a sentence be added, stating that there were Fellows who were unable to support it.

Since that 2010 Position Statement an addendum was published in 2013, and in 2015 a further statement was added, headlined “The scientific evidence is now overwhelming that the climate is warming and that human activity is largely responsible for this change through emissions of greenhouse gases”.

I lack the depth of knowledge to challenge that point of view.  But among the Fellowship and more widely there is a large number of scientists who would welcome the opportunity to take part in the kind of debate that the Society used to encourage, like that staged for Thomas Gold. Science progresses by feeling its way toward the truth through debate, and I find it disappointing to see in our Society the same stifling atmosphere of conformity that is currently pervading some universities.

*Dr Michael F Ridd is a retired petroleum geologist.  Contact: E: Michael Fridd.