J. Harlen Bretz: Proving Theories Via Outliving Your Critics

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Many people have an idealized view of how science works. They think that someone makes a discovery or publishes a paper, then everyone acknowledges their discovery, and everyone moves on to the next thing.


However, that isn’t quite how things work in reality. The real advancement of science can be quite messy. One man learned this the hard way.

Learn more about J Harlen Bretz and how he changed a scientific discipline through determination and longevity on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The German Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Or as it is more colloquially put, science advances one funeral at a time. 

Convincing people that deeply held beliefs they hold are wrong is very difficult to do. This is true in almost every aspect of life, and science is no exception.

When a certain worldview is established, overturning it is hard, even if the evidence is on your side. 

No one knew this better than J Harlen Bretz. 

Bretz was a high school biology teacher in Seattle who took an interest in geology and then turned that interest into a Ph.D. in the field, and a teaching position at the University of Chicago.

While he was living in Washington, he took an interest in the topography of Eastern Washington.

In 1922, he began doing fieldwork in the Columbia Plateau and several of the erosional features which were found there. He went to that area every year for the next seven years, and over a period of 9 years he published 15 papers on the subject. 

He dubbed the area the Channeled Scablands. If you get a chance, as soon as you are done listening to this, do a search for “Washington Scablands” and take a look at some of the images to get an idea of what this area looks like. It is really impressive. 

According to his studies, and years spent analyzing the area, he came to the conclusion that the formations in this region could only have been carved out by a massive cataclysmic flood. 

The problem was that the area today is a high desert and there was no obvious source for the water. 

Little did Bretz know that this theory would consume the next forty years of his life. 

The problem with Bretz’s theory is that it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the geology establishment. 

The predominant worldview of geologists at the time was known as gradualism or uniformitarianism. This held that geologic change occurred slowly and gradually over long periods of time. It had been established by the father of modern geology, James Hutton in the 18th century. 

This theory isn’t wrong per se. Many geological changes happen in exactly this way. We can so accurately measure the Earth now that we can tell how fast North American and Europe are drifting away from each other, and how fast mountains are growing, or shrinking. 

Bretz was proposing a catastrophic change. The idea of catastrophic changes like floods, meteor strikes, earthquakes, or hurricanes altering the landscape was anathema to the idea of gradualism. 

In 1927, Bretz gave a presentation to the Geological Society of America in Washington DC. The presentation turned out to be an ambush by established geologists. They packed the room to try to shut this idea down for good, and discredit Bretz. 

The leading geologists were mostly from elite east coast universities, they didn’t see Bretz as being sufficiently credentialled. They also didn’t know where the water could have come from, and of course, it upended the biggest assumption of their entire discipline at the time: gradualism. 

One US Geological Survey scientist named Joseph Pardee sat in on his presentation in Washington and believed what Bretz was saying. He had actually been to the scablands, whereas most of the Bretz’s critics had never been there, and never even would visit.

Moreover, he thought he knew where the water for Bretz’s flood came from.

The source of the water, according to Pardee, was a giant glacial lake which sat on top of the glacier over Western Montana during the last ice age. The lake was dubbed Glacial Lake Missoula. 

The lake would have had a volume of water larger than Lake Ontario, the 4th largest of the Great Lakes. 

When the glacial ice melted enough, the lake started to drain, which caused a catastrophic flood.  The entire massive volume of water shot out, and the incredible force of that water flow caused the unique features of the scablands. Features, like gigantic 20 meter high ripples, which couldn’t have been caused by gradual erosion over time. 

Over the next several decades, the debate raged on. Bretz slowly had younger geologists accept his theories, and slowly his critics retired. 

Over the years, more and more evidence supported his theory, and better understanding of the last ice age developed. 

By the 1950s, enough evidence had come in that the general consensus had changed. There were detailed aerial images that became available. Eventually, satellite images from NASA provided more evidence.

Some of his critics eventually did visit the scablands themselves. One critic, James Gilluly commented: “How could anyone have been so wrong.”

A 1965 geological report of the region finally concluded that Bretz was right all along, 40 years after he initially published his first paper on the topic.  At the age of 82 he had been vindicated. After the paper came out, one of his critics sent him a telegram which said “We are all now catastrophists.”

Bretz said about the report, “…after 30 years and 30 papers in self-defense, and more than 30 people who vigorously denied my theory, it did my heart good like medicine.”

The final thing which put the cherry on top of Bretz’s achievement occurred in 1979. At the age of 96, he received the Penrose Medal from the Geological Society of America. The organization’s highest award. 

After receiving the award, he reportedly told his son, “All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over.”

Bretz passed away in 1981 at the age of 98.

Bretz’s ideas on catastrophism have been widely accepted now, and it paved the way for other theories such as the extinction of the dinosaurs from the Chicxulub crater in Mexico. 

Today, if you visit Dry Falls State Park in Washington State, at the visitor center you will see a bronze plaque dedicated to J Harlen Bretz. On it, is one of his quotes from 1928 which says,

“Ideas without precedent are generally looked upon with disfavor and men are shocked if their conceptions of an orderly world are challenged.”


The associate producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Thor Thomson. 

Today’s five-star review comes from listener Scott Jordan over on Apple Podcasts. They write:

The most enjoyable podcast- LOVE IT

OMG. I am addicted. Basically, it’s a combination of short (about 7 min long) and very interesting stories about historical facts told by Gary Arndt. Once I started listening, I couldn’t stop. Before I knew it, I listened to about 10 in a row.

They are extremely well researched and the storytelling is really engaging.

I highly recommend them. I can’t wait to get caught up and then begin listening in real time.

Great job Gary!

Thank you Scott. For those of you who don’t know, Scott Jordan is the Scott from Scottevest, the ads for whom you’ve heard many times on the show. 

Stay tuned in future episodes for something special for Everything Everywhere listeners.