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Scientists talk about standing tough in face of opposition

common readingPULLMAN, Wash. – A Washington geologist who defended his theory of the Missoula flood when everyone else attacked it as wrong will be the subject of a free, public presentation at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept 24, in Todd 216 at Washington State University.

The event ties to the WSU common reading book, “Being Wrong,” by Kathryn Schulz, which is being used in many courses for first-year students.

WSU scientists Lisa Carloye and Kirsten Peters will discuss J. Harlen Bretz, a geologist who taught at the University of Washington and the University of Chicago in the early 1900s. Biologist Carloye is a clinical assistant professor who teaches science to non-science majors. Geologist Peters – also known as the “Rock Doc” – is director of major grant development in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.

Originally from the Midwest, Bretz was fascinated by unusual erosion features he examined in eastern Washington’s Columbia River Plateau. He coined the term “channeled scablands” in 1923 to describe the erosion of basalt deposits near the Grand Coulee desert area, and he published a paper that year theorizing a cataclysmic flood had caused the features.

However, better-known and highly respected geologists from the East Coast scoffed at Bretz’s ideas, sure the landscape was carved by massive glaciers covering Canada during the last ice age. As years passed and more became known about the glacial period 110,000-10,000 years ago, experts came to accept Bretz’s ideas about a glacial lake outburst flood that raced from present-day Montana westward toward the Pacific Ocean, crossing the Columbia Plateau and forming his scablands.

Bretz’s story is a dramatic example of how hard it can be to stand up for your ideas when everyone else attacks them as wrong, Peters and Carloye said. In their presentation they plan to take listeners on a journey of ideas to show how tenacity, an open mind and cold hard evidence ultimately won for Bretz the 40-year debate.

After receiving the highest award possible from the Geological Society of America in 1979 at the age of 96, he reportedly said, “All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over.”

For more information on the WSU Common Reading Program, visit where a list of upcoming events is posted on the calendar.


Karen Weathermon, WSU Common Reading Program, 509-335-5488,
Beverly Makhani, director of communications, WSU Office of Undergraduate Education, 509-335-6679,

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