What’s Today’s Version of the Continental Drift Theory?

Jan. 14, 2022
The history of science is littered with true stories of individuals who made important discoveries, but whose discoveries were not accepted as legitimate during their lifetimes. What do historical precedents say about this moment in U.S. healthcare?

The history of science is littered with true stories of individuals who made important discoveries, but whose discoveries were not accepted as legitimate during their lifetimes. One such scientist was Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), who was born in Berlin and who obtained a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Berlin. But Wegener is best known today for his theory of continental drift, which is now accepted as fact, but which was considered outlandish when he first proposed it at the 1926 American Association of Petroleum Geologists conference in New York City.

As Chris Woodford wrote in the 2019 Dorling Kindersley book Scientists Who Changed History, Wegener “began questioning why the continents are shaped the way they are. He had noticed that the coastlines of western Africa and eastern South America mirrored each other, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and he wondered if they had once been joined together. In fact, he wondered if all of the Earth’s continents had once been linked. He was not the first to notice the Africa-America pattern: it had been observed as early as the 16th century, and discoveries in the 19th century of the same types of fossils in both places had also attracted attention. Previous explanations included that the continents had been separated by the biblical Flood or that they were once joined by land bridges that had since sunk into the sea.”

As the National Geographic Society Resource Library’s encyclopedic entry on continental drift explains it, “Continental drift describes one of the earliest ways geologists thought continents moved over time. Today, the theory of continental drift has been replaced by the science of plate tectonics. The theory of continental drift is most associated with the scientist Alfred Wegener. In the early 20th century, Wegener published a paper explaining his theory that the continental landmasses were ‘drifting’ across the Earth, sometimes plowing through oceans and into each other. He called this movement continental drift. Wegener was convinced that all of Earth’s continents were once part of an enormous, single landmass called Pangaea. Wegener, trained as an astronomer, used biology, botany, and geology describe Pangaea and continental drift.” Even so, “Scientists did not accept Wegener’s theory of continental drift. One of the elements lacking in the theory was the mechanism for how it works—why did the continents drift and what patterns did they follow? Wegener suggested that perhaps the rotation of the Earth caused the continents to shift towards and apart from each other. (It doesn't.) Today, we know that the continents rest on massive slabs of rock called tectonic plates. The plates are always moving and interacting in a process called plate tectonics,” with those plates still shifting actively today.

So often in history, progressive thinkers have begun contemplating natural phenomena, with their theories being validated by later research and thought. What about current developments in U.S. healthcare? So much of what’s happening right now, and the entire system remains unsettled at this point in time. Our cover story, based on our third annual State of the Industry Survey, looks at some of the key issues facing the leaders of patient care organizations, including the shift from volume to value, data analytics to support success in value-based care delivery, the emergence of artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity threats. Much remains uncertain about the next several years, and there’s plenty of room for industry leaders to help everyone else theorize forward. Who will create a successful theory of healthcare market dynamics equivalent to the continental drift theory? We’ll know sometime in the future.

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