Friday, 14 March 2008

Daft semantic argument I've dragged myself into

Ah, the joy of academia. I recently submitted a paper (for the second time...) to the Journal of Structural Geology, entitled "Evolution of geometry and architecture of synrift normal faults during upward propagation: the Nukhul half-graben, Suez rift, Egypt". It's based on the work I've been doing in Sinai for the last couple of years. Note use of the word 'architecture' in the title. Then I checked out the recently accepted papers to the journal, and found this one, [paywall] a letter to the editor that suggests use of the word 'architecture' should be abandoned in the geological literature. 'That's annoying,' I thought. It would be just my luck to have someone bring this up in review. So I read the article, and discovered that I didn't agree with it. I ended up drafting a response, and this has now been submitted to the journal. Here's the submitted version of it:

D.C.P. Peacock (2008) provides a useful caution against the unnecessary proliferation of synonymous geological terms. I am entirely in agreement that such proliferation should be avoided. However, I wish to take issue with his example of ‘architecture’. Peacock makes two arguments against the use of the term architecture; firstly, that it implies the existence of a (perhaps divine) architect, and secondly that it is synonymous with the term ‘structure’, and adds nothing but confusion to the literature.

While I would tend to agree somewhat with the first point, it seems that it is difficult to avoid such implications. Peacock mentions the term ‘tectonic’, one definition of which in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘…pertaining to building, or construction in general; constructional, constructive: used esp. in reference to architecture and kindred arts.’ But a similar problem arises in the use of the term of structure: The Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions of ‘structure’: i) the action, practice, or process of building or construction, and ii) manner of building or construction; the way in which an edifice, machine, implement, etc. is made or put together. Thus the term ‘structure’ also has connotations of building or construction. Peacock asks ‘Who is the architect?’, but one might just as well ask ‘Who imparted the structure?’ The answer in both cases is that natural processes created the ‘architecture’ or the ‘structure’: I would argue that neither term implies a divine ‘builder’.

It could also be argued that ‘architecture’ does have a usefully distinct meaning from ‘structure’. It has perhaps been poorly defined, but in the study of fault zones ‘architecture’ has been used to refer to the overall arrangement of structural elements (such as gouge zones or subsidiary brittle structures) within the fault zone (e.g. Caine et al., 1996; Heynekamp et al., 1999; Faerseth et al., 2007). It has also been used in sedimentology, in a similar way, to describe the overall arrangement of sedimentary facies elements within a depositional system (e.g. Dreyer, 1994; Boris and Thomas, 2007). In the case of fault zones, using ‘structure’ instead of ‘architecture’ would lead to the same term being used for the fault zone as a whole, for the subsidiary structures within it, and for the overall arrangement of elements within the fault zone. In sedimentology, it would lead to the use of the term ‘structure’ for sedimentary facies elements that are not normally thought of as ‘structures’ by structural geologists. So, I would suggest that replacement of the term ‘architecture’ by ‘structure’ could create as many problems as it would solve. To conclude, use of the term ‘architecture’ in the earth sciences is defensible, as long as it is adequately defined.


Boris, K., Thomas, A. Sedimentary architecture and 3D ground-penetrating radar analysis of gravelly meandering river deposits (Neckar Valley, SW Germany). Sedimentology 54, 789-808.

Caine, J.S., Evans, J.P., Forster, C.B., 1996. Fault zone architecture and permeability structure. Geology 24, 1025-1028.

Dreyer, T. 1994. Architecture of an unconformity-based tidal sandstone unit in the Ametlla Formation, Spanish Pyrenees. Sedimentary Geology 94, 21-48.

Faerseth, R.B., Johnsen, E., Sperrevik, S. 2007. Methodology for risking fault seal capacity: Implications of fault zone architecture. AAPG Bulletin 91, 1231-1246.

Heynekamp, M.R., Goodwin, L.B., Mozley, P.S., 1999. Controls on fault-zone architecture in poorly lithified sediments, Rio Grande rift, New Mexico: Implications for fault-zone permeability and fluid flow. In: Haneberg, W.C., Mozley, P.S., Moore, J.C., Goodwin, L.B. (Eds.), Faults and Subsurface Fluid Flow in the Shallow Crust. Geophysical Monograph 113, 27-49.

Peacock, D.C.P. Architecture, gods and gobbledygook, Journal of Structural Geology (2008), doi: 10.1016/j.jsg.2008.02.003.

Is this sort of thing really worth doing, I wonder?

Update: My comment has now published, and is available (behind a highly ridiculous paywall, unless you or your institution is a subscriber: who would pay $31.50 for this?) here. If anyone wants a PDF, drop me a line.


Mich said...

Sadly I can't access the first half of the discussion (being a mere industry employee), but, from what you've written, it seems as though you are making a fair, and somewhat important, point. If you help clarify the terminology that we use, your efforts won't have been wasted.

Having said that, your post did bring to mind Monty Python's Argument Sketch Sorry :-S

Mich said...

I forgot to add: Good luck with your paper!

Paul Wilson said...

Cheers Michelle.

There's a more serious point lurking in there somewhere, which is that we can't be picking and choosing terms to please creationists. In structural geology, we're studying systems that have order (otherwise there wouldn't be any structure to study). If you start to say that any implication of order has overtones of creationism, you're lost. The question is not whether or not there is order: it's what process created that order. It's a creationist misdirection to suggest that only some intelligent designer can impart order.

This point is made a lot more clearly by Steve Novella.

Mich said...

Hey Paul,

I did understand your point and I'm sorry if I came over as being a bit flippant. I am just of the opinion that, with a language as flexible as English, context is everything. This is probably why the Monty Python sketch sprang to mind.

In the end what you are doing is making a clarification since creationists, geo-creationist sympathisers, and geologists are not likely to stop using the word. If one camp chooses to misinterpret what another camp says, when any synonymous geological word is used (when the word is used in context), then that is nothing short of wilful ignorance. Sadly, no amount of semantic argument is going to prevent that.

I'm going to read your I.D. link now. That subject is as fascinating as it is disturbing.


Paul Wilson said...


Don't worry, I did giggle to myself when you brought up the Argument Sketch...

Steve Novella is a very smart fellow. Reading his blog post helped crystallise what I was thinking, which is unfortunately not as clear as it could be in the draught that got sent to the journal. I'm not sure whether I'll be allowed to make changes, because as far as I can gather Dr. Peacock is going to write a reply. But if you undestood that point, perhaps it's clear enough after all.

See all the stuff I waste my time worrying about?

As it turns out, I'm going to be in Edmonton tomorrow. I have an interview at U of A on Thursday, for a faculty position on the new petroleum geology MSc they're starting up.

Mich said...

I think your letter will be OK. I carefully reread what you'd written, after I spotted your response to my comment, just in case I'd got the wrong end of the stick the first time around. I hadn't, but your comment and the link did clarify things a bit.

Good luck with your U of A interview, it would be great to have you back in Canada. Any plans for a detour to Calgary while you are here? :-)

Paul Wilson said...

Unfortunately, I'm not going to make it to Calgary. My incredible jetset lifestyle is such that I'm going to San Antonio for AAPG in a week, so I need to get back to Manchester and finish my poster.

Mich said...

That's too bad. Ellie tells me that there is a job going at U of C, you could pop in and introduce yourself. Also, Air Canada just announced a 50% off sale (book by the 10th April). Will send the link to your email in case you want to change your mind.