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The following is an excerpt from a GRE Verbal exercise:

The hypothesis of an expanding Earth has never attracted notable support, and if it were not for the historical example of continental drift, such indifference might be a legitimate response to an apparently improbable concept. It should be remembered, however, that drift too was once regarded as illusory, but the idea was kept alive until evidence from physicists compelled geologists to reinterpret their data.

I don't understand what "the idea" in the sentence refers to. Does it mean the "drift theory" or the opinion that "drift is illusory"?

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The idea is actually referring to the hypothesis (or theory) of an expanding earth of which continental drift is an example that supports that theory or hypothesis. The idea (of an expanding earth) was kept alive by physicists who forced geologists to reinterpret their data due to examples of continental drift. –  spiceyokooko Jan 15 '13 at 15:40
    
@spiceyokooko: The excerpt makes no claim that "expanding earth" and "continental drift" have any connection other than that they were both originally regarded as "illusory" (the former still is, obviously). Thus "the idea" can only mean the concept of continental drift. –  FumbleFingers Jan 15 '13 at 22:03

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

the idea refers to the idea (or belief in this example) that continental drifts are a fact and that they indeed happened.

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