Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Merry New Year!

Okay, so I've got one more fantastic geology-trip to get in for 2009. Here's a clue: it's another active volcano. So things might remain quiet here until I return in a few weeks.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Continuing apace, upscaling granular interactions

One of the things sedimentologists try to do is visualize how individual grains behave. This is important for things like sediment transport and deposition - it even plays an important role in things like quicksand. In some cases, it's helpful to scale a system down so that it may be observed in a lab room, under manageable timescales. I've been working on scaling things up to look at how individual grains interact with each other. A few thousand fluorescent BBs and a blacklight help bring out the details look pretty interesting with a long-exposure photograph.

Update on fractal landscapes

I had mentioned these fractal landscapes to an old college friend, and he had this to add:

With the caveat that looking *like* a fractal isn't the same as being a fractal, a fractal has organizing rules that are in a recursive relationship. So it seems to me that the two organizing rules are gravity and the electromagnetic force that holds materials together, and the 'recursion' is moving the materials around, primarily water but also wind. But I could be wrong.

I think that's an important point. A lot of fractal geology is mere "appearance," rather than true "behavior." But I think he's got a good point about the combination of gravity and the EM force. The disjunct between scales might be bound by the ability of materials to resist gravity (displayed in such things as a mineral's hardness, etc.). On top of that, there are continental-scale behaviors of crust, which allows for things like uplift and sedimentation in the first place. The reason the Sierpinski Triangle outcrop looks like it does is due in large part to the well-partitioned sedimentary cycles within the outcrop - breaking it up into nearly perfect thirds, top to bottom.

I've been doing a lot more thinking, rather than synthesizing lately, but I think the note about the EM force and gravity is an important one. Since much of what we see on the landscape is a tug-of-war between gravity, which tends to bring things towards the center of the Earth, and the EM force, which helps resist it. There's probably a bit of influence by the Strong and Weak Nuclear forces in there too. Although, I think crustal properties such as bulk modulus are more affected by the EM force, but it might be fun to look into the combination of the EM and Weak Nuclear forces, since much of our Earth's internal heat is provided by nuclear decay.

Another way to think about it: there appears to be a minimum size to silt grains generated by impacts with larger particles. At small enough scales, gravity can't generate enough energy to knock atoms apart - so there's another scale at work when it comes to very tiny silt-type grains. And don't forget the completely different behavior of clay minerals!

Of course, this EM force and the ability of minerals to resist breaking down plays a key role in any critique of a marine origin for the Coconino Sandstone. Yes there are mica grains in the sand. Yes, mica is softer than quartz. But there are more forces at work besides Moh's fancy little scale.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Speaking of Scaling...

I've stumbled upon yet another idea I want to try out: dropping various spheres into containers filled with smaller spheres:

Next up is a more controlled setting to look at variation between dropped ball density, diameter, and substrate thickness.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Fractals in geology

In many ways, geology is a study of fractals. There are many geological systems that display the characteristics of fractals. Mandelbrot's famous fractal pattern resembles the coastlines of many areas of the globe.

River systems, such as the "Driftless Area" in southwestern Wisconsin display a beautiful fractal geometry:

A shaded elevation map of of the Upper Mississippi River region (white is higher elevation). The Mississippi River is the thick black area running diagonally through the image. The white square shows the zoomed-in area for the next image.

Zoom in 50% - more fine-scale details appear, but they are remarkably similar to the larger-scale ones.

Zoom in another 50%

And another 50%. We're looking at 12.5% of the original image. My starting resolution was a little rough, so the digital artifacts of the raster image is getting in the way. But you get the gist - in ArcGIS, one can adjust the color ramp, which produces patterns amazingly similar to mathematical fractal patterns. I've been searching for some more technical analysis of the Driftless Area and its fractal geometry, but so far I've come up short. If any of you are aware of some good landscape geo studies, feel free to share.

Finally, another type of fractal pattern can be seen in near-vertical exposures of rock. Small parts resemble the larger outcrop, even down to individual piles of debris.

Triassic (chinle equivalent from the Bighorn Basin - the name eludes me right now) redbeds. This is a pretty darn good representation of the Sierpinski Triangle. Oh, and I got an interesting comment from a young-earther related to this photo. I'll have to share that sometime...

There are plenty of examples of other landscape fractal patterns. One thing that strikes me, however, is that - despite this self-similarity - there are breaks in the "scaling." Take a mountain range - from far enough away, it looks relatively smooth and small. Zooming in, reveals topographic changes that start to look self-similar, down to a certain smaller scale. Then, the characteristics of the individual rocks take over. Phenocrysts, ground mass, local variations begin to render one outcrop different than another. But, zoom in further, so that an individual phenocryst has the apparent size of a mountain, and this self-similarity shows up again. It begins resembling, at least in part, the larger mountain range at big scales. You jump down to the microscopic, molecular level, and the characteristics of the individual mineral take over yet again. Zipping into sub-atomic scales, we see vast empty spaces, filled with electrons, protons, then quarks and gluons and all sorts of Dr. Suess-like particles and physical interactions. Interestingly, this sub-atomic scale, superficially at least, resembles a super-duper-macro-scale view of the solar system and universe.

So, do these "jumps" in scaling represent some kind of "boundary condition" within which the fractal system must operate? Or is the idea of "self-similarity" in the landscape incorrect? Is it something different - a rough approximation, but not really the most useful concept for describing and exploring the natural world?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Inspired by a recent search string

I was looking through my visitor log, and while I don't have as many weird and wonderful search engine hits as other blogs, I did see a phrase that fits with some of the sedimentology topics I've been thinking about for a blog post. This particular phrase:

Why does wet beach sand look dry in front of your footprint?

Is one of those fun, yet hard-to-conceptualize questions that requires a little understanding of how granular materials behave. In particular, the behavior of saturated sand. The process that makes the wet beach sand look "dry" when you step on it is called dilatency. You step on the saturated sand and some of the sand gets "squished" beneath your feet. Some of the sand is compressed downwards - but, due to the granular behavior of sand, some of it is forced sideways (in a process called "lateral yielding") and this sand forces some additional grains to get shoved upwards. The spot away from your foot is not being forced down, so it's easier for the sand to be pushed upwards to make room for all this sand forced out sideways.

The small spaces (interstices) between sand grains that are forced out and up become larger (dilatency) - more space between grains means that the water can't fill those other spaces and the sand appears dry. See the illustration below:

Since water fills all the open space between the grains, the sand appears dark and wet. You push down on the sand with your foot, and force the sand outwards:

The grains forced out and up now appear dry - there isn't water between those grains (thanks in part to gravity and the lack of sufficient surface tension in water to pull it up into those spaces). If you stop moving, or take your foot away, you may notice that some of the sand "sinks" back downwards as the grains re-arrange themselves again, allowing the grains to settle together and the water re-fills those empty spaces.

If you try this on mud - it doesn't have the same effect. Clay particles behave quite differently compared to sand-sized particles. But that's a post for another time. For now, it's important to note that the behavior of granular materials like sand depend largely on the contacts between individual grains. This "internal friction" helps sand stay in a pile (it's angle of repose), but when they are saturated (when all the voids are filled with water), this friction essentially disappears. The sand is now very susceptible to external stresses (like your feet) and move easily. Thus, when anyone claims that the Coconino (and other large sandstone formations) was deposited in sea water, then eroded prior to lithification has either not walked on the beach, or does not fully understand the behavior of saturated sands.

Which reminds me - I need to spend some time talking about things like "lithification" and "consolidation" since these terms are often mis-used or conflated. They are two different processes - sometimes related, but they imply rather different behaviors.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Origin's Sesquicentennial

150 years ago today, Darwin published "The Origin of Species." It was one of those seminal moments in science where an individual managed to put into words how we might understand the way the world works. I don't think Darwin got everything "right," nor was he working in a vacuum. His insights were built on observations both of his own and others. But he did eloquently illustrate the concepts of natural selection and how it might work and explain the diversity of life we see today.

It's too bad we have so many people (some of them well-intentioned, some of them much less so) opposed to the concepts that have been borne of this work.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Another bonus of using strong, tiny magnets? Putzing around with 'em to make geometric shapes.

Happy holidaze. Bonus: they spin quite freely.

Chaos and Sedimentology

I'm rereading the book "Chaos." Last time I read it I was in 10th grade, but now I've got a little more math background, so the underlying mechanics are easier for me to describe.

A few things have leaped out at me:
  1. The concepts related to chaotic systems, such as the "Butterfly Effect" didn't take long to enter and become part of a "public consciousness" regarding the world around us

  2. I'm not sure if this is because I've not finished rereading the book, or its place as an early summary of the work, but I think they're overselling the concept of "dependence on initial conditions."

  3. One of the more powerful ideas here is in scale independent behavior - especially from a geologic standpoint (see the post in Clastic Detritus regarding sediment plumes in the GoM for an example).

  4. For my own scientific work, I think I may need to change my thinking about chaotic systems and fractals.

I think more attention needs to be paid to the "boundary conditions" controlling chaotic systems. Especially with regards to sediment deposition and transport. While a turbidite displays chaotic behavior, there are often predictable results from these systems - Bouma spent a great deal of time describing the general pattern often seen in turbidite deposits. This holds for other sedimentary systems: you may see all sorts of variation within an eolian deposit, but you're also not likely to see certain things. So while any particular eolianite may display a wide variety of textures and internal structures, there are specific patterns that will usually show up (not every single time, perhaps). The system may be chaotic and display variety of internal features, but you're not likely to produce a diamict, or massive clays as a result of wind-deposition. The mechanics and source of materials form some of these boundary conditions.

Chaos and fractals are fun stuff. But, the concepts are abstract enough that it's easy to misunderstand and apply them. I'll be exploring some of these features in future posts.

Magnetic Sediments

I've been poking around with magnetic sediments recently. There's a bit "to-do" going around Quaternary geology circles regarding a potential bolide impact during the Younger Dryas -YD - (ca. 13,000 years before present - YBP). Whether or not this actually happened, and whether this has any lasting climate and ecological impacts have yet to be sorted out. However, the presence of magnetic materials in high concentrations in sediments from the YD is intriguing purely from an academic standpoint. So I've been poking around the late Pleistocene (ca. 20,000 to 10,000 YBP) sediments in the UMV, looking at what's in the magnetic fraction.

So far things look interesting - no confirmation of micrometeorites or other impact debris, but definitely lots of magnetic materials in certain layers. The difficult part is going to be analyzing these grains under an electron microscope or some big machine to see what they're made of.

Here are a few pictures of the extraction process (these are slightly modified from A. West's methods link to PDF)

The bulk sample - the small bucket contains another sample that I dried at about 100°C to determine moisture content of the portion soaking in water.

The basic method involves sticking some strong magnets in a bag...

...then placing the covered magnets into the wet sediment slurry to pick up magnetic grains.

Withdrawing the magnet reveals a big batch of magnetic grains stuck to the outside of the bag. These are placed in another container of clean water. Pulling the magnet away allows the grains to fall into the clean water.

Some of the extracted grains. Once the water evaporates, I can pick out individual grains (with a small, moistened brush or needle).

I haven't started extracting individual grains yet - I'm in the process of refining my extraction and separation methods - doing this all by hand is both slow and not as systematic as would be preferred.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Nothing much to say right now - I have a lecture about soil shear strength I need to prepare. I plan to put some of the points about the strength of unlithified materials into another discussion about sediments, but for now here's a lovely rainbow I saw from my front steps this summer:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Logical Fallacies

Here's a quick description of some commonly employed logical fallacies. I've observed similar arguments made by scientists on occasion, so it's useful for more than just E/C issues.

Syntectonic Deposition

One of the major aspects of the "flood-geology model" is that the Paleozoic and Mesozoic sediments were laid down by this giant flood. The major structural features like the faults of the Rocky Mountains, Great Basin, and recent Orogenic (mountain building) events occurred immediately after the deposition of all this material. Some young-Earthers lump the Cenozoic (all the way to the Pleistocene) units into these flood deposits. However, Whitmore and some others recognize that many of these Cenozoic sediments lie atop these major structural features - thus they have to be younger. While I think their base assumptions about the amount of time is ridiculous, I can't disagree that many Cenozoic sediments post-date most of the major structural features in the Rocky Mountains.

If their numeric time frame is correct, then we have large piles of unlithified sediment being tossed about by these large structural features. How you achieve brittle deformation (faults) in unlithified sediment is a subject for later. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume we have major structural features forming in this stuff. One of the great places to see examples of Syntectonic sedimentation (deposits of sediments occurring at the same time as structural deformation) is in Echo Canyon, Utah.

Notice how the beds in the left-most bluff are nearly horizontal, and increase in the magnitude in dip as you go towards the bluffs on the right. Here we see deposition off of an uplifting block of crust - as the crust is thrust upward, the angle changes (this is somewhat oversimplified, but the facts are illustrated here: the angle changes, and can be traced back to tectonic uplift). The material being uplifted are some of these younger blocks of sediment. The materials making up these rock cliffs are sands, silts, and even large, rounded cobbles:

How do you form big, round cobbles from unlithified material? It's not a solid, coherent material: therefore forming well-rounded pieces is virtually impossible (I say "virtually" since there are rare examples). There is no evidence that these thousands of feet of rock were unlithified during faulting. None. And yet the YEFPs try to force their limited observations into a rather dogmatic model. All of the evidence points to a rather straightforward explanation, yet they demand an alternative, non-functional model. This is not, nor will it ever be, science.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Physical Constants

If I were to try and revolutionize science, I wouldn't bother with the higher order observations such as stratigraphy, landscape evolution, or even biological evolution. Because these are all tightly-bound, and widely agreeing observations. They all point to an old earth, and changes in organisms over long spans of time. Nor would I try and sow doubt by pointing out minor and insignificant anomalies. By pecking at the surface of science, YECP's are doing little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure, it may look different, but the icebergs are still in the water, and the boat is still moving forward.

Instead, if I were to try and disprove all of these observations, I would attack the physical constants. If I could demonstrate that universal "constants" such as gravitation, nuclear strong and weak, even electrostatic forces varied over time, only then would it be possible to cast sufficient doubt over the concept of Unformity, providing an empirical and non-religious basis to support a young-Earth flood model.

If nuclear decay was faster, that means more heat - if we could show heat-flow through rock was reduced, then perhaps all this radioactive decay wouldn't have cooked all of Noah's family and the animals headed to the Ark. Unfortunately, we are faced with the problem of large bodies of intrusive, igneous rocks. To quickly cool (within a thousand years or less), heat dissipation would have had to be higher. Thus not only would we have to demonstrate heat flow was less, we then have to demonstrate how it also (either concurrently, or immediately following this flood) sped up. We could, perhaps, avoid some problems by focusing on the elements in rock forming minerals, such as silicon, iron, and magnesium - this way we can concentrate these variations within the crust. Or, perhaps there is some multiplier attached to these constants that can change - thereby altering the magnitude and direction of these constants.

So what is the value of this "constant" modifier? Well, the only source of information that suggests this is possible comes from some interpretations of biblical Genesis. We don't see consistent (let alone any) and, importantly, independent evidence of this modifier in action. The only record is a religious text (and, depending on which chapter you read, a widely varying one). Thus, it fails the basic requirement of science.

But, if YECP's could effectively demonstrate that physical constants could change - then things would at least become more interesting. Instead, nearly 60 years after Morris' "Flood Geology" book, we are still faced with the same inane arguments about the same rocks, the same claims, and the same lack of basic science (albeit dressed up with fancy new words and some vaguely scientific techniques).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ecophenotypy and Phenology?

So, are organisms that display a variety of ecophenotypic variation well-adapted to climatic shifts towards more seasonality?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Stokes Law

I like Stoke's Law. It's one of those fundamental relationships that is very powerfull:

A particle, falling through a fluid under its own weight. There are two fundamental forces at work: gravity, which tends to accelerate the particle downward, and an opposing drag force, which is a result of the density of the fluid through which the particle falls. As the particle falls downwards, it will accelerate due to gravity until the drag force (which is velocity dependent) equals the gravitational force. At the point the two forces are equal, there is no more acceleration, and the particle continues downward at a constant speed (uniform motion). This is the object's terminal velocity. It's the basic principle upon which parachutes are based. It also explains why a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building won't bury itself into the concrete below. The drag of the fluid (air in this case) balances out gravity, and the object falls at a constant speed.

This same principle applies to sediments deposited in air or water - they fall through a column of water at a constant velocity. The equation that describes the drag force (FD) on a sphere is:

FD = CDAρvs2/2

Where CD is the drag coefficient, A is the cross-sectional area of the sphere (A=πr2), ρ is the density of the fluid, and vs is its velocity. The gravitational force (FW) acting on the sphere - its submerged weight - is described by:

FW = VΔρg

Where V is the volume of the sphere (4πr3)/3, Δρ is the difference in density between the sphere and the fluid, and g is the acceleration due to gravity (9.8 m/s2. For uniform motion, then, FW = FD. And if we know the density and size of the sphere, the density of water, gravitational acceleration, and drag, we could estimate how long it would take this particle to fall through a column of water.

Now it would be tempting to calculate the settling velocity for a tiny sand grain, or clay particle and then infer a time required to deposit a given thickness of sedimentary rock from this. The real world is not quite as simple as this. However, a nearly spherical grain 0.01 mm in diameter (a silt-sized particle) falling through non-turbulent water would reach a terminal velocity of about 0.01 cm per second. Thus, to fall 200 m (the average depth of the continental shelf), the grain would take about 2,000,000 seconds (20,000 cm/0.01 cm s-1). That's more than 23 days.

Now it's also tempting to calculate the settling velocity for a clay-sized particle (it would take about two orders of magnitude longer to fall 200 m (~230 days), but - as I've said before - the real world is a little more complicated. But, a flood model would do well to account for Stoke's Law: for a global flood would create a great deal of turbulence, and while some super-concentrated muds may settle quickly, some mud would remain suspended for much longer. As Noah supposedly waited for the Dove to return - both times - this mud would remain suspended far longer than the sands and gravels and everything else that supposedly was deposited in this world-wide event. Thus, at the very end of this "flood," a thin drape of mud should cover much of the world (those of you who have seen the effects of flooded rivers (or flooded basements) know this well. And yet, we do not see any evidence for a world-wide mud drape anywhere! While I can understand the desire of YEFPs to reconcile the natural world with their biblical beliefs, it just ain't gonna happen. Ever.

Those that attempt to explain the world's geology as a supernaturally-caused event MUST violate the physical constants that control our world. Simple things like gravity. And heat. Once you claim that physical constants are not constant, the laws of physics cannot be applied to anything. So those that use the laws of physics to justify violating those same laws are caught in a self-nullifying situation. Catch-22. Uniformitarianism works because it cannot violate the laws of physics. Ever.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A brief review of "For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design"

At GSA, I picked up a copy of a new book edited by Jill S. Schneiderman and Warren Allmon, "For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design" (Amazon link)

I read it in about a day and a half (I did have a four hour flight, after all). It's a collection of essays on how geology is in full support of evolution. There are some very good descriptions of the nature of science, and how concepts such as ID and flood geology are not science. It's not technical, and likely approachable by the general public. While I wasn't sold on all of the suggestions about how to counter the ID movement, I do think it provides an invaluable service to the geosciences. Any middle school, high school and college earth science professor would do well to at least read this book and ponder some of the topics discussed. We need more books like this - especially in a time where the growth in the number of active young-Earth flood models and "flood geologists" is unprecedented.

One of the more salient points was that, given the deep roots of religion in this country (the vast majority of Americans claim a belief in some supernatural deity), is it any wonder that the "Wedge" strategy has been so successful? If the public believes that they can either 1) believe in God or 2) accept science, is it any wonder that they choose #1? It's a false dichotomy, but one that has been effectively used by ID and others to gain support for their ideas.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Footprints in the Sand

Fossil footprints are among the most interesting traces of ancient life. They can tell us about how an animal walked and, based on the distance between the footprints, we can estimate how quickly the animal may have been running. To be formed, the ground has to be soft enough for the animal to deform the soil, but not so soft as to collapse after the animal's foot is removed. To be preserved, the footprints need to be covered relatively quickly, or erosion can quickly remove them.

One interesting argument made by the YECFP's is that these footprints could have been made underwater. By studying a salamander in a tank, on a sandy substrate, they made dozens of measurements of footprints, looking at how the tracks formed. It was interesting enough from an empirical standpoint that it was published in Geology (Brand and Tang, 1991). The basic findings were indeed intriguing. Some footprints may form subaqueously (underwater). But Brand made a big leap - he compared the lab experiments to the Coconino, and suggested the tetrapod footprints in the Coconino were also made subaqueously. This was thoroughly refuted by comments by Lockley and others (Geology, 1992). But this hasn't stopped the YECFPs from insisting the Coconino was subaqueous (therefore NOT eolian at all...). Unfortunately, their arguments about footprints do not "stand up" very well, when actually LOOKING at the Coconino footprints.

Footprints in the Coconino Sandstone are generally viewed as being formed on moist sand in an eolian environment. Here's an example from Wikipedia (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Coconino_Sandstone_with_footprints.jpg)

The footprints are all lined up with the toes pointing to the right. Note that the entire footprint is well-preserved, front to back. You can see little "chips" of the sandy surface pushed backwards behind the animal's heel as the animal propelled itself forward. Also, note the low relief "ripples" running left to right in the image. These sedimentary structures are the result of fluid transport of a granular medium (in this case, wind ripples in sand). They can form underwater too. But they form perpendicular to the direction of fluid flow. Thus, the wind was blowing top to bottom (or bottom to top) in relationship to the animal's movement.

What does a footprint, formed underwater, with a flowing current look like?

My feet are being covered by the gentle waves on a beach - the sand along this spot on Lake Superior is not unlike the sand that makes up some of the Coconino (in terms of grain size and mineralogy). Note how the water is more turbulent around my footprints. As the waves recede, they leave behind tell-tale signs of the turbulent water:

Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of my footprints in this example, but the scours left by the pebbles demonstrate the structures you would find if flowing water were present when an animal places its foot on the sandy bottom: prominent scours form as a result of the turbulence and redirected current. You can try this yourself on any sandy beach - what do your footprints look like? If you're out walking your dog, or other pet basal tetrapod, look at their footprints on dry land compared to those made underwater. The water has a tangible effect. Especially if made in sand, not clay-rich mud.

Compare that to the footprints in the Coconino at the top: no scours, no evidence of water being redirected around the animals feet. Even a very gentle current (the waves were moving no faster than a person could walk) should affect the substrate. But we se NO evidence of this in the Coconino Sandstone. While this little analogy doesn't completely falsify the subaqueous footprint argument, it does point to some serious flaws and demonstrate a more rigorous analysis of the Coconino footprints is required before any underwater formation can be seriously postulated.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A modest defense of Eolianites

One of the most prominent targets of YEC flood-pseudoscience (henceforth YECFP) is the Coconino Sandstone - a prominent wall-forming rock formation in the Grand Canyon. This thick sandstone unit is widely interpreted by geologists to be the result of eolian (wind-blown) deposition. If one were to attempt a flood-origin for all the major sedimentary rocks in the world, eolian deposits pose a difficult hurdle in their water-logged models. Not surprisingly, the Coconino has been a target for years in flood-research circles (really, just a handful of prominent researchers - maybe six trained geologists and a band of amatuer enthusiasts). Their goal is to demonstrate the Coconino was, in fact, formed in a marine environment.

Most of their arguments are classic anti-science canards: creating false dichotomies: (if it wasn't purely eolian, it MUST have been marine), arguments from authority: (if this "trained geologist with a PhD" says it might not be eolian, then it MUST have been marine), and misrepresentation or selective use of "data:" (most eolian cross-beds form at the angle of repose, since the cross-beds in the Coconino are not at the angle of repose - as seen in modern sand piles - then it MUST have been marine [or, more recently] the presence of ooids, euhedral dolomite, and mica in small sections of the Coconino [I note, with great interest, that they have never, as of yet, stated exactly WHERE stratigraphically they have been looking] can't form in eolian environments, then it MUST have been marine).

In general, the work to date has been of dubious quality. Some of the thin section work and mineralogy is not bad, in terms of technical skill. The sections are well-made, the photographs are clear and relatively sharp. But the application of sedimentary and stratigraphic principles is poor at best. Most of it is wrong.

This will be the first post in a series devoted to sedimentary analysis and interpretation of eolian deposits. In particular, I'll spend some time talking about how a geologist should study rocks in outcrop and compare these methods to those employed by YECFP's to highlight the flaws in their claims/interpretations.

For now, I'll leave you with a photograph of the Wingate Sandstone - another eolian deposit from the Early Jurassic (about 200 million years old):

In the photo above, you'll see some classic eolianite features: huge multi-meter high cross beds. You also may notice a few reddish bands: one at the base of the pinnacle near the feet of the students, and another about halfway up. These reddish layers are "interdune" deposits. Laid down during a period of wetter conditions - perhaps as a groundwater-fed "oasis" surrounded by large fields of sand, or perhaps during episodes of greater precipitation. These interdune deposits contain a great deal of other minerals including ooids, carbonate minerals, and mica grains. This is not surprising, nor should it be. I'll explain why later. However, it illustrates one common mis-application of science. By looking exclusively at these thin interdune layers, one might be tempted to make a particular interpretation at odds with the rest of the formation. You CANNOT take one small part and make sweeping generalizations about the whole. That is not science. Generously, I'll call it pseudoscience (often lazy pseudoscience at that). When used to further a particular agenda, it's dishonest and deceitful. On occasion, this has been done by people doing real science. Most of the time, however, when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, real scientists relent - or at least stop publishing their falsified claims.

It appears that the YECFP's have not changed their tune despite being consistently rebuffed by additional facts for the past 50 years. That is not science, yet these YECFP's claim to be doing "science." This is a cargo-cult of pseudoscience. They may use methods that appear scientific at times, but the process is not actual science. It is risky thinking that can lead to a total abandonment of what we know about the physical mechanisms that govern the formation of rocks, fossils, even precious resources like gold, oil, and uranium. To hold to a flood-model of geology is to abandon logic and empirical evidence in favor of a particular aspect of the Christian faith. And by so doing, place the entire world at risk of never finding needed resources, or identifying the potential risks that society faces.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Phizix is phun

One of my roles at the University I'm currently teaching at is that of lab/discussion instructor for a Calculus-based 2nd semester Physics class. It's a small department (without a separate earth sci/geo dept), but the people are great to work with. Plus, I get to learn and review a whole bunch of physics that I've spent the last few years forgetting as I worked on my dissertation.

Science is fun for the mind. Geology draws on biology, chemistry, physics, math - it is the ultimate applied science. So how does a sedimentologist/paleontologist teach physics? The first part is easy - I have the answers and solutions beforehand. The second part is harder, but much more important. I can't just hand out a problem set or lab activity and then disappear, waiting for them to hand in their work. I have to answer their questions about the activity. Which means I have to understand the problem set at a level beyond just the answer. I have to be able to identify whether the students' thought process will lead them to a proper solution - and help extract them from an untenable solution attempt, no matter what mess they may have gotten themselves into. Ultimately, I have to understand how to solve the problem, but I also have to understand how an undergraduate views and may attempt to solve the problem.

Plus, when we (as geologists) draw a geologic cross section, or a sedimentary particle falling through a column of water, we are constructing a physical model of how the world works. The skills required for successful analysis and problem-solving in physics are similar to those of all branches of science: identify the desired outcome, lay out the steps required to reach a solution (including formulae, quantitative estimations, etc.), solve the problem, check the calculated/estimated answer to what may be reasonably expected (and revise/retry if necessary). It's good exercise for the scientific mindset.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ethical Geology?

A comment by "Graydevilcat" on one of my MSH field trip posts brings up an important point:

"In addition, to deny a proposal on the 'possibility' of something coming up is a big step down the slippery slope of guilt by association."

NO!!! GSA has a published, well-known position that creationism is NOT SCIENCE. Austin has a 30 year track record of creationist pseudo-geological research. Guilt by association? Give me a break.

And don't bother me with blather about not infringing on Austin's freedom of speech. GSA is a corporation, not the government, and can bloody well regulate speech as it wishes. Indeed, this is what GSA does every day: it's called "editorial decision-making".

GSA just gave creation "science" its imprimatur and violated its own published position.

While I can't speak for GSA, I can see reasons for rejecting or accepting the MSH field trip proposal. One the one hand, there is the point that "devilcat" brings up - there is no reason, based on past history, that Austin is doing anything but creation flood-geology. And if that is the "paradigm" that Austin is using to inform his statements on the field trip, then that is clearly not science. And my experiences on that trip have only supported that thought. There was no real science on that field trip.

The other point to consider is that, as members of GSA, they are entitled to the opportunity to share ideas (anyone can submit a paper for publication, but it must pass muster before being published). Are field trips subjected to the same level of peer-review as research papers? What if the field trip was proposed by an "Expanding-Earth" proponent? Would their personal feelings about how MSH might inform us about the relative inequities in sea-floor spreading versus subduction render the field trip void? If the earth expansionists laid out a field trip proposal that discussed factual information, and did not advance any particular interpretation, would that field trip be okay?

There was no science brought to the trip by our guides, but the statements made were at least an attempt by the guides to pose their ideas in a non-creationist framework. While it made for weak science, it at least allowed for everyone on the trip to get something constructive from the trip. Did the trip provide some additional "street cred" for flood-geology? Yes, almost certainly. Would denying the trip have opened the door for legal action? Doubtful, since, as "devilcat" said, GSA is not the federal government and does have some editorial control. Would Austin's first-amendment rights have been violated if the trip were cancelled - no, likely not. But, as I understand it, the actual field trip proposal made no mention of creationism or other anti-science goals. And although I do not know the nature of the exchange, I do know that there was an email discussion between Austin and people at GSA.

Ultimately, the trip happened. The benefit to Austin was, at a minimum, a field trip guide publication, at least tacit support for his work by GSA (at least that is how it will be billed), and a training tour for a handful of other creationist flood-geologists. Those of us that do real science got to see a unique section of the debris field, a volcano, some western toads, and we all received a rather nice 60" panoramic photo of the mountain and spirit lake. One more thing that I received was an opportunity to learn about what the young-Earth movement is up to and new ideas on how to teach deep time and evolution in my classes. These classes are taken by education majors, so I end up reaching over a hundred future teachers each year. The better able these students are at discerning real science from cargo-cult science, the better we'll all be.

So that brings me back to my title. Who was being ethical here? Did Austin violate the ethics he's agreed to when he became a member of GSA? Well, from a legal standpoint, I don't think he did as far as the field trip is concerned. Did GSA? Again, from a legal standpoint, I don't think they did when they accepted this field trip proposal. Does the whole thing leave a bad taste in my mouth? Yes, it does. But, the law of unintended consequences can be tricky. I don't think anyone, myself included, would have realized how much science education fodder this trip has provided.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blogs and Reaching Out to the larger community

One of the things I like about blogs is that it's a quick way to make lots of connections. Sure, there is a lot of chaff, and finding those little kernels of value can take some serious sifting and winnowing, but the internets do have search functions, and it's not like one has to invest a great deal of time in things they don't find interesting.

I've been looking at my visit logs and I've seen a big uptick in activity - largely due to my adventure with Steve Austin. I think that points to a needed activity for this blog: more discussion of what the folks at "Answers in Genesis" are up to. This is even more important, IMO, given their attempts at "addressing" some of the standard geological facts that are used to demonstrate this diluvian model is hooey. It's no use trotting out standard arguments if the creationists feel like they have a perfectly valid counter. It's time to update our database of counter-counter-claims.

But parrying YEC's is tedious, and no fun if it's all that all the time. So it's time to bring things back to some snails. Particularly Ice Age snails and the modern snail fauna of the Upper Mississippi Valley. Consider the following two photos:

Some recent woodland snails from southwestern Wisconsin:

Common late Pleistocene (ca. 20ka) snails from southwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota:

Three important points - one of which requires some background info, which I've touched upon in much earlier posts (and we'll revisit in the future). The other two can be seen in the above photos. One is that the "modern" snail fauna is much more diverse and second, the modern fauna displays a very wide range in body shape and size with a much bigger "upper limit." Just from this observed fact, we can start to ask some questions:

  • What was the timing of snail dispersal? Did the modern fauna appear before the ice age snails left?

  • Was this faunal transition all-at-once, or did individual species expand/adjust their range according to their own needs?

  • Do the changes in snail fauna (body size, range limits, etc.) imply something about climate change?

  • How are fossil shells preserved in the sedimentary record, and how does this affect our ability to use their shells as clues to ancient conditions?

Okay, that's enough for now. A big hello to all my new visitors - feel free to peruse the archives, leave a message, or whatever.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Little crawly creepies of the early Cambrian

I think I'll switch gears for a moment. One of the things I often do is create illustrations - either for my own research, or for things like museum exhibits. When I worked at the UW-Madison Geology Museum, I put together several drawings for our burgess shale materials:

Molaria is a rather unassuming arthropod.

The fancy trilobite, Ogogygopsis, which has more "g's" in its name than most animals. It's also a fairly demure (by trilobite standards) specimen.

Hyoliths are just strange. I find them all over the Upper Cambrian here in Wisconsin - although some of the cones might be conulariids - stay tuned.

One of the more flamboyant, but recognizable trilobite relatives is Marella.

Another relatively unassuming arthropod is Burgessia, but what's cool about this critter is that many of them leave behind a dark stain on the shale in the shape of their gill structures.

One thing that natural history reconstruction is good for is that it takes a 2-dimensional smear and "re-inflates" it for people to see. And many of these things are an inch or two long, so it's useful for those that can't get close to the display case.

Given the "outreach" potential of blogs, here are two other threads that may interest folks:
Young-Earthers and GSA
Little snails in the Midwest

Friday, October 23, 2009

Happy Birthday!

I was reminded by Callan over at NOVA geoblog that today, October 23rd, is the date at which Archbishop James Ussher arrived at by backtracking all of the biblical "begats." How he traced the "pre-begat" time before Adam and Eve isn't quite clear, nor did he provide a correction factor to address the uncertainty related to the wives of Cain and Abel. But I digress...

If you read it literally, the Earth took physical form a mere 4,004 years BCE (before "common" era - whose era it is common to, I'm not sure). That's a whole lotta geology to fit into a short time. I guess it's up to researchers like the ones mentioned in my last post to fit all of that change into a catastrophic model. How a frictionless fault system also leaves large gouges and striations in the rock is beyond my understanding, however.

Young-Earth Creationism at GSA

It is not a little ironic that the 2009 national meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) provided the option to spend an entire day talking about Darwin's contributions to geology and a chance to spend a day on Mount St. Helens with a young-Earth creationist. I wonder how many people on that field trip were "in on the take." And how many were completely clueless? I know that without the connectivity of social networking, I would have been completely duped. Here, I intend to sketch my thoughts regarding what is going on with the young-Earth movement and suggest how we, as geologists, might deal with this apparent rise in anti-science.

I can imagine the dilemma the GSA field trip committee found themselves in. Here was a field trip proposal submitted by one of the strongest supporters of a young-Earth and flood geology, Dr. Steven Austin. On one hand, it is clear to anyone who follows the actions of politically motivated groups such as the Institute for Creation Research that this would be used as a badge, a sort of hallmark of acceptance of their ideas. If GSA allowed this field trip, it would certainly spell future trouble for all the sciences. However, to deny this trip - which on the objective analysis of the submitted trip description - would spell certain troubles of its own. In the end, GSA allowed the trip, and, while I am positive it is going to spell trouble at some later point, this trouble would have been far worse (and longer-lasting) had they disallowed the trip.

The description for field trip #425: The Dynamic Landscape of Mount St. Helens reads harmless enough. While the description does not sound scientifically rigorous, it does appear to be based on geologic concepts of landscape evolution. However, it contained neither. It followed the classic creationist methodology of reporting facts, but ignoring/omitting any discussion of causal mechanisms (or by stating things in a meaningless and hopelessly confusing fashion - see my fourth entry on this topic). By focusing on specific events and their "time-stamps," Austin et al. steered clear of some controversial statements and positions. This "stenography" also served to sever any connection between Mount St. Helens and the rest of the Earth. There was no discussion of plate tectonics, or volcano monitoring, or even how changes in stream power and sediment load can affect the behavior of the landscape. Nope, it was just a series of isomorphous declarative statements, "at this time this happened, etc."

That appears to be the limit of what a geologist does. In Austin's mind, geologists are merely God's Stenographers. Dutifully reporting what layers are there, but steering clear of any possibility that they can inform the observer about environment of deposition, or some larger scale function of the Earth's systems. For that is the realm of God, and unknowable/undefinable. When I first learned of the background for the guide on our trip, I went through a miniature version of the grieving process: denial, anger, sadness and then acceptance. At least I accepted the fact that I was on a trip with a man who's behavior is anathema to geology and I could take this opportunity to observe firsthand the young-Earth movement.

I began by studying Austin's essay on K-Ar dating of the Mount St. Helens dacite, and Dr. Kevin Henke's excellent rebuttal. I also looked up the histories behind the other listed field trip leaders. Dr. Kurt Wise is well-known and doesn't need a link. He also was not on the trip. The number of co-leaders fluctuated, but the people introduced to us as group leaders included:

  • Dr. Timothy Clary, Delta College

  • Dr. John Whitmore, Cedarville University

  • Dennis Bokorov, co-founder of Creation Encounter, LLC

  • Dr. Marcus Ross, Liberty University

  • Raymond Strom, Calgary Rock and Materials Services

I won't bother with a series of web links - suffice to say they have well-documented ties to creationist and young-Earth/flood geology projects. They have also contributed a large number of GSA abstracts in the last few years.

John Whitmore (with student co-authors) has several abstracts that focus on the Coconino Sandstone

The common theme within all of these abstracts are clearly pointing to 1) that the Coconino was deposited rapidly and 2) within a marine, not Eolian setting. The field and lab methods employed are simple, and often misused. For example, grain-size distributions were plotted as a standard distribution about a mean, the mineralogy was used as a reason to question eolian deposition, yet no systematic point counts of grains were done. Some analyses were spread over a broad area, while the stratigraphic constraint on most samples was either non-existant, or limited to thin carbonate-rich horizons interbedded within huge cross-bedded, arenitic to feldspathic sandstones.

One poster displayed a section of these thin carbonate-rich horizons (widely interpreted by most geologists to be inter-dune deposits) that was labeled as "0-12 m" although when asked, it was actually 1.2 m. The interpretation of thin sections included identification of recrystallized carbonates and ooids, plus some mica and other non-quartz minerals. The emphasis of Cheung et al. (2009) was to argue against eolian deposition of these particular layers, and, by association, the entire Coconino Sandstone. This is akin to a meteorologist going outside at dawn and sunset to observe the sky. The meteorologist sees the sky is red, pink, and orange. Ah ha! They say: these colors are not blue: therefore, the statement "the sky is blue" is clearly false [therefore, all of your atmospheric physics must be wrong]. Classic creationist logic - select only some data (which may or may not be systematically collected), then use this small specific example to falsify a generalization (often an over-generalization) and call into doubt the entire system of understanding.

Dr. Timothy Clarey

The treatment of these large fault systems as catastrophic - where rate of movement was in excess of 100 km/hr (Clarey, 2009), lubricated by a saturated water/anhydrite slurry within the Gypsum Springs Formation. While not explicitly stated, the implication is for rapid, sudden creation of the entire structural framework of the Rocky Mountains, enabled by catastrophic loading and near-frictionless lubrication via hydrostatic pressures. While his analysis and mapping of particular faults may have been reasonably accurate in his particular study region, he ignores a wide body of existing knowledge about this (and ALL) fault systems. His assertion that the Heart Mountain and South Fork Faults were superfaults, moving along a frictionless surface at over 100 km/hr is curious. Especially because of his additional statements regarding the stratigraphically younger Paleozoic carbonates experiencing ductile deformation during faulting (at least, that's how I read his abstract and talk statements - he may have assumed ductile deformation before or after faulting). This still begs an important question of how one can achieve brittle deformation within a clay-rich mudstone formation (which are very susceptible to ductile deformation), yet experience ductile deformation within a much more rigid limestone unit (limestone is typically more susceptible to brittle behavior - at least at low T/P).

For a geologist, the faulty (pun intended) reasoning behind all of these abstracts boggles the mind. All of these abstracts display a selective acceptance or rejection of the scientific method (methodological naturalism). In a larger sense, these authors have, at least to me, displayed (through informal questions and discussion) a complete lack of ability or desire to apply their findings beyond a report of their "research." This lack of application is illustrated by the fact they make no attempt to explain previous, unwitnessed events (which could point to an underlying physical mechanism for the behavior of the Earth system), nor extrapolate their observations into the future. The one small exception to this last statement is when Austin was asked about future eruptions of St. Helens - he mentioned historical eruptions being about 150 years apart, thus the next big eruption would be in about 120 years. Note that the only reason he made that prediction was because of past behavior - NOT because of an understanding of some underlying mechanism such as plate tectonics and igneous rock mechanics.

The work typified by the above abstracts can be characterized as Risky Thinking. By denying an underlying physical mechanism, there becomes no possibility of predicting the behavior of the resulting features (e.g.earthquakes or volcanoes). Without an underlying theoretical framework, the scientist is relegated to the role of stenographer, mindlessly reporting on what they observe. Darwin made a comment about the fruitlessness of this pursuit when he talked about "counting all the pebbles" in a gravel pit. There would be no point. Without an underlying theoretical framework predicting the hazardous behavior of earth systems is impossible - therefore preemptively evacuating people from a volcano, or prohibiting certain activities in areas prone to landslides and earthquake is impossible. This places the scientist, and community at large at great financial and personal risk. This is not only bad science ("cargo cult science" of the worst kind), but it is very risky behavior.

So what do we, as geologists do? Clearly,we can't make them go away - either by ignoring them, or by prohibiting them from speaking publicly. But we can, and must, refute their assertions with vigor. I think that their participation in GSA meetings has some benefit. Firstly, it provides an opportunity for the students of these young-Earth professors to experience the wide diversity of real science (even if for brief moments). It also provides a direct way to ask questions and learn what the young-Earth community is thinking and up to. Forewarned is forearmed, so to speak.

This brings up an important point about social networks. The conference at GSA held a special session on the use of social networks in teaching and research. I think the use of social networking tools such as blogs, tweets, and facebooks is vital to help make the geologic community aware of what's going on. Without it, I would not have been able to be aware of the nature of the field trip: both in its implications, but also in terms of its "science" content. In addition, I might not have pursued the background research and stumbled upon these abstracts. The activities of the young-Earth community clearly are part of a larger strategy to gain "scientific merit" for their views (this is related to the "Wedge" strategy as described by the Institute for Creation Research Discovery Institute [edit: wrong group]). Without social networking, this behavior might not have been discovered until later - at a point where response and criticism would be more complicated.

As geologists, we ignore people like Steve Austin, John Witmore, and Timothy Clarey at our peril. However, our response must be both thorough and united. Social networking can provide the first line of notification. I want to thank Jessica at "Magma Cum Laude" for her first note: without it, I - and others - would have been duped.

You can read the rest of the story here:
Part Four
Part Three
Part Two
Part One

Update (10/27): I fixed a couple of errors in the text.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quick Update

I'm waiting for my flight out of PDX. They have free wireless, so I figure I'll add a quick update:

The meeting was very successful. I made some new professional connections, and strengthened existing ones. I got a bunch of cool swag (which deserves its own post). I attended a very helpful scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) workshop, which I should also share with my audience. An audience that seems to have grown a bit thanks to the Geoblogger get-together and the blogroll feed on the GSA website. Kudos to GSA for being proactive about embracing blogs (and technology in general) for sharing geoscience info.

In case you've missed it, I've been providing a series of reports on my experiences with the young-Earth creationist, Steve Austin. I unwittingly signed up for a tour led by him to Mount St. Helens. It was informative, to say the least. I didn't learn anything about geology, but I did learn a lot about what the young-Earth movement is up to.

The story so far:
Part Four
Part Three
Part Two
Part One

I'm leaving in about 45 minutes, so I should probably get to my gate. For some reason, the cheapest ticket has me traveling from Portland to Minneapolis via Phoenix. Very strange. At least I get a window seat, and perchance a view of the Grand Canyon. That would be a fitting postscript for this journey.

Update: A brief discussion about young-Earthism at GSA

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole, fourth verse.


First, let me talk about what this post is not:
It is not a discussion of Dr. Steven Austin's character as a person. In fact, I found him to be very cheerful and enthusiastic despite the poor weather. The same could be said of all the people on the trip; people were generally quite upbeat and positive even if our boots still have not dried out completely.

It is not a discussion/rant about religion - I find the parts of religious teachings that say we should be nicer to each other rather spiffy. There are plenty of other places to attempt some kind of cost/benefit analysis of belief/non-belief in any particular deity.

My intention with this post is to describe the trip in terms of how it was laid out, where we went, what we saw, and what was said by the trip leaders as it pertained to the field trip. I will save posts related to implications of the trip and discussion of some of the abstracts submitted by other authors who were on the trip for the future.

The Trip

We boarded the bus at the convention center and started up I-5 towards MSH. Along the way, Steven described the general purpose for the trip and handed out a reprint of the Guidebook [published as part of the GSA meeting field trip guidebook - more on this later]. It appeared that at least half of the people on the trip were familiar with the leader or co-leaders [I am still not sure how many actual "co-leaders" there were - at least four]. One of my friends from grad school was also on the trip, but I did not know any one else aside from the background research I had done to familiarize myself with the writings of those involved in planning the trip.

While we were making our way north, Steven described scuba diving in Spirit Lake, some of the work he had done for his dissertation at Penn State, and mentioned several times how the people attending this trip could learn from it and lead their own tours in the future. He described the eruption as a seven or eight step sequence of events from initial quake and landslide, to steam explosion and ashfall, finally ending with the breach of the new spirit lake and rapid outlet of the Toutle River once it overtopped the debris damming the valley two years later. A great deal of emphasis was put on the time of each event and the quantity of material removed from the mountain and depth of erosion from the Toutle River. Oddly, he described the basal movement of the mountain side as "laminar flow."

He spent some time describing "long-runout landslides" and the various mechanisms by which they can travel [there was nothing that seemed obviously wrong with his summary of primary concepts - although I have not double checked his reference yet]. He also spent some time describing hyperconcentrated mudflows along the Cowlitz River, which he described as turbulent, making bedforms. Traditional mudflows, he stated, had laminar flow and left massive, lacking bedforms/structures [which was confusing, since turbulence is largely a function of flow thickness, velocity, and bed interference, and even laminar flow can form sedimentary structures].

He made some comment about these landforms being a result of "self-organized criticality," but I'm still not sure to what he was exactly referring [the eruption, the landslide, the breaching of the dammed material?] We got out at JRO to spend some time in the center to look at the displays and look at the [really cool] topographic model of the area with fiber optic lights to show the extent and pattern of eruptive events on the mountain. [I should really talk about JRO and MSH itself in a separate post].

The group was split into groups of four [to help ease congestion on the trail and stops]. We then proceeded to wind our way down Truman Trail and into the valley. That's when it started to rain. Not a sprinkle or even a simple cloudburst, but sideways and nonstop for about four hours. This driving rain forced the trip leaders to postpone the first stop (on the ridge) to the return trip, so we continued on our trip. Down into the debris field, with Spirit Lake visible to the East, and the base of MSH occasionally visible. However, we didn't have much opportunity to gaze at the vista, since it was raining so hard [very few photos, either, since I wanted to keep my lenses dry for a while].

We continued down the trail, eventually reaching the bottom of the valley, where we veered off the trail and toward the new channel canyon. Steven had obtained an off-trail permit for our group, and we plodded through the rain-soaked clay, ash, and volcanic rock debris towards the overlook. I kept my hood over my face to try and keep the rain from draining down the inside of my jacket. By this time my pants, boots, and socks had become completely saturated. Because I was moving, I wasn't feeling cold, however, and the rest of the group also appeared to take the weather in stride.

Our arrival at the "breached-dam overlook" allowed us to see some of the more prominent erosional features of the Toutle River Valley. Here Steven picked up his narration, describing the landforms as a result of specific processes that had occurred at specific "moments" in time [my wording].

After his description of the various landforms [basically: 1) debris hummocks, 2) ash-fall, and 3) erosional valleys], Steven mentioned again, that this landscape was a result of "self-organized criticality" [his wording]. There were some questions and comments from the attendees regarding past volcanic events and landscape processes, even a statement about something that happened "100 million years ago" to which Steven did not react or criticize. But then he left us with some oddly phrased question about how much of this landscape was a result of "catastrophic" change versus "gradual" change. To which another person [I do not know if they were co-leading or attending] added that "both types have occurred. I was still trying to parse his catastrophism comments, so I only asked one question about this particular landscape in the future: "what would you expect to see in this landscape in the distant future?" I don't think he quite understood what I was asking, but he did address the fact that this particular landscape was anthropogenically altered, therefore some changes would not take place [which was entirely correct]. But as a summary, his statement was "more erosion." Nothing about changes in stream power, or sediment load, or base-level fluctuations. Just "erosion."

Because of the rain, his stop was likely cut short. As a parting comment about future eruptions, he made some comment about a similar 1980-style event unlikely [I'm not sure if he was talking about never again, or just in the relatively short-term]. But he made some passing comment about eruptions occurring as a result of the interaction between water, crystallization of magmas [my impression was he thought crystallization was near-instantaneous], and "self-organized criticality" allowing for this pressure to be released [his wording again]. I didn't have a chance to follow-up on that and ask him what he meant, since everyone had started to hike back to the ridge [I still need to do that].

When we got up towards the ridge, the rain let up and I concentrated on taking photographs. Most of the group had started to spread out, such that I only saw the same four or five people at any given time. Arriving back at JRO, the overlook stop had apparently been cancelled, so I stood on the observation deck and took lots and lots of pictures.

The return trip to the Convention Center was unremarkable, except that when we got off the bus, they handed a nice 60" wide panoramic photo of MSH to each of the attendees [this was pretty cool].


Ultimately, the trip was not as embarassing or intelectually painful as I had feared. If a GSA member had signed up for the trip, they may not have realized that the trip leader was a YEC [my grad school friend didn't know about Steve Austin until I mentioned something on the bus when we left for MSH]. The people sympathetic to his views were obviously happy. I took away some nice photos and memories of the volcano itself along with a clearer picture of what these YEC-ers are up to and what they are thinking.

I want to thank Steven Austin and his colleagues for taking the time and effort to organize the trip. I have some concerns, but these are more appropriate for a letter to the GSA Field Trip Committee Chairperson.

I also want to commend GSA for their decision. It wasn't was a tough one, and understandably, there was a great deal of internal discussion related to the trip and whether to allow it [what a difference a contraction makes -Ed.]. As written, the description of the trip makes no statements regarding a "Young Earth" or other sentiments anathema to the GSA mission. In addition, to deny a proposal on the "possibility" of something coming up is a big step down the slippery slope of guilt by association.

Yes, the YEC crowd will put this as a shining feather in their caps [ironic, since they claim all of our work is wrong yet they view interaction with us as "proof" that their ideas have merit]. But, there are always unintended consequences. Thanks to the hard work of Jessica at Magma Cum Laude, I was aware of the situation prior to the event, and I've been able to share my experiences with sufficient prior knowledge to report on the event. I also have gained valuable insight into the YEC community, and a new lesson plan to teach about deep time - using Austin's work to show why it's completely wrong.

Also, catch up on the series with the following links:
Part Three
Part Two
Part One

Update: A brief discussion about young-Earthism at GSA

Monday, October 19, 2009


Another busy day at GSA. I didn't go to as many talks today, but I did a lot of networking related to my own research, and chatting with fellow geologizers. I'm still drafting a review of my MSH trip, which will be up shortly. But, I'll leave you with two thoughts:

1) The NASA booth is handing out research satellite cookie-cutters. A different one each day. How fun is that?

2) How can you discuss geology with a person who rejects as false, the physical laws that define the mechanisms by which dirt fills in a hole?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I have returned

Long story short: nothing totally insane, save for driving rain and strong winds, soaking everyone to the bone. The mountain was gorgeous, there was very little science, and rather than bore everyone with a summary right now, here are a few photos:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole, third iteration

And so begins the annual "cardboard tube migration," played out on airplanes around the country as geologists bring their posters to the conference. These are becoming more rare, however, as cheap near-site options for large format poster-printing are making boards with a handwritten notes that say, "I left my poster in the Taxi, but here is a pencil sketch of my findings" a thing of the past.

I made it to Portland without too much trouble. I got a brief glimpse of Mt. Hood as we came in to land. The light rail system, "MAX" is quite good. Took me just about an hour to get from the airport to the hotel. I spent much of the flight going over some GSA abstracts published by the field trip leaders. I suspect that this "energy threshold" they are talking about is some attempt at bridging a gap between the gradual, uniformitarian observational evidence we geologists gather in the field, with a general "catastrophist" viewpoint that is often drawn upon to discuss YEC topics such as the flood.

I went over some possible questions - these can be difficult, because interaction with Creationists is often an exercise in rhetoric, rather than any intellectual back and forth. But, I think some questions that may generate some good discussion include focusing on observations, rather than interpretations. Also, given how poorly Austin's work was received by the scientific community, perhaps a question or two if he plans on re-analyzing the dacite from the St. Helens dome - especially now that we have a brand-new dome pushed up.

But that's all for now. Based on an idea I got from today's reading, I came up with "The Intriguing Idea of Everything! (TM)," which I plan on releasing soon. I'm sure these findings will revolutionize all of human society.

I'll leave you with a few pictures from the flight. The first is a "glory." Refracted light as a result of the observer being between the sun and a dispersed cloud of reflective, spherical droplets (e.g. a cloud):

Crank up the saturation, and you can see traces of even more rings:

I think I know why the upper left coast is always so rainy: you folks would spend your entire day just looking at the volcanoes from your windows - no work would ever get done. They are so very, very cool.

Lastly, I'm bringing my iPod, just in case the bus trip doesn't offer any good conversation. Here's my playlist:

  1. Crazy Train, Ozzy Osbourne

  2. Atlantis, Donovan

  3. Ring of Fire, Johnny Cash

  4. You're not the Boss of Me, They Might be Giants

  5. Head Like a Hole, Nine Inch Nails

  6. Everybody Knows, Leonard Cohen

  7. Dry the Rain, Beta Band

  8. I Should be Allowed to Think, They Might be Giants

  9. Touch of Gray, Greatful Dead

  10. Wake me up when September Ends, Green Day

  11. I Know What I Know, Paul Simon

  12. Jai Ho, A. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack

  13. Everybody Wants a Rock, They Might be Giants

  14. Brand New Day, Niel Patrick Harris, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

  15. 21st Century Digital Boy, Bad Religion

  16. Volcano, Jimmy Buffet

See the previous entries here (2) and here (1). Also, a shout out to all the USGS people who have been visiting lately.

Update: Flash-forward to part four.

Update2: A brief discussion about young-Earthism at GSA


It appears that we will be getting some rain on Saturday:



If we're out there in heavy rain, I may find it hard to avoid any "diluvial" jokes...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole, part the second

To continue the stream of thought from the other day:
(see the previous entry here)

It's clear that, while the Mount St. Helens (MSH) field trip leaders did not directly state their own viewpoints, the trip may be less sinister than it appears, especially since opening the trip to GSA members is certainly going to bias your crowd against YEC. However, I can't believe that some aspect of the trip will be used in an attempt to further YEC claims and ideas. I firmly believe this trip is a "stalking horse" of some type, although I won't get a better idea of what kind until the trip unfolds.

So what am I to do. Clearly, I can not let unfounded, and false claims go unchallenged. Everything about YEC "science" is anathema to the nature of science. It is based on misrepresentation of the data, out of context and misquoted thoughts of real scientists, and outright falsehoods. The late, great Richard Feynman wrote about pseudo-science and magical thinking in his book, "Surely you're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" where he discussed the search to measure the fundamental charge, e (about 1.6x10-19 Joules). The data were sometimes transformed or omitted to fit a preconceived notion of what the actual value should be. He termed this misuse of science as "Cargo Cult Science." It is a powerful and poignant example of how even good scientists can mislead themselves and misrepresent their work.

In short, Wikipedia describes a "Cargo Cult" as:
A cargo cult is a type of religious practice that may appear in traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced, non-native cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth of the advanced culture through magical thinking, religious rituals and practices, believing that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors.

Creationists, and Young-Earth Creationists in particular, are an excellent example of "Cargo Cult Science." They are focused on obtaining the "material wealth" of the advanced culture (i.e. characterizing aspects of the real, physical world) through magical thinking and religion. The infuriating denial of physical evidence and easily observed facts, which makes open debate with YEC's impossible at best, is a direct result of their firm belief that their characterization of the physical world is infallible because it was intended for them by their god (and his only son).

The "Cargo Cults" recreate and imitate the technologically complex society right down to "airfields" and radios with bamboo "antennae" in hopes of persuading supernatural powers to bring the "cargo" (i.e. airplanes, wealth, etc.) to them. YEC's go through some, though importantly, not all of the "rituals" used by scientists in hopes of characterizing the physical world according to their world view. I'm not going to go into any details about how they abuse science to fit their desires, but a short browse of the talk.origins list will provide an overview of all the various incidents that have come up (and continue to reappear).

So where does that leave me, about to take a field trip to MSH, led by a pair (trio, quartet, quintet - the actual number of "co-leaders" has changed a few times) of YEC's? Clearly I need to do some background reading to pre-empt some potentially wrong assertions. However, I am also a "guest" and they have invited strangers along for a trip to an amazing place (regardless of religious perspective).

My list of options as I see it:

  1. Challenge them right off the bat - bring their opinions into the open immediately, turning the entire trip into a debate that could quickly spiral away from the volcanic event itself

  2. Ask specific questions about statements made "in the field." Any claims about excess Argon or erosion rates of ash versus thick sequences of sedimentary rock can be easily questioned with specific facts.

  3. Ask a bunch of "stumper" questions such as, "where did the water from the 'Flood' go?"

  4. Ignore them entirely and let my mind wander off to soak in the landscape by myself or like-minded field trip participants.

  5. Pretend to agree, getting them to make increasingly bizarre statements

  6. Hijack the trip and get people talking about anything but YEC claims related to MSH

Obviously, I am tempted by all of them in some way or another. But, I do not want to ruin the trip for the other participants. After all, they paid $95 bucks too - I would much rather have everyone remember the volcano and landscape positively. The trip leaders deserve some respect, because they have taken time and their own effort to organize the trip. However, I cannot let anything that hints of YEC thought "slide by." If a statement is made that is crazy, I fully intend to question it. There is no reason not to ask questions and demand evidence for any claim (reasonable, or no).

If any GSA member has stumbled upon this blog and is also taking this trip, I would be interested in your perspective. If, like me, you signed up unaware of the history of the leaders, you may want to do some preparatory reading (both about YEC and the actual events of MSH). The last thing I want is to have a bunch of surprised and angry geologists turning a field trip to one of the most spectacular places on earth into a shouting match, leaving everyone frustrated. It would be nice, however, to remind the trip leaders that their "Cargo Cult Science" is not actual science, and will be challenged (respectfully, but firmly) at every step.

I've been digging into the published GSA abstracts by some of the trip organizers, and have some thoughts on where some of the YEC work is headed. That will have to wait, since I need to write a midterm, give lectures and a lab, and pack.

Update: Here's the latest preview, with pictures from the flight, and a trip soundtrack.

Update: Flash-forward to part four.

Update2: A brief discussion about young-Earthism at GSA