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 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


  1. Pascal - if you have the time, see also Austin's article on the ICR website: "Excess Argon within Mineral Concentrates from the New Dacite Lava Dome at Mount St. Helens Volcano" at

    Also, check out the GeoChristian blog at: . It shows not all Christians have bought into the young earth stuff, and also shows they can have a civil discussion of the topic.

  2. Thanks Tim,

    I've briefly read the Argon paper, but I'll print one out before I leave.

    It is important to remember that the vast majority of Christians are not YEC types, and that bad science can be done by anyone, regardless of worldview.