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 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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Geoblogging Survey

I really don't know if there are many geologists reading this blog - given how poorly I've attended to its needs over the last couple years. However, there are many new and wonderful geo-blogs out there. If you have one, and are interested in developing the geoblog community, take a stroll over and fill out the geoblog survey:

It's quick and painless (at least nobody has come to pummel me yet)...

Down the Rabbit Hole, part the first

It's October, which means the national meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) is almost here. I'll be presenting a bit of my dissertation coupled with some additional analyses I didn't have time to include with the PhD.

This years meeting is in Portland, Oregon. There were several scheduled field trips to Mount St. Helens. Having never been to an active volcano before, I figured that I was obligated to conduct my pilgrimage. I looked at two possible trips:

Field Trip #420: From Disaster to Recovery: The Hydrogeomorphic, Ecologic, and Biologic Responses to the 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens (cost: $75)
Leader: John Major
[abridged] Description: ...Within minutes to hours on May 18, 1980, hundreds of square kilometers of landscape were devastated by a massive debris avalanche, a directed volcanic blast, debris flows, pyroclastic flows, and extensive tephra fall...
...This field trip travels along the Toutle River valley examining the impacts of, and the hydrogeomorphic, biologic, and ecologic responses to, the 1980 eruption. We will visit engineering works designed to control downstream sediment movement, Johnston Ridge (8 km from the volcano’s crater) which bore the brunt of the directed blast, and hike a 4-km-long trail loop on the massive debris avalanche deposit.

This trip sounded interesting except for the study of the "engineering works" to mitigate the mass-wasting hazards of the volcaniclastic material. I didn't want to look at earthworks, I wanted to see the volcano and debris field. Compared to the other trip (below), I wasn't sure how much hiking we'd get to do (4 km compared to 13 km). The trip below was twenty bucks more expensive, but the description of the route sounded more interesting:

Field Trip #425: The Dynamic Landscape on the North Flank of Mount St. Helens (cost: $95)
Leader: Steven A. Austin
[abridged] Description: This six-hour hike follows a 13-kilometer-round-trip route to an extraordinary geologic location called “Breached Dam Overlook” just seven kilometers north of the crater of Mount St. Helens. The trail goes from the Johnston Ridge Observatory onto the largest landslide deposit to have accumulated during human history...
...The objectives of the trip are (1) to identify, classify and name individual landforms within the upper North Fork Toutle River landscape, (2) to relate the landforms to the sequence of events and processes that have occurred next to the volcano, and (3) to ponder questions about how the landscape at a volcano changes through time. Landforms on the debris avalanche landscape are relicts that have been impacted significantly by geomorphic processes that exceed a certain minimum energy threshold. Following the debris avalanche of May 18, 1980, the most significant event was the mudflow of March 19, 1982. That mudflow event breached the natural debris dam, caused adjustment within the drainage basin, and derived the present landscape. Now that the power of geomorphic processes has diminished, finer sediment is what is being moved. Channels are incised and armored with coarser clasts, and valleys are now plugging with sediment. Johnston Ridge Observatory on the west side of Mount St. Helens Volcano National Monument is the staging area this roundtrip hike.

The trip objectives: classifying/naming individual landforms, relating landforms to events, and "pondering questions" about landscape change over time sounded a little "fluffy." However, the hike description sounded more interesting and I felt this would get closer to the volcano itself. Therefore, I paid my registration fee and quickly turned my attention to other needs, like teaching and manuscript preparation.


A few days ago, I was preparing my itinerary. I was curious exactly where the "Breeched Dam Overlook" was, so I googled that phrase, which pulled up a link to a post several months ago by another geoblogger. So, the trip was being run by Dr. Steven Austin, a Young-Earth Creationist (YEC), with a dubious, published record of very poor science. Did I mention a lack of rigor?

Apparently I did not perform my "due diligence" in teasing out the motives behind the trip. Further research showed that the other listed leader, Dr. Timothy Clary. A search of his course objectives at Delta College (MI) turned up nothing out of the ordinary, save for somewhat "old-fashioned" syllabus objectives. A few google links lower yielded an article published by the Institute of Creation Research - never a good sign. I'll save analysis of his writing for a later post. Suffice to say, I was a bit dismayed that I had signed up for a trip that would, no doubt, be used as a stalking horse for YEC claims. That GSA would allow a trip like this was a little surprising, but the trip description was straightforward enough that I don't think the field trip committee would have found anything to object to. Dr. Clary has also published a few abstracts at GSA meetings (I've read a few, and while they focus largely on observations and do not discuss an old earth or evolution, they also do not deny these facts).

The form and weather note emailed to the field trip attendees also lists Dr. Kurt Wise, Dr. John Whitmore, and Dennis Bokovoy as assistants. A quick search of these individuals produced a consistent body of "work" designed to support a "Young-Earth" and Noachian Flood cause for the Grand Canyon. The plot thickens (thins?). This is also the point in the story where the reader, well-versed in the sophistry of YEC's, can envision the motives and sequence of events during and after the field trip.

The language of the field trip description is also easier to parse in this light. Particularly interesting is the line
ponder questions about how the landscape at a volcano changes through time

What I first took for flowery language appears to be a "set-up" to invite a discussion regarding the rapid landscape evolution of St. Helens. This "discussion" may have a foundation based on first principles of landscape geology, but also provide the YEC folks additional methods of arguing for a flood origin for the Grand Canyon.

And this line:
Landforms on the debris avalanche landscape are relicts that have been impacted significantly by geomorphic processes that exceed a certain minimum energy threshold.

Is curious - vague enough to be completely useless from a scientific standpoint, but very helpful for YEC sophistry.

I have no idea what they mean by "minimum energy threshold," but I suspect that it is intended to further detail some aspect of catastrophism being required and fully capable of dramatically changing the landscape (such as the Grand Canyon) in a short (i.e. 40 day flood) time frame. Note also the comments about "diminishing energy" and transportation of fines. Likely another mis-application of hydrodynamic sorting to support a single, global flood event.

I do not know who else has signed up for the trip. It may be filled with geologists far more clever than I at sussing the motives of the trip leaders, or it may be largely filled with people sympathetic to YEC claims. Either way, what I first thought was a trip to see a volcano and learn about the eruption and landscape processes has evolved into a trip to see a volcano and observe a YEC at work.

I will provide a thorough account of the trip this weekend. In the meantime, my regular readers (both of you), I will provide a little more background in the next few days.

Update: See the latest post regarding some thoughts about the trip and YEC.

Update2: Here's the latest preview.

Update3: Flash-forward to part four.

Update4: A brief discussion about young-Earthism at GSA

Monday, October 12, 2009

The beat goes on...

It's now well into the fall semester. I'm busy teaching introductory geology and a soil mechanics course. Toss in a physics lab and discussion and you have my fairly busy schedule.

I've got a few interesting items on the horizon. I'm headed to GSA to present a talk related to my PhD, and also on a field trip to look at Mt. St. Helens. It appears that the trip just got a lot more interesting
for reasons that have little to do with actual geology.

And I have some interesting comments about glaciers that need to be addressed, too. What's a geo-snail-blogger to do?