Friday, October 23, 2009

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.


  1. Pascal,

    Thanks for the time you’ve taken first to go on the field trip, second to report back on it to us, and third for your digging into some of the YEC ideas. As you’ve stated, YECism represents some of the worst of cargo cult science out there. Some other YEC confabulations include Walt Brown’s Hydroplate “Theory”, John Baumgardner’s Runaway Subduction (or Catastrophic Plate Tectonics) and Russell Humphrey’s attempt to discredit radiometric dating by measuring helium diffusion rates.

    If you want to get some idea of how creationist blather has permeated the lay population, go to some of the discussion fora on Science, Evolution and particularly Creationism. I go there occasionally and put in my two cents on topics relating to the geosciences if I feel something needs to be explained or elaborated upon. There you can find some very strong opinions on all sides, with occasional “flamethrowers”, and rationality and civility tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

    Thanks again for your hard work,


  2. Wow, thanks for your excellent work documenting this.


  3. Pascal,

    Thanks for your informative posts. I've been told geologists don't respond to the claims of flood geologists because they don't want to appear to grant legitimacy to young earth creationism. Perhaps it is time to revise that approach - the YECs have pretty much been getting a free pass up to now.

    You mentioned Walt Brown and the ICR - FYI - apparently, there's a long-standing dispute between the two documented on a Washington church's website

    Click on any of the four titles:

    Is ICR/AiG Helping or Hindering - General Summary UPDATED 9-1-09

    Is ICR/AiG Helping or Hindering - Part 1

    Is ICR/AiG Helping or Hindering - Part 2

    Is ICR/AiG Helping or Hindering - Part 3 - UPDATED October 28, 2009

    They're a bit rambling, but it's interesting to know all's not peaceful in YEC land.