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On Creation Science

Penny Higgins

September 26, 2007

It is best to fully understand the point of view of those with whom you disagree before you engage them in productive discussion about that topic. In the real world, however, this is seldom practical. Most of us simply don’t have the time or energy to devote to studying things that do not have an important and immediate affect on the daily goings-on of our lives. This is why we typically defer to authoritative experts or elected officials about matters that we simply can’t devote attention to.

In the case of the debate between the validity of the Theory of Evolution versus the truth of Creation Science (in all its forms), the arguments often require an advanced knowledge of geology, biology, mathematics, physics, and chemistry — not to mention an understanding of what really is written in Scripture. Proponents on either side of the argument struggle with the scope of the debate, and often rely on the testimony of experts about specific aspects of the debate. Even then, the scope of the argument is so voluminous that even the experts seldom fully understand the perspective of the counter argument. Many in the paleontological community (who almost all accept the Theory of Evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life on our planet) agree that it would be ideal to understand the ‘scientific’ arguments of Creationists, but few are free to devote the resources necessary to understand the various Creationist viewpoints.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a full-day “Creation Science Seminar,” presented by a geologist from the Institute of Creation Research (ICR). ICR promotes a more literal translation of Genesis from the Bible, in which the Earth is only about 6000 years old and was created, along with all plants and animals, in six days. This is termed Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and geologist William Hoesch presented the scientific evidence supporting it.

The following week I attended a panel debate called “A Skeptics Forum.” This was promoted by an organization called Reasons to Believe that supports the ‘Theory’ of Intelligent Design (ID) and a less literal interpretation of Genesis.

Perhaps the most striking observation that I can make, having attended these two events, is that the two competing creationist theories disagree with each other as much as they oppose the Theory of Evolution. What I found to be more disturbing was that the scientific evidence for a 6000-year-old Earth was more credible than that for Intelligent Design. I find that ID is easy to show to be a pseudo-science. Creation science, at least at first glance, appears to have a sound basis in the rest of secular science.

In this column, I’ll share my observations about the Creation Science Seminar and the scientific evidence for a young Earth. It’s tempting to simply write a bulleted list and refute all that was said, point by point. Instead, I’ll talk a bit about the material that was presented and the WAY in which it was presented.

My first observation, as I walked in to the seminar ‘fashionably late,’ was that the room was packed with people (more than 300!) and that William Hoesch is a very charismatic person. He has the air of a professional geologist, complete with requisite vocabulary, attire, and presentation style. I really enjoyed his presentation. The lunch buffet was excellent. And the folks I shared my table with were pleasant — though I didn’t have much to say.

The Seminar was divided into four sessions. The first session discussed six ‘trade secrets,’ presumably of secular science. These were the typical arguments against evolution, most of which were wrong or irrelevant.

  1. That no credible mechanism for MACROevolution exists.

    Macroevolution is the appearance of new taxonomic groups of organisms above the level of species. Generally, this is in reference to new classes or phyla of animals. Microevolution is the appearance of new species. Creationists seldom argue about the reality of microevolution. I would argue (as others have) that macroevolution is an extension of microevolution. There are well-understood mechanisms for microevolution; these mechanisms also apply to macroevolution. Here it is argued that macroevolution requires its own, distinct mechanism. I feel another web column coming on…stay posted!

  2. That the fossil record has not yielded any missing links.

    See my last column about Tiktaalik, the ‘fish-ibian’

  3. That the age of the earth is NOT proven to be 4.5 billion years old.

    Maybe not PROVEN, but much of the evidence that we have supports that conclusion. That’s the way science works. This is the first point in the seminar that he suggests that making interpretations or inferences is no better than using your imagination. He referred to interpreting the age of rocks using the relationships between different rock units and structures in the rock or by geochemical means is merely “rank guesswork,” To me, this suggested a very poor understanding of global stratigraphy on his part, which I found discouraging. Later in the seminar, in the fourth session, Hoesch presented interesting evidence for a much younger Earth.

  4. That machines go from order to disorder.

    This one we’ve all heard before: the classic 2nd Law of Thermodynamics argument. Hoesch makes the claim that the 2nd Law applies in both open and closed systems. This left me scratching my head with a big, ‘huh’? I assume that Hoesch has had physics and understands how this stance doesn’t make a lot of sense. So, I did a little more research and have discovered (I think) how this claim is made by Creation Scientists.

    The 2nd Law, in a nutshell, states that in nature, order goes to disorder. The complex becomes more simple. The required conditions for complexity to increase (the opposite of the 2nd Law) is that 1) the system must be open and 2) there must be an influx of energy into the system. Henry Morris (Morris and Parker, 1997) describes two more necessary requirements for an increase of complexity (or a decrease in entropy): 3) a program to direct the growth in complexity and 4) a mechanism for storing and converting incoming energy (Morris and Parker, 1997, Fig. 41, p. 211).

    These additional conditions make Creation Science sound a little like Intelligent Design.

  5. That the founding fathers of nearly every discipline of science were bible-believing creationists.

    This is irrelevant

  6. That coded information never happens by chance.

    Just as a person has to write computer code, the code of DNA had to be written by some intelligent agent. This is another argument that smacks of Intelligent Design.

Uniformitarianism is a term that often turns up early on in introductory geology textbooks. Charles Lyell put forward the idea in his Principles of Geology, (published 1830—1833), in which he states that geological processes in the past were of the same kind and intensity as those currently observable. The opposite of this is Catastrophism, which suggests that most of Earth’s history was spent in a relatively calm, static state, punctuated by large, global-scale events — catastrophes — such as a world-wide flood.

The second and third sessions of the Creation Science Seminar set about to disprove Uniformitarianism as a valid model for past geological processes. Hoesch asserted that geologists ‘cling’ to Uniformitarianism as a unifying concept in geology, and don’t consider catastrophic events as a possibility.

This, of course, is not the slightest bit true. Geologists recognize catastrophic events in Earth’s history and make no effort to disguise the fact that such catastrophes happen. I recall distinctly a lengthy discussion about the paradigmatic shift in geology from Catastrophist (pre-Lyell), to Uniformitarian, to the modern mixture of the two (see Berggren and Van Couvering, 1984, Catastrophes and Earth History: The New Uniformitarianism).

Hoesch described a few of the basic assumptions of geology, presumably of Uniformitarian origin, and proposed a means to show that these ideas to be incorrect, using study of the effects of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens.

Idea 1) Thick rock sections take great lengths of time to form.

Idea 2) Large valleys are cut by small streams over great lengths of time.

In one day (or at most a few days), tens of feet of sediment was laid down, and then eroded to form broad valleys by large flows coming off of the mountain. Later, the broad valleys remain with only tiny streams flowing through them. According to Hoesch, if outcrops such as these were found by a geologist, the geologist would assume that the thick rock layers took millions of years to be deposited and that the little stream eroded the big valley slowly over great spans of time. So the Grand Canyon could have been formed rapidly by recession of global flood waters, rather than over millions of years by the (relatively) tiny Colorado River.

I immediately started thinking about some of the problems with this idea. The challenge of scale — the difference between 600 feet and 6000 feet — can be set aside for the sake of argument. The deposits around Mt. St. Helens were all unconsolidated to fused volcaniclastics (sedimentary materials directly from and eruption of a volcano, for example ash and pumice), whereas deposits in the Grand Canyon were limestones, sandstones, and shales overlying metamorphic and igneous rocks. This sets my geologist senses tingling — I just can’t imagine that 600 feet of fresh volcaniclastics are as difficult to erode as are 600 feet of limestone. What about the unconformities and paleosols that have been documented in the Grand Canyon? How does the lateral extent of the sediments at Mt. St. Helens compare with the lateral extent of sediments outcropping in the Grand Canyon? And fossils? Are there any fossils in the recent volcaniclastics of Mt. St. Helens? What about well-developed soils? There are soils in the strata of the Grand Canyon.

I realized that Hoesch was citing the scientific work of another person, Dr. Steve Austin. Surely, then, Hoesch was just leaving out important details for the sake of brevity and because of their technical character. I looked up Steve Austin’s original paper, published in Origins in 1984. Steve Austin has a Ph.D. in Geology from a good, secular, school. I decided I would give it a critical read just as I do for all the technical papers I read or review. I set aside a couple of hours to read it — technical papers always take me at least that long to get through and at nine pages I thought two hours would get through the paper at least once.

Imagine my disappointment when the paper only took me about 20 minutes to read. It was well written, to be sure, but presented no original science. It was a review of the mainstream technical literature with all the units converted to feet (instead of meters). There was no strong evidence that Mount Saint Helens would be a good model for a flood origin of the Grand Canyon. Dr. Austin simply states:

“What conventional geomorphic theory says takes thousands of years may, instead, be accomplished within a few years. Geomorphologists have learned that the time scale they have been trained to attach to landform development may be misleading.”

To which I respond, “yeah, so?” This was not a scholarly scientific paper; it was more like a term paper that I would expect from advanced undergraduate students, with some interesting conclusions. Had Dr. Austin addressed any of my points of query (sediment type, cementation, lateral extent, fossils, or soils) there may have been something of mainstream interest, but there wasn’t.

I was disappointed, but not yet convinced that no further research since this original paper from 1984 had been published. It’s not so unusual that the first paper that is published about a topic is kind of, well, vague. Later papers, which cite the first, usually go into greater detail. So I checked GeoRef, a literature database maintained by the American Geological Institute, which is the most comprehensive list of geoscience publications available. I figured the Origins paper might not be listed, as Origins is a small journal and probably is not indexed by GeoRef. To my surprise (and satisfaction) the Origins paper WAS listed in GeoRef, as are both his M.S. Thesis and his Ph.D. Dissertation. I did not find any more recent papers written by Dr. Austin, just a hand full of abstracts which are nice but by themselves are meaningless in mainstream geology. Then I went to the Science Citation Index, another powerful database that is not so geology-centric. I checked to see what papers may have cited the Origins paper in their own bibliography. Alas, I found no reference to the Origins paper in any subsequent scholarly work, nor did I find reference to any of Dr. Austin’s abstracts. I was not going to find the further data that I would like to see. My conclusions: It may well be true that geomorphologists have been wrong all along about the length of time needed to form a great valley, but the evidence from examination of the volcaniclastic deposits at Mt. St. Helens (specifically Austin, 1984) does not show that the basic principles of geologic time and processes are incorrect.

Hoesch set about in his next sessions to show that fossil assemblages, too, are not the result of the fortuitous preservation of the occasional dead organism, but that are of catastrophic origin. My interest was piqued immediately, since I am a genuine card-carrying (if there were a card) paleontologist. He described one fossil assemblage that I knew very little about and another that I was already familiar with.

The first assemblage was the Whitmore Nautiloid Bed of the Redwall Limestone which crops out in the Grand Canyon, a bed in which are preserved multitudes of unbroken shells of an extinct group of animals called ammonites. Ammonites and nautiloids can be thought of as very similar looking to the modern chambered nautilus — kind of a squid in a shell. In the case of the Whitmore Bed, the nautiloid shells were all straight, not coiled like the modern nautilus. Hoesch makes several claims related to the occurrence of nautiloids in this bed.

  1. That there is about one specimen per square meter within the bed
  2. That this bed extends all over the southwest, thus there are billions of nautiloids
  3. That there is a distinct preferred orientation of shells
  4. That the entire population is represented because the distribution of shell length plots in a lognormal distribution
  5. That there are ‘water escape pipes,’ showing that the sediment was laid in a very short period of time in an aquatic environment
  6. That this represented an underwater avalanche, much like the pyroclastic flows at Mt. St. Helens.

These ideas are published in the book Grand Canyon: A Different View (2003, edited by Tom Vail), in which a chapter written by Dr. Steven Austin. Dr. Wilfred Elders (2003) reviewed this book (http://home.austarnet.com.au/stear/bibliolatry_revisited_elders.htm) and made a series of points that ought to be addressed by Dr. Austin before the catastrophic death of the nautiloids in the Whitmore Bed can be taken as a serious hypothesis. I add some of my own thoughts here as well:

  1. Is it possible this is an exaggeration (see Elders, 2003)? Where specifically were you sampling nautiloids?
  2. Could this also be an exaggeration (see Elders, 2003)? What is the real extent of the Whitmore Bed?
  3. How many shells were measured, from how many localities?
  4. How does lognormal distribution equal ‘the whole population died at once’? In mammals, for example, the size or age distribution might not plot on a normal curve.
  5. How can you prove the water escape pipes aren’t actually fossil burrows (see Elders, 2003)? (I add here that Hoesch proclaimed while describing this bit of evidence that “this is actually credible!”)

I’ll be getting my copy of Grand Canyon: A Different View soon. I’ll be interested to read this chapter first-hand. Another book I will be getting soon is Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe published in 1994 and edited by Dr. Austin.

Hoesch’s second example of a catastrophic formation of a fossil bed comes from the Brushy Basin Member of the Morrison Formation in Dinosaur National Monument. For this, I don’t know what to say…

It is, actually, generally accepted that the fossil bed on display at Dinosaur National Monument represents the sudden death of a large group of animals, likely due to a sudden flood. These things happen, even today. But the sudden death of hundreds or even thousands of animals during a flood today does not imply a global catastrophic flood.

Many localities in the Morrison Formation are similar in appearance and origin — a tangled knot of bones that represents the mass death of animals due to a flood. Hoesch cited 20 localities in the Morrison. Add to that the one (or more?) from the Whitmore Bed and that makes 21 localities that show what Hoesch called a watery catastrophe, wherein the victims were all transported some unknown distance, and that death occurred in unheard of scales.

n the end, I feel that the arguments made for catastrophic extinction of animals from the singular global Flood are pretty weak. What about all the other thousands of fossil localities out there? What about the continuous successions of unicellular microorganisms in marine rocks? What about isolated fossil remains, when it’s just one or two individuals found together? How do you explain the 136 fossil localities that I found in my doctoral research field area, that span about 2000 feet of section, clearly lie in ancient stream channels, and lie next to some very lovely ancient soils?

The final session of the day was the ‘big one’ in which Hoesch planned to show, once and for all, that the Earth was merely thousands of years old, not billions. His three lines of evidence are:

  1. The presence of excess helium in zircons found in rocks otherwise considered billions of years old
  2. The pattern of polonium radiohalos in biotite, in the absence of radiohalos of other elements
  3. The presence of Carbon-14 in rocks considered too old for carbon dating methods

This was by far the most technical part of the seminar, which included some research that has, in fact, been published in the mainstream scientific literature. It is with this that I can now fully understand what distinguishes Science from Creation Science.

In mainstream science, it is not so unusual to publish results, even when they are in direct conflict with ‘conventional’ knowledge. Yes, scientists ARE interested to know that there is far more helium in zircons than we might expect. Yes, it is curious that it seems that Polonium isotopes underwent radioactive decay separated from their parent isotopes. Yes, scientists ARE interested to know about fossils, otherwise dated at millions of years old, that have carbon-14 in sufficient quantities to perform carbon-dating.

The difference between Science and Creation Science is the way in which these results are interpreted. Science says, “Gee, that’s curious. How could that be? This could imply that the Earth is young, but that conclusion is not supported by other lines of evidence. Let’s write a grant proposal and do some more work.” Creation Science says, “See! It’s not how you thought! You were misled! Let’s write this up as irrefutable proof that the Earth is young! And if the Earth is young, well then it must have been created!”

The empirical data that Creation Scientists collect are generally sound. But their data sets are small and the conclusions drawn overreach what other Scientists would consider reasonable. On first glance, the conclusion of a young Earth seems sound, but on closer inspection, including reading of the primary scientific-creationist literature, some important points are not addressed, glossed over, or worse: misunderstood. Would that I were able to review these papers before they went into publication! Of course, this is the very reason why these papers are not published in mainstream scientific literature. It’s not that the conclusion of divine creation 6000 years ago is too radical for the data set; it’s that the scientific basis of the work is not very well argued. It’s so poorly argued in fact, that I have a hard time taking it seriously. For example, in the seminal paper (Humphreys et al., 2003) discussing the diffusion of helium from zircons:

  1. Humphreys et al (2003) more than once make excuses for the insufficiency of their research. In reference to a paper that had been published in Geophysical Research Letters: “The theory is very complex, and no creationist expert in the field has yet reviewed it to see whether it is well founded.” Later when discussing the imperfection of their model: “But accounting for anisotropy in the biotite [that biotite crystals split on a single plane] would be quite difficult, so we leave that refinement to the next generation of analysts.”
  2. Humphreys et al (2003) also do not explain adequately their concept of ‘closure’ to Helium in zircons. Had I reviewed the paper I would have asked them to elaborate on it a lot more.
  3. Humprheys et al (2003) summarized its conclusions into one line: “Helium diffusion casts doubt on uniformitarian long-age interpretations of nuclear data [I’m ok with this] and strongly supports the young world of Scripture [Gasp! Your bias is showing!]”
  4. The above points, coupled with considerable uniformitarian-bashing and the occasional quote from scripture, really leaves me disappointed in the LACK of professional science being presented in the paper.

Hoesch repeatedly made comments like: “your interpretation is only as good as your assumptions.” Well, he and his colleagues make one BIG assumption that the rest of us in secular science don’t make: that there is a supernatural power (God, if you will) that made things as they now are. In the end, it is obvious to me that this is the one thing that distinguishes creation scientists (YECs or advocates of Intelligent Design) from other mainstream scientists. This bias causes creation scientists to hesitate before studying other ideas or models that may contradict the results that they have already gotten. Their goal is merely to show that secular science may be wrong. If secular science could be wrong, creation scientists are satisfied that God could have created the universe, and there is no longer the urgent need to refine or improve their models.

This is reflected in the utter lack of professional, peer-reviewed papers that have been published by creation scientists. Most of what has been published on these various topics was written in the 1980’s, published in creation science (not mainstream science) journals, and/or was nothing more than an abstract for a poster presented at a professional meeting. The last two types of publication do not constitute serious, widely accepted science. The first point that most of the ‘seminal’ papers were written in the 1980’s while there has been very little since, prompts the following questions:

This kind of research effort is considered weak at best by mainstream science and it defies logic that creation scientists consider their work ‘robust.’

For fun, I plan to read and review (as I would any technical paper), several of the creation science papers noted in this column as well as others I have come across as I prepared this column. Perhaps if the lay public and the creation scientists themselves saw a critical scientific review of their work, they would either step back from calling their brand of research science or would step up their research efforts so that they were actually doing bona fide science. We’ll see.

References

Penny Higgins

Penny Higgins's photo

Dr. Pennilyn (Penny) Higgins is a Research Associate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester. Most of her research revolves around studying the chemistry of fossil mammal teeth to learn about the environments in which the animals lived and what they might have been eating while living there. She is particularly interested in episodes of rapid climate change in the geologic record. In addition to doing research and managing a geochemistry laboratory, Penny also teaches courses in introductory geology and paleontology at the University of Rochester. When she's not in the office or laboratory, Penny can be spotted writing fiction, practicing the western martial arts, or just screwing around on Twitter.