Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 24, 2011

Eroding Continents, Uniformitarianism vs. Catastrophism, and Young-Earth Creationism


Introduction

Recently, I’ve done a lot of posts on young-Earth creationism (YEC), and the majority of those have been based on the Institute for Creation Research’s daily “science” updates (or as the Eye on ICR blog calls them, “daily pseudoscience updates” or “DpSU”). As such, when yet another geology-related one came out this week, I was going to ignore it. Especially because said Eye on ICR blog already covered it (don’t you have homework, Peter?).

But then I read this particular “DpSU” again, entitled “Continents Should Have Eroded Long Ago,” and I decided that, actually, there was something I wanted to cover from it.

The Obligatory Summary and Wrongness of the ICR Article

I do have to briefly summarize these points before I get to the larger issue I wanted to address. Basically, in said article, the “science” writer Brian Thomas talks about a recent paper that estimates the rate of erosion of continental crust material. The paper, by Eric Portenga and Paul Bierman, is freely available for anyone to read and it is in a legitimate publication (as in it’s not something like the “Answers Research Journal” or “Creation Science” or “Origins”).

The paper itself is actually somewhat interesting. It’s about 7 pages long, has big pretty full-color images, and may be somewhat understandable to someone without any background in the field (I do apologize, but even though I swore I never would, I do lose track of how much background the general public has in these areas). I should also note that this paper is a metanalysis of previously published data, so the authors themselves did not go into the field but rather pulled a lot (1599) numbers from the literature. The paper was really comparing two different erosion rates, that of rock outcrops to those of basins. To quote the very first page, they found “Drainage basin and outcrop erosion rates both vary by climate zone, rock type, and tectonic setting.”

But, they calculated an average erosion rate of 12±1.3 meters per million years (or 12±1.3 micrometers per year) though the median was 5.4 µm/yr. This large difference of a factor of ~2x between the average and median (median is the middle number of a sorted list) indicates that the data are highly skewed towards lower erosion rates. They found erosion rates within drainage basins to be about a factor of 20x larger with a 218±35 meters per million years (218±35 µm/yr) average, or 54 µm/yr for the median (again indicating a skew towards slower rates). They then discuss variations in different locations, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and have more discussion in the paper than I want to put here.

So, that’s what the authors of the paper found.

Where Mr. Thomas comes in is the following: “According to the study, the average erosion rate for outcrops was 40 feet every one million years. The average thickness of continental crust above sea level can be estimated at about 623 meters, or 2,044 feet. To erode 2,000 feet of crust at 40 feet per one million years would require only 50 million years. So, if the earth is billions of years old, why is its surface not completely flat?” He does the same with basins and claims that this puts a limit at 3 million years.

He then shoots down the idea that geologic uplift is happening with a 1986 paper by a creationist in a creationist publication and then states, “The fact that mountains and even continents still exist is testimony to the young age of the earth. It looks as though the continents cannot be billions of years old, because they would all have eroded in a fraction of that time. And yet they still stand tall.”

Well, one problem with this is simply that, even if we assume everything he wrote is true, we could still easily have a million-year-old planet, no problem, not a 10,000-year-old one.

Another problem is simply that he’s wrong wrong wrong. Did I mention he’s wrong? He ignores things like isostasy where regions of continents are still moving upwards from the last ice age. He ignores volcanism and how volcanoes build mountains (do I really have to cite a source for that?). He ignores that fact that non-volcanic mountain ranges are still growing, where, for example, the Himalayans are growing at a rate of about 6 cm/yr (2.4 inches/year). For those who are really really bad at math, 6 cm/yr is much larger than 5 µm/yr — larger by a factor of 12,000. More than enough to keep up with erosion.

Now, I really don’t think I have to go much further in showing the sheer willful ignorance of Mr. Thomas on this topic. But this feeds into a much larger one that is near and dear to every YEC’s God-given heart.

Uniformitarianism versus Catastrophism

I can almost guarantee that you will never hear the terms “uniformitarianism” nor “catastrophism” unless you pay attention to creationist writings or you delve very deep into the history of philosophy of science or, specifically, geology.

Over-simplified, uniformitarianism is the notion that all processes that exist now are the same as they have been. Creationists assume this when they say the Moon cannot have formed 4.5 billion years ago because it is currently moving away from Earth at a rate of about 1 inch per year and if you run the numbers backwards (assuming uniformitarianism), then it crashes into Earth way before 4.5 billion years ago.

In contrast, catastrophism is the opposite, where rates of change will change, sometimes being faster and sometimes slower.

What I find fascinating is that YECs will use catastrophism to explain practically everything in their view of natural history. God stretched out the heavens so we get away from the “distant starlight problem.” God made the world and all that stuff in a day or two so we don’t have to deal with formation times of the solar system. The flood explains the Grand Canyon, sedimentary rock layers, Earth’s magnetic field reversals, and lots of other things. All fall under catastrophism.

As a consequence of this embrace, they deride us evilutionists for assuming uniformitarianism. Hence uniformitarianism is assumed with the speed of light, universal constants, radiometric dating, continental drift, etc.

And yet, when given the opportunity to take a bit of modern science and twist it to their own agenda (as in the case of this paper), they assume uniformitarianism! Thomas’ assumption that the basins would be flat within 3 million years is based on the currently observed rates. Same with the continents. And same with several other topics I’ve addressed in this blog over the past three years.

Final Thoughts

I realize that those of you who are not YECs are going to read the above section and think, “What do you expect? Creationists are never consistent with the facts, they distort them to suit their argument-of-the-minute.”

Fair enough. But, I find it enlightening and, yes, even slightly exciting to find yet another inconsistency in their arguments. Granted, the argument in the particular article of this post is completely wrong based on very basic geology that I think most third graders have learned (if you know about volcanoes, you know his argument is wrong). But, it also exposes this inconsistency.

When it suits them, the catastrophic Flood explains everything we can throw. But when it suits them, they take a modern scientific measurement, assume a dramatically flat uniformitarian extrapolation, and hence show that Earth can’t be as old as it is.

Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve pointed out formal logical fallacies, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there are two basic ones here. The first is a reductio ad absurdum where he’s reduced the study’s results far beyond what the authors intended. The second would be a basic straw man where, as a consequence of reducing the study to something stupid, they’re extrapolating it to argue a point that is obviously false but was never intended to be made.

Edited to Add …

I can’t believe I left this out, that that plucky guy over at Eye on ICR pointed it out quite well: The paper that Mr. Thomas is pulling the latest erosion estimates from relied upon 10Be-based ages. It’s not important to go into the mechanics for this particular method here, suffice to say this is a radiometric-based age. But, wait a sec, creationists – including Mr. Thomas – very frequently argue against radiometric ages because they seem to think they don’t work! (Check out, for example, “Radiometric Dating: Making Sense of the Patterns” from AiG, “Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth” from AiG, “Feedback: Dating Techniques” from AiG, “Fluctuations Show Radioisotope Decay Is Unreliable” from ICR, “The Sun Alters Radioactive Decay Rates” from ICR, “Dating in conflict: Which ‘age’ will you trust?” from CMI, or “Nuclear physicist embraces biblical creation” from CMI, if you don’t happen to believe me.)

So yeah, I guess we can believe radiometric dates when they support creationism, but otherwise they’re wrong and full of flaws. Hmm. This is actually something that I often point out when I give a public lecture on these kinds of topics, and one that I’ll be doing when I give my Apollo Moon Hoax talk in a few days: Science presents a cohesive story. Pseudoscience does not. You either have these flaws in radiometric dating that doom it (as creationists almost always argue), or you can trust the scientists to know what they’re doing and take the results from that (as Thomas is doing in this one instance). You really can’t have it both ways.

June 28, 2011

The Magical Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry of 19.5° Latitude


Introduction

Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry

"Hyperbolic Tetrahedral Geometry"

Take a tetrahedron (4-sided solid made of four equilateral triangles) and put it in a sphere such that each point of the pyramid touches the inside surface of the sphere. Draw a straight line through the center of the sphere such that one end of the line intersects a point of the pyramid; think of this line as the polar axis, and now orient it in your mind so that the line that goes through the pyramid point is down. Now draw a line around the circle’s equator. Now, if you take the angle between the equator, the center of the sphere, and one of the three non-pole points of the pyramid, you get 19.5°.

That’s the magic of Richard C. Hoagland’s hyperbolic geometry and all the claims of importance for the 19.5° latitude that I’m going to explore in this post.

Richard C. Hoagland’s Magical Thinking

Richard C. Hoagland says a lot of stuff. Almost everything he says sounds crazy. Over the decades, he has built up a vast conspiracy-laden mythology about the universe, how it supposedly works, and why things are the way they are.

To go into every single one of his claims, as I’ve said before in other posts about Hoagland (like here, here, or here), would be next to impossible. As in previous posts, the point in this is to go over a very specific claim.

The “19.5° is an important number” stems from his whole “hyperdimensional physics” mythos. Again, something I’m not going to go into. Partly because it’s incomprehensible, nonsensical, and made up. Suffice to say, “A tenet of these views holds that vast amounts of energy originating from dimensions we cannot perceive are available at latitudes 19.5° both south and north on the Sun and every planet in the solar system” (quote source).

In other words, Hoagland and fellow believers claim that it is at 19.5° latitude on every body in the solar system that we have the biggest/bestest/scarriest/craziest/powerfulest/whateverest feature. Let’s take a look, shall we?

What’s at 19.5° Latitude?

Taken from Hoagland’s own website, we have a short list proving that everything of importance in the solar system is at 19.5° latitude.  Note that everything in this table is directly copied from his website except for the comments, which I have simplified/shortened/clarified.

Object Feature Latitude Importance
Venus Alta Regio 19.5° N A Volcanic Region
Beta Regio 25.0° S A Volcanic Region
Earth Hawaiian Caldera 19.6° N Largest Shield Volcano (on Earth)
Moon Tsiolkovskii 19.6° S Unique Farside “mare-like” Lava
Mars Olympus Mons 19.3° N Largest Shield Volcano (on Mars)
Jupiter Great Red Spot 22.0° S Vast Atmospheric “Vorticular Upwelling”
Saturn North/South Equatorial Belts ±20.0° N/S Region of “Storms” Observed from Earth
Uranus Northern/Southern IR 1-2 K “Dip” ±20.0° N/S “Upwelling” Created by High-Altitude Clouds
Neptune Great Dark Spot 20.0° S Presumably Same as Jovian Counterpart*

*Hoagland calls this “Neptune Great Red Spot” but it has, since it was observed by Voyager 2 in 1989, disappeared.

Since Hoagland posted this (his page is ©1989), many other people have found other things on other planets that they claim enhances this idea. One such site, for example, indicates that the Pyramid of the Sun is at 19.6° N (on Earth). Other people claim, such as Will Hart, that all solar storms and susnspots originate from 19.5° latitude on the sun; another twist from this site about the sun is “sunspot activity and the region of peak temperatures is limited to 19.5 degreees north and south.” Others remark simply, “It is interesting how most planets in our solar system display phenomena at this latitude.” The list of claims goes on.

Dissecting the List, and Are These Features Important?

One of the first things you should notice from Hoagland’s list is that only one of the 9 things I pulled (the ones I didn’t are on Jupiter’s moon Io) is at 19.5°. Two more are within 0.1° of it. For a precise geometric phenomenon where huge amounts of energy are released, this isn’t very precise.

On Earth, Mauna Loa, Hawai’i, with a summit at 19.48° is a correct claim of the largest shield volcano presently on the planet. However, it’s really not that spectacular a volcano in terms of energetic potential. The Yellowstone caldera is about 34×45 miles (55×72 km) across. That’s just the caldera. It is at a latitude 44.4° N. The most recent known supervolcano eruption on Earth was in Lake Taupo, about 26,500 years ago, and its latitude is 38.82° S.

Additionally, the largest earthquakes – more releases of energy – since 1900 haven’t been anywhere near 19.5°. None of them.

As for structures on the Earth to harness this energy, one might consider the Pyramid of the Sun and say, “wow, that’s pretty neat that it’s at 19.5°.” But what about Egypt’s pyramids? Or South America’s? What about other architecture, say, Stonehenge? None of these are near 19.5°. This is what we call “cherry picking” to an extreme.

If we want to expand the notion of cherry picking, let’s go to the moon. Hoagland has found some random feature at 19.5° … err, 19.6° … latitude on the far side that has something to do with a volcanic feature. Except that the moon is covered in volcanic features. When you look at the moon, all those dark splotches on the near side are vast volcanic areas where ancient impacts allowed magma from deep below the crust to breach the surface and fill them. And these seas of volcanic material — maria (plural) — are not in any way centered around 19.5°. Nor are the smaller volcanic features that we observe today still strewn throughout them.

Or there’s Mars. Hoagland and his ilk claim that the vast Olympus Mons volcano – the tallest volcano in the solar system – is centered at 19.3° on Mars and is perfect evidence for this hyperbolic geometry. Except that it’s not. The caldera complex of Olympus Mons (there are at least 6 distinct calderas at the summit) range between latitudes 17.8° and 18.8° North. In addition to that, Olympus Mons is so vast with a diameter of around 650 km that the northern scarps start at around 23.5° N while the southern margin is around 13.5° N latitude. So with it spanning over 10°, it’s not that hard to hit it. Besides, Mars has 23 other major volcanoes, and Alba Patera, which is actually the most voluminous volcano in the solar system (as Mauna Loa is the most voluminous volcano on Earth), has a caldera centered at 40.3° N.

The claim of the sun having sunspots centered at 19.5° is also wrong, as can be seen on any given day.

We can also look at other features of interest. I’ll name only one for brevity since I think I’ve made my point by now. Saturn’s moon Enceladus was, in the last few years, shown to have active geysers spewing material from the interior of the moon. What’s their latitude? About 90° S — that’s right, the south pole. Not anywhere near 19.5° North nor South latitude.

Final Thoughts

This particular magical belief is only supported by very very careful cherry-picking. As clearly shown above, even in the features that these people claim shows 19.5° is special, more than half the time they’re just wrong, off the mark, or are being very generous with reporting their numbers. And still the features that are “correct” are not especially unique.

I don’t really think much else needs to be said on this topic. It’s just made up and features are found to fit it while ignoring everything else.

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