Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 23, 2008

NASA’s “Follow the Water,” Ice Detected by Phoenix on Mars, and Noah’s Flood


Since this is my first post in regards to an Answers in Genesis (AiG) article, I want to give a few brief comments on creationist articles that I pick to critique on this blog. In general, I plan to use materials from two main sources – the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the Answers in Genesis (AiG). Both try to use astronomy to promote creationism, but they are different in the way they do it. From my observations, ICR radio is fairly preachy, giving quick snippets of just enough astronomy to raise questions and then saying that it supports creation. ICR articles, however, seem much more intent on putting forth half-truths and incomplete stories (like the solar neutrino problem) and then having the reader question the scientific standards on their own.

AiG, on the other hand, is the most extreme. They present the astronomy information, then quickly turn it around saying it either fits or does not fit with a literal interpretation of the Bible, and if it does fit they say it’s real, and if it doesn’t then they say there are problems with it and it must be false because it does not fit with a literal reading of the Bible.

Since I am attempting to keep this blog fairly neutral when it comes to religion, deities, and other related matters, I will not be talking about “God’s plan on Earth,” or whether the biblical worldview is supported by astronomy or not. Only when specific falsehoods, half-truths, misleading statements, or false assumptions are made will I address them in relation to astronomy.


This entry is in specific response to the “More Ice on Mars?” article from Answers in Genesis, written by Peter Galling on June 23, 2008.

This article discusses the recent findings of NASA’s Mars Phoenix lander, a mission to Mars that has been operating since May 2008, analyzing the Mars surface and shallow subsurface (within a meter of the surface). One of the major science goals was to find evidence of water-ice (as opposed to carbon dioxide ice (“dry ice”)). It successfully did that, digging trenches and finding white material that disappeared (sublimated – turning from a solid directly into a gas) within a few days of exposure. For more information on the Phoenix mission, visit the Phoenix Mars Mission Homepage.

What I want to address with this post is the middle of the article, as the first part mainly outlines my previous paragraph:

“If Nasa has indeed found … ice on Mars, it would not be a major surprise for young-earth creationists. … In fact, this particular icy discovery should cause a cold feeling for evolutionists, who would much prefer to find liquid water but instead have found only this scant evidence of subsurface ice.”

Alright, let’s pause here. That first sentence, I have no real comment on – I mainly quoted it for context. The second quoted sentence is very close to a straw man argument, the logical fallacy where you create a claim to argue against, though the claim isn’t actually made by the other side. I say it’s “almost” a straw man because it’s true that it would be an amazing discovery that planetary scientists and astrobiologists would delight over if liquid water were found on Mars. BUT, almost no one actually thinks that liquid water on Mars exists today.

In fact, it is not possible for liquid water to exist on Mars’ surface, as any professional planetary scientist knows. That’s because water requires two things to exist in a liquid form – the right temperature and the right pressure. First, the temperature is too cold, so any water would almost instantly freeze at Mars’ surface temperature. Second, the atmospheric pressure of Mars is very small, and any water that was exposed to the surface would almost instantly sublimate (turn directly into a gas).

What is possible is for liquid water to exist in some form beneath the Mars crust. There, the temperature would be higher and the pressure greater such that liquid water could exist. It could also be mixed with salts which would lower the freezing point, as well.

So yes, while we would “prefer” to find liquid water, no one thought that Mars Phoenix would find it.

Next, I will address this:

“[T]he very idea that liquid or frozen water on Mars is a ‘big thing’ comes straight from the evolutionary faith that where there’s water, life will follow. In fact, that’s the entire premise of today’s Martian landers.”

This is confusing correlation with causation, another logical fallacy (assuming that it’s an honest mistake). NASA – and astronomers – do not think that where there’s water there’s life. That’s a fairly ridiculous assumption that everywhere there’s water you’ll find life. What they do think is that water is a requirement for life. Every single form of life that we know of requires water to live. That is why NASA’s mantra these days is “Follow the Water.” If we want to try to find extraterrestrial life, then we should be looking where there are things that we think life requires … an energy source, water, and physical conditions that can sustain it (such as protection from high levels of radiation).

That is why we are trying to find where water ice is today, where liquid water may be today, and especially where liquid water may have once existed on the surface of Mars (when it was warmer and its atmosphere was heavier). It would be those places that would be most likely to have once harbored life as we know it and we have the greatest chance of finding it. It’s not because we think that wherever there’s water life will magically spring up.

Finally, that’s not the “entire premise” of all of the Mars landers today. Yes, it is the guiding premise, and it may even be the main mission statement. But, missions are generally only selected if they can serve multiple tasks and yield information to answer multiple questions.

For example, the science mission of Phoenix has three stated questions to answer: (1) Can the martian arctic support life? (2) What is the history of water at the landing site? and (3) How is the martian climate affected by polar dynamics. You’ll notice that only one of those deals with life, two of them with water, and the third one is completely different. Phoenix doesn’t even have instruments that could detect life (such as derivatives of the Viking lander experiments).

The last third of the AiG article discusses Noah’s Flood extending to Mars, making statements about biblical worldviews as a framework for understanding astronomy, and other religious statements that really don’t address much astronomy, hence I will not address them.

Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument)


This entry is in specific response to the “Venus vs. Uniformitarianism” article from the Institute for Creation Research, written by David Coppedge.

This is meant to be a short post on the heels of my crater discussion from yesterday, and it actually fits in fairly nicely even though it’s about something completely different:  The planet Venus.

Venus is an interesting planet and has held peoples’ imaginations ever since it was realized that it was shrouded in clouds, hiding its surface from view.  At almost the same size as Earth, it was long thought of as Earth’s twin and it may hide a paradise beneath the atmosphere.  That view vanished in the 1960s when spacecraft showed it to be a planet with a surface temperature far above the boiling point of water, the clouds full of sulfuric acid, and the atmosphere so heavy that the surface pressure is the equivalent of being under 1 km of ocean on Earth.

But another highly unexpected observation was that Venus’ entire surface seemed to be the same age based off of the crater population (see, there is a link to my post yesterday!).  There are just under 1000 craters on Venus, and statistically they are distributed randomly over the planet, no region being older nor younger than another (to the accuracy of crater age dating).  And then, based off of the crater density, the surface age of Venus was estimated to be 500 million to 1 billion years old (the agreed-upon number today is about 700 million).

(Note that a pretty good, definitive paper on this is found in the Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 97, No. E10, from 1992 in an article by Roger Phillips et al. entitled “Impact Craters and Venus Resurfacing History.”)

The question is:  What would make the entire surface a single age, between 11-22% the estimated age of the solar system?  That brings us to the Institute for Creation Research article I cite at the beginning of this post.  David Coppedge uses Venus to say that it “poses a serious challenge to uniformitarian views,” (views that say geologic history has resulted from the action of continuous and uniform processes throughout time; in other words, the opposite of catastrophism).

This is actually true.  It’s very difficult to think of a uniformitarian process that would produce what we see on Venus today.  That’s actually why no one really does (hence, it is a straw man argument, an argument against something that the other side doesn’t actually say).  The prevailing view today is that Venus’ current surface is the result of a catastrophic release of magma from within the planet that broke through the crust and covered the planet in a geologically short period of time – hundreds or thousands of years.

The proposed mechanism is that without plate tectonics to release heat and energy, the build-up in the planet’s mantle eventually overpowered the strength of the crust, resulting in the catastrophic release.  It is possible that this is cyclical, occurring once every few hundred million or few billion years – we just don’t know because we (a) haven’t seen it and (b) we can only see the evidence from the last time.

Why this becomes important to creationists, and why it’s on the ICR website, is two-fold.  First, creationism relies upon catastrophic events to explain geologic features like the Grand Canyon (general appeal is to Noah’s Flood).

Second, which is the point of the last two paragraphs of the ICR article, is, “One idea never considered is that the missing 90% never occurred.”  So he is arguing for a young solar system based on the data showing that Venus’ surface is ~700 million years old.  There are many, many things wrong with this argument, but for the sake of my promised brevity, I will only address two.

The first should be obvious:  For creationist arguments, the goal is to get the age of the solar system down to 6000 years or so.  However, it shouldn’t take a math major to figure out that 700,000,000 is much greater than 6000 … by a factor of over 100,000.  The point of the article is more likely to try to make the reader second-guess the “millions of years” arguments rather than have the reader actually think of the timescales that are being suggested.

Second, and this is more subtle, he is still relying upon an argument from crater age dating.  This has been calibrated from the Moon.  So let’s say that the lunar timescale were off by, oh, a factor of 1,000,000 (what’s needed to get it to 6000 years).  Remember from my post yesterday that crater age dating is relative, and so that would mean that Venus’ age (since the article is suggesting that its surface age is the same age as the planet) is also younger by a factor of a million.

That would place Venus’ age at between 500 and 1000 years old.  Not even creationists think that Venus is that young – they can’t, because there are historic records dating back over 4000 years showing observations of Venus.  As you can see, if you actually think about these arguments logically, and carry them through to their conclusion, they become unrealistic unless there is some sort of “other” special happenstance.  You can’t pick and choose how far you want to take the evidence, as they do in this article.

Finally, I want to end with two comments on the last paragraph of the article.  First, “If it were not that Darwinian evolution requires vast ages …, many of the features observed by the space program would be considered young.”  This is not true.  Geologists had already figured out Earth was at least on the order of millions of years old before Darwin ever presented his theories on evolution.  Geology in terms of figuring out how old things are has absolutely nothing to do with biological evolution.  It has much more to do with basic physics, such as heat transfer, collision rates, gravitational perturbations, etc.  Nothing in space is dated based on an idea that evolution says something has to be old … this is an absolutely ridiculous claim showing naïveté, especially coming from someone who “works in the Cassini program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

Now that I have that out of my system … second, a more philosophical point:  “Should scientists be allowed to infer histories that are indistinguishable from myth?”  Speaking as a scientist, the idea that I can or can not formulate a history from on my observations based on the whim of whether someone else thinks I should or shouldn’t be allowed is very … irritating.  Who is he to say whether someone can or cannot think something?

Science works by lots of people coming up with lots of different possible explanations based on the observations.  They can then test those explanations by making predictions for further observations, and those observations should be able to rule out some of the explanations and still allow others.  Then the process repeats until (hopefully) one is left that explains all the observations.  If none do, then a new hypothesis must be built that can explain all the observations, and then be further tested.

The “catastrophism” idea for Venus is not presently testable due to financial and technological constraints.  However, there are ways that it can be.  One would be sending ground-penetrating radar to Venus to peer within its crust and determine heat flows.  Another would be to find fissures across the planet that could be outlets for the resurfacing material.  A third would be to actually date material on the surface and to dig down within the crust and date that material, as well.  The argument from the article – that the first 90% of Venus’ history never actually existed – is not testable at all, nor does it make sense in the context of the rest of the solar system (as discussed in my demonstration that Venus would need to be 500-1000 years old based on this article).

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