Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 26, 2010

The Age of the Solar System Needs to Be Recalculated – Could Young-Earth Creationism Be Right?!


Introduction

In the early days of 2010, specifically January 4, I read an article on Wired Science entitled, “Age of Solar System Needs to Be Recalculated.” After having written this blog for nearly a year and a half and having a fair number of posts about young-Earth creationism (YEC), I read the article knowing that it would just be a matter of time before someone at either the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) or Answers in Genesis (AiG) would use the article to effectively say, “Look! See!? Scientists don’t know what they’re doing, all of radiometric dating is wrong, creationism is right!” And they didn’t disappoint, though I have to admit it took longer than I thought it would (17 days).

The VERY Basics of Radiometric Dating

The process of radiometric dating and all its corollaries and techniques could likely fill a decent-sized graduate textbook. That’s not the purpose here, rather it’s to give you the most basic information so you can understand the issues at-hand.

The principle behind radiometric dating is that every atom has many different isotopes. An atom is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The number of protons determines what atom it is (1 proton = hydrogen, 2 protons = helium, etc.). The number of neutrons determines the isotope (1 proton = hydrogen-1, 1 proton + 1 neutron = hydrogen-2 (deuterium), 1 proton + 2 neutron = hydrogen-3 (tritium)). The electron number determines the ionization state, which is unimportant for this discussion.

Atoms that get too heavy are inherently unstable. If you cram too many protons and neutrons into the center, the atom will decay. If you cram too many neutrons into an already stable isotope of an atom, it will decay. “Decay” is when it releases either one or more of its neutrons or protons by turning it into something else. That decay time is based purely on fundamental physical laws and constants, it is a quantum mechanical process, and it is different for all isotopes.

The time over which half of a sample of an isotope will decay into another is called the “half-life.” After two half-lives, 75% will have decayed; after 3, 87.5%, after 4, 93.75%, etc. (1-0.5# of half-lives). Half-lives can be measured over human timescales, and/or they can be correlated with other established dating mechanisms, such as ice-cores, tree rings or written records.

An assumption of radiometric dating and necessary corollary is that the sample is from a self-contained system. In other words, it has to be “original;” if the sample was contaminated some time after it formed, then the dating will be thrown off. Similarly, we need to know how much of the original “parent” isotope was present relative to the “daughter” isotope so that the amount of original daughter isotope can be removed from the equation.

What the Original Science Article Found

The Wired Science was reporting on an article from Science News, which itself was reporting on an article published in the journal Science at the end of 2009. (Unfortunately, you have to pay for the article unless you are at an institution that has a subscription. The citation is, Brennecka et al. (2010). “238U/235U Variations in Meteorites: Extant 247Cm and Implications for Pb-Pb Dating.” doi: 10.1126/science.1180871. An earlier abstract of their findings can be found for free here.)

It had been assumed for years that the amount of original uranium-238 and uranium-235 in asteroids was even throughout all the asteroids. This had been measured independently many different times and the ratio had been the same. However, there is no theoretical reason why this should be true, and so people kept measuring it to continue to check the results. What these researchers found was that, actually, when measured more accurately and taking a few more things into account, that there actually are slight differences and the ratio isn’t quite what it was thought to be.

What does this do? It changes the age of the solar system by 1 million years. So it could be either 4.566 or 4.567 billion years old.

One of the co-authors explicitly states, “It’s not as if this age-dating process doesn’t work anymore,” says coauthor Ariel Anbar, also of Arizona State. “But if you want to push this isotope system to get ages that are really precise, suddenly we realize that there’s this variation you need to take into account.””

What they did not find is that radioactive decay rates are not the same within a given isotope. As I stated above, that is set by the fine-structure constant of the universe and purely quantum mechanical processes.

Enter the ICR’s “Science” Writer, Brian Thomas

The very first sentence of ICR’s January 21, 2010 article, “It’s Official: Radioactive Isotope Dating Is Fallible,” states: “New data collected by secular researchers has confirmed what creation scientists discovered decades ago—geologists’ cornerstone assumption that the rate of radioactive decay is constant over time is not correct.”

Except … NO! That was NOT what the article nor paper nor abstracts nor researchers said.

Moving on … the third paragraph starts with, “Gregory Brennecka of Arizona State University and colleagues measured the relative amounts of Lead 238 to that of the stable Lead 235 from several samples taken from the large Allende meteorite, named for the village in Mexico near where it landed in 1969.”

Again … NO! They used uranium-238 and uranium-235 as a proxy for lead-206 and lead-207.

Next paragraph: “The differing amounts of material that were found in separate samplings of the same meteorite should not have been detected if isotopic decay of Uranium is indeed stable over time.”

NO! The parts of the same meteorite that the researchers analyzed are almost guaranteed to have formed at the same time because – in part – they are in the same meteorite. Therefore, if the rate were to change through time, then they all should still show the same ratio of parent to daughter isotope because they all would be changing at the same rate. Therefore, what it shows and what the researchers concluded is that the original ratios were slightly different.

Brian Thomas, the ICR article’s author, goes on a quote-mining expedition for the next two paragraphs to try to show that radiometric dating was never an established thing.

He then goes on the expected, “But creationists knew it wasn’t!” by stating, “For years, creation researchers have published ample data to refute the assumed stability of nuclear decay rates in general, as well as specifically for Lead.” (Again missing the actual point it was uranium that they were analyzing.) He continues with standard YEC arguments after that.

Final Thoughts

Thomas closes with: “Although Brennecka and his colleagues detected only a small difference in the same Lead isotope amounts in the same rock, this was quite enough to falsify any notion that this Lead 238 decays at a constant rate into Lead 235. And this dovetails with other valid research which found similarly falsifying data.”

This is a standard creationist tactic: (1) They find anything that is an iterative step in science (in this case refining an established dating mechanism and showing that at the 0.1% level there are additional issues to take into account). (2) Misrepresent it. (3) Find supporting quotes through quote-mining that shows that “even secular scientists” had doubted the technique. And (4) therefore God did it 6000 years ago.

Post-Script, January 27, 2010

Every quote presented above was copy-pasted from the original ICR article. The next day, I was notified in the comments section below that the article had been revised “for accuracy.” As it now reads, every quote that I took has been either slightly or wholly changed. The most obvious is that they have fixed the “lead 238/235” to make it uranium.

But perhaps more interestingly, the language is less scathing. For example, the opening paragraph is now, if one were to show the edits via strikethroughs and insertions:

“New data collected by secular researchers has confirmed what creation scientists discovered decades ago — geologists’ cornerstone assumptions that the rate of about radioactive decay is constant over time is are not always correct.”

Is it just me, or does that actually seem to be a softening of the language? It actually seems to represent the research now.

Then there’s this one:

“The differing amounts of material that were found in separate samplings of the same meteorite should not have been detected if isotopic decay of Uranium is indeed stable over time were unexpected.”

Again … the language seems softer and actually seems to represent the research. The rest of the article is still effectively, “This calls all radiometric dating into question,” but at least it’s not based on quite an obvious straw man. Thank you KT_trebor for pointing out the revision!

May 8, 2009

Is Saturn a Young System? Apparently, According to the Institute for Creation Research


Introduction

In the last few days, I’ve seen a few blog posts about Saturn being a young system on the usual creationist sites or those responding to the creationist sites, and being a bit behind in my blog, I thought I’d check out the usual suspects. Predictably, I found the article posted yesterday, May 7, 2009, on the Institute for Creation Research by my own favorite, Brian Thomas (who I picked apart in this blog post.

The article in question now is entitled, “Planetary Quandaries Solved: Saturn Is Young.” Okay, I admit I needed to take a deep breath with this one before reading it. After all, you’d think that if scientists had really discovered that Saturn had been created/formed recently, it would be all over the news, right? So right off the bat, the title is misleading, but understandable for a creationist website.

Then I picked through some of the references. Why? Because I actually do research on Saturn’s rings. I will be submitting revisions to a 50-page manuscript to the journal Icarus in the next 3 days that should be published in a special edition of the journal at some point this summer, and the conclusions from my simulations are that the ring system is at least 2 times as massive as before, likely more, and the implications are that the system can then easily be a corresponding amount older (e.g., at least 2 times older).

And, lo!, one of the references in the article directly cites my work — a ScienceNews article from September 2008. (Check out paragraph 4 of the article.) So now, it’s personal — Brian Thomas is using MY research (in part) to advance his creationist agenda, and I will not be silent about it. Hence this blog post. 🙂

What Is the Evidence the Saturnian System Is Old?

Let’s ignore all of the outside evidence that it’s old. Let’s ignore solar system formation models. Let’s ignore standard conventional wisdom. Let’s ignore the scientific problems about biblical creation. What is the evidence that the system is old, or at least not young.

Well, being a crater counter when I’m not running simulations of Saturn’s rings, I point to craters. Craters are used throughout the solar system as the only cross-planetary method of relative dating methods. In other words, how many craters a solid object has is the only thing that we can measure, at present, that gives us the relative ages of two solid surfaces.

Crater ages have been calibrated via Apollo lunar sample returns, and so – at least for our moon – we know that a certain number of craters per unit area corresponds with one age, and a different number corresponds with a different age — and we know what those ages are to reasonable accuracy for the moon.

Much work has been done and is being done to try to extrapolate what we know from our moon to other solid bodies, including Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the giant planets’ satellites. While the work isn’t perfect and uncertainties remain, the state of the research is that we can tell the difference between an object that is 6000 years old or 4 billion years old.


The surface of Titan? The last number I saw is that there are around 150 impact structures that have been observed, so the present-day surface age of Titan is reasonably young. Yes, I admit that — I’m not hiding it.

What about the surface of the other moons, such as, say, Iapetus? Well, take a look at the image to the right. There are A LOT of craters there, and the surface age of Iapetus is likely on the order of a few billion years (I say “likely” because I haven’t actually done the crater counts there). Now, unless you’re going to engage in some very special pleading, this is pretty good independent evidence that at least some parts of the Saturnian system is old.

Enter the Argument for Youth: Saturn’s Rings


I grew up reading that Saturn’s rings were young – probably formed only 100 million years ago after the breakup of a medium-sized moon, about the size of Saturn’s moon Mimas (shown on the right). That was based on a few things, including estimates of its mass from Voyager data as well as spectroscopic observations showing that the rings are fairly “fresh,” showing relatively little contamination by, basically, space dust.

This was still the predominant idea in 2002, when Jeff Cuzzi made his quite that Brian Thomas uses in the second paragraph of this article:

A history of mystery surrounds the youthful features of Saturn’s rings. Jeff Cuzzi, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, said in 2002, “After all this time we’re still not sure about the origin of Saturn’s rings….There’s a growing awareness that Saturn’s rings can’t be so old.” Cuzzi said, “There are two reasons to believe the rings are young: First, they are bright and shiny like something new. It’s no joke.” Indeed, after millions of years, the icy rings should have collected so much space dust that they should be charcoal-colored by now. Second, after only a few million years, the little moons embedded among the rings should have “flung away. This is a young dynamical system.”

And, this was still an issue in 2006, when I was just starting my simulations. The third paragraph of this article cites Josh Colwell in a presentation he gave. He was listing some of the current problems in a few-billion-year-old rings system, but the problems were still based on old data estimates for both the mass of the ring system and the viscosity of the particles (viscosity can be thought of as how well particles can transfer energy from one to another or how well they flow — water is not very viscous but molasses is).

Enter the simulations. I use Mark Lewis’ code for these simulations, and I make a point of that because Mark is quoted in the fourth paragraph of the ICR article:

Mark Lewis of Trinity University in San Antonio cautioned that it is still not known how they really clump. “It isn’t as straightforward as saying that high-density particles would lead to more clumping.”

This is true. There are many different parameters that go into these simulations to model the physics involved. Even though I explored a huge range of parameter space in my simulations, performing over 150 different N-body simulations that took over 27,000 CPU hours to run, I still did not explore the whole range of space, and a few of those parameters do affect how ring particles clump together.

Clumping is important because it directly affects how we estimate the mass of the rings. If the rings do not clump at all, then for every particle it will block an equal amount of light. Kinda like if you spread a lot of sand on a sheet of paper and you spread that sand evenly around, you will only see a little of the paper through the sand. But, if you use the same amount of sand and start to make little sand piles, you will see more and more of the paper.

That’s how we estimate the mass of the rings – by how much paper (how much light) can be seen through the rings. And, if the ring particles are clumped together, then you need many more ring particles to get the same amount of light blocked. What my simulations show is that clumping plays a much larger role than previously thought, and so we need more material in the rings to match the observed light-blockage.

Why do more massive rings mean that the ring system is older – or can be older? Because more massive rings means the viscosity is higher and so they spread out more slowly (one of the arguments they were young is that they would spread out too quickly). Also, it means they can be older because the same amount of pollution will get spread out over a larger area, and hence they won’t be as “dirty.” So, arguments that they are young because they don’t show a large amount of pollution can be answered that the pollution is just better hidden than we thought because there is more material within the rings to get polluted.

What was the connection to me here? Well, they’re my simulations. And that fourth paragraph has a quote from an article that talked about my results. Hence why I take this a little personally.

Moving On to Enceladus

In paragraph 5 of his article, Brian Thomas says that Saturn’s moon Enceladus “shows no hint of being 4.5 billion years old, but instead appears remarkably young.” I’m not going to harp on Brian’s grammar mistake here because I’m sure I have made my fair share of mistakes in this article grammar-wise, but I will say that it’s a poor journalist who doesn’t know what a sentence fragment is.


Anyway … this statement is simply wrong. It is true that the geysers that were discovered coming from Enceladus’ south polar region were a surprise, and they have made many people in the planetary community excited to find out why they are there. (Note – yes, new discoveries that challenge old models make scientists happy, not upset, as creationists would have you believe.) And a lot of Enceladus’ surface does appear to be young. However, a fair portion of the surface also appears to be very old, as shown in the picture on the right. Yes — I’m talking about all those craters.

Final Thoughts

That’s really the point of this article. So, no, the planetary quandary has not been “solved” to say that Saturn is young. Rather, the ring system can still easily be old based on the latest (and if I do say so myself, the greatest) simulations, and even though some features of Enceladus appear young and active, there are other parts of the moon that tell the tale of being ancient.

February 20, 2009

Latest Creationism Article, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?” Is a Stack of Fringe Science Claims


Introduction

After writing for a few weeks on Planet X and 2012, I’m returning to my former bread & butter with debunking creationism articles – specifically young-Earth creationism (YEC). And today’s article by Brian Thomas, “Can Cosmic Collisions Create?,” is, to put it bluntly, a real piece of work.

And I mean that in a sarcastic, derogatory sense. I know my stated purpose for this blog is to just go for the science and test the claims and let them stand independent of who’s making them. But, after reading this article, I may resort to some stronger – though still at least PG – language. This is a family-friendly blog. 🙂

Choosing the Setting

Brian Thomas starts off his diatribe as most other Institute for Creation Research (ICR) articles do, with a paragraph or two introducing the topic. In this case, the title of the article is misleading. I assumed it would be talking about how YECs view events like the moon’s formation via a giant impact, Uranus’ tilt via a giant impact, general processes of solar system formation (accretion of small particles into larger ones), etc. as too serendipitous to be natural and requiring a supernatural hand (as in “God”).

But, that’s not really the case for the article. Brian decided to write the article about how astronomers resort to methodological naturalism in their science. In other words, we (since I’m an astronomer I can say “we”) are looking for a natural rather than a supernatural explanation for everything that we can observe. Otherwise, we can simply say, “God did it” and that would end all science. After all, if “God did it” then what’s the point in figuring out how it was done – we’re already starting with the answer. But that’s really a topic for a different post.

Regardless, Brian doesn’t set the stage for talking about collisions “creating” anything. And the rest of the article doesn’t go into that.

False Analogy in the Second Paragraph

I knew when I got to the second paragraph and Brian calls Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a “militant evolutionary scientist” that this article was going to be an eye-roller. So, he’s starting out right in the third sentence with an ad hominem as well as a non sequitur set of logical fallacies: He’s calling Eugenie a supposedly derogatory name in order to discredit her, and being an evolutionary scientist – or even evolution for that matter – has nothing to do with astronomy.

But it’s really the end of the second paragraph that started to get me going: “Forensic scientists routinely and appropriately consider intelligent, non-natural causes when they reconstruct past events, and astronomers’ refusal to acknowledge the possibility of divine causation makes some of their theories appear silly.”

To call it what it is, this is a false analogy. We have proof that humans commit crimes. It’s a given. It’s a no-brainer. “Duh,” as some might say. And, we have very good evidence that, say, trees don’t commit crimes, or at least not with intent. Again, “Duh.” So it would be completely irrational for forensic scientists (people who use science to investigate crimes) to, say, in a murder investigation, consider anything but a human having a hand in the killing. But what does that have to do with astronomy? There is no proof/evidence/scientific justification behind saying, “God did it” – or “Aliens did it” – in astronomy. Hence, because we pretty much know that humans do not have the power and ability of the Q Continuum and we can’t go around forming solar systems, we resort to natural explanations (had to throw in the Star Trek reference).

I just don’t understand why Brian would even “go there” in this article – making that analogy either shows profound ignorance or desire to deceive. Since I don’t know Brian personally, I cannot speak to which it may be, but I will let you judge based upon the rest of this article.

Comet Quandaries

I really don’t want to get into comets again, as I’ve already addressed YEC claims with regards to comets in two posts (“Why Comets Are NOT Evidence for a Young Solar System” and “More Reasons Why Comets Do NOT Prove Creationism“).

But, I want to nit-pick his words (emphasis mine):

For example, coincidental gravitational events have been invoked to explain the origin of comets. In this scenario, objects in the unobserved “Oort cloud” collide in such a way that a small percentage of them are launched into space and eventually form orbits around the sun. The likelihood that chance-based near-misses coupled with precise hits created, stored, and set in orbit the various comets in this way is unreasonably small.

Again, for the general science of comets and why this claim is wrong, see those two posts. But let’s look at the first text I bolded. The origin of comets is different from the source of comets. Current theory is that all comets formed at the beginning of the solar system along with everything else. They just formed farther away from the sun and hence where more ice could solidify versus closer to the sun where ice would be vaporized. That’s the origin. The present-day source of comets is this region of the outer solar system, divided into the Kuiper Belt which starts around where Pluto is, and then the Oort Cloud farther out, that theorists think could extend out to 2 light-years (half-way to the nearest star). Origin ≠ Source.

The next piece of text shows very poor editing, a profound ignorance for the astronomy, or a deliberate attempt to deceive. Everything that is gravitationally bound to the solar system by definition orbits the sun. All of the comets – be they in the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, or something else within the solar system are already on orbits around the sun. And what could he possibly mean by “launched into space?” Um, hello? — they’re already in space. By definition! They’re “launched into space” the same way that asteroids that happen to cross Earth’s orbit are “launched into space.” The way he’s worded it implies that there’s some base station that every-now-and then hurls them at us like we launch rockets.

And I note that while this may seem like an ad hominem attack, it’s not – I am addressing his claims, showing why they make no sense, and then stating three possible reasons why he made the claims in a non-false trichotomy.

Another Creationist Playground: Venus

My observation has been that if a YEC is going to talk about solar system astronomy in an attempt to support their claims, they will first go to comets, then either to Venus or magnetic fields. Brian does both, but first he does Venus:

Another random collision, according to Cardiff University’s Huw Davies, is supposedly responsible for the creation of Venus. Davies proposed that the second planet from the sun is the result of “a mega-collision between two large embryonic planets.” But many very specific parameters would have had to be involved in this random “little bang” to form Venus’ unique composition, its reverse spin, its orbit about the sun, and therefore its role in balancing the earth’s own orbit, which is vital to the survival of life here. Since when do collisions—especially mega-collisions—add purpose-oriented specificity to any system?

There are several things wrong with this paragraph. First off, Brian Thomas talks about only one of the hypotheses which has been presented to explain Venus’ orbital characteristics (mainly that it spins backwards, slowly, such that its day is longer than its year). Doing that is misleading at best. A more recent hypothesis than the giant impact has to do with a lot of math, basically the same kinds of tidal forces that causes oceanic tides on Earth from the sun and moon are responsible and quite capable of flipping Venus over via tidal interaction with the sun. Philosophically, this is more plausible to astronomers because it doesn’t invoke a serendipitous giant impact to flip Venus over. Not mentioning this as another valid scientific hypothesis is disingenuous – or shows ignorance – on Brian’s part.

Another – though minor – point is his reference to this as a “little bang.” To the causal reader, this draws an immediate connection to the “Big Bang” – the theory of the formation of the cosmos – which is something that YECs have successfully been able to draw doubt to the validity of among their followers. Hence, this is an example of “poisoning the well.”

Moving on, Brian states that Venus plays an important role in balancing Earth’s orbit and hence a serendipitous event somehow led to purpose-oriented specificity to the solar system. First, Venus really doesn’t have much of anything to do with Earth’s orbit and hence life. So that statement is pretty much wrong. Second, there are lots of random things that are later co-opted for a specific purpose. For example, I may go into the grocery store thinking I’m going to buy food to make Thai Basil Chicken. But, ground beef may be on sale that week for 50%-off. That’s a random event. I may then co-opt that random event and use it for a purpose – make a “hamburger soup” instead because it’s cheaper. It’s really the same concept – the solar system and the universe isn’t the way it is such that we can exist, rather we exist the way we do because the solar system and universe happen to be set up the way they are.

Martian Magnetics

Mars is thought to have had a rather strong magnetic field early in its history. We find highly magnetized regions of the planet’s crust that are consistent with this, but there is no global magnetic field now. The thinking is that the planet – because it’s half Earth’s diameter and less than 1/8th Earth’s mass – simply cooled off much faster than we did and so the molten metals in its core were no longer fluid enough to generate a magnetic field. That’s the consensus view of Mars’ magnetic history.

However, Brian chooses not to mention that, but rather something that I’ve honestly never heard of:

University of Toronto’s Jafar Arkani-Hamed proposed that a collection of hovering asteroids ignited and maintained an ancient magnetic field on Mars. Such a field would have been required for living cells to exist on that planet. But the possibility that these asteroids somehow avoided Mars’ moons and then hovered with just the right masses, trajectories, and distances to have pulled Martian electromagnetism into motion “for 500 million years” seems incredible. Mars rocks do show evidence that there once was a magnetic field. However, these asteroid conjectures seem merely to be extensions of a larger methodological naturalistic interpretation since the proposed asteroids and their exact specifications are ad hoc provisions with no direct evidence (and virtually no indirect evidence.)

Now, I have not read Arkani-Hamed’s paper, but on the surface it seems fairly implausible. Just as Brian says (see, sometimes I do agree with the creationists). There really isn’t any evidence for his hypothesis, as far as I know without reading the paper. But again, why wouldn’t Brian even mention the consensus view? Why does he resort to something on the fringe to try to make a point? Really, Brian is doing the same thing here as saying that creationists can explain everything by saying that God did it – that’s the consensus view – but then there’s one creationist that says, for this one thing, he doesn’t think God did it, but rather it was the Flying Spaghetti Monster (any pastaferians out there?).

In addition, throwing Mars’ moons in there really isn’t important because the consensus view is that they were captured asteroids, after Mars formed, and so it’s not necessary for them to have been in place when Arkani-Hamed’s asteroid swarm induced Mars’ magnetic field, and hence they really don’t cause a problem for it.

Brian then makes the obligatory argument of a decaying magnetic field being proof of a young solar system: “Incidentally, the observation that Mars’ magnetic field rapidly decayed would be consistent with a young universe in which systems break down. Magnetic fields observed in other planets are decaying at rates precisely predicted by one creation model.” I’m really not going to address this because it’s a classic YEC argument that I will address in a future blog post (though here’s a preview: It doesn’t hold up to the science!).

Final Thoughts

I think I got through that without too much name-calling. Rather, I question Brian’s sincerity. Obviously he is writing for a Young-Earth Creationist think-tank, the Institute for Creation Research. So obviously his stories will have a slant or bias towards that cause. But there’s such a thing as professional ethics, a code of conduct, or just basically telling the whole truth. As I’ve pointed out, at least for this story (and in past ones in other posts), Brian does not do this. In his skewed perspective, he omits information, goes out and finds cases of fringe ideas to point out how a non-God approach seems “out there,” resorts to many different logical fallacies, and just plain gets the science wrong either deliberately (which should violate the ethics laid down by his God) or through profound ignorance about what he’s writing (which would – or should – doom anyone in pretty much any other job). Perhaps now you may understand why I was frustrated more than usual when reading this article.

As for the actual science content, I really have nothing left to say. He’s just wrong pretty much on every count. Case closed.

January 21, 2009

Methane Discovery on Mars – The Creationist Reaction


Introduction

Last week, there was a NASA press release that large amounts of methane were observed being released into the martian atmosphere. I posted some initial information about it here.

In the week since this has been out, the general young-Earth creationist folks (YEC, something that I often equate on this blog to general “creationist”) have started to respond to the news in their own way. Let’s take a look (and though I quote heavily, I make my own analysis towards the end, so scroll down if you don’t want to read what they say) …

Answers in Genesis Response

From AiG’s January 17 “News to Note” article:

The specific news is that NASA has detected “large amounts” of methane, which on earth is primarily produced by both live and dead organisms. The methane was detected by telescopes on Hawaii, though five years ago the Mars Express Orbiter detected some methane in the Martian atmosphere. …

The Sun quotes British UFO enthusiast Nick Pope, who calls the find, “the most important discovery of all time” and declares it an “absolute certainty that there is life out there . . . . I am certain there is other life in the universe and, most likely, intelligent life.” Pope implicated the source of his certainty—evolutionary doctrine—when he said, “If it’s happened here on Earth, then why shouldn’t it happen anywhere? The implication is this is a universal law.”

Of course, don’t be surprised that we’re not holding our breath. For one thing, discoveries of “life” on Mars have a habit of fizzling (or, more accurately, remaining unproven speculations). A decade ago scientists went crazy over the idea that an Antarctic meteorite, thought to be from Mars, contained fossilized microbial life. Other scientists quickly tore the claim apart. In the years since, the same pattern—yes it’s life; no it isn’t—has followed numerous other claims originating in chemical discoveries on the Martian surface. The only certainty is that there’s, as of yet, no evidence of life on Mars definitive enough to convince all evolutionists, let alone creationists.

Nonetheless, plenty of evolutionists—scientists and laypersons alike—are emphatic that “we’re not alone” and believe it’s only a matter of time until Martian life turns up. Pope represents this view. There’s nothing scientific about it; it’s pure dogma, but quite expectable considering the predictions of the evolutionary worldview.

There’s always that slim possibility that Mars—or some other astronomical body—is harboring something that we’d call “life” on earth. No Bible verse declares absolutely that God didn’t, e.g., put microbes on Mars or viruses on Venus, although there are plenty of good arguments against the likelihood of that. But unless tomorrow’s astronauts actually find direct evidence of life on Mars, it doesn’t take much effort to chalk the indirect evidence up to evolutionism-fueled speculation.

Institute for Creation Research Response

ICR, in an article from January 19 (slightly behind AiG) entitled, “Methane on Mars: The Stuff of Life?” posts the following:

The central question facing the NASA scientists is what caused the methane. Little living microbes can produce it, but so can heat and pressure acting on non-living water and carbon dioxide. Even if bacteria were found on Mars, it would not necessarily indicate that the bacterial cells originated there. Though unlikely, some atmospheric microbial spore could escape earth’s gravity, survive in outer space, and then colonize Mars. Some bacteria have ingenious capacities that enable them to exist in ice, and others at thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, while still others have an array of unique protein systems that can extract fuel from odd chemicals. Some bacteria even contain many copies of their entire genome, ensuring genetic fidelity even after intense radiation. Microbes on Mars, though a long shot, could be consistent with a creation science model.

However, Martian microbes would add no direct support to the evolutionary concept that non-living matter generates life. Though re-packaged as “chemical evolution” in the early twentieth century, “spontaneous generation” was experimentally disproved by Louis Pasteur in the mid-1800s.

No kind of life has yet been discovered on Mars. Since both carbon dioxide and water are known to exist there, and a natural chemical reaction of these two can form methane, the most likely cause of the gas is geochemical, not biological. NASA found that some “ongoing process is releasing the gas,” an observation consistent with Mars being a young planet. If the methane is being formed not by microbes but as the result of residual planetary heat, then this would challenge long-age thinkers to explain why the planet is still warm and why it still has enough raw materials to eject tens of thousands of metric tons of methane annually, even after at least four billion years of purported existence. This youthful feature of Mars, if accurate, would be consistent with the biblical age of the world.

While it remains unclear whether the Mars methane is the product of microbes or just geochemistry, the timing of NASA’s announcement is rather curious. Since the original discovery of methane took place several years ago, why is this news being given such a big “release” in January 2009? Another curiously-timed NASA press release proclaimed in 1996 that a “Mars rock” showed evidence of microbial life. As creation scientists predicted, further investigation revealed that the rock’s features were entirely non-biological, but the initial announcement resulted in then-President Bill Clinton calling for additional NASA funding.

NASA makes it clear that “it will take future missions…to discover the origin of the Martian methane,” and that now there are specific places—methane-releasing vents—to explore. Could NASA’s methane report have anything to do with this week’s presidential inauguration and the start of a new budget cycle?

A Fellow Blogger’s Response

Finally, there’s a YEC blogger here who likes the astronomy stories. For full disclosure, I will admit that I’ve argued a little with him in the past, but I wanted to post his take on this story, as well:

It used to be looking for advanced forms of life on Mars, now it’s just looking for the ingredients of what evolutionists believed life came from. On January 15, 2009 NASA announced that scientists found evidence for life by discovering methane on Mars. …

The origin of the methane needs more investigation in order to determine if it’s really little micro organisms or not which generally means more missions which also means more funding. …

NASA of course is pro-evolution so the discovery has to fit into the old age model. Since there is a difficulty with Mars concerning non-living causes to maintain the methane over billions of years, and the popularity with looking for little green microbes, one would assume they are leaning towards the microbes. But as far as methane, rock, and water, we know as a scientific fact could never produce life.

Some have sounded the alarm about the timing of claiming evidence for life on Mars. They might be right, there is a similar incident back in 1996 with the discovery of the “Mars Rock” with the hype, motivated the Clinton administration to allocate more funding to NASA. As it turned out, the “Mars Rock” contained no life on it. But a question remains what worked with President Clinton, will it work with President Obama? Many in the scientific community are already lining up to put their agenda on President Obama’s desk so he can approve more funding.

What Do These All Have In Common?

Well, pretty much everything. I suppose that is not too surprising given that most mainstream news outlets all carried nearly identical stories that many YEC outlets would do the same, adding their own flavor (or flavour) to the news. Specifically, they all do the following things – though I should note that because I only copied parts of their text it may not be apparent from the large block quotes above:

  1. Announce the news and admit that it’s interesting.
  2. Point out that this is not new, rather it’s just the hoopla around it that’s new.
  3. Make a specific note that the methane could be completely abiotic and so not have anything to do with life.
  4. Say that it is much more likely to be abiotic than biotic in origin.
  5. Draw parallels to this announcement and an announcement of possible life just as Clinton took office in 1992, very strongly implying – if not outright saying – that the timing was planned to try to milk more money for NASA from the new Obama administration.
  6. Point out (in some way, either direct or implied) that us evolutionists want to find life elsewhere to justify our theories that water+rock -> life.
  7. Point out that us evolutionists require it to be from an active Mars (either chemically, thermally, and/or biologically) but the new data actually fits a YEC model better because they say Mars still is young and so could have left-over methane from formation. But the evolutionary worldview doesn’t allow that.
  8. Have the caveat that IF it really is later on figured out to be life that it’s not wholly inconsistent with a literal biblical wordlview.

What Is My Reaction to Their Basic Points?

I know you may find this surprising, but I do agree with some of their points. Though for possibly different reasons.

1. Yes, this is interesting news. I think I made that point in my initial post on this topic.

2. I forgot to make the point in my original post that, yeah, this actually is old news. Methane was detected years ago in Mars’ atmosphere, but from my reading it was not a definitive discovery that the general scientific community accepted due to the noise in the data. This new data basically confirmed the original detection beyond any measure of scientific doubt, so yes, there was something new contributed here.

3. I agree. And I made that point, too. And I was not happy that most mainstream media did not emphasize that it is very possible – if not probable – that the methane was produced by non-biological means.

4. See #3. Again, I agree.

5. I was, well, 9 or 10 when Clinton took office, so I really don’t know/remember the circumstances surrounding the timing of possible ET life announcements and Clinton’s oath of office. However, while I am not a conspiracy person, I do agree that the timing could have been planned to coincide with Obama’s taking office to try to emphasize NASA’s very very meager budget. Especially since Obama has made suggestions that he may cut NASA’s spending. I obviously can’t read minds (or can I … ?), so it’s really just an argument from ignorance either way you spin it.

6. This is a straw man. I’ve pointed this out before, I think in my post about the Big Bang NOT describing the formation of the cosmos that evolution has NOTHING to do with the origin of life. Completely unrelated, and to say that the evolutionist claim that nonliving matter can become life shows a complete lack of understanding of evolution. Just as I’m actually studying creationist claims before I debunk them, they should actually take the time to study astronomy (or evolution) claims before they try to argue against them.

7. Believe it or not, I agree. Because the scientific consensus is that Mars – like the other planets and the rest of the solar system – is about 4.5 billion years old, we have to come up with some other origin for the methane other than left-over from Mars’ formation. IF the scientific model were a YEC one, then this could easily be explained by that mechanism. But they miss the point here. There are dozens if not hundreds of separate, independent lines of evidence of how we know (as much as scientific certainty allows) the solar system is old. Small anomalies such as this do not automatically overturn all of those other things. They are either fit into the current model by some method (as in, a present-day or very recent-past active planet), dismissed as a trivial anomaly we cannot presently explain, or used to modify current theories to fit with the current observations. We don’t just throw everything else out because of this one discovery, especially when it can easily be fit into the current scientific consensus by simply having an active planet — which was never ruled out, it was simply that there was no evidence before that Mars was presently active.

8. I can’t say whether or not ET life is consistent with a YEC worldview. I know that the Pope’s chief astronomer last year said that ETs were all good, though I also know that many YECs say that ET life can’t exist because in the 6-day creation story, there is no reference to it (this is mainly from AiG, which should be obvious because they get all their Answers from (’cause they’re “in”) Genesis). But this is really beyond the realm of pseudo astronomy and hence I offer no personal opinion – mainly because I honestly have none.

Final Thoughts

I’m not surprised that the YEC outlets have been running with this story. It’s a significant science article that is bound to have literal bible readers wondering how it fits with their beliefs. I’m also not wholly surprised by their main points – I expected them to play up the part about the possible (if not probable) abiotic origins and chastise others for jumping so quickly on the ET life bandwagon.

That being said, I am a little surprised on the similarities between what was stated among the three sources I read. I would not be surprised if the blogger read ICR’s post before making his own (just based on the hugely similar arguments), but that’s just my own musing.

Anyway, it’s still interesting news, and different people have placed their own spin on it. The next one I will address in a soon-to-be-written post will be the conspiracy theory folks – Richard Hoagland’s take on the story.

December 17, 2008

The Milky Way’s Black Hole Verified – Creationists Still Work Around It with Non Sequiturs


Introduction

About a week ago, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) sent out a press release about a very long 16-year study that tracked the positions of several stars in the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. By watching the stars move, they can infer the gravitational force that affect their orbits, and hence the mass in the center of the galaxy. The result was verifying the presence – and shrinking the error bars on the mass of – the black hole that resides in the center of the Milky Way.

I didn’t realize that this was in any way related to young-Earth creationism, and yet, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) today (Dec. 17) published an article by Brian Thomas entitled “Fast-Orbiting Stars Puzzle Astronomers” that somehow connects this research to imply support for their creation “model.” It is made of five distinct inferences and conjectures that I address below.

Claim 1: This Shows Stars and Planets Can’t Form in Stable Orbits Naturally

To quote from the article:

An ESO news release stated, “The mystery still remains as to how these young stars came to be in the orbits they are observed to be in today.” Given a purely naturalistic origin scenario such as that offered in the Big Bang theory, one wonders how so many stars and planets came to be in orbits at all, rather than swirling off into space.

This is a non sequitur (“doesn’t follow”) logical fallacy. The mystery is how these stars seem to be on quasi-stable orbits around the black hole since the requisite velocity of the stars to not fall into the black hole is fairly high and, given what we know of galaxy formation, it is unlikely that these stars formed in that location with that velocity.

This has nothing to do with solar system formation. The prevailing model of solar system formation is that a giant nebula of swirling gas and dust will collapse and have a net rotation. As the cloud collapses, the center of it will accumulate the most material and form the star. Other parts of it – that are rotating – will also collapse and form planets. It is actually thought that many would-be planets do get ejected from the system due to interactions with any massive planets (like Jupiter).

Objects get ejected when they are given too much energy – a velocity boost. If the mass of the system is no longer large enough to overcome that velocity, then the object will escape. If the object is gravitationally bound, then by definition, it will be in orbit. And ultimately, that’s pretty much how we measure the mass of all objects in the universe – how fast objects that are gravitationally bound to them are moving.

It’s really hard to see how the ESO quote honestly has anything to do with why planets “came to be in orbits” — it’s just a complete non sequitur.

Claim 2: How Could Stars Share Orbits?

Even more curious is that the astronomers closely observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital pattern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel.

I’m not sure if this is a logical fallacy or not: Mis-reading the press release (I’ll assume an honest mistake). Contrast the ICR article statement of “astronomers … observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital parttern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel,” with the actual statement from the researchers:

“The stars in the innermost region are in random orbits, like a swarm of bees,” says [Stefan] Gillessen. “However, further out, six of the 28 stars orbit the black hole in a disc. In this respect the new study has also confirmed explicitly earlier work in which the disc had been found, but only in a statistical sense. Ordered motion outside the central light-month, randomly oriented orbits inside – that’s how the dynamics of the young stars in the Galactic Centre are best described.”

I read the ICR statement 3 times and each time got the impression that they are reading the article as saying that these six stars are on the same orbit – hence the Ferris wheel analogy. A better analogy would be the six cars being on a race track contrasted with a swarm of bees. The six stars orbit in the same plane like the planets in the solar system, but they don’t “share” the same orbit. The stars that are closer to the black hole orbit in more random orbits, like bees, or to extend the solar system analogy, more like comets.

Claim 3: The Stars Should Be Shredded … Much Less Be on Similar Orbits

The next claim is the sentence following Claim 2 (repeated for context):

Even more curious is that the astronomers closely observed six of the stars inhabiting the same orbital pattern, like so many seats on a Ferris wheel. The question is complicated by the likely effects of the violent “forces of the black hole” that would rip stars apart, not place them on a galactic train track.

This is a case of quote-mining. When the press release talks about “forces of the black hole” (in this case, tidal forces which occur when the gravity pulls more on one side of an object than another causing it to stretch), it does so in the context of it’s hard to get our current models to actually form stars near the black hole … it has NOTHING to do with the stars’ orbits.

\And that – what the press release says – is interesting science: Researchers want their theories to be tested and if they can’t explain something, that’s good because it forces them to revise their theories. If we already knew everything, there’d be no point in doing science.

Claim 4: Somehow Tying in SETI Makes Creationism Real

When I read the next paragraph, I honestly had to read it twice to see if there was any natural progression from the quote from the ESO press release to their claims about SETI. It may be there, but it’s extraordinarily tenuous:

The ESO also stated, “Excitingly, future observations are already being planned to test several theoretical models that try to solve this riddle.” These models will certainly not include one that involves an outside intelligence having placed the stars in their orbits, even though other cosmologists have dedicated themselves to the search for alien intelligence, which some believe may have even seeded life on earth.

Let’s analyze this:

(1) ESO is saying that more research needs to be done and that it is planned to be done to answer the question of how stars could either form close to the black hole or could migrate there fast enough (since they’re young stars). … Okay …

(2) ICR says that us secular scientists will no doubt NOT include models that say “God Did It.” … Okay …

(3) We won’t do this despite people who are dedicated to looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life. … Non sequitur …

(4) Some people believe in pamspermia – the idea that it was extraterrestrial life that originally seeded life on Earth. … Okay …

So the problem here really centers along that same non sequitur logical fallacy: Somehow, because the astronomers are looking for a natural means to get these stars here as opposed to an omnipotent being, that’s bad because other astronomers are actively searching for extraterrestrial life (effectively, SETI). It really is just that, a non sequitur; it’s hard to actually explain why because the two have NOTHING to do with each other.

Claim 5: Universal Fine-Tuning

The precise construction parameters of cosmic structures like these stars and the rules that govern them will only be intelligible as products of a supernatural Creator.

Rather than drag this post on any longer, I will refer you to my post where I directly address the issue of fine-tuning of cosmological parameters (basically a god of the gaps logical fallacy): Why the Universe’s Fine-Tuning Is NOT Evidence of Intelligent Design.

Final Thoughts

I really don’t have much else to say about this one. The only way Brian Thomas’ article makes sense is to completely ignore the non sequiturs – ignore any sense of logical progression from one claim to another, and simply take – on faith – that he’s tied it all together for you.

December 11, 2008

Another God vs. the Multiverse Post


Introduction

This post is in response to the “‘Multiverse’ Theory Fails to Explain Away God” article on the Institute for Creation Research website, posted on Dec. 3, 2008.

There is a current hypothesis (not theory) in theoretical physics/cosmology which posits that our Universe is not alone in the … whatever … but rather it is one of many different universes (universae?). One reason that this has come about is that it is a natural conclusion from String Theory (which is another thing that I think is more of a hypothesis than theory). Another reason, and more the subject of this post, is that our universe seems to be “fine-tuned” for life in the sense that if the fundamental forces, subatomic particles, or other things had seemingly slightly different properties that the Universe would be inhospitable to life. In order to resolve part of this apparent “cosmic lottery” win without invoking a creator, the multiverse idea works rather well.

Because of this, creationists like to attack it, such as Brian Thomas who wrote the article I refer to, and to which this post is a response.

The First Fallacy

The first real fallacy of this article is a subtle one, I think informally known as the Gambler’s Fallacy. This fallacy can be realized in flipping a coin. The first time, you have a 50/50 chance of it coming up heads or tails. The second time, you have a 50/50 chance of it coming up heads or tails. The third time, you have a 50/50 chance of it coming up heads or tails. And so on.

Now let’s say that you have flipped it 10 times, and EVERY time it has come up heads. The fallacy would then be to say that, “It’s come up heads 10 times in a row, the next time it almost MUST come up tails! 11 heads in a row is too improbable.” But, the chances of it coming up heads the 11th time is, again, just 50%. The coin “doesn’t know” about the previous flips.

Brian invokes this fallacy in the statement, “All conceivable fundamental construction parameters could exist in a vast array of alternate realities. Most of these imaginary universes would not have the right conditions for life to exist, but by a cosmic coincidence, all the life-friendly forces of our universe happened to line up correctly.” This over-states the significance (if the multiverse is true) of having all of these properties lining “up correctly” for our Universe to have life, simply based on invoking this fallacy.

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

Next, Brian says something that I agree with: “There is no evidence for the existence of alternate universes, and if a concept cannot be proved or disproved, it is not open to scientific investigation.”

Yes! Thank you! Very true! So keep your religion out of science class!

Exaggeration

Brian then goes through some exaggeration. He states, “Even tiny variations in planetary distances, any more or less gravity, or any other difference in the current structure of the universe would make it hostile to life.”

This is not true. Earth could be between about 0.9-1.3 times its current distance from the Sun and still be perfectly hospitable for life, according to many of the latest studies on the solar system’s Habitability Zone. In addition, our position in the Galaxy could similarly vary by quite a bit and still have no impact on life, as could our distance to or from other galaxies, despite his statement, “the distance of the earth from other galaxies and from the sun are all essential for the delicate balance needed to sustain life.”

Let’s Go Back to the Pot and Kettle – Invoking God of the Gaps Fallacy

Sigh. Just a paragraph and a half later, Brian states, “The one model that explains this data without inventing fictional, unprovable multiverses is the creation model, which presents the planned, purposeful origin of space, time, matter, and life by a Creator.”

I thought we had actually made a breakthrough on what was science here. The creation model is not a scientific model since it cannot be tested. There is no way to prove nor disprove the existence of a creator, nor of their intent in creating a universe. This is simply a God of the Gaps logical fallacy where he effectively states, “Science doesn’t have an answer, but it can all be easily explained by ‘God.'”

Wrapping Up Their Argument

Brian writes in his last paragraph, “University of Texas theoretical physicist Stephen Weinberg told Discover, ‘I don’t think that the multiverse idea destroys the possibility of an intelligent, benevolent creator. What it does is remove one of the arguments for it.’ But it does not do that. Rather, the multiverse hypothesis is a conclusion based on the assumption that there is no Creator.”

This is again a misuse of scientific language as well as a lack of understanding of the origin of the multiverse hypothesis. The latter I addressed in my Introduction. The former is that he says the multiverse is a “conclusion.” It is not. It is a hypothesis (as he coincidentally states 3 words earlier). A hypothesis is a premise – an idea – that can then be used to make predictions that can be tested. A conclusion really isn’t even used in scientific language, but the closest equivalent is probably “Theory,” which is completely inappropriate to describe the multiverse idea at this time.

My Final Thoughts

The multiverse hypothesis is an interesting one, but one that, at present has no practical way of being tested. As a result, it is just a “hypothesis” and cannot be called a “theory.” Despite this, creationists unsurprisingly view it as yet another scientific challenge to their dogmatic views of a young universe created by a loving god for them to live happily in and convince everyone of that “fact.” Hence the present attack on it by the ICR in Brian Thomas’ article.

But, besides all the reasons I presented above as to why his arguments are fallacious, there’s an additional, interesting, but subtle one: “Life” in their meaning is “human life as it is now.” “Life,” however, is VERY poorly defined, and it could (even with its current “definition”) exist in other forms that are nothing like our own (think the Star Trek energy beings from various episodes in all the series) that could perhaps easily exist with the fundamental forces, constants, and particles being very different than they are here.

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