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.

October 23, 2008

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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