Creationists at GSA

I didn’t actually go to GSA, even though it was in Denver. Mostly because I didn’t want to cough up the registration fee, and had projects I should be working on besides. And of course, no one I know heard about this at the time, probably because I don’t think people tend to get excited about field trips into their own backyards when it costs money.

But apparently, there were young earth creationists at GSA. And they ran a field trip to Garden of the Gods without telling anyone that they were young earthers. And then later bragged about how convincing it was to the real geologists. Please see PZ’s blog post, since he’s already done a lovely job of laying it all out and I see no reason to reproduce his links and do my own less entertaining version of the commentary.

I’ll just note here for anyone not familiar with the geology of Colorado, that the pretty bits of Garden of the Gods are mostly from two formations: Fountain and Lyons.

The Fountain Formation is a series of alluvial fan deposits that run up and down the Front Range of Colorado (and have a sister formation on the western side of the continental divide, called the Maroon Formation) which was laid down on a probably dry plain at the feet of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. The formation was mostly deposited by flash floods screaming out of mountain canyons, carrying loads of poorly sorted sediment. So in it, you see rocks ranging from conglomerates to sandstones to mudstones, which vary depending upon which flood stage they were laid down in. And you see these layers repeated over and over. You also see some very nice sedimentary structures that indicate successive floods, such as scours and channels cutting through lower layers.

So technically, the Fountain Formation was laid down by water, but it was fresh water. Fresh water in what was likely an otherwise dry environment. And it was also technically laid down by flooding, but by a lot of flash floods rather than one enormous Noah’s flood. I think trying to fuzzy the two together is pretty disingenuous.

And then there’s the Lyons. The Lyons is a quartz arenite, which means it’s almost pure quartz. All the grains are super well-sorted and well-rounded. (And those of you that remember undergrad sed/strat are probably now nodding your heads, because you know what sort of thing typically makes these deposits already…) It’s got enormous cross-beds as well as fissile ripple laminations that occasionally show as classic reverse-graded pinstriping, though pinstriping in the Lyons is much less common or pronounced than it is in other similar formations.

Dunes. In a desert. Giant sand dunes. We see formations like this all over the world, and we understand pretty well how they form.

I personally have a very, very hard time believing that any honest (as in not self-deluding) geologist who can even dimly remember anything about undergrad (let alone graduate) sedimentology/stratigraphy would look at the Lyons in particular and say, “Oh yeah, totally a giant flood.”

But it sounds like the young earthers spend a lot of time muttering their more wacky assertions or dropping them in to the discussion quickly and moving on, so those not listening for it just didn’t notice. From the article in Earth magazine, that’s certainly what it sounds like.

The Earth article also makes this point:

Creationists may come to conclusions that the geological community challenges, but as long as they present their conclusions as derived from accepted scientific methodology, rather than religion, it is unfair to reject their participation. In any event, the field trip I attended was not a platform for proselytizing to participants, but involved real observations on real outcrops — even if the perspective was slanted towards a nonstandard interpretation. No harm, no foul.

To me, this seems like a really tricky thing. Because Mr. Newton makes a good point that completely excluding the young earthers from meetings isn’t really going to do us much good. It just gives them ammunition. And to a certain extent, I think it’s healthy for geologists who aren’t necessarily involved in organized skepticism to run across young earthers, because if you’re in academia it’s pretty easy to forget that cranks like this exist or just dismiss them out of hand. They’re a lot harder to forget if you’re actually confronted with them and forced to consider what they’re claiming, which then calls for a response.

On the other hand, what causes the downside of participation is the basic dishonesty the young earthers displayed at GSA. They’re not being upfront about what their driving hypothesis is. They’re being very subtle and cagey about their most scientifically insupportable views, and then running off to claim that they’ve convinced people. Because let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to nod vaguely at a poster at GSA or AAPG or SEG or any other meeting when it’s extremely technical and not precisely your area of expertise; it’s easy to make fine details sound reasonable when the main crux of the research – trying to prove a young earth – is hidden precisely to prevent academic disagreement.

There’s not any easy answer to this problem. You can’t really make young earthers wear dunce caps at meetings, as amusing and righteous as that idea must feel, because it ultimately leads to the same place as excluding them entirely. I think maybe the best solution would be outreach and education to let geologists know that hey, these people are out there, and by the way, they’re coming to meetings to try to give themselves a veneer of credibility so you ought to pay attention. Not that I think turning GSA into a pit of seething hostility is the way to go, but it’d also be a good idea to make sure people know why there will occasionally be confrontations at presentations. And also maybe give some hints on how to be listening for the subtle, cagey distortions that are apparently all the rage.

Ultimately, it’s just a bitch and a half to try to engage in a scientific debate with people who aren’t being up front and honest to begin with. But I think this also makes the point that we need to be a little more cautious about our nods of vague approval when we’re browsing the posters.


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