Saturday, March 6, 2010

Earth: The Alternative Story

I look at my posts for the last week and I see that I have been on quite a rampage of "munching Cheetos in the basement" blogging, complaining about treatment of geologic topics in the media. It was set off when I experienced the full brunt the appalling coverage of the impending tsunami in Hawaii (and the aftermath), and soon after came comments on headlines about the demise of the dinosaurs, the continuing lack of full opportunity for women (and minorities) in geology-related industries, and finally a bit on the manufactured doubt industry and climate change deniers.

Truth be told, people who know me well know that I am a pretty even-tempered person in person, and very few of my students have ever seen me angry. Those who have seen me angry have remarked about what a quiet experience it is. Very...quiet. But a couple of things brought me to a slow simmer and the tsunami business just caused my temper to boil over. I am reminded of an old Gary Larson Far Side cartoon about a herpetologist that gets an accumulated case of the willies after working for decades in the reptile house of a zoo. Or even better, the famous XKCD comic "Someone is wrong on the Internet". One doesn't want to be shrill, but things have just gotten so...ridiculous.

Like the denizen of the insane asylum who is "feeling MUCH better now", I'm beginning to think about returning to the Other California series, but I just wanted to deal with one more of THOSE topics. It's like I want to kick the beehive one more has to do with the value of a good science education.

A poll by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune published a couple of weeks ago indicated that 30% of Texans believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and another 30% don't know. This is a sad commentary on the state of education in Texas, not to mention the rest of the country, and is obviously a religious issue as well (people who reject basic scientific knowledge on this topic generally do so because of a conflict with their religious beliefs).

We discussed this topic in my historical geology class this week. We've had seven weeks of basic stratigraphic principles, rock identification, analysis of sedimentary structures and environments, and some background material on paleontology. Evolution was the topic at hand, and being that I live in an exceedingly conservative part of California, I am quite sure I have some religiously conservative students. I've never tried to squelch their questions, nor have I attacked their beliefs, but I do insist that they at least understand why geologists, biologists and paleontologists accept evolutionary theory (and that's theory, mind you, not hypothesis). Our interactions are generally congenial.

I did try something new this week though. In an act that would make a creation-scientist proud (or perhaps very nervous), I presented the entire creation-science model to a classroom full of students with a certain level of geologic expertise. This has always been the wish of the creation-science community, that teachers "teach both sides of the issue". I don't think they've ever fully considered the ramifications of what happens when people with just a minimum of geologic knowledge hear the whole story. Keep in mind, we aren't "introducing God" into the science classroom, this is all "science".

Let's see, the earth starts. That's right, it starts, because it all happened only 6,000 years ago, and there was no evolution of the crust or anything like that. Life is present from the very beginning, and all life is living under a cloud. Well, actually a canopy of lots and lots of water vapor. The vapor prevents bad energy rays from the sun from striking the living things, so the living things live much longer, the humans for nearly a thousand years. There weren't any carnivores; T-rex ate leaves, and so did every other creature that we think of as animal devourers. The canopy also screws up radioactive carbon, so carbon-dating is inaccurate (unless it gives the right dates, that is). It's not clear how uranium, rubidium and potassium dating methods were affected. The surface of the earth is very smooth and covered with vegetation. If there are any seas at all, they are shallow. No major mountains to speak of.

Then something goes very wrong, and, well, all hell breaks loose. The canopy collapses into an incredibly vast rainstorm that goes on for several weeks (40 days maybe? Can't say for sure). A vast amount of water that was stored within the earth becomes superheated and blasts to steam at various seams in the crust as supersonic geysers shoot even more water in the atmosphere. The earth's crust destabilizes, and vast amounts of basalt come pouring out, producing what would become oceanic crust at a rate of around 3 feet per second, roughly 50 miles a day. In just a few months, this is enough to form our ocean basins. The smooth crust is broken up, and lots and lots of mud swirls around in the maelstrom of water, laying down tens of thousands of feet of sediment in just a few weeks or months. The continents rise, crash into each other, form giant mountain ranges, and deep subduction zones start swallowing up the crust. Water drained off the higher areas, carving deep canyons (like the Grand Canyon) in a few days, while the mud and lime layers were still soft.

Meanwhile, everything and everyone dies. All those things that died were left behind as fossils. The fact that there seems to be an order to the appearance of species in the rocks (fish first, amphibians later, reptiles after that) is an artifact due to the fact that the more intelligent species knew to climb hills while the water was rising, so they didn't get entombed until later in the flood. Of course, life still exists on the planet, so somehow all the species survived the "hydraulic cataclysm". One suggestion is that some humans gathered all the species on a big boat of some sort, and released the animals after the water drained away from the higher parts of the continents. The strange distribution of animals (marsupials in Australia, giraffes in Africa, llamas in South America) resulted from various humans taking their favorite animals with them as they repopulated the earth.

Now, a boat containing all the millions of species on the planet is an impossibility that even a young child can figure out. So it wasn't "species" that went on the boat, it was "kinds". Species are an artificial human convention anyway; they don't have meaning in the real world. These "kinds", or baramin, included a dog kind, a cat kind, a sauropod kind, and so on. In the aftermath of the flood, the dog kind diverged genetically (but not evolved; this isn't evolution) into foxes, wolves, coyotes and...good ole dogs. The cats changed into tigers, lions, and jaguars. And so on. This happened in a few centuries after the "hydraulic cataclysm". The dinosaurs lived on, too, but then there was another disaster.

Because the vapor canopy was gone, the sun was shining on the earth surface and the climate became exceedingly unstable. Within a few hundred years of the flood, an ice age covered much of the planet, and wiped out the dinosaurs and a whole bunch of other strange beasts that we only find as fossils today. Other incredible canyons in the world, like Yosemite, were carved by the glaciers in a few tens of years through solid granite.

Finally things settle down, maybe 3,500 years ago. Volcanoes slow down, earthquakes happen less often, sea-floor spreading declines to a few inches a year. And that's all you need to know.

If I have gotten some minor details wrong, don't bother me about it because life is too short to argue endlessly. It it seems fanciful, you can check out the details with groups like the Institute for Creation Research. But for some reason, they never seem to put the whole story in one place. It might draw too much attention towards the conflicts this story has with the basic laws of astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and logic. And it will draw lots of derision too, just like it did in my historical geology class last week. You have work very hard to "believe" this model, much less accept the so-called evidence.

If you feel I have insulted your religious beliefs, you would be wrong. This isn't about religion. This is about an alternative "scientific" history of earth and life that would be taught in public schools under the banner of "equal time" if local governmental entities like the Texas Board of Education had free rein on their collective desire to stop the teaching of evolution (I am happy to hear that the worst member of the creation-science faction lost his primary race to someone else a few days ago).

Once again, this is also a rant of sorts about media treatment of science. I have grown accustomed to seeing stories of evolution "balanced" by an interview with a creation-scientist as if their model has some kind equivalency with actual science. It doesn't. Not even close. And believing really, really hard won't make it so either.

UPDATE: One of my students (commenting on my Facebook version) makes a really good point: "You know how little kids sometimes play pretend, and as they get more competitive with one another, they backtrack and add stuff to the game, changing the original 'rules'? Creation 'science' reminds me a lot of that... "


Lockwood said...

Hmmm... I hadn't heard of that vapor cloud thingy before. I may have to rethink my position. It sure makes the reasons for the controversy much clearer.

And cats diverged into house cats, bobcats, servals, lions, tigers, cougars, jaguars and all, in a few thousand years? But "macroevolution" is a silly idea?


Marcia Earth said...

Great story.

I am a firm believer in letting people destroy themselves with their own arguments.

I particularly liked the part about animals showing up in particular parts of the world because human beings wanted them there.

BJ Nicholls said...

The (especially) crazy thing is, most of these "facts" aren't described in the Bible. If one believes the book is inerrant and literal truth, where does a creation scientist get off embellishing that narrative with invented details? If it wasn't important enough to report in the Bible, then it's not fit for creationist "research".

justanothertragedy said...

oh my, a blog on geology 8)

Anonymous said...

Your evolutionary beliefs are just that - beliefs. You can't prove them anymore than a creationist can. As a professor you should be teaching without bias. Subtly putting down creationist science is just plain unprofessional.

Garry Hayes said...

Anonymous, I wasn't being subtle. You may trust that I have read practically all the arguments made about creation "science" over the last thirty years, from a scientific point of view, and from a religious point of view. It's bunk, from both points of view. It's a distortion of science, and a distortion of Christian belief as well. You don't "believe" in evolution, any more than you chose to "believe" in gravity. Bias? I do teach without bias. But I teach scientific facts, observations and scientific conclusions, not pseudo-science.

angel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Alright, I understand where you are coming from, and you're right, you really aren't subtle. But can't science be more than just evolution, or having all roads lead to evolution? Of course it can. But it seems that some from your position make it a point to single out "religious" viewpoints. That is not the job of a professor. (No accusation intended, I'm not one of your students.) That is what I referred to when I mentioned "bias". And the reference to gravity is also bias....that is something we can physically touch and feel, obviously not a belief of sorts.

Garry Hayes said...

Thanks for writing back, 'anonymous'. I live in a very conservative region, and many of my students are fundamentalist in their religious beliefs. In all my years teaching, no one has ever said they felt I was demeaning their religious beliefs in class, and most are surprised to find that I am also a church-goer. This "meeting of the minds" comes about when they realize that I am attacking a "scientific" hypothesis that attempts to "prove" the earth is 6,000 years old so their model can agree with their religious beliefs. This creation-science hypothesis exists for no other reason. But it is indeed very bad science which can only work by denying and disregarding most of the findings of the last 200 years in the fields of astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and geology. I used this blog post to attack an example of bad science. It was not at all directed at anyone's religious beliefs, indeed God isn't given any credit for these events at all in their model.

I appreciate the discussion!