YEC Best Evidence 2: bent rock layers are not fractured — or are they?

The second of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth is the claim that in many mountainous areas, layers of sedimentary rock can be found that have folded and bent without fracturing. This, the argument goes, means that the layers in question must have deformed while they were still wet, and not long after they had solidified.

How does this prove that the earth is young?

It doesn’t.

The first problem with this argument is that it places no constraint whatsoever on the age of the earth. Even if these layers were deformed as wet clay which had not yet hardened, no reason is given why this could not have happened 540 million years ago, as other evidence indicates, rather than during Noah’s Flood.

Bent but not fractured — or are they?

The article illustrates its point with the following picture of some folded strata in Carbon Canyon, a side canyon off of the Grand Canyon:

bent-rock-layers-snelling

(This rock formation appears to be on Google Maps here.)

Interestingly enough, the US Geological Survey has also published a photograph of exactly the same rock formation. Their photograph, taken in May 2007, looks like this:

grca2007

When we compare the two versions, we see a massive difference in quality. The USGS version is in pin-sharp focus, well exposed, and published at a much higher resolution. (They even have a version viewable with 3-D glasses.) It also shows numerous clearly visible stress fractures, which are obscured in the AiG version by poor focusing and people in the photograph.

In a different article on the same subject, Andrew Snelling explicitly states that there are no fractures in the hinge of the fold. Yet if we look closely at the relevant part of the respective photographs, we see that fractures are clearly visible in the USGS version, whereas in the AiG version, there are people standing right in front of them:

image3374 image3363

What were these people doing there, one asks? Were they just there for scale? If so, why are they positioned exactly in front of the very fractures that contradict the entire argument?

The fact of the matter is that contrary to what Andrew Snelling claims, most bent rock layers are fractured, and as a PhD geologist, he should know this. In many cases, the fractures are only visible close up, and sometimes even only through a microscope, so the fact that they don’t show up in a photograph — especially a badly-taken photograph — does not prove that they do not exist.

Brittle and ductile deformation.

The fact that these fractures exist directly contradicts the whole premise of this claim, as they indicate that the layers must have deformed after they had solidified, not before. But even if they didn’t, it still would not prove that the layers were deformed before they had solidified.

Heat and pressure can make rock layers pliable. Snelling actually admits this, but dismisses it as a “rescuing device,” claiming that the temperatures and pressures required would leave evidence of metamorphism in the rocks. He claims that this is not observed, but as he has stated that the rocks are not fractured despite publicly available evidence that they are, this claim is already suspect. In any case, he does not meaningfully cite any sources to back it up.

In order to demonstrate that ductile deformation is not a viable explanation, he needs to demonstrate that it requires higher temperatures and pressures than those that can cause metamorphism. These temperatures and pressures will vary from one mineral to the next, and have been well studied in laboratory experiments since the 1950s. Without such citations, this rejection of ductile deformation as a “rescuing device” is nothing more than a hand-wave, and should not be assumed to be reliable.

The gravity of the situation.

Another problem with this claim is that it ignores the law of gravity.

If these rock layers really had been deformed when wet, gravity would have pulled them downwards, and we would see considerable slumping, with the layers at the very least being much thicker at the bottom than at the top. We would certainly not expect to see vertical layers thirty metres or more in height retaining their structure, as we see in these photographs.

But in fact, if they had been deformed when wet, would we even expect them to be separated into distinct layers at all? This rock formation alone probably weighs somewhere in the region of a million tons, and at that scale, the layers would all end up being mixed together into one homogeneous mass. (See this article for a discussion — scroll down to the section headed “Orogeny.”)

When I first saw the ten best arguments for a young earth, I thought this was one of the least convincing of the ten. Having seen the USGS photograph as well, it is certainly the one I found the most troubling. I don’t want to accuse them of outright lying, but I struggle to see how it can be merely an honest mistake when a PhD geologist claims that a rock layer is not fractured when there is a publicly available photograph of it elsewhere clearly showing that it is, and his own out of focus photograph has students standing in front of the most prominent fractures that contradict him.

As a final twist in the tale, it turns out that this rock formation was also the subject of Andrew Snelling’s discrimination lawsuit against the Grand Canyon National Park authorities, which was resolved this summer — and in fact, this very question is the subject of his proposed research. Ken Ham has a blog post giving further details of his study, which also includes some better quality pictures of the same rock formation.

grand-canyon-carbon-fold
A view of the same rock formation from a different angle. Photo by Answers in Genesis.

In which the fractures are clearly visible.

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On evolution

Most of what I’ve said on this blog has been about the age of the earth and dating methods, and I haven’t had much to say about evolution itself. This is partly because I’m not a biologist, but also because I’ve never been entirely sure exactly what position I should take on the matter.

I can fully understand why many Christians struggle with evolution. It’s very much become a hot potato in the culture wars, with New Atheists and mockers pitting it against the Bible, and Christians taking the bait and becoming creationists in response. It does also pose some theological questions, such as what to make of Adam and Eve and the Fall. Some Christians (myself included) believe that the two can be reconciled; others believe that they can not, and that we must therefore reject evolution.

I’m not going to tell you that you have to accept evolution, or to what extent. That’s for you to decide. But if you decide to reject it, whether in whole or in part, you still need to make sure your facts are straight about it. It’s also important to be able to articulate exactly which aspects of the theory you are rejecting and why.

Make sure you are critiquing what the theory of evolution actually says.

You will only make yourself look clueless and ignorant, and quite possibly dishonest, if you attempt to debunk a cartoon caricature of evolution that no real scientist actually teaches. Portraying it as being about cats turning into dogs, or asking why there are still apes if humans evolved from apes, or likening it to dropping a bunch of Scrabble tiles on a table and coming up with Shakespeare, will all prove nothing more nor less than that you haven’t a clue what you are talking about. The theory of evolution does not work like that.

did-dinosaurs-turn-into-birds
This is not evolution.
(Image source: Answers in Genesis)

Make sure that you understand what is actually meant by “evolution” in the first place. The formal scientific definition of evolution (taken here from Wikipedia) is very precise and refers to a specific process: change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. Make sure in particular that you understand the concept of common ancestry, because that is what you have to debunk — not shape-shifting, ridiculous hybridisation, or birds crawling out of dinosaur skins as if they were the Slitheen from Doctor Who. BioLogos has a couple of videos (here and here) explaining how evolution works and clearing up a lot of these misconceptions.

A lot of confusion comes about because young-earth creationists use the word “evolution” in a much broader sense than the scientific definition, conflating the process itself with its overall results (molecules to man), the timescale involved, dating methods, and a whole raft of philosophical or theological considerations that they perceive to be associated with it. More informally, they often use the words “evolution” and “evolutionist” as a passive-aggressive umbrella term for anything and everything in science that they don’t agree with. You may hear, for example, about “evolutionist” models of how the earth’s magnetic field works, even though how the earth’s magnetic field works has nothing whatsoever to do with biological evolution. Sometimes they even use the words “evolution” and “atheism” interchangeably.

To be fair, there is a tendency on the “evolution” side of the debate to de-emphasise the broad sweep of history in the definition of evolution (the frequently used definition of “change in allele frequencies over time” is an example of this), while evolution is also sometimes cited as justification for various atheistic or humanistic philosophies. But to react by turning it into a derogatory term for vast swathes of unrelated science and philosophy just causes confusion and muddies the waters. If you’re doing this, stop it. Just stop.

Then there is this expression “neo-Darwinism.” I have no idea what that even means.

Be careful not to misrepresent the evidence.

Before you confidently say that “there is no evidence for evolution,” or “there are no transitional fossils,” please remember that your audience all has smartphones, and they can type “evidence for evolution” or “transitional fossils” into Google as you talk. Every hit that they get for these searches will be a hit to your credibility.

The fact remains that evolution is not “just a theory”; it is an evidence-based, scientific theory. You may wish to argue that the evidence has been misunderstood, and that other interpretations are possible, but to pretend that it doesn’t even exist when quite clearly it does will just make you look like you’re sticking your head in the sand.

Are there any good scientific arguments against evolution?

You’re not going to falsify evolution, in the mainstream scientific sense of the word, in its entirety. The basic processes — descent with modification, mutations, natural selection, and even speciation — are readily observed both in the laboratory and in the wild. Furthermore, the fossil record shows indisputable evidence that these processes have been going on for billions of years, while genetic evidence such as endogenous retroviruses at the very least give humans and animals the appearance of being related. Either this is another example of “appearance of age,” or else it represents real history. You decide.

The Intelligent Design community looks for limits on what evolution can explain. To this end, they have come up with a number of concepts such as irreducible complexity, which claims that certain structures such as the bacterial flagellum could not have come about through an evolutionary process. Not being a biologist, I can’t critique irreducible complexity in much detail, but I get the impression that they’re jumping the gun by declaring it to be a done deal. I would have thought that irreducible complexity would be extremely hard to prove, because it’s not sufficient to show that one specific evolutionary pathway is impossible; you have to show that no alternative evolutionary pathways are possible either.

It’s often claimed that evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or that mutations can not produce new information. Unfortunately, these arguments are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts of entropy and information. Entropy is often illustrated in the popular press by comparing it to teenagers not tidying up their bedrooms, but this is a gross over-simplification that doesn’t accurately reflect what entropy actually is, how it works, or what it does and does not apply to. Simplifications such as this can be useful in illustrating broad general principles to the layman, but you should never try to argue a point against them because the complexities and nuances of the subject that they gloss over will almost certainly render your argument wrong. Some properties of entropy and information are actually quite counter-intuitive: for example, it turns out that Shannon information and entropy are one and the same thing. Consequently, the Second Law of Thermodynamics means that mutations should produce new information.

There may be some other approach yet to be discovered, of course. I personally believe that at the very least, evolution must have required some “coaxing” to get us to where we are today, and I don’t believe that it was an unguided, random process. But even if Intelligent Design does get proven, that won’t necessarily falsify common ancestry, and it certainly won’t take us back to six thousand years.

In the end of the day, what you make of evolution is up to you. But whatever conclusion you come to in the end, it is important to be honest about it. Like everything else, make sure that you know what you are talking about, and that your facts are straight.

YEC Best Evidence 1: not enough sediment on the seafloor

The first of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth concerns ocean sediment. Every year, a certain amount of sediment is eroded from the land and washed into the sea by rivers. In theory, if we can compare this with the amount of sediment that we actually find on the ocean floors, we could calculate a rough, first-order estimate for the age of the earth. Adding up the rates and extrapolating backwards gives us a maximum age for the earth of 12 million years — far less than the 4.5 billion years of the scientific consensus.

Andrew Snelling, the author of the article, illustrates it with this drawing:

The first problem with this argument is that it is based on rates that are extremely difficult to measure, and that can not realistically be assumed to have been constant in the past. Sedimentation rates are strongly dependent on environmental and climatic conditions, and ice ages, deforestation, widespread farming, and more recently the building of dams and cities in the modern era, will all have affected them significantly.

The annual influx of 20 billion tons of sediment a year comes from Millman & Syvitski (1992). However, if you read their abstract, you will see that their figure of 20 billion tons a year is merely a finger-in-the-air estimate of historic sedimentation rates from the past 2,500 years or so up until the early twentieth century. It also tells us that prior to widespread farming and deforestation, rates were almost certainly much lower. Later in the paper, they tell us that ultimately the final figure is extremely difficult to estimate and that we simply don’t know what it is.

Since 1992, there has been a lot more research into ocean sedimentation rates by environmental scientists. For example, Willenbring et al. (2014) estimate that the long-term sedimentation rate is about 5.5 billion tons a year.

But then there is the question of what exactly is being measured? And where does the sedimentation actually end up?

The estimates for subduction rates and the total amount of sediment on the sea floor come from Hay et al (1998). However, it is quite clear from their abstract that these estimates only refer to the deep ocean floor, and not to the continental shelves and margins. Yet it is the continental shelves and the margin where the sediments are deposited — typically in river deltas and fjords.

We can illustrate the problem by annotating Snelling’s drawing accordingly:

In a nutshell, Snelling is citing the rate of accumulation of sediment on the continental shelf as evidence that there is not enough of it on the ocean floor. This is like trying to determine the amount of snowfall in London by taking measurements in the Cairngorms. It is patently absurd. More to the point, if this isn’t “having two differing measures in your house” which Deuteronomy 25:13-16 warns us against, then I don’t know what is.

Furthermore, in many places, the sediments are subsequently uplifted by tectonic plates colliding to form new mountain ranges. In fact, most if not all of the sedimentary rocks found inland are believed to have originated as sediment being washed into the oceans in this way. Yet Snelling does not include these in his calculations, despite the fact that the amount of sedimentary rock concerned is vast, in many places being several miles thick.

“Rescuing Devices”

Snelling dismisses the possibility of sedimentation rates having been lower in the past as a “rescuing device.” He claims that the continental shelves and margins show evidence of having been deposited by catastrophic landslides and turbulence. Besides the fact that the continental shelves and margins aren’t what he’s counting, he does not cite a source for this claim. Nor does he give any examples, nor does he give any indication of how to differentiate between a single, global cataclysm and much more local events such as lahars, mud flows and landslides that we see today.

It simply is not scientific, nor even intellectually honest, to dismiss interpretations of the evidence that you don’t like as “meh, rescuing device.” You have to provide firm evidence that they are not consistent with the data, or at the very least that your own hypothesis fits the data better than they do. If you are not able to do so, then the evidence that you are providing is ambiguous, and does not confirm anything at all.

Nor is it scientific to blindly extrapolate rates of change back into the past as if they were constant. Either you have to establish firm theoretical and experimental reasons why this should be the case (as with radioactive decay rates or the speed of light, for example), or else you need to examine the historical record for evidence as to how those rates have varied in the past. Given that young-earthers are constantly berating “uniformitarians” for assuming rates were constant in situations where those assumptions are justified, it is quite hypocritical for them to make the same assumptions in situations where they are not.

Sedimentation rates are strongly dependent on climate changes. Temperature and precipitation affect rates of chemical/physical weathering. Glaciations significantly increase the sediment flux by grinding millions of tons of rock into dust and gravel, but widespread glaciation is far more common today than even 2 million years ago, and is absent from the vast majority of Earth history. Glacially and tectonically driven changes in sea level also affect sediment flux to the deep ocean, since higher sea levels reduce the area of exposed land that can be eroded into the oceans. On longer time scales, plate tectonics greatly affect the sediment flux by raising mountain ranges and deforming brittle rock formations. Today, massive mountain ranges span the whole western coasts of the Americas, and the Himalayas constitute the single largest source of sediment to the oceans. These mountain ranges are relatively young, however, so it’s reasonable to conclude that sediment flux is far greater today than for much of Earth history.

Ultimately, the amount of sediment in the oceans says nothing whatsoever about the age of the earth. Snelling’s calculations are invalid and do not reflect the reality of where the ocean sediment ends up. When the total worldwide amount of sedimentary rock is added up, the most up to date estimate of long-term sedimentation of about 5.5 billion tons a year is perfectly consistent with an age of the earth of 4.5 billion years.

An examination of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth

So far, I’ve looked mainly at the scientific consensus on the age of the earth, how it is determined, and the misconceptions about it that tend to float around in some Christian circles — in particular, those propagated by the young-earth creationist organisations. As we’ve seen, the science concerned is far, far more robust than they make it out to be, the YEC objections to it do not stand up to scrutiny, the underlying historical assumptions are not untestable as they claim, the evidence is demonstrably not based on differences in worldview, numerous independent lines of evidence place a lower limit on the age of the earth far, far in excess of six thousand years, and that attempting to reinterpret it otherwise descends into total absurdity.

However, the young-earth organisations point to other lines of evidence indicating that the earth is indeed only six thousand years old. If they are right, then we have a problem, because it means that different lines of evidence that we see in nature contradict each other. Either the evidence must be ambiguous, or there must be some other factor at work.

In 2012, Answers in Genesis published a series of articles titled The 10 Best Evidences from Science That Confirm A Young Earth. The lines of evidence that they gave were as follows:

  1. There is too little sediment on the sea floor.
  2. Rock layers that are bent without fracturing.
  3. Soft tissue in dinosaur fossils.
  4. The Faint Young Sun paradox.
  5. The earth’s magnetic field is rapidly decaying.
  6. Radioactive rocks contain too much helium.
  7. Carbon-14 has been found in fossils, coals and diamonds.
  8. Comets lose mass too quickly for them to be long-lived.
  9. There is very little salt in the sea.
  10. DNA has been recovered from 250 million year old bacteria.

The list is prefaced by a long sermon telling us that we must take the Bible as our starting point. Before I look at their claims themselves, I shall therefore start by doing precisely that.

You may have heard it said that the Bible is not a science textbook, and that the purpose of Genesis 1-11 is not to give us a scientific overview of origins. Regardless of what you think of that statement, the Bible does have some strong things to say about how we are to approach science. In particular, any physical evidence that we cite in support of our respective positions must be based on honest reporting and honest interpretation of accurate information. Rejecting the scientific consensus may be faith, but misrepresenting it is lying, and will ultimately backfire.

We see this in the Bible’s demands for honesty in how we handle weights and measures. Deuteronomy 25:13-16 says this:

13Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. 14Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small. 15You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 16For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

Other Bible verses demanding honest use of weights and measures include Leviticus 19:35-36; Ezekiel 45:10; Proverbs 11:1; Proverbs 16:11; Proverbs 20:10; Proverbs 20:23; Hosea 12:6-7; Amos 8:4-8; Micah 6:10-13. Repeatedly in the Bible, we are told that dishonest weights and measures are an abomination to the Lord.

And remember that weights and measures are the foundation on which science is built.

When discussing creation and evolution, it is important to bear this in mind. The Bible has far, far more to say about the need for honesty and integrity than about either the age of the earth or evolution. If the physical evidence which I acknowledge that God Himself has created points to an ancient earth and common ancestry for humans and animals, and even all life on earth, then we need to be honest about that. On the other hand, if the evidence really is ambiguous, or if it really does indicate that the earth is young after all, then so much the better.

There are a few other points worth making here. The first is that any scientific claim must submit to testing and correction through expert peer review. Proverbs 12:1 tells us, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid.” Proverbs 27:6 tells us, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” In particular, corrections of a purely technical nature must be resolved before any claims can be made, no matter who those corrections come from, and especially if the corrections come from specialists in the subject matter concerned. The second is that scientific findings must be reproducible. The scientific principle of reproducibility has a Biblical precedent in the legal principle that “every matter must be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). One study by a single research group is therefore not sufficient to establish evidence for anything.

So, when evaluating the evidences for a young earth, here are the questions that I will be asking.

1. Does it get its facts straight? In other words, is it actually true? As we shall see, at least one of these arguments (number 2, bent rock layers) is not.

2. Does it actually place a specific numerical limit on the age of the earth at all? Many of these arguments do not, but only attempt to provide counterexamples to conventional dating methods. Some of them (in particular, numbers 2 and 4) do not place any numeric constraints on anything at all. Others appeal to “common sense” that certain processes can not take “millions of years” while disregarding actual measurements and observations that indicate that they can.

3. Is it measuring the right things? We shall also see an example (number 1, too little sediment on the sea floor) which attempts to calculate a limit for the age of the earth by dividing two completely unrelated measurements, leading to a result which is totally meaningless.

4. How well defined are the limits it places on the age of the earth? Radiometric dating gives results that are accurate to within ±5%, frequently better than ±1%, and in the best cases, better than one part in a thousand. On the other hand, most of these arguments rely on quantities that are extremely difficult to measure, and in some cases completely unknown. For example, we have only a rough idea of how long it takes bones and soft tissue to decay and fossilise under average conditions, and the upper limit on how long it takes the last remnants to fully mineralise under optimal conditions is completely unknown.

5. Are its assumptions realistic? No scientist blindly assumes that rates are constant; one must either attempt to determine precise limits to how much they could have varied, or else establish solid theoretical and observational reasons as to why they could not. There are good reasons, both theoretical and experimental, to believe that nuclear decay rates have always been constant, while on the other hand, the rate of influx of salt or sediment into the oceans is highly sensitive to environmental and climatic conditions.

6. How rigorously have the “rescuing devices” been falsified? It is completely unscientific (and in fact, intellectually dishonest) to hand-wave alternative explanations and sources of error such as contamination as “meh, rescuing devices.” Alternative explanations have to be carefully and systematically ruled out, and in particular, sources of error such as contamination must be accounted for before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

7. What are the sources of its data? Are they up to date and representative of the latest research? Does it represent them fairly and accurately, or does it cherry-pick and quote mine them?

8. What is the extent of its data? Have the findings come from a single study, or has it been confirmed by other findings from elsewhere? One study — especially if it is disputed, controversial, or extraordinary — is not enough to establish a scientific finding. Similarly, studies based on small sample sizes are very unlikely to be reliable. If we could accept one-off studies based on small samples, we would also be giving a free pass to anti-vaxxers, astrology, homeopathy, water divining, and reading tea leaves.

9. Have they received a level of scrutiny appropriate to their complexity? Some claims, such as number 6 (helium in radioactive rocks) are technically very complex both theoretically and experimentally, and very complex claims are easy to get wrong, difficult to get right, and easy to “fudge” in ways that can be difficult to spot. In particular, scrutiny from experts in the subject matter concerned needs to be particularly heeded, as only they will be familiar with the existing research, the relevant best practices, and the various pitfalls and gotchas.

10. How have they responded to critique? In particular, how have they responded to criticisms of a purely technical nature? I am not concerned about them introducing religious presuppositions into science, so much as with arithmetic errors, mis-cited sources, cherry-picked data, hand-waved estimates, invalid analogies and the like. In these cases, the only correct responses are to either (a) fix the problem, or (b) provide evidence that they would not significantly affect the result. All claims that critiques are “petty and nitpicking” must be backed up by calculations or other evidence to prove that they really are as petty and nitpicking as they claim them to be.

Starting from next week, every second week I will examine each of these ten evidences in turn, to see how they fare when faced with questions such as these.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons