Last week, the Geological Society of America met for its annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. I’m not sure what the official count was for this year’s attendance (edit: 6,700!), but annual meetings have drawn as many as ~5,500 or more geologists from across North America and beyond. The sheer size of the conference is daunting; nearly 350 technical sessions and a dozen field trips ran over the course of five days, providing students and researchers with the opportunity to engage experts from their highly specialized fields. It is the premier TV package for those enthusiastic about Earth science—everyone can find something to watch.
Besides their obvious appeal to the traveler, these professional conferences serve many valuable purposes. It is a place to hear about the latest and greatest research in your field, especially from invited speakers who recently published high-impact papers. For the student, it is a place to network with professors, who may one day advise your graduate studies, with universities that may fund your next project, or with private companies that may jumpstart your future career. Since students present alongside veteran professors, it is an opportunity to familiarize oneself with the most important step in science: communicating your results and refining scientific interpretations through critical feedback.
And so, GSA is a forum for great ideas. Some ideas are great, because they’ve passed the process of peer review and have already begun to reshape their respective subdisciplines in geology. Others are preliminary, incomplete hypotheses, which have only great potential. Within this spectrum, therefore, is plenty of breathing room for those willing to push themselves beyond the limits of their expertise and the boundaries of our current knowledge. It is a place where presenters can test more speculative hypotheses against the collective criticism and experience of thousands of peers.
It was with this attitude that I submitted my own abstract to the GSA annual meeting. I study cave deposits and specifically how we can recover Earth’s past climate by analyzing the chemistry of these geological treasures. I have large datasets compiled from samples I’ve collected and studied for several years now, and I’ve formulated what I feel are some very solid conclusions, which I hope to publish soon. Instead of presenting the ideas on which I am confident, however, I decided to share the ideas where I’m not. In a nutshell, I argued that by comparing the data from my cave samples to published records across Europe and Asia, I could constrain the average atmospheric pressure and circulation patterns during winter between 5–9,000 years ago. Of course, I felt my hypothesis was reasonably well supported, but I knew I was venturing a little beyond the scope of my data and my comprehension of paleoclimatology. Fortunately, GSA delivered: I met with several researchers whose expertise began where mine left off, and I was able to improve my interpretations in light of their critiques.
And so, GSA is also a forum for wild ideas, because having all the right answers is not nearly as valuable as knowing how to ask the right questions. It’s okay to be adventurous, so long as we remain humble and let the scientific method work as it should. But this intellectual freedom has allowed some to participate in the conference, whose attitude toward science has been disparaged by many and whose general conclusions about Earth history are rooted more in pseudoscience: Young-Earth Creationists.
In October 2010, a group of young-Earth geologists led a field trip along the front range of the Colorado rockies for the annual GSA meeting in Denver. Despite that none of the field guides explicitly promoted their young-Earth paradigm on the trip, which sounded like a very basic description of several outcrops, they did present a geological paradox that supposedly challenged the conventional timeline of events. Their audience was thus led to reason that a famous fault near Manitou Springs could not possibly have appeared ~430 million years after the deposition of a nearby Cambrian sandstone, but the two must have formed almost simultaneously. In other words, the 430-million year span from the Middle Cambrian to the Late Cretaceous has been overestimated by 430-million years (minus 4,500 years or so—the age of Noah’s flood).
This hint of intellectual dishonesty was exacerbated by the fact that the presented paradox rested on a premise that was demonstrably false. Perhaps the field trip would have been more informative, therefore, if its leaders were up front about their young-Earth beliefs. In that case, at least the field-trip participants could have seriously engaged the question of how Cambrian-aged sand was injected into underlying granite.
Young-Earth ideas at GSA 2014?
To my knowledge, GSA field trips have not since been led by teams of young-Earth creationists. But they continue to present their research every year in the technical sessions. This year, I came across at least three posters whose presenters and/or co-authors are well known ‘Flood geologists’, inviting the question: should young-Earth creationists be allowed to participate in professional geological conferences?
One of the posters I found described sand injectites in a recently discovered outcrop. Another poster re-interpreted sedimentary structures in the Coconino Sandstone, a famous eolian deposit that outcrops across the southwestern U.S. (including Grand Canyon). The posters themselves were well done, containing high-quality images of the outcrops, and the presenters were very kind and professional. Unless one recognized their names (or their university), there was no indication that these authors believed the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. But that’s partly because the project was very preliminary and descriptive—for example, “We’ve identified these features as sand injectites, here’s where they are located, and here’s what we think about the source of the sand.”
To reiterate, there is nothing wrong with presenting preliminary or mainly descriptive projects at GSA. On the contrary, it is the best place for students to engage in the scientific process and learn from professionals outside their own department. Missing, however, were the reasons for studying sand injectites or the Coconino sandstone in the first place—the question that every presenter should answer, “Why do you think this is important?”—as well as the broader implications of the project on the discipline.
For the young-Earth creationist, sand injectites are key evidences for soft-sediment deformation during or shortly after Noah’s flood. They are part and parcel to the Flood geology paradigm, which proposes that the bulk of the geologic column was deposited within a single year due to a global catastrophe. The Coconino Sandstone, on the other hand, is an obvious challenge to the Flood geology paradigm, because desert dunes do not readily form under water. And so, young-Earth geologists have committed themselves to reinterpreting the formation as a flood deposit. Steve Newton of NCSE noted this trend at the GSA meeting in 2010, and predicted accurately:
In future meetings we can expect to see similar arguments against standard Coconino interpretations, as creationists try to defend a Flood Geology narrative by claiming a marine deposition for the Coconino.
So long as they are allowed, young-Earth creationists will continue to present their work at GSA and other professional meetings. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because these meetings are a place where even wild ideas can be subjected to critique by academic peers. If we contend that the young-Earth paradigm is scientifically flawed, then are we not obligated to offer constructive criticism and help them learn about the Earth? All of us once knew nothing about geology and perhaps would have believed anything. Personally, I am grateful for those who inspired me through honest criticism.
Besides, especially in the case of student presenters, who have placed much trust (misguided or not) in their own advisors, we have all the more reason to be mentors and not inquisitors. I hope and pray these students saw GSA 2014 as I did: an annual reminder of how much I have yet to learn about Earth science. If GSA Vancouver didn’t humble you too, then perhaps you should have ventured outside of your own session. 😉 So let them come and take part and let’s all learn something together. But remember, the more open you are about your convictions regarding Earth history, the more productive the meeting will be.
See you in Baltimore?