Pluto, Patterns, and Predictions

Guest post by David MacMillan

One of the great things about being home schooled was the way every experience could become a learning opportunity. We were always ready to investigate new things and build on what we learned, and it’s a habit that has remained with me for the rest of my life.

As a young-earth creationist, on the other hand, I took this principle a little too far. Instead of treating new scientific discoveries as exciting and valuable on their own, I felt obligated to find a way to turn them into evidence for creationism. Any new finding, no matter how obscure, demanded that I leap in with my “biblical glasses” and show how any discovery could be shoehorned into the creationist model.

Pluto surface

Closeup view of Pluto’s surface, taken by the New Horizon spacecraft.

It’s a familiar pattern. Creationist organizations have earned a reputation for seizing upon every last shred of news or discovery or speculation with hasty explanations, as if to say, “See? We can do science too! It’s not about the evidence at all; it’s about how you interpret it.” Anyone who has spent time investigating creationism will recognize this tendency.

So when I saw the first photos of Pluto’s surface sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft, showing a smooth and apparently geologically active terrain, I knew it would only be a matter of time before creationists began posting about it. In fact, I was even pretty sure of what they would say. Writing to a friend on July 15, I made this prediction:

Now that the results are “in”, how long do you think it’ll be until a creationist group posts something about how a “Young Pluto Supports Recent Creation” and “Secular scientists with atheistic uniformitarian assumptions predicted that Pluto would be a dead planet pockmarked by craters, but the evidence of recent geologic activity should come as no surprise to Christians, who know that Pluto was created along with all the other celestial bodies on the Fourth Day just over 6,000 years ago!” I’ll give them until Friday.

It came a bit later than I expected, but sure enough, they didn’t disappoint. On July 20, a week after the Pluto flyby, creationist author Danny Faulkner wrote an excited post for Answers in Genesis titled “Pluto’s Surface Is Young!” True to form, he writes:

The first close images of Pluto [are] a shock to conventional uniformitarian scientists who believe in a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system. […] It is very clear that Pluto is young, far younger than the billions of years generally assumed. While this is unexpected and hence unexplainable for evolutionists, this is something that we might expect if the universe is only thousands of years old as the Bible indicates.

Creationist rhetoric shows this same pattern over and over. Whenever a new discovery is made, creationists insist that “uniformitarian scientists” couldn’t have possibly predicted it, and in fact could only have predicted the opposite. This, then, is treated as prima facie evidence that the creationist model is the only viable alternative.

This tactic takes scrutiny off of the creationist model and onto mainstream scientists, who must correct the new set of misconceptions about what predictions they really made before they can even begin to address the evidence. This is very convenient for creationists, because their model doesn’t hold up to scrutiny at all.

Why not? Well, I’m not sure Dr. Faulkner realizes it, but this excitement over Pluto’s young surface only exists because every other body in the solar system shows unmistakable evidence of great age. By singling out Pluto as a body which “appears young”, he is implicitly admitting that every other planet and moon we’ve visited appears old. Pluto’s surface only appears “young” (less than 100 million years old) in comparison to all the other bodies in the solar system.

Are young surface features a problem for mainstream science? Of course not. Dr. Faulkner’s post repeatedly stresses “a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system”, ostensibly to imply that mainstream science requires Pluto to be the same age as the rest of the solar system, but such a requirement is rubbish. The history of the world, the solar system, and the whole universe is filled with collisions, explosions, impacts, and all manner of catastrophes. Scientists have no objection to bodies in our solar system being formed at different times; after all, the Cassini probe picked up photos of a new moon forming in Saturn’s rings just last year.

The actual problem is for the creationist model. Creationists are the ones who need all the objects in the solar system to be exactly the same age (6,000 years, give or take). Mainstream scientists have no need of a “uniformitarian” age, but creationists do.

Despite this glaring fallacy, Dr. Faulkner’s tactic is very useful. By suggesting that the geologically young surface of Pluto somehow plunged mainstream scientists into shock and confusion, he leaves readers with the idea that mainstream science is in complete disarray, constantly making mistaken predictions and unable to keep up with new discoveries. This distrust of the scientific consensus ensures that lay creationists remain dependent on “experts” like Faulkner and other prominent creationist authors.

What is the basis, then, for Dr. Faulkner’s insistence that this finding is anomalous? After a meandering survey of some of the inner bodies of the solar system, he claims:

Pluto is located in a particularly crowded part of the solar system. Pluto orbits the sun in a region with many other large objects that are too small to be planets and are also orbiting the sun. Presumably, thus far we have found only the larger members of this second asteroid belt, the first belt being mainly between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter. Therefore, Pluto ought to be undergoing impacts today at a higher rate than most other objects in other portions of the solar system. [emphasis added]

Dr. Faulkner must have been hoping that no one bothered to evaluate his claim, because it couldn’t be more wrong.

To begin with, this “second asteroid belt”, known in astronomy as the Kuiper Belt, is more than twice as wide and more than ten times further from the sun. This is a region of space a thousand times greater than the inner asteroid belt, meaning the distribution of objects is dramatically more sparse.

More importantly, Pluto is special. Unlike all the other bodies we’ve been able to study so far, Pluto’s orbit is highly tilted relative to the rest of the solar system. It only dips through the same plane as all the other bodies for 1.8% of its orbit—less than 30 months every 125 years. Based on this fact alone, we should expect Pluto to have a far lower distribution of impact craters. It’s hard to see how Dr. Faulkner, who boasts an M.S. in physics and a Ph.D. in astronomy, wouldn’t recognize this.

Pluto's orbit through Kuiper Belt

Pluto’s orbit dips through the Kuiper belt. Image from NASA.

The Pluto-Charon system has long been considered unique among the larger bodies of our solar system. The extreme tilt in its orbit and the “sideways” rotation of Pluto’s moon have long been considered excellent evidence of a collision between two dwarf planets after the formation of the rest of the Solar System. Such a collision would have provided the momentum to knock Pluto out of alignment with the rest of the Solar System while also causing the perpendicularly-inclined lunar orbits. Even though additional photos now show more heavily-cratered regions, the young age (less than 100 million years) of several features on Pluto’s surface provides us with fascinating new opportunities to piece together what happened so long ago.

Pluto's orbit

If the Pluto-Charon system had coalesced from the nebula in its current location, we’d expect the Pluto-Charon orbital plane to be lined up with that of Pluto around the sun. Instead, it is perpendicular to the invariable plane, indicating that the Pluto-Charon system was formed in a collision between two bodies, which knocked them out of their initial orbit within the invariable plane.

Unfortunately, this evidence presents yet another problem for young-earth creationism. Not only would a dwarf-planet collision completely reshape the surfaces of both Pluto and Charon, but it would have taken tens of thousands of centuries for the system to settle into the perfectly-circular, dual-tidally-locked co-orbit we observe today. Dr. Faulkner’s creation model only has a few thousand years. He has to explain why the orbital inclination of Pluto and the orbital plane of Charon match up so well with a collision trajectory if no such event actually took place.

Finally, the smooth surface seen on parts of Pluto challenges Dr. Faulkner’s theories about the rest of the solar system. Creationists have long recognized that the abundance of craters dotting the bodies of the solar system clashes with their conviction that these objects are only a few dozen centuries old. Rather than suggesting that the billions of craters could have something to do with the creationist Flood on Earth, as he has in the past, Dr. Faulkner now speculates that the craters could have formed as part of the supernatural creation process. In this view, God would have supernaturally “mashed together” the bodies of our solar system from smaller, previously-created fragments, causing the appearance of impact craters dotting their surfaces.

Aside from being exceedingly ad hoc, this view clashes with his beliefs about Pluto. If small, atmosphere-poor bodies in our solar system are covered with craters as a result of the way they were created, as Dr. Faulkner suggests, then this should be standard across the solar system. If, in contrast, he wants to use Pluto’s smooth surface as evidence for a young solar system, he will need to discard his suggestion that craters are a result of creation.

This kind of contradiction between models is very common in creationist literature. As others have noted, creationist writers will often advance wildly divergent hypotheses surrounding the same bodies of evidence, hotly contending that their model is the only “Biblical” possibility without realizing that they are flatly contradicting each other.

Unlike mainstream scientific researchers, creationists are not constrained to consider past findings or integrate their ideas within a larger body of established theory. They will always be able to come up with an explanation, no matter how obviously damning the evidence is, because they can freely propose endless layers of miracles and special scenarios. Real scientific research progresses by building on existing knowledge, but creationists are free to erect imaginative just-so stories wherever they feel like it.


Featured image: New Horizon spacecraft photo gallery, NASA

5 responses to “Pluto, Patterns, and Predictions

  1. Reblogged this on Primate's Progress and commented:
    “Unfortunately, this evidence presents yet another problem for young-earth creationism. Not only would a dwarf-planet collision completely reshape the surfaces of both Pluto and Charon, but it would have taken tens of thousands of centuries for the system to settle into the perfectly-circular, dual-tidally-locked co-orbit we observe today.”

    Not surprisingly, the Young Earth Creationists are heralding the smoth-ish surface of Pluto as evidence for a young solar system. It does not seem to worry them that if the absence of craters on Pluto is evidence for its recent formation, then their presence throughout the rest of the Solar System is evidence for its antiquity. The post I am reblogging here presents yet more internal contradictions in the YEC description of Pluto, including the highlight that I quote above.


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