Several years ago, we had a paleontologist speak at our department seminar on the topic of Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) and the Grand Canyon. The speaker, who was affiliated with the National Center for Science Education, elaborated on how they had organized Grand Canyon rafting trips (similar to those organized by YECs) to counter the claims of ‘Flood Geology’. I remember that presentation well, because it ultimately inspired me to blog my own critiques of YEC and Flood Geology.
Since I had long followed the creation science movement, I was already familiar with the people and arguments described by the speaker—in particular, Dr. Steve Austin and his book Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. But the rest of my department was shocked by what was happening among this subculture. They had no context in which to frame these preposterous claims regarding the origin of popular geological formations. Neither could they understand how well educated, graduate-degree holding, published scientists could publicly hold such a position. And neither could they sympathize with the millions of Americans who find it persuasive.
But I could. Though alone in the audience, I knew precisely why this movement still held traction.
Our speaker likewise noted the bewilderment among my colleagues. I’ll never forget how he responded, because I deemed it an appropriate and respectful response (paraphrasing):
Proponents of YEC exist on a spectrum, from those who appear to be outright conmen, simply uneducated, or blinded by religious bias (for example, Kent Hovind), all the way to those who are well educated, intelligent, thoughtful, and self-critical, even if you can’t personally understand their motivations for belief.
I could hear the room’s collective, silent reaction, “Well, who then is a thoughtful creationist?”
Our speaker then highlighted one Harvard-educated paleontologist, who has long been active in the creation science movement, but especially since completing his doctorate under Stephen Jay Gould, and who has received ample criticism for promoting a position that seems to defy his credentials (not least by Richard Dawkins).
I am referring, of course, to Kurt Wise, whom this blogger deemed the “favorite creationist of virtually everyone involved in fighting creationism”.
For me, Dr. Wise has been a YEC whose reputation truly proceeds him, because admittedly, I have not read much of his work in-depth. Once we did cross paths at a geological meeting in Denver, accompanied by a very brief “Hello, nice to meet you”, but I learned only from his tall stature, cool tone, and academic countenance alone, how one could easily be intimidated by his presence (and I mean that as a sincere compliment). Therefore, I’ve taken at face value the general opinion that Dr. Wise is a respectable proponent of YEC, to whom we ought to lend a respectful ear.
Recently, thanks to a friend’s library overflow, I obtained a copy of Faith, Form, and Time by Kurt Wise. After skimming through the material, Chapter 5 caught my attention: “How old is old?” Setting aside Dr. Wise’s criticism and rejection of common descent and macroevolution, I wanted to know why he was a young-Earth creationist. And since the subtitle of this book is, “Solid biblical and scientific evidence that the universe was created by God…less than ten thousand years ago“, my expectations were fairly high.
So what are the scientific evidences that undermine our conventional, scientific approaches to determining the age of geologic materials? Wise begins with an example from the Grand Canyon, writing (p. 62):
The age of the Grand Canyon was calculated by determining the rate of erosion over the last century by comparing century-old photos with the current canyon.
Let me stop you right there. As I highlighted in my last post, geologists don’t extrapolate modern rates blindly into the past to determine the age of anything, especially when better techniques are available. Though I don’t doubt that somebody assessed historical erosion rates to make a first-order estimate of canyon age, there are good reasons why no geologist would consider this method valid today.
First of all, erosion rates over the Colorado Plateau are much lower during warm interglacials (i.e. the last 12,000 years) relative to ice ages. During ice ages, the American southwest received much more precipitation—rain and snow—due to a southward shift in the jet stream. This fact is well evidenced in cave and vegetation records throughout the region and is confirmed by every climate model. Hence, erosion rates over the past century are meaningless with respect to dating the entirety of the Grand Canyon.
Dr. Wise leaves no indication, however, that he is familiar with any recent research into how the Grand Canyon is dated, or the fact that erosion rates are variable with climate. Neither does he elucidate why it’s far more difficult to date erosion (removal of material) than deposition. Instead, he concludes that other dating methods (e.g. of 5-million-year-old lake sediments that formed after a certain part of the canyon) must be faulty, and that geologists are hopelessly guessing from within a uniformitarian framework.
On the same page, Dr. Wise defers to the poorly researched work of Austin and Snelling, writing:
Here’s another dating method: since the rate at which salt enters the oceans exceeds the rate at which it leaves the oceans, they have been getting saltier over time. The oceans currently have only about one hundred million years worth of salt, rather than the billions of years of salt they should have if they were actually that old.
By assuming that geologists can only extrapolate modern rates blindly into the past to estimate the age of oceans, Dr. Wise thus commits the same error and blatantly ignores the wealth of modern research, which suggests that the oceans are not getting saltier over time. Even worse, he makes no attempt to fact-check the article he cites by Austin and Snelling, who intentionally inflated estimates of salt influx and ignored certain outputs to make the oceans appear younger than they are.
In the very next paragraph, Dr. Wise dismisses the Potassium-Argon (K-Ar) dating method entirely, due to the fact that some volcanic flows retain excess argon (making them appear a few hundred thousand years too old). Once again, he seems unaware that geologists have long been aware of the complexities of K-Ar dating and have improved methods, which can examine whether or not excess argon inflated the age of a given lava flow.
Finally, to dismiss the utility of radiocarbon dating, Dr. Wise tells us that:
…if the earth has had a stable atmosphere for longer than thirty thousand years, as is generally assumed, then C-14 should be in secular equilibrium… One also would expect C-14 dates of tree rings to correspond to the ages one gets by counting rings.
These hypotheses were valid in the 1950’s, when they were first formulated to investigate the limits of radiocarbon dating, as well as its accuracy. However, researchers quickly discovered that the atmosphere has not been stable for longer than thirty thousand years, due to the variable strength of Earth’s magnetic field and large-scale processes that move radioactive carbon between the oceans and the atmosphere. And since 14C in the atmosphere is variable, then we should not expect tree rings to correspond exactly to their age determined by counting. Hence, we rely on a calibration curve that accounts for past variability in 14C production.
Coincidentally, we are covering this very topic today in my 100-level class on paleoclimatology, from which—it seems—Dr. Wise could benefit. But Dr. Wise received his Ph.D. in the late 1980’s, when all of these supposed ‘problems’ with conventional dating techniques had long been resolved. I can’t help but to wonder, therefore, if Dr. Wise committed these sins of omission knowingly, simply to persuade his audience that the evidence was in their favor.
Understandably, most readers will consider Kurt Wise to be an authority on all matters of science, because they share his position that a faithful reading of the Bible can only lead one to believe in a young Earth—no matter what the evidence supports. They see his credentials and his reputation and, like me, consider him a bright and trustworthy figure, who lives up to his namesake.
Perhaps I will be persuaded elsewhere that Kurt Wise understands the basic principles of geology and geochronology. But in the meantime, I cannot ignore the dubious strategies he employed in his popular works to persuade readers from science that the Earth is young.
I, for one, am losing faith the wisest of YECs, and so I despair for those eager to receive him as a mentor in their own studies.
Featured image: The Acropolis of Athens, adorned by Athena, goddess of wisdom