How Little Lies Go A Long Way: Henry Morris and the Missing Potassium

By whose authority?

For all our lives, we have been trained to appeal to authority, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We learned to trust our teachers and parents, who passed along basic facts. We learned to trust our coaches, who taught us how to play. We learned to trust our pastors/mentors/philosophers, who taught us how to live. We learned to trust our doctors, who taught us how to stay healthy. And in the end, for the most part, we turned out alright. As adults, we can read, write, add, subtract, share, care, score the occasional 3-pointer, and even fight disease on our own.

But it wasn’t for blind trust that we made progress; we didn’t just shut up and listen. We grew rightly, because the authorities in whom we placed our trust were generally true to their discipline. Though my history teacher didn’t know everything, she drew from other experts to extend her knowledge, appealing to what other thoughtful and learned students of history had discovered. I could appeal to her authority, it seemed, because she appealed to others.

Of course, life is a bit more complicated, for as we learned about whom to trust, simultaneously we learned to question everything. “Because my teacher told me” was never an acceptable answer, nor should it be. What if your teacher lied?

We all sought, therefore, to balance trust with skepticism so as to distinguish fact from fraud. But therein lies the dilemma. We don’t accept that planets orbit the sun via gravitational pull, simply because Isaac Newton—a really smart scientist—told us so. Rather, we accept this idea because Newton’s model explains and reflects physical reality.

Right?

In principle, this approach sounds nice. We’re just healthy skeptics, who deem all claims guilty until proven innocent! But how do we test Newton’s hypothesis against reality without the help of a trained physicist? Can we learn the necessary tools without reading or hearing a word of those who preceded us? You see, we can’t be experts in everything, and knowledge is a common endeavor. Thus to question authority at all, first it must have our trust.

When students stop thinking and experts tell a lie

Critical thinking breaks down when we choose authorities and facts only as it serves our purpose or worldview. This phenomenon has been coined Belief-Dependent Realism (BDR), because reality is shaped by what we think we know, rather than the other way around. Inconveniently, every person will argue that “the other side” succumbs to BDR, which makes accusations of BDR typically fruitless. It is noteworthy, therefore, we all utilize our beliefs to filter facts and observations, because that’s how our brain is wired. Scientific and inductive reasoning is, in a sense, contrary to nature, because it demands that we make our innermost beings vulnerable, and nobody can do this with 100% efficiency. Nobody wants to be wrong, even if it leads one to being right.

Intuitively and subconsciously, therefore, we choose our authorities prejudicially, based on how their beliefs accord with our own. Personally, I can name dozens of examples from my past, which I wouldn’t have recognized at the time. Often it takes years to learn what is necessary to critique what we’ve already learned. So with years to sprout and flower, and the winds of the internet to spread its pollen, a little lie goes a long way before anyone knows the difference.

Henry Morris and the Case of the Missing Potassium

Last week, I came across the following claim for the first time in a group on Facebook. If true, it could undermine one of the best techniques we have to date geologic materials, thus adding credibility to the young-Earth paradigm.

Did you know that as much as 80% of the potassium in a small sample of iron meteorite can be removed by distilled water in just 4.5 hours? So what makes you think your samples haven’t been contaminated?

Immediately, I found the claim suspicious because of its specificity (80%? 4.5 hours?). Surely, this information must have arisen from a legitimate scientific study. With the help of others (i.e. Google), the claim was traced back to Henry Morris—founder of the Institute for Creation Research—in his book Scientific Creationism, first published in 1974. On page 146, Morris cited an abstract by Rancitelli and Fisher (1967), which was presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. This study was published a year later, a full six years before Morris released his book.

Sure enough, the authors demonstrated that potassium contained in iron meteorites was rapidly leached in distilled water alone, which implied that K-Ar dating method of such meteorites would not be valid. At first glance, therefore, it appeared that Morris did his homework and had a legitimate critique of one common dating technique.

Until the present day, Henry Morris’s original claim has continued to echo through the pages of the internet. Site after site presented the case for Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) by appealing to Morris as an authority when it came to the shortfalls of K-Ar dating (just search for 80% in all of these links). And why shouldn’t they? Even though Henry Morris had an obvious agenda, we can’t deny that he was a highly educated, sincere individual, who was better versed than the average person in radiometric dating.

Well, the problem is that he lied.

Since the argument was apparently backed by independent research, nobody thought to question it, and few would know how in the first place. Morris wasn’t actually wrong that up to 80% of potassium was leached from a small iron meteorite fragment back in 1967, but he was spectacularly wrong in his application. Morris argued from the results of Rancitelli and Fisher that potassium was highly mobile in geological materials, implying we could never trust the results of K-Ar dating. However, this conclusion is opposite to that given by the very authors Morris cited.

Rancitelli and Fisher found that potassium was extremely rare in iron meteorites (as any mineralogist or geochemist would expect), and what little potassium could be found existed near the surface of the iron-rich portions. Potassium was leached from the sample, because it was in direct contact with the water. If it had been distributed throughout the iron phase of the meteorite, then it would have been possible to date iron meteorites by the K-Ar method. But it wasn’t. Therefore, the authors recommended against using this method, unless potassium-rich silicate minerals were also found in the meteorite.

Henry Morris, being trained as a hydrogeologist, knew well that water doesn’t move freely through silicate minerals. He also knew well that K-Ar dating is typically applied to minerals with completely different properties than iron meteorites. Finally, he knew that meteorites were almost never dated by the K-Ar method, because of their unique chemistry. Thus he should have known that it would be inappropriate to cite Rancitelli and Fisher in making his case against K-Ar dating as applied to the geologic column. Yet he led his readers to draw the broad conclusion that K-Ar is suspect in all cases—not just with iron meteorites.

On finding solid ground

Writing way back in 1974, Henry Morris told a little lie about potassium and meteorites. It wasn’t a mistake; it was a lie. And this lie was emboldened by the strength of the belief it was meant to support. It grew over decades by echoed appeals to authority, especially by those who trusted Morris to communicate the evidential truth as honestly as he did his own beliefs. But when our worldview is at stake, every fact in its favor becomes trustworthy.

Let us take caution, therefore, in how readily we propagate little lies for the sake of a perceived truth. In a world clouded by misinformation, the truth is a needle in a haystack. Those who sincerely want to learn must navigate first through heavy clamor—a million empty voices claiming authority. But rarely will they find it, because solid ground has long been hidden beneath the fog of our culture wars.

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4 responses to “How Little Lies Go A Long Way: Henry Morris and the Missing Potassium

  1. In one of his books, David Fisher (co-author of the study you cite) recalls a debate with Morris in 1982, during which he exposed the deliberate cherry picking and out of context quotations of his own paper. Morris obviously kept on using the arguments and none of his audience cares.

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  2. interesting – never heard that one before. However it is my understanding that silicate minerals are not totally insoluble so over a long period of time I can see Morris as being concerned without being a liar.

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    • Morris stated that the K would be lost in hours, based on a totally irrelevant experiment. The authors of the paper even warned Morris of the mis-citation, but still he published them in a book.

      And yes, silicate minerals are soluble over the long term, but when minerals dissolve, they tend to disappear. 😉 If minerals exist today in solid form with euhedral faces and undisturbed chemistry, then likely their radioisotope chemistry reflects the passage of time and not dissolution/leaching.

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