The Geological Society of America (GSA) is one of the largest organizations of geologists in the world (over 24,000 members). It holds not only an annual meeting every fall in a different city, but also five regional meetings around the U.S. regions (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Rocky Mountains, and Cordilleran) throughout the year. Although 97 different countries contribute members, it is composed mostly of U.S., Canadian, and some Central American geologists. The GSA focuses on the cutting-edge and pure research aspects of geology, performed mostly by academics and government geologists. Thus, it is very different from meetings of petroleum geologists or mining geologists or engineering geologists, who tend to be employed in for-profit enterprises and focus on purely practical local problems. The annual GSA meeting routinely draws 6000 or more people for a four-day session, so there are over 2000 talks and posters in at least 30 different sessions with talks every 15 minutes in at least 30 different rooms scattered around some huge convention center. There SO much to see and hear for a broadly trained and wide-ranging geologist/ paleontologist like myself that I can’t even catch a fraction of what I want to see and hear. For me, it is crucial to make the annual meeting each year to keep up with the latest developments, as well as see old friends that I see only at the meetings, and also to keep up with my geology textbooks and my other books sold in the gigantic exhibits area. I attended my first meeting in 1978 in Toronto, and I have not missed a national GSA since then. I just returned from this fall’s meeting in Minneapolis October 9-12, which was my 33rd in a row.
Most of the time when I attend the meetings, there are plenty of controversial topics and great debates going on within the geological community, so the profession does not suppress unorthodox opinions or play political games. This is the way it should be in any genuine scientific discipline. I’ve seen amazingly confrontational knock-down-drag-out sessions about particularly hotly debated ideas, but always conducted in a spirit of honest scientific exchange and always hewing to rules of science and naturalism. To get on the meeting program, scientists must propose to organize sessions around particular themes, along with field trips to geologically interesting sites within driving distance of the convention city, and the GSA host committee reads and approves these proposals. But every once in a while, I see a poster title and abstract with something suspicious about it. When I check the authors, they turn out to be Young-Earth Creationists (YEC) who claim the earth is only 6000 years old and all of geology can be explained by Noah’s flood. When I visit the poster session, it’s usually mobbed by real geologists giving the YECs a real grilling, even though the poster is ostensibly about some reasonable geologic topic, like polystrate trees in Yellowstone, and there is no overt mention of Noah’s flood in the poster. But the 2010 meeting last year in Denver took the cake: there was a whole field trip run by YECs who did not identify their agenda, and pretended that they were doing conventional geology—until you read between the lines.
I never even spotted them on the field trip on the program. I was teaching a heavy load last fall, and had no spare time for pre- or post-meeting trips (four days away from classes is hard enough to arrange), so I didn’t look the trips over closely. But my colleague Steve Newton did notice the suspicious list of leaders, including Institute of Creation “Research” (ICR) “geologist” Steve Austin, Marcus Ross of Jerry Falwell’s fundamentalist Liberty University, and two others from the ICR and another Christian college. He reported on it here, and according to him, it was an eye-opening experience. Through the entire trip, the leaders never identified themselves as YECs or openly advocated Noah’s flood or a 6000-year-old earth. Instead, the entire trip was filled with stops at outcrops where the leaders emphasized the possible evidence for sudden deposition of the strata at Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, without stating explicitly that they believed this sudden deposition was Noah’s flood in action. (There are LOTS of instances of local rapid and sudden deposition of strata in real geology, but they are local and clearly cannot be linked to any global flood). As Newton described it:
Furthermore, the field trip leaders were careful not to make overt creationist references. If the 50 or so field trip participants did not know the subtext and weren’t familiar with the field trip leaders, it’s quite possible that they never realized that the leaders endorsed geologic interpretations completely at odds with the scientific community. Even the GSA Sedimentary Geology Division had initially signed on as a sponsor of the trip (though they backed out once they learned the views of the trip leaders).
But the leaders’ Young-Earth Creationist views were apparent in rhetorical subtleties. For example, when Austin referred to Cambrian outcrops, he described them as rocks that are “called Cambrian.” It’s an odd phrasing, allowing use of the proper geologic term while subtly denying its implications. In one instance, when Austin was asked by a trip attendee about the age of a rock unit, he responded somewhat cryptically, “Wherever you want to go there.” Such phrasing was telling, if you knew what to listen for.
Subtext about the age of formations was a big part of the Young-Earth Creationist rhetoric on the trip. As we moved on to each field trip stop, a narrative began to emerge: the creationist concept of Noah’s Flood as explanation for the outcrops. Although no one uttered the words “Noachian Flood,” the guides’ descriptions of the geology were revealing and rather coy. For example, at the first stop—a trail off Highway 24 near Manitou Spring—Austin stated that the configuration of the units was “the same over North America,” and had been formed by a massive marine transgression. “Whatever submerged the continent,” Austin went on, it must have been huge in scale.
Apparently, most of the participants on the field trip who weren’t familiar with YEC assumptions and terminology never caught on to the scam that was being perpetrated by the field trip leaders—and none were converted to the YEC viewpoint by a single weird field trip. But conversion and witnessing to unbelievers is not the goal here. The purpose is to get YEC “research” presented at respectable mainstream scientific meetings so they can claim they are doing legitimate “scientific research”—even if they lie about or conceal their motives to do so, and mislead the GSA and the geological community by hiding their real agenda. During the poster sessions at that same meeting, there were no less than four posters by students from fundamentalist Cedarville University challenging the idea that the classic Permian sand dune deposits of the Coconino Sandstone below the rim of the Grand Canyon were laid down in in the wind and not water—because that’s a major dilemma for the YEC in trying to shoehorn the entire Grand Canyon into “flood geology” (see my book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, Chapter 3, for a detailed critique of the idiocy of “flood geology”).
Even more bizarre was one of the presentations given by Marcus Ross of Liberty University, who did conventional research on Cretaceous mosasaurs (huge marine monitor lizards) and ammonites for his legitimate Ph.D. at the University of Rhode Island. As Newton described it:
“Millions of years” was a phrase that also appeared in Ross’ talk on Late Cretaceous marine stratigraphy; many of his slides used normal geologic time, with millions of years clearly labeled on axes. Nothing in his 15-minute talk hinted at nonstandard geologic thinking. Because most of the audience probably did not know Ross’ background, it must have been puzzling to them when the first question following Ross’ talk challenged him on how he could “harmonize this work with [his] belief in a 6,000-year-old Earth.” (This question came from University of Florida geology professor Joe Meert, who blogged about the exchange.)
Ross answered the question by saying that for a scientific meeting such as GSA, he thought in a “framework” of standard science; but for a creationist audience, he said, he used a creationist framework. Judging from the reaction of the audience, this answer caused more confusion than enlightenment. Ross pointed out that nothing in his presentation involved Young-Earth Creationism. But he then volunteered that he was indeed a Young-Earth Creationist.
It was a strange moment for the audience. It was the last talk of the session, and as everyone migrated into the hallway, several people asked me what had just happened, as if they had misheard the exchange.
What to do about this situation? Steven Newton argues (rightly in my opinion) that at professional meetings YEC should be allowed to give presentations as long as they are clearly following the rules of science (at least in their abstracts). They deserve to be debated and confronted but we don’t want to get in the game of censoring or rejecting them as non-scientists as long as their abstracts approach their topics in a scientific and professional manner. If we reject them beforehand, they can legitimately claim that they are being victimized and unfairly censored by conventional scientists who won’t give them a fair hearing. However, in a peer-reviewed paper, the reviewers should take them to task if they are using non-scientific methods or assumptions. I know of only a few YEC papers in conventional journals that survived peer-review—and only by doing completely conventional research and making no mention of their YEC assumptions or goals.
Sadly, the real problem here is that YEC “geologists” come back from this meeting falsely braggingthat their “research” was enthusiastically received, and that they “converted” a lot of people to their unscientific views. As Newton pointed out, they will crow in their publicity that they are attending regular professional meetings and presenting their research successfully. For those who don’t know any better, it sounds to the YEC audience like they are conventional geologists doing real research and that they deserve to be taken seriously as geologists—even though every aspect of their geology is patently false (see Chapter 3 in my 2007 Evolution book). And so, once more the dishonesty of the YEC takes advantage of the openness and freedom of the scientific community to exploit it to their own ends, and abuse the privilege of open communication to push anti-scientific nonsense on the general population that doesn’t know the difference.
P.Z. Myers said it best on his recent blog“The Fundamental Cowardice of Creationists”:
I’m sure that the creationists will cry that he had to do this, because science defends a dogmatic orthodoxy and won’t let them speak otherwise. This is totally false. If someone wants to defend heterodox ideas, they should state them openly, not hide them and present theories they do not believe so they can acquire false authority in a field, as Ross tries to do, or so that they can lie and pretend that they had convinced an audience, as Austin did.
And that’s all Marcus Ross is trying to do. He’s trying to build up credibility by presenting all of the data and interpreting it in a rational framework (he learned something at URI!) at scientific meetings, only so he can turn around and spend that reputation to endorse laughable absurdities at creationist meetings. It is contemptible.
Addendum: I checked the program of our October meeting just held in Minneapolis, and they were not on the field trip schedule (whew!).