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Sneaking Pseudoscience into Legitimate Science Meetings

by Donald Prothero, Nov 09 2011

In my October 26 post, I discussed the efforts of creationists to run “stealth” field trips at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver in 2010. There were no such attempts at the Minneapolis meeting on Oct. 9-12 that I attended last month, but instead they did something  they often do at professional meetings like GSA: stealth abstracts. I saw a bunch of posters from people at Cedarville University, a fundamentalist Baptist institution in Ohio. These posters pretended to be legitimate research about the deposition of the Permian dune sand unit, the Coconino Sandstone. This famous unit in the upper part of the Grand Canyon is clearly formed in wind-blown dunes and not a deposit of  Noah’s flood (or of any kind of fluid other than wind). Since their dogma insists that the entire sequence in the Grand Canyon is laid down by Noah’s flood, the Coconino is a particular problem for them, and they focus their attention on it. (See the evidence and discussion in Chapter 3 in my book Evolution).

The posters were stuck in a session with a bunch of other posters presenting more conventional research into sandstones, and they looked professional enough that no one would notice. Other than their Cedarville affiliation, there was no clue about their creationist agenda, and there was no mention at the end of the abstract, or the conclusions section of the poster, that they were shilling for anti-scientific creationist views. I repeatedly walked past both posters during the day they were up, but never once found the authors defending it, even during the time that the GSA demands that “Authors will be present”.

Both posters were authored by Cedarville faculty member John H. Whitmore, with other “sock puppet” students as coauthors or senior authors so he could get more than one poster into the program. (There is a limit of one senior-authored presentation per meeting). So far as I can tell, Whitmore came and put up both posters, and none of his “sock-puppet” student co-authors made the trip. Whitmore is the only full-time “geology” faculty member at Cedarville, which recently bragged about instituting a new geology program and being the only Christian college in the country with a creationist geology department. They have two other creationist adjuncts in this tiny department. One is Steve Austin, a long-time ICR member who claims to be doing “flood geology.” Their website also takes pride in their fundamentalist literalist doctrines and how every faculty member is sworn to follow them (shades of the ICR).

Whitmore himself got his B.A. in 1985 at Kent State University. I talked to one of his former professors, paleontologist Dr. Rodney Feldmann, about him. Rod  told me that Whitmore hid his creationist leanings until the day before the defense of his senior thesis, then “came out” in private to Feldmann. Whitmore then defended his thesis the next day, lying about his attitudes toward evolution and geologic time, and the committee had no clue as to his true motives. He then got his “advanced degrees” from the Institute of Creation “Research” (M.A.) and his “doctorate” from Loma Linda (run by the creationist Seventh-Day Adventists, so there is no room for conventional geology there). All of his “publications” are in creationist media and journals, with not one that passed peer review in a legitimate scientific journal. Many are co-authored with other familiar faces of the creationist anti-science crusade, including Kurt Wise (who learned legitimate paleontology from Stephen Jay Gould but never gave up his creationism), John Woodmorappe of the ICR, and of course, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. Whitmore brags that he organized the first “Creationist Geology Conference” at Cedarville in 2007 (where he gave at least 5 talks himself, almost a quarter of the program). The program for this annual conference (the fifth of which was held in Rapid City, SD, in July 2011) is the usual bizarre special pleading of all creationist attempts to shoehorn Genesis into science, given by just a handful of the usual suspects from ICR and other creationist institutions over and over again, preaching to the converted.

So how do creationists sneak their pseudoscientific ideas into a legitimate science meeting? Their strategy is a common one of pseudoscientists: question one little piece of the scientific orthodoxy on the premise that if this little factoid is wrong, the entire edifice of science will come tumbling down. All of their posters were subtly trying to question the clearcut evidence for dune deposition of the Coconino, usually by pointing to something they think is inconsistent with the dune deposition model. Then they leave the question as an “unsolved mystery”, as many scientists do when new research challenges some old assumption or idea. Nothing in the poster identified their true motive—trying to explain every rock on earth as a flood deposit.

In one poster, Whitmore made a big fuss about the angles of cross-bedding (formed at the sheltered back side of a dune due to avalanching sand) in the Coconino. He claimed that the angles are too shallow to be caused by wind deposition. I studied this poster closely, and its flaws were immediately apparent: he only used a small sample of modern dunes for comparison, and in the real world, sand dunes have an enormous range of dip angles that he conveniently ignored. He tried to rule out compaction for the flattening of the dip angle, but there again he fails to take into account that in real dune sand, the volume is largely air, and you would not see any of the usual compaction indicators from deep burial and high pressures in a rock that had just settled a bit from its original state.

The other poster was just as bizarrely unbalanced and illogical. He had some outcrop photos from Coconino that seemed to show soft-sediment deformation folds and a few other structures that are not typically formed in dunes. His subtle point behind this is that they appeared to be water-laid to his eyes, and therefore all the unit is water-laid. But this is a geological non sequitur. Soft-sediment folding and other features are known to occur on avalanching dune faces. Even if these structures were water-laid (which is possible, since real dune deposits are often interbedded with deposits from adjacent playa lake beds and other aqueous environments), it does not follow that all the formation is laid down in water. Most real rock formations are a mix of several sedimentary facies which change over time and space and not a single homogeneous type of rock. The presence of possibly water-laid deposits in one part of the Coconino is not proof of Noah’s flood. If these deposits are indeed water-laid, it is only evidence about part of the formation, and irrelevant to the sand-dune explanation for the giant cross-beds of the bulk of the Coconino.

My good friend Dr. Samantha Hopkins of the University of Oregon managed to catch the authors at the posters, and she found out just how slimy and frustrating arguing with these pseudoscientists can be. She described her encounters with them in an email as follows:

It was interesting, because even when you pressed them about what made the structures, they would continue to fabricate data about structures indicative of water, but then they wouldn’t actually make the inference that it was Noah’s flood. They kept retreating to “we don’t know what it is…what do you think?” and “we’re trying to find out.” They didn’t, of course, actually want to find out.  This is also where they seem to depart science. They’re constructing data to fit an inference, but refusing to make the inference themselves.  They want us to say it, so they can say “famous geologist says it’s deposited in water”.

Throughout both posters is the same strategy: question or challenge one tiny problem in a conventional geologic explanation of something, then leave the reader hanging with no solution offered, nor even a suggestion as to a better explanation. Of course, they dare not give their answer to the mystery, because then they’d have to come out of the creationist closet, and real geologists would have a field day tearing them apart. Instead, as P.Z. Myers pointed out, they are liars and cowards. They attend legitimate professional meetings to brag to their creationist followers and the uninformed church members that they are doing real research and their ideas are accepted by mainstream science. But their actual presence in the meeting is purely through stealth without mentioning their true motives, because they are afraid of being revealed as the scientific frauds they are when scientists who do know some geology scrutinize their ideas (as happens if they submitted papers to peer review). Because abstracts are not reviewed (see my previous SkepticBlog post) and there is almost no rejection of abstracts (especially since they don’t reveal their creationist motives), it’s easy to get on the program and pretend to be a real scientist.

As I studied the posters, two thoughts struck me. One was that right next to Whitmore’s cross-bedding poster was one by Dr. David Loope of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, one of the world’s experts on ancient sand dune deposits. I was dying to catch up with him and find out what he thought of his neighbor’s poster, but I never did see  him at that busy meeting. He’d tear it to shreds if Whitmore had shown up and had faced him (unless he decided it was a waste of his time battling creationism, as I  have come to realize).

The other thought was more disturbing. Here is a creationist submitting two tiny posters on two tiny mysteries about one formation among thousands of formations. This is during a meeting of 6000 real geologists presenting at least 4000 other posters and talks that largely falsify every aspect of creationist “flood geology”. How does he deal with the cognitive dissonance? How does he manage to miss the forest for the trees? As I discussed in Chapter 3 of my evolution book, this is a particular problem of “flood geology”—they focus on the Grand Canyon and a few other examples, and ignore the other 99% of geology that can’t be so easily twisted and misinterpreted to fit their preconceptions. I’m sure he’s convinced that he is on God’s mission, and that all other 6000 geologists at the meeting are deluded by the Devil (despite the fact that many are actually quite religious; they just don’t fit the real world into the myths of illiterate Bronze Age shepherds). But surely he must notice that all of these eager, excited scientists are working hard to discover the real truth about the world, and not one of them has found that the real geologic record leads to “flood geology”? Surely it must strike him that his opinion is so contrary to every line of evidence presented at that meeting that there might be something wrong with it? After all, he is conscious enough of its unscientific nature to hide his own motives and resort to stealth tactics, so he knows exactly what he is doing. But how can he live with that lie? As I argued in my 2007 evolution book, this is a point about creationists in general: they deliberately and knowingly lie and deceive people to push their agenda, yet they can somehow live with this decidedly immoral and un-Biblical behavior and still think of themselves as honest people. How they manage this level of cognitive dissonance is a mystery to me….

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35 Responses to “Sneaking Pseudoscience into Legitimate Science Meetings”

  1. Wesley Goodford says:

    There are flood geologists? While I have serious trouble to eke out a living? That is the biggest insult I’ve ever read.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Yeah, the creationist institutes like ICR and Discovery Institute and Cedarville U and a few others support these guys who live in a fantasy world and don’t know anything about real geology. If you sell your soul to some rich religious group, you could find employment, I’m sure!

  2. Trimegistus says:

    This seems to be “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” for the Creationists. Here they’re trying to do science by the rules, presenting research to be peer-reviewed, and Dr. Prothero wants to run them out of the conference. And he wonders why they accuse the scientific community of being closed-minded?

    Invite them all! Ask questions they can’t answer! Show them how science really works.

    • Carl says:

      I think you need to read the article again, only more closely this time. They are absolutely NOT trying to do science by the rules: they are trying to “game the system” precisely to APPEAR to be playing by the rules. As the article stated very clearly, they are DELIBERATELY AVOIDING PEER REVIEW by submitting un-reviewed abstracts and posters, not talks or papers.

      It’s also shown that when they are asked questions they can’t answer, they simply hide behind “we don’t know, what do you think?”, then come back the next time with EXACTLY THE SAME CLAIMS as if they had never been debunked.

      I’m going to assume, for what it’s worth, that your defense of the Creationists was well-intentioned, but it’s demonstrably ill-informed.

    • Unre9istered says:

      I didn’t see any sign of a desire to run them out of the conference. He just wants them to stand up and defend their posters like they’re supposed to do. Instead they submit extra papers under false pretenses and then are no where to be found when they are supposed to be around to discuss them.
      As far as asking them questions they can’t answer, it seems like that happens all the time. They just dodge the question by either changing the subject or deliberately misunderstanding it.
      If they were trying to do science by the rules then they would be trying to disprove their theories and make predictions rather than come up with more and more contrived explanations as to why their theories can’t be falsified. These people aren’t scientists no matter what their degrees say.

  3. Carl says:

    I think you are being a little unfair to describe the authors of Genesis as “illiterate Bronze Age shepherds”. The invasion of Canaan brought them into contact with more advanced tribes who dragged them into the Iron Age, as well as cross-fertilizing their mythology. Also, some of them were goatherds.

    So in the interests of fairness a more accurate description might be “semi-literate Iron Age goatherds”.

  4. Steve Gough says:

    Fantastic post, thanks for your work. That cognitive dissonance is indeed hard to understand, and is one of the main reasons I left Christianity behind many years ago. My church was full of well-placed liars doing “God’s work.”

    • Markx says:

      The real “true believers” I can tolerate (barely) as they are simply victims of mis-programmed synapses.

      But I can’t stand the army of fakes, pretenders, manipulators and parasites who float long making a living off the unholy mess.

  5. Chris Howard says:

    I think the larger picture of “saving souls” via conversion, probably, best explains the dishonesty.
    Priests in the New World “roasted” heretics, and infidels in order to save their souls from eternal damnation. “Witches” were tortured, and killed in order to purge the community of the Devil’s influence.
    I don’t think it’s that far a stretch to think that Creationist “Geologists” would stretch the truth, lie, or practice disingenuous techniques to try and expose the Devil’s lies of Secular Science.
    I always find it odd that we choose the word “debate” when discussing conversations that we’ve had with pseudo-scientists, and true believers. Once a persons mind is made up, and they refuse to admit that they may be wrong, or mistaken, it is no longer a true debate.

  6. aaron says:

    “….this is a point about creationists in general: they deliberately and knowingly lie and deceive people to push their agenda…”
    And you wonder why they feel the pressure to operate in stealth mode? I don’t know one creationist who has a dishonest agenda, but let me tell you; if they were to come to your conferences and openly proclaim their research they would be verbally assaulted and not given the time of day. From what i gather about you from your article, your overall hatred towards creationists has made you blinded to the motivation i know fuels their research. At least the ones I know. But you know what? Arguing is pointless, at this stage, anyone from outside your field with contrary views will be mocked and thrown out. That part is blatantly obvious. The creationists I know respect those with contrary views while disagreeing with certain aspects. If you’d like, i could introduce you to them and they could represent a more accurate view of what i see ‘creationists in general’ to be like.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      FYI, I have LOTS of friends who are sincere creationists, and I like them as persons. I have no problem with them believing whatever they want. They are usually nice and honest people in most of their dealings with the world. And if they kept their unscientific dogmas out of America’s science classes, I would pay no attention to their beliefs. But that is not the case. They are forcing a sectarian pseudoscientific dogma on public school science classes, in violation of the separation of Church and State. They do NOT play by the rules of science, because they have their conclusions determined in advance and refuse to throw their ideas out when there is overwhelming evidence against them. I DO get irritated when they repeat falsehoods and lies endlessly, and never make the effort to find out what is really there. This is especially true when they lie about the fossil record that I’ve spent my whole life studying, and make statements that show they have no training to talk about fossils, and never bothered to look at the fossils in the first place. The same goes for their repeated use of discredited arguments (such as the 2nd law of thermodynamics) when they have been refuted over and over again. And if they wished to be taken seriously by the scientific community, they need to present their evidence and play by the rules of science, not hide their motivations to give the false notion that they have done real science. And yes, if ANY person gets up in front of the scientific community, they will face harsh criticism, which is the way that science is SUPPOSED to work. If their ideas have merit, scientists will come to accept them. But creationists don’t listen to the necessary critiques of peer review, but cling to their falsified notions rather than act as real scientists and throw their bad ideas out when they are shown to be invalid.
      For all these reasons (spelled out in much greater detail in my 2007 book), I have no respect for creationists AS SCIENTISTS. As soon as they act like real scientists, I’ll regard them differently.

      • aaron says:

        Fair enough. The only thing I still wrestle with is the notion that it’s all pseudoscientific dogma. Is there really no credible research out there that can provide an intelligent argument? At all? You have researched it all and can come to that conclusion fairly? With all due respect, you really seem to have written off the entire creationist community as misled and or unintelligent (you didn’t say that, but it’s a fair conclusion to draw from reading your post). I am quite close to a geologist who went to school in a secular environment and, believe it or not, came to believe in a creationist viewpoint from what he felt were to many loose ends in what he was learning in University. He has worked in the industry now for a number of years and has shown me first hand his research and data vs that of his peers. After seeing the data I believe he has merit. I also believe he is an extremely intelligent, analytical, and yes, sceptical individual with a great respect for science. Which is why he has chosen to pursue creation science.
        I do understand however that it can be frustrating when talking with someone who has a firm grasp on the surface of some data, but nothing beyond that and is unwilling to explore it further. As you encountered at the recent GSA meeting. I only hope that you are able to meet more people like my friend who i believe could give you a very intelligent dialogue.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        If you read my chapter 3 in my 2007 Evolution book, you will find that your friend is the rare exception–nearly ALL”flood geology” advocates lose their creationism when they encounter the real rock record, and many are shocked and disillusioned by the dogmatism and narrow-minded behavior of flood geologists who refuse to learn from the actual rocks. I can only surmise that your friend works in a very simple geological region where it is still possible to imagine the Great Flood accounting for the rocks he sees, but as I pointed out in my book, this does NOT describe 99% of the real rock record.

      • SocraticGadfly says:

        IIRC, a major comet hit in the western Indian Ocean about 4,500-5,000 years ago, far off Madagascar. Given the narrowness and shallowness of the Persian Gulf, the resultant flooding could easily have produced the myths of Noah and Gilgamesh.

      • Michael says:

        One thing you are ignoring is that creationist come to the table with a conclusion. They’re “research” is only an attempt to validate there foregone conclusions (i.e. beliefs)
        They are not open to abandon their belief based on any amount of facts presented to contradict their beliefs. One need only to search YouTube for the most disingenuous, misinformed and illogical arguments you can find anywhere.

      • Wrong says:

        Exactly. Although, I’ve always wondered, when a scientist tests a hypothesis, isn’t he doing a similar thing? Starting with a conclusion or observed effect and working towards an explanation he has so far formulated? I think the key difference is, in a scientific setting, all hypothesis with equal evidence are equally valid, and all those which have no evidence, or contradictory evidence, are invalid.

  7. Beelzebud says:

    I recently watched a documentary about the Scablands in Washington state. At first I wondered why I hadn’t seen creationists try to use this place for propaganda, and then as I watched it I realized how badly it must shatters their world view.

    In the scablands we have a perfect example of what geology would look like if we had a young earth, and a flood was accountable for geological features. The problem for creationists in pointing this place out, is that it is so radically different from geology we see globally, that it debunks a world flood myth.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Actually, the creationists DO use the Scablands as support for their views–but conveniently neglect all the evidence to show that it was only a local flood explained by local glacial lakes and ice dams–and also have no explanation for the thousands of feet of rock BENEATH the Scablands that cannot be explained by any “Noah’s Flood”. This is typical of their practice everywhere–pick on a few simple trivial examples of geology that can be twisted to support their view, and ignore the other 99% that doesn’t.

  8. Insightful Ape says:

    Hey Aaron, nice anecdot. Let me tell you something about this alleged friend of yours. There have been legitimate historians that at one point became holocaust deniers (look up David Irving). There have been legitimate scientists claiming tobacco smoke doesn’t harm you (look up Fred Seitz). Who knows what their motives were. As for your friend, assuming you are not making the whole story up, he is delusional; “creation science” is the ultimate oxymoron.

  9. SteveF says:

    Here’s a slightly different example of mainstream geology and YEC interaction. Some YEC published a paper in the AiG journal, attacking mainstream explanations for the formation of Uluru and proposing a catastrophic alternative:

    In particular he attacked a researcher at the University of Adelaide and his perfectly normal and sensible model. The sort of thing that happens all the time in the creationist literature. Very unusually, this researcher then went and responded in the AiG journal:

    and got a reply:

    I’m generally in favour of taking creationism seriously (or more seriously than most academics would) – ignoring it won’t make it go away. But I’m not sure I’d go quite this far.

  10. d brown says:

    The idea is to kill real science a bit at a time. I think this could go so far as to kill people, ones like you. Years ago I spent a lot of time talking to the far right. Anything like a debate got bad very fast. And that’s why I think this. There is a 50′s book called “True Believers” by Eric Hoffer. I think all should read it. Its not just or even mainly about religion.

    • Trimegistus says:

      Speaking of “True Believers” — apparently anyone who disagrees with you is a MURDEROUS FANATIC. You want to see a fanatic? Get a mirror.

  11. jackd says:

    “John Woodmorappe of the ICR” – that’s actually Jan Peczkis. Woodmorappe is a pen name.

    Adhering to creationism in general and flood geology in particular requires a powerful degree of historical ignorance. A huge chunk of the foundational work in geology was done by men who were looking for evidence of the Flood and found that the rocks told a different story.

  12. Phea says:

    One has to accept two “facts” almost all true believers, (at least ones I’ve met), believe above and beyond all else. First, God can do anything He wants, if putting fossils in the earth for us to find is part of His plan, (a test of faith perhaps?), He can and will. Second, Satan can, and will do whatever it takes to deceive you and turn you away from God and His word.

    These two things transcend all reason, science, common sense or anything else that might cause doubt in their unshakable belief.

    • Wrong says:

      Indeed. I realised long ago that it would be possible to adhere to an idea I postulated: Last Second Creation. Everything you observe, and know, were created in the last second by a supernatural being. It looks evolved, but it isn’t. It looks like it formed over time, but it didn’t. It feels like you learned something, but you knew it all along.

      At this point, you come to realise that for an “All-Powerful” God figure, you could discount all evidence, since it’s all fake. At which point, you’ve abandoned science.

    • Brian says:

      I’ve encountered this exact defense. It is an stopper to true inquiry and an invitation to wild speculation. It becomes a simple trump card to leave the door open for anything.

      I suppose it serves the purpose of creating confusion and a desire to seek answers from some authority (i.e. the Bible).

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Indeed, it’s a modern incarnation of Gosse’s “Omphalos” theory in the 1840s that everything was created AS IF it had a past–the perfect untestable hypothesis, since no observation could prove it wrong (see p. 8-11 of my 2007 Evolution book). Gosse did it to salvage his creationist ideas at a time when his understanding of biology was showing him more and more evidence of life’s and earth’s deep history. As would be expected, the religious folks hated it because it made God a deceiver, and biologists found it unscientific, and Gosse died a bitter and forgotten man when Darwin’s ideas a decade later made him irrelevant.
        The curious name “Omphalos” means “bellybutton” and refers to the old religious conundrum “Did Adam and Eve have a navel if they were not born of human parents?” Gosse’s answer was “Yes!” they were created AS IF they had a past history.

  13. jeffb says:

    I wouldn’t call their immoral behavior un-Biblical. I’d say it is very biblical, since the Bible contains quite a lot of lying, and teaches falsehoods and immorality.

  14. Jerrold Alpern says:

    Earlier this year in Reports of the NCSE, Vol. 31, No. 3(2011), Phil Senter of Fayetteville State University thoroughly demolished the arguments of flood geologists by using their own words against them. .

    Beautiful job.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    I’m surprised there’s no review and almost no rejection at GSA meetings. At SVP meetings of 1000 to 2000 people at most, every abstract is peer-reviewed, and about 30 % are rejected every year.

    if they were to come to your conferences and openly proclaim their research they would be verbally assaulted and not given the time of day.

    LOL! They’d be laughed at, but “verbally assaulted”? Is that what creationists call it when somebody disagrees with them? :-D

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I’ve reviewed for both GSA and SVP, and served 11 years on the SVP program committee. When I did it for SVP, there were at most 600 abstracts (more now), and we had a committee to spread it around. GSA must publish close to 4000-5000 abstracts, and they have a MUCH tighter time window (they’re not due til July but the book is ready in October). The GSA committee (all volunteer, just like SVP) has time only to be sure that the abstract is formatted correctly and seems to have legitimate scientific content. In such a short format, it’s impossible to tell how good the paper and/or poster really is.
      I don’t know where you got a 30% rejection rate for SVP but I doubt that this is true (especially after seeing the sheer volume of abstracts, including MANY lousy ones, in Vegas. When I was on the committee until 2004, we never rejected more than 5-10 out of 600, or roughly 1-5% at the greatest. I presume it’s the same for GSA.