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….