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Stealth Creationism at the Geology Meetings

by Donald Prothero, Oct 26 2011

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!).

27 Responses to “Stealth Creationism at the Geology Meetings”

  1. Dishonest creationists? That’s redundant and repetitive!

  2. Pete Moulton says:

    It’s really a shame that the GSA allowed some YEC to lead a trip to the Colorado Springs area. I went to college in the Springs, and, while Geology wasn’t my field, I did take a summer school course that largely concentrated on some of the paleoecosystems to be found in the vicinity. The geology of the Colorado Springs region is some of the most interesting in the state.

  3. LovleAnjel says:

    That was a lot worse than I remember. I remember having an intense discussion about this with my colleagues. I agree with you that we can’t exclude their abstracts just because they hold a non-scientific worldview, if those abstracts are otherwise above-board. The question is, how whacked-out do they have to be, to be rejected? Are their guidelines for the abstract reviewers to follow, or is it up to the individual to decide? There were some cracked-out talks given by non-YECs that probably should have not made it in as well.

  4. Gary Hurd says:

    Around last August I was scheduled to ‘debate’ the age of the Grand Canyon with Steve Austin of the ICR. I Googled to see if he had anything new on the web in the last year or two. I found that he was presenting at GSA, and bragging to church groups that this had demonstrated that his “flood geology” was gaining mainstream converts.

    I pulled together a biography of him, and his YEC pals who were also presenting, and leading the field trip. I sent it to the Board, and reviewers of GSA, and a copy also went to NCSE and was forwarded to Steve Newton. One reply I had from a GSA reviewer did really piss me off- they said that they were not “censors.” That is exactly what a reviewer should be- a filter if you cannot deal with the word censor. The reviewers are the guardians of the integrity of GSA, and are there to prevent frauds from wielding the (+3) rock hammer of GSA respect. If reviewers are not competent to be the REVIEWERS, to be the censors, then there is no reason to have review.

    It was futile, and in the end I declined to participate in the church sponsored ‘Flood and the Grand Canyon’ debate. If GSA gives these pricks a free pass, why should I bother?

    • Bryant Platt says:

      Abstracts and field trips are not peer reviewed. If YEC arguments were allowed to be published in GSA Bulletin or Geosphere, then yes, the reviewers would have failed to do their job, but abstracts are not held up to such scrutiny. I agree with GSA’s decision, especially considering that offenders reportedly presented real science at the conference that could potentially augment the growing understanding of natural systems.

      • Wrong says:

        The point isn’t what they’re adding to the knowledge (They don’t bring much to the table anyway). The problem is, when you let them in, they’ll use it in their credentials, and use it to convince people that the GSA is on their side. By letting them present their abstracts, the GSA adversely affects its own integrity.
        In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be a problem, but the problem is that the creationists will later go on to use their prescence as an acceptance of their pseudoscience by the scientific community, without ever being rebutted.

  5. Nice write up to help expose the underhanded tactics of the anti-science theocratic fascists. Also, I read “Evolution: What the Fossils Say…” and I didn’t expect you to take the creationists to task like you did… I was pleasantly surprised. Keep fighting the real “good fight.”

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Thanks! That was one of the purposes of the book: not just to lay out the evidence for evolution and clear up the lies and misconceptions, but to tackle the creationist lie machine and point out their deceptions–most other books on evolution just politely ignore them….

  6. Paul says:

    Have faith in science and the scientific process. The trouble comes when people start getting worried and change the rules because of unfounded fears. Let the creationists play their game, it sounds like it only gives them greater status among the people who already believe. They will always exist on the fringe.

    • Wrong says:

      The problem is though, that there is a fair number of them, with political clout, and since they work by indoctrination, they’re not going to go away (Unless we could convince them sex for procreation is a sin…). If we can’t dissuade them of their nonsense, they’ll gain traction by pretending science “Teach the Controversy” etc.
      Most people think that’s a reasonable and rational view to take, simply because they have no idea of what that means. If they can teach their nonsense in schools, then they’ll become much more than a fringe.

  7. SteveF says:

    The YECs have been doing a lot of work on the Coconino in recent years. One of their number, Paul Garner has a blog and provided a series of reports on their most recent field season on the Coconino (and other formations in the region):

    They seem to be trying to expand upon this and look at Permian sandstones in general. They’ve recently started work in Scotland as well (the report for which can be found in the archive for June 2011).

    Personally I say good luck to them. Unlike the ID creationist crowd, at the YECs are prepared to put their money where their mouths are and do some actual research (though I suppose you could say that the Biologic Institute are starting to do so now). Furthermore, according to Garner, they aren’t just planning on publishing in YEC journals, but the mainstream geological literature (they wouldn’t be the first – various Loma Linda people have done so, most recently on whale preservation in Peru in Geology, a very prestigious journal). If they find something out that’s new and interesting then they should be congratulated.

    Personally, this isn’t my area of expertise so I’m not qualified to evaluate their findings so far (though I could probably dig out some aeolian sedimentation textbooks that I have somewhere, from years ago). Their arguments seem to rely heavily on some grain size data and the presence of dolomite, though there aren’t many details. You can search the GSA 2009 abstracts to find what they were up to – search “Whitmore”. They then expanded on this in the 2010 meeting, with some modern comparative data and more work on texture and dolomites. Again, search for “Whitmore” in the 2010 abstracts:

    Their findings look interesting, to me as a none expert at least. I know there was a debate a few decades ago on the depositional environment of the Coconino, with some workers favouring sub-aqueous conditions. This was then resolved in favour of an aeolian setting. If the YECs alter this then they’ve done a service to science and it’s not as though our conventional view of earth history can’t stand some deposits being interpreted as water deposited.

    On the subject of the fieldtrip that they led, their contribution to the GSA Field Guide can be read online by searching Google books for “Garden of the Gods at Colorado Springs + geology”. I did provide a link, but it couldn’t seem to make it through the spam filters.

    Apparently, this was the end result of the trip (I’m taking this quote with a pinch of salt myself):

    “The experts were skeptical,” said Whitmore, “but in the end, they conceded that the rocks we examined were deposited quickly and were deposited in water. We let the data speak for itself.”

    (this comes from a Cedarville University press release that can be found by Googling “Shape of Sandstone Shapes a Testimony”)

    PS, I provided more comprehensive links in an original draft that I wrote, but it couldn’t get through the spam filters. I’ve tried to reword it so that people can find the links for themselves.

  8. Gaythia Weis says:

    I think that the problem is not so much: “Sadly, the real problem here is that YEC “geologists” come back from this meeting falsely bragging that their “research” was enthusiastically received, and that they “converted” a lot of people to their unscientific views. ”

    But rather, that by using the credibility gained by participation in professional studies, meetings or publications, they are able to hold subsequent meetings for which they have appropriate professional references but can then proceed to make claims that would not be accepted at face value without challenge in venues where knowledgeable scientific professionals were present.

    I believe that as scientists, we need to keep our eyes and ears open to monitor for events such as the one I experienced regarding a local public community college and described here:

    I believe that my example shows shows how a small bit of constructive intervention can have positive effects.

  9. Gaythia Weis says:

    As noted the link I cited above, Mile High Skeptics also attended the talk described there. I think that it was quite useful both to alert the college administration in advance as to appropriate means of advertising the talk, and to ask questions after the talk which elucidate the speakers actual background and apparent motives. I believe that these actions changed the atmosphere in which the speaker’s message was received and lessened chances that members of the general public were left with the impression that this was mainstream science.

  10. Roger Scott says:

    Creationists “will crow in their publicity that they are attending regular professional meetings and presenting their research successfully”. They do this in Australia too. They might speak to a science class (as they did to some of mine years ago, by invitation) and then talk of the enthusiasm of the students for the creationist message (when the reverse was usually the case). This seem to me a means of keeping the cash flowing from the ignorant creationist faithful. Without positive feedback, discouraged donors soon fatigue.

  11. GvlGeologist, FCD says:

    The problem as I see it with activities (I won’t call it research) like this is that they’ve already got their conclusions decided. Conventional, honest research will report results and interpretations objectively in an attempt to come as close as possible to understanding reality, whether it agrees or disagrees with previous ideas.

    Because a creationist cannot come to a non-creationist conclusion and remain a creationist, their research cannot be trusted.

  12. GvlGeologist, FCD says:

    Damn, I called it research after all.

  13. joed says:

    what is wrong with you folks. The GSA has been hijacked and you refuse to see that!
    The only, and I mean only, way to combat the yec idiots is to boycott their talks, and i mean boycott. and fergit about the GSA reviewers they are no longer to be trusted. In fact, can you trust anyone except your self these days.
    The GSA is hijacked by the yec. get over it.

    • Bryant Platt says:

      Because a few individuals with crazy ideas about why we are here were allowed to present credible science (even if they later misconstrue what they presented/how it was received when they go home) GSA is now corrupt and its reviewers are not to be trusted? Man, I think someone needs their tin-foil hat. Whats next, you ganna boycott AGU if someone who believes in geocentrism gives a poster on geochemistry?

    • Wrong says:

      1.) Learn some proper typing. I didn’t know what fergit meant until the third read through. Just copy into word and use the spellcheck if you have to. Typos are ok, but this is ridiculous.

      2.) This is an example of the Perfect Solution Fallacy: Just because the GSA isn’t perfect, does not mean that the only solution is to abandon the GSA. It needs improving and criticism. Boycotts will not fix things, it will destroy the GSA. That helps no-one.

      3.) If you Boycott the YECs, they win. They WILL take the lack of an argument as victory. But most importantly, it’s about helping the believers. If someone truly believes that the world was created in 6 days, 6000 years ago, by a God we would judge as a homicidal, xenophobic, tempramental, selfish, manipulative, malignant psychopath, and that they should follow his crazy and often evil rules, and live in fear of eternal torment, then they need help. We can provide it.

  14. Edward Litherland says:

    “Creation Science” isn’t.

  15. Elmentcius Koronel says:

    That is rather scary, it’s feels like covert scientists trying to sabotage the academics. Anyway, I only have one little qualm about your article. Correct me if I’m wrong, but mosasaurs are not monitor lizards. Closely related, maybe; but definitely not a monitor.

  16. Chinos says:

    The earth is old, and animals and plants have changed over time. If you know somebody who doubts these two well-established propositions, this is the book to share with them. I remember, as a teenager, in the early 1980s, reading Duane Gish’s “Evolution: The Fossils Say No,” as well as the other standard texts of creationism, and Prothero’s book would have helped me think through (and past) creationism a lot quicker than I did. Prothero’s book might have been aptly titled, “Evolution: The Fossils Say Yes.” It is a lavishly illustrated, thoroughly readable, and authoritative dismantling of creationism. Because of the patient work of contemporary scientists writing accessible popular texts on evolution, no thoughtful 21st century young person need be intellectually derailed by creationist literature. Dr. Prothero’s is perhaps the best of the current spate of these types of books. I especially liked the chapter on the origins of life, and the chapter on the Grand Canyon. One of the strengths of this book is that Dr. Prothero does not dodge difficult questions, but attempts to address them directly. It is always refreshing to read somebody who does not obfuscate or downplay contrary lines of evidence, and who is willing to say “I don’t know” when something is uncertain. The book is thus, in addition to its overt purpose, also an excellent model of sane and measured reflection. A good companion volume to Dr. Prothero’s book might be “The Counter-Creationism Handbook,” by Mark Isaak, recently published by the University of California Press.