Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Canyons, Creationists and Chasms

Andrew Sullivan, usually an articulate spokesman for discourse and mutual understanding, seems to have a blind spot in applying these principles to conservative Christians. The latest example is this brief slur against a perfectly legitimate request for equal time from respectable scientists who hold a Creationist vies:

CREATIONISM WATCH: The Grand Canyon National Park bookstore is the latest victim.
Reading that sentence, anyone who knows a little about the craziness that infests some quarters of the Evangelical Compound may be forgiven for supposing that some Creationist group or other is trying to get evolutionary books banned from the Grand Canyon bookstore. That would be a legitimate complaint and would justify the use of the word "victim".

But, following the link, it seems that the Rabid Oppressors of Truth, Justice and the American Way (ROTJAW?) have much more modest demands:
More from the Faith-Based Front: Look for national parks' geology to be written more in the image of creationists over the next four years in the continuing effort to create "faith-based parks." An ongoing dispute at Grand Canyon National Park bookstores is that Grand Canyon, a Different View was ordered to stay on the bookshelves by top NPS brass. The book says that the Grand Canyon is 4,500 years old and was formed by Noah's flood. Conventional scientific wisdom has the canyon more around 6 million years old, still rather young compared to the age of the Earth. Despite protests from scientists and the Grand Canyon Park superintendent, the book has stayed on the shelves. The Bush administration said it would review the policy, but the review hasn't even been started since the February complaint. NPS has also ordered bronze plaques with verses from Psalms placed at canyon overlooks, truly emphasizing what a Judeo-Christian religious experience the view can be.
It seems that the real offense is that these faith-based fanatics just want their book to stay on the shelves of a publicly funded entity, on the same principle of equal time that is used for political discussion on public airwaves. Hardly an unreasonable request I would think. People who object to the banning of books aren't usually characterized as making victims of the rest of us. (I will have more to say about the Psalm plaques shortly.)

Suppose for the moment that the secular/evolutionary view is correct and this really is junk science. What exactly do they have to lose by allowing these folks to make fools of themselves in public? Isn't that what the marketplace of ideas is all about?

But I would actually like to challenge the assumption that this is junk science. I have not read the book itself, but I am familiar with the work of some of its contributing authors (Steve Austin, Ken Ham, Duane Gish) and most of those with whom I am not familiar have respectable credentials in the physical sciences. There are many approaches to the question of the age of the Grand Canyon (as you would expect from scientists who are drawing conclusions from the data rather than working toward an agenda) but one of the key arguments that it is of recent origin is that we have actually observed very rapid formation of its key geological features: stratification and erosion. The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 has provided direct observational evidence of both of these processes occuring within a matter of weeks (and in some instances, within a matter of minutes).

Up to 400 feet thickness of strata have formed since 1980 at Mount St. Helens. These deposits accumulated from primary air blast, landslide, waves on the lake, pyroclastic flows, mudflows, air fall, and stream water. Perhaps the most surprising accumulations are the pyroclastic flow deposits amassed from ground-hugging, fluidized, turbulent slurries of fine volcanic debris, which moved at high velocities off the flank of the volcano as the eruption plume of debris over the volcano collapsed. These deposits include fine pumice ash laminae and beds from one millimeter thick to greater than one meter thick, each representing just a few seconds to several minutes of accumulation. A deposit accumulated in less than one day, on June 12, 1980, is 25 feet thick and contains many thin laminae and beds. Conventionally, sedimentary laminae and beds are assumed to represent longer seasonal variations, or annual changes, as the layers accumulated very slowly. Mount St. Helens teaches us that the stratified layers commonly characterizing geological formations can form very rapidly by flow processes. Such features have been formed quickly underwater in laboratory sedimentation tanks, and it should not surprise us to see that they have formed in a natural catastrophe.

Erosion during volcanic eruptions at Mount St. Helens was accomplished by scour from steam blast, landslide, water waves, hot pumice ash flows (pyroclastic flows), and mudflows. Since the eruptions, the erosion process has been dominated by sheet flooding and channelized flow of water, with occasional mudflows. About 23 square miles of the North Fork of the Toutle River Valley was obstructed by two-thirds cubic mile of landslide and pyroclastic debris, which has been rapidly eroded since 1980. Jetting steam from buried water and ice under hot pumice reamed steam explosion pits with associated mass-wasting processes at the margins of pits, producing rills and gullies over 125 feet deep. Photographic documentation assembled by ICR scientists demonstrates that very pronounced rills and gullies had formed at the margins of seam explosion pits before May 23 - less than five days after the pumice was deposited. The rills and gullies resemble badlands topography, which geologists have usually assumed required many hundreds or even thousands of years to form.

Mudflows, from Mount St. Helens, were responsible for the most significant erosion. A mudflow on March 19, 1982, eroded a canyon system up to 140 feet deep in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Toutle River Valley, establishing the new dendritic pattern of drainage. As ICR scientists surveyed this new terrain, they began to contemplate the processes which may have formed the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. The little "Grand Canyon of the Toutle River" is a one-fortieth scale model of the real Grand Canyon. The small creeks which flow through the headwaters of the Toutle River today might seem, by present appearances, to have carved these canyons very slowly over a long time period, except for the fact that the erosion was observed to have occurred rapidly! Geologists should learn that, since the long-time scale they have been trained to assign to landform development would lead to obvious error on Mount St. Helens, it also may be useless or misleading elsewhere.
Now I want to emphasize that nothing in this discussion is based on faith or a literal reading of the Bible. It is true that the scientists involved are Christians and would like to defend the biblical view of the earth's history. But their conclusions are based on direct observation and evaluation of evidence. It may be that their conclusions are inaccurate, but dismissing them a priori as irrelevent is hardly an act of intellectual honesty.

UPDATE: For those who would like a closer look at the book in question, it is available from both ICR and Amazon. The Amazon price is better but by ordering form ICR you would be helping a worthy cause.

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