Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Disconfirming a Young Earth: Introduction

It appears Dr. Snelling is back, this time in a 10-part summary of the "Best Evidences from Science that Confirm a Young Earth".

The mere rhetoric of this title leads one to great expectations. "Aha!" rejoices the Young-Earth optimist. "Now my friends and colleagues will see that science is, fundamentally, on my side." Like a herd of cheerful smokers that na├»vely glossed over the warnings in health class, perhaps we 'Old-Earthers' might also kick the habit after seeing all the evidence laid out against us. And besides, we are not promised mere 'proof-texting' of nature's Bible in support of a Young-Earth. These ten examples are, according to Answers in Genesis, the best—the most convincing—that science has to offer.

Not surprisingly, however, Dr. Snelling offers little more than a novel arrangement of quite old retorts—most of which I learned to recite as a teenager. Age is no indicator of truthfulness—neither in philosophy nor in science. But I raise this point to suggest that Dr. Snelling's arguments are outdated, in that they are unmodified despite longstanding criticisms. As long as the kind folks at Answers in Genesis isolate their claims from peer review, they undermine their ability to make meaningful academic claims.

Furthermore, Dr. Snelling's arguments are unscientific and illogical in at least two ways. First, the claim that these evidences confirm (i.e. they are consistent with) a young Earth rests in tautology. In each case, Dr. Snelling (or cited authors) will define the physical data according to a Young-Earth timeline and then pronounce the data as being consistent therewith.

No method is said to corroborate a 6,000-year age of the Earth independent from the starting assumption that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

In other words, the evidence from science confirms a young Earth, because we have made it to do so. There is no room for surprise; we are right because we are right. If you don't already agree fully with Dr. Snelling's ideological claims, don't expect to be challenged by the evidence he cites.

Secondly, I will suggest that Snelling's approach is philosophically inconsistent. Answers in Genesis is infamous among critics for distinguishing falsely between operational and historical science (or for radicalizing that distinction). In reality, these two aspects of science represent two faces of the same methodological approach. So called operational science seeks to interpret the repeatable results of a designed experiment. In the historical sciences, however, the experiment has already been run by nature, so to speak. It is the unobserved 'experiment' that must be interpreted and reconstructed through testing of competing hypothetical scenarios (hypotheses), which seek to explain the observed results. Both aspects of science involve observations and assumptions, and neither is independent from ideological or hermeneutical biases. Therefore, both are fluid and highly susceptible to scientific revolutions.

By delineating sharply between operational and historical science (the latter of which contradicts their claims), Answers in Genesis has conspicuously lent credence to one over the other. To be credible, historical sciences must be guided by an eyewitness account from someone who saw or even designed the experiment. That eyewitness account, they claim, is received through the textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible. The unspoken irony is that understanding the Bible requires an appeal to the historical sciences—namely, literary hermeneutics applied to ancient texts.

Notwithstanding your own view on the divine inspiration of the Bible, you should be able to recognize the logical errors being made. With a little simmering, we can reduce AiG's stance to the following:

    1) Historical science is full of untestable assumptions and is therefore not trustworthy without appealing to our authoritative interpretation of divine scripture. If your historical inquiry contradicts ours, then your starting assumptions must be false, because ours alone are correct. We know they are correct, because they are consistent with our interpretation of divine scripture, which itself appeals to the historical sciences. Our appeal to the historical sciences is correct because it is guided by our interpretation of divine scripture. (Another tautology that results in begging the question)

    2) Nonetheless, here are ten evidences derived from historical science that confirm our claims. Of course, these evidences are only sensible if interpreted according to our view of history. Historical science is reliable when it supports our claims, therefore, but not when it contradicts them. (A philosophical inconsistency)

Over the next few posts, I will briefly analyze Dr. Snelling's Top Ten list of scientific evidence confirming a young Earth. Is there too little sediment on the seafloor to believe in an 'old' Earth? Too little salt in the ocean? What about soft tissues that survived fossilization? Although these are commonly raised objections by YEC's to an old Earth, very few know how these 'evidences' are compiled in the first place. But therein the magic is found. Numbers don't lie, but people often lie with numbers.

Fortunately, we need not get technical to reveal the magician's secret.


  1. Via e-mail:

    "I've noticed that AiG and CMI tend to use the verb 'confirms' rather than 'proves', which they have occasionally remarked on, which might suggest they aren't being over-dogmatic - though the word 'confirms' suggests a fair amount of certainty."

    Mr A Haworth-Roberts

    My own comment:

    You're right that it elicits some degree of certainty. I read the word 'confirm' to mean "this evidence is consistent with our view", but scientifically it should suggest that one's hypothesis actually predicted these data. Never does/can the YE position make concrete predictions about what might be found in the rock record. All of it is explained in retrospect after some molding of the facts. Therefore, although terminology like 'confirm' is used with a scientific connotation, there is often little that is scientific about their claim.

  2. I found your blog while struggling to understand how creationists justify this strange distinction between "operational science" and "historical science." The best explanations I've found on CMI's site are as you describe: some hand-waving to justify the alleged historical fact that philosophers of science indeed do make a hard distinction between these two irreconcilable Ways of Knowing and the claim that we know it's true because the Bible says so and God inspired the Bible so the Bible is true. Or however the tautology goes.

    Your brief treatment of the problem is helpful. It always struck me as frankly inane to make a distinction between data collected from an experiment or nature. The operation of science is the same regardless of the source of the evidence: make a prediction and test it by observing the facts. I look forward to your series on Snelling and will read the rest of your blog to see if you've gotten around to addressing Tas Walker, Oard, and the other CMI luminaries.

    Thanks much.

  3. Have you seen Snelling's two-volume book Earth's catastrophic past: geology, creation, and the flood (2009), or are you aware of any good non-YEC reviews of it?

    1. I've long thought about buying a copy, but it's a steep price for such a long treatise that will only be frustrating to read. ;) I have seen snippets, however, and generally know the lines of reasoning he takes. Much of it appears in singular articles on AiG's site, and to many of those I've already responded here.

      I couldn't tell you of any good reviews—maybe they exist?—but the problem is the sheer length of Snelling's book makes it implausible to give a detailed response, and given the relatively small readership of his book (which is far above the level of most AiG followers), it's not worthwhile, in my opinion.

  4. In my 2006 book Responsible dominion, ch 1, I note that in relation to distorting scientific theorising, a footnote:

    A notable example of this is in the writings of Dr Andrew Snelling, an Australian geologist, whose papers (1979-90) on the genesis of the Koongarra uranium deposit explicitly refer to an age of some 2000 million years, and in fact, make no sense at all without that kind of time frame. His reputation, with PhD, was built upon his science. At the same time (or soon afterwards -1981-94) and while depending on his reputation and not renouncing his PhD, he presided over religious publications whose basis is a young Earth of about 10,000 years since creation and with Precambrian rocks such as described in his scientific papers being "probably laid down during Noah's flood". This is a sad example of intellectual and ethical schizophrenia (Plimer, 1994). Snelling's two overlapping series of papers are remarkable. They presuppose quite different time frames, and he never refers to his creationist papers or makes any young earth disclaimer in his scientific writings, nor does he ever reference his scientific papers in the religious ones. He held a senior role in the Creation Science Foundation (now Answers in Genesis) through the 1990s, so the quoted example is at the centre, not the fringe, of the movement.
    Interestingly, for me the most elegant scientific cameo on the age of the Earth relates to nuclear energy. About 2000 million years ago several (at least 17) natural nuclear reactors ran for some 2 million years in a uranium orebody at Oklo in what is now Gabon. All the evidence is in place geologically, and because of the relative isotopic half-lives of U-235 and U-238 the phenomenon would have been impossible less that about 2 billion years ago.