A Flood of Millions of Years

As part of my preparation for being on the Stratosphere Sarasota radio program last Wednesday, I brushed up on common arguments from creationists. The topic was to come up in the context of education, and though we didn't talk much about the details and descriptions of creationism, it helped to have their arguments straight before going on. 

And this ties in nicely with our first Suncoast Skeptics Speaker Series event on creationism in the classroom, which I hope you'll all attend on August 16, 2014, 1:30pm, in the Geldbart Auditorium at Selby Library in downtown Sarasota. 

MissMandiMae's blog post on the history of the Grand Canyon made me look more deeply into the creationist view. First, Mandi's thoughts:

Now, fast forward to only 5.5 million years ago. the Colorado River begins to form and flow. According to a theory formulated by geologist John Douglass, the river flowed and then pooled into an area, which is now referred to a Lake Bidahochi. This lake was larger than Lake Michigan in size and spanned over 20,000 square miles. This lake butted right up against the raised plateau of rock raised from the collision. The force of the water still pouring into the lake pushed until it began to pour up onto the plateau. It was this incredible outpouring of an expansive lake, and not just a river that carved what we see today.

The scientific consensus on the formation of the Grand Canyon provides an intriguing scenario, one which throws into question our ability to comprehend the scales of time and attrition involved. Five and a half million years isn't something we can understand. It's too long, makes no sense to creatures that live only a few decades. The raw power of water moving against rock causing erosion over that time frame is immense, likely several orders of magnitude beyond what we experience in our own lives. Creationists seize on that natural reaction to insist that a timeframe of thousands of years, a range more comfortable in our daily lives, is the only answer. 

But the theory that the Grand Canyon was carved out over millions of years is not only plausible, it's supported by uranium-lead dating, the Law of Superposition, and paleontological finds. (Side note, there is controversy over the age of the Canyon, a subject I may tackle in a followup post. What is not in question is that the formation is millions of years old, not thousands.) If it was a flood, in the most generous sense, it was one which lasted millions of years.

The creationist argument goes something like... well, there isn't one cohesive argument, really. The basic premise is always that the Biblical flood created the Grand Canyon and it didn't take millions of years. There are several 'gish-gallop' style talking points that are typically ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the actual science. Here are a few, like the Mount St. Helens analogy:

The Grand Canyon was not laid down slowly then etched out over the course of myth-ions and myth-ions of years. Rather it was carved so rapidly that the sediment was not deposited in a delta downstream. Buy a map and take a look. No river delta. The Grand Canyon was mostly carved quickly shortly after the Great Flood in a similar fashion to the "mini-grand-canyon" on the north side of Mount St. Helens. 

Naturally, science disagrees:

When Mount St. Helens erupted, one side of the caldera was blown out, and the resulting rush of water from melted snow, plus the blast of hot ash, carved out 300 feet of recently laid loose ash and sediment. area.

How about this argument?

Flowing rivers or streams, even if they meandered for millions of years, would not uniformly sweep 1,000 feet or more of material off almost all of these 10,000 square miles of the fairly flat Kaibab Limestone. Besides, meandering rivers would produce meandering patterns. Therefore, before you can excavate 800 cubic miles of rock below the rim to form the Grand Canyon, something must sweep off almost all the Mesozoic rock above—a much larger excavation project.

Note the juxtaposition of "uniformly" and "almost all." By what I know as the common usage of "uniformly," the Grand Canyon is no such thing. If by "uniformly," the author means the effect I'd expect from water erosion over millions of years, then I suppose we could agree it is. Note the lack of sources which support these claims, which tie into the 'No Delta Hypothesis.' 

Later in that same source:

Fossils are found only in the layers above an almost perfectly horizontal plane named the Great Unconformity. In the Grand Canyon, it lies about 4,000 feet below the rim and is exposed above the Colorado River for 66 miles. Above the Great Unconformity the layers are all sedimentary and almost always horizontal; below the Great Unconformity lie either basement rock or thick, steep (10°–20° slope) sedimentary layers with no fossils.

Again, this idea runs counter to a great many scientific arguments, including this one:

Stephen Meyer pointed out in response to the questioner that the "Great Unconformity" may be "worldwide" in the sense that it's found in many parts of the world. But that doesn't mean it's found everywhere. As Meyer explained, the Great Unconformity cannot be universal, otherwise we wouldn't have strata from the Ediacaran period, and we wouldn't know about Ediacaran-age fossils, such as the Precambrian sponge embryos...

The problem, of course, with this creationist argument is that it ignores what it doesn't want to acknowledge, in this case, that fossils are found older than this Unconformity, even if not in the Grand Canyon itself. If the claim is that the presence of fossils above but not below the cutoff means that a catastrophic even occurred to lay down the bones, how does one explain the Precambrian fossils we find elsewhere in the world? Geographic features are often unique, and the Grand Canyon is no different. We don't find a 'lack' of fossils below this layer in other locations, and those, as in this case, are not addressed in this one talking point.

I get tired of doing the Googling for these people. There are many more of these talking points. I saw them on signs when I went to the Creation Museum in 2009, describing, in all seriousness, the 'proof' of a flood-originating Canyon. I've seen them on blog posts, comments on videos, in debates. The problem is always a lack of understanding about the science behind the structure. The Grand Canyon's evidence points strongly toward a long-period erosion on the scale of millions of years. Each time I find a new creationist argument, it takes only a few minutes to find a scientifically-plausible explanation that doesn't require a magic critter punishing his sinners.

Ludicrous Speed: The Hollowness of the Hollow Earth Hypothesis

You know what the original Hollow Earth Hypothesis (HEH) claims about the Earth, even if you don't realize it. Remember the fundamental feature from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and you'll have an idea. The basic premise is that inside the planet there is a significant 'hollow' portion, a donut hole of sorts. Basic science has found significant contrary evidence for the idea for hundreds of years, especially in sesmology and gravity measurements. The Jules Verne version of this theory holds no water, so to speak, but, ironically, it is water found deep in the Earth that led me to write this post. You may have seen something about it when this news item made the rounds:

Four hundred miles beneath North America, Schmandt and Jacobsen found deep pockets of magma, which indicates the presence of water. However, this isn’t water in any of the three forms we are familiar with. The pressure coupled with the high temperatures forces the water to split into a hydroxyl radical (OH) which is then able to combine with the minerals on a molecular level.

This water, which is bound up in rock, could indicate the largest water reservoir on the planet. It is believed that plate tectonics cycle the water in and out, and the water affects the partial melting of rock in the mantle.

Dubbed a 'new ocean,' researchers have found evidence that large volumes of water are inside the planet, locked away in rock four-hundred miles beneath the United States. An amazing discovery, assuming that further research confirms the finding, and not all-together a surprising one, as some theoriests have long-speculated that such a find would happen. It lends credence to the hypothesis that water didn't solely arrive from comets but could have been present already when the planet formed around 4.5 billions years ago.

Regardless, I read articles on the discovery in June, chalked it up to 'interesting if confirmed,' and thought little more about it. Then on Facebook, I spotted an article posted by a casual friend detailing the finding, the website being thespiritscience.net. Red flag:

A reservoir of water three times the volume of all the oceans has been discovered deep beneath the Earth’s surface. The finding may explain where Earth’s seas came from, and lend some interesting evidence to the Hollow Earth Theory.

Back up. Wait, what? Wouldn't the presence of something inside the Earth do a lot to provide evidence contrary to the HEH? I checked the link to the site's earlier post on the HEH, and to my surprise, the article's author has significantly redefined the hypothesis:

It’s unlikely that the earth is physically hollow – and by that I mean 3rd Dimensionally Hollow.

Ugh. Ok... go on...

... Now, what if there was a frequency or dimension that was almost invisible to us, at least with our current technology and awareness – and one that functioned almost as an inner earth. A space where the laws of physics as we know them don’t function the same. A place where the basic laws of gravity and practically everything was just a little bit different. At least enough to create a different representation of the consciousness that exists inside the planet.

So a 'Hollow Earth' has now been shifted from a physical, "3rd Dimensionally Hollow" (the Jules Verne version) to one "where the laws of physics as we know them don't function the same," altered in a way that can "create a different representation of the consciousness..." blah blah... sorry, you lost me at "3rd Dimensionally Hollow."

To summarize what Spirit Science is claiming: the discovery of a non-hollow Earth (by way of a massive volume of crystalline rock water) has provided evidence for the idea that the laws of physics are different in the middle of the planet and therefore, "hollow" in some dimension other than the normally reliable ones we know and love. 

Got it? Physics, as we understand the laws thereof, was used to detect the presence of a substance which suggests that the laws of physics don't apply to what we detected. 

Please pass the aspirin...

Some 'theorists' take the Hollow Earth idea even further, suggesting that there is more of a Dyson Sphere structure going on, where the crust covers an 'inner world' where there is no weather, no plate tectonics, and (hopefully), no Justin Beiber. Even stranger are the "concave hollow Earth" ideas which suggest that the surface of the planet is the "interior" and the universe is "inside" the spherical world. Seriously.

If you want the "Ludicrous Speed" version of a Hollow Earth, wrapped deliciously into conspiracy theories involving governments, churches, and the illuminati, and where a "complete understanding needs a fully opened mind, power of conception, and spiritual abilities" (as well as the ability to read past typos), check out the video below:

If you want more information about the Jules Verne version of the Hollow Earth, the Wikipedia article is an excellent place to start.

If you want to save yourself ten minutes of shaking your head and prefer to learn more about the consensus of planetary scientists regarding the structure of the planet, check out this video:


Fooling Yourself and Others: The Subjective Randomness of Wine Tasting

I know of friends who swear by their wine, and for good reason. I enjoy a glass or two from time to time. Dry or sweet, smooth or tart, red or white or one of hundreds of shades of the beverage, wine is a taste that millions of people enjoy. When picking up some at the store, I'm rarely paying much attention to price except to avoid paying premium prices. I've always enjoyed the inexpensive brands, and not just because they are cheap. While there are some vintages and makers that have disappointed, most bottles, whatever the cost or vinyard, have satisfied my desire.

There are plenty of people, perhaps including some of my wine-drinking friends, who hold on to a belief that there is a significant difference between wines, that there are significant and discernable differences between wines rated at 95 and those rated at 85. Perhaps there are. Maybe it does matter what a judge or panel of judges has determined about the wine's quality. How would we know if they might be on to something, and more importantly, are they capable of consistently telling the difference?

The answer, of course, is to test judges in a scientific way. Can they truly tell the difference between an expensive rare vintage and a "Two-Buck Chuck" also-ran? Is a wine rated 90 so much different than one scored at 86? Wine connoisseurs would argue that there certainly is a chasm of quality. And that opinion matters to winemakers where it counts: sales:

A few points may not sound much but it is enough to swing a contest – and gold medals are worth a significant amount in extra sales for wineries.

There have been several attempts to study the value that judges add to the wine world. Medals and sales contracts depend on getting good scores, and many a vintage has been made or broken based on a few digits recorded after spare drops were swilled and spat from a judge's mouth. 

An article in the Guardian offers an intriguing look at one of the latest attempts to measure and quantify how well judges do when it comes to wine tasting and consistency. The results are not terribly surprising if you've followed earlier, similar research by Richard Wiseman, Robin Goldstein, Frederic Brochet, and others. The phrase 'coin-flip' seems to apply to what Robert Hodgson found.

"The results are disturbing," says Hodgson from the Fieldbrook Winery in Humboldt County, described by its owner as a rural paradise. "Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year.

"Chance has a great deal to do with the awards that wines win."

These judges are not amateurs either. They read like a who's who of the American wine industry from winemakers, sommeliers, critics and buyers to wine consultants and academics. In Hodgson's tests, judges rated wines on a scale running from 50 to 100. In practice, most wines scored in the 70s, 80s and low 90s.

Results from the first four years of the experiment, published in the Journal of Wine Economics, showed a typical judge's scores varied by plus or minus four points over the three blind tastings. A wine deemed to be a good 90 would be rated as an acceptable 86 by the same judge minutes later and then an excellent 94.

Hodgson's research has been ongoing since 2005, and what he's published on the study hasn't made him any friends in the judges circles. What he discovered is what, if you really think about it, we'd expect to find. A lot goes into the experience of tasting wine (or any other experience you may have). The way the breeze or fans are blowing, the people and conversations around at that moment the wine touches lips, even the effect the last wine had on your thoughts, it is nigh impossible to taste a wine in a vacuum. 

"I think there are individual expert tasters with exceptional abilities sitting alone who have a good sense, but when you sit 100 wines in front of them the task is beyond human ability," he says. "We have won our fair share of gold medals but now I have to say we were lucky."

So what's the take away for my friends, for me, those of us who enjoy wine? Forget the critics, forget the judges, forget the labels and price tags. Pick up a bottle or two and try them. You'll soon discover what types of wine are your favorites and which you don't enjoy as well. You'll find winemakers you like more and less. Don't be afraid to take advice from friends, and even from the 'experts,' but don't rely on scores and medals to direct you to the ones which you'll find most pleasing. Use your tongue to find what works best for you, and explore the numerous options available to you.

And don't be surprised when something as subjective as the taste of wine turns out to be hard to 'judge.' The lesson that Hodgson and other researchers really are hammering into us is that following the science, doing research and analyzing the cold data can help us decide more about the quality of the advice we're getting than simply assuming that a network of 'experts' has it all figured out. Wine judges are just one set of experts whose opinions matter a lot but seem to be poor value for their money. I'm sure we can think of more than a few more like them. I'm looking at you, Dr. Oz

As if you need one more example, I'll leave you with one of my favorite segments on the Penn and Teller show Bullshit, which includes a 'water sommelier.'

2015 Freethought Cruise

The 2015 Freethought Cruise is on our calendar. The cruise will leave out of Tampa, Florida, on January 29, call in Cozumel, and return on February, 2, 2015. By booking early, you can save money on your room. Prices listed on the event and booking websites are good only though October 31, 2014. 

Dozens of Florida freethinkers will be on this cruise, as well as the American Atheists President David Silverman. If you want to go and need a roommate, let me know (send an email through the contact link above or directly by emailing info at suncoastskeptics.com). 

More information from the booking page:

With the success of our 2014 and Inaugural trip behind us, we are planning an even better cruise for 2015.  We are especially pleased to announce David Silverman, President of American Atheists, will be on board and will speak exclusively to our group about his work for American Atheists, state/church separation, and his forthcoming book I, Atheist.   Because, David is vacationing with us for the weekend there will be plenty of opportunities for you to chat with him one on one. 

Cruise Details
We set sail from Tampa, Florida Thursday afternoon, January 29th  on the Carnival Paradise  for 4-nights.  Our port of call is beautiful Cozumel, Mexico.  We return to Tampa on Monday morning, February 2nd.  The trip features two glorious days at sea while we explore one of Carnival’s premier ships - from world class spa treatments to a multitude of activities to keep us busy from sun up to late night fun!

Cozumel is one of the top diving and snorkeling destinations in the world and it is known for its bright coral reefs beautiful beaches. Among the many choices of shore excursions are Mayan ruins, snorkel and dive trips, parasailing and even an escorted shopping tour. 

I'm Not Saying It's Aliens...

One of the key elements of the scientific process is that it demands repeatability. Observing something one time, especially something out of the ordinary or unexpected, and failing to observe it again, is usually cause for a casual dismissal of the event until it can be repeated. 

And along with repeatability, there is a fairly conservative attitude toward explanations: simpler is better, familiar processes and objects are more likely than unobserved and uncharacterized hypotheses. There are always exceptions, and skeptics and scientists alike should remain open to possibilities outside what is expected and known. Journalists, though, have a different agenda, and headline writers... well, let's just say that the more unusual and provokative suggestion they can connect to the story, the better. 

For years, a phenomenon known as 'Fast Radio Bursts' (FRBs) have been detected by only one source: Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. These bursts were infrequent, of unknown origin, and were never seen by telescopes elsewhere in the world. Some of the bursts, such as several observed in 2010, were clearly terrestrial. But others seem to have been received from celestial sources. 

Interesting, but without more evidence, many researchers wondered if there was a technical problem at Parkes that caused it to report events that didn't exist. 

Then in 2012, the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico recorded an FRB, and one of the researchers claims more reports from other telescopes will come forth in the near future.

This changes everything, from a scientific perspective. Now that there appears to be some confirmation that these events are not the result of a single telescope malfunctioning, the speculation as to what they represent has begun in earnest.

There are many hypotheses, most of them involving rather well-established objects, such as black holes, pulsars, and neutron stars. There is a body of research to confirm that these objects exist and astronomers have gotten very good at finding and defining them. A lot still remains to be known, though, and in that gap comes plenty of room for FRBs to operate. Working from existing research, with more data from FRBs coming available, astronomers will begin to test the hypotheses and eliminate those which are unlikely. This is the way science works.

Cue the aliens. I'm not wholly belittling this hypothesis, to be sure it could be non-terrestrial civilizations causing these events. It is possible. Even plausible, in a certain light, that we would be able to observe bursts of radio waves coming from civilizations. And you can bet that headline writers are already grasping at the possibility to sensationalize their work:

Mysterious fast radio bursts from outer space: Astronomers baffled, admit they could be alien in origin

Or this one:

Mysterious Radio Bursts From Space: Could it be Aliens?

Or this one (am I really linking to the Daily Mail?):

Are these mystery radio bursts messages from ALIENS? Freak frequency from outside the Milky Way baffles astronomers 

Occam's Razor demands that, without enough evidence to pick which option is the mostly correct, we go with the one that demands the fewest assumptions, the one for which we have fewer complications. While we may not be able to differentiate between the hypotheses which include black holes and pulsars, we have no evidence that there are advanced alien civilizations, nor any non-terrestrial civilizations at all. Not yet, anyway. That doesn't stop headlines from adding the tempting possibility that aliens are behind the FRBs.

I get it. Headline writers have one job: grab the attention of potential readers and get them to click a link or open a newspaper (or so I hear, the latter is becoming less relevant every day). Including a mention of aliens is a lot more likely to get people to read an article than the much more honest and reflective of opinion verbiage, such as seen in this headline from Gizmodo

No One Knows What's Causing These Mysterious Radio Bursts From Space

So when you see headlines which make grandiose claims involving aliens, miracle cures, or other verbiage which demands a great deal of evidence, and proof of which would be the biggest news story of the year, always take it with a grain of salt. Even when researchers make statements like

The nice things about this in the current stage is that we really don't know what these bursts are caused by. And so the sky's the limit in some respects

Please don't jump immediately to this: