Ramblings about what I encounter within the realm of the geosciences, as well as the occasional rant about nonsense.

06 August 2008

For the love of Lyell!!!

Hey, I was wondering around AiG. Why? I guess I felt like punishing myself and I didn't want to drive to Denny's.

I found this though:

Is the Present the Key to the Past?


What follows is a diatribe discussing the differences between uniformity and uniformitarianism. One YEC (herein called YEC A) frames this post as a response to another YEC (herein called YEC 1). YEC 1 argues that they are one and the same. While YEC A takes the stance that: uniformity is fine and kosher with the bible (but not with evolution, thus showing how foolish we scientists are), whereas uniformitarianism is stupid and contradicted by the bible.

First and foremost some actual Lyell:

"As the present condition of nations is the result of many antecedent changes, some extrememly remote and others recent, some gradual, others sudden and violent, so the state of the natural world is the result of a long succession of events, and if we would enlarge our experience of the present economy of nature, we must investigate the effects of her operations in former epochs".
-Charles Lyell

Bolding was done by me to emphasize my point. This is what Lyell was arguing for. Now it is true, I only have the abridged version published by Penguin Classics. But this is the 2nd paragraph of chapter 1!!!

Now that we have a very brief intro to Lyell, let's move on to YEC A and his definition of uniformitarianism:

As an example, consider canyon formation. Today, in most cases, canyons are gradually deepening as water slowly erodes the surrounding rock layers. A person holding to uniformitarianism would assume that this has always been the case; he would believe that a canyon has formed by water slowly eroding the surrounding rock layers since “the present is the key to the past.”

However, this need not be so. A number of geologists believe that many canyons (such as the Grand Canyon) were not formed (entirely) by the slow and gradual erosion from the river they now contain. Rather, some canyons were formed quickly under catastrophic conditions. So, the present is not the key to the past in these cases. Yet, the laws of nature presumably have been the same. Therefore, this is an example of uniformity, but not uniformitarianism.


Here lies his first major problem, he doesn't know what uniformitarianism is stating. In the analogy that Lyell has provided, he takes into account that the uniformity of rate is not necessarily true (the bolded portion of the Lyell's quote). The bolded portion of YEC A's statement is uniformitarianism AND uniformity. Uniformity implies a non-changing universe. Uniformitarianism allows for the conditions of the universe to change, but not the underlying laws.

However, I will credit that at least he understands that geologists use modern processes to explain past events (i.e. no mystical beings allowed for science).

YEC A then lays the groundwork for a common argument in creationist nonsense:
Chemical reactions in nature, for example, may have happened at different temperatures and pressures than today, leading to different results. So, we have uniformity, but not uniformitarianism.
I call bullshit on that. YEC A is blatantly misrepresenting science (though what else would you expect from a YEC who never understood science). If a chemical reaction can occur today at (for arguments sake) STP, then it will always have been able to occur under the same conditions (this is an example of uniformitarianism, but not uniformity). However, just because present conditions allow for it now, doesn't imply that those conditions were always present (this is the uniformity nonsense again).

This doesn't mean (as YEC A is implying) that universal constants were different in the past. The speed of light was what it is now (300,000 m/s) 4.6 Gaa. 2 hydrogens would combine with 1 oxygen to form water. And gravity has always been proportional to mass and proximity. Just because the Earth has undergone changes in the past, doesn't mean the laws of the universe (such as: at what temperatures and pressures a reaction can occur) have changed. I will use the "Oxygen Catastrophe" as an example here. Just because the Earth has a decent amount of oxygen present today, doesn't mean it always had the same oxygen concentration. In fact, science has demonstrated that oxygen wasn't a significant component of an early Earth atmosphere.

After this, the topic goes away from science and well into the realm of poor reasoning. Though, I find the fact that YEC A is blind to the implications of his own stance hilarious.
A belief must be justified if it is to be considered rational. Otherwise, it is merely an arbitrary “blind” assumption. Children believe things without good reasons; they are convinced that there is a monster in the closet. And they feel no need to justify their belief; it is enough that they act on it (by pulling the sheets over their head).
What is it about believing the bib-le to be an accurate telling of the formation of the universe that allows anyone to make the claim it is "justified"? There are two creation myths at the very beginning. And they disagree with each other! There are two chronologies of how we went from Adam on down the line (this is how YECs arrive at the 6000 year age of the Earth). And they don't agree either! The "inerrant" word of god contradicts itself again and again. In fact, here is a way of re-writing the bib-le so it would have agreed with modern science

The bib-le, at best, is allegorical (at worst, it is a field manual on how to prepare a goat for sacrifice). It should be granted the same veracity that we impart Aesop's fables. This isn't to say it is all wrong (though some of it is very wrong, unless you agree that I can kill people who aren't exactly like me with god's blessing). Take home message from the bib-le. Don't be an ass. Oh, but wait, YEC A argues that even if I accept a belief, in my argument: the bib-le, as allegorical, it must still be justified (otherwise, according to YEC A, the whole thing is stupid).
Even if we accept it as an axiom, a belief still requires some sort of justification if it is to be considered rational and not arbitrary. If it is arbitrary, then why not assume the exact opposite?
Well, I could take the low road and say that YEC A has shown the bib-le to be a completely illogical set of assumptions with no basis in reality (which, c'mon, it kinda is). But I won't (well, any more than I just did), There are a few issues it raises that are okay with me. Essentially summed up in my "Don't be an ass" bit. Love your neighbor (in a biblical sense if you want), but don't set locusts upon their living rooms. Learn to forgive people who piss you off, but don't wait until you kill everyone on the planet except for the party boat crew. Things like tolerance are fine to teach, but not the "divine retribution" crap. But, if we take YEC A's point to heart, all of that is irrational and should be ignored. Not his intention, but blam, it is there.

This little diatribe of his has nothing to do with uniformitarianism either. Despite YEC A's insistence to YEC 1 that it is important.
A scientist (evolutionist or creationist) deals with the way the universe operates; he is not concerned with why it is the way it is. This does not make him inconsistent.
-YEC 1
YEC 1 makes a good point here (almost, creationists aren't scientists). Science doesn't really deal with anything outside of the natural world. And even though Naturalistic Materialism is a threatening concept to people who wish to go back to a time of nostalgia that never was, it is the best way of viewing the world. Actually, it is the only responsible way of viewing the world. Though I will also point out that science is actually concerned with both questions (how it operates, and why), so long as both can actually be answered in a scientific way (i.e. no moon dragons, water gnomes, space manatees, etc. allowed).

YEC A counters YEC 1 by, essentially, saying if we don't understand god we can't understand science. I think the fact that god is a super-natural being (and can, apparently, do whatever the fuck he wants), that puts him beyond the purview of science. That said, by YEC A's argument, all science is irrational.

Sorry to put anybody reading this through that, but misery loves company.


BrianR said...

Nice post ... if you haven't read it already, I recommend Stephen J. Gould's 1965 paper called "Is Uniformitarianism Necessary?" ... it lays out some other aspects of this concept. You can get it here.

Bryan said...

Thanks for the link!
I think I have read it before (I won't know for sure until I get it from a university computer, it would be great to have a .pdf of that paper).

If it is the paper I think it is (which from the abstract I gather it is), I don't necessarily buy Gould's argument. Actually, I consider it an early miss in his prestigious career. Especially since he was a graduate student when he published this, and it is still commonly referenced today!

He was arguing that there is methodological uniformitarianism (MU) and substantive uniformitarianism (SU). MU is true regardless of which branch of science you are involved with, and if that is the case we should do away with it because it is not specific to geology. While SU is not true regardless of how you look at it, thus it should be done away with as well.

While I agree with his stance on SU (which seems to be intermixed in the minds of some geologists with Lyell's concept). I don't agree with his stance on MU. Just because a concept is not limited to one branch of science does not make it superfluous. In fact, I find it makes a stronger argument for its incorporation into introductory lectures.

In every introductory class I ever took, only geology took the time to explain this concept to the students. True, to people who are scientifically minded, this concept might seem a bit obvious, but it is important not to only "preach to the choir". You have to show EVERY student the beauty behind science's simplicity.

What I mean by this is that it is important to make sure that your audience follows what you mean. When I was a docent at the MNHM, I would occasionally get the visitor who didn't understand the reasoning behind MU (wouldn't understand why ripples meant fluid flow for instance). I would use this as an opportunity to open their eyes to not only how geology works, but science in general. A quick 5 minute explanation almost always did the trick (unless they had an agenda). And they would walk out with a new appreciation for how scientists view the world.

I am reminded of a recent discussion on Highly Allocthonous about the use of jargon, and how scientists might not even recognize it as such. (Terms like Cretaceous convey no information to people who aren't familiar with the geologic timescale, for instance). I think MU has the same problem. We are all so used to it, that we take for granted that the nearest barmaid never gave the concept much thought.

MU was something that was overlooked by science for a long time (ie. spontaneous generation of fruit flys, flood based geology, angels dancing on the head of a pin, etc.). And, I could be wrong about this (probably am, since I am not a historian of science), Lyell was the first to popularize this concept to the layperson. This does give it a historical significance, as Gould indeed claims, but it still carries a large significance throughout science as a whole. This is why I disagree with Gould on this topic. I don't think that MU should be shelved and only dusted off by historians. I think biologists, physicists, chemists, ecologists, astronomers, meteorologists, hell every introductory science class should drill this point home. And it was a geologist (well a naturalist) that came up with this concept.

As one of my profs here has said, geology has given two things to science as a whole; the concept of deep time, and the concept of uniformitarianism.

That said, another topic that seems to be only discussed in geology, but benefits every branch of science is Chamberlain's Multiple Working Hypothesis (MWC). When my undergrad adviser once told me this is something that geologists only seem to discuss, I was skeptical. Then I went to an AEG meeting where one of the engineers gave a speech about a careers worth of advice that more or less parroted MWC. I looked around the audience, and the geologists all had bemused looks, and the engineers were all nodding appreciatively. I asked my dad about it later (he is an engineering geologist) and he commented that nobody, outside of geologists, really reads Chamberlain. This is lamentable because MWC is helpful to the entire scientific community as well.

Bryan said...

Upon re-reading my comment (needed a break from work) I think it is possible to mis-interpret my "graduate student" comment. I mean it as a compliment that Gould was able to publish a paper that still holds sway today while still a grad student.

Just figured I should straighten that out before I get some angry notes.

oh and the MNHM link is now up.

edit: aha! it is blogger that puts that bloody stupid bit of code in itself. I have tried to fix it by adding the http:// part of the url.

edit again: yep that works.

It is kinda annoying how, even on my blog, I can't fix typos in the code, or text. Oh well, such is life.


All the Latin on this page is from my vague recollections from High School. There are mistakes in the text. I just was trying to get the point across

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM
The photo of the travertine spring was taken in the small opening in the center of the image.

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