Friday, 4 July 2014

Green River Exposes Layers of Creationist Lies

Green River Formation varves
One of my favourite creationist pseudo-scientists must be the psychologist with no qualifications in science or record of research in the subject, Dr. Paul D. Ackerman, who supplements his income from teaching psychology as an assistant professor at a minor university by writing bad science books and articles for creationists who also seem to have little knowledge or understanding of science.

He is the notorious author of what must rank as one of the worst 'science' books for creationists ever published (it now has to be given away by the Institute for Creation Research) called It's A Young World After All: Exciting Evidence For Recent Creation. I've already dealt comprehensively with this book in a series of blogs so I won't dwell any more on it here, save to quote Dr Ackerman on what is one of the few nearly true things he said in his book:

Once scientists have an eye for them, the world around us reveals an abundance of clocks. Furthermore, as time goes by and we learn more about how to read the clocks of nature properly, their testimony is increasingly clear that things are not so old after all.

Dr Paul D. Ackerman; It's A Young World After All; Chapter 3.

If only he hadn't made the silly mistake of typing 'old' instead of 'young' in that final clause, he would have been completely right, instead of nearly right. Close, but no cigar, Dr Paul!

Take, for example, yet another instance Dr Ackerman's clocks, or of Earth recording its own age like a prisoner in a cell counting the days by marking the wall. I've already dealt with the record left on the Atlantic Ocean floor as the Atlantic widens at about the same rate your fingernails grow, allowing the magma beneath the mantle to well up and solidify into a ridged basalt sheet either side of the mid-Atlantic Ridge. This fixes the particles of magnetite in it pointing to Earth's magnetic poles as they were at the time, so recording indelibly the numerous magnetic reversals Earth has undergone over millions of years, but never in recorded human history which extends back to before the time creationists like to claim Earth was created. Here is Earth recording its age for us and doing so for the last 180 million years or so ever since Pangea split.

Now we have another such clock which kept on ticking some 60 million years, this time marking off the years with incredible precision and even managing to incorporate a record of long-term climate change, variations in the solar orbit and even sunspot cycles. Again, like the mid-Atlantic Ridge clock, this one is tamper-proof and indelible.

It is the geological formation known to geologists as the Green River Formation and more exactly the series of thin strata known as 'varves', one of which had been deposited each year since the lake in which they formed was itself formed during tectonic uplift of the Rocky Mountains in North American. These varves are so neat you can almost take a block of the deposit and open it like the pages of a book. Not only is there one for each year but each one shows the changes in the season over the course of the year too.

The Green River Formation is an Eocene geologic formation that records the sedimentation in a group of intermountain lakes in three basins along the present-day Green River in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. The sediments are deposited in very fine layers, a dark layer during the growing season and a light-hue inorganic layer in the dry season. Each pair of layers is called a varve and represents one year. The sediments of the Green River Formation present a continuous record of six million years. The mean thickness of a varve here is 0.18 mm, with a minimum thickness of 0.014 mm and maximum of 9.8 mm.[1]

The sedimentary layers were formed in a large area named for the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River. The three separate basins lie around the Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah.

The formation is also famous for its very many, well-preserved fossils of not only fish and birds but also their dung - known as coprolites - especially of catfish. There are approximately 60 million varves which takes some explaining if Earth is only 6000 years old.

This formation appears to have spooked both the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and their fellow creationists at Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis, both of whom have tried to discredit the geological science in the typically misleading, selective and uniformed style we come to expect from creation pseud-science sites.

I think my favourite 'argument' is that by John D. Morris, Ph.D. of the Institute for Creation Research who argued:

The real question is, does each varve unequivocally represent one year? Definitely not, for several reasons. Studies have shown that varve counts vary between individual locations in modern glacial lakes. Sometimes, the number of laminae covering a historically dated level was more than the elapsed years. One study in a modern lake documented that 300-360 laminae had formed in 160 years.

That is, two a year instead of one! So, in creationist land, managing to get it down to 30 million years from 60 million obviously proves Earth is only 6000 years old. And this example wasn't the Eocene lake in question of course; it was a specially selected different one. But of course, true to form, John D. Morris, Ph.D. neglects to say which lake this was, who did the study and where we can read about it for ourselves. His readers aren't expect to be interested because he expects them to be gullible fools and take his word for it.

No one associated with Green River Formation geology has ever claimed all other lakes form varves the same way these were formed. Different climates and different surrounding geography might well mean there was more than one factor other than seasonal going on. This is the creationist trick of applying the specific to the general, abandoning the principles of basic science when it suits, cherry-picking their evidence to suit the required conclusion, and hoping their assumed-to-be scientifically illiterate and gullible readership won't notice. They obviously understand well their target marks like any good snakeoil salesman.

The existence of fossils also seems to have provoked its usual response, what with fossils being a particular obsession with creationists, or rather the obsession is with ensuring their readers don't get the idea that fossils are very old and so evidence for evolution over a very long time on an old Earth. That would never do. So we have:

There's also evidence it happened rapidly. Numerous fossils are found in the Green River Formation. Catfish in abundance are found, looking much the same as they did when alive. The thickness of their bodies transgresses several layers. Obviously a fish carcass, even if it did get to the bottom of a lake would not remain undecayed and unscavenged for several years, slowly being covered by seasonal deposits.

Even more remarkable are an abundance of bird fossils. In spite of their low density, bird fossils are copiously present here. If these sediments are from the bottom of a calm lake, as required by the standard varve interpretation, how could myriads of bird fossils be present? Bird carcasses don't lie on the bottom of a lake. What happened?

For instance, well-preserved fossils are abundant and widespread throughout the sediments. According to two conventional geologists:
‘. . . fossil catfish are distributed in the Green River basin over an area of 16,000 km6 . . . The catfish range in length from 11 to 24 cm, with a mean of 18 cm. Preservation is excellent. In some specimens, even the skin and other soft parts, including the adipose fin, are well preserved.’

Another evolutionist stated:
‘During the early to mid-1970s enormous concentrations of Presbyornis [an extinct shorebird] have been discovered in the Green River Formation.’8
This should tell us that the Green River Formation is no ordinary lake deposit! Modern-day lakes do not provide the conditions needed for the preservation of abundant fossil fish and birds.

Experiments by scientists from the Chicago Natural History Museum have shown that fish carcasses lowered on to the muddy bottom of a marsh decay quite rapidly, even in oxygen-poor conditions. In these experiments, fish were placed in wire cages to protect them from scavengers, yet after only six-and-a-half days all the flesh had decayed and even the bones had become disconnected.

Paul Garner; Green River Blues; Answers In Genesis

Bradley, Wilmot H., 1929, Varves and Climate of the Green River Epoch, in USGS Professional Paper 158, p. 87-110

And once again we see what looks superficially like a good counter-argument - until we look closely at the detail and the specifics of the claim. For example, catfish fossils are not found throughout the formation but in a relatively small area of it where the lake would have been deepest, least well oxygenated and coldest (outlines in orange in the map on the left). They are absent from one of the lakes which was isolated from the others. How does an isolated lake with a different fauna fit in with a global flood? Also associated with these fossil catfish are abundant fossil catfish dung or coprolites, of which more later.

Morris for the ICR simply asserts without evidence that [cat]fish would not remain undecayed for long enough to be covered in silt whilst Garner for Answers in Genesis at least pays lip-service to the need to substantiate this claim. Unfortunately, again we see a cherry-picked piece of 'evidence' which is nothing of the sort. The results were nothing like as clearcut as he presents them as. A marsh is not a lake and what Garner has 'forgotten' to tell his readers was that several tests were carried out in different locations and that he has selected the one most favourable to his argument. (Note, this is not a paper published in a peer-reviewed geology journal but what looks like a museum booklet. Some of the experiments look remarkably badly designed and poorly controlled to me and not the basis for general conclusions about geology. But then would they have been cherry-picked by a creationist if they had been? Why hasn't Morris chosen a recent paper from a peer-reviewed journal do you suppose?)

This experiment indicates that the depth of water is a factor of significance, at least when the temperature is relatively low. In view of the findings of Hecht (1933) it is likely that there was somewhat less oxygen available to the deeper samples than to the shallow ones. The lake, furthermore, is wind-swept and this produced better aeration near the surface and removed the poisonous decomposition products from the vicinity of the carcasses.

It is highly probable that the low temperatures retarded the degradation process; but there may have been other contributing factors, such as relatively stagnant bottom water.

Rainer Zangerl and Eugene S. Richardson, Jr, "The paleoecological history of two Pennsylvanian black shales",
Chicago Natural History Museum, 1963.

Oops! Since we know very little about the temperature of the water in these 1963 experiments, nor the oxygenation of the water at the depths the carcasses were left at, we have no way of relating this to the conditions in the Eocene lakes where the Green River Formation varves were being laid down. Is that clear from Garner's article? Of course not. Nor, incidentally, did the authors conclude that the shales were only a few thousand years old. Curiously, Garner neglects to tell us his 'witnesses' disagree with him on the major claim he is trying to sell us.

And now a real 'test' which allows us to make some genuine claims about decay rates in certain circumstances:

Garner takes one example where fossilization didn't work, one from an environment which isn't even a lake, and then erroneously applies it to what happens in a lake. I will give an example which contradicts what Garner is saying. I ran into this fascinating account of lake preservation a few years ago. Cotton et al.(1987, p. 1125) write:
  • "On 29 Aug. 1983, a lake freighter entered the Duluth, Minnesota harbor. While proceeding to dockage under windy conditions, the captain ordered an anchor be dropped to assure stability. Later when the anchor was raised, the crew was surprised to find an Oldsmobile Toronado impaled on the flukes. The badly damaged and flattened automobile contained the bodies of an adult male and female. The bodies were not easily removed because they were partially compressed and trapped by the flattened automobile body. The time and means by which the automobile was crushed is unknown. It is known, however, that ships commonly lower anchors weighing many tons in the area from which the vehicle was retrieved. It is likely that anchors had previously struck the automobile resulting in the observed damage."
  • "Both the vehicle and the deceased persons contained in it were reported missing on 30 Aug. 1978, and, therefore apparently had been submerged exactly five years in the ship canal of the Duluth harbor."
Cotton et al. (1987, p. 1126) note the condition of the bodies and attribute it to the low water temperature.

  • "After five years of immersion, these bodies presented the appearance of a superficial shell of adipocere material encasing visceral organs demonstrating a high degree of retention of gross anatomic features but with substantial effacement of histologic structural details."
These people lay on the bottom of a lake for 5 years and were still undecayed. The same process could have taken place with the fish. Thus, Garner has specifically avoided citing examples where tissue preservation has occurred, he gives the totally erroneous impression that fossilization in lakes doesn't and can't occur.

Footprints of small waders (the ring is a wedding ring for size comparison)
Lastly, there is Garner's misleading claim about the bird fossils. Garner gives the impression that these are found throughout the formation whereas they are confined to only a few sites, always at the edge of the lake, where we expect them to be since they are waders and ducks. There are even fossil footprints of small waders such as sandpipers and plovers and ducks. Some of the duck or goose footprints have the marks of nibbling (feeding) and even the imprints of raindrops and mud cracks such as form when the mud dries out can be seen.

In fact, the Green River Formation varves not only themselves present a major problem for creationists, but so do all the fossils, their distribution and the evidence of feeding, raindrop imprints and mud cracks.

How do creationists explain raindrops in mud during a global flood, water shallow enough for small waders to leave tracks, catfish, along with their faeces in the form of coprolite being collected together into the centre of the lake and bird fossils being confined to small areas where the remains of egg-shells show they nested? In a global flood, all these dead animals would be mixed up indiscriminately. Did God arrange the fossils this way just to fool us, and did he make it look like the varves had been forming over 60 million years as some sort of joke?

Glenn Morton lists the following problems for creationists. So far, none of them have managed to explain them:

Every feature of the Green River formation points to long periods of deposition. The coprolites of fish and birds, algal encrusting of logs, footprints, variations in laminae thickness consistent with known weather patterns, sunspots, and Earth orbital parameters. Radioactive dating confirms the depositional rates which indicate yearly varves. The young-earth creationist, like Garner, can sit on the fence and throw rocks at the geological explanation, but he can't explain any of these features. The young-earth creationist must ask himself the following set of questions if he is to be rational.
  1. Why were the flood waters on layer after layer the depth of a bird leg as indicated by the footprints?
  2. How were catfish able to leave so many coprolites on the layers if this is a rapidly deposited formation?
  3. Why would God imprint orbital parameters and sunspot cycles on the thicknesses of the laminae?
  4. Why do the radioactive dates seem to verify the slow depositional rates?
  5. How could a bird take the time to nibble the lake floor during a global flood?
  6. How are raindrop impressions preserved under the waters of a global flood?
  7. Why did God produce a flood deposit which exactly matches the areal distribution seen in lakes? Did God deceive us?
  8. Why do the oxygen-18 values decrease around the edges of Fossil Lake as would be expected of a modern lake?
  9. The young-earth creationist must also ask him- or herself why the young-earth authors never tell him what I just told him.

As Glenn R. Morton hints at in his last question, perhaps the most important question any young-earth creationist should be asking him/herself is why their leaders, in the form of the people who supply them with the 'scientific' arguments for their beliefs, so obviously set out to mislead and misinform, and present false data and highly selected 'evidence' which so often turns out on investigation to be nothing of the sort?

In short, why do creation pseudo-scientists treat their target audience with such obvious contempt?

Any creationists with enough faith and enough courage to have a go at these question, in terms a grown-up who doesn't believe in magic can understand?

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  1. Another creation takes a wack using the well preserved fish argument and known liar Hugh Miller:
    Your thoughts on it?

  2. Interesting. I'll see what I can find but on first reading it looks like Mackay has done the usual creationist thing of taking one small aspect and presenting it as though 'evolutionists' rely entirely on it. But he misrepresents the facts anyway. There s of course nothing to prevent a fish body sinking into the soft sediment on which it comes to rest. He seems to be assuming that his readers will assume that the surface of the sediment is solid and bases his calculation entirely on this fallacy.

    Also, his asserts that this is the same species as a living Australian species but presents no evidence for that. Even if that's true, why is that a problem? He is implicitly buying into a parody version of the TOE which says that all species must evolve morphologically and significantly over time. There is nothing in the TOE that requires this. Typically for a creationist pseudo-scientist, he is attacking a parody of the science and depending on his targets' ignorance of the real thing.

    Lastly, even if the fossilisation of these fish were a problem, they are but one small element of the entire body of science that shows the Green River varves form annually. Within that entire body there may well be a few small matters yet to be explained, but, given the weight of the rest of the evidence, these do not destroy the entire science. Mackay typically attacks these small, as yet unexplained problems and implies that his is the only alternative. However, he never presents any evidence for creationism. This is the false dichotomy fallacy - another creationist tactic used on an ignorant target audience.


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