Thursday, 14 February 2008

Bad geology: another pseudojournal

Generally, my own field of geology is not somewhere you find a lot of pseudo-science. So it's nice to be able to comment on some, via the folk at Answers Research Journal. Thanks to Michelle for the heads-up. The journal contains a paper on 'catastrophic granite formation', an attempt to show that granites can form very quickly, quick enough to be consistent with what creationists call 'flood geology', the theory that most of the geology we see was formed in the Genesis flood.

The author is one Andrew Snelling, proud holder of a doctorate in geology from the University of Sydney. It seems that Snelling is happy to use the conventional geological column when working as a consulting geologist, but happy to disregard it when propagandising in favour of creationism.

The 'journal' claims to be "a professional, peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework". This raises some questions. Who are the reviewers for the journal, and who reviewed this article? In geology it is standard practice for reviewers to be acknowledged in published papers; reviewers usually identify themselves to authors, unless there are strong reasons not to do so. No reviewers are identified in the article: in fact there are no acknowledgments at all. In the instructions for authors [PDF], prospective authors are asked to suggest at least three referees. The guidelines state that comments will be solicited by at least three reviewers. I wonder if only reviewers nominated by the authors are used? Certainly it's hard to imagine mainstream geoscientists agreeing to review for the journal, or agreeing to the publication of any articles on 'flood geology'.

Why is the journal restricted to "research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework"? The instructions for authors suggest that work will be rejected if it is not "formulated within a young earth-young universe framework". This would be like, for example, a physics journal refusing to accept papers that were not formulated within a string-theory framework. No real scientific journal would restrict itself to publication of work that addresses a single hypothesis, because that wouldn't be science.

The journal is claimed to be a "technical journal", but there's a lot of language in the article that suggests otherwise. For example, in the introduction, Snelling writes that "Each recognizably distinctive granite mass, the boundary of which can be traced on the ground, is marked as a separate geologic unit called a pluton on a geologic map". In a section headed 'Magma Principles', Snelling writes that "The molten material which flows from volcanoes is known as lava and cools to form volcanic rocks. So lavas must be molten rocks; that is, they were originally rocks that melted deep inside the earth underneath volcanoes. When deep inside the earth, these molten rock materials are called magmas because they are slightly different in composition and physical properties due to the steam and gases they have dissolved in them that erupt separately from the lavas through volcanoes". There's nothing in particular wrong with these statements, but they read much more like excerpts from a GCSE level textbook than prose from a technical journal. This sort of basic information is never included in real geological journals: the assumption is that those who read them are already familiar with the basics. The article reads much more like a piece written for a general audience.

What of the actual science? It's actually not too bad in the main. The issues surrounding the production and emplacement of granite are quite well set out. The point of the article is that granites could be created and emplaced within a timescale of 6000-7000 years. This seems like a reasonable conclusion, at least in some cases, though I'm not convinced that it applies to every intrusive granite body on the planet. The problem is that Snelling then jumps to the conclusion that this is consistent with the Genesis account of creation. At this point, the article is no longer talking about science, but is trying to provide evidence for an answer that has already been decided on. The argument that the earth is a lot older than 7000 years does not depend on granites taking more than 7000 years to form and become emplaced. It relies on pretty much everything we know about geology, but particularly on radioisotopic dating. How does Snelling get around this? He simply states that isotopic dating is in gross error because it fails to account for the acceleration of decay. This is a load of rubbish, as you can see here.

The dead giveaway, though, is the section devoted to 'Evidence from radiohalos'. A radiohalo is supposedly a zone of crystal damage surrounding a crystal that contains radioactive substances, for example zircon crystals that are relatively common in granites. Snelling claims to be able to identify radiohalos associated with decay of three polonium isotopes. The argument is that the isotopes of polonium have very short half lives: 3.1 minutes (218Po), 164 microseconds (214Po), and 138 days (210Po). Therefore cooling of the granite has to be rapid, because otherwise the polonium would decay too rapidly to form halos. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is drivel. There's a useful summary of why it's drivel here.

Snelling has come to an initially reasonable conclusion about the potential rapidity of formation of some granite bodies, and then extrapolated wildly to suggest that this is the case for all igneous rocks, and that most of what we know about geology is wrong. Still, he is happy to ignore that conclusion in his consultancy work and publications in real scientific journals. Like Homeopathy, Answers in Genesis is a pseudojournal: it's designed to look superficially like it is publishing real science "from a different perspective", but it is not. It is a creationist propaganda organ, and it is publishing creationist propaganda.


Mich said...

Nice. Thanks for including those explanatory links, they were most enlightening - especially the bio. of Andrew Snelling. I can't help wondering how long his professional integrity will hold up if he continues to spout such rubbish.

Paul Wilson said...

Hi Michelle.

I think professional integrity must have gone out the window a long time ago. I did a Georef search, and Snelling appears on a number of publications in proper journals back to the 70s. So he presumably has been writing stuff he doesn't believe in for a long time.