Are Secular Geologists Ready to Consider a Global Flood?
Everyone knows the Bible tells the story of a global flood in Noah’s day. Creation scientists argue that its effects would have left visible evidence today – including most of the sedimentary layers and most of the fossil record. Secular geologists have laughed off this story since the 18th century as nothing but myth, of course, but a paper in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences suggests that some of them are re-evaluating the role of “megafloods” in earth history. Some megafloods might be considered as “global planetary phenomena.”
Author Victor R. Baker was not thinking of Noah but of a more recent fellow, J Harlen Bretz (see 07/25/2008). In his paper, “The Channeled Scabland: A Retrospective” in the May 2009 Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences,1 he retold the story of the brave geologist who bucked the established and proposed an “outrageous hypothesis” for the scarred landscape of eastern Washington state. His 1927 proposal that an ice-age megaflood scoured the extensive channel network in a matter of days was met with scorn and derision. Baker wrote, “the geological community largely resisted his bold hypothesis for decades, despite an enthusiastic, eloquent defense thereof” – Bretz was finally vindicated in the 1960s and his theory is the new consensus.
Baker clearly states the reason for the rejection of Bretz’s hypothesis. Geologists would not even consider such extensive processes, because their worldview assumptions could not accommodate them:
The prolonged nature of the Spokane Flood controversy arose in part because of the adherence of many geologists to substantive and epistemological presumptions of uniformitarianism (see sidebar) that were erroneously thought to underpin their science (Baker 1998). According to a common, mistaken application of the uniformitarian principle, cataclysmic processes, like those responsible for the origin of the Channeled Scabland, were considered to be unsuitable topics for scientific investigation. To counter this presumption of uniformitarianism, Bretz could only provide meticulously described field evidence for inspection by those willing to seriously consider it. The eventual triumph of his hypothesis, against its initially antagonistic reception, set the stage for the resurgence of a new understanding of geological catastrophism, which is perhaps most prominent today in the acknowledged role of impact cratering in Earth’s history.
Baker has just said that the majority consensus can be wrong – for decades – because of worldview bias, or epistemological presumptions (i.e., presuppositions about what we know and how we know it). These presumptions do not arise from the scientific evidence, but in spite of it: Bretz had the evidence, but his colleagues refused to see it, because in their worldview, such topics were “unsuitable … for scientific investigation.” This is not a discovery from science. It is a statement of philosophy about science. In the sidebar on uniformitarianism to which Baker referred, he said this:
Uniformitarianism is a regulative principle or doctrine in geology that unfortunately sometimes conflates (a) the pragmatic application of modern process studies to understanding the past (actualism) with (b) substantive presumptions that deny effectiveness to cataclysmic events. As recognized by William Whewell, who invented the term, meaning b is contrary to the logic of science (Baker 1998).2
(For information about Whewell, see the June 2007 Scientist of the Month.) Most of Baker’s paper reviews the evidence in the Channeled Scablands for a megaflood when Lake Missoula breached its ice dam, sending a million cubic feet of water per second towards the Pacific. The evidence includes coulees, cataracts, gravel fans and bars, streamlined residual hills and islands, giant current ripples in the shape of dunes, and large isolated boulders. He discussed the high-energy processes that left this evidence: vertical vortices (kolks), plucking and cavitation, bedrock erosion and transport. “The scabland megaflooding exhibited phenomenal sediment transport capability, as evidenced by the boulders that were entrained by the flow,” he said. He showed a picture of an 18m boulder that was transported 10 km by the raging waters. The car beside the rock looks small by comparison.
What is the lesson of J Harlen Bretz and the Spokane Flood controversy? Baker discussed this in the ending paragraphs, entitled, “Megafloods as Global Planetary Phenomena”. Have geologists been misapplying uniformitarian presumptions, ignoring evidence for megafloods all around them, on the earth – and even on Mars?
Bretz thought the landforms of the Channeled Scabland to be unique (Bretz 1928a). “Nowhere in the world is there known or suspected,” he wrote (Bretz 1959, p. 56), “a story at all comparable to what we read from the scabland forms.” He reasoned that its uniqueness might make his Spokane Flood hypothesis more acceptable to those who held to the generalization that landscapes are created by the prolonged action of noncataclysmic processes. In recent years, however, cataclysmic flood landscapes with many similarities to the Channeled Scabland have increasingly been documented in many parts of the world (Baker 1997, 2002, 2007). Spectacular examples of GCRs [giant current ripples] are found in central Asia (Baker et al. 1993, Carling 1996, Rudoy 2005), along with immense gravel bars and scour marks (Rudoy & Baker 1993, Carling et al. 2002, Herget 2005). Megaflood streamlined hill morphologies occur in the glacial lake spillway channels of central North America (Kehew & Lord 1986) and on the floor of the English Channel (Gupta et al. 2007). Most surprising to Bretz, however, would be the discovery of scabland-like morphologies on Mars (Baker & Milton 1974; Baker 1982, 2001; Komatsu & Baker 2007).
In addition to stimulating discoveries of cataclysmic flood landscapes, studies of the patterns, forms, and processes evident in the Channeled Scabland have informed understanding of processes that occur at smaller scales in modern bedrock channels that are impacted by extreme, high-energy floods (e.g., Baker 1977, 1984; Baker & Pickup 1987; Baker & Kochel 1988; Baker & Kale 1998). Slackwater deposition by scabland flooding at the mouths of various valleys tributary to the Cheney-Palouse scabland channels (Bretz 1929, Patton et al. 1979) was used to infer flow depths along those channels (Figure 10). This methodology proved to be critical in stimulating the development of that form of paleoflood hydrology that utilizes paleostage indicators for the reconstruction of relatively recent (late Holocene) floods, thereby increasing our understanding the frequencies of rare, modern high-magnitude floods (Baker 1987, 2006, 2008b). Indeed, one can envision a kind of investigation that inverts the usual reasoning process whereby studies of common, small-scale processes are extrapolated to the domain of less common, unobserved large-scale processes.
What should future geologists do? Baker ended by discussing future challenges to understanding the Channeled Scablands. One problem, for instance, is that the volume of water stored in hypothetical Lake Missoula seems “insufficient to account for the indicated levels of maximum inundation throughout the Channeled Scabland and adjacent area.” One possibility is “subglacial outburst flooding from under the Cordilleran Ice Sheet,” he suggested. Details aside, Baker had a concluding remark about bold hypotheses, the nature of scientific inquiry and understanding, and the need to think outside the box:
In retrospect, studies of the Channeled Scabland might be viewed as concerned with the unique origins of a single landscape. However, this remarkable landscape was not studied to test a preexisting hypothesis or theory (e.g., erosion and deposition by high-energy megaflooding). Instead, discoveries about the Channeled Scabland are leading scientific inquiry to the recognition of what can now be seen as related phenomena, such that a completely new theory is required. The resulting rich set of research opportunities traces back to a single imaginative hypothesis proposed in the 1920s by J Harlen Bretz. Though these opportunities may now be pursued with techniques that to Bretz would have seemed almost magical, the most important pathway to advancing understanding remains that which is best exemplified by Bretz’s most lasting contribution: informed and insightful geological fieldwork.
1. Baker, VR. The Channeled Scabland: A Retrospective. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Vol. 37: 393-411 (Volume publication date May 2009; doi:10.1146/annurev.earth.061008.134726).
2. Baker VR. 1998. Catastrophism and uniformitarianism: Logical roots and current relevance. In Lyell: The Past Is the Key to the Present, ed. DJ Blundell, AC Scott, Spec. Publ. 143, pp. 171�82. London: Geol. Soc.
Hallelujah! A secular geologist finally gets it. Geological science is not always driven by evidence, but by presumptions. This is one of the most remarkable papers from a secular journal in recent memory. It contains lessons for history of science, philosophy of science, rhetoric of science, and the interplay of logic and empiricism.
Before continuing, let the reader understand that Victor Baker is not doubting long ages and evolution. He believes, for instance, that multiple flooding events from Lake Missoula occurred over many thousands of years, the last occurring about 14,500 years ago. It would be unfair to portray Baker as supporting creationist Flood geology. Baker would undoubtedly be angry to be tarred with such associations. Nevertheless, it is certainly fair to take the same principles and methods he advocated and think outside his box, too. Maybe he is on the right track but doesn’t go far enough.
Consider first the empirical evidence. Baker evaluated evidence of high-energy transport processes that are certainly not uniformitarian. Creationist Flood geologists date the Spokane Floods as post-diluvial (i.e., after the global Flood of Noah’s day). The same kind of evidence of high-energy transport, though, is visible throughout the deeper layers of the Grand Canyon. The Great Unconformity, for instance, displays a sudden scouring of the top of basement rock, on which sit most of the sedimentary layers. This Great Unconformity is arguably a worldwide phenomenon. So here is prima facie evidence for a global megaflood in earth history. Right on top of this flat surface (where evolutionists put an imaginary time gap of a billion years) lie the sedimentary layers of the Tapeats Sandstone. In the Tapeats are huge boulders, suggesting the same high-energy transport Baker inferred in the Scablands – not slow deposition over millions of years. The Tapeats, and layers above all the way into the Redwall, show soft sediment deformation in places. Fault lines extend all the way from bottom to top. Most of the contacts between the formations are flat, suggesting there were no time gaps between them. Evolutionists invent time gaps of 10 million years, 60 million years, even 100 million years between some of these formations, just to keep them in sync with their evolutionary assumptions, but you can see with your own eyes that the layers are flat, like a layered cake, with no evidence of the passage of time between them. These are other strong evidences of megaflood far exceeding anything in the Channeled Scablands. To the unbiased mind, the same kind of inferences made at Scablands can be extrapolated at Grand Canyon to infer a megaflood of global proportions. Genesis 6-9 then can be re-examined as a historical record, not myth. It left empirical evidence of its power.
Consider also the philosophical and logical lessons of this paper. For decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s, uniformitarian geologists had blinders on. Their worldview prevented them from seeing evidence that was there for the looking. This should be remembered when creationists are criticized for having “religious motivations” for their scientific models. That criticism cuts both ways. Terry Mortenson, in The Great Turning Point, documented how it was anti-Biblical worldview bias that turned Lyell, Hutton and the other founders of uniformitarianism into apologists for billions of years. Quotes from Lyell show he had a conspiratorial attitude, with a goal of turning the universities against the Scriptural geologists. Like Darwin, these moyboys (pushers of “millions of years, billions of years”) did not “discover” their theories in the data; they instituted a framework for interpreting the data (04/29/2009). This framework served (and continues to serve) to insulate their evolutionary philosophy from falsification. They have put blinders on with their own biased hands.
Baker praised J Harlen Bretz for providing “informed and insightful fieldwork” in support of his bold hypothesis. It took years for that fieldwork to cut through the dogma of the uniformitarians, and now, neo-catastrophism is enjoying a renaissance after 150 years of dogma. Guess what: creationist geologists have been doing “informed and insightful fieldwork” for decades, too. It doesn’t get seen much by the mainstream secular scientific societies, because they have a vested interest in maintaining their evolutionary worldview from serious challenge. But it is good work. You can find it in published journals from the Creation Research Society, Creation Ministries International, Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis and Center for Scientific Creation, among others. You can also see the Flood evidence with your own eyes by taking one of Tom Vail’s rafting trips down the Grand Canyon (see Canyon Ministries; highly recommended for fun as well as education).
Victor Baker did not propose a global Flood like that described in Genesis, but he did bring in some much-needed fresh air into the discussion about how science should be conducted. He pointed out the propensity for worldview bias, even among the leading geologists of the world, that can blind them from evidence for half a century. Nothing in his paper advocates a global megaflood – but nothing rules it out, either. The principles and historical lessons he advocated should liberate those not beholden to blinding uniformitarian presumptions to ask, boldly, “Noah’s Flood – why not?”