June 29, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

A Tale of Two Pollens

Ambiguity is a bad word in science.  Scientists want to be objective.  To scientific realists, scientific truth is “out there” in the world, waiting to be discovered.  The 20th century tempered scientific realism somewhat from its extreme form (scientism, the belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth).  Knowledgeable scientists are more or less aware of the role of paradigms, social pressure and webs of belief that can affect interpretations of scientific data.  But there is still a widespread perception that science “finds” truth in the world.  Whether that happens can be pondered while exploring two recent stories about fossil pollen that arrived at opposite conclusions: one (by evolutionists) that supports old-earth geology (and “climate change” politics), and one (by creationists) that undermines it, finding fundamental biases among evolutionists who refuse to accept the implications of the data.

A cheerful, upbeat press release from Rice University posted on PhysOrg told a modern adventure story.  A team led by Rice U marine geologist John Anderson and Louisiana State geologist Sophie Warny endured the perils of Antarctica to recover pollen grains from ocean floor sediments.  Intense cold and the threat of icebergs could not deter the stalwart explorers from gaining their treasures.  “The pollen record in the sedimentary layers was beautiful,” Warny said, “both in its richness and depth.  It allowed us to construct a detailed picture of the rapid decline of the forests during the late Eocene — about 35 million years ago — and the widespread glaciation that took place in the middle Miocene — about 13 million years ago.”  A video clip shows John Anderson describing the trip, the pollen, and the implications of the data for climate change.

Warny could not see any interpretive bias in their announcement about millions of years of climate change.  “We found that the fossil record was unambiguous; glacial expansion in the Antarctic Peninsula was a long, gradual process that was influenced by atmospheric, tectonic and oceanographic changes.”  The millions of years were stated as matters of fact.

If the fossil record is indeed unambiguous, what would Sophie Warny say after reading this article in the current Creation Magazine?  In “Pollen Paradox,” Emil Silvestru and Carl Wieland cited in peer-reviewed articles from Nature 45 years ago about pollen grains discovered in Precambrian metamorphic rocks from Mt. Roraima, a plateau in Venezuela.  In the evolutionary scenario of earth history, there is no possible way these advanced-plant remains could be in such ancient rocks (said to be 1.3 billion years old), because no plants were around then.  Yet there they were.

Contamination was ruled out: “… by no conceivable physical means could the pollen (and spores) have entered the metamorphosed sediments from the outside, R. M. Stainforth said, commenting on the findings of a follow-up expedition to the site by geologists to verify the facts. “They are dense impermeable rocks compressed by an overburden of hundreds of feet … [and] the face which was sampled must have been deep within the formation until quite recent times.” Incorrect dating was ruled out. These were clearly Precambrian formations.

This is comparable to finding Cambrian rabbits, Silvestru and Wieland remarked – so utterly contrary to evolutionary explanations, it would constitute falsification of evolution.  They drew the implication sharply: “Simply put, the Roraima pollen ’can’t be’ the same age as the rock—or else the whole long-age geological system, with its evolutionary progression, collapses.” They offered their interpretation as a challenge: “The only reasonable alternative would be biblical (supernatural, recent) creation.”  Here is another case where “the fossil record was unambiguous,” but with completely different implications.

Stainforth’s 1966 article in Nature left the Roraima pollen as an unsolved puzzle: “we offer no solution to the paradox.  It is clear, however, that botanist Dunsterville … stumbled on a highly intriguing geological problem” (see reprint at rpasmd.org, follow-up discussion at rpasmd.org and abstract at Nature.com).  Stainforth expected further work to answer the problem, but wrote in his Nature piece, “Meanwhile it is considered desirable to give an outline of the facts of the case before distorted interpretations develop from inadequate data.

Has this paradox been solved since?  A Google search revealed a 2004 discussion about this at James Randi’s skeptic site.  Between the vitriolic lines attacking creationists, the only solutions offered were either contamination or misidentification. Silvestru and Wieland dealt with those objections. They concluded that evolutionary belief requires forcing this “unambiguous” data into the old-earth paradigm by any and all means, magical or otherwise, the pollen “having become mysteriously emplaced into the rock countless hundreds of millions of years after it formed”, or else setting the problem “on the shelf as an unsolved mystery.”

A tale of two pollens: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, depending on one’s paradigms.

Readers: can you find a follow-up to this story that would rebut the creationists?  Is this an old chestnut that has been answered, or have evolutionists ignored damning evidence for 45 years?

Considering the first story by the Rice U team, notice all the parts of the article that, while interesting, have nothing to do with the scientific conclusions:

  • The difficulty of obtaining the samples
  • The fact that it took a decade to get the funding
  • That Anderson was a veteran of 25 expeditions to Antarctica
  • That the 2002 expedition was the worst ice year ever
  • That the team had to tediously count and categorize thousands of sand grains

If you want to read an adventure story, fine; if you want to understand the history of the Antarctic peninsula, though (the point of the story), you have to filter out the distracting details and interpretations and look at the raw data.  “The muddy treasure trove was locked away beneath almost 100 feet of dense sedimentary rock,” the article said.  Putting aside the evolution-incestuous dating of the core samples, can’t you hear Silvestru and Wieland smirking, “sounds like a global flood.” 

Unambiguous.  Objective.  Science marches on.

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