The Salty Sea and the Age of the Earth, Part I – Confirmation Bias

While Mars continues to fascinate me and I want to write about the evangelical response to the data that this and other rovers have produced over the past 10 years, I was brought back to earth by a recent post on A Daughter of the Reformation entitled “There are always alternative answers.”   What caught my eye specifically was the author’s reference to the sea salt defense for a young earth.  Over the past two months I have now encountered this argument in four completely different contexts and I would like to explore how they all intertwine with each other in a series of articles.  While I have witnessed the sort of repeating of “old” evidences of a young earth in aDotR’s post over and over again I am especially sensitive to the use of this type of creation science evidence among reformed Christians being especially fond of reformed theology and promoting the importance of a reformed worldview myself which is why the use of this argument on this blog spurred me to dig a bit deeper into this topic.   Below I will explore how and where this argument has been used and the responses to them and then in future post I will explore the actual scientific merits of the argument.

Salty Ocean = Young Earth?
The YEC (young earth creationists) salty sea argument was apparently used in a seminar that the author of A Daughter of the Reformation recently attended.   This seminar was given by Dr. Jeanson of ICR (Institute of Creation Research) who presented evidence for why the earth cannot be old.  The following quote from aDotR is most relevant:

If we assume a young earth, what effects should we expect to find? Well, we should find young oceans since they can’t be older than the earth. Using two methods, the amount of salt and the amount of mud I oceans, Dr. Jeanson showed that even using the evolutionary assumptions for uniformity of deposits, neither the amount of salt nor mud in the oceans is sufficient for the age of the oceans to be billions of years.

A map of the surface salinity of the worlds oceans and seas. Reds and oranges indicate the highest salinity while blues the lowest. Lakes such as the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea have the highest salt content of any lakes and salt crystals form in these waters and fall the bottom creating hundreds and in the case of the Dead Sea thousand of feet of salt layers below the lakes.

Both of the methods (amount of salt and amount of mud/sediments) raised in this paragraph I have encountered numerous times over the past 15 years but I just heard the salt argument raised not more than two months ago.   That was in the form of a question posed at a seminar (“The PCA Creation Study Committee A Dozen Years Later: What Does Science Say Now?”) given at the 2012 PCA General Assembly that I attended in June.   Here one of attendees, after a talk in which Dr. Davidson presented data which tested predictions of flood geology vs standard geological models, asked Dr. Davidson to address the issue of a lack of salt in the oceans. I was in attendance that day and my memory is that Dr. Davidson gave a detailed,  but necessarily limited, response which explained the historical background of the salty sea argument and explained how scientists have abandoned such ways of estimating the earth’s age because of changes in our understanding of earth’s history and chemical processes.   He made it clear that he did not see the amount of salt in the sea as a challenge to an old earth and that really the salt in the sea isn’t something that can be used to test whether the earth is young or old.

I will address the actual problems with the salt and maybe the mud argument and the misconceptions involved in the phrase “assumptions for uniformity of deposits”  in parts II and III. Right now I’m just interested in how the presupposition of the trustworthiness of creation scientists because they are Christians, although very infrequently reformed Christians (For more on this see my articles: Web Site Data for Reformed and Creationist Web Sites, State of Creationism in the Reformed Church).

Confirmation Bias and Creation Evidence

The uncritical acceptance of evidence and its interpretation by Christians like the author of aDotR is not surprising and I am don’t want to be over critical of this particular blogger.  I recognize that she represents the majority of young earth creationists who earnestly believe that the Bible mandates a young earth and therefore expect that the evidence of general revelation should reflect that worldview.  In this particular blog post it is apparent that the author is very eager to listen and learn from those that she believes can help her find harmony between that Biblical mandate of a young earth and science.   Anyone, including myself, can find themselves susceptible to confirmation bias wherein each time ones hears of evidence supporting a view that they already maintain, in this case presumably drawn from scripture, which then serves to increase their confidence  in their presupposition.  Once a particular viewpoint, or even complete worldview, is established evidence against that position is consciously or, more likely, subconsciously not given the same weight and dismissed.

Correction: The inference in the following paragraph is not correct as Rachel Miller has informed me that she did not hear Dr. Davidson’s response about salty seas.  I will leave it as it was written for now as an illustration of how confirmation bias could work in a situation like this though not in this particular case.  Please see comment section below for Rachel’s response and mine to her regarding this comment.

We have before us a very minor example of just such a probably subconscious dismissal.   What struck me immediately upon reading the recent post of aDotR was that she reported, in seemingly very favorable light, the salty sea argument that she heard from a YEC speaker.  I could not help but wonder if she consciously dismissed the critique of the salty sea argument by Dr. Davidson that I am certain she heard just a month before.   I know this because she posted a review of his seminar on her blog including the questions after the talk. She must have heard his response to the question about the salty sea but she appears to have just ignored or forgotten the advice from a PhD geologist who was aware of the evidence and the history of interpretation of that evidence.   No, I think this is a simple case of only hearing what one wants to hear and reporting what one thinks really sounds really good which is fairly easy to do when one doesn’t know the details of the underlying science and arguments involved.  Not being an expert in this field, like most lay Christians, she trusts the authority of the YEC speaker over other sources and puts greater weight on the accuracy and truthfulness of the former claims.   This is an understandable approach to take by someone convinced of a particular viewpoint and wishing to find additional support for it.    I hold the YEC speaker to a much higher level of responsibility for repeating the salty sea argument to a captive and impressionable audience.   However, I expect he doesn’t have a firm grasp on the evidence he presented to his audience but rather he has also placed his faith in the authority of other YEC scientists who drew of the models and made the original case for a salty sea as evidence of a young earth.  Future posts will look closer at sources of the salty sea arguments themselves to discern just how much confidence anyone should actually place in these arguments.

Yes, there are always alternative answers or interpretations possible for any set of facts and the author of aDotR is espousing a framework for directing one to the right interpretation.   Confirmation bias can act as a positive interpretive tool if what is being confirmed is what initially was an accurate interpretation.  In the context of science and faith issues, if one can be certain that they have begun with the correct relationship of Genesis and science than interpretation of the facts through that worldview framework should lead to true inferences about the natural world.  But if the initial presuppositions are incorrect the flip side it true and will inevitably result in ever more elaborate ad hoc explanations to maintain belief.   The difficult question becomes what happens when the evidence on which ones confidence is based is finally questioned?  Does the entire edifice of belief implode or simply adapt through examination of the original presuppositions.   As I just suggested, one way to identify if there is a problem is to identify when a belief system (call it a worldview) results in more problems than solutions to a set of observations.   It probably won’t surprise anyone that one reason I am critical of the creation science paradigm is I find that the arguments it presents from science exhibit all the signs of being a set of ad hoc explanations whose sole purpose is to provide continual assurance that the original assumption that Genesis must be interpreted as teaching a young earth.

Next we will look at another use of the salty sea argument and then the origin and scientific merits of the argument.

The Salty Sea Part II: A Young Earth Salt Chronometer?

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Comments

  1. Has there been any general abandonment of this argument in the Young Earth community, or is this isolated to a few researchers?

    • Hi Christopher, Thanks for the comment. I was wondering this myself. As you will see in part II and III it comes down to just a couple YECs that defended the argument (Austin and Humphryes) but more recent data will show that the oceans aren’t even getting saltier so their whole argument is moot. Nonetheless I haven’t found any rush to suggest that this might not be a good argument for a young earth. Answers in Genesis recently published a list of arguments that creationists should not use and ones that are somewhat tenuous and they did not include this on there. Certainly ICR is still promoting this “evidence” since they are sending out speakers to conferences with this evidence as one of their top evidences. Almost nothing can surprise me anymore but this particular evidence has so little merit that even this one surprises me. This is why I started by talking about confirmation bias because it appears that this is a case where no one in the YEC community has thought to take a hard look at the source of their scientific confidence on this one. It makes a nice story, they believe the source and their audience isn’t going to be able to discern the problems so it has been easy to just keep using. I doubt that any of the AIGs speakers would ever have even read the original YEC paper describing the argument. Rather thay have have just seen the short abstracts in other books and taken it in as truth and just passed it along to the next generation.

  2. I am struck again with the way that YEC attempts to prove its position by using things like the Grand Canyon and sea salt and avoids the question of human origins. I guess they don’t have an answer to explain the great age of human fossils.

    http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2012/08/was-lucy-human.html

    • Hi Alice, I’m not sure they avoid the topic they just spend lots of time talking around it. They have spent lots of time talking about the bones and although their interpretation of the bones certainly has some flaws it is the utter lack of discussion about the context the bones are found in that is very striking. This is why I posted on the geological context of human fossils. Of course that is what speaks to the age and they do avoid that topic. Avoiding the context of fossils is akin to discussing a verse in the Bible without knowing anything about the context of when it was written, who it was written by or what the audience is. Not knowing those things you have little direction and are apt to produce wildly different interpretations.

      • I agree they talk around the evidence since it does not support their young earth view. Your analogy about reading a passage of scripture with no historical context is a good one. As a Biblical Anthropologist, I would add that we also need cultural context.

  3. Just to be clear, the recording of Dr. Davidson’s seminar that I listened to (I was not present at the seminar as I indicate in my summary) did not include all of the questions and answers at the end. I do not remember hearing Dr. Davidson’s answer to the salty sea question. I admit that I really don’t care one way or the other if the seas are salty or not salty enough.

    I reported the ICR seminar as it was presented. While I do not have a background in science, my husband does. He has a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and thankfully takes the time to help me understand the finer points of scientific arguments when I need help.

    Because of Dr. Davidson’s attitude towards Scripture, as evidenced in his book, I am reluctant to trust his interpretation of evidence. Because of Dr. Jeanson’s attitude towards Scripture, as evidenced in his seminar, I am more likely to give weight to his interpretation. Both men have advanced degrees in scientific fields, and they interpret the same evidences in different ways. I am not looking to anyone to confirm my belief in the what the Bible teaches, nor am I looking to anyone to show me how to reconcile what Scripture says with what “science” teaches.

    I thought Dr. Jeanson’s framework was useful, but I will not get into a debate as to what the evidence must mean. As Scripture says, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” On either side, the evidence only makes sense if you already believe.

    • Hi Rachel, thank you for your helpful comment and thank you for correcting my impression that you would have heard Dr. Davidson’s response. I assumed that was so because you talked about his responses to the evolution questions where were the last questions that he took and your referred to those questions in your post. Obviously you heard about those responses from other sources. I understand your reluctance to accept his interpretation and of course you would prefer the interpretation of Dr. Jeanson given his preferred attitude. His attitude doesn’t guarantee the correctness of his interpretation so we need to be sure to vet our sources just like the attitude of our pastor doesn’t mean that we don’t test his words against Scripture. In the case of Jeanson we can test his worldview assumptions but we must also test whether he is competently examining and reporting the evidence. Hopefully you will read the next couple of posts. There we will do the latter, but for Jeanson there really isn’t much to say because I doubt he knows anything about the evidence and is just repeating the claim just like you repeated the claim on your blog. We will have to try to dig into the real source of the interpretation and see if they have been honest with the data. I won’t spoil the ending just yet:-) Joel

  4. “nor am I looking to anyone to show me how to reconcile what Scripture says with what “science” teaches.”

    Why the quotation marks, Rachel?

  5. I find it interesting that Rachel (like many YECs) responds to old-Earth Christians with a quote from Jesus that does not apply: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” She is implying that if we don’t accept the YEC interpretation of Scriptures, then we don’t really believe in the inspiration of the Bible, and are on the slippery slope to denying the resurrection and just about everything else that is essential to orthodox Christianity.

    This, of course, is simply not true. I am an old-Earth Christian who believes the Bible from the very first verse (to borrow a phrase from Ken Ham). I do believe the Bible, I just don’t believe Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research.

    • I wonder does Rachel approves of the YEC racist assertion that race and languages diversity is the result of divine judgment at the Tower of Babel? And if so, what race does she believe Noah and his sons were?

      At the back of Young Earth Creationist books such as Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth by Terry Mortenson, one finds the 12 Affirmations and Denials. Affirmation XII claims that the diversity of languages and skin color came about as a result of divine judgment at the Tower of Babel.

      XII. We affirm that all people living and dead are descended from Adam and Eve…and that the various people groups (with their various languages, cultures, and distinctive physical characteristics, including skin color) arose as a result of God’s supernatural judgment at the Tower of Babel…”

      This Young Earth Creationist claim is easily refuted since the evidence of many languages and skin colors before the time of the Tower (ziggurat) of Babel cannot be denied by reasonable persons.The spread of the Ainu is but one example. The Ainu are at the center of Cavalli-Sforza’s genetic distance chart, which is what we would expect for “first people.” Other examples involve the dispersion of the Proto-Saharans and the Kushites. These peoples represent a range of skin color and languages before the construction of the ziggurats.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] flood; not enough sodium in the sea.” Information on the mud can be found here, and the salt here. Another one talks about both Earth’s allegedly decaying magnetic field, and soft tissues. A [...]

  2. [...] a young earth. Some great starting places would be the series on the amount of salt in the oceans (Part 1 here) or some of the thoughts on [...]

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