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.
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.