Saturday, 8 October 2016

Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Stop to Think!

Do you ever get that sinking feeling?

We've previously looked at the phenomenon of cognitive inertia, the tendency to cling on to ideas that evidence shows are on shaky ground. Here, I want to look at a particular example, one that's not so much on shaky ground as buried beneath mountains of unequivocal contradictory evidence.

Earlier this year, on July 7th 2016, a 'tourist attraction' opened in Williamstown, Kentucky. I place the above term in scare quotes advisedly, because it isn't so much a tourist attraction as it is a tool for proselytising children. Built by Answers in Genesis, who also run the Creation museum in Petersburg, the 'Ark Encounter' is a 'replica' of a craft that only exists in the imagination. Costing close to $100m, and eligible for substantial tax subsidies, assuming the visitor and thus the staffing numbers are as projected (there's good reason to think they may not be), this is possibly the greatest monument to shoddy thinking in the history of bad ideas. Here it is:
I'll say one thing for it, it is fucking colossal! It's certainly a spectacle, even if it is complete bollocks.

So what's it all about? 

It stems from Genesis, and Yahweh's alleged first attempt to eradicate sin from Earth (setting aside the fact that, according to his biography, sin only entered the world because of his application of a wonderful trick that hucksters throughout history have employed to fleece the gullible). Apparently not having yet come up with the idea of sacrificing himself to himself, he determined that the best way to go about making the world a better place was to wipe the slate clean by killing not only the vast majority of humans, including innocent newborns, but also almost the entirety of the biosphere. 

Even a cursory assessment should be enough to punch holes in this story. Indeed, this was one of the first things I encountered in Sunday School that stood out as obvious nonsense, even to my five or six year-old self. We're told that this all-knowing, all-powerful being, who allegedly even knew the future with perfect, infallible accuracy, and thus knew this plan was doomed to failure even before setting it in motion, couldn't come up with a better way to defeat bad behaviour than to eradicate almost all the life on the planet. Even at a very young age, my developing bullshit detectors screamed the awuga waltz at me.

Shifting focus away from the howling, carpet-biting absurdity of this notion, how do we know it didn't happen?

Let's start with a group of researchers who believed this tale and went out searching for evidence of it. After the contributions of ancient philosophers and medieval Muslim scholars, much of the history of the science of geology is interwoven with biblical accounts of the formation of the Earth and the great flood. Many Western geologists set out specifically to find confirmation of their biblical history. A brief scan of the Wiki page on the history of geology* reads like a Who's Who? of Christianity from about the late 17th century onward. Indeed, geology was the field of battle for creationists long before the proposal of Darwin's theory (though evolutionary ideas were around long before Darwin, of course, not least from Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus). Creation(dot)com (whose Google ratings I have no intention of aiding) cite Western geology as the vanguard in the battle against evolution.

I won't detail the history of geology here, as it's beyond the scope of this missive. I will include a link to Wiki's page on flood geology for entertainment purposes. Suffice it to say for the moment that early geology was fertile ground for countering evidence to the biblical chronology extrapolated by Ussher. His wasn't the only chronology, of course. Others were constructed by such luminaries as Bede, Johannes Kepler and even Isaac Newton.

So what would a geologist expect to find as evidence of a global flood? Well, we know that floods carry sediment. Anybody who's ever had their house flooded in torrential rain (an occurrence whose regularity is massively increasing in the last few years) will know that there's always a sedimentary deposit left behind. Flood geologists set out to look for it and, although they identified several candidate deposits, none stood up to scrutiny.

Fast forward to 1961, and a book released by John C Whitcomb Jr. and Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research, known among sceptics less than entirely affectionately as the first place to look if your lab-coat is stolen. This book, The Genesis Flood, was rooted in the assumption of biblical infallibility. Here's Morris, in a quote from 1982, that's fairly informative regarding the integrity of his 'science':
"No geological difficulties, real or imagined, can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and necessary inferences of Scripture."
In short, where doctrine and reality give you different answers, reality is wrong and doctrine is right. This is the most egregious manifestation of cognitive inertia.

In any event, this book was essentially a reworking of an earlier work, George McCready Price's The New Geology, although little reference was made to Price. In it, Whitcomb and Morris advanced the hypothesis that all sedimentary deposits from the beginning of the Cambrian to the end of the Pliocene were laid down by the flood. It wasn't a new idea but,because the book was so popular, it spurred a huge amount of 'research' by YECs attempting to find support for the conclusions therein.

In one of the great twists of irony, it was actually this research that finally nailed the idea of finding evidence for the global flood in the geologic column. There's a wonderful treatment of this by Phil Senter of the NCSE which I recommend highly. I'll simply include this image, taken from his paper, that shows the scale of the problem. It details the geologic column for the entirety of that period, and the things we find in all the strata that demonstrate that there could not have been a global deluge in this time. Bear in mind that even this timescale flatly refutes Ussher's chronology, not least because the end of this vast swathe of time, the Pliocene, ran between approximately 5.5 and 2.5 millions years ago.
So, as we can see, they went looking for evidence, and they didn't find it. What they did find was a litany of intractable difficulties.

Now, you might say that maybe they just got the timing wrong, and the flood was more recent. After all, the flood was supposed to have occurred only four thousand years ago, right? Maybe we just haven't found the evidence, you might posit. After all, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, is it? Well, is it?

This is an extremely popular trope, and entirely wrong. I won't go into detail as it would take us too far afield but, in a nutshell, any data that do not support a hypothesis stand as supporting data for the null hypothesis. I'll deal with this in more detail in a future submission.

That said, we need not rely on mere absence of evidence when we have categorical evidence that this global inundation cannot have happened on these shorter timescales, or indeed any time in human history.

The first thing we should deal with is humans. We have a wonderfully complete history of our species available to us if we know where to look for it. We're only going to look at the time the flood is alleged to have occurred, but most of what follows applies equally well to the entirety of the tenure of Homo sapiens on the planet.

There's good evidence to suggest, first of all, that the Quitu tribe, founders of the Ecuadorian capital Quito, lived there continuously from around the time of the alleged flood until conquered by the Caras, who in turn occupied the area until the arrival of the conquistadors in the 16th century. Prior to maritime excursions, notably by the Vikings, the only route to the Americas from the rest of the world was via the Bering land bridge, a stretch of land between Siberia and Canada which has been continuously submerged for around 11,000 years, since the recession of the last glacial period. It's well understood that the indigenous people of the Americas all arrived via this route some 16,000 years ago.

Indeed, Jared Diamond tells us, in his brilliant Guns, Germs and Steel, that around the time of the purported inundation, a flourishing agrarian society was growing maize only a stone's throw from where Ham's fantasy bathtub sits today.

Elsewhere, in India, for example, we do find some evidence of a flood in the ancient city of Lothal in Gujarat, site of the world's earliest known example of a dock. Unfortunately, it didn't quite reach nine kilometres, which is just as well, since the elevation of Lothal is only 1/1000th of that, at a little over nine metres above sea level. Also, the flood at Lothal was some fifty years too early to have been Noah's flood according to biblical chronologies.

In Egypt, Pharaoh Pepi I of the sixth dynasty was busying himself digging canals, primarily to strengthen his hold on Nubia - the Nubians were conducting raids against Upper Egypt at the time - but also for economic purposes, in the form of transporting obelisks and large granite blocks downriver. There's strong evidence that they were trading as far afield as the Lebanon and Somalia, and there are records of excursions into Palestine. The locations of these canals were at the 'cataracts', stretches of the Nile too shallow for ships, running between Aswan and Khartoum. All this seems to have continued with relatively little inconvenience arising from being under nine kilometres of water.

Slightly further South, there are some sites of extreme interest to evolutionary biologists - and to aquarists - the African lakes Victoria, Malawi and Tanganyika. These three lakes between them house the vast majority of all the species of cichlid fish on Earth. There are other sources, notably the Americas, which house a few hundred species between them, but the African lakes are home to most of the 1,650 or so species that have been described in the primary literature. This is thought to represent only a half or two thirds of the total number of species.

Cichlids are a rich source of information for evolutionary models, especially models for speciation. The advantage in studying them is that they diversify extremely rapidly. This occurs for several reasons, not least the fact that they have a degree of phenotypic plasticity. They also exhibit all three of the classic models of speciation, sympatric, allopatric and parapatric. For more on speciation, see Has Evolution Been Proven? 

So why are these fish a problem for the flood? Well, while some species can survive in brackish water for short periods, most cichlids are extremely intolerant of saltwater. Any inundation sufficient to bring seawater into those lakes would mean that the cichlid populations would be extinct.

There are some species that are struggling, mostly in Lake Victoria since the introduction of the Nile perch in the 1950s, but also due to siltation arising from deforestation and overfishing. However, the fact that they are there at all is testament to the fact that the Noachian flood is a fantasy.

Finally, no post would be complete without touching on thermodynamics, so that's what we'll finish with.

It's not immediately obvious, and possibly even somewhat counter-intuitive when dealing with water, but rainfall involves thermodynamic exchanges, which means that it produces heat.

I thought long and hard about how best to present this bit. To make this as simple as possible, I decided to keep the numbers very small. So, we'll take an area of one square metre. Even this gross oversimplification should result in a spectacular outcome. I am going to assume perfect conversion of this kinetic energy, but this is more than offset by the energy we're excluding.

The formula for kinetic energy is \(\dfrac 12 mv^2\), where \(m\) is the mass and \(v\) is velocity. A typical raindrop has a mass of about 4 mg and typically reaches terminal velocity, the speed at which the downward force of falling is exactly matched by the force of air resistance, at about 8 m/s. Plugging the numbers in, we find that the energy in rainfall over this area sufficient to cover our square metre to a depth of one centimetre is in the ballpark of three hundred Joules. That's not a huge amount, of course, although it isn't entirely trivial either. This is about the same amount that a defibrillator delivers to a patient's heart when being treated for fibrillation.

To a depth of one metre, the kinetic energy release is thirty kJ. This is roughly the energy release in metabolising a gram of fat.

Let's ramp up a bit more. To a depth of one kilometre, the energy release is 30,000 kJ. That looks like a more promising figure. It's roughly the output in horsepower of this, the Daihatsu Midget:


Actually, it's a bit more than that. The midget weighs in at an astronomical power output of 10 horsepower, while our 30,000 kJ, or 30 megajoules, delivers a whopping 11 horsepower.

OK, so we're starting to get a picture, as well as getting extremely silly. Let's increase the area, then, to one square kilometre, and we can see what happens. Now the numbers start to get a bit large. Indeed, it's probably time to start using exponents. At one square kilometre to a depth of one kilometre, the energy release is thirty billion joules, or 3 x 109 joules (3 gigajoules).This is roughly equivalent to a Boeing 767-200 travelling at 555 kph. We're getting to some serious energy release here, and we're not even beginning to put a dent in the real figures, not least because we're only one ninth the depth, and that's before we get into the area of the Earth's surface, which is a whopping 510 million square kilometres.

Setting aside the simple fact that, even at a depth of only one of the nine requisite kilometres, the surface of the planet (including the oceans) will heat sufficiently under such precipitation to ensure that the rain stops due to evaporation long before it reaches the surface, and even ignoring that the surface area goes up as the depth increases, meaning that the numbers climb commensurately, and allowing all of the rain to reach the surface regardless of temperature, the planet would end up glowing like a minor star, would be completely sterile, even killing the most resilient of extremophiles, and certainly wouldn't be conducive to sailing in a fucking wooden boat.

I'll leave with one final thought. Here's a rendition of the Earth with all the water removed, with the removed water juxtaposed:
This image represents every molecule of water on the planet. The common sceptic's objection to the flood is 'where did all the water go?' This image puts that question properly into perspective.

I'm not even going to cover how a dove could fly back to the ark with an olive branch, allegedly still recognisable after spending most of a year under several kilometres of saltwater.

So, to return to the question at the head of this post, do you ever get that sinking feeling? I do, every time somebody starts an argument with 'well, before the fall...'

Not to be believed by a thinking person. If you do believe it, thinking is just something that happens to other people.

Hope this was informative and/or entertaining. Share and enjoy. Nits, crits, typos, maths corrections, etc, always welcome.

*I note that there's no mention of Leonardo da Vinci, who was among the first to propose a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics, derived from finding fossils of marine organisms in the mountains.
Anglican James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, who formulated a biblical timeline by, essentially, adding up all the begats in the hokey blurble, and asserted in that basis that the Earth was formed on Saturday, October 22, 4004, at about teatime.
You can find similar statements in the historical mission statements of pretty much all creationist organisations, and even from some who would not describe themselves as creationists. William Lane 'Kalamity' Craig, for example, has this to say: "Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter."