Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The reinforcement syndrome

Image source.
I recently subscribed to a creation-based, peer-reviewed, scientific journal called Journal of Creation, published by Creation Ministries International.  In the most recent issue (vol. 27, issue 3, 2013), I came across a fascinating article written by Michael Oard, a meteorologist that works with Answers in Genesis.  His article, entitled "The reinforcement syndrome ubiquitous in the earth sciences," details just how staunchly modern scientists hold to propositions and assumptions made by scientists hundreds of years ago, even in the face of conflicting evidence.  This phenomenon is termed the "reinforcement syndrome," and it happens when a hypothesis is continually reinforced by data.

At first, the idea of supporting a hypothesis with data may seem beneficial, but it misses a critical step in the scientific process: experimentation.  The point of experimentation is to definitively test the hypothesis under controlled conditions, so as to leave little room for alternative explanations.  Essentially, experimentation attempts to disprove the hypothesis.  With the reinforcement syndrome, data is interpreted, sometimes selectively, to support a certain hypothesis, either because of greed, pride, ignorance, or any number of psychological reasons.  Later, researchers see the "mountains" of data supporting the hypothesis and assume it is true.  Over time, this assumption becomes convention and law in the field.  The biggest problem with assumptions that develop this way is that they are very difficult, or even impossible, to disprove, particularly when dealing with past events.  Any conflicting data are dismissed as measurement errors, contamination, or faulty reasoning, or they are "set aside for future investigation."

Oard mentions several geological cornerstones that can be attributed to the reinforcement syndrome.  One is the interpretation of geomagnetic anomalies, which are generally considered to be evidence that the poles of the earth's magnetic field switched numerous times throughout its history.  Another geological standard, albeit outdated, is the four-ice-age model of recent Ice Age glaciation.  This model attempted to fit any and all recent glaciers into one of four glacier stages during the Pleistocene Ice Age: the Nebraskan, Afton, Kansan, and Yarmouth stages.  Recently, this model was replaced by the theory that glaciation events were determined by the Milankovitch cycles, which are supposed variations in the movement of the earth at regular intervals over long periods of time.  Oard attributes this explanation to the reinforcement syndrome as well.

Next, Oard discusses what I think is the most interesting symptom of the reinforcement syndrome: the idea that dinosaurs were confined to the Mesozoic Era and went extinct 66 million years ago.  Historically, the Mesozoic was actually defined as the interval that contained dinosaur fossils.  Even today, the top of the Mesozoic sequence of rocks is considered to be, by definition, the "K-T extinction," when the dinosaurs are thought to have gone extinct.  So, already we begin to see some circular reasoning coming into play: any rocks that contain dinosaur fossils are considered to be Mesozoic in age, so paleontologists can claim that dinosaurs are only found in Mesozoic rocks.  Even then, dinosaur bones have been found in well-established Cenozoic rocks (dated after the dinosaur extinction), but these were explained away as having been "reworked;" that is, they eroded out from older rocks and became part of a new deposit.

Thankfully, several examples of anachronistic findings are given to display the power that these unfounded assumptions hold on the modern scientific community.

In 2002, a paper was published in Nature detailing bird-like footprints in Triassic rocks in Argentina.  Birds are not thought to have evolved until at least the Jurassic period, and the dinosaurs they supposedly evolved from only just started appearing in the late Triassic.  Because of these assumptions, the footprints were attributed to dinosaurs that happened to have some bird-like characteristics.  Earlier this year, the authors issued a retraction of their previous article, saying that the rocks were re-dated to the Eocene Epoch, so the footprints must have belonged to birds after all.

Nearly the opposite situation occurred last year, when a set of large, three-toed footprints were reported from the Chuckanut Formation of Washington state.  Typically, such footprints would be attributed to therapod dinosaurs, as dinosaur footprints are common in the western US.  However, the Chuckanut Formation has already been repeatedly dated to the Eocene Epoch, long after the dinosaurs should have died out.  Oard quotes the authors as saying, "In rocks of Mesozoic age, tracks of this size and shape would likely be interpreted as having been made by a small dinosaur, but during the Cenozoic Era, the track maker could only have been a giant ground-dwelling bird... ."  This giant bird, they say, was Gastornis (sometimes called Diatryma in North America), a creature whose remains are found mostly in Europe, with a few specimens from Wyoming and the east coast of the US.  Oard notes that giant flightless bird tracks are extremely rare, having only been found in Antarctica and New Zealand, whereas dinosaur tracks are extremely abundant.  Statistically speaking, then, it is most likely that the track in question were made by dinosaurs, but the uniformitarian assumptions of the researchers precluded them from considering this option.

Oard's article also mentions the Abanico Formation in Chile, which was considered to be Late Cretaceous in age until numerous mammal fossils were found in it, pushing the age to the other side of the K-T extinction.  The age of the formation was further reduced when an ancient monkey skull was found in it, which was reported with a convenient radioisotope date that justified the new age assignment.

Lastly, Oard discusses another recent article that reported Triassic-age fossils in Jurassic-age rocks.  Under normal circumstance, the age range of the fossils found probably would have been extended, but the fossils in question are frequently used as index fossils; that is, any rocks that contain them are labelled "Triassic."  Extending the age range would potentially disturb the delicately constructed geologic column in some locations.  The authors also could not claim that the fossils were reworked, because the nature of the surrounding rock seemed to indicate that no redeposition had occurred.  Instead, the formation was recorrelated (matched up) with another Triassic formation.

These examples demonstrate how data is frequently and selectively interpreted based on the prevailing assumptions of the scientific community.  Rather than challenge the standards of the scientific community, most young scientists today are pressured to conform to the most accepted viewpoints, to quietly publish their edited results and accept their grant money, and to avoid rocking the boat.  It is no wonder, then, that the general public thinks that there are "mountains of evidence" supporting the evolutionary view of earth's history, because that is all that is reported.  Nobody should be afraid of the raw data.  There is nothing wrong with having an incorrect hypothesis.  Publish the results with as little interpretive editing as possible, because withholding knowledge only hinders scientific advancement.

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