Friday, May 29, 2009

An interesting field trip at the Portland GSA

While I was at the Toronto AGU, I happend to be looking at GSA's website for their annual meeting, which is going to be held in Portland this year. Naturally, I'm excited for the chance to get closer to some volcanoes (which are noticeably lacking in Toronto), and I was even entertaining the idea of going on a field trip. So when I saw this title, I perked up a bit:
425. Breached Dam Overlook at Mount St. Helens
Sat., 17 Oct. US$95 (L, R).
It's even affordable for a poor grad student. Then I looked at the field trip leader:
Leader: Steven A. Austin, Austin Research Consulting.
Usually, I expect to see people from the USGS or local universities leading a field trip - although the name sounded strangely familiar. So I did a little research...and all the hits that came up were from creationism websites. Namely, the Institute for Creation Research.

It appears that Steven Austin has degrees in geology (they're listed as B.S. Geology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA,1970; M.S. Geology, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA, 1971; Ph.D. Geology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, 1979), but that he is also the person who introduced the Mount St. Helens/Grand Canyon/Flood and Mount St. Helens "old" lava dome dacite arguments for the Flood and a young Earth. (Links to the debunking of these arguments can be found here and here on the Talk Origins website.)

Stuff like this just makes me twitch. I can't say whether or not Austin knows the recent geologic history well enough to lead a good trip. But what I do strenuously object to is the fact that the field trip description very carefully gives no indication that Austin works for the ICR, and that he has been very vocal in promoting what many geologists would consider to be extremely bad science.

Here's the trip description:
This six-hour hike follows a 13-kilometer-round-trip route to an extraordinary geologic location called “Breached Dam Overlook” just seven kilometers north of the crater of Mount St. Helens. The trail leads us from the Johnston Ridge Observatory onto the largest landslide deposit to have accumulated during human history. This debris avalanche deposit of May 18, 1980, forms one of the earth’s newest landscapes of 45 square kilometers area within the headwaters of the North Fork of the Toutle River. The objectives of the field trip are (1) to identify, classify and name individual landforms within the upper North Fork Toutle River landscape, (2) to relate the landforms to the sequence of events and processes that have occurred next to the volcano, and (3) to ponder questions about how the landscape at a volcano changes through time. Landforms on the debris avalanche landscape are relicts that have been impacted significantly by geomorphic processes that exceed a certain minimum energy threshold. Following the debris avalanche of May 18, 1980, the most significant event was the mudflow of March 19, 1982. That mudflow event breached the natural debris dam, caused adjustment within the drainage basin, and derived the present landscape. Now that the power of geomorphic processes has diminished, finer sediment is what is being moved. Channels are incised and armored with coarser clasts, and valleys are now plugging with sediment. Hikers can observe the new landscape from two selected overlooks. Johnston Ridge Observatory on the west side of Mount St. Helens Volcano National Monument is the staging area this roundtrip hike of 13.6 kilometers (8.4 mi).
Knowing Austin's background puts this into an entirely different light, and it's not one that I like. I'd say the odds are pretty good that his Grand Canyon and argon arguements are going to pop up on the trip, and unless the attendees know what they're getting into (and like to debate creationists for fun), people will probably be shocked and disappointed that they spent money and time only to be a captive audience for someone's bad pet young Earth theories. It's a pity; I would have liked to spend some time at St. Helens with a legitimate geologist (someone from the CVO, say; why aren't they leading any MSH field trips?)

Bottom line? I'm kind of surprised that GSA is allowing someone who so blatantly goes against their position statement on evolution and creationism to lead a field trip. I don't know what the vetting process is for field trip leaders, but if I were a GSA official, I wouldn't allow someone like Austin to potentially use GSA as an avenue for promoting theories that directly contradict the geological science that GSA works so hard to promote. (Then again, this may be a recurring thing - does anyone know if Austin has led other GSA field trips? Perhaps GSA just doesn't care.)

If you know of anyone who's thinking of attending the Portland GSA, please let them know about the background of this particular trip leader before they sign up and fork over their money - if they don't already recognize him.


BrianR said...

wow ... this is very interesting ... it's not as if this is just a geologist who has spoken publicly about their faith, it's someone who actively works for and promotes anti-science.

I wonder if GSA even knows?

Tuff Cookie said...

I don't know, but if anyone has GSA contacts, they should probably give them a heads up.

Kim said...

The field trip co-chairs are:

Ian Madin, Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries,
Becky Dorsey, University of Oregon,
Jim O’Connor, U.S. Geological Survey

I don't know any of them personally. (I recognize Becky's name from someplace, but I'm not sure where.)

Callan Bentley said...

Wow. Nice sleuthing, Detective Cookie!

BrianR said...

There was some tweetin' go on about this earlier today ... I really hope that they are simply unaware, I can't imagine that the trip chairs would be okay with this.

andrew said...

What is the creationist take on MSH? I'm having a hard time seeing what I should object to.

Tuff Cookie said...

andrew - Austin tries to use the "canyon" carved into the deposits from the St. Helens eruption (which happened fairly quickly) to prove that the Grand Canyon could have been carved in hundreds or thousands rather than millions of years. (He doesn't pay much attention to the fact that the MSH eruption produced ash and not hard, cemented sandstone.)

He also tries to use a set of K-Ar dates from the MSH dome dacite to prove that K-Ar methods are inaccurate and can't give us ancient ages for rocks (but he misused the dating method, which cannot accurately date rocks younger than 2 million years).

Creationists don't look so much at the eruption as they do at the landform processes, and try to use the quick changes in the landscape to say that other landscape-modifying geologic processes cannot have been as slow as geologists say they are.

Chuck said...

Imagine how much more popular creationism would be if every geologist who fucked up a date became a young earther.

Rock Head said...

I suspect Steve Austin is trying to "pad" his resume by guiding this GSA-sponsored field trip in order to make himself appear more legitimate.

It will be interesting to see if he pulls a bait-and-switch by departing from the trip description and presenting creationist viewpoints.

I don't know if GSA is aware of his background and views, but in any case GSA appears to be in a no-win situation. If the field trip proceeds,they appear to be giving legitmacy to creationist views; if they pull the plug on the trip,the creationists will scream "censorship of opposing views"...etc.

pascal said...

Thanks for the heads-up. I signed up before knowing about this potential pitfall. It's still fairly cheap, and it saves me the cost of renting a car to see it myself. Now I'll just be sure to bone up on some simple rebuttals before I attend. If any one is interested, I can provide a review...

pascal said...

Update - I just looked at the co-leader for the trip. Dr. Timothy L. Clary. A professor of geoscience at Delta College (professional degree institution). He has a 2006 article in "Acts and Facts" about dinosaurs not being birds, but instead are a separate wonder of "God's Creation (TM)"

Tuff Cookie said...

Oh, dear. Well, at least it will be an interesting trip. I'd definitely be interested in a review of the trip - you can do a guest post that I'll publish after the meeting. Good luck!

pascal said...

I'd be happy to. I'm curious to see how this tour compares to one they did on Sunday:

I'm viewing it as an opportunity to see a volcano and learn something (about what, we'll have to wait and see).

TKHelble said...

Pascal - I went to the NW Creation seminar this weekend (Oct 10-11) to see what Dr. Austin was like first-hand. I'm a hydrologist who happens to be a Christian, but I think young earth creationism is just plain false. I pretty much stayed silent and just took notes.

I went on his MSH hike on Monday, but we only walked one mile from Johnson Ridge. About 65 people went on the hike, including some kids who I judged to be about 3 years old - totally inappropriate for a hike like this - he ended up on his daddy's shoulders after putting up a stink. When we stopped, one young earth believer asked Steve to tell everyone about dating of the dacite rock from the dome, so Steve told the story, framing it in the context that he sent it to the lab only wanting to know how much argon was in it. Then he said how the lab came back with a date for a K-feldspar mineral of 2.5 billion years, and a whole rock date of something like 200,000 years. I asked him if K-Ar was a good method to use on young rock, and he kind of looked at me for a few seconds (I figure he was weighing his options on what to say), and then said yes. I got it on video tape.

Tuff Cookie is correct in saying that Dr. Austin uses MSH to justify a young Grand Canyon, only Austin believes the carving took only a matter of weeks. Also, he believes the layers from the Sixtymile Fm to the top were deposited in the first 150 days of Noah's flood.

pascal said...

I have begun a series of posts on the trip. I'll be sure to cross-post the trip report this weekend.

Rock Head said...


Is there any chance of posting that video on Youtube?

TKHelble said...

Rock Head - yes, once I get some time. You know, what would be cool would be if someone could ask Steve the same question on this weekend's hike - "Could you tell us about the dating of the dacite rock from the dome?" and then compare the two answers. Maybe even catch his answer on video too?

Something I forgot to say in my last post was that during one of his presentations at last weekend's creation conference, Dr. Austin told the audience that he was going to take a group of secular geologists on a hike at MSH next weekend, and the whole audience cheered and clapped loudly. I can't say for sure what his motives were, but to the audience, I sure they were thinking to themselves, "Wow, we're onto something big here - the evolutionists are really becoming interested in the creationist point of view, and maybe Steve will be able to convince many of them of the 'truth' of a recent creation."

pascal said...

Part two is up: