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The 1998 International Conference on Creationism

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
The 1998 International Conference on Creationism
Robert Schadewald
22–25, 33
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The 1998 International Conference on Creationism (ICC98) was held at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, August 3 through 8, 1998. Organized every four years by the Pittsburgh Creation Science Fellowship, the ICCs are the most ambitious of creation conferences. ICC98 was organized in two tracks, the Technical Symposium and the Educators' Symposium. The former ran the full six days and included 47 papers; the latter ran Thursday through Saturday with an even dozen presentations. Also, a plenary session was held every evening. Total attendance was probably around 400.

Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a town of about 10,000, is roughly 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Geneva College is a small school run by the tiny Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, whose publishing arm originally brought forth Henry Morris's Genesis Flood. The campus is very beautiful, with lots of trees, flower beds, and old-fashioned stone buildings. The dorms are not air-conditioned, unfortunately, and everyone sweltered at night. The cafeteria food was a pleasant surprise, especially in comparison with Duquesne in Pittsburgh, site of the three previous ICCs (1986, 1990, and 1994).

I have attended all four ICCs and six other major creation conferences, beginning in 1983. (It is sobering to think that I have spent more than two months of my life at creation conferences.) During that period, attendance by skeptics has varied from about a dozen at ICC86 to yours truly at ICC94. This year, Frank Lovell, a long-time creationist-watcher from Louisville, Kentucky, also attended the entire conference. Astronomer Francis Graham, who defended Copernicanism in a formal debate against geocentrists at the 1985 National Creation Conference, attended ICC98 on Tuesday. Tom McIver drove up from Cleveland on Saturday. The notes that follow are my own impressions of the conference, tempered throughout by conversations with Frank Lovell.

The conference is not easily summarized, other than to say that it was a far cry from the National Creation Conferences that the old Bible-Science Association used to sponsor. For example, I heard only two speakers mention that old creationist chestnut, the thickness of dust on the moon. One said that it is no problem for the conventional view, but it is a bit of a problem for young-Earth creationists, because at the current influx rate there is far too much moon dust for a 10,000-year scenario. The other noted that Snelling and Rush thoroughly debunked the moon dust argument in Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal some years ago.

In other words, this was not your father's creation science.

The opening presentation on Monday morning was entitled "Blotting Out and Breaking Up: Miscellaneous Hebrew Studies in Geocatastrophism" by David Fouts and Kurt Wise, both of Bryan College. Fouts, who teaches Hebrew and Old Testament, did the actual presentation. The authors argued that the Hebrew of the Flood story requires the "blotting out" of life on Earth by waters of the "great deep" exiting through both oceanic and terrestrial fountains or springs. The language does not, however, require obliteration of signs of life on Earth, and the existence of fossils is consistent with (if not required by) the text. The paper tended to provide scriptural validation for global Flood models that depend on terrestrial water sources.

Also on Monday was "Numerical Simulation of Precipitation Induced by Hot Mid-Oceanic Ridges" by meteorologist Larry Vardiman of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). Vardiman obtained the source code for a weather modeling tool developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and modified it to run on a microcomputer. Using this model, he investigated what would have happened to global precipitation just after the Flood if the mid-oceanic ridges, being newly-formed and very hot, heated the waters above them to 30º C, 50º C, or even 70º C. Needless to say, the hotter the ocean surface, the greater the evaporation, and what goes up must come down, lots of it in the polar regions. Could this explain the — as in one — Ice Age?

On Tuesday morning, T. Fritsche presented a paper entitled "The Impact at the Cretaceous/Tertiary Boundary." Fritsche gave quite a nice summary of the history of the impact hypothesis, the broad range of evidence supporting it, the challenge of the competing volcanic eruption hypothesis, and the apparent triumph of the impact scenario. Frank and I didn't notice any significant omissions or distortions here. I was anxiously awaiting Fritsche's explanation of how the dust cloud blasted into the atmosphere by the impact managed to penetrate the Flood Mud and form a worldwide layer of clay just below the Tertiary deposits. (Most creationists believe the Flood waters then were carrying essentially all of the Tertiary sediments in suspension.) Alas, Fritsche never mentioned this. Strangely enough, I've never heard any other creationist try to account for it, either.

I also attended a Tuesday presentation by Robert H. Brown of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Geoscience Research Center. Brown's paper, "Meteorites and a Young Earth," was somewhat similar to one he gave at the first ICC in 1986. This time, he focused on the Asuka meteorite, which has been dated by six different radiometric techniques. All give the same date within a few percent. A nuclear physicist by training, Brown carefully explained the logic underlying radiometric dating and argued that the concordant dates have to mean something. At the end of his presentation, he suggested that the Genesis creation story seems to deal primarily with events involving Earth, and creationists should at least consider the possibility that some of the creation already existed. During the question period, John Baumgardner, a geophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratories, sharply attacked Brown for this bit of alleged heresy. Baumgardner accused Brown of not being a real young-Earth creationist and of deceiving the conference organizers to get on the program. The elderly Brown handled the ugly situation with poise and dignity. I half expected someone to stand up and tell Baumgardner to sit down, but no one did. The charge of deceit was especially unfair; Brown has spoken at every ICC, and the organizers knew his views from the beginning.

On Tuesday evening, philosopher of science Paul Nelson gave a presentation on "Understanding the Logic of Design." Nelson is one of the few who are firmly established in both the young-Earth creationist and Intelligent Design camps. According to Nelson, the logic of Design comes down to this: Science as conventionally practiced deals with natural causes and excludes intelligent causes. In the real world, however, we appeal to intelligent causation all the time. Detectives, for example, do not demand natural causes in murder cases. They look for intelligent causes. It is absurd for science to demand natural causation and exclude intelligent causation. And so on, through many examples.

When Nelson finished, the first question came from Paul Ackerman, a psychologist at Wichita State University. Ackerman argued that the problem with Nelson's approach "is the distinction between natural causes and intelligent causes. Any psychologist would say that intelligent human behavior is a natural cause." He went on to suggest that the proper distinction would be supernatural creation or supernatural design versus evolution. I was intrigued to hear a creationist make exactly the same objections I would have made.

Nelson's response was revealing. "I'm going to have to resist that move," he said, "because I do not think that the best way to make the analytical cut is between natural and supernatural. If you let them make the distinction between natural and supernatural, you will never be able to crack methodological naturalism."

Indeed! The claim that "natural" and "intelligent" somehow are opposites is fundamental to Intelligent Design. By promoting a false dichotomy, by equivocating with the words "natural" and "intelligent," Intelligent Design advocates hope to smuggle miracles into scientific explanations without facing up to the questions David Hume raised more than two centuries ago.

Phillip W Dennis is an industrial research physicist with publications in quantum field theory and invariant methods in special and general relativity. On Wednesday morning, Dennis gave the first half of his presentation on "Probability and Quantum Mechanics: A Christian Theistic Interpretation." A hard-shell Calvinist, Dennis believes that absolutely nothing is truly random. As he put it, "There is not one contingent electron floating around in the universe." Everything is foreordained. (Later, I gratefully learned that it was foreordained that Dennis would loan me change for the Coke machine when I was dying of thirst.)

In his two-part presentation, Dennis argued two points. First, he argued that probability can and should be put in a Christian framework. Every event in the universe has meaning and purpose. "Probability is attributable to a correlation between the limited knowledge of man and the external objective state of affairs again arranged according to the eternal decree of God." Secondly, Dennis argued against the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and reviewed numerous alternatives proposed by others. Without claiming to have solved the problem, he suggested an approach for a Christian realist interpretation of quantum mechanics.

On Wednesday afternoon, Dean H Kenyon, a biophysicist at San Francisco State University, presented a paper entitled "Hierarchical Information Content, Linguistic Properties and Protein-binding Oligomers in Coding and Noncoding DNA Sequences." Kenyon noted that up to 97% of the DNA in mammalian genomes doesn't code for anything. Some of it has a regulatory function, but most of it is introns with no known function. He argued that the "texture" of noncoding DNA differs significantly from that of coding DNA. The introns have many more repeats and quasi-periodic sequences, as he demonstrated with striking slides. What could this mean? Kenyon characterized his work as an exploration, a search for ways to test hypotheses about whether genetic systems show Intelligent Design.

Kenyon was followed by Andrew Snelling, a geologist with the Australian branch of Answers in Genesis, and John Woodmorappe, speaking on "The Cooling of Thick Igneous Bodies on a Young Earth." Earth's crust contains many large blobs of granitic rock that rose from the interior in a molten state and then cooled and solidified. Some of these plutons are several kilometers in diameter. According to the conventional view, some of them took hundreds of thousands or even millions of years to cool, mostly by conduction. This view is incompatible with a young Earth as defined by the authors (6000 to 7000 years old rather than 4.55 billion). The authors argued that a high water content can reduce the melting point of a magma, and magma can absorb up to 24% water by weight at a depth of 100 km. Escaping water can carry away a lot of heat. Moreover, water percolating through cracks and pores in the surrounding country rock and the plutons themselves could carry away more heat by convective cooling. By maximizing favorable variables and invoking every known and conceivable mechanism, the authors claimed to answer "yet another objection to the young-Earth creationist position." Don't hold your breath waiting for this one to survive conventional peer review!

Danny Faulkner, an astronomer at the University of South Carolina (Lancaster), is perhaps the world's only young-Earth creationist astronomer with a secular academic appointment in astronomy. On Wednesday morning, Faulkner reviewed the states of conventional and creationist astronomy. I don't recall any strong assertion about the former that a conventional astronomer would dispute. He also said that, although creationists have partial and/or hypothetical alternatives to some of the conventional ideas, the fact is that no creationist astronomy model exists. (For more on Faulkner's astronomy, see "Yet Another Young Sun Apologetic", this issue)

On Friday morning, Kurt Wise gave a presentation on creationist systematics entitled, "Is Life Singularly Nested or Not?" Wise is noted for telling his students and others trying to construct creation models to "think weird." By this, he means to think outside the box preferably, way outside the box. And he takes his own advice. In this presentation, Wise noted that both evolutionists and creationists take some sort of hierarchy of life, some sort of nesting scheme, for granted. But what if it ain't so? Many familiar concepts and objects can be grouped into multiple, equally valid categories. Consider table utensils. Obviously, one can group forks into one category, spoons into another, and knives into another. But it is equally valid to categorize table utensils as silver, stainless steel, plastic, and so on. Can life forms also be rigorously classified in multiple ways? Wise argued that examples of problematica, chimeromorphs, horizontal gene transfer, cladistic observations of unresolved multichotomies, and numerous other lines of evidence suggest multiple nesting. He argued that creationists ought to consider a multiply nested scheme for classifying living things above the level of the "baramin" (created kind).

On Friday afternoon, Steven A Austin of ICR and Andrew A Snelling of Answers in Genesis gave a presentation entitled "Discordant Potassium-Argon Model and Isochron 'Ages' for Cardenas Basalt (Middle Proterozoic) and Associated Diabase of Eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona." It is well-known that rubidium-strontium and potassium-argon (K-Ar) radiometric dates for the Cardenas basalt disagree. The usual explanation for the discordance is argon loss. Based on published dates and analyses of their own samples, the authors concluded that conventional explanations for the discordance fail. They reviewed three alternatives, each having major problems of its own. Nevertheless, the authors concluded, "All three explanations offered as alternatives to the argon loss models invalidate using the K-Ar system as conventional geochronology would assume."

Saturday afternoon, speaking on "A College Creation Curriculum" at an Educators' Symposium (nontechnical) session, Wise presented an impressive review of global plate tectonics, hitting most of the highlights and pointing out the consilience between several independent lines of evidence. He told the audience that evolution is a powerful theory, and that anyone who claims otherwise simply doesn't understand evolution. He said point blank that if it weren't for his religious beliefs — if he had only the scientific evidence — he would accept evolution himself.

Saturday evening, Wise gave the closing presentation for the conference, and among other things, he reviewed the state of the creation model in various fields. Astronomy? No creation model exists. Biology? Same. Paleontology (his own field)? Same. He thinks a couple of other fields, such as the development of a Flood model, are making slow progress.

Despite this seemingly gloomy summary, Wise sent people away fired up. His message was that creationists have an enormous amount of work to do, and it is time for them to get cracking. He appealed to everyone present to pitch in and do whatever they could. One prominent creationist told me later that he thought the Wise windup was the best presentation of the conference.

It is hard to overstate the influence of Kurt Wise in shaping modern creationism as it is practiced at its higher levels. I first met Kurt at NCC85 in Cleveland (the conference that ended with a formal debate over the relative merits of heliocentricity and geocentricity). Kurt then was still a graduate student at Harvard studying paleontology under Stephen J Gould. He immediately impressed me with his candor in dealing with the evidence, but it didn't really sink home until the following year, when I heard him give a presentation at ICC86 entitled "How Geologists Date Things." The talk was absolutely straight Geology 101, except for a few debunking asides. ("You know how creationists often claim that geologists use circular reasoning, that the rocks date the fossils, and fossils date the rocks? Well, that's wrong." And he explained why.) That was 12 years ago. Since then, Kurt has labored tirelessly, in public and private, by example and persuasion, to convince his creationist colleagues to face the facts and find new ways to interpret them.

Credit also is due to the Pittsburgh Creation Science Fellowship (CSF), organizer and sponsor of the ICCs. Bob Walsh and Henry Jackson III of CSF were at NCC85 in Cleveland to promote the conference they were planning for the next year. They told me then that they intended to set a higher standard. ICC86 was indeed a significant improvement, but it still was largely evolution-bashing. Besides the technical and educational tracks, ICC86 featured a "basic creationism" track whose menu included dishes such as Walter Brown's Hydroplate Model (some creationists privately referred to it as the "wacky track"). The second ICC, held in 1990, was marginally better, but evolution-bashing and "wacky track" nonsense still were abundant. Following ICC90, CSF established a refereeing system that essentially eliminated outright shoddiness. Meanwhile, Wise and other Young Turks, especially philosophers Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds, had convinced the powers that be at CSF that evolution-bashing never has advanced and never will advance a real "creation model." As a result, ICC94 was dramatically better.

At ICC98, the transformation sought by the Young Turks was virtually complete. A speaker or two may have aimed the occasional cheap shot at conventional science, but nothing remotely resembling a Gishian performance was on the program. Period. For better or worse, most presentations tried either to advance a model in some way or at least to honestly review the evidence that needs explaining. This requirement was stated in the call for papers and enforced in the refereeing process, and I didn't see a significant breakdown. Anyone whose only exposure to creationism is a Gish Gallop would not have recognized a single presentation at ICC98.

One result of the higher level of ICC presentations seems to be a higher-level audience. The deep-denial school of creation science the "absolutely no evidence for evolution," dust-on-the-moon, salt-in-the-sea, evolution-is-Nazism, geomagnetico-thermoapologetic ICR parrots were mostly silent, though not entirely absent. Consequently, the level of hostility toward Frank and me was minimal, and our interactions with the creationists invariably were cordial or better. Frank and I always ate together in the cafeteria, and we had company more often than not. Some of our mealtime companions were friends from previous creation conferences, and others were new acquaintances. Questions were many, and we tried to give straight answers to all. In return, we got straight answers to questions of our own. We both felt that these exchanges were the best part of the conference.

On one point we found complete agreement: precious little of the ICC-style creationism has filtered down to the grassroots level. Duane Gish, Gary Parker, Kent Hovind, Walter Brown, Donald Chittick, and others still spout the same old stuff in seminars and debates, and it is endlessly regurgitated at Sunday schools, Bible clubs, and on the Internet. The new-generation creationists are painfully aware that most of the popular creationist literature is dreck. Although they cannot (and should not) prevent anyone from publishing anything, a move is afoot to establish some sort of clearinghouse that will award a seal of Clean Creation Science (or whatever) to books that meet the new standards. Moreover, they intend to commission someone to write an up-to-date replacement for Henry Morris's The Genesis Flood , which they hope then will go mercifully out of print, along with the equally valuable works it spawned. Even with a serious effort by dedicated people, it will take decades to purge the nonsense, and it may not be purgable at all.