SILVERLAKE, Wash. — “Look! You can see the mountain!”
Lloyd Anderson springs ahead of the small group of visitors he has been leading through Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Reaching a small observational clearing, he sweeps his arm toward the horizon and bounces with excitement as he waits for the group — Forest Carnine, a cattle rancher from Angora, Neb.; his wife, Dorothy; their daughter-in-law, Ingrid Carnine of Boring, Ore.; and her two young sons — to catch up.
It is one of those rare days when the weather in southwest Washington clears so you can see Mount St. Helens, which rises behind Anderson and his joyous grin. The snow-capped volcano dazzles against a crystal blue sky, its peak obliterated 25 years ago in an eruption that left it looking like a dish of vanilla ice cream whose top has been scooped off by an eager child.
Lloyd Anderson still gets revved up by the mountain. He is 69 and hard of hearing, but when he gets rolling in the booming cadences of the nondenominational minister he was until 1999, the years fall away and the words tumble out with the message he has committed his retirement to bringing forth. Which is: The Earth is only a few thousand years old, and what happened here in 1980 proves it.
In the beginning ...
Anderson and his wife, Doris, are the founders of the Mount St. Helens Creation Information Center and curators of the 7 Wonders Creation Museum. They represent a third wave of modern biblical creationist thinking, one that says hard-core science proves the Genesis account of creation.
Mainstream scientists say that because it can sound plausible to non-specialists, it could be a particularly formidable threat to public acceptance of Darwinian evolution as it has been taught for more than a century, which Americans already reject by a ratio of almost 2-to-1, an NBC News poll found in March .
In the early part of the 20th century, believers in biblical creation rested their assurance purely on the Bible. It says God created the heavens and the Earth in six days, so it must be so. Nearly half of Americans, 44 percent, still believe that, the poll found.
After retreating from serious public engagement following the debacle of the prosecution of Tennessee science teacher John Scopes in 1925, some religious thinkers posited that the data did indeed support the standard reading of the geologic and biological record. Evolution could be correct, they said.
But that still didn’t explain where the Earth came from in the first place. The delicate balance of climatic, geologic and physical conditions that led to life on Earth couldn’t have happened by chance, they said. It all had to be set in motion by a greater intelligence.
Adherents of what is called intelligent design are careful not to speak of “creationism” as it is popularly understood, weary of the Bible-thumping stereotype the word calls up and aware that the Supreme Court has barred teaching the concept in the public schools. So religious legislators and school board members around the country have latched onto intelligent design as a palatable vehicle for undermining evolution in the curriculum.
Most attention has focused on votes to require the teaching of intelligent design in Dover, Pa. , and in Cobb County, Ga . Both initiatives have been challenged in court, but similar campaigns are under way in at least 15 other states.
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A biblical analysis of hard data
If biblical creationism and intelligent design are at opposite poles of the anti-evolution argument, then Lloyd Anderson and a small number of others like him, popularizing the hypotheses of geologist Steven A. Austin and physicist D. Russell Humphreys, are the vanguard of a modern-day campaign to split the difference.
They are not your father’s creationists.
Tall and forbiddingly learned, Lloyd Anderson can — and frequently does, his wife complains — discourse at length on pyroclastic flows, steam explosion pits, laminate stratification and the event horizons of dense gravity fields. If you wish, he could probably do so in ancient Greek or Hebrew, both of which he reads.
Doris Anderson, a retired registered nurse who pursued a second career as a journalist, translates her husband’s perorations for the everyday reader in brochures and booklets that explain, in no-nonsense but engaging prose, how he believes the geologic changes at and around Mount St. Helens — the “7 Wonders” — prove that processes that mainstream scientists insist took millions of years can actually occur in days, or even hours.
The “second wonder,” for example, was the formation of the Step and Loowit canyons. When you look at Mount St. Helens, Step Canyon, 700 feet deep, is the long gouge trailing down from the mouth of the crater. According to the emerging philosophy, the canyons took just five months to form, illustrating, Anderson says, that magnificent formations like the lava-carved Grand Coulee about 300 miles to the east and even the Grand Canyon could have been formed virtually overnight by a catastrophic event.
Anderson says he could marshal any number of scientific arguments to prove that the biblical global flood happened as it is described in Genesis, from inaccuracies in radiocarbon dating to gaps in the fossil record to superfine stratification of sedimentary layers around Mount St. Helens.
Scientists say it just doesn’t work that way
Creation theory has always driven mainstream scientists nuts. But scientific young-Earth creationism is a special case. Geologists insist that it is just as wrongheaded as old-school blind-faith creationism, but they do so with a touch of grudging respect.
“The 7 Wonders Creation Museum is an example of the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ of the young-Earth creationist movement,” Wilfred Elders, an emeritus professor of geology at the University of California-Riverside, said in an e-mail message. “It is good in that it actually reports geological observations. It is bad because it ignores the scientific method in interpreting them.”
Elders, a former chairman of the Education Committee of the Geothermal Resources Council of the U.S.A., said young-Earth creationists make a fundamental error: They start with their conclusion — that God created the Earth in six days — and then look for the proof. Scientists, on the other hand, “observe the natural world and follow those observations wherever they lead.”Video: Teachers in the middle
“Constrained as they are by their view of biblical chronology, young-Earth creationists infer that the seven days of creation occurred less than 10,000 years ago, and that the next significant event in the history of the Earth and of life was the flood of Noah. The 7 Wonders museum ignores or rejects anything that disagrees with that view,” Elders wrote to MSNBC.com. “In doing so it rejects modern science.”
(You can find Elders’ detailed technical explanation of the objections to “flood geology” in a posting reprinted by Tufts University.)
To Mike Clynne, a stratigrapher for the U.S. Geological Survey — he maps volcanoes — the young-Earth creationists make another fatal error, in how they think of time and scale.
Austin, Humphreys and their champions latch onto “very special geologic events” and, by extrapolation, misleadingly make them seem equivalent to much longer-term events, said Clynne, who worked at Mount St. Helens for seven years and is scheduled to deliver a presentation on its eruptive history this month at the Geochemical Society’s annual Goldschmidt Conference. “In effect, they are taking things that are correct out of context and applying [them] to the much bigger picture.”
The geologic record proves that Mount St. Helens has been erupting for about 300,000 years, Clynne said in an interview. What began happening here in the last few thousand years is just the mountain’s fourth and most recent period of activity.
And no matter how violent the 1980 eruption may seem to us, it pales in significance compared to the awesome processes that created the geologic wonders of the world.
“From a human perspective, what happened at Mount St. Helens was a catastrophe on almost anybody’s scale — 150 square miles of land devastated and 60 people killed. Yet if you compare that to an eruption at Yellowstone, it was a tiny pinprick,” Clynne said. “So these events get orders of magnitude bigger than the eruption of Mount St. Helens.”
Dueling definitions: ‘theory’ vs. ‘theory’
Elders, Clynne and other scientists raise example after example of where they say young-Earth creationists are wrong on the basic science: They misunderstand radiocarbon dating. Their positions can’t explain current phenomena or predict likely developments. Their suppositions can’t be tested, nor can they (if you’ll pardon the expression) evolve to account for new discoveries. Most maddeningly, scientists say, they distort the meaning of the word “theory.”
When the Cobb County School District in suburban Atlanta put stickers in biology textbooks warning that “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” it was correct, scientists say, but for the wrong reason: Evolution is indeed a theory — which means it is much more than a mere “fact.”
When scientists talk about a theory, they mean something far different from the everyday understanding of a guess or a supposition. “‘Theory’ means a logical, tested, well-supported explanation for a great variety of facts,” the National Center for Science Education says. The “theory” of evolution is like the “theory” of gravity — it is as close to a fundamental truth as anything can be.
It is scientific gospel.
The National Center for Science Education works to defeat attempts to teach creationism in the schools as internally illogical, among many other reasons. “If the purpose of the legislation is to require that teachers and texts offer evolution as a theory in the scientific sense,” the center says, “it is unnecessary — they already do so.”
Wryly suffering the slings and arrows
Lloyd and Doris Anderson do not blink at such criticism. They know what the scientific community thinks of them: “insane,” says the 7 Wonders Web site, and “ignorant” and “intolerant” and “oxymoronic.” They indulge it with amusement.
Lloyd Anderson says he honors scientists for their determination to ask questions and follow wherever the evidence leads. But when the Earth was born, “science wasn’t there,” he says. “God was there.”
The Andersons’ visitors are certainly convinced.
“Forest has had so many questions for so many years, and Mr. Anderson is able to answer them,” says Doris Carnine, who attends a United Methodist church in Nebraska with her husband. “It’s just a gift.”
For her part, Ingrid Carnine takes a rare break from corralling her sons to say the presentation reinforced her belief that children should be taught biblical creationism.
“Of course it has a place in the public schools,” where she says her two boys will be educated, “and I hope it gets in the public schools.”
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints