Friday, February 16, 2007

A history of carbon dioxide?

Recently an editorial published in the News Journal contained numerous statements about history, although I'm relatively certain that the author feels they are scientific statements that are subject to verification/falsification. Usually statements about the ancient past cannot be falsified and therefore they cannot be verified empirically. If ancient history can be made a science or there is a "historical science" it is certainly a soft and malleable type of knowledge/scientia that is subject to small amounts of empirical verification.

When I read or see historical science on PBS and the like, the effect achieved by layers of assumptions stated as verifiable fact seems to demand assent in an "overwhelming" way. I think that is the sort of effect that those who believe in the Darwinian creation myth are quite taken with. An "overwhelming" psychological effect brought about by claims of science and assertions of fact and so on is not actually empirical though, nor necessarily reasonable, sometimes it isn't even logical on its own terms.

On to the editorial:
Over the past four and a half billion years of Earth's history, there have occurred at least five catastrophic mass extinctions, and perhaps a dozen lesser ones, of most plant and animal life. They were caused by the volcanic eruption of carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, trapping heat and raising temperatures with disastrous consequences.

Vulcanism is substantially over, but a new culprit has arisen - mankind.

How do we know this? Earth's history is embedded in the layers of sedimentary rock laid down over millions of years.
(A brief history of CO2
Wonder how much harm it can do? Consider extinction
By Robert M. Busche

It seems traditional now for scientists to state numerous assumptions as if they are empirical facts. For instance there is the history of the uniformitarian school in geology. Uniformitarianism is the assumption that current processes are responsible for the majority of rock formations and the like, as opposed to catastrophism. The established school for now is uniformitarianism and so the average geologist generally reads earth's history out of the rocks by assuming that current processes are responsible for it all as a matter of principle. But blind adherence to such a principle is like setting an hourglass full of sand down in front of a bunch of toddlers and then assuming that you will be able to come back and measure how much time has passed by how much sand is left. A uniformitarian assumes that nothing has happened to change the rate of the passage of sand through the hourglass because they view current empirical observation as the key to its history, even when it is proven empirically that toddlers nock things over and play with them.

Without the blinders of uniformitarianism it can easily be seen that cataclysm and catastrophy may be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to reading history out of rocks. Therefore you can't necessarily read a million years into a thin layer of sediment.

The editorial goes on as if every interpretation based on uniformitarian assumptions is an empirical or historical fact:
In examining these layers, scientists have found some layers practically devoid of fossil remains. The age of these layers has been estimated by several analytical procedures.
The earliest of these mass extinctions occurred 245 million years ago at the close of the Permian epoch, when carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere peaked at 3,000 parts per million. The second, 190 million years ago in the Triassic period, had carbon dioxide at 1,300 parts per million. The third, 170 million years ago in the Toarcian period, had carbon dioxide at 2,000 parts per million. The fourth, 100 million years ago in the Cenomanian/Turonian, had carbon dioxide at 1,300 parts per million. And the last, 54 million years ago in the Paleocene epoch, had carbon dioxide at 950 parts per million.

These extinctions do not include the demise of dinosaurs when an asteroid hit the Earth 65 million years ago.

It's interesting that geologists allow themselves at least a little of their old focus on catastrophism and cataclysm. Apparently only asteroids are allowed to be posited these days. Note that before Charles Lyell and a conspiracy* of uniformitarian geologists took over much more was allowed, even the Great Flood that so many ancient people recorded as history. For as neocatastrophists are quick to point out, it can be observed that usually a toddler tips the hourglass that uniformitarians have assumed sits still. Yet Lyell built his intellectual house on such sand and was so sucessful in getting others to follow that uniformitarianism is now generally established and treated as fact by geologists. In fact, the sort of fellow who wrote this editorial probably really believes that he can read a vast history for the earth out of rocks or that someone has read the history of the earth out of rocks. We don't know isn't an answer with much prestige or political power, after all.

As for me, I don't know. But I do know that reading rocks based on faulty or questionable assumptions like uniformitarianism and then passing off your story about the past to the public as a "scientific fact" is intellectually dishonest, no matter how many times your average nature show does the same. All assumptions should be layed bare and people should be allowed to make up their own minds about the past based on empirical facts without being "overwhelmed" with storytelling.

*The reason I noted that Lyell and others engaged in a conspiracy is because that's what is in some personal letters published after their success. Things along these lines: "One of ours got the position at my university..." are a conspiracy. Once a set of ideas are part of the establishment they are what everyone is taught and the conspiring of like-minded individuals is no longer necessary.

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