In Response to “Sorry, Sagan…”

Revised as of 1/13/2011 at 11:07pm

Dr. Jay L. Wile, who’s science-education curriculum I used myself as a home-schooler, claims that the earth cannot be billions of years old. Among his “Top 5”, is the idea that that “early earth data” suggests that the early planet had water at that stage. However, he says, 4.5Bya, the sun did not deliver enough energy to the earth to allow for liquid water. He uses this same argument to refute evolution- in a textbook edited by Dr. Wile for Apologia ministries- the sun was too dim to support life on earth millions or billions of years ago, even if it did exist.

“…if the sun were 25% less bright than it is today, the earth would simply be too cold to support life. In fact, it would be too cold to have liquid water present in any reasonable amount. This is a serious problem, however, because there is ample evidence that there has been significant amounts of liquid water on the earth during the earliest parts of its history. 4So if the nuclear reactions in the sun play by the same rules as those in the lab, there shouldn’t have been liquid water on the earth billions of years ago. Nevertheless, there was.”

Before we even address any astrophysical concepts here, there is a logical fallacy: How old is the “early earth data” that he is referring to?

Either it is 10,000 years old- Wile’s “upper-bound” for the age of the earth– and therefore does not apply to a time when the sun was 4.5 billion years old, or it goes by the scientifically conventional understanding of “early earth”, and is 4.5 billion years old- if so, how can a 4.5 billion year old data set refute the idea that the earth is 4.5 billion years old?

Arguing that the earth was too cold to support life in its past is an entirely separate issue. Assuming that it is true that the earth was too cold 3.82Bya, even if we assume that it was too cold 10,000 years ago- this has no bearing on the age of the earth. That is, unless one operates under the presumption that the earth, and life on earth, have the same birthday.

Now, here’s what the children’s astronomy textbook says:

“Thermonuclear fusion tells us that there could not have been life on earth billions, or even millions, of years ago. You see, since the sun is getting brighter and brighter each year, if we were to go back in time, we would see the sun getting dimmer and dimmer each year. In fact, if we were to go back billions of years, the sun would have been so dim, or faint, that it could not have provided warmth for life on earth.

If temperatures on earth were much cooler than they are now, there would be terrible consequences. Oceans would freeze, and it would be winter all the time. Even with the sun’s current hot temperature, antarctica is still very, very cold. Scientists have discovered that the sun would have been many times cooler, actually more than 30% cooler, if it were here billions of years ago. No life could have survived on earth if the sun were that cool, because the earth would have been a frozen chunk of ice water, with frozen land scattered about. Not a single thing could survive such temperatures. This gives us evidence that life on earth is young, certainly not millions or billions of years old, as some might want you to believe.” -From “Exploring Creation with Astronomy”, p. 20, written by Jeannie Fulbright, edited by Jay Wile.

Dr. Wile reasons that the effect was so drastic, life could not have developed on a 3.82By old earth. The decrease in energy received by the earth would have left the earth a frozen wasteland. The textbook is much more careless on the subject than the blog entry. It states: This gives us evidence that life on earth is young, certainly not millions or billions of years old, as some might want you to believe. Suppose we assume that yes, billions of years ago, the sun was not powerful enough to sustain life- it is a much greater stretch to assume the same of an earth millions of years ago. On that time frame, the luminosity decrease would have been on the order of 0 -5% lower.

The book also states: Even with the sun’s current hot temperature, antarctica is still very, very cold. This statement is misleading because it implies that the poles are frozen simply because- despite it’s mighty output- the sun still just can’t thaw them out. True, a more powerful sun would make for a warmer planet and vice versa. Being closer to the sun would make it warmer.  But these variations are not why we have frozen poles. In fact, we are closest to the sun in January. The main cause of seasonal variation, is the tilt of the earth on its axis- which leads to variation in the angle of incoming solar radiation. A less-direct angle of sunlight means less concentrated sunlight. This is why the poles are frozen- the angle of incoming sunlight is least direct towards the poles, over the course of a year.

The statement also implies that Antarctica is lifeless, and if the entire planet were like Antarctica, then there could be no life on earth. Ignoring penguins (something one should never do), and some other apparently insignificant wildlife found in Antarctica- the south pole is certainly not lifeless. It is not. Many polar species, like the Pagothenia borchgrevinki (Præbel, K., Hunt, B., Hunt, L., & DeVries, A. (2009)), have proteins in their blood which prevent ice crystals, once formed, from expanding and causing cellular damage (Kristiansen, Zachariassen, 2005). Cryophilic (“cold loving”), such as the members of the Cytophaga phylum, have been described as living on the surface of sea ice (JP Bowman, 1997). I suppose that one could argue that these organisms could not survive if the whole planet was frigid, as Dr. Wile describes. I guess we’ll just have to wait until we can take a stroll around Europa.

Sagan and company thus attempt to explain the inconsistency. Wile condemns the article before even discussing the science involved.:

“…Now of course, such a situation will not do for people who are forced to ignore the data and believe in a billions-of-years-old earth, so they come up with a hypothesis”

Of course they came up with a hypothesis! That’s what scientists do! If our present hypothesis is rejected by our data, we draft a new hypothesis. This is the scientific method. Dr. Wile knows this- he has a Ph.D in chemistry. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles. Yet, when another researcher publishes information which conflicts with Wile’s own beliefs, he discredits the researcher for using basic scientific principles.  But even if we assume that Dr. Wile was right in discrediting Sagan simply for revising a hypothesis- if we assume that, for whatever reason, Sagan’s study was inherently flawed and unreliable- Carl Sagan is not the only researcher to arrive at this conclusion.

What if we assume that all of the research done to explain the “Faint Sun-Young Earth Paradox” is wrong? Even then, there is a critical gap in Dr. Wile’s argument. Something that both the blog entry and the textbook are missing, is any mention of a threshold at which the earth would become lifelessly frozen.

Suppose we had a 25% lower solar output, 3.82Bya (predicted by conventional astrophysical models). This would give a luminosity of 3.839×1026 W * .25= 2.918*10^26 W. Is 2.9E26 watts low enough to prevent life from developing on earth? Dr. Wile seems to expect readers to take a leap-of-faith here (and everywhere?), and simply take his word that a 25% weaker sun would leave earth a lifeless rock (and therefore non-existent?). I can find no research to support this claim.

Certainly, if the earth were so cold back then, the development of life on earth most likely would have taken a different path. But Wile doesn’t say:

“If we only take into account the energy output of the sun over time, the earth should have been much colder, 3.82Bya. Assuming that this is true, life on earth could not have developed in the way we currently understand”

Instead, he says:

The sun was 25% less powerful 3.82Bya. Thus the earth could not support liquid water, thus evolution is wrong, thus the earth cannot be billions of years old.”

The paper Dr. Wile cites, is by none other than Carl Sagan, whom Dr. Wile is apparently sorry for. Here it is. Sagan et. al write:  “… it  is  unlikely  that extensive liquid water could have existed anywhere on Earth with such global mean temperature”. They do notwrite: “…there was no way that the earth had any liquid water at that time”. Even so, Sagan’s findings conflict with geological data from that time period (Wile’s “early earth” data). The logical next step would be: “Either the geological data is wrong, or there is something else that we are missing about the properties of the earth 3.82Bya”, which is were Sagan’s alternative hypothesis comes in.

Wile’s logic goes like this:

There’s a contradiction in the theory surrounding the development of the earth, therefore the earth is much younger than we once thought.

This the main issue with his analysis: before we even look at any of the data he is citing, his argument fails logically. He covers this up by using condescending language like “Sorry, Sagan”. He fills in gaps in his logical argument by using character-appealing statements. He tells people what they want to hear. Not all of his writing is like this. Wile has written several very logically and scientifically-driven articles on controversial topics, such as the “antivax movement” (side note: why is this even controversy?), where he takes an actual scientific stance (unlike Jim Carrey). His science books aren’t noneducational- I found them quite helpful in terms of explaining hard-to-grasp concepts. However they were littered with the same kind of idealistic arguments as that which I have described above (granted, they are honestly marketed as “creationist curriculum”). But he allows his reputation as a scientist and educator to fool people into buying false-logic.

This is the problem. I don’t care what Dr. Wile’s own ideologies are- they’re none of my business- I just wish he’d stop spiking the scientific egg-nog with them. Even if he sticks to the same arguments outlined above, at the very least, he should acknowledge that his primary argument does come from scripture, not science.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s