Saying no to reality

Recently, I was minding my own business listening to a fascinating talk on YouTube titled, “Rooted in Earth History: the Devonian transition to a forested planet.” It was about strategies that Earth’s first ground-hugging plants adapted to escape the confines of Earth’s surface. They did this in order to reach closer to our sun and further away from plant-eaters.

This led to Earth’s first forests, which in turn led to an explosion of new environmental niches for life to radiate into.

I learned some fascinating details regarding questions I’d been wondering about for a long time. The lecture increased my understanding of evolution on this fantastic planet, which has been a lifelong passion for me.

But my pleasant reverie was shattered by a YouTube comment that blind-sided me. One ‘Psalm1Tree’ wrote in all seriousness:

“There never was a Devonian period, just as there never was a Cambrian, Jurassic, Triassic etc. period. That’s because there never was a Geologic Column. That is a 19th century construct that has no data whatsoever to support it.”

Besides avoiding the topic of the video, the comment is such an ignorant statement on so many levels that most who know anything about geology and evolution would simply clamp on the head-vise and back away.

Unfortunately, decades of ignoring such belligerent ignorance about important aspects of our life and planet have led to its becoming so insidious and commonplace that our government is controlled by Republicans who disregard obvious physical realities on personal whim. Justified only by a hubristic conceit that they are doing “God’s duty,” they are in fact all about pursuing their own EGO’s bidding.

I decided to engage Psalm with a short video that rationally explains what the geologic column is all about. Then came my second shock. I was not prepared for the dozens of videos dedicated to childish denials of the “geologic column” that Google’s YouTube search algorithm threw between my search topic and reliable serious information.

The handful of videos I sampled broke the first law of Constructive Debate: Honestly represent your opponents’ position! Instead they painted a deliberately misleading cartoon, thus fabricating an easy target for battering to death.

Finally, my persistence brought me to a few serious videos by scientists who actually study these matters. The difference in tone was refreshing. Rather than attacking conjured-up enemies, they focus on explaining their own work and results, often discussing competing theories to give as complete a picture as possible. They even describe weaknesses in their own work and point out further questions needing clarification.

That’s how science is done. Everyone’s goal is learning, and fidelity to physical facts is the gold standard. Science is a world where Free Speech doesn’t mean it’s okay to lie and slander with malicious intent. Informed constructive skepticism is the rule. Dishonest bluster and bullying is a crime.

Psalm feels free to dismiss all that with a glib wave: “There never was a Devonian period, just as there never was a Cambrian, Jurassic, Triassic etc. period.”

Think about that. Psalm tells us one great period of time does not follow another. How does that work? Ignore the march of seasons? Ignore that plants and animals are formed, grow and die. Ignore that floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis are ever rearranging the surface? Ignore that stuff piles up on top of what was laid down before?

Psalm also needs us to ignore that, in human terms, Earth is unimaginably old. It’s as though Psalm has no conception of creation’s time-line ticking ever forward. Years and millennia continue unfolding and it’s all happening one day at a time, piling on top of all the days that came before. Or? What’s the alternative, turning Earth’s creation into a one-dimensional cartoon?

As Psalm does when he tried to deceive me: “There never was a Geologic Column. That’s a 19th century construct that has no data whatsoever to support it. Fossils are jumbled, in no organized pattern whatsoever.”

Here’s an example of self-certain, but grossly mistaken, beliefs enabled by utter disregard for substance. A construct? Sure, it is a construct. So? Why not ask, what is it a construct of? What was it constructed for? Why not a little curiosity and discussion about the substance of this construct?

No data? Seriously? Has Psalm ever looked? It’s easy to track down when our understanding started, in the late 1700s. That’s when a handful of curious, observant individuals struggled to make sense of what they saw laid out across their countryside. In particular there was James Hutton the geologist, farmer, and canal builder who spent decades trying to understand the varied, sometimes bizarre rock exposures and landscapes throughout England and beyond.

Hutton was able to classify these exposures into specific rock types. He also showed how at some time in the distant past hot lava had moved through what was then claimed to be the oldest rock type, deforming the land. Furthermore, this had to have happened at extreme depths, though now it lay at the surface. Hutton’s work made it clear that Earth was unimaginably older than the good preacher Ussher’s 6,000-year assertion.

Another pioneer was William Smith, a colorful canal, railway and road surveyor and mapper of coal mines, a man dedicated to comprehending the landscape and creating the first modern geologic map that visually distilled hundreds (soon to be thousands) of land surveys into a form all could learn to comprehend at a glance.

Think about Smith’s geologic map. It only reflects what’s on the surface, but obviously there’s a great deal more underneath, as countless drill core samples attest. Compiling that data inevitably leads to a geologic column, basically a vertical map of what’s under our feet. How can that be a fiction when it IS totally data-driven from inception to finish?

In our few exchanges Psalm wasn’t interested in details and even less in doing any good-faith research on his own. All he wanted was short answers to empty “gotcha” questions.

It’s unfortunate because I do have a wonderful image of our own Colorado Basin’s geologic column to share. Along with a video where Wayne Ranney, its creator, explains all about the evidence and data that drove the creation of this geologic column.

Go to YouTube and search “Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau with Wayne Ranney” – you won’t be disappointed. Then you too can look at the supporting evidence every time you drive through our Four Corners wonderland.

Peter Miesler writes from near Durango, Colo., and has a blog, He’s added posts dedicated to sharing more information about the work of Hutton, Smith, Ranney which helps clarify the substance of the geologic column.

From Peter Miesler.