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Author Topic:   Why is uniformitarianim still taught?
hitchy
Member (Idle past 2473 days)
Posts: 215
From: Southern Maryland via Pittsburgh
Joined: 01-05-2004


Message 46 of 89 (87744)
02-20-2004 2:22 PM
Reply to: Message 43 by NosyNed
02-20-2004 1:31 PM


How we treat history in science class
We teach uniformitarianism as it is understood in its modern form. It is basically a given, i.e. of course processes happening now also happened in the past. We also talked about continental drift. However, both are talked about in a historical context and how they led toward a more modern understanding of geology, such as the theory of plate tectonics.
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hitchy
Member (Idle past 2473 days)
Posts: 215
From: Southern Maryland via Pittsburgh
Joined: 01-05-2004


Message 47 of 89 (87751)
02-20-2004 2:48 PM
Reply to: Message 46 by hitchy
02-20-2004 2:22 PM


Words from the NSES
Does this sound familar?

quote:
They will discover that while certain properties of the earth system may fluctuate on short or long time scales, the earth system will generally stay within a certain narrow range for millions of years. This long-term stability can be understood through the working of planetary geochemical cycles and the feedback processes that help to maintain or modify those cycles.

This comes from the NSES web site. Does anyone disagree with this?


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hitchy
Member (Idle past 2473 days)
Posts: 215
From: Southern Maryland via Pittsburgh
Joined: 01-05-2004


Message 48 of 89 (87766)
02-20-2004 3:37 PM
Reply to: Message 33 by Percy
02-20-2004 11:37 AM


Re: Question about Public School Geology Text Books
Exact exerpt from Glencoe Earth Science 1997--

quote:
Uniformitarianism
Before radiometric dating was available, many people had estimated the age of Earth to be only a few thousand years old. But in the 1700's, Scottish scientist James Hutton estimated that Earth was much older. He used the principle of uniformitarianism. This principle states that Earth processes occurring today are similar to those that occurred in the past. He observed that the processes that changed the rocks and land around him were very slow, and he inferred that they had been just as slow throughout Earth's history. Hutton hypothesized that it took much longer than a few thousand years to form the layers of rock around him and to erode mountains that once towered kilometers high. John Playfair advanced Hutton's theories, but an English geologist, Sir Charles Lyell, is given the most credit for advancing uniformitarianism.

Pretty open-ended.

From Glencoe Earth Science 2002--

quote:
The principle of uniformitarianism states that the processes occurring today have been occurring since Earth formed. Only the rate, intensity, and scale with which they occur have changed.

In both texts, the PofU is talked about in a historical context to show that "As late as the turn of the nineteenth century, the majority of the world believed that Earth was only about 6000 years old." Something about Ussher, then Hutton, and finally what I quoted in the box above. The paragraph ends with an example talking about how what causes the waves of the ocean has not changed since the oceans formed. It also talks about the distribution of sediment occurring in the same way it does now. (Glencoe Earth Science 2002)

So modern geology has outgrown the need for a principle that states the obvious. OK, but we are talking about teaching not just science, but history as well. I tell the kids what the principle of uniformatarianism states and that it is pretty much a given now, but back when it was first thought of, it was a new way of thinking. I say the same things in biology when I talk about the Cell Theory. From Lucretius in 55 bce to Needham and Spallanzani in the mid-1700's to Pasteur's flasks in 1861. Uniformitarianism might sound like it is proposing that things happen uniformly throughout history, but that is not what we teach. If that makes me a lousy teacher, so be it. You have any better suggestions, Tamara?

Percy, I don't think we teach it as being part of the modern lexicon. If you want to say something about it, we talk about it when we talk about relative and radiometric dating. It is actually skimmed over with only one question on a worksheet for the students to answer--What does the principle of uniformitarianism state? I don't think we even test it!


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Silent H
Member (Idle past 3174 days)
Posts: 7405
From: satellite of love
Joined: 12-11-2002


Message 49 of 89 (87769)
02-20-2004 3:50 PM
Reply to: Message 45 by Percy
02-20-2004 2:07 PM


Re: There's always plate tectonics
Where's the humour in that?


holmes
"...what a fool believes he sees, no wise man has the power to reason away.."(D. Bros)
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Percy
Member
Posts: 15500
From: New Hampshire
Joined: 12-23-2000
Member Rating: 4.4


Message 50 of 89 (87780)
02-20-2004 4:34 PM
Reply to: Message 48 by hitchy
02-20-2004 3:37 PM


Re: Question about Public School Geology Text Books
For the most part I don't usually care about specific terminology. In most cases I just want to agree on terms and then move on into the discussion, and so even in the case of uniformitarianism I think what you're already doing sounds excellent.

But I guess I react differently about uniformitarianism when it comes to the Creation/evolution debate because the common Creationist misconceptions seem so easy to avoid. An oft repeated criticism issued by Creationists is that uniformitarianism is self-evidently wrong because of volcanoes, floods and earthquakes, and how could we have our heads wedged so tightly in such a dunderheaded viewpoint.

As I said earlier, geologists don't even think of themselves as uniformitarians - the term finds very little modern application. If the word were different, but had the precise same meaning, I think a lot of pointless discussion would be alleviated. If the word had instead been presentkeytopasttarianism then Creationists, and tons of other people, would not be continually making the same obvious misinterpretations of the word.

So I guess I was improperly trying to throw responsibility for this mess onto the educational system. Can't you guys tell the students, "Hey, now that you know the concept, please forget the word that goes with it because it causes all hell to break loose with Creationists."

--Percy


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Tamara
Inactive Member


Message 51 of 89 (87792)
02-20-2004 5:23 PM


summing up, & one more question
Brad: Say huh?

Holmes, the reason I asked you about the supernatural is for clarification. I myself believe that naturalism is a basic and necessary postulate of science. I have heard people say otherwise but I am not convinced. (And my last sentence has nothing to do with trying to insert the supernatural and all with inserting some caution and humility regarding what we know.)

quote:
Unique events are possible, supernatural ones are as yet unpostulatable.

My view of the matter as well.

quote:
Percy, I think, said: The "uniform" part of uniformitarianism carries with it an implication, to most people upon first hearing it, of a constancy of process rates over time, and so the term is disfavored now because this is not the current definition.

This is exactly why, when I first considered it, I assumed it was false, contradicting common experience.

quote:
Percy: An oft repeated criticism issued by Creationists is that uniformitarianism is self-evidently wrong because of volcanoes, floods and earthquakes, and how could we have our heads wedged so tightly in such a dunderheaded viewpoint. As I said earlier, geologists don't even think of themselves as uniformitarians - the term finds very little modern application. If the word were different, but had the precise same meaning, I think a lot of pointless discussion would be alleviated. If the word had instead been presentkeytopasttarianism then Creationists, and tons of other people, would not be continually making the same obvious misinterpretations of the word.

Well, that about wraps it up, in a nutshell.
-----
So. Here’s another take:

Uniformitarianism is something of an archaism and a historical misnomer. It continues to be taught on high school and college level but geologists themselves prefer not to use the term. The "uniform" part of uniformitarianism carries with it an implication, to most people upon first hearing it, of a constancy of process rates over time, and so the term is disfavored now because this is not the current definition. Geologists today, to the extent they put a label on it, probably consider themselves naturalists. They believe the planet is shaped by natural forces today, and that those same natural forces acted to shape the planet in the past. They assume when they examine a structure or stratum that it will contain evidence of natural processes.

The evaluation of earth's processes proceeds necessarily from what we know today about current and past processes, which are based on uniform laws (aka “the present is key to the past”). This does not mean that these processes themselves can be assumed a priori to be uniform or unvarying. Neither does it mean that the processes in evidence today can be assumed to have functioned the same way long ago. (As one scientist put it, “We do not just "assume" that processes we see now operated in the same way in the past. The processes which occur leave identifiable traces, which allow us to actually measure and study processes of the past, and tell the ways in which they may be similar or distinct.”) Also, unique events may have shaped our planet in the past, but the simplest assumption (an already known process) is typically tried first (Occam's Razor). No doubt, there are also processes we do not yet know about that have also shaped the planet. But these undiscovered "possibilities" are not brought to bear in an investigation, until known processes, forces, and materials have been exhausted.
-----
Well, now that we have untangled this mess, this is my question to you all.

YECs claim that since the old-fashioned form of uniformitarianism held sway in the past, data regarding the age of the earth are unreliable, because they build on knowledge that was built on top of this false assumption. How would you counter it, using examples that are easy to understand, and that do not get into arguing arcane points of radiometry?


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 Message 59 by Silent H, posted 02-20-2004 11:27 PM Tamara has not yet responded

  
Percy
Member
Posts: 15500
From: New Hampshire
Joined: 12-23-2000
Member Rating: 4.4


Message 52 of 89 (87798)
02-20-2004 6:29 PM
Reply to: Message 51 by Tamara
02-20-2004 5:23 PM


Re: summing up, & one more question
Hi, Tamara,

Impressive mastery in a very short time, but I still have to quibble about one thing:

Neither does it mean that the processes in evidence today can be assumed to have functioned the same way long ago.

A fundamental tenet of geology is just the opposite, that, all other things being equal, long ago processes operated in the same way as today. I think perhaps you're trying to make a different point, maybe that it is possible that conditions at some points in the past might have no modern analogs.

YECs claim that since the old-fashioned form of uniformitarianism held sway in the past, data regarding the age of the earth are unreliable, because they build on knowledge that was built on top of this false assumption. How would you counter it, using examples that are easy to understand, and that do not get into arguing arcane points of radiometry?

This is the original point you expressed in this thread, and I would answer it the same way, not by getting into dating, but by correcting the misimpression about uniformitarianism.

--Percy


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Sylas
Member (Idle past 2615 days)
Posts: 766
From: Newcastle, Australia
Joined: 11-17-2002


Message 53 of 89 (87801)
02-20-2004 6:43 PM
Reply to: Message 51 by Tamara
02-20-2004 5:23 PM


Re: summing up, & one more question
Tamara writes:


YECs claim that since the old-fashioned form of uniformitarianism held sway in the past, data regarding the age of the earth are unreliable, because they build on knowledge that was built on top of this false assumption. How would you counter it, using examples that are easy to understand, and that do not get into arguing arcane points of radiometry?

Actually, I consider that radiometry is a great example; and one of my preferred illustrations to help someone see the errors in what they have been taught by YECs with respect to assumptions about the past in science. Single sound bits don't work; someone who simply gives up immediately an example requires a bit of thought will remain YEC. So let me show how I would use the example of radiometry.

YEC routinely state that radiometric dating is based on the assumption of constant decay rates.

As CS Lewis notes, a lie becomes much stronger when combined with a bit of truth. This is an example of that principle.

The claim of assumed constancy is true, if taken in the sense that the constancy of decay rates is a factor which does not need to be addressed or tested in the analysis of things that could plausibly go wrong with a particular dating study. Reading a scientific paper which applies dating you often see a fairly careful discussion of many potential sources of error in the analysis, usually in terms that fly way over the heads of people who have no familiarity with dating techniques, but it is clear that constancy of decay rates is not something which is even raised as an issue.

On the other hand, the term "assumption of constant decay rates" is false in the sense that science in general does not merely make this assumption, but has tested it rigorously at great length. Constancy of decay rates is a conclusion, based on many independent lines of evidence.

Observations used to establish the constancy of decay rates, include (but are not limited to):

  • Observations of nuclear reactions in distant stars and distant galaxies (for which the reactions took place thousands or millions of years ago).
  • Inferences about nuclear processes in the very early universe before galaxy formation.
  • Cross checking of dates against other non-radiometric dating methods.
  • Cross checking of radically different radiometric methods.
  • Study of residues from the Oklo natural nuclear reactor, active nearly two billion years ago.
  • Theory of quantum mechanics, which is itself one of the most precisely studied and tested models in physics. Radioactive decay is a process that is well understood. We know a great deal about the relevant forces and the structure of atoms, and how and why they decay. In fact, I would say radioactive decay is substantially better understood than gravity. This illustrates the principal that confidence in scientific models is related also to how well the underlying principals are understood.
  • Testing of a range of conditions in which decay might vary. If decay rates have varied, then can we reproduce the conditions under which this occurs? In some cases, yes; and none of them make any difference to dating techniques.

However, the particular way our putative YEC creationist phrases their objection, referring to knowledge built on false foundations, seems to suggest an ever deeper malaise and an almost insurmountable ignorance of how science works. Modern science is not built on flawed foundations in the sense of being called into question by revelation of certain inadequacies in eighteenth century notions of uniformitarianism. When models are disproved, the inferences based on those models must be shown compatible with improved understanding, or else the inferences are gone as well.

Cheers -- Sylas


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Buzsaw
Inactive Member


Message 54 of 89 (87805)
02-20-2004 7:09 PM
Reply to: Message 12 by MrHambre
02-19-2004 3:33 PM


Re: Cat-astrophism
I'm not aware of any creationist who doesn't believe that gradual, consistent processes account for the lion's share of observable geological features.

There is, in fact, a whole bunch of us and growing. If a whole lot of things on Mars are different than they were millions to billions of years ago, what about earth, sun and everything else? What has changed relative to radiometric dating, for example?


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Buzsaw
Inactive Member


Message 55 of 89 (87808)
02-20-2004 7:21 PM


I read page one for first time and posted before noticing there are more pages. I'll go back and read more.
  
Coragyps
Member
Posts: 5266
From: Snyder, Texas, USA
Joined: 11-12-2002
Member Rating: 5.9


Message 56 of 89 (87811)
02-20-2004 7:37 PM
Reply to: Message 52 by Percy
02-20-2004 6:29 PM


Re: summing up, & one more question
maybe that it is possible that conditions at some points in the past might have no modern analogs.

There are certainly some ancient geologic processes that don't happen much, or at all, today, but that's not to say that they don't have analogs. Oceanic and atmospheric chemistry changed down through time, and sediments like banded iron formations and primary dolomites don't form now, as far as I know. But well-(or sorta-)understood mechanisms are responsible for the formation of these sorts of things, and they can be made in the lab. It's just sort of hard on the wildlife to, say, make the Pacific Ocean anoxic just so you can finish your thesis.
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NosyNed
Member
Posts: 8751
From: Canada
Joined: 04-04-2003


Message 57 of 89 (87820)
02-20-2004 8:50 PM
Reply to: Message 54 by Buzsaw
02-20-2004 7:09 PM


Re: Cat-astrophism
What has changed relative to radiometric dating, for example?


Though I suppose everything fits under the uniformitarianism topic, it might be a good idea to go to dates and dating for this one.

You could open a "What about changed processes?" or something if you wanted. There is, you know, evidence that the rates have not changed.


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Buzsaw
Inactive Member


Message 58 of 89 (87825)
02-20-2004 9:09 PM
Reply to: Message 57 by NosyNed
02-20-2004 8:50 PM


Re: Cat-astrophism
You could open a "What about changed processes?" or something if you wanted. There is, you know, evidence that the rates have not changed.

The question is how sound the alleged evidence, but I'll leave it at that.


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Silent H
Member (Idle past 3174 days)
Posts: 7405
From: satellite of love
Joined: 12-11-2002


Message 59 of 89 (87843)
02-20-2004 11:27 PM
Reply to: Message 51 by Tamara
02-20-2004 5:23 PM


I am responding only to underscore both percy's and sylas's posts. I think your sum still comes up a little too strong, and opens up possibilities which are not really able to be made.

Sylas and Percy also correctly pointed out the problems with your end question.


holmes
"...what a fool believes he sees, no wise man has the power to reason away.."(D. Bros)
This message is a reply to:
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Minnemooseus
Member
Posts: 3471
From: Duluth, Minnesota, U.S. (West end of Lake Superior)
Joined: 11-11-2001
Member Rating: 4.1


Message 60 of 89 (87847)
02-20-2004 11:51 PM


Topic elsewhere
I fired my major shots at the long dormant Uniformitarianism.

Cheers,
Moose


Professor, geology, Whatsamatta U
Evolution - Changes in the environment, caused by the interactions of the components of the environment.
"Do not meddle in the affairs of cats, for they are subtle and will piss on your computer." - Bruce Graham
    
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