Many flawed papers in sedimentology
Veteran sedimentologist V. Paul Wright was asked to write a short editorial for a new section in the Journal of Sedimentary Research. He wrote it about a recent trend of flawed research in sedimentology. His conversations with other veteran sedimentologists confirmed his observations.1
In particular, he noted three problems. The first is accepting unsubstantiated claims as the basis for a new interpretation, which is, in turn, believed and repeated. He calls this a ‘meme’. Second are studies based on non-existent data, which he calls ‘fake news’. Third is the lack of empiricism. Sedimentologists feel free to reinterpret data sets without presenting any new research, or fail to question data.
Wright had noticed sloppy research much earlier, but it seems to have become a trend lately. This is likely due to the ‘publish or perish’ mentality combined with a great increase in researchers and journals over the years. He believes the problem is mainly poor editing and reviewing, which allows flawed papers to slip by. But he acknowledges that it is hard to find qualified editors and reviewers, especially those familiar with a particular outcrop. He provides one example of a flawed paper that had been rejected by a reviewer but was published anyway by the editor because the author was famous.
The pervasive reinforcement syndrome
The first problem with the meme or bandwagon effect is that false ideas can be widely believed for a long time. Wright shows how memes are produced:
“Someone, often in an informal publication which was not peer reviewed, makes an interpretation without evidence, and that view is simply imitated repeatedly and never questioned until it is so widely accepted that data are simply fitted into that model without any objective analysis, and the unqualified interpretation ends up taken for granted and published in peer-reviewed journals.”2
The problem may begin with editors, but peer review is also sloppy. Though it’s not simply peer review, but also the development of dominant narratives that goes unquestioned. Worse, the investment in quasi-scientific narratives creates a backlash against anyone questioning them. This is equally true in creationism. Regardless of how this inaccurate research becomes mainstream, it reveals a lack of accountability and a lack of skepticism among researchers. It also stems from the explosion of journals and associated intense competition for hits, citations, etc.
This meme effect is close to the reinforcement syndrome.3 The concept was first developed by Watkins,4 who stated that the reinforcement syndrome is an inherent weakness in many fields of the experimental and so-called historical sciences. However, it is especially a problem in historical sciences because there is less ability to self-correct experimentally. Watkins gives the example of the clustering together of short geomagnetic polarity events of doubtful validity into specific periods of geological time. In other words, these paleomagnetic excursions were not well dated, but were simply given dates based on the nearest excursion determined by other researchers. Watkins considered the most famous example of the reinforcement syndrome is one that lasted 60 years—the concept of four Pleistocene ice ages (figure 1):
“Perhaps the best known, or at least most significant, results of the ‘reinforcement syndrome’ in the geological sciences is the very firmly established concept of four glacial periods during the last Ice Age [i.e. four separate ice ages during the Pleistocene]. The initially defined system was confirmed by many different studies.”5
Wright gives the example of microbial mats producing the sediments below the salt deposits off the coasts of the South Atlantic continents. Just because microbes are found does not mean the sediments were formed from mats.
Wright’s second example of an unjustified meme is cyclostratigraphy, the idea that changes in Earth’s orbital geometry causes cyclic ice ages or cyclical sedimentation. He mentions that the astronomical theory of the ice ages was developed in the 1800s with much supposed supporting evidence and unquestioned allegiance. It is instructive how the advocates seemed to be able to pick out the orbital signature among all the other factors (noise).6,7 I am not sure Wright was thinking about the modern revival of this theory, which supposedly has claimed hard evidence since 1976. It was based on ‘finding’ Milankovitch cycles in deep-sea cores that just happened to match the three orbital cycles of about 100 ka, 41 ka, and 22 ka.8 Such cores need variables that can be accurately measured down the core. Also, cores need to be accurately dated in order to show cycles. This dating is based on many assumptions, including deep time. I can’t help but wonder just how much bias went into this dating.
Recently, Jake Hebert of ICR discovered that the secular scientists changed one of their ‘tie points’, believed to anchor the chronology from ‘known dates’ from other records. This was the tie point of the Brunhes paleomagnetic normal chron changing to the reversed Matuyama chron, which was dated at 700 ka when Hays et al.8 did their research, but which was later changed to 780 ka. By plugging in this new tie point and rerunning the spectral analysis, the Milankovitch cycles failed to show up.9,10 Spectral analysis is used to find the predominant cycles in a time series. Thus, the linchpin for the modern revival of the astronomical theory has been shown to be false. Yet, thousands of papers have been published since 1976, assuming the truth of the astronomical theory, both in Pleistocene ice age studies11 and in pre-Pleistocene sedimentology.12
We have all heard of ‘fake news’. Apparently, there is ‘fake news’ in sedimentology. Without giving references or the names of the outcrops, Wright gives two examples of reinterpretations he thinks were unjustified or fake results. One was repeating sedimentary rocks interpreted by four authors as storm-dominated, offshore deposits. The new interpretation described them as numerous shallow water cyclothems without critiquing the previous interpretation.
The second problem was a reinterpretation of one of the most important outcrops in the world. The problem with both of these reinterpretations lies in the fact that no new evidence was presented. Wright blames the reviewers, who probably were not familiar with the particular outcrop, and editors, who seemed to have just passed the papers on to publishing. I can’t help but wonder how many differing interpretations of the same evidence there are in geology as a whole. It is probable that without the straightjacket assumption of uniformitarianism, many outcrops could be reinterpreted as the product of a massive flood.
Opinions with a lack of evidence
Wright brings up the issue of a lack of empiricism or evidence, in which opinions sway people, especially hasty opinions based on a small sample or lack of in-depth analysis. Wright describes one case that he describes as ‘helicopter science’:
“I must add that I am not denigrating the use of helicopters, or drones, but am referring to studies where researchers ‘drop’ in to a section they barely know, ignore any local expertise, grab some samples which are taken without any consideration of context, depositional or diagenetic, perform some analyses, and propose, for example, a theory of changed global ocean chemistry, when if they had looked at the context of the sample they would have realized that their theory was deeply flawed.”13
Such problems even more pervasive than Wright imagines
I believe Wright noticed only a small part of the bigger picture, problems that have been endemic since the Enlightenment. Countless examples of the reinforcement syndrome can be brought up in the so-called historical sciences. John Woodmorappe has documented many of them.14 The most pronounced are those of an old earth and a slow progression of events and organisms, now fossils, through time, i.e. uniformitarianism and evolution. After the Enlightenment took over, all observed data from rocks and fossils have been automatically explained by that paradigm, whether or not they actually fit. The assumptions guiding the Enlightenment reinforcement syndrome are often claimed to be facts, but it is a form of circular reasoning. Because of the multi-generational effort, it is often difficult to unravel the pervasiveness of circular reasoning in bolstering the Enlightenment assumptions, but with enough study it does become evident.
Creation scientists must also be careful
Wright’s insights into secular sedimentology should be taken to heart by creation scientists. We too must be careful to examine as much data as we can from the journals. Speaking of the earth sciences, it is also helpful to examine as much geology as possible in the field, which often is difficult since most of creation research is unfunded. It is also important for reviewers and editors to determine whether a certain paper has enough compelling supportive evidence and to keep objectivity; not allowing bias to determine whether to publish. We also must attempt to be neutral towards new ideas that are being tested by those propounding the idea.
References and notes
- Wright, V.P., Memes, false news, and the death of empiricism, J. Sedimentary Research 89:310–311, 2019. Return to text.
- Wright, ref. 1, p. 310. Return to text.
- Oard, M.J., Ancient Ice Ages or Gigantic Submarine Landslides? Creation Research Society Books, Chino Valley, AZ, pp. 9–17, 1997. Return to text.
- Watkins, N.D., Geomagnetic polarity events and the problem of ‘the reinforcement syndrome’, Comments on Earth Sciences and Geophysics 2:36–43, 1971. Return to text.
- Watkins, N.D., Review of the development of the geomagnetic polarity time scale and discussion of prospects for its finer definition, Geological Society of America Bulletin 83:563, 1972. Return to text.
- Reed, J.K. and Oard, M.J., Cyclostratigraphy, part I: What is cyclostratigraphy? CRSQ 52(2):95–105, 2015. Return to text.
- Reed, J.K. and Oard, M.J., Cyclostratigraphy, part II: history of the method, CRSQ 53(2):103–109, 2016. Return to text.
- Hays, J.D., Imbrie, J., and Shackleton, N.J., Variations in the earth’s orbit: pacemaker of the ice ages, Science 194:1121–1132, 1976 Return to text.
- Hebert, J., A broken climate pacemaker?—part 1, J. Creation 31(1):88–98, 2017. Return to text.
- Hebert, J., A broken climate pacemaker?—part 2, J. Creation 31(1):104–110, 2017. Return to text.
- Oard, M.J. and Reed, J.K, Cyclostratigraphy, part III: Critique of the Milankovitch Mechanism, CRSQ (in press). Return to text.
- Oard, M.J. and Reed, J.K., Cyclostratigraphy and astrochronology, part IV: Is the pre-Pleistocene sedimentary record defined by orbitally-forced cycles? CRSQ 56(4):234–242, 2020. Return to text.
- Wright, ref. 1, p. 311. Return to text.
- Woodmorappe, J., Studies in Flood Geology: A compilation of research studies supporting creation and the Flood, Institute for Creation Research, Dallas, TX, 1999. Return to text.