Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sheep Mountain

Creationist Vandalism

I discovered Sheep Mountain during the winter months when scouring maps looking for an alternative to the low level mountains around Boulder. When the high mountains are out of action there are only so many times in succession that I can run up Green Mountain or South Boulder Peak before I need a change of scenery. The Big Thompson River gorge, west of Loveland, provides some good alternate running trails and although Sheep Mountain isn't a high elevation (8,450 feet) this makes it an ideal winter running route. But the dense woodland through to the summit also makes it a good venue for a shorter morning run in the summer when I don't have time for a high mountain outing.

The granite rocks that encase the Big Thompson canyon were formed underground over 3bn years ago. Subsequent glacial events and the action of water over time have carved through this granite to create an amazing environment. We see this kind of event all over the world on varying scales and in all kinds of rock, from the Grand Canyon to the Gorges du Verdon in the south of France. Although not a geologist I always take an acute interest in my environment and I am fascinated at the precision with which modern science has been able to determine the age and formation of such impressive rock structures.

Scientifically speaking, the age of these rocks isn't in any doubt. There isn't a debate taking place anywhere among serious scientists about how old these rocks are. The issue is what we call "settled". And the reason is evident. Radiometric dating is incredibly accurate and isotopic measurement extremely reliable. The principle is easy to grasp - we know, for example, the half-life of Potassium and how long it takes for this unstable substance to form Argon. This isn't a guess but a precise, reliable and stable calculation. It's accurate not just because it is testable, but that it has been tested. By calculating how much Potassium and Argon is present in rock we know how old it must be. Potassium/Argon isn't the only "clock" scientists use. We also know the decay rates of Uranium to Lead, Samarium to Neodymium, Rubidium to Strontium, Uranium to Thorium, Carbon 14 to Carbon. While the reliability of these clocks is extremely strong there is also consilience between them, and between them and other dating mechanisms like Fission Tracking, Chlorine-36 along with the more rudimentary methodologies like ice cores and dendrochronology. These dating methodologies all measure to different clocks over different timescales and they all agree.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiometric_dating)

Back to Sheep Mountain. This is really a splendid trail...out and back. Although quite steep in places it is possible to maintain a pretty good pace, particularly over the initial mile and also in the section prior to the final climb. I have run this route with both Otto and Olivia on many occasions. The Park Service has done a great job of maintaining this trail and has also made it more interesting, informative and educational by providing small information boards at key points of interest along the trail. It is possible to find out about the flora and fauna as well as historical details describing human activity in the area over time. One of the information boards mentions that the rocks in the area were formed billions of years ago. This is true and is not an issue of debate or disagreement. How disgusting then that on my last visit, I discover the sign has been vandalized and "billions" has been struck out and "thousands" scratched in its place.

We know a lot about the kind of person who did this and what they stand for. It is nothing short of a national disgrace that the ignorance exemplified by this behavior is seen by some as a point of virtue. While people are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts and the earth is not 6,000 years old however much they might wish it was. The irony is that these same individuals, who also claim that morality is "God-given" see no problem in carrying out criminal acts of vandalism in the name of Jesus.

A number of years ago I recall reading with some interest the silly attempts being made by Creationists to position their book on a 6,000 yr old Grand Canyon (caused by a single global flood no less) alongside serious science books on display at the National Park bookstore - http://www.agiweb.org/gap/evolution/AZ.html - and it was clear that their confrontational "free speech" claims were scaring legislators. But this isn't a free speech issue. Science isn't decided by claim and counter claim, it is decided by evidence and testing.

The creeping sickness of creationism is now spreading to the UK. Only a few weeks ago we read reports that the National Trust (a once venerable institution) has included an "alternative" explanation of the age of rocks at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland as a result of demands from Creationists - http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/11072012-controversy-over-creationism-at-giants-causeway .

As we gather speed in the headlong rush to ignorance we have to ask ourselves whether alchemy has anything to contribute to Organic Chemistry, whether the "stork theory" is an acceptable explanation of child birth and whether pixies and fairies really are painting that rainbow you see in front of you. The fact that a sizable proportion of the US population is watching the Flintstones and assuming it is a documentary is something that should shame us all. And if there are any Creationists out there reading this, and thinking of visiting Sheep Mountain, please abide by the law, respect the countryside and those who have made it accessible to others, and, in doing so, stand back and admire the geological and evolutionary timescale that has created it. It's a far more inspirational story than a pathetic act of magic.

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