Callan Bentley is an American geologist who runs the blog known as Mountain Beltway on the American Geophysical Union’s network. If, for some strange reason, you don’t follow him there you may well at least know of him as the scientist who pointedly refused the use of one of his photos in the Discovery Institute’s book Darwin’s Doubt.*
At some point in February he and Alan Pitts were apparently looking at sediment exposed by a some road cuts in the Appalachian mountains. Specifically they were looking at what they thought was the Hampshire Formation, which is supposed to be terrestrial in origin (i.e. rivers rather than oceans). But within the outcrop they found a few metres of black marine sediment, containing bands of limestone and a variety of fossils. Bentley wrote:
Wow – this surprised us. Neither of us thought the Hampshire Formation had any marine strata within it. Was this black, limy, fossiliferous layer representative of a small transgression (sea level rise) over our deltaic floodplains (red beds)?
He notes that whatever it was “seems to have come on pretty suddenly” – though we are, of course, talking about time in the context of geology. He concludes:
So, in summary: We interpret the black layer as resulting from low-oxygen marine deposition. But that doesn’t sound like the Hampshire Formation. Two possibilities occur to me: Does this suddenly black limy interval indicate that this isn’t the Hampshire Formation? Or did we just ‘discover’ a new marine portion of a previously-thought-to-be-terrestrial-only geologic unit?
I’m no geologist, but that’s an interesting question that I’d certainly like to learn more about some day.
The post also apparently caught the attention of Tim Clarey of the Institute for Creation Research. He “borrows” one of Bentley’s photos under fair use – miss-attributing it to the AGU in the process – and writes “Black Rocks Red-Flag Uniformitarian Flaws.” After reminding his reader what a “red flag” is, and reprinting some of the more compromising quotes from Bentley’s post, Clarey tells us that this finding is somehow a problem for uniformitarianism:
Something is definitely wrong with the uniformitarian story—why else would scientists be so surprised by the black rock and marine fossils? Could it be that all these strata—the red and black rocks—are deposits from the great Flood? This interpretation eliminates the mystery of how marine fossils are found sandwiched in between red sands and shale. It also solves the mystery of the black, organic-rich shale.
Now, by my reading of Bentley’s post Clarey has grabed the wrong end of the stick. It’s not that geologists think that it’s impossible that marine sediment could exist inside an otherwise terrestrial formation, they just didn’t think there was any marine sediment in this particular formation. It’s like discovering trout in a river you thought didn’t have any: it’s not that you have built up some large portion of a scientific field based upon the belief that it was physically impossible for their to be trout in rivers, you just didn’t realise there was trout in this specific river.
I can’t agree with the blanket statement that “creationist can’t be scientists” on empirical grounds, but I do very much get the impression that employment with the ICR has made this specific creationist very much detached from how science actually works. As a YEC Clarey operates within a highly restrictive worldview that is forced to treat all evidence with suspicion, and for which a surprising result is an inherent threat. While we can’t of course rule out the possibility that Clarey is just spinning a tale that he doesn’t fully believe in for the benefit of his readers, it does seem that he has assumed on the grounds that any unexpected result to him must challenge his creationist views then so to must anything that surprises a non-creationist be a threat to the relevant “secular” theory. This is, quite obviously, untrue.
By way of his own explanation for the stratum Clarey adds:
Rapid deposition during the Flood would have preserved ample organic material to give a black coloration to the rocks. There is no need to call on special, restricted, low-oxygen conditions to explain the dark color. Organic debris was merely buried within the Flood sediments along with the fossil shelled animals.
A Flood origin for the sediments accounts for the rock types we observe much better than secular models. Creationists don’t have to fabricate tales of the sea level rising and then draining off the land suddenly, over and over. We just recognize it happened once, in a catastrophic way, about 4,500 years ago.
Even assuming that this works for the 5 metres of marine sediment, which is quite an ask, what about the terrestrial sediment above and below? Clarey is obviously not claiming that the what is observed here is the start and finish of his global, violent Flood of Noah, but that means he needs to claim that everything that looks like it was deposited by a river was actually produced by a giant tsunami, among other problems. This is not a great start.
The geologists might have been surprised by what they saw, but they were not challenged. It is instead Clarey that has the explaining to do, but this is hardly a new situation.
*and some of you may remember that I got permission to use a different photo of his as part of a post demonstrating that rock can flow even when solid.