Friday, February 19, 2010

Plate Tectonics Redux

A while ago I wrote a rather sarcastic post on plate tectonic denialists. I got a reply from Harry Dale Huffman, who claimed that plate tectonics was easily disproved and directed me to one of his blog posts. Go take a minute and read it. I'll be waiting after the jump.

Okay. Done with that? Let's talk about it. First I want to discuss warning signs, then logistical problems, and finally the actual content of the post. Maybe I should do this in reverse order, but at the moment I don't want to do it that way. I'll say at the beginning this is not an ad hominem, because I will discuss the actual content of his claims, but, if you want to claim poisoning the well...I'll partially accept it. However, I do believe that Mr. Huffman falls into the larger category of, to put it bluntly, quacks. If you read through that post, you get a lot of references to paradigm changes, that this is obvious if only people open their eyes, that these has been denied or dismissed by scientists, etc, etc. This should be a red flag for most people, it's the kind of language that you hear most often among the quack or pseudo-scientific community, be it evolution deniers, climate change deniers, HIV-AIDS deniers, etc. This is not to say that Mr. Huffman is not an intelligent man and cannot do actual research. I am sure he is quite competent, but it is to say that in this particular area, he is a bit of a quack.

It is interesting, if not particularly surprising, that many intelligent design supporters tend to be engineers. People who actually work in the field of biology see through ID rather quickly and don't accept arguments about design because, very simplistically, biological units don't follow the same rules and processes of man-made objects. There are some superficial similarities, of course, but deeper study reveals that this is a false analogy. Call it a special case of functional fixedness - after working for so long on design and being trained to look for elements of design, it isn't hard to see that these people often try to import their views on design into natural systems. So, yes, we tend to be rather wary when people start talking about design in natural systems - it hasn't really panned out yet.

As to logistical problems - there are a few problems. First, he claims that "seeing is believing." The short response to this is easy: "Wrong." The more detailed response is, as should be expected, more complex. Indeed, in some ways, seeing is believing. However, it is very easy to be wrong about what you believe, or what you believe you are seeing. Optical illusions are the easiest example of this - I would presume that Mr. Huffman would not argue that these illusions represent the reality of the situation. Likewise, perhaps Mr. Huffman would like to look at the Face on Mars (from the 1970's observation) and explain why that is or is not evidence of advanced civilizations and design on Mars. Perhaps Mr. Huffman also believes that the fractal patterns of ice crystals is also evidence of intelligent design of ice, or perhaps not. I would also question him about just how far he wants to take this statement - should we deny the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum outside of visible light because it is not readily apparent to the naked eye? Also, if this were really so evident as Mr. Huffman wants to claim, why is it that only he has noticed it, and that this "evidence" has completely escaped the best minds of the planet for centuries? This is a rather common issue among quacks - they always claim some secret knowledge that is "readily apparent," "completely obvious," "denied by modern science," and "discovered by hard work under the oppression of the establishment."

On another point, Mr. Huffman isn't really clear about how the whole movement of continents worked in the past and why it won't continue now. He doesn't deny that the continents have moved, he merely wants to argue that they have been purposefully moved and now, apparently they have stopped moving. As that I've gotten a lot of hits on this blog from the last plate tectonics post, and as that most of those hits are from queries that are looking for evidence specifically to disprove plate tectonics, I think it is important review some of that evidence here. This does not necessarily bear directly on Mr. Huffman's arguments, as he does not seem to deny previous continental movement, but we'll get to that.

First, we have the overall shapes of the continents. It isn't hard to see that they seem to be pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle and that they could be all fitted together. This was the original impetus for the theory of continental drift, but originally there was no mechanism identified for why the continents should move. Secondly, we have fossil distribution. The distribution of fossils of the same type and same edge along the edges of continents (and sometimes across continents like Antarctica) only makes sense with the assumption that at some point in the distance class the continents were either connected or vastly closer together. Third we have paleomagnetism. When a rock is formed, its magnetic alignment is frozen. We can see that looking at rocks of a certain age, if we draw the lines of their alignment now, they align somewhere in space above the earth, or are misaligned. If we assume the same continental placement/distribution that makes fossil dispersion make sense, then the magnetic alignments converge on the poles. This is a nice finding. We also have the evidence of the distribution and types of earthquakes and volcanoes - the majority occur along the proposed plate lines and actually serve to define these lines rather well. Likewise, at the proposed sites of new upheaval, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, we see the expected gradient of age in rocks as you move further from the Ridge. That is to say, the youngest rocks are along the ridge and they get progressively older the farther away you move from the ridge. Likewise, we have the continued growth of mountain ridges where plates are grinding against one another. There are also symmetrical magnetic bands on either sides of these ridges, showing evidence of the previous polarity reversals and weakenings in earth's history. These are all converging lines of evidence that point towards the movements of the continents, and point toward plate tectonics, but as that Mr. Huffman does not directly disagree with previous movement of continents, they do not particularly bear on his points.

However, Mr. Huffman does want to deny current or future movement. He argues that the mechanisms of plate tectonics are physically impossible. Currently, the mechanism is described as convection zones of heat underneath the crust. This heat originates from (in a very small way) residual heat from the formation of the earth, and, more importantly, from the continued radioactive decay within the earth. A large problem with Mr. Huffman's ideas is that he would have to account for how this heat is going to be released if not through the movement of the plates. A bigger problem is whether or not he have a mechanism at all for previous movement, if not from the release of this built up heat. I would be very interested to know his ideas on how previous movement occurred and why it should stop now without catastrophic results, or perhaps he intends this.

Mr. Huffman's main argument seems to be a recapitulation of Pythagorean and Platonic ideas about geometric shapes and how they are reflected in the world or universe. Johannes Kepler struggled with this idea for a long time before eventually rejecting it - realizing that no matter how much the mathematics, design, and beauty of it all looked, the evidence just didn't back it up. I think this is largely the same case. Mr. Huffman wants the design to work out so badly that he's willing to flub some of his "data." Look again at his drawing of the prime lines that bisect the globe. Notice how there's not really much consistency in how far away some of these lines stray from the actual coast lines. Some are very close or even cross land, while others are pretty far into the ocean. His "Asian" line is drawn out to the coast of Japan, while his "African" line avoids Madagascar. Why are islands considered part of the coast line only some of the time? Why are his South American and North American lines allowed to cross land at certain points? Why is the Gulf of Mexico's coast line ignored while cowing the importance of the line's proximity to the Yucatan peninsula? Why, after discussing how important it is that these lines align along the east coasts of landmasses, does he note the importance of how close the fifth line comes to the ~west~ coast of New Zealand, which is not even a continent? What does Mr. Huffman have to say about the continued movement of the continents, continued subduction, continued growth of mountain ranges along the plate lines, and continued expansion along places like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge? Why is this moment in time, when these lines are possible to draw, so important?

It seems after all of this that Mr. Huffman is perpetuating two errors - 1) Confirmation bias, and 2) anomaly hunting. First, Mr. Huffman is dismissive of any evidence that would invalidate his claims, or even where his own method doesn't particularly work (e.g., his fifth line), but is quick to jump on anything that helps his bias towards ancient geometric traditions. Secondly, Mr. Huffman's argument doesn't go much beyond "isn't this interesting?" and taking what would appear to be a coincidence (if it is even that) to something very meaningful. These sorts of anomalies are to be expected in any system that is large enough or complex enough. In fact, it would be much more interesting if they ~weren't~ present. Mr. Huffman also falls into the same sort of argument that many evolution denialists fall into - the use of odds. These are almost always red flags and are typically quite misleading. Let us look at any crystal formation - the odds of each atom being in exactly the place it occupies is extremely low. The odds of being able to place, at random, each atom into its correct position are so low as to be past the point of being fathomable. However, these crystals exist - they have to take some state. This sort of argument is contained within the field of statistical dynamics, as stated in a previous post. What other system is Mr. Huffman considering when he calculates the odds of the continents being in their present location?

So, in conclusion, I would like to hear Mr. Huffman's explanation of why the continents are still moving, why mountain ranges like the Himalayas are still rising, and why new material is still appearing at mid ocean ridges, as well as to explain the inconsistencies within his own presentation. I do not agree with him, clearly, and I do not think that his case is anywhere near as self evidence as he would like to claim.


Okada said...

I think you hit every single problem I had with his original post. I think it is worth reiterating that his entire geometric argument, giving him that it even provides evidence is not even precise enough. The sites that he picks out are hit and miss. You would think if someone was hand picking evidence you should at least be able to find lines that hit exactly what would make your argument look the best. I am looking forward to a response to address the issues you presented.

Harry Dale Huffman said...

You don't know what you are talking about. In my "Challenge to Earth Scientists", I set the scientific reader a test, to calculate the probability that the landmasses could have by chance been so closely parked along their east coasts to the precise dodecahedron pattern I showed. (That precise pattern was precisely indicated by the design I found, and it confirmed that design as an intentional imposition upon the surface of the Earth--just one of many independent confirmations of the larger design, which establish it as a verifiable scientific fact). Take the test. Do the calculation. If you are competent, yours will confirm my stated conclusion: The probability is on the order of 1 million million (1,000,000,000,000) to one against chance shaping and placement of the landmasses (and after 100's of millions of years of drifting all over the globe, remember, according to plate tectonics theory). That calculation is my answer to you--you have already gotten off to a bad start by ignoring the hard, quantitative scientific challenge, when accepting it is the only proper reaction from an honest, competent scientist. I know I am competent; I have yet to see a competent response to any attempt I have made in the last 7 years and more to gain recognition for the "great design of the gods". I have proved that design through overwhelming evidence, along every line of study I have tried.

tom sheepandgoats said...


Unlike you, I am not unimpressed with the "long odds" argument, though strictly speaking, I guess it does not constitute "proof" of anything. But the argument loses all power when the alternative to this or that long odds scenario is just as viable. Change one of the "long odds" factors relating to life, and life itself becomes untenable. Change one of the "long odds" factors relating to continent placement and what? It almost seems as if you could sprinkle the continents any old place and life would go on. Climate would change, of course, and population patterns, and history insofar as it has been determined by geography, but life itself would go on just fine.

Sigh....and though we often disagree, I promise I will never preface any remark to you with "You don't know what you are talking about."

This fellow reminds me a bit of someone I knew who would tell one and all he was an "historian," whereas, in my view, he was just someone who read history a lot. Where do you cross the line from being a reader of history to being an historian? Where do you cross the line from being a reader of science to being a scientist? (Note that I have never claimed to be "a theologian", thank God) Does this fellow really write as a scientist?....I thought you would call him on "Seeing is believing; that is, it should be." and, sure enough, you did.

He's a bit confrontational, not to say argumentative. Still, I guess that in itself proves nothing. Newton, I've read several times, was insufferable. I see his blog contains many posts with the same nature (and tone) as the one you looked at. Maybe I'll read though a few.

As to "Johannes Kepler struggled with this idea for a long time before eventually rejecting it - realizing that no matter how much the mathematics, design, and beauty of it all looked, the evidence just didn't back it up," was it really that way? Perhaps you have a more complete history than I, but I do know that, in the midst of Kepler's 'three laws of planetary motion' treatise, he inserted (you'd almost think him a Bible writer):

"The wisdom of the Lord is infinite; so also are His glory and His power. Ye heavens, sing His praises! Sun, moon, and planets glorify Him in your ineffable language! Celestial harmonies, all ye who comprehend His marvelous works, praise Him. And thou, my soul, praise thy Creator! It is by Him and in Him that all exists. that which we know best is comprised in Him, as well as in our vain science. To Him be praise, honor, and glory throughout eternity.":

Ragoth said...

@ Mr. Huffman:
You put a great deal of stock in your long-odds calculation. If anything, long experience with people who like to use such arguments has made me rather cynical of them. Let me put it this way - consider a single quartz crystal, or a single snowflake. Consider any such object you like. Now, if you like, perform the calculations and tell me exactly what the probability is that each specific atom within that objects occupies the specific place that it does, which each atom could, in a non-contingent world, occupy literally any space in the universe. How many more orders of magnitude are there to that probability than the probability that the continents occupy just such locations as they do. The other way to look at it, from the other side of things, is that the continents occupying any specific arrangement, patterned or not, is just as unlikely - yet, the continents exist, and they must occupy some space. Now matter how unlikely any given arrangement, one of them must be the right one, no matter how unlikely it is.

Let us consider a hypothetical, consider each second in a person's life represents an "event." We could consider a minute, or even an hour. While our scale would change, the basic idea remains the same. How many seconds are in every day? 86,400? How long would it take us to get to a "one-in-a-million" event? One could expect to have such an occurrence roughly every eleven and a half days. Or, to put it another way, given a rough population of the world, we could assume that somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 people very day have a one-in-a-million event. Even if we consider an "event" only occurs once a day, we could assume, easily, that within the average person's life, a little over 30 one-in-a-million events will happen. This is the problem with large numbers and probability - if you have enough events or enough time, even incredibly low-probability events are bound to happen.

Also, aside from the importance that the Pythagoreans put on it, what is so important about a dodecahedron? What if the world were perfectly laid out in hexagons, or pentagons, or some other shape? Would that have the same importance, and if so, does that mean more that you're willing to attach significant to patterns, or that you've found a significant pattern? I'm likewise rather unimpressed with the diagrams that you have on your website (and yes, I've read all the posts). You claim a lot of precision, but you don't show much of your work on that. Exactly how much variance do you have in those lines? How far away are each of the coasts on average, and why not the closeness of the west coast of New Zealand if these are all supposed to align to the east coasts of the continents?

I have not ignored the "hard, quantitative scientific challenge," I'm merely saying it's badly formed. I would assume that if I offered you the challenge of calculating the odds that each atom in a snowflake would occupy the space in which it does, you would not then conclude that each and every snowflake had to be hand-crafted. I think you make a fundamental error in assuming that long-odds events can't happen, and that if they do, they must have come about through intelligent agency. Our near-perfect snowflakes or quartz crystals should be strong evidence against that.

Ragoth said...

So, in response to your challenge, I offer you this - I think the very basis of your challenge's premise is faulty, and thus, even though I am sure your calculations of the probability are correct, it really doesn't go to show much of anything. I instead offer you a counter-challenge. Explain the evidence that would contradict your ideas - why do we still measure continental movement? Why are there magnetic bands along the sea floor radiating out from rift zones? Why do the ages of the seafloors track in a perfect gradient to these rifts? Why do we still have earthquakes and volcanic eruptions? What will happen to all the pent-up heat from leftover radioactive decay within the earth if it does not escape through tectonic activity? Do you predict some sort of fiery catastrophe?

Also, more importantly, by what mechanism did your gods accomplish their movement of the continents? What evidence is there of this? Surely, if you want to claim a verifiable theory, there is some clear evidence that would settle this matter. However, reading over your blog, it seems more that you leave it up to mystery and magic, which does little more for me than someone claiming that gravity actually works by tiny invisible goblins running on treadmills - we cannot observe them except by the gravitational influences they exert, but we have no verifiable ways of tying gravity back to them.

I am certainly willing to discuss this more, but I think I should make it clear from the outset that a long-odds probability calculation, given the vast timescale of history, and given that any specific arrangement is actually equally unlikely, is not very convincing.

Ragoth said...


Thanks for the support, it's been a while since I've heard from you, and it's always a pleasure.

As for Kepler, during his years as a professor, before he joined Tycho Brahe, he struggled under the impression that the most perfect system that God could create would be one based on the perfect solids. He gave up on this in frustration before he left to live with Brahe and developed his famous laws.

Anonymous said...

notice how huffman does not define the criteria by which his lines are determined -- let alone one that can be used to determine his magic angle to 5 significant figures.