Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education XVIII: Wherein Volcanic Facts are Violated

There’s something about volcanoes that brings out the worst in your modern creationist. They’re willfully ignorant about plenty of things, and surely do love viewing science through a funhouse mirror, but most of them (ACE excepted) do manage to avoid mangling some of the science. Some of it even sounds downright secular in places. But they’ve got this really odd complex about volcanoes. They lose their shit to such an extent that they can’t even get basic facts straight.

A Beka’s Science of the Physical Creation suffers from this complex in spades.

They begin by hammering us with not one, but two obscure Bible quotes, proving beyond all doubt that while faith (and the Flood) may move mountains, God melts ’em. See Micah 1:4 and Nahum 1:5 for details. For some reason, they cut out the bit of Nahum 1:5 where it says that God kills everyone and everything on the planet when he makes the hills melt. Can’t imagine why…

Then it’s time for volcanoes, and of course, they start with Mount St. Helens. Creationists are absolute fools for Mount St. Helens. How does SPC screw it up? Let us count the ways:

1. The earthquake that triggered the eruption, and the historic landslide that unleashed the eruption, merit no mention.

2. The lateral blast is given short shrift.

3. The eruption column loses two and a half miles off its fifteen mile height.

4. And the volcano is credited with an extra five deaths.

These are all simple facts we knew in the early 1980s, for fuck’s sake. Basic bloody facts they can’t even bother to get right. Easily-checked facts, at that, and I can’t see an actual creationist reason to lie about them. It just seems to be basic incompetence.

Image shows Mount St. Helens erupting. Caption says, "Creationists lying about me? Must be a day ending in Y."

It gets worse.

Volcanoes are called “the most violent of commonly occurring natural cataclysms.” Dunno about that. If we measure violence by death toll, volcanoes don’t even make the list. It’s floods, earthquakes, and cyclones all the way. Volcanoes, impressive as they are, can’t even compete.

But although they tell the kiddies that volcanoes are the most violentest evar, they they also wish to assure everyone “that volcanic activity, like all other natural phenomena, is under His control.” Appreciate the power of God, ya’ll – that fucker can wipe 62 (actually, 57, but they can’t count) people out justlikethat.

It is here that the authors apparently think they’re being impressive, when it should really be abundantly clear that they worship a homicidal maniac who, if he were an actual person, would either be serving a life sentence in a Supermax, or a respected Republican party leader.

After being assured that God is totes in control of his murder machines, we’re told that volcanoes are “violent vents.” Then we get a super-simplified description of what volcanoes are, which isn’t terrible, but sure does give the impression there’s only the type of volcano that erupts from a shallow magma chamber, and probably creates cones with perhaps a crater on top. Volcanologists, in SPC’s account, sound like they were right stupid fools before seismologists set ’em straight.

Volcanologists, scientists who study volcanoes, have learned much from seismologists about the structure of the earth. As a result, volcanologists no longer believe that volcanoes erupt suddenly and without warning. Today, volcanologists know that volcanoes appear in certain regions and that certain signals precede eruptions. But they still do not know exactly when a volcano will erupt.

Nope. They sure don’t. Not exactly. Not, like, to the minute. Which is why the SPC authors portray them as clueless gits for only being able to predict approximately when a well-monitored volcano might erupt, sometimes to within a decade or two, or to the day or so if they know the precursor signs of a particular explosive beauty. Clearly they’re not as cool as seismologists, who (actually can’t) predict earthquakes to within a few years.

There might have been a smidgen of sarcasm in that previous paragraph.

We’re given three types of volcanoes. I assume this is a holy number, because it otherwise makes no sense. Three is the number thou shalt count. Five is right out. More than five is certainly verboten. So we don’t get to learn about caldera volcanoes like Yellowstone, or tuff rings, or maars, or kimberlite diatremes, or any of the other fascinating, less classic, and sometimes more horrifically dangerous volcanoes. And they don’t know that cinder cones are monogenetic – they think the buggers erupt lots rather than once. (Cerro Negro seemed to be an exception, but recent research indicates it’s not actually a cinder cone. It just likes to dress up as one sometimes.)

As if they haven’t screwed up enough, they go on to call a shield volcano a lava dome. Shield volcanoes and lava domes are quite different – just ask Mount Elden. According to the SPC writers, composite volcanoes erupt cinders or “mild” lava flows – no mention of the tephra, pyroclastic flows, lava domes, and other volcanic material that also compose them. By now, I’m getting the sense these folks don’t know diddly shit about volcanoes.

Their next bit of nonsense confirms that impression, as they talk about the three states a volcano can be in: active, dormant, and extinct. Are you ready for the line that made me howl, “Oh, no, they ain’t!”?

A volcano that probably will not erupt again is called an extinct volcano. Mount Shasta in California and Mount Rainier in Washington are both classed as extinct.

Hells to the no bloody way. By any scientific definition, Mount Rainier is active. Mount Shasta is dormant only by virtue of not having erupted while white people with pens were handy: if we go by the Global Volcanism Project’s definition, she’s active – and she bloody well be more so in the future. Jesus. Two feisty young volcanoes in the most volcanically active range in North America, and these silly buggers think they’re extinct? Don’t even put clowns like this in charge of volcano monitoring Cascades volcanoes. I want to live!

They tell us where volcanoes live without extra comment. I guess they’re tired of finding new and creative ways to say plate tectonics is only a theory when some of the best evidence that the theory is correct happens to be glaring them right in the eyeballs.

Image is a world map with the locations of many volcanic chains and some famous volcanoes noted on it.
Why, yes, this is their very own map of the Pacific Ring of Fire and other volcanic belts, which just happen to outline various plate boundaries and mid-ocean ridges and subduction zones and such. What a coinky-dink!

After having told us on page 214 that volcanologists don’t know exactly when a volcano will go boom, they tell us “Volcanoes rarely erupt without warning” on page 216. Then they tell us volcanologists at Mount St. Helens definitely “saved hundreds of lives” by telling folks, hey, she’s gonna blow. Oh, and “earthquakes may also precede the eruption by a few days or hours, often increasing in intensity and number as the pressure within the magma builds.” This is totally not a contradiction of their previous statement, though, because we don’t know exactly when the eruption will happen. Now, I’m all about not letting folks think we can give an exact date and time for every eruption – we can’t. Some eruptions still take us by surprise. But when you’ve made a huge production out of telling people that seismologists can predict earthquakes – which they can’t – at least don’t spend a paragraph implying that volcanologists are fools, and then contradict yourself less than two pages later.

Of course, once you’ve had practice reconciling the endless contradictions of the Bible, I suppose your ability to catch and correct your own contradictions goes right away.

Also, it’s not pressure in the magma that causes the earthquakes, you ignoramuses. It’s magma movement. Pressure isn’t building within the magma, it’s building because more magma is being injected.

As is typical with Christianist textbooks, they do all right explaining the plain facts on how volcanoes erupt and two of the factors (viscosity of and dissolved gas in the magma) that cause differences in eruption styles. But they deny lava the spectacular range of colors it can assume: it’s black or gray, and that’s it.

Image shows a piece of dark red-orange obsidian speckled with black streaks.
This beautiful piece of mahogany obsidian doesn’t exist in SPC World. Image courtesy Ra’ike (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ash is only “droplets,” not “pulverized rock, minerals, and volcanic glass,” in their sad little world. They’re stuck on cinders and refuse to use the term scoria, although they’re mercifully aware that “volcanic cinders are not burned-out materials.” It’s nice to see they’re aware that lava is, relatively speaking, not all that dangerous – they know that the real danger to human life is from the more explosive volcanic blasts. They don’t, however, seem to be aware of what the correct terminology is – they only use the word “blast” to describe the pyroclastic density current that Mount St. Helens unleashed. You won’t learn the term “pyroclastic flow,” either. And they seem to think that a nueé ardente is a completely different thing. It’s not, really. The impression I get is of people who don’t even read the pop sci accounts about volcanoes: most of their knowledge is lodged firmly in the early 1900s, with just a few statistics from recent eruptions salted in.

They have no idea how magma rises – they think it’s about pressure, when it’s actually rising because it’s less dense than the rock surrounding it. But they don’t get that’s it’s pressure, not “unusually stiff” magma, that forms laccoliths. They think that batholiths are the same-only-different – they’re really not.

And so the chapter ends in a dribble of poorly-understood terminology. Having shot their God-Wad at the beginning, they don’t even bring the big cheese back up. I’m left with the impression they might be one of the participants in a godly game of telephone that distorts the data, then passes it on down the line to ACE, where what’s vomited out bears almost no relation to actual earth science.

But this chapter has also revealed a weakness in the creationist not-listening armor: plate tectonics. They fear and hate plate tectonics, yet can’t avoid the theory’s mega-immense explanatory power. We can chase them around whispering “plate tectonics!” until their either have to finalize their divorce from reality, or get back together with it.

One thing’s for sure: this ain’t the textbook that will lay a firm foundation for future volcanology careers. Or any other geoscience career, for that matter. Oy.

Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education XVIII: Wherein Volcanic Facts are Violated

6 thoughts on “Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education XVIII: Wherein Volcanic Facts are Violated

  1. 2

    ” The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein.” Nahum 1:5
    That must make him a real hit at parties….
    “Hi! I’d like you to meet my good buddy god!….Shit!!! The earth is burned and everyones dead!!….Again!!!!!!”

  2. 4

    Ugh. Anyone who lives in or near the N. Cal Cascade region could tell them Shasta aitn’t dead yet. It erupted in the late 1700’s! The Cascades are a young range! Shasta itself formed after the last ice age, which makes it incredibly fucking young on a geological scale. The whole area is volcanically active. Dormant doesn’t mean extinct, you dolts, dormant, if one wants to get overly simplistic about it, means “isn’t currently erupting.”

  3. 6

    They could potentially begin the process of refining their learning and critical reasoning powers any day now, but no one knows when, or if, that will happen. We certainly cannot predict if it will occur within our lifetimes, not without some pretty strong– one could say earth shaking, even– advance indicators.


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