32 Sandia scientists sign statement on validity of Earth dating – Sandia National Laboratories

Kendrick Frazier

Scientists’ sensitivities were rubbed particularly raw when a reader, steeped in creationism and upset about an earlier article by Albuquerque Journal science reporter John Fleck (“N.M.’s Rocks Hold Clues to Earth’s Age”), published a critical letter to the editor in the newspaper’s November 3 issue. Referring to Bishop Ussher’s proclamation that the Earth was six thousand years old, the letter writer asserted that “many top scientists agree with Ussher, including many of the top scientists at Sandia Labs.”

Sandia National Laboratories, based in Albuquerque, is one of the nation’s largest R&D facilities. A U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory with major missions in national security, Sandia advances the frontiers of technology in physics and chemistry, supercomputing and computational science, intelligent machines and robotics, microelectronics, materials science, and a host of other scientific and engineering fields. Sandia scientists have worked toward the long-term disposal of nuclear waste in stable geologic repositories, simulated hypervelocity impacts into the Earth and other planets, and have been instrumental in other projects in the earth and geophysical sciences. Sandia’s workforce of 7,540 incudes 1,350 technical staff members with Ph.Ds. In addition to their research, many Sandia scientists have helped to advance science education, including serving as part-time “science advisors” in New Mexico schools.

Sandia physicist Mark Boslough, one of many Sandians who has promoted stronger science education standards for the state’s schools, drafted a letter of response and circulated it to colleagues at Sandia. The letter was carefully phrased to assert an unassailable pro-scientific position and narrowly focused not to raise side issues. On November 26, their letter appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was signed by thirty-two Sandia scientists, including Boslough and Rick Buss, a principal member of the technical staff.

Consensus at Sandia Behind Radiometrics

Re: “Geological Clues or Red Herring?” letter by John Woffard –

Woffard incorrectly stated that many of the top scientists at Sandia Labs agree with Bishop Ussher’s 17th century proclamation that the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old.

On the contrary, Sandia has contributed to the body of modern research that supports the Earth’s true age of about 4.5 billion years. Some Sandia programs make use of the same reliable radiometric dating techniques that tell us how old our planet is.

We think that any Sandia scientist among us who really believes that he or she has a sound technical argument against these methods, and for a young Earth, would surely present a seminar or try to publish an internal report before testifying at a school board meeting.

To our knowledge, this has never happened at Sandia. We suspect that it never will, regardless of what our children are taught in school.

It has been a particular concern and embarrassment to many Sandians – not just its scientists but nonscientist members of the laboratory staff and some in upper management – that the positive scientific and educational activities of Sandia Labs’ scientists sometimes get overshadowed by the actions of two members of Sandia’s technical staff who are active creationists. One, Russell Humphreys, is a member of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and is very active both locally and nationally; the other quotes ICR teachings and is an appointed member of the State Board of Education. Both often make public statements on behalf of anti-evolution, pro-creationist viewpoints and are frequently quoted in the news in that regard.

The two have actively challenged draft science-teaching standards that include evolution. Their opposition has helped remove evolution and evidence about the ancient age of Earth from standards for teaching science in New Mexico schools and has sidetracked efforts to bring these subjects back (see “‘Evolution’ Loses Out in New Mexico Science Standards,” SI, November/December 1996, pp. 8-9). As an alternative they offer “intelligent design theory” – essentially a euphemism for special creation – something that both scientists and creationists agree is a way to get creationism into the classroom. Seldom is it indicated that they are offering their personal views, not the scientific position of the laboratory. Seldom is it mentioned that their views are not based in any way on work they have done, or even presented for peer review, at the laboratory. Such peer review is a standard procedure that scientists are expected to follow at Sandia just as everywhere else.

Following publication of the Sandia scientists’ letter, Russell Humphreys published a response in the Albuquerque Journal. Writing as though the collective letter had been from only one person (Buss) and not from thirty-two fellow Sandia scientists, Humphreys alleged (incorrectly) that Buss’s opposition was based on ignorance of the young-Earth arguments. He also said his own effort years ago to present a Sandia colloquium on his creationist views had been vetoed by a Sandia executive vice president.

Boslough responded with a letter published January 8, 1998. He said Sandia scientists’ consensus acceptance of radiometric dating is based not on faith, as Humphreys had implied, but on “rigorous theory, laboratory testing, and independent field confirmation.”

Boslough re-emphasized the total absence of any peer-reviewed scientific work by Humphreys in support of his young-Earth views:

According to a Sandia database, Humphreys has never even attempted to publish any evidence contrary to the prevailing views on radiometric dating. A logical conclusion is that he doesn’t really believe he has a sound technical argument. Humphreys himself recently responded to an e-mail query by admitting that he had not published his rejection of radiometric dating methods because he had not even analyzed them.

Humphreys has never been able to provide a citation to any scientific literature supporting his view, nor has he been able to come up with the name of a single other Sandia scientist who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old.

Boslough ended by reiterating the crucial importance of peer review and its absence in this case. He criticized “the ease by which the popular press allows him [Humphreys] to bypass the peer review process normally required by Sandia to protect taxpayers from shoddy research. It would be wise to question any claim by a scientist who published it only in newspaper letters and presents it only at school board meetings.”

The published statement signed by thirty-two scientists has general significance in the evolution/creationism educational controversy nationally as well as in New Mexico. The scientists who signed it say they hope it will dispel any impression that Sandia National Laboratories advocates anything other than scientifically supported evidence about the Earth’s age and history.

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER. Chris Frazier is in the Department of Biology at the University of New Mexico.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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