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Mystery in the Rocks


A physicist's discovery begins an extraordinary odyssey through
pride and prejudice in the scientific world.

By Dennis Crews

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An unprecedented media blizzard was generated by various scientific institutions across the country in advance of the trial itself. The loudest voices were virtually unanimous in condemning Act 590, and made dire predictions regarding the advancement of human knowledge if the bill were to pass. Most were ruthless in their characterization of creationists. Almost the entire December issue of Science 81 was devoted to an attack on creationism, and copies were given to the National Science Teachers' Association for distribution to its members. In an article entitled "Farewell to Newton, Einstein, Darwin...," Allen Hammond and Lynn Margulis summed up the prevailing attitude: "To argue—as the creationists do—that a theory must be true rather than that the evidence compels one to it as the best choice is antithetical to science. To be unwilling to revise a theory to accommodate observation is to forfeit any claim to be scientific... Creationism is not science. Indeed, creationists do not participate in the scientific enterprise—they do not present papers or publish in scientific journals. And it is precisely because creationists present themselves as 'scientific' that they do most harm to the educational system."

This characterization was the exact reverse of the facts in Gentry's case, but it served the ACLU well. The psychological battle would be won or lost not by facts but by perceptions, and it was clear that the plaintiff would do anything necessary to win. The champions of evolution desired to vanquish creationism so utterly that the issue would never rise again. With a veritable army of over 50 attorneys and paralegals working on their case, including some highly adept volunteers from the prestigious New York law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, versus only six which the Arkansas Attorney General's office could muster, the ACLU went to Little Rock with an enormous advantage. No expense was spared in mounting the most aggressive and sophisticated attack possible against the creationists.

Not surprisingly, the trial produced no revelations but generated great news copy. The ACLU team employed the tactic of making witnesses for the state look foolish, using short, hard cross-examinations to discredit them without allowing explanations or scientific discussion that might bolster their credibility. A typical example occurred when theologian Norman Geisler took the stand. Geisler, arguing that in the absence of worship the concept of a creator or first cause does not of itself constitute religion, cited Aristotle's "unmoved mover" as a case in point. From this point attorney Anthony Siano succeeded, step by step, in drawing out Geisler's belief first in God, then in the existence of Satan. Further aggressive questioning laid bare Geisler's belief in the existence of demon possession and UFOs—much to the delight of the plaintiffs—and with no opportunity to place these beliefs in any context the cross-examination was terminated and Geisler was dismissed from the stand.

At various points in the trial testimony for the plaintiff became no less vulnerable, but the strategy of the ACLU lawyers and the vagaries of the court prevented the state from exploiting these weaknesses. Of particular significance was the ACLU's decision to separate the origin of life from the issue of evolution itself. Cross-examination of Yale biophysicist Harold Morowitz, witness for the plaintiff, revealed why. After optimistically asserting that scientists were "getting close" to knowing precisely how life on earth began, Morowitz was forced to concede that leading evolutionists still have only theories. Proper scientific theory uses natural laws to predict physical phenomena and must be validated by experimentation, but Morowitz finally admitted that even after thousands of experiments and intense efforts none of the theories on the origin of biological life had ever worked to produce a living cell.

This incongruity might have led to a more careful examination of the uniformitarian principle had the judge not blocked the state's attorney from proceeding further with the issue. It is doubtful that more than a handful of observers understood what was at stake, and why the plaintiffs did not want the trial complicated by such questions. There are no natural processes that can adequately explain either the origin of the universe or the genesis of life on earth; both require either the suspension of known physical laws or the intervention of supernatural forces. ACLU strategists knew that evolutionary science could never be shown to rest on a naturalistic base if the discussion wandered into cosmology or origins—both of which, nevertheless, are integral parts of evolutionary science as taught in most high schools and universities. Thus the state lost a significant opportunity to demonstrate the inconsistency of the plaintiff's case.

Geologist G. Brent Dalrymple of the U.S. Geological Survey was the witness for the ACLU who eventually would be addressing Gentry's findings. His initial testimony claimed radiometric dating to be "the only process we know of that is constant through time over billions of years."26 Under cross-examination, however, several cracks opened in Dalrymple's argument. After close questioning Dalrymple finally admitted that consistent results obtained by different decay schemes today do not prove constant decay rates in the past. He attempted to reduce the impact of this admission by noting that varying decay rates would involve changes in physical laws. Yet his only argument against this possibility was that scientists "presume they have not" changed—at least not since the big bang, upon which he was not anxious to comment since all physical laws become invalid at that point.

Robert Gentry's research had proven this presumption to be an unwarranted convenience for evolution—and one that tended to foster prejudice against the acceptance of any evidence to the contrary. If the testimony of a creation scientist boiled down to a similar presumption, Gentry realized, he would be dismissed with scorn. Should any other scientist be permitted the indulgence of deficient reasoning simply for being on the popular side?

Dalrymple's credibility hung by a slender thread more than once during his cross-examination by state attorney David Williams. At one point Dalrymple emphatically asserted that he would want to look closely at any study which, if true, would call the science of geochronology into question. When Dalrymple was reminded of Gentry's research and the letter his own friend and colleague Paul Damon had published in EOS characterizing Gentry's study as just such work, he accused Damon of engaging in rhetoric. Finally Dalrymple revealed that he had not bothered to read any of Gentry's articles in the refereed scientific journals except for one nearly ten years old. He justified himself with the excuse that publications by creation scientists are not authentic scientific literature.

Dalrymple's unfamiliarity with Robert Gentry's work did not prevent him from having strong opinions about it. Calling Gentry's falsification test "meaningless" and a "technical problem," he characterized polonium halos as "a very tiny mystery" that someday would be resolved according to conventional science. At one point he even suggested that Gentry might be mistaken in his identification of the halos. Since he had done no study on the subject, however, under recross-examination he was forced to admit that his opinions were only speculation. Apparently the ACLU calculated that their witness' ignorance of Gentry's research would be less damaging than having him study the articles before the trial and still not be able to refute them.

A greater irony was to come. Gentry was not called to testify until the end of the trial, after maximum dramatic impact had already been registered by the plaintiff's star witnesses. Many of the media, believing the show to be over, had already evaporated from the scene. Nevertheless in the cross-examination ACLU attorney Bruce Ennis immediately strove to discredit Gentry's integrity as a scientist and diminish the importance of his discoveries. His first questions focused on Gentry's religious beliefs, and then dredged up an insignificant error from his early research he had later corrected in print as a matter of routine years before the trial. Such tactical maneuvers succeeded in keeping the court preoccupied with irrelevancies and diverting attention from Gentry's primary testimony on polonium halos.


26 S. Smith, 1982. Testimony of G. Brent Dalrymple, McLean vs. Arkansas State Board of Education. Little Rock: Official Court Reporter, U.S. District Court.

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For readers interested in a more comprehensive treatment of this story, Robert Gentry's book, Creation's Tiny Mystery, is available for $18 (U.S.) + S/H.

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The above page was found at http://www.halos.com/book/mystery-in-the-rocks-10.htm on July 31, 2014.

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Earth Science Associates