Review of Walter Brown's Book In the Beginning..." by Gerard Jellison

Originally posted on Dec. 27, 2009

This review is from: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood (8th Edition) (Hardcover)

As a physicist with an interest in investigating creationist claims, I've spent some time studying Dr. Walt Brown's "In the Beginning..." I've found "compelling evidence" for creation and a flood - but I mean the creation of phony arguments and a flood of incorrect claims. The book is filled with quote-mining, misused evidence, and elementary scientific errors. Since I can't discuss the whole book here, I'll concentrate on selected portions, and document just some of the errors and misrepresentations I've found.

To evaluate the quality of the information in Dr. Brown's book, let's look at his section on "out-of-place fossils." Brown gives a list of fossils that allegedly occur in the "wrong" geological strata, in violation of the accepted evolutionary sequence. Of course, he doesn't mention the enormous number of sites that show billions of fossils in the accepted evolutionary order. But what about his examples of paleontological discrepancies? (All quotes are from the 8th online edition.)

Brown says, "Frequently fossils are not vertically sequenced in the assumed evolutionary order." Two of his references are from mainstream journals - one from Science, and one from Nature. I looked up these two references, and found that neither contains any mention whatsoever of out-of-place fossils.

Brown says, "In Uzbekistan, 86 consecutive hoofprints of horses were found in rocks dating back to the dinosaurs." His reference is an article in Moskovskaya Pravda - hardly a credible scientific reference!

Brown says, "Dinosaur and humanlike footprints were found together in Turkmenistan and Arizona." His references include an article in Moscow News (!) and two articles in Creation Research Society Quarterly. I checked this with Glen J. Kuban, an experienced investigator of creationist paleontology claims. (Mr. Kuban's published research, accepted as valid even by creationist organizations, demonstrated that tracks of carnivorous dinosaurs sometimes resemble human prints.) He told me that nothing approaching a clear human print, let alone a striding sequence of distinct human prints, was found in Arizona. He noted that two experienced paleontologists who studied the Turkmenistan dinosaur trackways found nothing of a "humanlike" nature. For more information, see his website "The Paluxy Dinosaur/'Man Track' Controversy" (a great source of information on "anomalous" fossil reports).

Brown says, "Dinosaur, whale, elephant, horse, and other fossils, plus crude human tools, have reportedly been found in phosphate beds in South Carolina." He cites two articles from the 1870s, plus a personal communication. Glen Kuban is familiar with the 19th century reports. He says they provide no substantial documentation for mingling of fossils from different geological eras. Along with other fossil collectors and paleontologists, Mr. Kuban has been to Carolina phosphate mines, and observed their fossils. He told me there are large numbers of Tertiary fossils, both vertebrate and invertebrate, but no out-of-place fossils and certainly no dinosaurs. If dinosaur fossils did occur there, at some time during the last 140 years they would have been collected and reported in the scientific literature (not to mention documented in detail by young-Earth creationists).

Brown says, "No transitional forms of life have been found in amber." In reality, in the 1960s several scientists hypothesized that ants evolved from wasp ancestors, and predicted what features the transitional insects should have had. Several years after this prediction was made, Cretaceous ants in amber were discovered that showed almost all of the predicted transitional features.

Prior to November 2009, Brown's book said, "In Virginia, alongside 1,000 dinosaur footprints, are other tracks described as hoofprints of some unknown quadruped." In truth, these prints were initially described as those of a brontosaurus-like dinosaur, not a hoofed mammal, by R. E. Weems (U. S. Geological Survey) in 1987. Even the popularized version of this research cited by Brown (a Science News article) should have made it clear to him that this was not an out-of-place fossil. But it gets worse - subsequent excavation showed that the "hooflike" features of the prints were caused by an algal mat that the animal was traversing. When the trackmaker moved onto a bare surface, the shape of the prints changed, and they were identified with a known animal - an aetosaur, something like an armored crocodile. Dr. Weems withdrew his earlier announcement of a new sauropod species in 2006. There are no hoofprints, and the maker of the tracks is not "unknown" (it is called Brachychirotherium parvum).

I confirmed all of this through correspondence with Dr. Weems, and by reading his published articles. I also informed Dr. Brown of this issue. He didn't respond to me, and the false information remained in his book. Finally, after I sent him this critique for review, and advised him that I was going to post it on Amazon, he removed the claim from the "out of place fossils" section. However, in another section ("FAQ's: What About the Dinosaurs?") he still cites the Science News article, in association with others alleging coexistence of horses and dinosaurs. Although he deserves at least a little credit for removing the most egregious statement of this ridiculous claim, his behavior in this matter reveals a cavalier attitude toward scientific truth, and a willingness to make claims without consulting the primary literature or contacting the scientists who did the work.

[Note by Glen Kuban: Actually, Brown only removed the claim about the VA "hoofprints" from one of the two places in the 8th edition where it apeared. It still appears on page 12, along with other unfounded claims of "Out-of-Place" fossils. ]

Finally, Brown says," Coal beds contain...flowering plants that allegedly evolved 100 million years after the coal bed was formed." His reference is a 1923 article by A. C. Noe that described one such alleged anomaly. But the claim was disputed in another 1923 article, by A. C. Steward, that identified the fossil as an archaic plant, rather than a flowering plant. This identification was confirmed by J. M. Schopf in 1946. Brown is aware of these later published articles, but he ignores them.

Walt Brown has no credibility when discussing the published scientific literature. But what can we say about his own claims?

Like many creation "scientists," Brown explains the evolutionary progressions in the fossil record by invoking hydrodynamic sorting during the Flood, along with some contribution from differential mobility (i.e., animals trying to run to higher elevation as the Flood waters rose). Incredibly, his basis for the former claim is an unpublished study in which someone at Loma Linda University placed four unspecified animals ("a dead bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian") in a water tank and observed the order in which they sank to the bottom.

The hydrodynamic sorting and differential mobility claims are easily demolished. Flowering plants, for example, grow abundantly at low elevations and can't run very fast, yet their fossils don't appear until the Cretaceous. Fossils, as well as the individual particles that make up sedimentary deposits, do not show consistent progressions on the basis of size, shape, or density, as would be expected from hydrodynamic sorting. Brown's sketchy hydrodynamic "model" cannot explain why large and small individuals, or adults and eggs, of given species are found at the same geological level. Some fossil animals are found in death poses: dinosaurs sitting on top of their nests, "fighting dinosaurs" (a Velociraptor with its arm in the jaws of a Protoceratops), etc. These creatures clearly were not tossed about and hydrodyamically sorted in liquefied sediments, nor were they running up the sides of mountains to escape a global Flood. Many dinosaur fossils show evidence of scavenging by other dinosaurs, inconsistent with "rapid burial" during the Flood. (Fossil skeletons of large mammals never include shed teeth or toothmarks from carnivorous dinosaurs, because these animals did not live at the same time.) Finally, Brown's theory cannot explain why the famous iridium layer and the sudden disappearance of dinosaur fossils coincide with a sharp, discontinuous loss of many other fossil organisms, including microscopic ones like pollen and marine plankton.

Brown's unique "contribution" to creationism - the hydroplate theory - is based on an alleged underground ocean that erupted through cracks in the earth's crust and caused the Flood. These "fountains of the great deep" also supposedly shot an enormous mass of water and entrained rocks into space, forming the asteroids and comets.

As a physicist, I'm most qualified to comment on Brown's astronomical ideas. These are essential to his overall theory, because he invokes accelerated nuclear decay to explain radiometric dating results. As no creationist denies, compressing billions of years' worth of radioactive decay (at today's decay rates) into a year or less would produce enough heat to destroy the Earth. Brown has his own peculiar "solution" to this problem - he shoots the excess energy into space! Since the ejected material is not anywhere near our planet today, he needs a credible way of pushing it to the orbital locations of today's asteroids and comets. If he can't make these astronomical mechanisms work, he can't avoid melting the planet, and his theory is dead.

Brown says the total energy released during eruption of the "fountains" was equivalent to three hundred trillion H-bombs! Already, his theory is in trouble. Although he assumes that this energy went into orbital kinetic energy, it would not do so with perfect efficiency. Indeed, he needs much of the water to remain here on Earth to produce the Flood waters. If only 0.001% of the ejected material and energy had wound up in the atmosphere, the temperature would be raised by 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit! But the heat leakage would almost certainly have been much greater than this; Brown himself estimates that the total energy in the eruptions had to be ten times greater than the kinetic energy of the comets and asteroids, giving "inefficiency of the launch mechanism" as one of the reasons. Where did 90% of the energy go?

The Earth's upper atmosphere would have been contaminated with an enormous concentration of aerosols and solid particles, rendering the atmosphere almost opaque. Brown never explains how the already-stressed, genetically-depleted organisms from the Ark could have dealt with the resulting climate changes and loss of photosynthesis.

But apart from these issues, what can we say about his theory of the asteroids? He claims that a cloud of gaseous water molecules accompanied the rocks and ice into space, and that pressure differences in this cloud pushed the rocks past the orbit of Mars, allowing them to take their present positions in the asteroid belt. He says that the rotating rocks were heated by the Sun, and cooled on their "night" side. "After sunset, surface temperatures would rapidly drop." "Hot gas molecules hitting the hot side of an asteroid bounce off with much higher velocity and momentum than cold gas molecules bouncing off the cold side. Those impacts slowly expanded asteroid orbits..."

Until recently, Brown's book said that temperatures on the "night" side would "plummet toward nearly absolute zero." This is a wild exaggeration. I did calculations, using a finite-difference heat diffusion code, that showed a day/night temperature difference of only 20 to 60 degrees Kelvin (depending on rotation rate). The dark side of the asteroids would not get anywhere near absolute zero.

Brown's mechanism needs to push the rocks away from the Sun. The required increase in orbital angular momentum must be provided by a torque (a sideways "push"). He says that, since asteroids spin, the hot and cold zones would rotate a bit past the boundary between the illuminated and non-illuminated sides, allowing the colliding gas molecules to exert a tiny torque. But, even in principle, this mechanism could only work for asteroids that rotate in the same direction ("prograde") as their orbital motion around the Sun. Asteroids with retrograde rotation (of which there are many) would have been pushed closer to the Sun! And rocks that happened to have little rotation would have stayed near the Earth. Since the asteroids allegedly were ejected from huge explosions on the Earth, there is no reason to think they would all be spinning in a convenient direction or at the necessary rate.

The supposed cloud of interplanetary water molecules could not exert enough unbalanced force on the asteroids to push them tens of millions of miles in a thousand years or less. To make this argument as rigorous as possible, I did calculations using elementary physics equations and a number of assumptions wildly favorable to Brown (I've put the details into the "Comments" section below). My conclusion is that Brown's mechanism would require the total mass of water expelled into space to be equal to, or greater than, the mass of the Earth! Freshman-level physics shows that his theory is utterly unworkable.

Brown says he has a computer program that validates his theory of asteroid orbital enlargement. But his book provides no details, and he says he got his results using "arbitrary" values for parameters like gas density. What we need to know are the actual values! If he won't give a straightforward listing of his assumed parameter values, the best way to evaluate his claims would be to inspect and run his computer code. Unfortunately, my polite requests to him for more information resulted only in repeated statements that he is "not an answering service," along with challenges to a "telephone debate." He said his calculations were checked and approved by "a very capable astronautics professor," but refused to give this person's name. He said it would be too difficult to print out and send me the code he used to do the calculations, even though I offered to pay him for his time.

He claims to have made a great discovery, but refuses to disclose how he did his work. No one who acts like this deserves to be called a scientist.

Based on my study of his book, I conclude that Dr. Brown's work is without scientific merit. But I've tried to treat him fairly, and I've communicated many of my objections to him via e-mail. In some cases, as noted above, these communications caused him to quietly alter his book, although he has never admitted his errors and continues to claim, to me and to others, that I don't know what I'm talking about.

I've repeatedly told Dr. Brown that I'll be happy to engage with him if he wants to defend his book. Since a suitably detailed discussion would have to include analysis of his asteroid computer code and other mathematical matters, a telephone debate would not be appropriate. A blog capable of displaying equations would be best. If he will provide information on his calculations, at a level of detail equivalent to what a scientist expects in a standard peer-reviewed research paper, I'll be glad to discuss or "debate" his claims on his or any other website, with or without a moderator, anytime. He has made no response to this offer.

I've never met Dr. Brown, but based on material on his website, I suspect that he has many good qualities. I have no personal issues with him, but I am dismayed at his distorted presentation of science. He has misled countless people who are sincerely searching for the truth.

All of us understand the world through a combination of independent thinking and trust in others. We are impressed by people with advanced degrees, and many of us assume that a deeply religious person will behave with scrupulous integrity. Dr. Brown, with his identification as a man of science and a man of God, has inherent power and trust. His abuse of that power and trust is evident in his book, and, sadly, in the words of the good people he has misled.

Additional comments and calculations, posted on by G. Jellison, Mar 20, 2014

I wrote my review of "In the Beginning" in 2009. At that time, I posted details of my asteroid orbit calculations in this comment section. My calculations follow, but I am now (March 2014) adding this update to describe a recent CREATIONIST review of Walt Brown's work. This review should be of interest to anyone interested in hydroplate theory, as well as other creationist attempts to develop a workable model of the Global Flood.

First, some background. In 2009 I became aware that a northern Virginia-based film company, In Jesus' Name Productions (INJP), was interested in developing a big-budget movie based on the Biblical Flood. (This has nothing to do with the current "Noah" movie that stars Russell Crowe.) I attended a "Creation Forum" at a local evangelical church, at which INJP's CEO announced his plan to conduct a scientific review of the leading creationist Flood models and theories. The intention was to identify the most-credible model, with the hope that it would have enough scientific validity to form the basis for the movie's depiction of the Flood. The developer of each Flood model would be asked a number of questions by a panel of reviewers (all of whom would be creationists with scientific credentials). The developers of the Flood models would also be given the opportunity to critique each other's work.

Initially, there was some interest in getting me involved as a sort of unofficial adviser to this process, but this fell through. At that point, I stopped paying much attention to the progress of the review.

I now see that the review has been completed. An e-book, containing all the exchanges and communications between the creationists, is available for download (for a donation) from the INJP website. For creationists, this book is a great resource. For critics of creationism, it is a fascinating (if eccentric) inside look at how today's creationists think about themselves and each other.

Walt Brown and his hydroplate theory (including its astronomical claims) were an important part of the review. His work was subjected to strong scrutiny, and reading his exchanges with his critics reveals much about the scientific status of his work, as well as his attitude toward anyone who challenges him.

One of the review panelists was someone I had met at the Creation Forum. He posed my angular momentum calculations (the ones seen below in this comment) as a question to Walt Brown.

Several things are clear from Brown's response. First, he really doesn't like me very much! He and I had gotten off to a regrettably bad start when I first communicated with him, and he sort of went ballistic as soon as my name came up. He described me as an "arch antiCreationist" who refuses to debate him fairly (giving "flimsy excuses"). He claimed that he had pointed out errors in my criticisms, but that I was just on a "fishing expedition" to find chinks in his armor. He claimed that I go public with my criticisms without giving him the opportunity to respond in front of the same audience. He even got nasty with the creationist who had dared to cite my critique of Brown's work (the review moderator then chastised Brown for his disrespect to the creationist panelist).

I find all of this amusing, and won't go into detail about his angry comments here. I will note that I don't see myself this way. I don't remember that he has ever communicated any serious errors in my work to me. The only "public" criticism I have made of him (that I can recall) is in this Amazon review. If he wants to present his side of the story, I'll gladly delete half of my review to make space for him to do that.

It's gratifying to me that several of the creationist panelists raised the same points that I made in my review. The lack of calculations to back up his assertions was noted. Brown was asked for details of the computer modeling that allegedly supports his claims. In all of these cases, Brown kept insisting that his critics reread his book, even though the desired information isn't in there. Perhaps he sincerely doesn't understand what we are asking for. He repeated what he said to me: that no one but himself could understand his mathematical work and computer code, so it would be pointless to give this material to outside reviewers. He was defensive and resentful at being asked to justify his claims (beyond simply proclaiming that things would happen in a certain way).

The most telling aspect of this exchange is its ending: Brown prematurely withdrew, partway through the review process. He was the only participant to do so (another author wanted to participate, but could not because of a health problem). As I've noted, I wasn't part of this process, so I don't know the full story. At first, I wondered whether Dr. Brown had dropped out because of illness or personal issues. But the comments in the INJP writeup make it clear to me that there were no ameliorating circumstances. Walt Brown just decided he'd had enough.

In the comments following my Amazon review, I was repeatedly taken to task by creationists for failing to accept Walt Brown's ridiculous "debate challenge." It was claimed that he is eager to take on his critics, and that the fault lies with "evolutionists" who are afraid to confront him directly. But INJP's Flood Review was congenial to Dr. Brown right from the start; in fact, he helped design the process. It gave him the chance to defend his work before a panel of creationists, who could hardly be accused of religious-based hostility. And in this forum, Walt Brown did exactly what he has done in the past, with me and with others. He refused to acknowledge legitimate questions or provide essential information needed to assess the value of his work. He couldn't take the heat, and left the kitchen.

I take no pleasure in this. As I've said elsewhere, Walt Brown is probably a terrific person, apart from the creationism hobbyhorse he's ridden for so many years. He's a frustrating person to deal with, but I don't feel personal animosity toward him. But after this review, his credibility among knowledgeable observers (creationist or not) must be gone. The INJP documentation of his comments and behavior records his inability to engage in scientific debate, and reveals the sad destiny of someone who thought he knew better than anyone else.

One more note of interest: no creation Flood model or theory was found credible enough to justify the production of the "Flood" movie. To be sure, the standard "old Earth/no Flood" scenario was found lacking as well, but the format of the review made it impossible to consider the vast evidence in favor of the authentic scientific worldview.

Plans for the "Flood" movie have been shelved until a credible Flood model can be developed. Obviously, I don't think that day will ever come. The panelists, and INJP management, are to be commended for their willingness to admit an unwelcome conclusion to their study. Of course, the importance of this conclusion - that no credible creation-science account of the Biblical Flood exists - should be noted by all students of this issue.

And now, as promised, here are the details of my calculations relating to Dr. Brown's claims for asteroid orbital enlargement, as originally posted in 2009...

The book's lack of details on the density of the vapor cloud, its variation with radius and time, and the size of the asteroids during the acceleration period make it difficult to mathematically assess Brown's asteroid claims. In what follows, I do the best I can with the limited information available in the book.

Charitably, I ignore decelerating drag forces on the asteroids, even though these would probably be much more significant than the tiny accelerations provided by Brown's acceleration mechanisms.

First, let's try to assess the force needed to enlarge the orbit of a large (1 km) asteroid from 1 to 3 astronomical units (1 A.U. = the Earth's distance from the Sun). Assuming a density of 2.0E3 kg/m3, such a body would have a mass of about 2.0E12 kg. The angular momentum needs to increase by about 70%. Since 1 A.U. is about 149 million km and the orbital velocity is about 30 km/s, the needed change in angular momentum is approximately

(delta)L = 0.7mvR = (0.7)(2.0E12 kg)(30,000 m/s)(1.49E11 m) = 6.0E27 kg m2/s

The torque needed (allowing, charitably, an acceleration period of (delta)t = 1000 years) is

tau = (delta)L/(delta)t = 2.0E17 kg m2/s2 The force needed is then F = tau/R = 6.7E5 Newtons where the radius R is taken to be 2 A.U. (average between Earth and asteroid belt orbital radii). This force is equivalent to 150,000 lb. Since the area of the asteroid is on the order of 1 km2, the unbalanced pressure needs to be 9.7E-5 lb/in2, or 7.0E-6 atm.

Brown doesn't tell us how he calculates the force on the asteroid, for a given (but unknown) gas density. But since his pressure is not exerted uniformly over the asteroid surface and is a difference between the pressures on the warm and cool surfaces (which would actually involve relatively small temperature differences), we can reasonably guess that the total gas pressure must be at least several orders of magnitude greater than the differential calculated above.

Nevertheless, let's be generous and ignore the differential factor, demanding that the gas pressure be only 7.0E-6 atm. How much water is needed to produce an interplanetary cloud of vapor with this pressure?

Brown says the cloud would be a "torus" but doesn't give its assumed dimensions. Favoring Brown, let's assume a relatively small cloud: an annular disk with inner radius at the Earth's orbit and outer radius at the orbit of Mars, and a thickness of a million miles. The volume of the vapor cloud is then 1.6E38 cm3. Since 7.0E-6 atmosphere corresponds to a density of 2.0E14 molecules per cm3, the total number of water molecules is 3.2E52. Since approximately 3.0E22 molecules of water corresponds to one gram, Brown's theory requires 1.0E30 grams of water to be injected into interplanetary orbit. But the mass of the Earth is only 6.0E27 g! The water needs to be over a hundred times as massive as the Earth! Applied to full-sized asteroids, Brown's scenario is utterly unworkable.

Accelerating very small asteroids would be easier. However, the particles would have to be bigger than 10 cm or so, because smaller particles would heat all the way through, resulting in little temperature difference between the dark and illuminated sides. Calculations, analogous to those shown above, show that 10-cm particles would require at least 1% of the Earth's mass to have been shot into space in the form of water vapor. This is equivalent to a subterranean layer 120 km thick, much greater than Brown's estimate of less than a mile. But considering the unrealistic assumptions I made that favor Brown's scenario, even in the case of small particles the actual amount of water vapor needed would probably be