BreakPoint: The Great Flood of Washington State


John Stonestreet

Scientists are supposed to follow the evidence. But what happens when they prefer established dogma? Let me tell you about a fascinating article in National Geographic.

Imagine one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes—sixteen thousand square miles of canyons, channels, waterfalls (one of them ten times the size of Niagara)—now all completely dry. What you’re imagining is the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington State, a breathtaking memorial to one of the largest floods in Earth’s history.

But writing in National Geographic, Michael Hodges recounts how, when a high school teacher came to that obvious conclusion in 1909, he was laughed out of the room by the scientific community.

Looking across the aptly-named Scablands today, it’s easy to see why 27-year-old Harley Bretz, who had no formal training in geology at the time, saw the work of a flood. But a century ago, earth science was locked in the dogma of Charles Lyell’s 1830 text, “Principles of Geology.” Lyell taught that changes in the Earth’s rocks and soil are the product of “processes now in operation,” steadily eating at the landscape over millions of years. This theory was a crucial underpinning to Charles Darwin’s work, published just a few years later.

Lyell’s uniformitarian ideas had gained such acceptance that when Bretz presented his findings about the great flood of Washington State to geologists in the nation’s capital, he received the closest thing they could give to a flogging.

These scientists, none of whom had ever visited the Scablands, called Bretz’s hypothesis “wholly inadequate,” “preposterous,” and “incompetent.” Despite taking the time to earn his Ph.D. before publishing his theory, this high-school teacher-turned-rock-hound became a laughing stock among his peers for propounding what amounted to “geological heresy.”

“It didn’t matter how meticulous Bretz’s research was, or how sound his reasoning might be,” Hodges explains. “He seemed to be advocating a return to geology’s dark ages” when benighted buffoons explained landscapes like the Scablands as the result of the biblical Flood.

Of course, scientists now agree that Bretz was right. During peak glaciation, a wall of ice thousands of feet high dammed up the Clark Fork River, creating Glacial Lake Missoula, a body of water twice the size of Rhode Island. When the glacier retreated and the dam broke, it unleashed one of the biggest torrents in history—a flood raging across the Columbia Plateau to the Pacific Ocean, carrying more water than all of the world’s rivers combined. This flood or series of floods carved the now-dry canyons, cliffs, and waterfalls that awed Bretz and puzzled his sadly misinformed critics.

“With the flood story in mind, it all seems so obvious,” writes Hodges. “It’s almost impossible to see the terrain and not see the floodwaters that shaped it. Why, then, were the experts in Bretz’s day so blind…?”

Well because, as National Geographic concludes without a hint of irony, “scientists are first and foremost human beings [who’re] loathe to change their theories or their minds because of mere data.” In fact, many critics of the great Washington flood carried their doubts to their graves, and it took decades for this plain fact to gain widespread acceptance in the scientific community.

Now why does this sound so familiar? Is there perhaps another theory that comes to mind which modern scientists are unwilling to question—a theory whose most lucid critics are laughed out of the room and called names?

There is. It’s called Darwinism. And scientists who dare to question it point to astonishing evidence from biology, astronomy, and geology that suggests an intelligence behind life in all of its complexity. But like Bretz, they’re usually dismissed. And because scientists are human, first and foremost, heretics who question Darwin, like those who questioned Lyell, may have to await vindication by future generations. Ironically, evidence—even a deluge of it—can take a long time to erode dogma.


Further Reading and Information

The Great Flood of Washington State: When Science Drowned in Dogma

Sometimes, as John points out, the scientific community is hesitant to admit when they get it wrong. Yet humility allows for theories and hypotheses to be vigorously questioned and challenged, hopefully attaining the goal–truth.


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