Historical vs operational science and natural arches

@PDPrice has a brand new article up at CMI and, since he’s already referenced it repeatedly, I thought I’d take a look.

It starts off well:

The question of historical vs operational science is raised often in the evolution-creation debate. But evolutionists often cry foul, saying there is no distinction between these two supposed forms of science—that this is something the creationists made up. Nothing could be further from the truth!

That’s a strong claim. If true, it should be readily supportable by citations of non-creationists employing this distinction. The article continues:

Historical science is fundamentally less reliable than operational science, primarily because unlike operational science, historical science is unfalsifiable in the strict sense. This is directly contrary to the views of Dr Carol Cleland, a secular philosopher of science who has attempted to blunt this argument by claiming that the two are on the same level.1

Hmmm. That citation is the only reference given in support of the claim, and it apparently says creationists invented the distinction. The citation isn’t even to Cleland’s work, but to another of @PDPrice’s articles. Tracing back through the links (with help from this thread) leads to this at AiG:

Two men seem to have started using the terms and then began to contrast them with experimental or operational science: Dr. Norman Geisler and Dr. Charles Thaxton.

So the contrast did begin with creationists after all. AiG also cite this article from the 1930s, but the distinction therein is not between historical vs operational science, but between laboratory science (physics) and fieldwork (cultural anthropology) as conducted by Boas, both of which would fit into ‘operational’ science. In fact, the article explicitly says Boas’s work didn’t use historical material:

And, more significant still, Boas has practically never made use of archaeological findings in his own work!

So based on @PDPrice’s own references, the conclusion is that the distinction between historical and operational science was made up by creationists. He probably should have remembered this when penning his latest article, not least because he was involved in the earlier thread, but maybe he hasn’t actually read his cited sources.

Later on in the newly published article is this gem:

First, rock arches are highly interesting and enigmatic formations that present major problems for old-earthers. They look more like a relic from the fast erosion of the Flood.4 They are also disappearing quite quickly. In Utah’s Arches National Park, they are collapsing at a rate of about one per year, giving a maximum of 2,000 years before the entire supply is depleted.5 Of course, one cannot extrapolate out that far with any degree of certainty. The arches most likely to collapse have probably already done so, yet one large earthquake in the region could topple many arches simultaneously. On an old earth, they would undoubtedly all be gone by now (ignoring the problem that no mechanism on an old earth could account for their original formation anyhow).

I’ll skip lightly over @PDPrice’s assumption of uniformitarianism, and go straight to the astonishing final claim, which I’ve highlighted.

No mechanism? It’s trivial to find descriptions of the mechanisms which form them. For example:

According to a team of researchers from the Czech Republic, erosion gradually removes grains of sand, placing the weight of the rock on the rest of the grains and causing them to more tightly interlock. As grains get pulled off rock, the weight shifts unevenly, and the grains in areas that bear more weight or gravitational stress are harder to erode—leaving behind the arches, alcoves, and pillars for human tourists to admire.

Or this:

Today, water shapes this environment more than any other force. Rain erodes the rock and carries sediment down washes and canyons to the Colorado River. Desert varnish appears where water cascades off cliffs. In winter, snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities, then freezes and expands, breaking off chunks of sandstone. Small recesses develop and grow bigger with each storm. Little by little, this process turns fractured rock layers into fins, and fins into arches. Arches also emerge when potholes near cliff edges grow deeper and deeper until they wear through the cliff wall below them.

How about this:

Joint systems can also form independent of regional fold or fault zones. In many parts of Utah, arches form along joints that develop parallel to the walls of deep canyons. As streams carve canyons into the bedrock, lateral pressure is removed, allowing the bedrock to fracture as it relaxes and expands into the newly created space. The expansion of frozen water which makes its way into these joint systems also serves to greatly accelerate this process. In many of Utah’s sandstone alcoves, “sheeting” of the rock is evidence of this slow release of rock once under great pressure.

Or this:

The faults and joints caused by the uplift and collapse opened the way for erosion to carve hundreds of freestanding fins. Alternate freezing and thawing action and exfoliation (flaking caused by expansion when water or frost penetrates the rock) continued to peel away more rock until holes formed in some of the fins. Rockfalls within the holes helped enlarge the arches. Nearly all arches in the park eroded out of Entrada sandstone. … Water seeping through the sandstone from above has created a second type of arch—the pothole arch. You may also come across a few natural bridges cut from the rock by perennial water runoff.

Those last two are about the very same geological formation that @PDPrice refers to. So is this one:

There are more than 2,000 arches in the park; to be classified as an arch, the opening must measure at least three feet across. The largest arch in the park, Landscape Arch, spans 306 feet (longer than a football field) base to base. New arches are constantly forming, while old ones occasionally collapse—most recently Wall Arch, which fell in 2008.

New arches are constantly forming, but @PDPrice thinks there’s no mechanism that can do that.

Here’s a series of pictures of an Australian outcrop that gradually changed from three caves to a series of arches and then a single arch as the outer two collapsed:

In ~1990:

In 1950:

In 1979:

In 2012:

Finally here’s another picture from Utah’s Arches National Park - the exact same location that @PDPrice referenced - that shows all the stages of arch formation, from a small hole in a rock wall [1] to deeper and wider caves [2] to a window formed when the hole breaches the far side of the rock wall [3] to a wide arch [4].

It illustrates the falseness of @PDPrice’s claim perfectly.


Thus we see the danger to @PDPrice in inviting people to look at his articles. But none of this matters, because scripture trumps empirical data. Why he bothers to mention the real world at all is puzzling.


He is certainly averse to looking at any real world physical evidence which contradicts his YEC claims. I wish I had a dollar for every bit of scientific research he’s been shown but ignored.

1 Like

It’s not just that he ignores the evidence. He actively denies that non-biblical evidence is relevant. Only the text of the bible is relevant.


Thank you for your substantial OP, very nice references.

Having read in Paul’s article “ignoring the problem that no mechanism on an old earth could account for their original formation anyhow”, I expected to find a subsequent explanation for a flood mechanism for formation of these arches. There is none in the body of the article, but his footnotes include the following:

Although the specialized conditions that might have formed arches and natural bridges were present in the late-Flood period, the process has not been observed and we must rely on inference. Rapid downcutting by floodwater during late Flood erosion, either over a high area or during the formation of an incised valley, could have undercut less resistant rock, breaking through underneath a more resistant layer. Or, possibly mechanical erosion from the floodwater was concentrated lower down on the rock surface, eventually cutting a hole. …
It could be that some of the uniformitarian suggestions, such as a different lithology, weaker cementing of the sand, and local fracture concentration, in combination with catastrophic flow during Flood runoff, caused the arches of Arches National Park and elsewhere.

Boil down all this verbiage, and you pretty much are left with - “arches are formed by erosion.” Well, thank you for that, glad you agree.


This is exceedingly common in creationist tracts, pointing to the rate of X and assuming that there is no compensating reverse-X. If the earth is so old, given the rate of erosion, why aren’t all the mountains worn down to nothing? If the earth is so old, given the rate of deposition, why aren’t the oceans filled with sediment? Often, you can find instances of both X and reverse-X being appealed to in separate arguments without any acknowledgment that reverse-X and X, respectively, exist.


What is most astonishing to me is that someone who pretends to be a serious person could even get themselves to write so inane a sentence. It has that eerie quality of desperation. The desperation to throw anything and everything, whether substantive or merely rhetorical, at the opposition, in the hope that at least something will stick.


Keep in mind he’s being paid by CMI to write that sort of stuff.

1 Like

Arch formation is junior high Earth Science stuff, at least it was for me. I’m not so sure Paul is mis-representing - he may just be missing what most of us consider to be basic background.

@PDPrice if you do not mind answering, do you happen to recall when you first learned about arches and how they are formed? I’m curious about your experience.


If it rains this much, why are there still clouds? If there is this much evaporation, shouldn’t all the oceans be gone by now? This is basically all creationist arguments against an old Earth summarized.


This isn’t possible. I have no Earth science background, and yet the idea that different materials have different densities and rates of decomposition and erosion is all within normal human experience. If you’ve been 5 years old and built a sand castle near waves on the beach, or played with mud, you’d know this.

1 Like

Natural arches are weathering away much faster than they are forming today. If they are forming today at all.

The origin of free standing arches (as opposed to windows) and the larger natural bridges is mysterious. The explanations in the literature assume slow processes of erosion over tens of thousands of years, according to the principle of uniformitarianism.

The problem with that much time is that the bridge or arch should have weathered and collapsed long before the material around it was able to erode and leave behind an arch or natural bridge. Crickmay noted that natural bridges seem to defy uniformitarianism:

‘What is remarkable about its [natural bridge] history is that, in all the time required for the stream currents to corrade downward and laterally through a vertical depth of from 10 to 12 or 60 m in resistant rock, the progress made by ‘denudation’ toward destroying the fragile-looking bridge appears to have been virtually nil —a discrepancy in rates of action that may exceed 100,000 to 1 [emphasis added].’8

Since natural bridges have streams or stream channels below them and arches do not, Crickmay’s observation applies even more so to rock arches. Such a discrepancy in erosion makes little sense and implies rapid formation of most free standing rock arches and large natural bridges.

Note that Roy posted several examples and photos with the steps in the formation of natural arches just above. PDPrice completely ignored the evidence to post his CMI propaganda article. Tells you a lot about a YEC’s desire to accurately represent science.

Note also this is the same guy who claimed in the “YEC only” thread no one has ever supplied him with citations to the scientific literature supporting evolutionary theory. :roll_eyes:


Oh, the irony. We have a YEC using modern rates to extrapolate into the past.


There are not enough facepalms for this. The process they result from is the same. As erosion removes material from a larger rock, eventually resulting in the arch, it also eventually erodes away the resulting arch as the process of erosion just continues.

My goodness man, that is one silly argument.


Is there an eye witness account in the Bible where Noah describes how he sees a rock arch being formed in the Flood?

Nope. What’s the relevance?

It’s only ironic if you have no idea how the arguments work surrounding these issues. I am not arguing that we should use rock arches as a dating method. I am showing their existence is incongruous with an old earth and with the idea that there was no recent global Flood. Ultimately I do not derive my basic beliefs about the origin of the earth, or the Flood, from extrapolation. I derive them from Scripture.

Yet, somehow by magic, the process of erosion doesn’t apply to the arch portion itself during all the time it takes to erode away the empty space underneath gradually.

Let me help you out. In the future if you think one of my arguments is “silly” or “stupid”, you might first take some time to really consider it before coming to that conclusion. Because probably you haven’t.

I’d settle for an eyewitness account today of a local flood depositing a few hundred feet of sediment then carving a rock arch in it in just a year. But something tells me PDPrice can’t deliver.

1 Like

I just posted four pictures showing natural arches being formed in Australia.