Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ballard, the Black Sea, and the bible

Biblical literalists are crowing with delight over a recent news story that is being widely reported (and subsequently linked and circulated all over the place).  Most iterations of this piece have titles like the version I found on ABC News Online: "New Evidence Suggests Biblical Flood Happened, Says Robert Ballard."

The upshot of the story is that Ballard, a prominent archaeologist (and the man whose team located the Titanic), believes that the Black Sea may have once been the site of a catastrophic flood.  What is now a deep, salty body of water was once a freshwater lake whose surface was far below sea level -- the seawater being held back from filling it by an ice dam across what is now the Straits of Bosporus.  As the weather warmed up following the last ice age, the ice dam receded and finally collapsed, allowing for a sudden, huge inrush of water from the Mediterranean, filling the Black Sea to its current level and drowning anyone who was in the way.

Such events are thought to have occurred elsewhere.  A flood of that sort seems to have happened in the current St. Lawrence Seaway (dumping enough fresh water into the North Atlantic to stop the Atlantic Conveyor for a time and causing a second, shorter ice age), and the Columbia River Valley (creating the "Channeled Scablands" of eastern Washington and Oregon).  So Ballard's idea is fascinating, and quite in line with our current understanding of glacial geology.  Further, it's not unprecedented to have a real event recalled, and mythologized, often many centuries after it happened; so it's entirely possible that this event was the origin of the biblical flood story, and also similar accounts in other traditions (such as the flood mentioned in Gilgamesh).

But of course, this is not how it was reported.  The story strongly implies that Ballard is saying that his evidence indicates that the "Great Flood of Noah" actually occurred, as described in the bible -- which is an outright misrepresentation of Ballard's position.

Don't believe me?  Here are actual quotes from the ABC News Online article:
The story of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood is one of the most famous from the Bible, and now an acclaimed underwater archaeologist thinks he has found proof that the biblical flood was actually based on real events.

Now Ballard is using even more advanced robotic technology to travel farther back in time. He is on a marine archeological mission that might support the story of Noah.

By carbon dating shells found along the shoreline, Ballard said he believes they have established a timeline for that catastrophic event, which he estimates happened around 5,000 BC. Some experts believe this was around the time when Noah's flood could have occurred. 

Noah is described in the Bible as a family man, a father of three, who is about to celebrate his 600th birthday.

Regardless of whether the details of the Noah story are historically accurate, Armstrong (author of A History of God) believes this story and all the Biblical stories are telling us "about our predicament in the world now." 

Ballard does not think he will ever find Noah's Ark, but he does think he may find evidence of a people whose entire world was washed away about 7,000 years ago.
Buried in the center of the article is a bit that says, "The theory goes on to suggest that the story of this traumatic event, seared into the collective memory of the survivors, was passed down from generation to generation and eventually inspired the biblical account of Noah," but this is so colossally outweighed by all of the biblical references that Ballard is made to look like some kind of literalist wacko out there diving into the Black Sea looking for evidence of a flood whose only survivors were the family of a 600 year old man.

If I were Ballard, I'd be pissed.

So, let's just get a few things straight, here.  Saying that a bunch of Bronze-Age sheepherders tried to rationalize a cataclysmic flood that washed away bunches of their ancestors by making up a story about god smiting the world for its wickedness is not the same thing as saying that the flood, as per the Book of Genesis, actually occurred.  The breaking of an ice dam is not the same thing as it "raining for forty days and forty nights."  If an ice dam near your house broke, releasing millions of tons of seawater, you would not have time to build an ark, you would only have time to put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.  You would also not have time to run really quickly and get a pair of wombats from Australia and a pair of three-toed sloths from Brazil, and so on.  And while the amount of water in the Black Sea is what is known in scientific circles as "a crapload of water," it does not amount to the entire Earth being covered with water.

The idea of a global flood is, to put not too fine a point on it, unscientific, unsupported, zero-evidence horse waste.  The fact that ABC News Online, and many other media outlets, reported Ballard's fascinating work as supporting the literal account of the bible is crummy journalism, and the reporters who produced this hack job of a story should be ashamed of themselves.


  1. I have seen a trend in journalism, as of late, wherein articles are referred to as blogs. This alleviates journalists of the responsibility to keep grammar and punctuation mistakes to a minimum. Earnest fact finding? Too time consuming. As long as you've got the gist...
    Snag your source material, let those fingers light ablaze and get that article/blog post slapped onto the website (in record time!).

    You don't need expensive journalists or editors. All you need is underpaid "bloggers" all vying for space in an over-saturated job market.

  2. Ryan and Pitman, who originated the Black Sea flooding theory in 1997, estimated that the water would have rushed in at a rate of about 10 cubic miles a day for 300 days. This would have been distributed over an area of over 150,000 square miles. A little quick math reveals that would result in a water level rise of only about 1/3 of a foot a day, leaving plenty of time for seashore dwellers to escape.