Bert Thompson and the Carboniferous Footprints

By Dr. Robert Holloway

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For more than 30 years, I have watched creationists attack mainstream science with various arguments designed to challenge the mainstream scientific viewpoints concerning evolution and the age of the earth. These arguments range from thermodynamics to alleged problems in the fossil record. From rather haphazard beginnings, the creationist movement has grown to a sophisticated public relations effort. Quite often, the advocates of creationism are well educated and one would think that their credentials would help them to avoid poor scholarship and misleading statements. However, the inclination of the creationists to present incorrect information has not changed.

One of the best examples of the new sophistication (in an advertising sense) of the creationist movement is Apologetics Press, located in Montgomery, Alabama. One of the key persons in Apologetics Press is Dr. Bert Thompson, who has been involved in the creationist movement for at least 10 years. It is the purpose of this page to examine a portion of the "evidence" that Dr. Thompson uses in his oral presentations and on his web site.

The issue of the Carboniferous footprints was brought to my attention by someone on the "CARM" website evolution forum. This person regularly posts on the CARM website and goes by the user name of "Doc". He appears to be scientist associated with a college or university in North Carolina. Doc relates that he attended a Bert Thompson seminar about 10 years ago, in which Thompson used the "evidence" of the Carboniferous footprints as a part of his presentation. Strangely enough, according to "Doc", Thompson did not show actual photographs of the alleged footprints. Thompson's discussion of these footprints was based on an article published in 1940 in the Scientific American, an article that does contain photographs of the footprints. Intrigued by the fact that Thompson did not show photos of the actual prints, Doc obtained the original article and vaguely remembers showing the footprints to Thompson. The footprints can be seen at the link below, which apparently is a web site maintained by "Doc". The link is:

Carboniferous Footprints

The footprints can also be found at the following site:

Footprints

Incidentally, Thompson and Apologetics Press still use this material on their website, without the prints, and the PDF version of their article can be found at the following link:

Apologetics Press Reprint

The point that Thompson is attempting to make with the use of this "evidence" is that the alleged human footprints are found in rocks that are believed by geologists to be 260 million to 370 million years old. The implication by Thompson is that these prints constitute evidence that the earth is not as nearly as old as suggested by conventional geology. But his argument is only as strong as the validity of the alleged footprints. It is difficult to see how any rational person can accept the notion that the footprints were really made by humans (see the footprints at the above link).

Since creationists have a well deserved reputation of using secondary sources without bothering to read the original source, I decided to write to Dr. Thompson and ask him a number of questions on this subject. The following is a portion of that letter:

1. In a case where the quality of the evidence depends strongly on the appearance of the alleged footprints, why didn't you use photos in your presentations, for both oral and written presentations? I am including with this letter, a printed article by you and Trever Major that also does not include photos, although you discuss these particular footprints. I am also including a copy of the footprints as shown in the article that you quote.

2. When you prepared the enclosed article with Trever Major, had you ever read the original article in the Scientific American?

3. If you did read the original article, why didn't you comment on the fact that the alleged footprints are rather poor imitations of human footprints?

4. If you did not read the original article in preparing your own reprint about these footprints, do you consider that an acceptable practice in scientific writing?

.....................................................................

Dr. Thompson replied to my letter, although he did not answer all of the questions. (See note 1) In particular, he did not reply to the first question, which asked why he did not use the photos in his presentations. I was also keenly interested in whether or not Dr. Thompson and Apologetics Press had seen the photos of the footprints prior to using their material. Dr. Thompson affirmed in his reply that they had in their possession the original Scientific American article and seemed to imply that they were in possession of the original article when they prepared their material. In a later communication from a representative of Dr. Thompson, the claim was made that the photos were used in presentations, and that may well be true for at least some of their presentations, although one attendee ("Doc") thought it odd that Thompson did not use the photos, as mentioned above. Whether or not Thompson used the photos in his oral presentations, he clearly failed to use them in his written material. This can be seen in the link to his web site given above. It is interesting that photos of the footprints were posted on his web site after he became aware of my criticism of their absence. It appears that the photos appeared on his web site on February 5, 2003. But even with the posted photos, there is no integration with any discussion of the footprints, since the article linked to above was published much earlier without the footprint photos. Dr. Thompson has gone to considerable effort to deflect the criticism that he used the story without the photos of the footprints. I think this is an indication that he realizes that the criticism is valid. I don't know whether Thompson is correct in his assertion that he used the photos of the footprints in his oral presentations. I know only this; that a poster on an Internet forum says Thompson did not use them in the oral presentation that he attended and that Thompson certainly did not use the photos in his written material that was published quite some time (perhaps a few years) before the photos appeared on his web site in early 2003.

Dr. Thompson and Apologetics Press represent "Young Earth Creationism" in that they believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old, in contrast to the 4.5 billion year age accepted by mainstream science. I find their viewpoint incomprehensible because the evidence that the earth is very old is overwhelming. One famous scientist stated that anyone who believes the earth is young should see a psychiatrist. I agree completely with that statement. Anyone who promotes the idea that the earth is young, in the face of evidence so overwhelming, must be viewing the evidence in a non-rational way. Something of that that sort must be at work in the minds of Dr. Thompson and the others at Apologetics Press. The case of these footprints, because of the simplicity of the issue, allows a rare glimpse into the workings of the creationist mind. Incidentally, the subject of the footprints is not original with Apologetics Press, but as with most of their material, it has been borrowed from other creationists, whose methods of operation are are frequently criticised by mainstream science. In this case, Bert Thompson seems to have borrowed from Henry Morris, the founder and first president of the Institute for Creation Research. Whitcomb and Morris's book "The Genesis Flood" included some discussion of these footprints. Among the scientific community, many believe that Morris and the Institute for Creation Research fail to present and evaluate data according to the best standards practiced by mainstream science.

As someone who has made a living in science for more than 25 years, I view the handling of this material by Bert Thompson as being substandard and not consistent with the careful practices of most scientists. The poster named "Doc" on the CARM website conducted an informal poll, mainly among creationists, and found that hardly anyone who viewed the photos accepts them as being made by humans. And to me, they resemble human footprints only a general way and it seems very clear to me that they were not made by humans. How then, could Dr. Bert Thompson and Apologetics Press have used the story, but not the photos, in an attempt to argue their case? Dr. Thompson did not explain it in a way that makes sense to me. If anyone else can, I would like to hear it. After viewing these footprints and giving Dr. Thompson a chance to respond to my comments, I am still at loss as to how he can use this argument in the manner that he has. In my opinion, his handling of this material provides interesting insight into the workings of the creationist mind.

Another interesting feature of Dr. Thompson's method of operation is the absence of activity in the scientific community. Dr. Thompson is a well qualified biologist. Let's assume that his dissenting views on evolution and the age of the earth are correct. It would seem obvious that the greatest service that he could render to his fellow creationists would be to attack and disprove both evolution and the mainstream view of the age of the earth. The way to do this would be to publish his dissenting evidence in the scientific literature. Whatever the accuracy of his views, Dr. Thompson has substantial writing skill and easily writes well enough to be published in the mainstream literature - provided that he has evidence to back up his claims. Thompson might object that the mainstream scientific literature would reject his written articles. I don't believe that a well founded paper would be rejected by all journals since there are thousands of them. But even so, there are creationist journals that publish just such material and probably would be happy to receive a carefully written and convincing paper from Thompson. But oddly, Thompson and Apologetics Press seldom publish even in journals that are sympathetic to their views. An analogy of this situation may be helpful. The mainstream theory on evolution and the age of the earth can be likened to a formidable fortress that has been built over many years by thousands of scientific workmen. The theories and evidence are consistent and constitute a coherent whole. In order to defeat such a fortress, Thompson and his friends need to make a wide ranging attack in the scientific literature that conforms with the well accepted standards of scientific practice. Instead, Thompson writes only for his fundamentalist religious constituents. All of his articles that I have seen are short, shallow and superficial. It is material that would be rejected by most reputable scientific journals. Dr. Thompson and Apologetics Press have been active in battling evolution for more than 20 years, and yet he is essentially unknown in the scientific community. His efforts are equivalent to occasionally throwing a rock at the vast fortress of mainstream science. In that sense, his long career in this area has been a total failure. Why then does he persist? The answer appears to be in the annual reports that his nonprofit organization files with the Internal Revenue Service. For the most recent year, this document shows that the income of Apologetics Press is more than $600,000 and has been increasing over the last few years. Most of this is from the contributions of donors who are sympathetic to his cause. In a scientific sense, his efforts have been a complete failure but in a financial sense, Thompson is quite successful. But I wonder how he rationalizes the fact that he is not even making an attempt to fight, on the scientific front, what he considers to be a great mistake and a great evil. I wonder if his constituents realize that he is making virtually no effort to combat evolution in the scientific community.

Post Script - In the spring of 2005, Bert Thompson was removed his post as Director of Apologetics Press. He was accused of sexually molesting young boys over a period several years. He has since ceased his activities on behalf of creationism. Apologetics Press still continues under different leadership, but the organization still uses intellectually dishonest tactics.

Creationists often incorrectly claim that thermodynamics is a problem for evolution. For a discussion of that topic, see our web page on thermodynamics.

Creationists often claim that the Carbon-14 dating method is inaccurate. for a discussion of their mistaken claims, see our page on radiocarbon dating.

For a demonstration of how "quote-mining" works in creationist circles, see the following link on evolution of a creationist quote.

If you wish to write to the author of this page, send your email to: service@nevada-technical.com

Note 1: I was not able to quote Thompson's letter here, because Thompson stated that his letter to me was protected by copyright law and said that I would have to get permission before quoting him. It is unfortunate that he does not want a full and open discussion of this issue and I find it remarkable that for someone who is devoted to truth, that he does not allow me to quote his letter, but I can work around that problem. Thompson even claimed that I could not refer to his letter in a public way, but when I asked him for a specific reference in the federal copyright law to support this claim, he did not reply. I suspect that the copyright law only prohibits quoting private mail without permission and does not go as far as prohibiting references to private mail.

One would think that for a person interested in truth, Thompson would welcome an open discussion of this and related issues. But he has done his best to prevent my critique from reaching the Internet audience. For example, I advertise this page on a well known search engine and Thompson was able to persuade the search engine to prevent my use of his name and Apologetics Press as keywords. Apparently Thompson does not like for his supporters to see this page. Thompson claimed that his name and Apologetics Press were trademarked terms. That is a dubious claim but rather than spend time looking into it, the search engine agreed to prevent my use of those words as search terms.

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