BreakPoint: The Great Flood of Washington State

When Science Drowned in Dogma

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.


Find a BreakPoint radio station in your area–Click here.


Formed by Megafloods, This Place Fooled Scientists for Decades
  • Glenn Hodges | National Geographic | March 9, 2017
The Channeled Scablands
  • Seven Wonders of Washington State website
Legacy: J Harlen Bretz (1882–1981)
  • John Soennichsen | University of Chicago Magazine | November-December 2009

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.

  • Kimberly Dawes

    Note that it was scientific research that uncovered the existence of that glacial lake and subsequent “dam” collapse. So yes, scientists, like all humans have blind spots. But the process of science: observation, developing a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, and adapting the hypothesis to account for deviations due to specific circumstances is what uncovers the blind spots. Everyone, scientists and non-scientists, needs scaffolds to make sense of God’s creation. Scaffolds tend to be difficult to dismantle. The fact that these canyons formed as a result of catastrophic events opens researchers’ eyes to identify clues supporting other similar events, but this does not mean that there are no canyons carved by the slower process of erosion over hundreds of thousands of years. It just means that our God created a very complex world. And science cannot test for when God reached into the natural world to do something supernatural. But, in general, we live in a natural world that unfolds how God created it with its blessings and dangers but affected by the presence of man. As anyone who accidentally ran over a squirrel, or bought a house with undisclosed defects, or intentionally dumped PCBs onto a watershed area knows.

    • Tom Sathre

      kimberly dawes, I don’t know how many ‘studies’ I’ve seen that purport to find out the existence of God while leaving out the fact that God has choices.

  • guzzoline

    Who are the heretics that questioned Lyell? The article seems to gloss over that part… we’re going to leave at the door “bogus radiometric dates,” “secular science is a conspiracy” and make it clear that YEC was invented by Ellen White’s heretical “prophesies” whereby she fabricated her own visions of the flood. As folks who rely only on the Bible for their science, does that sound very biblical to you? Millions of scientists are not all independently viewing the data and all agreeing to conspire against YEC. That is nonsense. Now the main point:

    Uniformitarianism simply states that the physical processes operating today operated yesterday (fact), the day before that (fact), and will do so in the future. Uniformitarianism and catastrophism have long reached a compromise after the middle of the *19th century,* and even today catastrophic events (volcanic eruptions, floods) are seen as extreme, natural, temporary examples of uniformitarianism. The earth system is not perfectly balanced and it operates under the sway of positive and negative feedbacks (for everything that encourages a runaway change in a system (positive), there exists a process that will bring it back to equilibrium (negative)). Even our orbit around the sun is not perfectly circular. Looking at the rock record, we have sand dunes and ripple marks going back to the earliest sedimentary rocks (billions of years ago). Obviously, the physics of the earth was such that those same structures found today could form then. Uniformitarianism is the only logical interpretation one can reach. To counter it requires a massive assumption that something in the earth system changed so dramatically that the physics and chemistry we know today operated on fundamentally different principles at some give point in the past. There is no evidence to support that, and you can’t prove or disprove it, so it’s not scientifically sound. Also, stop making the Missoula floods a modern analogy of the YEC flood model. Bretz was simply more familiar with the area and lacked a formal degree in geology (at that time), and it was not as easy to communicate, travel, and exchange ideas then as it is today. There are many things we have learned about the earth since the *1960s* that we did not know even relatively recently like in the early 1900s. There can be prevailing interpretations of the evidence that is wrong, but man does not know everything (I think even scientists would admit that, hence they are scientists). I could say more, but I am currently busy working on my master’s thesis in geology and as a Christian, am looking forward to highlighting God’s brilliant creation AS IT IS and as we understand it today to the world’s future scientists.

    • zonie6044

      In your first paragraph, you talk abouot the article “glossing over” a point on which you’d like more detail. I would remind that Breakpoint is not an article, primarily, and certainly not a comprehensive scientific treatise. What you’re reading is a transcript of a brief, less than 4 minute radio commentary on various issues of the day.

      • guzzoline

        Then they should do either one of two things, which are both very simple and quick in the span of a four minute radio segment: a) don’t mention it in passing near the end to lend emotional support to their argument or b) early on mention briefly that not everyone agreed with Lyell. My complaint is that early on they say “oh it became unquestioned dogma” and then say “heretics questioned Lyell” without any indication that that was the case before. I’m not asking for detail, I am asking for them to be consistent.

  • Matt S.

    Guzzoline (below) misses the whole point of the article. To wit: People can be so committed to a certain idea that they will ignore, mock, and suppress other people who propose a contrary idea, regardless of the evidence. It happened a hundred years ago with Harley Bretz, and the same phenomenon is happening today. The evolution/creation debate and the anthropogenic global warming debate are two prime examples.

  • guzzoline

    It’s nice to know someone at BreakPoint is flagging my scientifically-sound answers to criticisms as spam and not letting multiple opinions be heard. Isn’t that was YEC is all about? Aren’t you doing what you claim secular scientists do to you?

    • Nathan Wagenet

      I read guzzoline’s second post (reply to Matt S.), which was apparently marked as spam and removed. It most certainly wasn’t spam, and if Breakpoint is removing posts like that, then I don’t think they can be trusted. Intelligently disagreeing with your viewpoint is not grounds for removal of posts, and the fact that Breakpoint did so leads me to think that they aren’t as legitimate as they claim to be.

      • Gina Dalfonzo

        Sorry, which comment was that? I went back through the record of deleted comments and couldn’t find one by guzzoline.

        • Gina Dalfonzo

          Oh — scratch that. I found it and approved it. Apologies, guzzoline. Moderating in this system is a little tricky sometimes when you’re new to it, but we’ll try to be more careful!

          • guzzoline

            Thank you Gina, apology accepted and no hard feelings ^_^