Wind May Have Helped Moses Part Red Sea? Probably Not

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 11:39 AM Bookmark and Share
This story got lots of coverage a few weeks ago (even NPR picked it up), but there were problems with the coverage and so I decided to write about it. Unfortunately, I just now realized that I completely forgot to post what I'd written!  So for better or worse, I decided to dredge up old news and clicked publish.

This story is a classic case of "science journalism FAIL" - despite all the media coverage, it seems nobody gave the story a critical look to see whether or not the conclusions actually follow from the research, and nobody seemed to be calling the authors' motives into question. PZ ranted about it here, Brian Keim over at Wired Science wrote this rather uncritical piece (where I left a couple of comments), and it was covered here at the lead author's place of employment.  Like Brian Keim's article, the NPR piece seems to lack much criticism, so here's my take on what they missed.

First, the bible story from Exodus 14:21-22 KJV (emphasis mine):
And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.
The results of the paper strike me as having little to do with Moses parting the Red Sea. Science aside, why do we need to even bother with a natural explanation for all this? Are we to think Moses just got lucky? Wasn't there some kind of divine intervention, not just a wind storm?

Moving onto the the PLoS paper...

Conclusions/Significance

Under a uniform 28 m/s easterly wind forcing in the reconstructed model basin, the ocean model produces an area of exposed mud flats where the river mouth opens into the lake. This land bridge is 3–4 km long and 5 km wide, and it remains open for 4 hours. Model results indicate that navigation in shallow-water harbors can be significantly curtailed by wind setdown when strong winds blow offshore.
A land bridge 5km wide for only 4 hours seems inconsistent with the bible story for a few reasons, but lets first take a look at the simulation and hear what author Carl Drews has to say about it (via the NCAR youtube channel).



Drews asserts that "What this study shows is that the description of the waters parting indeed has a basis in physical laws" and from the video above it seems he's quite eager to do so.  I disagree with his statement, and here's why.  First, just because a story is consistent with physics doesn't make it true. This is where Drews starts to seem like he doesn't quite get how science works. While we can disprove the story if we demonstrate it is inconsistent with physical laws, weakly demonstrating congruence with physics doesn't in any way make a story true. Plausible? Maybe. But confirmed? Not quite.

As I see it, Drews has actually cast doubt on the story by ruling out a wind set-down as a plausible mechanism for parting the waters as described in the story.  His results seem inconsistent with the story in two ways:  (1) they give no expectation of dry land, just mudflats; and (2) they give no walls of water. Without completely rewriting the story, these strike me as significant problems.  First, it seems impossible for those winds to dry out the thick layer of muck at the bottom of that shallow lagoon.  The bible mentions crossing dry land, not wading through a few feet of muck. Second, the simulations suggest the shoreline was pushed quite far away, multiple kilometers away actually, so no walls of water would be seen by Moses or the others. 

That said, I think it's irresponsible of NPR (and Keim) to omit the author's rather significant conflict of interest, which was clearly stated in the PLoS paper...
Competing interests: The lead author has a web site, theistic-evolution.com, that addresses Christian faith and biological evolution. 

Following that URL, we discover that his website does quite a bit more than just address the "Christian faith and biological evolution." As stated the first page (emphasis mine)…
Goals
  1. The most important goal of this web site is that you will come to know Jesus Christ if you do not know Him already, and that believing in Him you will have salvation and eternal life.
  2. The second most important goal is that you will Test Everything! I hope that you will be instructed and inspired to check and verify everything that you hear or read. There is not enough checking going on in the study of creationism and evolution. If you are a Christian, you should test everything because the Bible tells you to in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. If you are not a Christian, you should do it because you don’t want to be deceived by false teaching.
The lead author seems to have less personal interest in upholding good science than he does spreading Christianity.  That is relevant and worth mentioning, which is why the PLoS article mentioned it. Might this be driving or coloring his interpretation of his own work?  Perhaps someone has a pet hypothesis they'd like to see hold true?

So it seems Drews is really is just rationalizing his religious beliefs here, and not doing proper science.  From the NPR piece:
While many researchers use science to disprove literal accounts the Bible, Drews looks at scientific evidence that supports biblical events. “I think my account matches the biblical account pretty closely,” he says.
Hmmm... That first sentence is quite telling.  You see, intentions should be irrelevant - Drews is either following the evidence (aka, doing good science) or he isn't (aka bad science).  More evidence that he's looking to confirm a story then follows...
Although, Drews admits, he cannot be 100 percent sure until someone actually finds pieces of a chariot in the area.
Science doesn't work that way. Drews really seems like he's rationalizing now...  Chariot pieces only say there was once a chariot there.  Not precisely when it was there, not what it was doing there (e.g. was it chasing Moses?), not how it got there (might it have fallen off of a boat).  Finding pieces of a chariot in the area would likely have little to no impact on confirming or refuting the Moses story, and certainly shouldn't result in anyone's "100 percent" certainty, one way or the other.

Using this work, we can at best disprove that Moses and his followers crossed at this location during a wind setdown as detailed in the Bible.  Whether it's at all possible hinges upon a number of other details Drews has yet to address: How long does it take to walk through deep mud for 3-4km in a "63 mph wind — a medium-strength tropical storm"?  Could that mud have dried out in 4 hours? How quickly would the returning waters have reached any Egyptians following them? How deep would they be?

It's quite plausible that Drews is using bad science to rationalize religious dogma. It's unfortunate that little fact was hardly mentioned by the mainstream media.

References:

  1. Drews C, Han W (2010) Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012481