YEC Best Evidence 2: bent rock layers are not fractured — or are they?

The second of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth is the claim that in many mountainous areas, layers of sedimentary rock can be found that have folded and bent without fracturing. This, the argument goes, means that the layers in question must have deformed while they were still wet, and not long after they had solidified.

How does this prove that the earth is young?

It doesn’t.

The first problem with this argument is that it places no constraint whatsoever on the age of the earth. Even if these layers were deformed as wet clay which had not yet hardened, no reason is given why this could not have happened 540 million years ago, as other evidence indicates, rather than during Noah’s Flood.

Bent but not fractured — or are they?

The article illustrates its point with the following picture of some folded strata in Carbon Canyon, a side canyon off of the Grand Canyon:

bent-rock-layers-snelling

(This rock formation appears to be on Google Maps here.)

Interestingly enough, the US Geological Survey has also published a photograph of exactly the same rock formation. Their photograph, taken in May 2007, looks like this:

grca2007

When we compare the two versions, we see a massive difference in quality. The USGS version is in pin-sharp focus, well exposed, and published at a much higher resolution. (They even have a version viewable with 3-D glasses.) It also shows numerous clearly visible stress fractures, which are obscured in the AiG version by poor focusing and people in the photograph.

In a different article on the same subject, Andrew Snelling explicitly states that there are no fractures in the hinge of the fold. Yet if we look closely at the relevant part of the respective photographs, we see that fractures are clearly visible in the USGS version, whereas in the AiG version, there are people standing right in front of them:

image3374 image3363

What were these people doing there, one asks? Were they just there for scale? If so, why are they positioned exactly in front of the very fractures that contradict the entire argument?

The fact of the matter is that contrary to what Andrew Snelling claims, most bent rock layers are fractured, and as a PhD geologist, he should know this. In many cases, the fractures are only visible close up, and sometimes even only through a microscope, so the fact that they don’t show up in a photograph — especially a badly-taken photograph — does not prove that they do not exist.

Brittle and ductile deformation.

The fact that these fractures exist directly contradicts the whole premise of this claim, as they indicate that the layers must have deformed after they had solidified, not before. But even if they didn’t, it still would not prove that the layers were deformed before they had solidified.

Heat and pressure can make rock layers pliable. Snelling actually admits this, but dismisses it as a “rescuing device,” claiming that the temperatures and pressures required would leave evidence of metamorphism in the rocks. He claims that this is not observed, but as he has stated that the rocks are not fractured despite publicly available evidence that they are, this claim is already suspect. In any case, he does not meaningfully cite any sources to back it up.

In order to demonstrate that ductile deformation is not a viable explanation, he needs to demonstrate that it requires higher temperatures and pressures than those that can cause metamorphism. These temperatures and pressures will vary from one mineral to the next, and have been well studied in laboratory experiments since the 1950s. Without such citations, this rejection of ductile deformation as a “rescuing device” is nothing more than a hand-wave, and should not be assumed to be reliable.

The gravity of the situation.

Another problem with this claim is that it ignores the law of gravity.

If these rock layers really had been deformed when wet, gravity would have pulled them downwards, and we would see considerable slumping, with the layers at the very least being much thicker at the bottom than at the top. We would certainly not expect to see vertical layers thirty metres or more in height retaining their structure, as we see in these photographs.

But in fact, if they had been deformed when wet, would we even expect them to be separated into distinct layers at all? This rock formation alone probably weighs somewhere in the region of a million tons, and at that scale, the layers would all end up being mixed together into one homogeneous mass. (See this article for a discussion — scroll down to the section headed “Orogeny.”)

 

When I first saw the ten best arguments for a young earth, I thought this was one of the least convincing of the ten. Having seen the USGS photograph as well, it is certainly the one I found the most troubling. It simply isn’t honest to claim that a rock layer is not fractured when there is a publicly available photograph of it elsewhere clearly showing that it is, and to then have students standing in front of the most prominent fractures in your own out of focus photograph just reeks of conscious and deliberate lying.

As a final twist in the tale, it turns out that this rock formation was also the subject of Andrew Snelling’s discrimination lawsuit against the Grand Canyon National Park authorities, which was resolved this summer — and in fact, this very question is the subject of his proposed research. Ken Ham has a blog post giving further details of his study, which also includes some better quality pictures of the same rock formation.

In which the fractures are clearly visible.

grand-canyon-carbon-fold
A view of the same rock formation from a different angle. Photo by Answers in Genesis.
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On evolution

Most of what I’ve said on this blog has been about the age of the earth and dating methods, and I haven’t had much to say about evolution itself. This is partly because I’m not a biologist, but also because I’ve never been entirely sure exactly what position I should take on the matter.

I can fully understand why many Christians struggle with evolution. It’s very much become a hot potato in the culture wars, with New Atheists and mockers pitting it against the Bible, and Christians taking the bait and becoming creationists in response. It does also pose some theological questions, such as what to make of Adam and Eve and the Fall. Some Christians (myself included) believe that the two can be reconciled; others believe that they can not, and that we must therefore reject evolution.

I’m not going to tell you that you have to accept evolution, or to what extent. That’s for you to decide. But if you decide to reject it, whether in whole or in part, you still need to make sure your facts are straight about it. It’s also important to be able to articulate exactly which aspects of the theory you are rejecting and why.

Make sure you are critiquing what the theory of evolution actually says.

You will only make yourself look clueless and ignorant, and quite possibly dishonest, if you attempt to debunk a cartoon caricature of evolution that no real scientist actually teaches. Portraying it as being about cats turning into dogs, or asking why there are still apes if humans evolved from apes, or likening it to dropping a bunch of Scrabble tiles on a table and coming up with Shakespeare, will all prove nothing more nor less than that you haven’t a clue what you are talking about. The theory of evolution does not work like that.

did-dinosaurs-turn-into-birds
This is not evolution.
(Image source: Answers in Genesis)

Make sure that you understand what is actually meant by “evolution” in the first place. The formal scientific definition of evolution (taken here from Wikipedia) is very precise and refers to a specific process: change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. Make sure in particular that you understand the concept of common ancestry, because that is what you have to debunk — not shape-shifting, ridiculous hybridisation, or birds crawling out of dinosaur skins as if they were the Slitheen from Doctor Who. BioLogos has a couple of videos (here and here) explaining how evolution works and clearing up a lot of these misconceptions.

A lot of confusion comes about because young-earth creationists use the word “evolution” in a much broader sense than the scientific definition, conflating the process itself with its overall results (molecules to man), the timescale involved, dating methods, and a whole raft of philosophical or theological considerations that they perceive to be associated with it. More informally, they often use the words “evolution” and “evolutionist” as a passive-aggressive umbrella term for anything and everything in science that they don’t agree with. You may hear, for example, about “evolutionist” models of how the earth’s magnetic field works, even though how the earth’s magnetic field works has nothing whatsoever to do with biological evolution. Sometimes they even use the words “evolution” and “atheism” interchangeably.

To be fair, there is a tendency on the “evolution” side of the debate to de-emphasise the broad sweep of history in the definition of evolution (the frequently used definition of “change in allele frequencies over time” is an example of this), while evolution is also sometimes cited as justification for various atheistic or humanistic philosophies. But to react by turning it into a derogatory term for vast swathes of unrelated science and philosophy just causes confusion and muddies the waters. If you’re doing this, stop it. Just stop.

Then there is this expression “neo-Darwinism.” I have no idea what that even means.

Be careful not to misrepresent the evidence.

Before you confidently say that “there is no evidence for evolution,” or “there are no transitional fossils,” please remember that your audience all has smartphones, and they can type “evidence for evolution” or “transitional fossils” into Google as you talk. Every hit that they get for these searches will be a hit to your credibility.

The fact remains that evolution is not “just a theory”; it is an evidence-based, scientific theory. You may wish to argue that the evidence has been misunderstood, and that other interpretations are possible, but to pretend that it doesn’t even exist when quite clearly it does will just make you look like you’re sticking your head in the sand.

Are there any good scientific arguments against evolution?

You’re not going to falsify evolution, in the mainstream scientific sense of the word, in its entirety. The basic processes — descent with modification, mutations, natural selection, and even speciation — are readily observed both in the laboratory and in the wild. Furthermore, the fossil record shows indisputable evidence that these processes have been going on for billions of years, while genetic evidence such as endogenous retroviruses at the very least give humans and animals the appearance of being related. Either this is another example of “appearance of age,” or else it represents real history. You decide.

The Intelligent Design community looks for limits on what evolution can explain. To this end, they have come up with a number of concepts such as irreducible complexity, which claims that certain structures such as the bacterial flagellum could not have come about through an evolutionary process. Not being a biologist, I can’t critique irreducible complexity in much detail, but I get the impression that they’re jumping the gun by declaring it to be a done deal. I would have thought that irreducible complexity would be extremely hard to prove, because it’s not sufficient to show that one specific evolutionary pathway is impossible; you have to show that no alternative evolutionary pathways are possible either.

It’s often claimed that evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or that mutations can not produce new information. Unfortunately, these arguments are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts of entropy and information. Entropy is often illustrated in the popular press by comparing it to teenagers not tidying up their bedrooms, but this is a gross over-simplification that doesn’t accurately reflect what entropy actually is, how it works, or what it does and does not apply to. Simplifications such as this can be useful in illustrating broad general principles to the layman, but you should never try to argue a point against them because the complexities and nuances of the subject that they gloss over will almost certainly render your argument wrong. Some properties of entropy and information are actually quite counter-intuitive: for example, it turns out that Shannon information and entropy are one and the same thing. Consequently, the Second Law of Thermodynamics means that mutations should produce new information.

There may be some other approach yet to be discovered, of course. I personally believe that at the very least, evolution must have required some “coaxing” to get us to where we are today, and I don’t believe that it was an unguided, random process. But even if Intelligent Design does get proven, that won’t necessarily falsify common ancestry, and it certainly won’t take us back to six thousand years.

In the end of the day, what you make of evolution is up to you. But whatever conclusion you come to in the end, it is important to be honest about it. Like everything else, make sure that you know what you are talking about, and that your facts are straight.

YEC Best Evidence 1: not enough sediment on the seafloor

The first of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth concerns ocean sediment. Every year, a certain amount of sediment is eroded from the land and washed into the sea by rivers. In theory, if we can compare this with the amount of sediment that we actually find on the ocean floors, we could calculate a rough, first-order estimate for the age of the earth. Adding up the rates and extrapolating backwards gives us a maximum age for the earth of 12 million years — far less than the 4.5 billion years of the scientific consensus.

Andrew Snelling, the author of the article, illustrates it with this drawing:

The first problem with this argument is that it is based on rates that are extremely difficult to measure, and that can not realistically be assumed to have been constant in the past. Sedimentation rates are strongly dependent on environmental and climatic conditions, and ice ages, deforestation, widespread farming, and more recently the building of dams and cities in the modern era, will all have affected them significantly.

The annual influx of 20 billion tons of sediment a year comes from Millman & Syvitski (1992). However, if you read their abstract, you will see that their figure of 20 billion tons a year is merely a finger-in-the-air estimate of historic sedimentation rates from the past 2,500 years or so up until the early twentieth century. It also tells us that prior to widespread farming and deforestation, rates were almost certainly much lower. Later in the paper, they tell us that ultimately the final figure is extremely difficult to estimate and that we simply don’t know what it is.

Since 1992, there has been a lot more research into ocean sedimentation rates by environmental scientists. For example, Willenbring et al. (2014) estimate that the long-term sedimentation rate is about 5.5 billion tons a year.

But then there is the question of what exactly is being measured? And where does the sedimentation actually end up?

The estimates for subduction rates and the total amount of sediment on the sea floor come from Hay et al (1998). However, it is quite clear from their abstract that these estimates only refer to the deep ocean floor, and not to the continental shelves and margins. Yet it is the continental shelves and the margin where the sediments are deposited — typically in river deltas and fjords.

We can illustrate the problem by annotating Snelling’s drawing accordingly:

In a nutshell, Snelling is citing the rate of accumulation of sediment on the continental shelf as evidence that there is not enough of it on the ocean floor. This is like trying to determine the amount of snowfall in London by taking measurements in the Cairngorms. It is patently absurd.

Furthermore, in many places, the sediments are subsequently uplifted by tectonic plates colliding to form new mountain ranges. In fact, most if not all of the sedimentary rocks found inland are believed to have originated as sediment being washed into the oceans in this way. Yet Snelling does not include these in his calculations, despite the fact that the amount of sedimentary rock concerned is vast, in many places being several miles thick.

“Rescuing Devices”

Snelling dismisses the possibility of sedimentation rates having been lower in the past as a “rescuing device.” He claims that the continental shelves and margins show evidence of having been deposited by catastrophic landslides and turbulence. Besides the fact that the continental shelves and margins aren’t what he’s counting, he does not cite a source for this claim. Nor does he give any examples, nor does he give any indication of how to differentiate between a single, global cataclysm and much more local events such as lahars, mud flows and landslides that we see today.

It simply is not scientific, nor even intellectually honest, to dismiss interpretations of the evidence that you don’t like as “meh, rescuing device.” You have to provide firm evidence that they are not consistent with the data, or at the very least that your own hypothesis fits the data better than they do. If you are not able to do so, then the evidence that you are providing is ambiguous, and does not confirm anything at all.

Nor is it scientific to blindly extrapolate rates of change back into the past as if they were constant. Either you have to establish firm theoretical and experimental reasons why this should be the case (as with radioactive decay rates or the speed of light, for example), or else you need to examine the historical record for evidence as to how those rates have varied in the past. Given that young-earthers are constantly berating “uniformitarians” for assuming rates were constant in situations where those assumptions are justified, it is quite hypocritical for them to make the same assumptions in situations where they are not.

Sedimentation rates are strongly dependent on climate changes. Temperature and precipitation affect rates of chemical/physical weathering. Glaciations significantly increase the sediment flux by grinding millions of tons of rock into dust and gravel, but widespread glaciation is far more common today than even 2 million years ago, and is absent from the vast majority of Earth history. Glacially and tectonically driven changes in sea level also affect sediment flux to the deep ocean, since higher sea levels reduce the area of exposed land that can be eroded into the oceans. On longer time scales, plate tectonics greatly affect the sediment flux by raising mountain ranges and deforming brittle rock formations. Today, massive mountain ranges span the whole western coasts of the Americas, and the Himalayas constitute the single largest source of sediment to the oceans. These mountain ranges are relatively young, however, so it’s reasonable to conclude that sediment flux is far greater today than for much of Earth history.

Ultimately, the amount of sediment in the oceans says nothing whatsoever about the age of the earth. Snelling’s calculations are invalid and do not reflect the reality of where the ocean sediment ends up. When the total worldwide amount of sedimentary rock is added up, the most up to date estimate of long-term sedimentation of about 5.5 billion tons a year is perfectly consistent with an age of the earth of 4.5 billion years.

An examination of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth

So far, I’ve looked mainly at the scientific consensus on the age of the earth, how it is determined, and the misconceptions about it that tend to float around in some Christian circles — in particular, those propagated by the young-earth creationist organisations. As we’ve seen, the science concerned is far, far more robust than they make it out to be, the YEC objections to it do not stand up to scrutiny, the underlying historical assumptions are not untestable as they claim, the evidence is demonstrably not based on differences in worldview, numerous independent lines of evidence place a lower limit on the age of the earth far, far in excess of six thousand years, and that attempting to reinterpret it otherwise descends into total absurdity.

However, the young-earth organisations point to other lines of evidence indicating that the earth is indeed only six thousand years old. If they are right, then we have a problem, because it means that different lines of evidence that we see in nature contradict each other. Either the evidence must be ambiguous, or there must be some other factor at work.

In 2012, Answers in Genesis published a series of articles titled The 10 Best Evidences from Science That Confirm A Young Earth. The lines of evidence that they gave were as follows:

  1. There is too little sediment on the sea floor.
  2. Rock layers that are bent without fracturing.
  3. Soft tissue in dinosaur fossils.
  4. The Faint Young Sun paradox.
  5. The earth’s magnetic field is rapidly decaying.
  6. Radioactive rocks contain too much helium.
  7. Carbon-14 has been found in fossils, coals and diamonds.
  8. Comets lose mass too quickly for them to be long-lived.
  9. There is very little salt in the sea.
  10. DNA has been recovered from 250 million year old bacteria.

The list is prefaced by a long sermon telling us that we must take the Bible as our starting point. Before I look at their claims themselves, I shall therefore start by doing precisely that.

You may have heard it said that the Bible is not a science textbook, and that the purpose of Genesis 1-11 is not to give us a scientific overview of origins. Regardless of what you think of that statement, the Bible does have some strong things to say about how we are to approach science. In particular, any physical evidence that we cite in support of our respective positions must be based on honest reporting and honest interpretation of accurate information. Rejecting the scientific consensus may be faith, but misrepresenting it is lying, and will ultimately backfire.

We see this in the Bible’s demands for honesty in how we handle weights and measures. Deuteronomy 25:13-16 says this:

13Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. 14Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small. 15You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 16For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

Other Bible verses demanding honest use of weights and measures include Leviticus 19:35-36; Ezekiel 45:10; Proverbs 11:1; Proverbs 16:11; Proverbs 20:10; Proverbs 20:23; Hosea 12:6-7; Amos 8:4-8; Micah 6:10-13. Repeatedly in the Bible, we are told that dishonest weights and measures are an abomination to the Lord.

And remember that weights and measures are the foundation on which science is built.

When discussing creation and evolution, it is important to bear this in mind. The Bible has far, far more to say about the need for honesty and integrity than about either the age of the earth or evolution. If the physical evidence which I acknowledge that God Himself has created points to an ancient earth and common ancestry for humans and animals, and even all life on earth, then we need to be honest about that. On the other hand, if the evidence really is ambiguous, or if it really does indicate that the earth is young after all, then so much the better.

There are a few other points worth making here. The first is that any scientific claim must submit to testing and correction through expert peer review. Proverbs 12:1 tells us, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid.” Proverbs 27:6 tells us, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” In particular, corrections of a purely technical nature must be resolved before any claims can be made, no matter who those corrections come from, and especially if the corrections come from specialists in the subject matter concerned. The second is that scientific findings must be reproducible. The scientific principle of reproducibility has a Biblical precedent in the legal principle that “every matter must be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). One study by a single research group is therefore not sufficient to establish evidence for anything.

So, when evaluating the evidences for a young earth, here are the questions that I will be asking.

1. Does it get its facts straight? In other words, is it actually true? As we shall see, at least one of these arguments (number 2, bent rock layers) is not.

2. Does it actually place a specific numerical limit on the age of the earth at all? Many of these arguments do not, but only attempt to provide counterexamples to conventional dating methods. Some of them (in particular, numbers 2 and 4) do not place any numeric constraints on anything at all. Others appeal to “common sense” that certain processes can not take “millions of years” while disregarding actual measurements and observations that indicate that they can.

3. Is it measuring the right things? We shall also see an example (number 1, too little sediment on the sea floor) which attempts to calculate a limit for the age of the earth by dividing two completely unrelated measurements, leading to a result which is totally meaningless.

4. How well defined are the limits it places on the age of the earth? Radiometric dating gives results that are accurate to within ±5%, frequently better than ±1%, and in the best cases, better than one part in a thousand. On the other hand, most of these arguments rely on quantities that are extremely difficult to measure, and in some cases completely unknown. For example, we have only a rough idea of how long it takes bones and soft tissue to decay and fossilise under average conditions, and the upper limit on how long it takes the last remnants to fully mineralise under optimal conditions is completely unknown.

5. Are its assumptions realistic? No scientist blindly assumes that rates are constant; one must either attempt to determine precise limits to how much they could have varied, or else establish solid theoretical and observational reasons as to why they could not. There are good reasons, both theoretical and experimental, to believe that nuclear decay rates have always been constant, while on the other hand, the rate of influx of salt or sediment into the oceans is highly sensitive to environmental and climatic conditions.

6. How rigorously have the “rescuing devices” been falsified? It is completely unscientific (and in fact, intellectually dishonest) to hand-wave alternative explanations and sources of error such as contamination as “meh, rescuing devices.” Alternative explanations have to be carefully and systematically ruled out, and in particular, sources of error such as contamination must be accounted for before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

7. What are the sources of its data? Are they up to date and representative of the latest research? Does it represent them fairly and accurately, or does it cherry-pick and quote mine them?

8. What is the extent of its data? Have the findings come from a single study, or has it been confirmed by other findings from elsewhere? One study — especially if it is disputed, controversial, or extraordinary — is not enough to establish a scientific finding. Similarly, studies based on small sample sizes are very unlikely to be reliable. If we could accept one-off studies based on small samples, we would also be giving a free pass to anti-vaxxers, astrology, homeopathy, water divining, and reading tea leaves.

9. Have they received a level of scrutiny appropriate to their complexity? Some claims, such as number 6 (helium in radioactive rocks) are technically very complex both theoretically and experimentally, and very complex claims are easy to get wrong, difficult to get right, and easy to “fudge” in ways that can be difficult to spot. In particular, scrutiny from experts in the subject matter concerned needs to be particularly heeded, as only they will be familiar with the existing research, the relevant best practices, and the various pitfalls and gotchas.

10. How have they responded to critique? In particular, how have they responded to criticisms of a purely technical nature? I am not concerned about them introducing religious presuppositions into science, so much as with arithmetic errors, mis-cited sources, cherry-picked data, hand-waved estimates, invalid analogies and the like. In these cases, the only correct responses are to either (a) fix the problem, or (b) provide evidence that they would not significantly affect the result. All claims that critiques are “petty and nitpicking” must be backed up by calculations or other evidence to prove that they really are as petty and nitpicking as they claim them to be.

Starting from next week, every second week I will examine each of these ten evidences in turn, to see how they fare when faced with questions such as these.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Could radiometric results be cherry-picked?

Radiometric dating deniers like to portray results far in excess of six thousand years as just “rationalisations” or “just-so stories.”

Take, for example, this article on creation.com, which claims that “long-age geologists” just disregard (or “reinterpret”) any data that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions. The author, Tas Walker, correctly points out that radiometric dating doesn’t always give the results we’d expect, and that when this happens, scientists come up with an alternative, explanation for the results. He gives some examples of such explanations: heating events since the rocks cooled; xenocrysts; contamination; inherited ages; and so on.

But then he says this:

No matter what the radiometric date turned out to be, our geologist would always be able to ‘interpret’ it. He would simply change his assumptions about the history of the rock to explain the result in a plausible way. G. Wasserburg, who received the 1986 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences, said, ‘There are no bad chronometers, only bad interpretations of them!’ In fact, there is a whole range of standard explanations that geologists use to ‘interpret’ radiometric dating results.

This caricature is very misleading. As we have seen, geologists do not just look for a plausible sounding interpretation based on changing assumptions; they have to rigorously demonstrate which interpretations are consistent with the data and which ones are not. In fact, they can often discover a whole lot of other useful information about the rock strata than just their age — information such as their thermal history, for example. They most certainly are not just a case of making up excuses, or of choosing whichever interpretation you like in order to get the results that you want, and it is quite frankly dishonest to portray them as if they were.

What about unpublished results?

In any case, this caricature does not explain why up to 95% of results do not require any such “rationalisation” or “changing assumptions.” To accommodate this high degree of concordance, radiometric deniers instead sometimes claim that discordant results tend to be thrown out, or filed away in a drawer somewhere. But could this be happening often enough to undermine the credibility of radiometric dating?

If it is, the amount of data that they must be withholding is colossal. This article gives some calculations that show that merely to get meaningful isochron plots from random data (remember, isochron dating requires all the points to lie on a straight line) you would have to be throwing away several hundred results for every one that you accept. It gives a couple of examples of single isochrons from the scientific literature that would have cost as much as $1.7 million if they really had been the result of cherry-picking random numbers.

But let’s suppose that all isochron plots are all due to mixing, and do as a result give meaningless “ages.” If this is the case, you would still have to be throwing away perhaps as many as a hundred results for every one that you accept in order to achieve 95% concordance.

Radiometric dating is expensive. Geochron Laboratories quotes $750 for each point on a Rb-Sr isochron graph, and $800 per point for Sm-Nd. An isochron graph requires at least three points, and in some cases can consist of a dozen or more. Since researchers frequently use more than one dating method, the cost of dating a single sample can easily exceed $10,000. It’s fair to say that it costs as much as a small family car.

This means that if scientists really are cherry-picking data in this way, they must be spending a million dollars or more per published result on what amounts to wholescale scientific fraud. As we’ve already seen, the number of radiometric results in the literature runs into the hundreds of thousands, with tens of thousands of new results being added every year. The amount of money being squandered must run deep into the tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide.

Where, then, are the accountants and auditors complaining about this colossal waste of money? Where are the scientists working in other fields, competing with it for funding, creating a stink because they have lost out on research grants because of it? Where are the documents blowing the gaff on it on Wikileaks? And where are the US Senators — some of whom are YECs themselves — calling for the obvious fix to the problem of requiring all radiometric studies to be pre-registered?

Ultimately, the claim that “long age geologists” don’t accept results unless they match their preconceived notions is nothing more than a conspiracy theory — and a bad one at that. It may sound plausible when you first hear it, but it only takes some simple arithmetic to see it descend into absurdity. It simply doesn’t make sense.

About those dating methods that disagree with each other

Radiometric deniers love to point out examples of cases where different dating methods give different results on the same rock strata. The most comprehensive attempt to catalogue these that I’m aware of is an article by John Woodmorappe in the September 1979 issue of the Creation Research Society Quarterly entitled Radiometric Geochronology Reappraised, which lists about 300 examples that he had culled from the scientific literature.

Now anomalous results do happen from time to time, and lists such as these do look pretty impressive, but they greatly exaggerate their frequency, extent and significance. Here are a few points to bear in mind.

1. Discrepancies are the exception, not the rule.

As we saw last week, the number of radiometric results in the scientific literature runs into the hundreds of thousands, and quite possibly even into the millions. This being the case, three hundred bad dates represents only a tiny fraction of the overall data.

How many results overall are discordant? Without doing an exhaustive literature search, which would take forever, it is hard to tell. However, one thing is clear: when radiometric dating is correctly applied, they are very much in the minority.

This Talk Origins article cites geochronology expert Brent Dalrymple, an expert in radiometric dating with lots of real-world experience, as estimating that only between 5% and 10% of radiometric results are discordant. The article doesn’t explain how he arrived at that figure though.

A more detailed picture comes from this account by geology professor Joe Meert (scroll down to the section “A brief discussion regarding the integrity of radiometric dating”), in which he records a discussion with some YECs on the subject. The figures that they cited were, unsurprisingly, higher, claiming that up to 15-20% or so of dates were discordant. However, he cited fifteen years of his own research, in which he found that fewer than 5% of his results were anomalous, and that each and every one of them had a reasonable explanation.

Even if the figure is as high as 20%, this leaves a serious question for radiometric denialists. Why do so many of the hundreds of thousands of results in the literature show little or no discordance? This would never happen if radiometric dating really were consistently unreliable, and certainly not if it were so off-base that it could not distinguish between thousands and billions.

In any case, there are certain important data sets that show little or no discordance — specifically, meteorites and lunar rocks returned from the Apollo missions. Meteorites in particular are very, very consistent in showing ages between 4.4 billion and 4.6 billion years by up to six different methods. Because they have very simple geological histories and have not been subjected to weathering, erosion, and metamorphic and tectonic processes found on Earth, there is little or no scope for “evolutionists” to fish around for alternative interpretations in order to get the results they want, as creation.com claims to be standard practice. Furthermore, these data sets are relatively small (a few hundred or so samples), so allegations of cherry-picked results are completely unrealistic.

2. Showing that one method fails under specific conditions does not prove that all methods fail everywhere.

There are over forty different isotopes used in radiometric dating. Each of them has a different half-life, applies to a different range of ages, involves different experimental procedures, and works in different situations on some minerals but not others.

Let’s say, for example, that you tried to use carbon-14 dating on a traffic cone, and got an age of 5,000 years. This is quite a plausible result, because traffic cones are made of plastic, which has been heavily processed from oil deposits and will therefore have been heavily contaminated by significant amounts of modern carbon. However, what does this tell us? Simply that carbon-14 dating doesn’t work on traffic cones. It doesn’t tell us whether or not it works on bones, wood, or ancient seeds. And it certainly doesn’t tell us whether or not uranium-lead dating works on zircon crystals in granites.

Before radiometric dating techniques can be used in the field on new types of materials, they are first tested against samples of those materials whose ages are already known. Many of Woodmorappe’s discordances you read about are the results of these preliminary experimental tests. It is dishonest to cite these preliminary tests as evidence that field results using well-established methods are also unreliable.

3. Showing that a method fails when pushed to its limits does not prove that it fails everywhere.

Take, for example, this report of an attempt to date some lava from a lava dome that formed on Mount St Helens in 1986. The potassium-argon “ages” reported ranged from 0.35 million years to 2.8 million years, which the YEC researcher, Steve Austin, described as “preposterous.” In reality, it was his methodology that was preposterous.

The dating was carried out by Geochron Laboratories of Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time that the research was carried out, their website and their promotional material said this:

Samples less than 5 M.Y. old, or containing less than 0.1%K will incur a 50% surcharge, reflecting the special care and additional analyses required. We cannot analyze samples expected to be younger than 2 M.Y.

Geochron Laboratories did not have the advanced state-of-the-art equipment needed to process samples that young, and consequently, contamination and “memory effects” of lingering argon from previous analyses would have been a very real issue.

The half-life of 40K is 1.25 billion years — roughly a thousand times greater than the ages reported by Austin. This study was the equivalent of using a weighbridge to measure out flour, sugar and eggs when baking a cake for a family of four, then claiming that weighbridges are unreliable when it comes out all mushy.

I’m sorry, but this is called “gaming the system,” pure and simple.

Another example here is the RATE project’s claims of discovery of primordial radiocarbon in ancient coals and diamonds. The quantities discovered were very low, close to the limits of the capabilities of many radiocarbon labs, and showed clear patterns that were consistent with contamination, with heavily processed samples showing significantly more 14C than unprocessed ones. Although the RATE team claimed to have taken great care to take contamination into account, radiocarbon experts such as Kirk Bertsche noted that the procedures they followed were incorrect.

4. Discrepancies of a factor of two or three do not prove that all methods must be out by a factor of a million or more.

About three quarters of the discrepancies on Woodmaroppe’s list come within a factor of two of the expected result, about 90% within a factor of three, and more than 97% within a single order of magnitude. Furthermore, about two thirds of the time, the dates reported are too small. This does not help the Literal Six Day Young Earth timescale, which requires the dates reported to be consistently too large by a factor of between a thousand and a million.

A factor of a million is a colossal error. It is like demonstrating that the whole of London would fit into a rucksack, or that you could buy a four bedroom house in Chelsea for five pounds, or that the life and ministry of Christ recorded in the Gospels happened in the space of fifteen minutes just yesterday afternoon.

A minority of discrepancies of a factor of two or three, the majority of them underestimates, falls far, far short of demonstrating that all results are consistently overestimates by a factor of up to a million. Especially when you consider that…

5. The differences are unsurprising, well understood, and useful.

Different results from different radiometric methods are not unexpected, given that many rocks have had a complex history. In fact, the differences usually provide a lot of useful information that extends well beyond the ages of the samples.

One condition which results in different dating methods giving different results is when a rock formation such as granite takes a long time to cool. This is because radiometric dating measures the time since the rock cooled below the “closure temperature.” Closure temperatures can be determined experimentally and are different for different radioisotopes. Consequently the differences in radiometric ages can tell us how long the rock took to cool.

Joe Meert gives one example of a rock formation, the Carion pluton, in central Madagascar, which yielded different dates as follows:

Dating method Closure temperature Age
Zircon–U-Pb (SHRIMP) 850±50°C 532.1±5.2 Ma
Hornblende — 40Ar/39Ar 500±50°C 512.7±1.3 Ma
Biotite — 40Ar/39Ar 350±50°C 478.9±1.0 Ma
K-spar — 40Ar/39Ar 200±25°C 435.0±10 Ma
K-spar — 40Ar/39Ar 100±25°C 410±10 Ma

When plotted on a graph, it can be seen that these give a rather nice cooling curve:

https://i2.wp.com/users.clas.ufl.edu/jmeert/carvoo11.jpg

Far from falsifying radiometric dating, different results from different methods provide additional information about a rock formation’s thermal history as well as its age. This extra information is of particular importance in oil exploration, where geologists need to know the thermal history of the oil deposits as well as their ages in order to determine whether they’re going to yield anything useful.

Woodmorappe claimed, in response to a critique to his list, that cooling explanations are just a “rationalisation,” and that the imbalance between overestimates and underestimates was evidence of cherry-picking by the scientific community, with “nonsensical” results more likely to be withheld from publication. We shall see next week that his allegations of cherry-picking have no merit whatsoever, but for now it should be clear that these explanations are no mere “rationalisation,” but are in fact individually testable.

6. Some claims of discordant dates are blatantly dishonest.

One of the articles that Woodmorappe cited was that of a Rb-Sr isochron that allegedly gave an age of 34 billion years — seven times the age of the earth and two and a half times the age of the universe.

This sounds like a massive poke in the eye for isochron dating until you see the “isochron” in question:

figure6
Rb-Sr “isochron” from the diabase of the Pahrump Group interpreted by Woodmorappe as giving an age of 34 billion years. Source: talkorigins.org

This is not an isochron. Anyone who knows anything about isochron dating will be aware that you need all the points to lie on a straight line in order to get a valid date. When they don’t, the only correct interpretation of the graph is “undateable due to contamination and leakage,” and the 1.09 billion and 34 billion year lines were purely there to illustrate the fact.

For what it’s worth, this is a variant on what scientists call “quote mining” — taking a particular quote completely out of context and misrepresenting it as saying something that it is not. A charitable view here would be merely that Woodmorappe had misunderstood the graph, wasn’t getting his facts straight, or was perhaps being a little bit careless, but scientists who get quote mined do not take such a charitable view. They consider it to be a form of lying.

Discordant dates do not prove what YECs claim that they prove.

There is a vast difference between showing that something doesn’t always work and showing that it never works, and similarly, there is a vast difference between showing that something can occasionally be out by a factor of two, and showing that it is consistently too large by a factor of up to a million.

Disagreements between different dating methods may give us leave to take individual results with a pinch of salt. This may have some bearing on subjects such as the Shroud of Turin, or the occasional archaeological discovery relating to Bible times. But they present no challenge whatsoever to the overall corpus of data as a whole. In particular, they fall far, far short of falsifying the geological column with its display of a general progression of species through the ages, let alone demonstrating that all radiometric results could plausibly be out by up to six orders of magnitude. Radiometric dating still presents an insurmountable barrier to the young-earth timescale and the discordances highlighted by the young-earth literature barely put a dent in it.

How much evidence is there?

Many debates about creation and evolution fail to appreciate the staggering amount of evidence that there is out there. Joel Duff, a Christian biology professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, has written about this on his blog, The Natural Historian, which examines the evidence from the fossil record in some detail, along with young-earth creationist responses to it. He points out, for example, that:

Estimates such as these are examples of Fermi problems. By coming up with some educated guesses (or known values) for the relevant quantities, we can then come up with an estimate for, say, the amount of kinetic energy in a hurricane. Overestimates and underestimates usually cancel each other out, and the end result will typically be well within an order of magnitude of the true figure.

How much radiometric data is there in the scientific literature?

It’s possible to estimate this value in a similar way.

First, how many geologists are there in the world? According to this blog post, about 500 geology students graduate in the USA every year. In China, on the other hand, there are probably about 40,000-50,000 geology students at any one time. This means that China must be graduating about 10,000-15,000 geologists every year.

I shall assume that the figures for the rest of the world per head of population are similar to those of the USA. Since the USA’s population is about 320 million and the rest of the world’s population is about 6 billion, this would suggest that about 10,000 further geology students graduate every year. Thus, there must be about 20,000-25,000 new geology graduates a year.

Now let’s assume that just one in ten of these graduates end up working as professional geologists, and that their average career length is about 40 years. This means that there would be about 80,000-100,000 geologists worldwide.

So how many radiometric dating results would they be churning out? In the first five years of his career, young-earth creationist geologist Andrew Snelling is listed on Wikipedia as having published an average of one paper per year in the scientific literature, most of them with one or two collaborators. Your average geologist is probably more productive than that, but I shall assume that this figure is fairly typical. I shall also assume that each publication in the literature contains an average of one radiometric result — some will contain more than one, but others will not contain any.

80,000 geologists, working in teams of an average of 2.5, publishing an average of one radiometric result per year, would mean about 32,000 new results per year. This means that in the last thirty to forty years or so, about a million new radiometric results could easily have been published.

Checking this estimate with Google Scholar

After writing the first draft of this post, it occurred to me that there is another way to estimate how much radiometric data there is in the literature: Google Scholar. We can do some simple searches for the most common radiometric dating techniques such as K-Ar, U-Pb, Rb-Sr, and so on.

A search for “K-Ar” (excluding citations and patents) returns about 360,000 results, with about 4,990 in 2016 alone. A search for “U-Pb” returns about 503,000 results, with about 11,200 in 2016. A search for “Rb-Sr” returns about 217,000 results, with about 6,170 in 2016. Even allowing for duplicates and false positives, it seems from these searches that my Fermi estimate came within a factor of two or so of the actual end result. It’s quite clear that we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of results, with tens of thousands of new ones being added every year.

Next time, we’ll ask a related question: how reliable are these hundreds of thousands of results?

This is what trying to fit science to your worldview looks like

Two weeks ago, we saw that the evidence for the age of the earth can not be based on presupposition or worldview because this does not account for evidence from the oil industry, which has to remain strictly independent of such matters for purely financial and economic reasons.

Nevertheless, young-earth creationists still tell me that science must “fit Scripture.” By this, they mean their young-earth interpretation of Scripture, because when it comes to the age of the earth, Scripture leaves a lot open to interpretation. But if you want to interpret science to fit into a six thousand year timescale, we know exactly what that involves, for the YEC organisations have spent vast sums of money attempting to do precisely that.

The RATE project.

RATE stands for Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth. It was a research project run by the Institute for Creation Research and the Creation Research Society from 1997 to 2005, which sought to answer the question: if the earth is six thousand years old, why does radiometric dating consistently give results that are much older? It was funded by $250,000 from the Institute for Creation Research, and more than $1 million in donations.

The RATE team admitted that there is overwhelming evidence that hundreds of millions of years’ worth of nuclear decay has taken place since Creation. This was certainly ground-breaking for young-earth claims, because they had always insisted up until that point that “evolutionists” were throwing away any results that didn’t conform to their “uniformitarian presuppositions” — in effect, claiming that radiometric dating was no more than a fraudulent exercise in cherry-picking random numbers.

Rather than admitting that this meant the earth was old, however, they decided that nuclear decay rates must have been up to a billion times higher in the past — notably, during the first two days of Creation Week, and during Noah’s Flood.

22,000°C? Really?

The RATE team set about looking for evidence to support their hypothesis, and after eight years they came up with four studies that they claimed did so. I will examine the details of these claims in future blog posts, but for now all you need to know is that no independent peer reviewer has ever found their claims satisfactory, no other researchers have ever replicated their findings, and the subject matter experts who reviewed their work, many of whom were evangelical Christians themselves, documented numerous flaws of a purely technical nature, many of them serious, and all of them, when combined together, more than sufficient to falsify their entire conclusions.

But it was the RATE team themselves who noted the biggest problem of the lot. Radioactive decay generates a lot of heat. So much heat, in fact, that if you squeezed all the observed decay into just a fraction of six thousand years, you would raise the temperature of the earth to 22,000°C.

Just let that sink in for a minute.

Twenty. Two. Thousand. Degrees. Centigrade.

They admitted that neither conduction, nor convection, nor radiation, could have removed this much heat fast enough, and furthermore that any cooling process would have had to cool granites much faster than water to avoid the oceans from freezing over. They speculated about one or two possible solutions to the problem, but these also involved proposing equally absurd new laws of physics which are not supported by any evidence whatsoever either. In the end, they said that the removal of heat must have been supernatural, but admitted that the problem was nevertheless unsolved.

Despite this extraordinary contradiction, the RATE project has been marketed as a success, with books, DVDs, and conferences proclaiming accelerated nuclear decay as a rock-solid fact, supported by “overwhelming” evidence. The heat problem is casually dismissed as merely a minor issue — if in fact it ever gets mentioned at all. Accelerated nuclear decay is now touted as the cornerstone of the YEC objections to radiometric dating.

The crown jewels of young-earth research?

If you’re a young-earth creationist, struggling to figure out why even many born-again, Spirit-filled Christians find the LSDYEC position an embarrassment despite having a high regard for the Bible, this is why. The sheer absurdity of the RATE team’s willingness to downplay the 22,000°C heat problem is mind-boggling. Reading the conclusion of the RATE report, it is almost impossible to believe that it is genuine creationist apologetics, and not some sort of wild atheist parody like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Last Thursdayism. Even one young-earth creationist friend I spoke to about it thought it was some kind of hoax to “discredit creationism.” 22,000°C is four times as hot as the surface of the sun, and hot enough to vaporise the entire planet.

But this is no parody, nor is it the idea of some fringe armchair physicist, nor can it be excused as shoestring research that was only flaky through being under-funded. As far as young-earth research goes, this is about as mainstream as it gets. The RATE project was the most expensive, extensive and thorough research project ever carried out by YEC scientists. They threw eight years, six of their best physicists and geologists, and more than a million dollars at the problem. It has been endorsed by all the major YEC organisations. It represents the very crown jewels of young-earth science.

This is what happens when you try to make scientific evidence fit conclusions that it does not support. The consensus of professional geochronologists is that the earth is 4.54±0.05 billion years old, and any challenge to that figure needs to be based on sound methodology, honest reporting of results, and careful scrutiny through a process of independent peer review. It simply isn’t honest to make up science fiction to try and fit the conclusions you want to get. It does not honour God and it does not uphold the Bible. On the contrary, it makes a mockery of it.

The role of miracles in creation

There is no doubt that the universe shows clear evidence that it is billions of years old. But there are also things that we see in nature that at the very least have the appearance of design. Take a look at this video for example:

Now even if natural processes can explain how molecules such as kinesins — the motor proteins that “walk” along the microtubules — came about, I still find it awesome to think that such natural processes exist. Is there any reason why we should not consider the existence of these processes themselves to be miraculous?

Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationists often equate an ancient earth or evolution with denying the possibility of miracles. One anti-evolution booklet that I have been reading says that as Christians we must reject long ages for the following reason:

Because it implies faith in a very small, ineffectual God.

In other words, a Creator who isn’t capable of creation in a timeframe of His choosing. If there is a God of our gigantic universe, ought He not to be able to create something as relatively insignificant as our earth in six days — or six minutes or six seconds if He chose?

This completely misses the point.

Old-earth Christians do not deny the possibility of miracles. Even evolutionary creationists do not deny the possibility of miracles. The only thing we say about miracles is that they are not a get-out-of-jail-free card to reject scientific findings that you don’t like.

The fact remains that if the earth is six thousand years old, and if God did create it over six literal 24-hour days, then He must have created vast swathes of completely unambiguous and highly self-consistent evidence for 4.5 billion years of history that never happened.

This hypothesis is called the “Omphalos Hypothesis,” and it was first proposed in 1857 — two years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species — by Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888). Gosse proposed that in order to be fully functional, the earth must have been created “mature” — fully formed trees with growth rings, and Adam as a mature adult, for example.

The problem, however, is that we’re not just dealing with evidence of age, but with evidence of history. The geological record tells the story of 4.5 billion years of very distinct and definitive events happening at times that can in some cases be pinpointed with astonishing precision. The evidence is also very self-consistent, with tree rings, ice cores, lake varves, continental drift, coral growth, radioactive isotopes, index fossils, oil deposits, and much much more lining up with each other with extraordinary consilience. It’s as if Adam were not only created as a mature adult, but as if he were created with scars and missing teeth from skateboarding accidents that had never happened.

This means that if the earth is only six thousand years old, then it must also be an extremely elaborate forgery.

What is the purpose of miracles in the Bible?

When we read the Bible, the most spectacular miracles that we read about tend to be concentrated round a few key events in history. These are the Exodus and the Conquest; the ministries of Elijah and Elisha; and the ministry of Jesus and the early Church. We read about other miracles in other parts of the Old Testament, but not to the same extent, and in fact, the accounts of the history of Israel and Judah in many places are relatively unspectacular.

But why should miracles be concentrated the way they are? Simply because in Scripture, miracles serve a particular purpose: communication. They are God’s way of getting our attention when He has something particularly important to say. Generally, the more spectacular the miracle, the more important the message.

This is the complete antithesis of Omphalos.

Let me make one thing clear. I believe in miracles. But I do not believe that God would use miracles in this way to deceive us. It is inconsistent with the way we see miracles being used in both the Old and New Testaments, and it is inconsistent with what the Bible tells us about the character and nature of God.

The Bible tells us in 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4 that a day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. I know that some people think that’s not a lot to go on. But the fact is, that at least the Bible gives us something in support of long ages. In support of Omphalos, the Bible gives us nothing.

What does oil exploration tell us about the age of the earth?

Is the scientific consensus on the age of the earth entirely the product of presupposition and an a priori commitment to uniformitarianism, evolution, and philosophical naturalism, as young-earth creationists claim?

We can be pretty sure that anything that comes from the oil industry won’t be for starters. Petroleum geologists have to come up with results that are correct, not results that are ideologically convenient. If they really were adjusting their geology to line up with their theology, they would send the oil companies on a wild goose chase drilling in all the wrong places, and wasting vast sums of money and a lot of political good will in the process.

So, what does the oil industry have to say about the age of the earth?

According to Answers in Genesis, nothing. A couple of years ago, Ken Ham wrote a blog post in which, among other things, he quoted Andrew Snelling, AiG’s resident geologist, as claiming that the ages of the rock strata are irrelevant to oil exploration:

Successful oil and mineral exploration and discoveries do not depend on believing the strata are millions of years old. In fact, the supposed ages are irrelevant, both to the exploration techniques used and to successful discoveries.

Jonathan Baker, a Christian geochronologist, responded to this claim on his blog, Age of Rocks. In a post titled “Can Young-Earth Creationists Find Oil?” he explained that anyone who has ever tried baking a cake should realise that Dr. Snelling’s claim is simply not true.

I know exactly what he’s talking about. My first attempt at baking a lemon drizzle cake was a disaster. I had the oven turned up too high, and as a result the outside of the cake ended up burnt to a cinder while the middle was still completely soggy and hadn’t even started. This was because the chemical reactions that take place when baking a cake are dependent on both time and temperature, so if the outside of your cake overheats while the inside is still warming up, you’ll end up with the same results as I did. In fact, chemical reaction rates are governed by an equation called the Arrhenius equation. For many common chemical reactions, the rate doubles for every 10°C increase in temperature.

As Dr. Baker points out, exactly the same thing is true for oil.

19529368299_664029d6c1_z
Lemon drizzle cake. Image courtesy of Daniel Hadley.

Once petroleum geologists have identified a location for a potential oil deposit, they need to determine not only how old it is, but also its thermal history. If it hasn’t been “baking” long enough, it will be “premature,” still solid, and impossible to get it out of the ground. On the other hand, if it has been “baking” for too long, or if the temperature’s been too high, it will be “post-mature.” At best you’ll get a lot of natural gas and much heavier, more viscous substances such as bitumen or asphalt, which are much more difficult to extract from the ground. At worst, you’ll find it all baked away into oblivion.

In other words, petroleum geologists have to get the ages of the oil deposits right. And they can’t afford to let their theology influence their geology either. There’s no room whatsoever for any kind of presupposition — atheistic or otherwise — in the oil industry.

I have not yet seen an adequate young-earth response to Dr. Baker’s post. Answers in Genesis does have an older article which attempts to poke holes in the conventional explanation for the origin of oil, and to come up with a young-earth alternative, but the fact remains that the conventional, old-earth models have proven to be very successful in their ability to predict where oil deposits can be found. Young-earth models have not even attempted it.

The message from the oil industry about the age of the earth is clear. Long ages are not an atheist conspiracy, they are not based on presupposition, they are not a religion, they are not any kind of “compromise,” they are not an attempt to make time for evolution, and they do not depend on your worldview. They are the clear and unambiguous conclusion indicated by evidence that can not be interpreted any other way.