There is hope

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
— Hebrews 12:1-3

It is all too easy, on seeing the excruciating falsehoods and absurdities presented by young-earth “creation science” and the extreme dogmatism with which they are taught, to grow weary and lose heart, or to even allow them to colour your perception of Christianity in general.

Don’t.

If you’re asking the question, “What else are they lying to me about?” about your pastor or church leaders, rest assured that the answer is, not as much as you think. Many rank and file YECs aren’t intentionally out to deceive: they just lack the skills and training necessary to fact-check the claims that they repeat. You’re only lying if you know — or should reasonably be expected to know — that the claims you are making are untrue.

Furthermore, there are well-informed Christian apologists and ministries out there who are much more honest in their approach to matters such as this. Ministries such as Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, William Lane Craig and Reasonable Faith, and Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe, provide a lot of valuable resources here. Remember too that the world has agendas of its own. There are plenty of dishonest arguments and ideological biases coming from “the other side” as well. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

It’s also important to realise that while the scientific evidence takes a firm and insistent line on the age of the earth, the Bible does not. I know that some people think that 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4 are not relevant here, or that they are not a lot to go on, but at least in terms of long ages, the Bible gives us something. No matter how old the earth is, or who did or didn’t evolve from what, God’s Word still stands. Of that, I am confident.

Don’t forget what it’s all about.

Christmas is a joyful time. The carols that we sing present a joyful message: your Saviour, Christ the Lord, has come. We send each other cards and gifts to celebrate His birth, a little over two thousand years ago.

For that is what it’s all about. As I’ve said before, we are Christians, not Adam-and-his-pet-dinosaurians. We celebrate the completed work of Christ on the Cross, not the incomplete work of Adam and Eve on the back of their pet T-Rex. Don’t buy into any of this “no six days means no Gospel” nonsense. It’s a denial of the Gospel, it’s what Richard Dawkins wants you to believe, and it is factually untrue.

Remember Colossians 2:8:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world, rather than on Christ.

Note in particular how it ends with, “…rather than on Christ.” Not with “…rather than on a young earth and dinosaurs on the Ark.” Hold fast to that which is good.

May God bless you all richly this Christmas.

Image credit: pixabay.com

Advertisements

YEC Best Evidence 8: short-lived comets

The eighth of AIG’s ten best evidences for a young earth is the existence of short-lived comets. Comets lose mass as they come close to the sun, when ice evaporates and dust gets dislodged by the solar wind.

The author of this article, Danny Faulkner, tells us that this means we can easily calculate an upper limit to their ages. He doesn’t tell us how to do so, nor does he quote any figures for this, but he is correct in saying that comets don’t last all that long once they venture into the inner Solar System. For example, Halley’s Comet is only expected to last another 10,000 years or so.

He tells us that comets can get kicked out of the Solar System by gravitational interactions with the planets. What he doesn’t tell us is that comets can also get captured into the Solar System by exactly the same interactions. In fact, NASA ran some calculations on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (the one that was visited by Rosetta and the Philae lander) and found that this was exactly what happened to it:

Analysis of the comet’s orbital evolution indicates that until the mid-19th century, the closest it got to the Sun was 4.0 AU (about 373 million miles or 600 million kilometers), which is roughly two-thirds of the way from Mars’ orbit to that of Jupiter. That far from the Sun’s heat, it would not sprout a coma or tails, so it was invisible from Earth.

But scientists calculate that in 1840, a fairly close encounter with Jupiter must have sent the comet flying deeper into the inner solar system, down to about 3.0 AU (about 280 million miles or 450 million kilometers) from the Sun. Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) drifted a bit closer to the Sun over the next century, and then Jupiter gave the comet another gravitational kick in 1959. Since then, the comet’s perihelion has stood at about 1.3 AU, which is about 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) outside Earth’s orbit.

So it’s not uncommon for long-lived comets to come in from the outer Solar System, be captured by one of the planets, and turned into short-lived comets. The Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt are believed to be the source of these long-period comets in the first place.

Yet Faulkner dismisses the Oort Cloud as a “rescuing device” concocted by “evolutionary astronomers” (as a reminder: there’s no such thing as an “evolutionary astronomer”) saying that “there is no evidence for the supposed Oort cloud, and there likely never will be.” He also cites the large size of the Kuiper Belt asteroids and their composition as evidence that the Kuiper Belt can not be the source of these comets.

“Pluto’s surface is young!”

In July 2015, the New Horizons space probe flew past Pluto and sent back pictures of a surface that looked much more pristine and smooth than what we see on other rocky planets and moons in the Solar System. The same author, Danny Faulkner, wrote this in response to these pictures:

Compounding this problem for a 4.5-billion-year age for the solar system is the fact that Pluto is located in a particularly crowded part of the solar system. Pluto orbits the sun in a region with many other large objects that are too small to be planets and are also orbiting the sun. Presumably, thus far we have found only the larger members of this second asteroid belt, the first belt being mainly between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter. We would expect that for each of these bodies in this second asteroid belt there would be many more much smaller bodies. Therefore, Pluto ought to be undergoing impacts today at a higher rate than most other objects in other portions of the solar system.

So … on the one hand, we are told that the Kuiper Belt is too sparsely populated to be able to provide a steady supply of short-term comets, yet on the other hand, we are being told that it is so densely populated that it must be pulverising Pluto’s surface to smithereens! Which is it?

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The reason for the large size of known KBOs is that the smaller ones are too hard to see, not that they don’t exist. Comet-sized objects (about 10-20 km) in particular are right at the resolution limits of our telescopes at that distance, and looking for them is complex and expensive. We also know that objects in both the asteroid belt (Gladman et al, 2009) and the Kuiper Belt (Fraser & Kavelaars, 2008) follow a power law distribution in terms of size, with smaller ones being far, far more common than larger ones. Consequently, Faulkner’s claim that the Kuiper Belt objects are all too large and sparse to account for the origin of comets is completely out of touch with reality.

After New Horizons visited Pluto, NASA conducted a search for Kuiper Belt objects for it to visit as a follow-up. The potential candidates had to meet some fairly stringent criteria in terms of size, distance and position in the sky, and the fact that they managed to find three possible targets is further evidence that there is no shortage of material in the Kuiper Belt.

Ultimately, this argument boils down to “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” While absence of evidence may be evidence of absence if it is something that we expect to see, such as sequenceable DNA in 6,000 year old dinosaur fossils, it most certainly is not evidence of absence if it is something that we don’t, such as small objects beyond the resolution limits of our telescopes.

The Oort Cloud may not have been directly observed, but it has good explanatory power, and its existence has never been falsified. Besides, which is more plausible an explanation — that the Oort Cloud exists, or that hundreds of thousands of independent, high-precision measurements whose commercial incentives strongly favour correctness over ideological convenience are all consistently in error by up to a factor of a million?

Featured image: Comet Hyakutake, by Bill Ingalls/NASA (source: Wikipedia)

“Yom with a number” — rule of Hebrew grammar or young-earth fabrication?

There is a rule of Hebrew grammar that only ever gets cited by Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationists when attacking old-earth approaches to Genesis 1 such as the day-age, gap theory, or framework interpretations. It insists that although yom, the Hebrew word for a day in Genesis 1, is often used elsewhere in Scripture to mean an extended or undefined period of time, when it is accompanied by an ordinal number (first day, second day and so on), it can only ever refer to a literal, solar, 24 hour day of Earth time.

Hebrew scholars, on the other hand, tell us that there is no such rule. For example, Norman L. Geisler says:

Numbered days need not be solar. Neither is there a rule of Hebrew language demanding that all numbered days in a series refer to twenty-four-hour days.

(Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Zondervan, 1999), p. 271.)

They even point to counterexamples in Scripture. For example, most theologians consider Hosea 6:1-2 to be referring to unspecified periods of time when it says this:

Come, let us return to the LORD For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, That we may live before Him.

Another example that they cite is Zechariah 14:7, which even turns the concept of “evening and morning” delineating one day from the next on its head:

It will be a unique day — a day known only to the LORD — with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.

Just because it’s always used that way (except when it isn’t), doesn’t mean it’s a rule.

On the BioLogos forum back in September, contributor @Socratic.Fanatic gave the best explanation I’ve ever seen as to what is wrong with this “rule”:

It is also worth mentioning that much of the OT is dealing with the Children of Israel, their kings, and chronologies of events. But in Genesis 1, for example, the context is entirely different. We aren’t looking at the day to day events in the nation of Israel. Indeed, it is not about human events at all. It is about God and his creation. So we would expect some of the words to potentially be used in ways which are different from various other books in the NT. (To give an example in English, I have a shelf of books dealing with Edwardian England, and the word class used in those books almost always refers to social classes. But if I grab one of my biology books, that particular definition of the word class would rarely if ever apply. Instead, class refers to a taxonomic classification of organisms. Context and subject matter can be far more important than some imagined “grammatical rule” created out of thin air to support a theological objective.)

Basically, the fact that yom with a number only ever means a 24 hour day when talking about day to day affairs of human beings does not mean that it only ever means a 24 hour day when talking about grand scale events such as the creation of the cosmos.

The way that yom is combined with a number in Genesis 1 is unique to Genesis 1.

For reference, see this paper by Rodney Whitefield. He references Gleason L. Archer as making the following point:

There were six major stages in this work of formation, and these stages are represented by successive days of a week. In this connection it is important to observe that none of the six creative days bears a definite article in the Hebrew text; the translations “the first day,” “the second day,” etc., are in error. The Hebrew says, “And the evening took place, and the morning took place, day one” (1:5). Hebrew expresses “the first day” by hayyom harison, but this text says simply yom ehad (day one). Again, in v.8 we read not hayyom hasseni (“the second day”) but yom seni (“a second day”). In Hebrew prose of this genre, the definite article was generally used where the noun was intended to be definite; only in poetic style could it be omitted. The same is true with the rest of the six days; they all lack the definite article. Thus they are well adapted to a sequential pattern, rather than to strictly delimited units of time.

What this boils down to is that even if the “yom with a number” pattern applies to the rest of the Bible, Genesis 1 does not fit this pattern. The rule simply does not apply here. It is the linguistic equivalent of Andrew Snelling’s meaningless and fallacious attempt to establish an upper limit on the age of the earth from the amount of sediment on the ocean floor.

Where did the “yom with a number” rule come from anyway?

Besides the existence of exceptions to the rule, the only time anyone ever acknowledges its existence is when YECs bring it up for this specific argument.

Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, an old-earth creationist ministry, did some research into this. In a podcast on 1 February 2005, he says this:

I’ve been looking at this for several years, and I’ve yet to find a non-young-earth-creationist source that makes this point. It seems to be unique to modern young-earth creationists, as Doug Branning suspects, and as I read on in Doug’s e-mail he says as far back as he’s been able to trace it is the 1970s. Well that’s also been true for me — I thought I could trace it back to the fifties or the sixties, but I’ve been unsuccessful. The earliest reference I’ve been able to find is the 1970s, and this is coming from the people that are part of the Institute for Creation Research — so Henry Morris and others were making that argument in the seventies. Now there may be a reference in the sixties, but I’ve not seen it — at least, not in print, and that might be a good project for one of our volunteers to look at, to see when they can find this first source, and as Doug says it’s not only with respect to the evening and morning, but this idea that when yom is used with a numeric modifier. But what I’ve been able to tell, both arguments appeared at the same time.

Given that it started in the 1970s, or at best there might be some references of audio material in the sixties or even the fifties, what that still tells us is that this can’t be a really valid argument because it doesn’t show up earlier in church history or church commentaries. The fact that it’s unique to the young-earth creationist camp also makes this a suspicious argument. So I think Doug is making an excellent point. Given that it’s so recent, and given that it’s unique to young earth creationists, that by itself makes their argument invalid.

(Source: “Creation Update #259”; link to podcast here; index page on RTB website here; discussion starts at 1:10:15.)

This is a very important point. If the “yom with a number can only mean a 24 hour day” rule had any merit, why is there no reference to it before the 1970s, why are all references to it made by young-earth creationists, and why do they only ever reference it when arguing for literal 24 hour days of creation?

Nineteenth and early twentieth century atheists would have loved to have a “yom with a number” rule, as it would only have strengthened their claim that the Bible and scientific evidence about the age of the earth are incompatible. They would have been rubbing our noses in it all that time. It would have been a massive embarrassment to evangelical Christians.

What do we see instead? The first appearance of this rule was in literature as recent as the 1970s from an organisation whose highly profitable business model depends on convincing Bible-believing Christians such as myself that the Bible demands a young earth and can not be interpreted otherwise.

All I can conclude is that this “rule” is a fabrication. Its sole effect is to shackle the Bible to a legalistic and anti-scientific interpretation, pit Biblical Christianity and science against each other, and in so doing, nullify the Word of God with tradition.

Featured image credit: Pixabay

YEC Best Evidence 7: ancient carbon-14 — intrinsic or contamination?

One common thread that turns up time and time again in young-earth arguments is taking a scientific dating technique, pushing it to breaking point, and claiming that because it doesn’t always give the correct results at the extremities, that automatically means that all conventional old-earth dating methods are hopelessly broken everywhere.

It’s a bit like trying to bake a cake by using a weighbridge — the huge scales that are normally only used to weigh ten ton lorries — to measure out your butter, eggs, flour, sugar and fruit, then, when the results turn out all mushy and inedible, claiming that this proves that Jamie Oliver, Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay, and Ina Garten haven’t the faintest idea about cooking.

truck_on_weighbridge
This is not how you bake a cake.
(Image source: Wikipedia.)

Why do ancient coals and diamonds contain carbon-14?

The seventh of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth is one such example of this argument. It is the claim of the RATE project that they had found carbon-14 in ancient coals and diamonds. Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,750 years, and samples more than a million years old should not contain any detectable radiocarbon at all. So what is going on?

The RATE project’s complete technical report, written by John Baumgardner, starts off with a listing of samples in the scientific literature that should, in theory, have no measurable radiocarbon. It summarises the listing with two histograms:

The first point to note here is that the amount of radiocarbon found in each case was low. Radiocarbon results are often quoted as a percentage of modern carbon-14 levels (pMC or %MC) with modern levels being approximately one molecule of carbon-14 to every 1012 (one trillion) molecules of carbon-12. The RATE team reported that Precambrian (non-biological) samples give results of 0-0.12 pMC, while Phanerozoic (biological) samples give 0.05-0.65 pMC. These figures are comparable to the levels obtained from studies of known contamination mechanisms.

Yet Answers in Genesis dismisses contamination as “rescuing devices” and “hackneyed defences.”

“Rescuing devices” or sloppy science?

Contamination is no mere “rescuing device”; it is a systematic error. Systematic errors have to be accounted for and eliminated before any conclusions can be drawn: this is one of the first things that you learn in a first year undergraduate physics practical class. To dismiss contamination — or any other kind of systematic error — as a “rescuing device” or a “hackneyed defence” in this cavalier manner encourages Christians to adopt a sloppy and indisciplined approach to science that, in any other area of scientific inquiry, would kill people. (The pharmaceutical industry is just one example that comes to mind here.)

Andrew Snelling makes the following claim about contamination:

Yet for thirty years AMS radiocarbon laboratories have subjected all samples, before they carbon-14 date them, to repeated brutal treatments with strong acids and bleaches to rid them of all contamination. And when the instruments are tested with blank samples, they yield zero radiocarbon, so there can’t be any contamination or instrument problems.

This claim is not true. “Repeated brutal treatments with strong acids and bleaches” will in fact introduce modern carbon-14, not eliminate it. Preparing samples for carbon-14 dating is a complex process; the samples have to be combusted to convert them to CO2 and then chemically reduced to graphite. Furthermore, many samples need to be chemically separated — for example, to extract cellulose from wood or collagen from bone. Every step in the process will introduce more contamination. This is why the Precambrian samples gave lower readings than the Phanerozoic samples — because they were already simple graphite, they typically only required a mechanical surface cleaning.

For what it’s worth, this is not merely a “uniformitarian assumption of evolution and millions of years.” The effects of processing on carbon-14 levels have been studied and characterised extensively, with whole journals such as Radiocarbon dedicated to the subject. One way of doing so is to measure the radiocarbon in a sample, then subject it to further processing, then take a second reading and measure the difference between the two. In fact, two of the entries in Baumgardner’s list — numbers 21 and 40 — report precisely this. They were from the same samples as numbers 62 and 79, but were recycled in order to try to characterise how much modern carbon would be introduced by pre-processing using methods such as the “brutal treatments with strong acids and bleaches” of which Dr Snelling speaks. The differences were 0.25pMC and 0.14pMC respectively, demonstrating that it takes just two or three steps of sample chemistry to introduce enough contamination to account for the levels reported.

Many of the other items on Baumgardner’s list also included reports of similar studies characterising identifiable contamination vectors. AMS results after sample processing can be compared with radiation counting (for example by scintillation or a Geiger counter) beforehand, as was the case in sample 10. The ratios of carbon-14 to carbon-12 and carbon-13 can be studied. Results from different laboratories can be cross-checked.

In addition to sample chemistry, contamination can also be introduced in situ, for example, when coal is permeated by groundwater, or when nitrogen is bombarded by electrons from decay products of nearby uranium. It can also be introduced when the samples are collected, or when they are being packaged ready for storage.

Then there is instrument background.

Snelling claims that blank samples yield zero radiocarbon. Again, this claim is untrue. Kirk Bertsche, a physicist with extensive experience in AMS spectroscopy design and also in preparation of samples for carbon-14 dating, has a detailed critique of the RATE project’s radiocarbon claims, in which he outlines several different potential sources of instrument background:

  1. ion source “memory” of previous samples, due to radiocarbon sticking to the walls of the ion source, thermally desorbing, and then sticking to another sample
  2. mass spectrometer background, non-radiocarbon ions that are misidentified as radiocarbon, sometimes through unexpected mechanisms
  3. detector background, including cosmic rays and electronics noise

For a full treatment of the subject, I would recommend that you read Dr Bertsche’s essay. His explanations come from years of experience designing and building the accelerator mass spectrometers used in radiocarbon dating, so he has extensively studied the different possible contamination vectors. He goes into some detail about how radiocarbon laboratories identify and characterise contamination — and he makes it clear that they do so with considerably more rigour and painstaking attention to detail than the RATE team would have you believe. Dr Bertsche is also an evangelical Christian, and as such, his interest in the subject is more out of concern for factual accuracy in our apologetics than in conforming to a particular ideology.

It is also important to note that potential sources of contamination have not been fully quantified, and that additional, as yet unknown contamination vectors could be at work. The current scientific consensus is that contamination in radiocarbon dating can reach levels of up to about 0.5 pMC. In any case, experimental error or sloppy laboratory procedure could also increase contamination, and consequently solid peer review and replication of the results are essential.

The study of solar neutrinos demands radiocarbon-free fossil fuels

It turns out that carbon-14 contamination is an important question in the physics community for reasons other than radiometric dating. Physicists studying solar neutrinos need to find sources of carbon that contain a 14C content of less than one part in 1020. Kathleen Hunt has this to say about it:

It turns out that the origin and concentration of 14C in fossil fuels is important to the physics community because of its relevance for detection of solar neutrinos. Apparently one of the new neutrino detectors, the Borexino detector in Italy, works by detecting tiny flashes of visible light produced by neutrinos passing through a huge subterranean vat of “scintillation fluid”. Scintillation fluid is made from fossil fuels such as methane or oil (plus some other ingredients), and it sparkles when struck by beta particles or certain other events such as neutrinos. The Borexino detector has 800 tons of scintillant. However, if there are any native beta emitters in the fluid itself, that natural radioactive decay will also produce scintillant flashes. (In fact that’s the more common use of scintillant. I use scintillant every day in my own work to detect 14C and 3H-tagged hormones. But I only use a milliliter at a time – the concept of 800 tons really boggles the mind!). So, the physics community has gotten interested in finding out whether and why fossil fuels have native radioactivity. The aim is to find fossil fuels that have a 14C/C ratio of 10-20 or less; below that, neutrino activity can be reliably detected. The Borexino detector, and other planned detectors of this type, must keep native beta emissions to below 1 count per ton of fluid per week to reliably detect solar neutrinos. (In comparison, my little hormone vials, here in my above-ground lab, have a background count of about 25 counts per minute for 3.5 milliliters.)

The upshot of this is that there is a strong motivation to determine not only where radiocarbon in fossil fuels comes from, but how to predict where to find deposits that don’t have any. In the course of their research, the scientists concerned have discovered that carbon-14 levels in ancient coals vary widely, and strongly correlate with the presence of uranium deposits nearby:

So, the physicists want to find fossil fuels that have very little 14C. In the course of this work, they’ve discovered that fossil fuels vary widely in 14C content. Some have no detectable 14C; some have quite a lot of 14C. Apparently it correlates best with the content of the natural radioactivity of the rocks surrounding the fossil fuels, particularly the neutron- and alpha-particle-emitting isotopes of the uranium-thorium series. Dr. Gove and his colleagues told me they think the evidence so far demonstrates that 14C in coal and other fossil fuels is derived entirely from new production of 14C by local radioactive decay of the uranium-thorium series. Many studies verify that coals vary widely in uranium-thorium content, and that this can result in inflated content of certain isotopes relevant to radiometric dating (see abstracts below). I now understand why fossil fuels are not routinely used in radiometric dating!

The fact that there is a direct, measurable correlation between carbon-14 levels in fossil fuels and the presence of nearby uranium means that this can not be any kind of “rescuing device,” but that it is indeed a real, measurable effect. And the fact that they need to get their hands on eight hundred tons of radiocarbon-free deposits puts this one into the same category as oil exploration in general: they are under strong incentives to come up with explanations that are correct rather than ones that are ideologically convenient.

“Radiocarbon of the gaps”

Now Dr Bertsche does admit that radiocarbon in ancient coals and diamonds can not always be fully accounted for by known sources of contamination. However, appealing to “intrinsic radiocarbon” is premature until and unless you have ruled out the possibility of unknown sources.

If “intrinsic radiocarbon” were indeed a viable explanation, we would expect to see it consistently across all kinds of samples, at levels well in excess of those that could be explained by contamination. We would not expect to see it in some materials but not in others, and we would certainly not expect different tests on the same samples to give significantly different results. Nor would we expect to see any kind of correlation with the presence of nearby radioactive rocks.

But that is not what is observed. As Dr Bertsche says, radiocarbon levels show many significant patterns that are simply not consistent with the “intrinsic” hypothesis:

While some materials, e.g., coals and carbonates, often do show radiocarbon contamination that cannot be fully accounted for, resorting to “intrinsic radiocarbon” raises more questions than it answers. Why do only some materials show evidence of this intrinsic radiocarbon? Why does some anthracite and diamond exist with no measurable intrinsic radiocarbon? Why is its presence in carbonates so much more variable than in other materials, e.g., wood and graphite? Why is it often found in bone carbonates but not in collagen from the same bone? Since intrinsic radiocarbon would be mistakenly interpreted as AMS process background, why do multi-laboratory intercomparisons not show a much larger variation than is observed? Why does unprocessed diamond seem to have less intrinsic radiocarbon than processed diamond?

The fact remains that not only are the levels of carbon-14 found in ancient coals and diamonds too low to rule out contamination, but they also follow trends and patterns that strongly indicate that this is the case. Given that contamination vectors have been extensively studied and quantified, it simply isn’t realistic to dismiss them as “rescuing devices” or a “hackneyed defence.” Young-earth advocates need to demonstrate that hundreds of thousands of other measurements are all consistently in error by factors of up to a million, and the reported levels of radiocarbon in ancient coals and diamonds fall far, far short of doing so.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons