A review of Answers in Genesis’s ten best evidences for a young earth — summary and conclusion

Over the past five months, I have been examining the claims in the Answers in Genesis series, The 10 Best Evidences from Science that Confirm a Young Earth. This is as good a place to start as any in evaluating YEC claims: since these are what they consider to be their best arguments, we can assume that they are representative of the standards that they maintain in general, and that the other arguments that they are making will not carry any more weight.

Before I started examining these claims, I outlined the Biblical and scientific basis for my review. The age of the earth, and the ages of rock strata, are determined by measuring things, and accordingly, we must meet the demands in Scripture (Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Proverbs 11:1; etc.) that our approach to weights and measurements is honest and accurate.

YECs often respond that measurements still have to be interpreted. This is true, but there are strict rules that such interpretations must follow. It doesn’t take a “secular” or “materialist” worldview to see that your interpretation must be free from arithmetic error, non sequiturs and logical fallacies; that you must neither exaggerate nor downplay the extent and significance of errors and discrepancies; that you must not cherry-pick or fudge the raw data; that you must not quote people in ways that misrepresent them; and that you must not claim that assumptions are not testable when in fact they are. These, and other rules like them, are simply rules of basic honesty and quality control, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with secular materialism, a rejection of miracles, or “compromise.”

This being the case, my question was whether or not they were following the rules.

My findings were as follows:

  1. Very little sediment on the sea floor
    The calculations are invalid: riverine sediment ends up on the continental shelf, while the existing deposits being measured were those on the deep ocean floor.
  2. Bent rock layers that are not fractured
    This claim is blatantly untrue, as can be seen by comparing the example given to higher-quality photographs of the same rock formation both by USGS and by Answers in Genesis themselves. Bent rock layers are fractured.
  3. Soft tissue in dinosaur fossils
    While these findings are surprising, they do not contradict anything that we know about how long soft tissue can last, and in any case they are too rare and too badly degraded to be consistent with a young earth. Furthermore, many YEC accounts exaggerate the state of preservation of what was found.
  4. The faint young sun paradox
    Although it does suggest fine tuning, this says nothing about the age of the earth.
  5. Earth’s magnetic field is rapidly decaying
    This is based on an invalid extrapolation that is contradicted not only by the data, but also by both young-earth and old-earth models of how the Earth’s magnetic field works.
  6. Too much helium in radioactive rocks
    This is a very complex (and therefore error-prone) claim that is compromised by numerous serious errors including sloppy experimental technique, invalid assumptions, fudged data, misidentified rock samples, and a refusal to submit to meaningful peer review.
  7. Carbon-14 in fossils, coals and diamonds
    The measured carbon-14 levels are consistent with known, measured, and well-studied contamination mechanisms.
  8. Short-lived comets
    This denies that the Oort Cloud exists, based on an unrealistic assumption that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. It also disregards calculations of the historic orbits of known comets showing them to have been slingshotted closer to the sun by planets such as Jupiter.
  9. Very little salt in the sea
    This is based on outdated and cherry-picked data, poorly known quantities with huge error bars, and a naive extrapolation of rates that can not realistically be expected to have been the same in the past as they are today. The most up to date research indicates that the amount of salt in the sea is approximately in a state of equilibrium, and that it therefore tells us nothing about the age of the earth.
  10. DNA in ancient bacteria
    This is based on a single disputed study. It has not been satisfactorily demonstrated that the salt deposits and the bacteria themselves were the same age, nor that the salt crystals were undisturbed since their original formation.

Not a single one of these claims provides a shred of evidence for a young earth. Every single one of them — and in fact, every other claim of evidence for a young earth that I’ve ever seen — plays fast and loose with the basic rules and principles of how measurement works, some of them even to the extent of completely disregarding the role of measurement in determining the ages of rock strata altogether. Tiny samples with huge error bars are presented as “overwhelming” evidence for absurd new laws of fantasy physics that would have vaporised the earth if they had any basis in reality. The extent and significance of discrepancies in conventional dating methods is repeatedly blown up out of all proportion, with errors of just 20-30%, and results from techniques pushed to breaking point, being touted as evidence that all dating methods are consistently out by factors of up to a million. Isolated claims that were retracted a century ago are cited as evidence of pervasive systematic fraud in hundreds of thousands of peer reviewed studies right up to the present day. Despite their repeated denunciations of “uniformitarianism,” many of them are based on assumptions of constant rates that are totally out of touch with reality. Some of the claims that they come up with are so bad that it’s very difficult to believe that they really were made by the young-earth PhDs themselves, and not by a hacker or rogue sysadmin messing with their site in an attempt to discredit them.

I would like to be charitable and say that they had just misunderstood things, or perhaps that they were getting a bit carried away with themselves. This could possibly be the case with soft tissue in dinosaur fossils, or bacteria in ancient salts, for example. But that only illustrates the dangers of being too hasty. Proverbs 19:2 says, “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.” A more sensible approach would be to adopt a wait-and-see attitude with findings such as these. The world of science sees papers being published on a regular basis that collapse when subjected to the rigours of peer review and attempts to reproduce them.

Unfortunately, there are other examples where it is difficult to be so charitable. The claim about bent rock layers in particular was one such example. YEC organisations insist that it’s ungracious and divisive to accuse them of lying, but when a PhD geologist presents his case with an out-of-focus and badly exposed photograph of a rock formation with students strategically placed in front of the very parts of the formation that contradict him, if that is not lying, then what on earth is it? If you don’t want to be accused of lying, be careful to get your facts straight.

My biggest cause for concern, however, is the extremely unprofessional and hostile attitude that many young-earth PhDs adopt towards critique. Robust criticism should be standard practice in science, as that is how mistakes such as falsehood, arithmetic errors, fallacious calculations, shortcuts, sloppiness, and failure to adhere to proven best practices are shaken out. In many areas of scientific study, mistakes such as these could kill people. Yet we repeatedly see critiques dismissed out of hand as “rescuing devices”, “minor” or even “nitpicking”; while those who raise these concerns — many of them also Bible believing Christians — are denounced as “brainwashed” or “compromisers” or “anticreationists” or “speaking with the voice of the serpent” or worse.

I’m sorry, but this is not honest science and it is not Biblical Christianity. This is a cult.

Now to be fair, not all young-earth creationists are like that. Most rank and file YECs are honest and sincere people who merely lack the scientific understanding to be able to fact-check their claims properly. And they do have some valid concerns about the state of society, the decline of Christian influence, the widespread lack of knowledge of and trust in the Bible, and the way things are heading in general. Their uncompromising approach to Biblical authority is a much needed counterpoint to a world that would jettison the whole lot as nothing more than antiquated myth, rather than recognising it as a foundation, ahead of its time, on which subsequent generations have built.

But it’s misguided to blame all of society’s ills on evolution and millions of years, and quite frankly reckless to try and fight them with claims that are demonstrably and indisputably false. They complain about how they find it difficult to get published in peer reviewed scientific journals, or how they can’t get creationism taught in schools, presenting it as some kind of systematic discrimination by “the establishment.” It’s certainly true that there is an anti-Christian element at work in academia, but when you see the appalling technical quality of young-earth claims, it’s quite clear that that is not what is happening here. Being discriminated against for being a Christian is one thing; being discriminated against for incompetence, sloppiness and dishonesty is a completely different matter. It would be reckless and irresponsible to allow creationism to be taught in schools before creationists clean up their act, demonstrate a commitment to quality, rigour and factual accuracy that at the very least matches that of mainstream science (and certainly, that far, far exceeds the standards that they portray mainstream science as maintaining), and develop the openness to correction and the teachable spirit that the Bible clearly tells us that we should maintain. By elevating tradition and strict literalism over basic honesty and factual accuracy, they are undermining everything that they stand for. And it makes all of us, as Christians, look bad, whether we are young earth or old.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons


Some advice for non-scientists on how to talk about science and faith

In my advice to pastors on how to handle science, I cautioned against allowing anyone with no scientific training to teach about science in your church. This advice needs some qualification.

It is possible for a non-scientist to discuss and teach about science responsibly in church. I’ve found that people with theology degrees are often particularly good at this, no doubt thanks to the fact that any theology degree worth its salt will include a course specifically about science and faith in its curriculum. Similarly, it is also possible for a trained scientist to make a complete pig’s ear of it — especially if they are attempting to discuss subjects outside their areas of expertise, without carefully researching them first. Engineers in particular are especially prone to this.

The challenge: making sure your facts are straight.

The big difficulty for a non-scientist is of course sorting out the facts from the fiction. It’s all too easy to hear something that someone has “scienced up” to make it sound plausible, and repeat it without checking it only to find out later that it can be falsified simply by searching Google. On the other hand, it’s also equally possible to hear something that is rigorous science, dismiss it as being nothing more than having been “scienced up to make it sound plausible,” and end up doing untold damage as a result. Anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, I’m looking at you.

Even young-earth creationist organisations acknowledge that there are some arguments that are best avoided. Both Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International have sections on their websites with lists of arguments that creationists shouldn’t use. However, they don’t teach you how to identify good and bad arguments for yourself, nor do they adequately teach you how to defend your position when challenged.

You need to understand how science works.

If you have never had any scientific training, the chances are that you have a lot of misconceptions about what science actually is and how it works. For starters, you won’t have any idea about the level of rigour involved in scientific discovery, you won’t appreciate the role of mathematics and measurement, and you won’t have any hands-on experience of the kinds of things that happen when people get their science wrong, let alone having to clear up afterwards and take steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

You can not get this kind of understanding from being spoon-fed creation.com and Dr Dino videos. Even if the information in these videos were correct (and it very often isn’t), they don’t give you any experience of laboratory or field work, nor do they train you in other skills essential to understanding science properly, such as mathematics or computer programming. (Just think: when did you last see a tutorial on partial differential equations or programming in Python on the Answers in Genesis website?)

Nor do they set any exams. Much as you may have hated taking them at school, exams serve a very important purpose: to make sure that you have understood the subject matter correctly, and to highlight any areas that you may need to work on.

So what are you to do?

If you’re not scientifically trained, or if you’re asked about an area of science outside of your expertise (for example, if you’re a physicist being asked about evolution) the best approach is to be honest and admit that you don’t know. This will make a far better impression on non-Christians than trying to convince them that you understand what you are talking about when quite clearly you don’t.

If you’re not satisfied with just admitting that you don’t know, or if you’re in a position of leadership and find yourself having to answer people’s questions, there are two things you can do. First, find a scientist with professional experience in the subject concerned to advise and mentor you. You may know a science teacher in your church, for example; if you don’t, then organisations such as Christians in Science (in the UK) or the American Scientific Affiliation (in the USA) may be able to point you in the right direction. The BioLogos forum is also a good place to ask questions and seek advice.

Second, consider getting some formal training in a relevant science subject yourself. A good place to start here is with the free online courses provided by Khan Academy or Coursera. Don’t just watch the videos or read the material: take the tests as well. The courses provided by these organisations are free, and you can study them in your own time and at your own pace, while the tests will highlight any areas of the subject matter that you haven’t properly understood. They will also give you an idea of whether or not this is something worthwhile for you to pursue further.

When I said that pastors should not allow anyone with no scientific training to teach about science in their churches, my concern was about attitude rather than aptitude. You do not want people in your church to be using “teaching about science” as a pretext for bashing science. To do so will just spread misinformation and confusion, and besides, it is dishonest. But not having a science degree shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker. On the other hand, an unwillingness to submit to any kind of formal training or mentoring in the subject, under people who actually know what they are talking about, should.

YEC Best Evidence 10: DNA in ancient bacteria

We now come to the last of Answers in Genesis’s top ten claims of evidence for a young earth. This one concerns the discovery of some still viable bacteria in 250 million year old salt crystals — a finding reported in Nature in 2000 by Vreeland, Rosenzweig and Powers.

The brief overview by Georgia Purdom gives very little detail about this discovery. However, Answers in Genesis has a more detailed technical article by Ewert van der Heide that gives some details and attempts an analysis to prove that the bacteria can not be as old as Vreeland et al suppose. The salt deposits, known as the Salado formation, come from the Delaware Basin (which, confusingly, is in Texas, not Delaware). Within these deposits, there are inclusions containing pockets of salt water, and it was in this salt water that the bacteria were found.

Naturally, the age of these bacteria has been greeted with a lot of scepticism by the scientific community as well. Responses by Hazen & Roedder (2001), Graur and Pupko (2001), Willerslev and Hebsgaard (2005), and Nickle et al (2001) among others, insist that the bacteria must be significantly younger than the deposits themselves. Purdom, of course, dismisses their response as “rescuing devices”:

Some scientists have dismissed the finding and believe the Lazarus bacteria are contamination from modern bacteria. But the scientists who discovered the bacteria defend the rigorous procedures used to avoid contamination. They claim the old age is valid if the bacteria had longer generation times, different mutation rates, and/or similar selection pressures compared to modern bacteria. Of course these “rescuing devices” are only conjectures to make the data fit their worldview.

Are the crystals the same age as the deposits?

It’s true that Vreeland et al took great care to eliminate contamination. They sterilised the salt crystal in concentrated hydrochloric acid and concentrated sodium hydroxide, and they reported no bacteria while they were drilling into the crystal, but only when they got to the salt inclusion. So at first glance, this one looks pretty convincing.

But the responses from other scientists aren’t claiming modern contamination. They are proposing that the crystals themselves formed at a later date than the rest of the formation. This could have happened, for example, during a glacial maximum during the past 100,000 years, if water had seeped into the formation, causing some of the salt crystals to dissolve and then re-crystallise. Hazen and Roedder (2001) argued that the clarity of the crystal itself indicated that something along those lines was likely the case, and also pointed out that fluid samples from the Delaware basin vary widely in composition — a fact pointing to a mixture of both ancient and modern waters. Furthermore, as Nickle et al (2001) pointed out, Vreeland et al did not provide any tests to eliminate the possibility that the salt crystals might have subsequently re-formed in this manner:

It is not hard to imagine that water seeped into this formation (e.g., during a recent glacial maximum within the last 100,000 years), resulting in the formation of new salt crystals in an otherwise old geological formation. In contrast to their elaborate controls for contamination, they did not present any data to verify the age of the crystal from which they extracted the bacteria. Hazen and Roedder (2001) have argued that the clarity of the crystal from which they extracted strain 2-9-3 is consistent with this crystal being of a more recent origin. Hazen and Roedder also pointed out that the fluids in the Delaware Basin (the geological region from which Vreeland et al. obtained their sample) are extremely heterogeneous with respect to the “absolute concentration as well as the ratios of halogen, alkali and alkaline-earth ions,” suggesting that this region contains a mixture of ancient and modern waters, though Powers et al. (2001) have countered that such heterogeneity does not necessarily imply that these fluids are from different ages.

The fact remains that Vreeland et al have not managed to convince the scientific community that the bacteria were indeed deposited along with the halite 250 million years ago. There are other quite plausible mechanisms by which they could have been deposited at a later date.

The “rescuing devices” fallacy

Throughout these ten claims, we’ve seen a constant drumbeat refrain of perfectly reasonable old-earth explanations being dismissed out of hand as “rescuing devices.” This reflects the YEC belief that long ages are nothing more nor less than an attempt to fudge things to accommodate the “evolutionary worldview.”

But as I’ve repeatedly made it clear, long ages do not come from an “evolutionary worldview”; they come from measuring things. Remember that in order to build a case that the earth is young, you need to provide robust evidence that hundreds of thousands of high precision and extensively cross-checked measurements are consistently in error by factors of up to a million.

It is simply not sufficient to dismiss any explanations of the data that you don’t like as “rescuing devices” or “only conjectures.” You must provide evidence that rigorously and systematically falsifies them. In every single case that we’ve seen, YEC attempts to falsify these so-called “rescuing devices” have been inadequate at best, in some cases nonexistent, and in others even outright dishonest.

Before YECs can claim a slam dunk with this claim of ancient bacteria, they need to provide solid evidence that the crystals had not recently dissolved and re-formed. They must also provide evidence that the mutation rates really could not account for their great age, if that is what it turns out to be. Nickle et al proposed a couple of tests that could be carried out as a starting point to investigate the matter further. For example, they suggested carrying out a controlled study of mutation rates in this particular strain of bacteria under identical conditions, or testing the samples for the presence of carbon-14.

They will also need to provide other studies to corroborate this one. A single, disputed study is nowhere near sufficient to overturn vast swathes of high-precision, extensively cross-checked data.

Reproducibility is important in science.

This is important. The history of science is littered with extraordinary claims that fell by the wayside because they could not be replicated. One particularly well-known example of spurious results was Fleischmann & Pons’s 1988 claim of having discovered cold nuclear fusion. Other teams were unable to replicate the experiment, and it is now regarded as spurious. A more recent example was the 2011 claim of the OPERA experiment to have discovered faster-than-light neutrinos: this turned out to be a hard to track down experimental error.

This being the case, findings, especially extraordinary ones such as this one, need to be replicated by multiple teams before they can be accepted as evidence. For what it’s worth, this is the same as the Biblical principle that “every matter must be established on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1.) If we could cite a single disputed study as evidence for anything, we would also be opening the doors to stuff and nonsense like homeopathy, and our hospital emergency departments would look like this:

The fact remains that there is simply not enough data to establish that the bacteria concerned really were the same age as the deposits in which they were found. This claim is yet another example of YECs drawing extraordinarily wide-ranging conclusions from extraordinarily slender evidence. It simply doesn’t work.

Featured image credit: pixabay.com

No, the distant starlight problem is not the same as the horizon problem

The featured image in the header of this post shows two colliding galaxies, formally known as NGC 4676, or more colloquially, as “The Mice.” It comes from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website.

They are about 300 million light years away, more than 100,000 light years across, and colliding with each other at somewhere in the region of 200 miles a second. The “tail” of the right hand galaxy is the result of tidal forces stretching it out across vast reaches of space as it collides with its partner. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation tells you that that tail must have taken at least one hundred million years to get spread out like that.

Distant starlight is a massive problem for the young-earth timescale. Not only must light have taken billions of years to reach us from distant galaxies, but when it arrives, it shows clear evidence of processes that must have been going on for millions of years already. Astronomy PhD student Casper Hesp has a series of posts on the BioLogos website where he examines the evidence from distant starlight in considerable detail. Another example that he cites is relativistic galactic jets.

Artist’s impression of the Milky Way. The red circle represents a distance of six thousand light years from the sun; everything outside of it is the distant starlight problem.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

On a related note, the oft heard YEC claim that galactic spiral arms could not persist for billions of years is not true. Spiral arms have been well understood since the 1960s to be waves of high densities of stars within a galaxy: a theory that has been confirmed by computer simulations showing them to be extremely stable. The Wikipedia article on density wave theory has some animations showing clearly how it works.

How can we see distant starlight in a young universe?

If you read the attempts by YEC organisations such as Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, Creation Ministries International and others to address the problem of distant starlight, you’ll find that they all claim that standard Big Bang cosmology has exactly the same problem:

It’s interesting to note that big bangers have exactly the same problem. That is, the background radiation temperature is almost uniform, to one part in 100,000, at about 2.725 K, even when we look in the opposite directions of the cosmos. Since the big bang would predict hugely different temperatures, how did they become so even? Only if energy was transferred from hot parts to cold parts. However, there hasn’t been nearly enough time for this to occur even in the assumed time since the alleged big bang—see the instructive article Light-travel time: a problem for the big bang by Ph.D. astrophysicist Jason Lisle.

There are just two problems with this argument.

  1. It doesn’t answer the question.
  2. It isn’t true.

This problem, also known as the horizon problem, is indeed a real one. But it isn’t even remotely similar to the distant starlight problem. The only thing that the two have in common is the problem of light travel time. Beyond that, the differences are so massive that to call them “exactly the same” is absurd.

The first, most obvious difference is scale. The horizon problem concerns distances of billions of light years: the size of the visible universe. The distant starlight problem, on the other hand, concerns distances of just six thousand: a fraction of the size of our galaxy. That is a difference of six orders of magnitude. It is the difference in size between a mountain and a molehill.

The two involve completely different eras of cosmic history, and completely different laws of physics. The horizon problem only concerns the first 0.002% of the age of the universe (300,000 years). The distant starlight problem concerns the entire history of the universe almost right up to the present day. The horizon problem operates at scales where the laws of physics are not fully understood, and that lie at the very limits of what we can explore experimentally and what we can theorise about. By contrast, the distant starlight problem concerns laws of physics that are well established, far more readily accessible to astronomers, well within the capabilities of modern measurement, and mathematically far more straightforward.

Omphalos, oh omphalos

The other big difference between the distant starlight problem and the horizon problem is that the distant starlight problem requires the creation of evidence for a history of events that never happened. The horizon problem does not.

Young-earth astronomers have made several different attempts to solve the distant starlight problem. These include Barry Setterfield’s c-decay; Jason Lisle’s anisotropic synchrony convention; and Russell Humphreys’ white hole cosmology. All of these make predictions that are not observed in nature; some of them descend into absurdity; and none of them can account for features of the cosmos that show evidence of a lengthy history, such as galactic collisions and relativistic jets.

Now the horizon problem does have a possible solution in cosmic inflation, which proposes that in the first 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang, the universe went through a period of dramatic expansion. To be sure, inflation is a bit of a mind-bender, and it does sound a bit whacked out, but it is a valid solution to the Einstein field equations, and many (but not all) cosmologists believe it to be the correct one.

But even if inflation turns out to be wrong, the universe can be explained in terms of the Big Bang being very finely tuned. Many scientists find that a bit of an ad hoc explanation, but there’s nothing theologically objectionable about it, and in fact, it would be compelling evidence for design. But there is no false history involved, the universe remains the same age as it appears to be, and the integrity of the Creator is upheld.

A comparison between the distant starlight problem and the horizon problem.
Source: Casper Hesp, BioLogos.

The fact remains that, far from being the same as the horizon problem, the distant starlight problem is in a completely different league altogether. To claim that the two are the same, when they are separated by six orders of magnitude, is patently absurd. It simply doesn’t make sense.

YEC Best Evidence 9: not enough salt in the sea, or not enough precision in the measurements?

One of the things that’s taken me somewhat by surprise in researching for this blog is the precision that modern radiometric dating methods can achieve. To give just one example, a few years ago researchers at Glasgow University pinned down the date of the K/T impact event, which killed off the dinosaurs, to within just eleven thousand years of 66,038,000 years ago. That’s an accuracy of just one part in six thousand — far tighter than I ever expected!

For what it’s worth, tolerances as tight as these completely falsify the oft-heard young-earth claim that radiometric dating is “guessing at best,” or that long ages are merely a presupposition to try and make space for evolution to happen. It is simply not possible to get results that specific out of vague and non-specific starting points, and “evolutionary presuppositions” are about as vague and non-specific as you can get.

Such high precision results are also the exact opposite of what we see in claims of evidence for a young earth. YEC arguments routinely rely on extremely low precision measurements with huge error bars, poorly known quantities, and rates that nobody expects to have been the same in the past as they are today.

The ninth entry on Answers in Genesis’s top ten list is a textbook example of this. It is the claim that there is not enough salt in the sea for an old earth. This argument says that if you tot up what goes in and what goes out, and divide how much is already there by the difference, you get an upper limit, and the earth (or at least, the oceans) can’t be any older than that.

Exactly what limit does this place on the age of the earth?

Everyone who cites this argument seems to have different ideas about what that upper limit actually is. Many rank-and-file YECs think it’s just a few thousand — I’ve had one person quote me 6,000 and another person quote me 100,000. This person quotes Kent Hovind as thinking it is 5,000 years.

For the most part, if you’re quoting figures this low, you probably just saw this argument on your Facebook feed, shared it without clicking through to read it, and blindly assumed that it must have been somewhere in the region of six thousand years or only slightly more. In actual fact, Andrew Snelling, Answers in Genesis’s geologist-in-chief, who wrote the article in the first place, gives a figure of 42 million years, citing the 1990 paper The Sea’s Missing Salt: A Dilemma for Evolutionists by YEC scientists Steve Austin and Russell Humphreys.

As evidence for a young earth, that is a joke. 42 million years may differ from the modern scientific consensus on the age of the earth by a factor of a hundred, but it also differs from the YEC timescale by a factor of seven thousand. If we are to concede that this falsifies the scientific consensus on the age of the earth, we must also insist that it falsifies the young-earth timescale seventy times more forcefully.

But does it falsify the scientific consensus anyway? In order to answer this question, we must address a question that we need to ask of all young-earth claims.

How large are the error bars?

There’s a deep and fundamental problem with trying to use the amount of salt in the sea to estimate the age of the earth. We are dealing with quantities that are extremely difficult to pin down, highly sensitive to changing climatic and environmental conditions, and as such can not be realistically assumed to have been the same in the past as they are today. There are a lot of different inputs and outputs, some of them not fully understood or completely quantified even today, and it’s very easy to overlook some of them. Even measuring the known quantities is a gargantuan task, requiring massive multi-national surveys over long periods of time. Enormous error bars are par for the course. The values involved change constantly as new and more detailed surveys are undertaken.

Nevertheless, the amount of salt in the sea was actually the basis for some of the earliest attempts to estimate the age of the earth in the pre-radiometric era. The first people to try and come up with a figure were Edmund Halley (1715) and John Joly (1899). Joly’s figure was 90 million years (Hay et al, 2006). More recently, Daniel Livingstone (1963) used data by Clarke (1924) to come up with an estimate of a few hundred million years, with a very wide margin of error that could extend as high as 2.5 billion years. The modern scientific consensus, taking all known data into account, now considers that long-term rates of influx and egress are equal within error bars, and consequently the amount of salt in the sea tells us nothing whatsoever about the age of the earth. (Holland, 2006.)

It is error bars, not evolutionary presuppositions, that have caused scientists to abandon the salt chronometer in favour of radiometric techniques. No matter what your worldview, it is outright ridiculous to reject high-precision results, accurate to one part in 6,000, in favour of low-precision methods whose errors can be ±50% or more.

Of course, Snelling describes all this as a “rescuing device,” and says that “even the most generous estimates” give an upper limit of just 62 million years. However, besides not taking everything into account, Austin & Humphreys’ paper was based on outdated data.

A case in point: halite deposits

One of the most important processes by which salt is removed from the oceans is by evaporation. This leaves behind massive deposits of halite, which can be found in numerous places all over the world. One of the largest halite deposits is found underneath the Mediterranean. There is a lot of evidence that from 5.96 to 5.33 million years ago, the Strait of Gibraltar repeatedly closed off, causing the Mediterranean to dry out and depositing vast quantities of ocean salt on the sea floor. This period, the Messinian Salinity Crisis, came to an end 5.33 million years ago when the Strait of Gibraltar was finally breached one last time and the Mediterranean rapidly re-filled in an event called the Zanclean Flood. A speculative future recurrence of this flood was portrayed in the award-winning xkcd webcomic episode, “Time,” a few years back.

The sea is rising! The protagonists are shown the future shoreline of the rapidly refilling Mediterranean. From xkcd “Time”.

This episode would have removed a substantial fraction of the salt in the oceans. So too would other large halite deposits that can be found all over the world, in places such as the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Austin and Humphreys cite a figure of 4.4×1018 kg for the worldwide inventory of halite, citing Holland (1984). They claim that it is “extremely unlikely” (page 8) that this contains a significant error, as “No major quantity of halite in the earth’s crust could have escaped our detection.”

In actual fact, it turns out that major quantities of halite deposits had escaped our detection, and in the past three decades, many more such deposits have been found in the course of oil exploration. Hay et al (2006) give much more up to date estimates of between 19.6×1018 kg and 35.2×1018 kg, or between four and a half and eight times greater than that cited by Austin and Humphreys. Furthermore, they state that these figures are most likely incomplete (they include no data from Antarctica, for example), and that further exploration and surveys in the future may well push the figure up even higher. They also conclude that, far from increasing, the amount of salt in the oceans has actually decreased since Precambrian times.

Austin and Humphreys’ paper also overlooks several other factors. Glenn Morton points out for example that there are no less than sixteen different known mechanisms for sodium removal that they omitted to take into account, such as plankton concentrating sodium in their bodies, which is then removed from the oceans as sediment when they die.

The 2006 paper by Hay et al (full content here) is a good, comprehensive scholarly survey of the amount of salt in the oceans. It is a lengthy read, but it is easy to understand and it presents a lot of useful data. However, it should be abundantly clear that, once modern, up to date figures are used and all known vectors are taken into account, and given the huge uncertainties and variabilities in the values concerned, the amount of salt in the oceans tells us nothing whatsoever about the age of the earth.

Featured image credit: Gail Hampshire (via Wikimedia Commons)