Creationist arguments against carbon dating

He claims that none of the assumptions is "provable, testable, or even reasonable" Morris a, Here are the reasons: There is no such thing in nature as a closed system. The concept of a closed system is an ideal concept, convenient for analysis but non-existent in the real world. The idea of a system remaining closed for millions of years becomes an absurdity.

It i s impossible to ever know the initial components of a system formed in prehistoric times. Obviously no one was present when such a system was first formed. Since creation is at least a viable possibility, it is clearly possible that some of the "daughter" component may have been initially created along with the "parent" component. Even apart from this possibility, there are numerous other ways by which daughter products could be incorporated into the systems when first formed. No process rate is unchangeable.

Every process in nature operates at a rate which is influenced by a number of different factors. If any of these factors change, the process rate changes. Rates are at best only statistical averages, not deterministic constants. These rejoinders make it apparent that Morris's formulations of the assumptions underlying radiometric dating are only akin to the assumptions examined above.

When geologists calculate the ages of rocks, they do assume that the system under consideration has remained closed in one particular respect. They suppose that none of the daughter element has been added or subtracted. However, this does not commit them to the idea that the system was completely closed, that it engaged in no exchange of matter or energy with the environment.

Like his memorable argument about the evolving junkyard, Morris's first reply only demonstrates his lack of understanding of basic concepts of physics. The crucial question is whether we can ever be justified in believing that the system was never contaminated by extra amounts of the daughter element. I have tried to explain how geologists can sometimes obtain good evidence for this conclusion. Similarly, the second point is misguided. Geologists do not have to suppose that the system originally contained none of the daughter element.

What is important is that they be able to compute the amount of the daughter element originally present. Clearly, it is required only that D 0 be known, not that it be zero. It is perfectly possible to have excellent evidence for statements about events and situations that no human has observed. Geologists draw conclusions about the composition of original rocks by applying claims about the possibilities of incorporating elements into minerals, claims that can be tested in the laboratory. So, for example, the thesis that certain minerals would have contained no original argon rests on a perfectly testable and well-confirmed claim.

While those minerals were in the molten state, prior to the solidification of the rock, argon would have diffused from them. It is only after the molten rock has solidified that the argon formed through radioactive decay becomes trapped within it. Obviously, what is being applied in this case is our knowledge of the physical and chemical interactions of minerals and elements. Morris's third assumption, and his attempt to undermine it, raises a new issue. In deriving equation 4 , from which rock ages can be computed, I employed equation 1 , the equation of radioactive decay.

I asserted that l , which measures the rate of decay, is a constant. Morris suggests that the assertion is unwarranted. However, the claim that l is a constant does not descend out of thin air. It is the result of our knowledge of nuclear physics. Although the sciences sometimes teach us that the rate at which a process occurs can be affected by a number of factors, as when we learn that the rate at which water boils is affected by the pressure or that the rate at which mutations occur varies with X-ray irradiation, what we sometimes discover is that a process is impervious to outside influence.

Precious little affects the time of passage for a light ray between two points. Similarly, nuclear physics tells us that radioactive decay is well insulated against external interference. The reason is that the emission of particles from an atomic nucleus is under the control of forces that are enormously more effective at short distances than the forces at work in most physicochemical reactions. Extensive attempts to modify these rates under a variety of physicochemical conditions have produced no effects. For example, his chief weapon in arguing for the possibility of variable decay rates is a vague proposal that the capture of free neutrons or the impact of neutrinos could affect decay constants Morris a, The latter idea is linked to a paragraph quoted from a "Scientific Speculation" column.

But neither of these processes would affect rates of decay; even granting the possibility of change by neutrino impact or the practical likelihood of neutron capture, the result of these processes would be a modification not of the decay rate, but of the decaying nucleus.

The old nucleus, which had been decaying at its specific rate, would be changed to a new nucleus, which would then change at its specific rate. Note that if processes like these were to occur, they would be detectable since two separate sets of daughter elements would be produced. Morris's speculations are based on confusion. Morris then goes on to ignore the methods that geologists employ to ascertain the original amount of daughter element present in the rocks they attempt to date. His discussion of uranium-lead dating contains no mention of the simple technique for computing the initial abundance of lead that I described above.

Needless to say, nothing is said about more sophisticated methods. His treatment of potassium argon dating includes the statement: However, argon is an i nert gas, which does not become chemically bound to potassium minerals. Moreover, the crystalline structure of some minerals makes them impermeable to argon. Hence the suggestion that the minerals that geologists date are easily contaminated is simply false.

My brief discussion has only looked at a sample of the objections that Morris and his colleagues notably Slusher; see Slusher offer against radiometric dating. The errors I have identified are typical. No attempt is made to criticize the techniques that geologists carefully employ to determine the value of D 0 or to test whether the system has been contaminated. Instead, those techniques are ignored.

The picture thus presented is that radiometric dating methods compute the ages of rocks by applying equation 4 , assuming dogmatically that D 0 is zero and that the system is uncontaminated. Add to this distortion some vague speculations about changing decay rates perhaps based on a revisionist nuclear physics under development at the Institute for Creation Research? I shall deal with the positive arguments for a young earth in much less detail. The reason for this is that once one has appreciated the radiometric dating techniques and their overwhelming evidence for the claim that the earth is more than 4 billion years old, it is clear that there must be some flaw in the attempts to show that the earth was created a few thousand years ago.

In addition, the Creationist arguments most commonly trotted out share a simple flaw. Creationists assume that certain processes, which we have independent reason to believe to be irregular and sporadic, take place at uniform rates. Two examples will suffice. Thomas Barnes argues that the earth's magnetic field is decaying, and he uses the observed rate of decay to compute that prior to about 10, B. However, there is overwhelming geophysical evidence for the claim that the earth's magnetic field fluctuates both in intensity and direction, so that Barnes's extrapolation from the present is simply misguided.

A similarly erroneous argument is given by Morris Morris a, ; Morris b ; Wysong , He uses the current rate of growth of the human population to calculate the time required for the present population size to be reached from an original pair of individuals. It should be fairly obvious that this is a blunder.

There is every reason to believe that the rate of growth of the human population has not been constant, but has fluctuated quite wildly in the past. If we think about the distribution of humans at the dawn of recorded history, then it is far more realistic to conceive the human race as consisting of a number of relatively small populations. Some of these were fairly successful and were able to expand until they reached the maximum size that their local environments could bear. Others were wiped out by disease, dwindling resources, or competition with other groups.

The entire human race may be regarded as a single population only for the most recent past; that is, it has only been very recently that humans have had the power, though not necessarily the desire, to redistribute the earth's resources so as to overcome local limits imposed by the local environment. Barnes and Morris both choose processes that we know to operate at different rates at different times, and then use the observed rates to estimate the time at which the process began.

Dating the past is a complicated and technical business, and one cannot ignore the technical details simply to generate the ages one wants. Without a thorough understanding of which rates are constant over time and which rates fluctuate wildly, Creationist dates are bound to be stabs in the dark. However, Creationists know what they want the age of the earth to be. So just as in the case of the second law of thermodynamics, important parts of science are abused. By carefully picking a process on the basis of its ability to give the desired result, without attending to the question whether it is reasonable to think that it happened at a constant rate, Creationists attempt to convince the uninitiated that their blind dates have scientific references.

How Good are those Young-Earth Arguments: Radiocarbon Dating

Nobody should be taken in. Dalrymple goes on to debunk several other creationists attacks on the reliability of the radiometric decay rates used in geochronology. Judging from the above, it is easy to see that creationists are indulging in wild fishing expeditions. Compare their flighty arguments to the solid support provided by theoretical work, laboratory testing, and, for the shorter half-lives, actual observation, and add to that the statistical consistency of the dates obtained, including numerous cross-checks between different "clocks," and only one conclusion is left.

The radiometric decay rates used in dating are totally reliable. They are one of the safest bets in all of science. With at least one notable exception on the books, plants and animals get their carbon from the atmosphere. Plants take it in directly, and animals eat the plants. Thus, it gets passed up the food chain. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the carbon in living plants and animals is in reasonable equilibrium with the atmospheric carbon Some creationists, however, have claimed that certain plants can reject carbon in favor of carbon Because of the chemical similarity of carbon and carbon, it is unlikely that such plants could deviate much from the ratio of C to C found in the atmosphere.

Neither freak cases nor small deviations pose much of a problem for radiocarbon dating, which, after all, works well with a wide variety of plant and animal species. Hence, we only have to worry about the initial concentration of C in the atmosphere. Topic R1 shows that the level of C in the atmosphere has not varied appreciably over tens of thousands of years. Therefore, the initial C content is known for any reasonable sample! The notable exception involves certain mollusks, which get much of their carbon from dissolved limestone.

Since limestone is very old it contains very little carbon Thus, in getting some of their carbon from limestone, these mollusks "inherit" some of the limestone's old age! That is, the limestone carbon skews the normal ratio between C and C found in living things.

Answers to Creationist Attacks on Carbon-14 Dating

If one dates such mollusks, one must be extra careful in interpreting the data. Not every mollusk shell presents such problems, and the dating of other material might yield a cross-check. Further study might even allow correction tables. The discovery has strengthened the carbon method, not weakened it! By the way, shouldn't the creationist be worried over the old, carbon age of the limestone? Why is it that limestone has so little C in it? Partial contamination, say of a block of wood, may affect its different parts to different degrees.

Insect burrows, cracks, and partial decay may allow contamination later on to affect those portions of the sample unequally. However, there are laboratory techniques, often ingenious, for dealing with such problems. If the sample shows evidence of being hopelessly contaminated it is pitched. Some samples, such as a section of a tree trunk, may well contain material of considerably different ages. The interior portion of a tree trunk could easily be several hundred years older than the outer portions.

In summing up this point, we do know within good limits what the initial C was for any reasonable sample. A sample will not have different ratios of carbon unless it has been contaminated or reflects a genuine range of ages. In the case of carbon dating, the daughter product is ordinary nitrogen and plays no role in the dating process. We are only interested in tallying the original C still present in the sample, the surviving "parent" isotope. The C that is incorporated in the carbon structure of cellulose and the other structural materials of living plants and animals is not going to do much migrating after burial.

If structural carbon migrated easily there soon wouldn't be any cellulose, lignin, chitin or other structural carbon compounds left in the soil! A piece of wood, for example, would soon turn into a formless cloud of graphite or soot in the soil, with perhaps a little ash marking the original shape! Clearly, that is not something which normally happens.

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Residues or solutions which do migrate can usually be washed out of the structural matrix of the sample with various chemicals. To put it another way, we might imagine a piece of buried wood as being something like a sponge. Any carbon-containing liquid originally possessed by that sponge might well leak over time and be replaced by something else.

However, unless the sponge itself disintegrates, the carbon which holds its fibers together must stay put. Thus, by choosing a sample that is structurally intact, one may rule out any significant loss of C If the liquid impurities in our sponge can be washed and squeezed out, or estimated in some way, then we may be able to date the sponge structural component of our sample itself and get a good date even if non-structural carbon had been lost in a manner that would upset the isotope ratio.

A sample, of course, can be contaminated if organic material rich in fresh atmospheric C soaks or diffuses into it. Such contamination may occur in the ground or during the processing of the sample in the laboratory. However, such contamination will make the sample appear younger than its true age. Consequently, with regards to carbon dating, creationists are barking up the wrong tree on the contamination issue! Laboratories, of course, do have techniques for identifying and correcting contamination. There are various methods of cleaning the material, and the activity of each rinse can be measured.

Lab contamination and technique can be checked by running blanks. A careful choice of samples will often minimize contamination. Dating various portions of a sample is another kind of check that may be performed. Often there are cross-checks. Samples from top to bottom of a peat bog gave reasonable time intervals Science , vol.

The calibrated C method confirmed Egyptian records, and most of the Aegean dates which were cross-dated with Egyptian dates were confirmed American Scientist , May-June The marvelous agreement with tree-ring data, after correction for variations in the earth's magnetic field, has already been mentioned. Carbon dating thus presents a deadly challenge to young-earth creationists. If an old date is reasonably accurate, they're out of business; if an old date is bad due to contamination, then they are still out of business because the true date is most likely older still.

It hardly seems fair, but that's the way it is. With that in mind, let's look at a few carbon dates. Egyptian barley samples have been found which date to 17,, years old Science , April 7, On page the author explains some of the professional care which stands behind his use of the carbon method. A wooden walkway buried in a peat bog in England has been dated to about BC by the carbon method Scientific American , August , p. Odd, that Noah's flood neither destroyed it nor deposited thick sediments on top of it!

Jennifer Hillam of the University of Sheffield and Mike Baillie of Queen's University of Belfast and their colleagues were able to date the walkway by a second method, i.


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They found out that the walkway, known as the Sweet Track, was built from trees felled in the winter of BC. Pretty close agreement, huh? Stonehenge, as dated by carbon, was built over a period from BC to BC -- long before the Druids came to England.

How Good Are Those Young-Earth Arguments?

Astronomer Gerald Hawkins found, after careful computer calculations, that the arrangement of the stones at Stonehenge are aligned with key positions of the sun and moon as they were almost years ago. Weber, , p. Thus, we have another remarkable confirmation of the C method. When did the volcano that destroyed Thera and probably the Minoan culture as well explode? Radiocarbon dating of seeds and wood buried in the ash, done by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed to no later than BC.

Being that this was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, it almost certainly caused worldwide cooling which would, in turn, affect tree growth. Sure enough, the growth rings among oaks buried in Ireland's bogs show the effect of unusual cooling from BC. Nor was that just an effect of local weather conditions. The bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California show the same thing. A third estimate came from studies in Greenland. Thus, we have a remarkable agreement between three different methods, all within two or three percentage points of each other!

Trees buried by the last advance of glacial ice at Two Creeks, Wisconsin were dated at 11, years. Strahler, , p. Between those trees, which are buried in Valders red till, and an earlier, deeper layer of till, the Woodfordian gray till, lay the remains of a forest bed! What is a forest, including developed soil and rooted stumps, doing between two advances of ice?

A Close Look at Dr. Hovind's List of Young-Earth Arguments and Other Claims

That could be an interesting question for someone who believes in only one "ice age. By careful counting and cross-checking he was able to determine that the oldest glacial lakes, which would have formed at the start of the retreat of the ice, were 12, years old. Thus, we have a rough check between varves in glacial lakes and radiocarbon dating.

Richard Foster Flint, a professor of geology at Yale University and an expert on the Pleistocene epoch, was among the first to apply radiocarbon dating to glacial events. Collecting wood, bones and other organic material that had been covered over by the Laurentide Ice Sheet as it plowed across eastern and central North America, Flint collaborated with geophysicist Myer Rubin to demonstrate in that in most places the ice sheet achieved its greatest advance about 18, years ago, began to withdraw shortly thereafter and then hastened its retreat about 10, years ago.

On the wall of Gargas Cave in the French Pyrenees are the outlined hands of Ice Age artists which date to at least 12, years. Magnificent prehistoric cave art, comparable to that of the world-famous caves of Altamira, Spain and Lascaux, France, was recently discovered in southern France, in the Ardeche River canyon area Los Angeles Times ; Pasadena Star-News January 19, Its paintings of such animals as bison, reindeer, rhinoceros, woolly rhinoceros, a panther, an owl, a hyena, bears, lions, horses, wild oxen, mammoths, wild goats and other animals is estimated to be between 19,, years old.

Sorry, no dinosaur drawings were reported! In Europe, cave art was at its height around 20, years ago. Some examples probably go back 30, years! This is similar to an argument put out by Harold Slusher , p.


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Hovind adds the bizarre claim that something can't be measured accurately to seven decimal places. Such nonsense is answered by Dr. Dalrymple, an expert in radiometric dating, who noted that: New techniques using accelerators and highly sensitive mass spectrometers, now in the experimental stage, have pushed these limits back to 70, or 80, years Given that the half-life of carbon is years, one can calculate that 4 billion C atoms will produce 1 decay per minute on the average.

Converting the 4 billion atoms to grams a nickel weighs 5 grams , we get 0. Consequently, by tallying one click per minute on the Geiger counter, we can measure a whole lot further than 7 decimal places! A 1-gram, fresh sample of carbon, containing the atmospheric concentration of one ten-billionth percent of carbon, will yield about 12 decays per minute. That figure follows directly from the mathematics and, as the atmospheric portion of carbon given above is an approximation, is close enough to Dr. Hovind's present-day figure of 16 counts per minute per gram. Because of atomic bomb tests, the rate is slightly higher today, but the present rate would not apply to animals and plants which died before such tests.

One book used a figure of about Consequently, a gram sample of fresh carbon will still give about 7 clicks per minute after 40, years. Because of background radiation, that's about as far as one can normally go with this counting method. As noted above, Dr. Dalrymple would extend that to 50, years in special laboratories. Hovind has relied on bad data. If you get your information from a creationist source, you'd better triple-check it!

Errors get handed down in the creationist literature like the family jewels! It's not clear to me what Dr. Hovind is talking about. If he is referring to the carbon decay curve then he has demonstrated, once again, his ignorance of radiometric dating.


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The decay curve is mathematically determined by the fact that every atom of carbon in a sample has the same chance of decaying during each second of time. That much is predicted by quantum mechanics, which is possibly the greatest of our modern, scientific revolutions.

The random character of radioactive decay is a special case of the indeterminacy of quantum theory, as was pointed out in by George Gamow, Ronald Gurney and Edward Condon. They showed that a particle held inside the nucleus by a "potential barrier" may be able to "tunnel through" the barrier and emerge on the other side, since if the barrier is finite the wave function of the particle is not completely localized and there is a finite probability that the particle will be outside the nucleus. Since we are dealing with millions of C atoms in even the smallest samples, the amount of C remaining with respect to time will be an excellent approximation of an exponential decay curve.

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