Introduction: This my final installment of a long series of articles on the age of the earth. Today I want to look at radiometric dating techniques. While they are not the only way we date things in nature, it is often the “whipping boy,” of the young earth creationists (YECs), who put out volumes of misleading and false information about these techniques. They are highly reliable.
I said in the beginning that I wanted to make this an exhaustive presentation on the topic, because I could not find anyone else who has. However, once I waded into the material, I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface. There are people far more qualified to do this presentation than me, but like I said, I couldn’t find it. The scientists, I assume, don’t take the idea of a young earth seriously enough to put in the effort. Neither do they write long articles trying to prove the earth is not flat or is at the center of our solar system.
A third of Americans believe that the earth is six thousand years old. They believe this because their religious leaders have told them to be a real Christian, or even a good person, they must believe in a young earth. If you listen to the YECs lectures and debates, they quickly turn it into a moral problem. “Are you on God’s side and believe in a young earth, or on the side of the devil?”
The problem is, there is overwhelming evidence for a very old (4.5 billion year old) earth and no evidence, whatsoever, of a six thousand year old earth. It shouldn’t matter how old the earth is, but it does matter if your wrong idea forces you to stop living in reality.
The reason these Christian religious leaders insist on a young earth, despite the evidence, is two-fold. First, while the Bible says nothing about the age of the earth, it became a church tradition to believe the earth is six thousand years old, based on Biblical lists of ancestral lineage and extrapolations from that list. By the way, the Bible is very clear, mentioning over 500 times, the importance of truth, not lying, not bearing false witness and the like, which you must ignore to promote the young earth idea.
The second reason is theological. The simple main tenants of the Christian religion is that God created the cosmos in a perfect state. Then, through human’s disobedience (sin), the cosmos “fell,” became flawed, including death entering the world. That Jesus, as the son of God, came to earth to atone for this sin and to start the process of restoring the cosmos to its perfect state, including the riddance of death. On a simple reading and understanding of this doctrine, it seems to make sense that humans were created first, since there could be no death prior to human sin. A very old earth seems to contradict that, because if human forms have only been on the earth for one million years (the YECs would say six thousand years), yet life has been on earth for one billion years, then there was a lot of death before the arrival of homosapiens.
I admit, this does create a theological quandray, on an elementary level. But the Bible and the Christian religion (and all religions) are fill with theological quandaries. But then reality, the evidence of nature, screams of a very old earth and we have two options. Either that key doctrine of Christianity is wrong, and thus Christianity collapses, or, we finite creatures have put God in a tiny box and the flaw is in our understanding. For example, time is linear to us humans, but to God, it may not be this way. Humans could have introduced sin into the cosmos, yet not be the first creation.
But a seeker of truth does not first make a conclusion (dogma) before looking at the evidence. That’s why I say, if you want to find truth, religion is not the best avenue, while science is. Science is not some monolithic society with its own dogmas and agenda, beyond seeking truth. Scientists routine change their minds as new evidence comes in. The religious almost never change their minds despite the evidence because it is about conformity to the group and it becomes a moral issue to them, “If you don’t believe in X, then you are not one of us and a bad person.” I’ve worked in both the religious and scientific communities. Within the scientific community, I’ve witness a humble lust for truth. I have often witnessed the opposite in the religious communities, an arrogant insistence on dogmatic conformity despite the evidence.
Reality or nature is the natural habitat for God.J. Michael Jones
As I’ve said if God is there, he (you can say “she” if you like as God does not have genitalia) exist in reality. Reality or nature is the natural habitat for God. The better we know reality, the better we can understand God. We know reality by looking at the evidence. In the case of Christianity, God has spoken through the inspiration of the Bible and in the cosmos he has made. If there is a conflict between the two, one or both must be misinterpreted. In the case of an old earth, the evidence in the cosmos is overwhelming. There is no debate. The more we chose to live in a delusion to support our dogmas, the more fuzzy the face of God becomes.
Take the medieval model, also held by church tradition, of a geocentric solar system. The (what I call a “bronze-age” god) God who created such a small and limited cosmos is profoundly different than the God I believe in, who not only created a heliocentric solar system, but a huge, profoundly complex and wonderful 13.5 billion light-year wide cosmos filled with billions of solar systems. That is a profoundly different God. But the Church in the age of Galileo insisted on the geocentric model of the cosmos because of a theological dogma and tradition, rather than looking at reality. The Pope never went to Padua (where Galileo was living) and say, “Scoot over Galileo, let me take a look through your telescope, and show me the math.” But the Pope said, damn the evidence, conform to my dogma or die.
Personally, while I respect people and their religious traditions and am not here to criticise that, I am not a fan of religion. Yes, I am a Christian. But to me, religion is the human process in which we get a tiny glimpse of the divine and then fold and beat it down with a hammer of dogmas and our own ideas until it fits comfortable in our pockets. Even God doesn’t recognize what he has become in that situation.
When I was an evangelical, we loved to split hairs to prove who was with us and who was the enemy. The Bible says that we see now in a mirror dimly. Have you ever looked at a mirror from the time of Jesus? It was beaten bronze or copper, sometimes a precious metal, that gave a very rough and dim reflection. That’s why I can seek truth with zeal and not worry about where the evidence takes me, because the destination is reality, and that’s where God lives. I only see it dimly now. Someday it will be clear to us all. There is great freedom in the pursuit of truth with a big God. There is only fear with a small god.
When you are told by your religious institutions that you must believe something that is absolutely not true, then you start to mistrust all sources of truth outside of that religion. You don’t trust the scientists, your doctors, or the media. If they have all the evidence, then the default position is to sow distrust about them. Here is a related quote from the Answers in Genesis (Ken Ham’s group): “When a scientist’s interpretation of data does not match the clear meaning of the text in the Bible, we should never reinterpret the Bible.” It other words, it does not matter how much evidence is presented, human interpretation of the Bible should not change. That simply makes no sense. We use evidence all the time to try and make practical sense of what we read in the Bible, why should the age of the earth be any different? There are few areas of the Bible that have an indisputable meaning or interpretation. Now to my topic.
In nature, when certain elements are exposed to high energy levels, some of the atoms within that sample take on high energy states, called isotopes. Isotopes usually have an extra one or more neutrons in the nucleus. This does not change their chemical properties but makes them radioactive. The radioactivity simply means that once they are out of the high energy environment, they begin shedding that extra energy by losing the extra neutrons and reverting back to the stable state. A good metaphor is a rechargeable battery. Once it is unplugged from its charging station (and is in use) it begins to move toward a low-energy state. Since these elements shed their extra neutrons at a constant and predictable rate, by comparing the number of base atoms with the number of isotope atoms in a sample, you have a very good clock to determine how long ago that element was in a high energy state, such as when a rock was formed, or–in the case of carbon–when the carbon was absorbed from the atmosphere. Carbon was never molton, but when in the atmosphere, it was bombarded by cosmic radiation, which caused baseline percentage of atmospheric carbon to be in the isotope form (such as carbon 14). That baseline carbon is then absorbed into living organism via respiration.
Radiometric dating was first described in 1907. So it has been around for over a hundred years. Since that time it has been scrutinized by scientists exhaustively and been found quite reliable. These tools are the Rolex Watches of nature. Because the measuring of the percentage of isotopes is difficult at the extreme ends, there is a margin of error of about 2-5% but up to 10% near the limits of that particular dating method. Carbon dating has recently been adjusted because it was measuring things younger than they really are due to higher concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere (you can easily test carbon dating by testing a sample of a written parchment that was created on a known date on it) . Each of the possible nineteen isotopes that can be used for dating have their own advantages and disadvantages. When used, the scientists are very careful to double check the dates, use more than one technique and etc. simply because they are not in the business of trying to prove a date, but trying to honestly know a date, whatever it is. For a more detailed description of the dating methods see this article.
The six most common dating isotopes are carbon 14 (used only in previously living samples and has a maximum age of about 60,000 years), The isotopes better suited for dating samples older than a few million years are; Uranium–lead, Potassium-argon, Rubidium-strontium, Samarium-neodymium, and Rhenium-osmium. Each one has their own characteristics and are better suited for certain samples. But it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss each of those nuisances.
The YECs often cites atypicals as proof that dating is unreliable. But each one of those can be explained. they often do their own “experiments” which have the design and intent to deceive people into believing the dating techniques are not trustworthy. They also say the old-earth scientists (whom they prefer to affectionately call, “evolutionists”) assume that the rate of decay of these isotopes has always been the same. But why wouldn’t they? This decay is following well-established principles of chemistry and there has been no serious deviations from it in the past 100+ years it has been observed.
I want to finish by looking at some of the specific examples that the YECs use to “prove” that radiometric dating is untrustworthy. But first, imagine for a moment that the tide was turned. That the mainstream geologists believed that the earth was six thousand years old, and the conservative religious people believed that the earth was four billion years old. Now imagine that all the dating techniques showed a four billion year old earth, but the scientists refused to accept that because of their previously held beliefs. If you have worked around science you would quickly realize that would make no sense because the scientists follow the evidence. Sure, you can have one zealous scientist who fights to hold on a view, despite the evidence. But eventually the evidence wins.
One example concerns the arrival of people to the Americas. Most established scientists believe that that people first came to the Americas around 16,000 years ago. However, in California there is one site, called the Cerutti Mastodon (CM) site, where 130,000 year old mastodons appeared to have been butchered, without any other traces of humans. The vast majority of archeologists reject that date. But if human artifacts or other sites are found with that date, eventually all of them will change their minds. That doesn’t happen easily within a religious context.
The YECs present radiometric dating as seriously flawed and the scientists behind them, at least babbling fools, if not outright evil. They link an old earth with evolution at every turn, claiming that there was a conspiracy. First, humans who did not want to believe in God made up the theory of evolution, then to justify the long period of times needed for evolution to occur, they invented the idea of a very old earth. That is why the YECs prefer to call the mainstream earth scientists, “evolutionists.” But that is simply not true. The age of the earth was first considered very old (millions of years) in the eighteenth century and Darwin didn’t publish his theory of evolution until the last half of the nineteenth century. At this juncture, I want to look at some of the YECs specific claims.
If you do a search of problems in radiometric dating, you will most likely end up on a YECs’ site. They did experiments where they radiocarbon dated coal beds and diamonds. While they knew the lay people would be familiar with the fact that coal is a carbon product, and that diamonds are made of carbon, the experiment, otherwise, made no sense except to create doubt in a reliable dating technique.
Both experiments dated their related specimens in the 50 to 60 thousand year time range, based on the tiny amount of carbon 14 present. This is near the limit of what carbon 14 can date. No scientist would use carbon 14 to date these rocks as we know (for many reasons) that diamonds are some of the oldest rocks on earth, maybe a billion years old, and coal is in the hundreds of millions of years old. The YECs claim that if these rocks were millions or even a billion of years old, there should be no carbon 14. Who says? That has not been established. As a matter of fact, scientists have known that carbon in coal and other fossil-fuel deposits often contains carbon 14, sometimes a lot, sometimes almost none. But it seems to be dependent on the radioactive decay of the surrounding rocks, engerginzine the carbon, causing some atoms to become carbon 14 in situ. For the complex explanation see this article. We know that radiocarbon dating for coal is unreliable for two reasons. Radiocarbon dating can only go back about 60,000 years and we know through other dating techniques, which are far more reliable, date the coal beds to much older dates. Secondly, carbon 14 is being constantly created in some coal beds as the carbon atoms are energized.
You would think that the date the YECs got with this experiment would also disprove their claim that the earth is just six thousand years old, but then they throw in a baseless claim that if you figure in the effects of Noah’s flood, you then arrive at a date for the coal beds of, you guessed it, six thousand years old.
They YECs have used their diamond experiment to spread the false rumor that carbon dating is flawed. First of all, no rational scientist would try to carbon date diamond because diamond carbon is not from a living source, thus we know the percentage of carbon 14 to start, and via other dating techniques, we know that diamonds are very old, far beyond the limits of carbon 14 dating. There is a background carbon 14 in the atmosphere and created in the ground by radioactive processes. This experiment has been used and passed around the internet over and over as proof of a young earth. Rather than me trying to explain it, I do have a video by a scientist who presents the argument against this idea. While the video is not the best technical production, his argument is sound.
So, without fanfare I close out this long discussion about the age of the earth. Again, I want to be clear. It does not bother me on a personal level if someone chooses to believe that the earth is just six thousand years old. On one level it doesn’t matter. But it does matter if you are taught not to trust the experts because of a false narrative that they are working for the devil. God is a god of truth, in my perspective. The more we live in truth, the better we can see his face.
I will be back with simpler articles in the future, about topics that are at least relative to my daily experience. I hope that I will not need to post again about my cancer as it is in remission and, while I’m not where I was in May regarding how well I was feeling, I am much better than I was in the summer.
Thanks again for dropping by.
Mike, Still the Hermit at Loch Eyre.