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Creation 18(1):14, December 1995

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Editor’s note: As Creation magazine has been continuously published since 1978, we are publishing some of the articles from the archives for historical interest, such as this. For teaching and sharing purposes, readers are advised to supplement these historic articles with more up-to-date ones suggested in the Related Articles and Further Reading below.

Flaws in dating the earth as ancient



In 1986 the world’s leading science journal, Nature, announced that the most ancient rock crystals on earth, according to isotope dating methods, are 4.3 billion years old and come from Jack Hills in Western Australia.

W. Compston and R.T. Pidgeon (Nature 321:766–769, 1986) obtained 140 zircon crystals from a single rock unit and subjected them to uranium/uranium concordia (U/U)1 and uranium/thorium concordia (U/Th)2 dating methods. One crystal showed a U/U date of 4.3 billion years, and the authors therefore claimed it to be the oldest rock crystal yet discovered.

A serious problem here is that all 140 crystals from the same rock unit gave statistically valid information about that rock unit.3 No statistician could ever condone a method which selected one value and discarded all the other 139. In fact, the other 139 crystals show such a confusion of information that a statistician could only conclude that no sensible dates could be extracted from the data.

An unbiased observer would be forced to admit that this contradiction prevents any conclusion as to the age of the crystal.

A further problem is that the 4.3 billion-year-old zircon, dated according to the U/U method, was identified by the U/Th method to be undatable. An unbiased observer would be forced to admit that this contradiction prevents any conclusion as to the age of the crystal. But these authors reached their conclusion by ignoring the contradictory data! If a scientist in any other field did this he would never be allowed to publish it. Yet here we have it condoned by the top scientific journal in the world.

This is not an isolated case. I selected it because it was identified by the journal editors as a significant advance in knowledge. Another example is the work of F.A. Podosek, J. Pier, O. Nitoh, S. Zashu, and M. Ozima (Nature 334:607–609, 1988). They found what might have been the world’s oldest rock crystals, but unfortunately they were too old!

They extracted diamonds from rocks in Zaire and found by the potassium-argon method that they (the diamonds) were six billion years old. But the earth is supposed to be only 4.5 billion years old. So Podosek and friends decided they must be wrong. They admitted, however, that if the date had not been contradicted by the ‘known’ age of the earth, they would have accepted it as valid.

This clearly shows two fundamental flaws in long-age isotope dating.

First, the dates are readily discarded if they do not fit the preconceived notions of the experimenter. Such a practice is not acceptable in any other field of science because it destroys the objectivity upon which science has built its reputation. Isotope dating is therefore not the objective, absolute dating method it is often claimed to be.

Second, it is impossible to tell, from the isotope information alone, when the dates are right and when they are wrong.

Second, it is impossible to tell, from the isotope information alone, when the dates are right and when they are wrong.

When I presented this and similar criticisms of isotope dating to a gathering of the Lucas Heights Scientific Society (Sydney, Australia) in 1989, the only response that came from the chief of the division responsible for isotope dating at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization was the question, ‘Do you have a better dating method?’

I said ‘No’, and he appeared to be satisfied that if there are no better methods of dating, then these are good enough. But can you ride a bicycle into the past simply because no one else has a better time-machine? Of course not. In the same way it is absurd to argue that an inadequate method is adequate because nothing better is available.4

References and notes

  1. Uranium/uranium concordia—this method involves graphically comparing the 238U/206Pb ratio with the 235U/207Pb ratio. Return to text.
  2. Uranium/thorium concordia—in this method the 238U/206Pb ratio is graphically compared with the 232Th/203Pb ratio. Return to text.
  3. The rock unit involved is a metamorphosed sandstone (quartzite) in which the zircon crystals represent grains eroded from source rocks (e.g. granites) and deposited with the sand. Thus the ‘ages’ of the zircon crystals represent the ‘age’ of the source rock(s) and not the ‘age’ of the quartzite. Return to text.
  4. Further details of these examples can be found in my fuller technical article on this subject: Long-age isotope dating short on credibility, J. Creation 6(1):2–5, 1992. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

John Z.
Good article! This is often the "make it or break it" spot for arguments on evolution. As far as better dating methods, we need a better way to counter the question, "Do you have a better method?" A simple "no" is misleading. Like a hunter shooting at a target beyond the range of his rifle, the fact he does not have a more powerful gun, does not mean he is wise to continue shooting uselessly at far distant targets which he cannot hit.
Tas Walker
Check this article on How dating methods work and other cited articles at the bottom.
Kenneth L.
After reading the 2008 CMI article referenced in the response to my second message, I have to say that I am even more confident that not only is it not impossible to determine the approximate age of the creation of granite basement rock by measuring in the present (given the right method, i.e. which is data/logic-based as opposed to unproved assumption-based), but that the RATE team did exactly that when they dated the New Mexico zircons at 6000 years old + or - 2000 years.

This is not to say that a day, year, century or even a millennium can yet be determined, but I believe they demonstrated that at least an age range that is orders of magnitude far below billions of years (i.e. "thousands, not billions") has now been indicated for granite in at least one location on Earth, in defiance of the 'accepted' age of those crystals based on radiometric dating, which must now be considered as scientifically invalid for reasons that have been discussed here.

After answering (I would even say invalidating) numerous criticisms of the helium diffusion dating method over a period of years and having the data defended by the experimenter, I think Dr. Humphreys and the RATE team are justified in putting the burden on the critics to invalidate the method as good science. The critics don't appear to have done so yet by a long shot, and unless or until they do (it appears unlikely to happen), the helium diffusion dating method must be considered not only as valid science, but as a clearly superior dating method over radiometric dating of igneous rock.

I would like to see the famous zircons from west Australia and other locations around the world be subjected to the clearly superior helium diffusion dating method. I predict the result will be an age of 6000 years + or - 2000 years.
Kenneth L.
Hi Dr. Walker, thanks for your response to my comment. I have great respect for your work in creation science and have learned much from it.

But I do have a bone to pick on this one. I am aware of the assumptions that go into radiometric dating methods, and how those assumptions invalidate radio-dating as valid science, inasmuch as it claims to accurately date rocks when it clearly does not, given it is based on those unproved assumptions.

But what unproved assumptions is helium diffusion dating basing itself on? I am not aware of any. Is it not possible that God created the material world is such a way that there is a dating method that doesn't depend upon unproved assumptions, and that the RATE project found that method?

If you can tell me any unproved assumption upon which helium diffusion in zircon crystals is based, I will concede that point and bow to your logic. But if not, I think YEC's are entitled to claim that RATE scientists have determined (or rather verified, Scripture having already revealed) the approximate age of the Earth from this dating method.

Otherwise, what was the point of doing the RATE research at all? It would seem to have been a waste of time and money, if we concede that there is no way other than Scripture to verify the age of the Earth. So again I ask, can we be sure there is no dating method other than radiometric that does not depend on unproved assumptions? And if we assume that, why was helium diffusion dating performed by the RATE team? And why did it date granite samples at about 6000 years old? To me, given that this date agrees with Scripture (and for other reasons), it would seem that this dating method is valid and does give true dates.

You folks can publish this or not, as you see fit. I just want to stimulate some thought.
Tas Walker
Hi Kenneth,
Thank you for your follow-up comment. As I previously said, I agree that the RATE work provides strong evidence that the earth is young. In our article Age of the earth: 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe we include the RATE results as one of those evidences (Items 59, 60, and 61). The introduction to that article entitled "Can science prove the age of the earth?" discusses briefly the ideas in the previous articles I cited for you. Namely, that it is not possible to measure the age of something by making measurements only in the present.
There has been considerable controversy over the RATE results and the underlying assumptions have been questioned. Various RATE scientists have responded and defended the RATE work (see e.g. Helium evidence for a young world continues to confound critics). So we consider the evidence is still good evidence.
When talking about this I don't say such and such an evidence proves the earth is young. I say that it is consistent with the young earth.
Terry W.
"...the only response that came from the chief of the division responsible for isotope dating at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization was the question, ‘Do you have a better dating method?’ / I said ‘No’, and he appeared to be satisfied that if there are no better methods of dating, then these are good enough."

Yup, and NASA launches satellites into space using a water pistol.

Looking at the Kenneth L. comment, as I recall (it's a 76 page document that I couldn't memorize), RATE did do some diffusion rate testing using zircon, helium, and heated pressure/vacuum chambers, so they actually have some measures of what the real diffusion rate is. The assumption is that the diffusion rate/temperature curve hasn't changed, along with additional assumptions regarding the temperature history of the zircons' environment, which was rather uncomfortably warm by human standards. The diffusion rate curve is far more likely to remain constant than radioactive decay rates (which have been observed to change on a seasonal basis, although nowhere near what would be needed to jam 4.5 billion years of current rate decay into 6000.) The temperature history assumption is essentially a worst case scenario of the zircons being on the hot side of the diffusion curve's kink for the whole 6000 years. It would only need to be that hot for a puny fraction, say one thousandth, of the 4.5 billion years in the evolutionary model for nearly all the helium to diffuse out of the zircons. TL;DR: the only reason his answer is "No" is because he was asked about ten years before RATE had published anything.

It might not be the Space Shuttle, but at least we got some model rockets happening.
Seathrun M.
Excellent article! Very clear - even to many laymen.
Kenneth L.
Excellent article on the flaws of radiometric dating.

But no better dating method? What about helium diffusion in zircon crystals? I believe the RATE project (ICR scientific dating research) used it and dated granite samples at about 6000 years.
Tas Walker
Hi Kenneth, Yes, the RATE Project produced some powerful evidence that the earth is only thousands of years old. However, the fact is that it is impossible to determine the age of an event in the past by making observations and measurements only in the present.
Every such age calculation depends on multiple assumptions, and is thus not objective. Anyone who disagrees with the result simply argues about the unobservable, unprovable assumptions. Young earth creationists disagree with the assumptions of those who promote an old earth, and they in turn disagree with the assumptions of young-earth creationists. It is not something that can be settled by observations in the present.
Check the article How dating methods work and the related article links at the bottom. The article Immeasurable age sets this out in more detail, as does the article on Fatal flaws.

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