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Feedback archiveFeedback 2016

Wrong radiometric dates, and why they matter

Published: 16 July 2016 (GMT+10)
iStockphoto diamonds-2

Creationists have long pointed out a major problem with trusting radiometric dating methods: that they are often wrong on dates of known age, so why should we trust them on rocks of unknown age? When biblioskeptics are confronted with this severe evidence, sometimes they try to get out of it by claiming that the dating methods were illegitimate for the age of the sample. One example from the USA follows. Dr Jonathan Sarfati explains the logical fallacy of such a criticism.

I’ve just read Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels. Dr Jim Mason wrote the Chapter on Radiometric Dating. I recently read a book by Dr Jonathan Sarfati. They both cite the Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt St Helens studies to prove K-Ar radiometric dating is inaccurate. The oldest lava from these studies is from 1949. My understanding is that this technique in only accurate from 200k to 5M years. (McDougall & Harrison 1999). Thus, it seems Mason and Sarfati’s conclusions are misleading. Shouldn’t Creation Ministries address the boundaries of K-Ar dating and explain why their conclusion are still correct in view thereof?

I am a Christian, and nothing bothers me more than reading a Christian book that omits or misrepresents facts that are contrary to the Christian teaching being supported. I believe this gives the appearance that Christians are trying to dupe the public into belief. Would you please comment on their conclusions in view of the limitations of K-Ar dating. Please withhold my initials.

Thank you for writing to CMI.

I should point out that it looks part of this is copy-pasted from somewhere, hence the (McDougall & Harrison 1999) which normally indicates a fuller reference in a bibliography list, probably from Wikipedia, which has aptly been called the Abomination which Causes Misinformation. Also your understanding is not correct even from an evolutionary viewpoint—as a rule of thumb, I would expect, if evolutionary assumptions are right, that the technique should be accurate for ages around the half life or a few orders of magnitude away from it, and the half-life is s 1.248 Ga. So K-Ar dating is used for meteorites claimed to be as old as the earth, about 4.5 Ga according to uniformitarian geologists. The Wiki page errs because the reference cited is to a different method: 40Ar/39Ar dating.

But do you understand why radioactive dating methods should have such a range? If the rock’s age is many orders of magnitude less than the half life, then there should be no time for a detectable amount of daughter isotope to have been produced by radioactive decay. On the other side, if the age is many orders of magnitude times the half life, then the parent isotope should have decayed so that the remainder is below detection level.

So the logical argument is: if the assumptions are correct, then a rock younger than the lower range should not have existed long enough for enough detectable Ar-40 (daughter isotope) to have been produced by decay of K-40 (parent isotope). Thus, according to the critic, we should not expect to be able to use the method. However, we find plenty of detectable Ar-40 in rocks known to be much younger. Therefore, by the logically valid argument known as denying the consequent or modus tollens, at least one of the assumptions behind radiometric dating is false: that there was no daughter isotope in the rock to start with.

On the other side of the age range, finding detectable C-14 (parent isotope) in diamond shows that they have not existed long enough for it to have decayed, certainly much less than a million years. So if the diamond really were billions of years old, then C-14 would be an unsuitable dating method to choose. See Diamonds: a creationist’s best friend: Radiocarbon in diamonds: enemy of billions of years.

So the objection is really the fallacy of begging the question: presuming that the assumptions are right, and using that to dismiss observations that show them to be wrong.

In general, Christians have sound biblical reasons for rejecting many radiometric ‘dates’ as well as the scientific ones. Also, Christians at least have an object moral reason to avoid lying: the Creator who owns us has forbidden this. But if we are really rearranged pond scum, as atheistic evolutionists believe, then lying is just a collection of sounds produced by muscles and larynx stimulated by nerves activated by brain chemistry. But the brain chemistry of lying obeys the same laws as the brain chemistry of truth-telling. See the related articles to explain these points further.

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Readers’ comments
Richard L., United Arab Emirates, 18 July 2016

Dear feed-backer,

It is obvious that you prize integrity—for all Christians—good! But, as this response article shows, we must not rely upon first impressions. We all have a solemn duty to test exhaustively all truth claims (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and initial impressions.

When we diligently study, in depth, this issue—see The Mythology of Modern Dating Methods by Woodmorrappe—we find that scientific rigor / standards slip a lot in the practice of that field, with surrounding scientific society blind or complacent re that slippage. (A societal-level manifestation of Romans 1:18–20?)

We need to delineate between sure things and speculation. As Dr Donald Chittick has said, what is actually measured is stuff, not timeframes. When age-dating testing is done, the new isotope-mass findings—if no sample contamination, and with calibrated instrumentation—are God's objective-truths-in-nature to which we have an obligation to believe. (But are all samples properly recorded?) That’s where our obligation ends.

In addition to Dr Sarfati’s examples of non-rigor re derivations:

  1. An appeal to ‘reheating events’, etc. to explain away anomalous data inescapably points to several things:
    1. confounding effects are real--here being appealed to,
    2. selectively used when data other than existing theory occurs,
    3. not considered when theory-compatible results occur. This methodolgy compromises the goal of independent corroboration. Non-rigorous!

  2. Measurement error should only be shown when all confounding effects are controlled for—not true here! Yet 'measured' timeframes are routinely reported with misleading measurement error bars.
  3. Even worse, varying results are sometimes so widespread that measurement-error bars don't overlap. This should cause major crisis. But … no.

Terry D P., Australia, 17 July 2016

Atheists use the science of radiometric dating to retrodict different dates for the creation of the heavens, the earth, and all life on earth. Those dates obviously contradict the date of creation that has been deduced/calculated by many scholars from Bible chronology. Thus those atheists conclude from their contrary radiometric retrodictions that the history of creation in the Scriptures must be a fabrication of deluded men who imagined that a non-existent God dictated it to them, or by inference, that an extant God who forbids lying, is actually lying to us when giving the Bible’s history of creation …

Thus says the LORD, the creator of the heavens, he who is God, who made the earth and fashioned it and himself fixed it fast, who created it no empty void, but made it for a place to dwell in: I am the LORD, there is no other.—Isaiah 45:18

         That any Christian could ever aver that the long ages produced by radiometric dating is evidence that God was lying to us in the Bible, about how and when he created the universe, is very disappointing indeed. Better to check the assumptions upon which the radiometric dating is based, like CMI does, than to be making God out to be a liar, as Satan the snake did with Eve in the Garden of Eden with the words: “Did God really say that?”

If we claim to be sinless, we are self-deceived and strangers to the truth. If we confess our sins, he is just, and may be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong; but if we say we have committed no sin, we make him out to be a liar, and then his word has no place in us. — 1 John 1:8–19

Phillip C., Australia, 17 July 2016

A good analogy I've found is weighing a pencil on a Bathroom scale. You can certainly weigh the pencil on the scale but the scale probably won't move enough for you to get a reasonable reading. On the flip side, you can also try weighing a bucket of water on a kitchen scale and likely it'll go over the reading range.

But never in either case should the scale give a reading that lies within it's appropriate reading range. That would make it a false reading.

Similarly, if Radiometric dating were robust, it would not be fooled or thrown off when significantly under or over age items are dated. You would clearly see that the date readings are outside of the appropriate reading range and respond appropriately.

remik B., United States, 17 July 2016

Part of the old age belief is due to the speed of light measured. I know it’s a bit off topic, but is it possible light does not travel, but exists? And what we measure is the speed at which we come to the realization of light existing? Maybe we are looking at the whole thing wrong. what is the propulsion for light? Wouldn’t that squash this radiometric datng?

Jonathan Sarfati responds

No, it is not possible that light doesn't travel. The speed of light is one of the best-established constants in science. For a solution to the problem you allude to, see Chapter 5 of the Creation Answers Book, How can we see stars in a young universe? that covers:

  • If the universe is young and it takes millions of years for light to get to us from many stars, how can we see them?
  • Did God create light in transit?
  • Was the speed of light faster in the past?
  • Does this have anything to do with the ‘big bang’?

Jack L., United States, 17 July 2016

I've done professional hardware and software testing all my life. Just from that perspective, radiometric dating is...junk...if it cannot be proven to work on any samples, it must be rejected. Period. To me, this is obvious.

Larry D., United States, 16 July 2016

I smiled. You folks are so sharp. I mean that. Maybe it's not a big deal to you to have discovered the ref./Wikipedia thing, but I think that you all probably have a natural smartness about you but also, it's enhanced by the Holy Spirit due to your endeavoring to uphold God's Holy Word. Thank you.

Somewhat aside: Thank you for all the materials you both provide for "free" as well as all the materials available for purchasing. I love to buy books and DVDs for my grandchildren. They are growing up (20 so far) with the knowledge of the Truth.

May our Lord continue to bless your efforts as you continue to be a blessing to Him.

M. H., United States, 16 July 2016

This is an excellent article. It highlights, very well, the problem with assuming that "science" is absolute truth. When it comes to forensic science, which so much of evolution is, there must be a lot of assumptions and interpretations. This leaves lots of room for world views to influence the conclusions.

It also leads to the problem of assuming that we should change our interpretation of the Bible instead of changing our interpretation of the scientific facts.

Thanks for your ministry!

Philip R., Australia, 16 July 2016

In other words, according to the correspondent, in order to know what method to use to find out how old a sample is, you first need to know how old it is?

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