I took a look through my blog posts for the last nearly three years and was actually surprised to find that I have not yet addressed one of the main young-Earth Christian creationist (YEC) claims for why at least Earth supposedly cannot be more than 6000 years old: Earth’s decaying magnetic field.
A recent Creation.com article by Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., F.M., reminded me of this. Let’s take a look.
The Background Science Observations
People discovered magnetism centuries ago, and it was really explored and formalized by – what I fondly refer to – as the Old Dead White Guys between about the 1700s and 1800s. (Yes, I realize that women and non-white people have made significant contributions to science and continue to do so, and that the Arab world kept science going while Europe was in the dark ages. But, let’s be objective: Most of the basic fundamentals of science today were figured out by white European men between the 1600s and early 1900s. We’re talking Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Gauss, Kelvin, Maxwell, Einstein, and Schrödinger here.)
Moving on, ship captains used Earth’s global magnetic field to navigate, but even in the 1700s, they realized that Earth’s magnetic field changes from year-to-year. In fact, they had to purchase new maps to correct for magnetic pointings to actually know where they were. Without a correct and current map, they could be off by tens or hundreds of miles — something significant when that reef is coming up.
Around the turn of 1900, scientists were able to start to accurately measure the global magnetic field strength. They have continued to measure it over the past century. What has been found is that the field strength is decreasing. Between 1900 and 2000, the field strength has decreased by very roughly 6%. Based on crustal rocks, we have been able to tell that the decline is about 35% from what it was about 2000 years ago, and it seems to have accelerated a little bit over the past few years.
Another interesting tidbit of information is that in the 1920s, geologists noticed that some volcanic rocks were magnetized in the opposite direction to the current magnetic field. When more and more like that were found, and when they were dated, it was discovered that Earth’s magnetic field seems to have gone through many reversals throughout its history. (If this at all sounds familiar, it’s possibly because my most popular post of all time with 10s of thousands of views, “Planet X and 2012: The Pole Shift (Magnetic) Explained and Debunked,” talks about geomagnetic field reversals, too.)
We also know that the current magnetic north pole is moving, traveling towards Russia at something like 50 km per year, while the south magnetic pole is moving somewhat more slowly these days, but it moved more quickly in the early 1900s.
What this does is paint a picture of a dynamic process that creates a global magnetic field that changes with time, the change being to its strength, specific pole locations, and even overall orientation.
Enter the young-Earth creationists.
Creationist Scenario 1
There are actually two scenarios proposed by different YECs to use this to promote their worldview. The first is one that I could not find anyone who still believes it other than “Dr.” Kent Hovind, a YEC who calls magnetic reversals “just a bunch of baloney … this is a lie talking about ‘magnetic reversals’” (from “Creation Science Evangelism” Series, DVD 6.1).
Anyway, the scenario is summarized by this paragraph:
“In the 1970s, the creationist physics professor Dr Thomas Barnes noted that measurements since 1835 have shown that the field is decaying at 5% per century (also, archaeological measurements show that the field was 40% stronger in AD 1000 than today). Barnes, the author of a well-regarded electromagnetism textbook, proposed that the earth’s magnetic field was caused by a decaying electric current in the earth’s metallic core … . Barnes calculated that the current could not have been decaying for more than 10,000 years, or else its original strength would have been large enough to melt the earth. So the earth must be younger than that.”
That quote is actually from the article in question for this blog post, “The earth’s magnetic field: evidence that the earth is young” by “Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., F.M.” As a side note, I find it interesting that he feels the need to flout his degrees. It’s like me calling myself “Dr. Stuart J. Robbins B.S., M.S., Ph.D., Th.D. (Hon.)” (yes, I have an honorary doctorate in theology from Thunderwood College).
So the basic idea is that if you trace the field strength back in time, based on its current trend, then you reach a point before 10,000 years ago when the field would have been too strong to (a) be physically possible or (b) to allow life to exist.
Seems plausible, except we have that pesky thing of magnetic reversals. And that thing about extrapolating past trends for 100x the length we observe the current trend for something that’s as dynamic as a magnetic field is pretty stupid.
Creationist Scenario 2
The second scenario was done by Dr. Russell Humphreys, a person that, if you are familiar with YEC “science”-based claims, you likely have run into before. From the Creation.com article I referenced before:
“The physicist Dr Russell Humphreys believed that Dr Barnes had the right idea, and he also accepted that the reversals were real. He modified Barnes’ model to account for special effects of a liquid conductor, like the molten metal of the earth’s outer core. … Now, as discussed in Creation 19(3), 1997, Dr John Baumgardner proposes that the plunging of tectonic plates was a cause of the Genesis Flood. Dr Humphreys says these plates would have sharply cooled the outer parts of the core, driving the convection. This means that most of the reversals occurred in the Flood year, every week or two. And after the Flood, there would be large fluctuations due to residual motion. But the reversals and fluctuations could not halt the overall decay pattern — rather, the total field energy would decay even faster (see graph above).”
The graph referred to is something that I have recreated as a vector graphic and used before in a presentation. I show it below:
Magnetic Field During the Flood (Young-Earth Creationist Model)
When I’ve done talks on this, I explain it as, “Supposedly, we started at a high field intensity during creation, it decayed, then dropped to zero at the beginning of the flood, reversed a lot really quickly, started to climb back up to reach a relative high around the time of Jesus – I guess he had a magnetic personality [pause for laughs] – and then continued to decay as before like nothing happened.”
I’m reminded of the disclaimer during the South Park episode about Scientology that stated, “YES, SCIENTOLOGISTS REALLY BELIEVE THIS!” Yes, YECs really believe this, at least some of them. I’m really not sure what else to say here — it’s just kinda laughable; it makes no sense, and it’s pretty much 100% up to the creationists to provide any evidence for it.
I should also note that the evidence shows there have been dozens if not hundreds of these reversals throughout time. Now, my understanding was the Judeo-Christian biblical flood lasted 40 days. And then roughly a year before they went away (um, where?). So you’d need to flip that field something like once every three days for that to work out, just FYI.
A Test for Scenario 2?
I’m impressed that the Creation.com article actually does propose a test:
Dr Humphreys also proposed a test for his model: magnetic reversals should be found in rocks known to have cooled in days or weeks. For example, in a thin lava flow, the outside would cool first, and record earth’s magnetic field in one direction; the inside would cool later, and record the field in another direction.
The article then claims that two researchers, Robert Coe and Michel Prévot, found just such examples where lava that must have cooled within 15 days had a full reversal within the layer: “Three years after this prediction, leading researchers Robert Coe and Michel Prévot found a thin lava layer that must have cooled within 15 days, and had 90° of reversal recorded continuously in it.”
Their work was done in 1989, and actually published in a reputable journal (one that I just got two co-authored papers accepted in, if I may add). With the wonders of the internet, and people posting their papers on their personal websites, you can view it yourself. IF you’re a close reader, you can quickly see that the Creation.com article does misstate their research, for their paper clearly states they found evidence of a change of 3°/day, which means it would be 60 days for a full 180° flip.
I actually contacted Dr. Coe, who is a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. I explained the situation and asked him for his “side” of the story. (I forgot to ask him permission to post his response — if he gets back to me and says no, I’ll remove it.)
“In both our papers proposing a rapid field change hypothesis it was for episodes during a reversal. We explicitly stated that there was no evidence suggesting that the reversal occurred in less than the several thousand years duration typical for polarity changes. We have recently been working more on that same reversal, and our paper should be published this month (Jarboe et al., Geophysical Journal International). In it we show that the second directional jump is almost certainly due to a temporal gap in the lava-flow succession rather than rapid field motion. [emphasis mine]
“I wish you well in your campaign against creationism.”
I think if the main author of the paper the YECs cite says that they have misinterpreted his work, we can lay this to rest, despite the article’s claim: “This was staggering news to them and the rest of the evolutionary community, but strong support for Humphreys’ model.”
I’m not sure why it took me so long to do a post on the creationist claim of a decaying magnetic field being evidence for recent creation. Oh well.
Anyway, I hope that if you have some creationist leanings and have thought that this claim held charge, that you have at least begun to re-examine it and will dig deeper. DON’T take my word for it, but use this as a starting point to inquire further.
If you are someone on the fence, I hope this will push you over onto the side of real science and not the side of making things up.
And if you were already science-minded and didn’t believe the YEC side, but you didn’t know exactly how to refute this particular argument, I hope that I have helped arm you for the future.
P.S. Based on the Creation.com article number, I don’t actually think that it is very recent, but it was at least (re-)posted in the last few days of writing this.