Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 26, 2010

The Age of the Solar System Needs to Be Recalculated – Could Young-Earth Creationism Be Right?!


Introduction

In the early days of 2010, specifically January 4, I read an article on Wired Science entitled, “Age of Solar System Needs to Be Recalculated.” After having written this blog for nearly a year and a half and having a fair number of posts about young-Earth creationism (YEC), I read the article knowing that it would just be a matter of time before someone at either the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) or Answers in Genesis (AiG) would use the article to effectively say, “Look! See!? Scientists don’t know what they’re doing, all of radiometric dating is wrong, creationism is right!” And they didn’t disappoint, though I have to admit it took longer than I thought it would (17 days).

The VERY Basics of Radiometric Dating

The process of radiometric dating and all its corollaries and techniques could likely fill a decent-sized graduate textbook. That’s not the purpose here, rather it’s to give you the most basic information so you can understand the issues at-hand.

The principle behind radiometric dating is that every atom has many different isotopes. An atom is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The number of protons determines what atom it is (1 proton = hydrogen, 2 protons = helium, etc.). The number of neutrons determines the isotope (1 proton = hydrogen-1, 1 proton + 1 neutron = hydrogen-2 (deuterium), 1 proton + 2 neutron = hydrogen-3 (tritium)). The electron number determines the ionization state, which is unimportant for this discussion.

Atoms that get too heavy are inherently unstable. If you cram too many protons and neutrons into the center, the atom will decay. If you cram too many neutrons into an already stable isotope of an atom, it will decay. “Decay” is when it releases either one or more of its neutrons or protons by turning it into something else. That decay time is based purely on fundamental physical laws and constants, it is a quantum mechanical process, and it is different for all isotopes.

The time over which half of a sample of an isotope will decay into another is called the “half-life.” After two half-lives, 75% will have decayed; after 3, 87.5%, after 4, 93.75%, etc. (1-0.5# of half-lives). Half-lives can be measured over human timescales, and/or they can be correlated with other established dating mechanisms, such as ice-cores, tree rings or written records.

An assumption of radiometric dating and necessary corollary is that the sample is from a self-contained system. In other words, it has to be “original;” if the sample was contaminated some time after it formed, then the dating will be thrown off. Similarly, we need to know how much of the original “parent” isotope was present relative to the “daughter” isotope so that the amount of original daughter isotope can be removed from the equation.

What the Original Science Article Found

The Wired Science was reporting on an article from Science News, which itself was reporting on an article published in the journal Science at the end of 2009. (Unfortunately, you have to pay for the article unless you are at an institution that has a subscription. The citation is, Brennecka et al. (2010). “238U/235U Variations in Meteorites: Extant 247Cm and Implications for Pb-Pb Dating.” doi: 10.1126/science.1180871. An earlier abstract of their findings can be found for free here.)

It had been assumed for years that the amount of original uranium-238 and uranium-235 in asteroids was even throughout all the asteroids. This had been measured independently many different times and the ratio had been the same. However, there is no theoretical reason why this should be true, and so people kept measuring it to continue to check the results. What these researchers found was that, actually, when measured more accurately and taking a few more things into account, that there actually are slight differences and the ratio isn’t quite what it was thought to be.

What does this do? It changes the age of the solar system by 1 million years. So it could be either 4.566 or 4.567 billion years old.

One of the co-authors explicitly states, “It’s not as if this age-dating process doesn’t work anymore,” says coauthor Ariel Anbar, also of Arizona State. “But if you want to push this isotope system to get ages that are really precise, suddenly we realize that there’s this variation you need to take into account.””

What they did not find is that radioactive decay rates are not the same within a given isotope. As I stated above, that is set by the fine-structure constant of the universe and purely quantum mechanical processes.

Enter the ICR’s “Science” Writer, Brian Thomas

The very first sentence of ICR’s January 21, 2010 article, “It’s Official: Radioactive Isotope Dating Is Fallible,” states: “New data collected by secular researchers has confirmed what creation scientists discovered decades ago—geologists’ cornerstone assumption that the rate of radioactive decay is constant over time is not correct.”

Except … NO! That was NOT what the article nor paper nor abstracts nor researchers said.

Moving on … the third paragraph starts with, “Gregory Brennecka of Arizona State University and colleagues measured the relative amounts of Lead 238 to that of the stable Lead 235 from several samples taken from the large Allende meteorite, named for the village in Mexico near where it landed in 1969.”

Again … NO! They used uranium-238 and uranium-235 as a proxy for lead-206 and lead-207.

Next paragraph: “The differing amounts of material that were found in separate samplings of the same meteorite should not have been detected if isotopic decay of Uranium is indeed stable over time.”

NO! The parts of the same meteorite that the researchers analyzed are almost guaranteed to have formed at the same time because – in part – they are in the same meteorite. Therefore, if the rate were to change through time, then they all should still show the same ratio of parent to daughter isotope because they all would be changing at the same rate. Therefore, what it shows and what the researchers concluded is that the original ratios were slightly different.

Brian Thomas, the ICR article’s author, goes on a quote-mining expedition for the next two paragraphs to try to show that radiometric dating was never an established thing.

He then goes on the expected, “But creationists knew it wasn’t!” by stating, “For years, creation researchers have published ample data to refute the assumed stability of nuclear decay rates in general, as well as specifically for Lead.” (Again missing the actual point it was uranium that they were analyzing.) He continues with standard YEC arguments after that.

Final Thoughts

Thomas closes with: “Although Brennecka and his colleagues detected only a small difference in the same Lead isotope amounts in the same rock, this was quite enough to falsify any notion that this Lead 238 decays at a constant rate into Lead 235. And this dovetails with other valid research which found similarly falsifying data.”

This is a standard creationist tactic: (1) They find anything that is an iterative step in science (in this case refining an established dating mechanism and showing that at the 0.1% level there are additional issues to take into account). (2) Misrepresent it. (3) Find supporting quotes through quote-mining that shows that “even secular scientists” had doubted the technique. And (4) therefore God did it 6000 years ago.

Post-Script, January 27, 2010

Every quote presented above was copy-pasted from the original ICR article. The next day, I was notified in the comments section below that the article had been revised “for accuracy.” As it now reads, every quote that I took has been either slightly or wholly changed. The most obvious is that they have fixed the “lead 238/235” to make it uranium.

But perhaps more interestingly, the language is less scathing. For example, the opening paragraph is now, if one were to show the edits via strikethroughs and insertions:

“New data collected by secular researchers has confirmed what creation scientists discovered decades ago — geologists’ cornerstone assumptions that the rate of about radioactive decay is constant over time is are not always correct.”

Is it just me, or does that actually seem to be a softening of the language? It actually seems to represent the research now.

Then there’s this one:

“The differing amounts of material that were found in separate samplings of the same meteorite should not have been detected if isotopic decay of Uranium is indeed stable over time were unexpected.”

Again … the language seems softer and actually seems to represent the research. The rest of the article is still effectively, “This calls all radiometric dating into question,” but at least it’s not based on quite an obvious straw man. Thank you KT_trebor for pointing out the revision!

17 Comments »

  1. Good post, thanks. I had read the Wired Science article too, and had exactly the same expectations as you of the creationist reaction. It’s quite an entertaining pastime, actually, spotting science articles in the media that you just KNOW they’ll be all over like ants at a picnic!

    Comment by KT_trebor — January 26, 2010 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

  2. Yeah … I just wish I had done a predictive blog post about it so that I could then point out and have documented evidence that I’m psychic, too.😉

    Comment by astrostu206265 — January 26, 2010 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  3. Excellent post.
    The mind numbing arguments that these people dish out makes me want to crawl up in a corner and cry.
    I’m glad that some people has the time and patience to deal with it.

    On a side note, I think the numbers are mixed up in your “final thoughts”.
    Give it a double check if you can.

    Comment by Sparx — January 26, 2010 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, but to what numbers are you referring? Other than the list (which looks like it goes 1, 2, 3, 4), there’s the 0.01% that I mentioned, which I did based on 1 Myr difference out of Order(1 Byr) … ah, that should be 0.1%. Fixed now.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — January 26, 2010 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

      • Sorry. I was refering to thr Lead 238 Lead 235 comment. I think it should be Uranium 238 and 235 or different numbers i.e. Lead 206 and 207.

        Comment by Sparx — January 27, 2010 @ 4:38 am

    • Sparx, I think you missed that the first part of the last paragraph is a direct quote from the ICR article, that’s why the numbers are wrong!

      Comment by KT_trebor — January 27, 2010 @ 5:45 am | Reply

      • Oooh, just checked the original article again and it’s changed now (it says “Revised January 26, 2010, for accuracy.”

        Comment by KT_trebor — January 27, 2010 @ 5:50 am

      • I missed that part.
        However, I probably should have guessed that that was the origin. My bad.

        I get amazed at how, especially YEC, can single out a field of research and start making bogus claims that defy all our understanding of the field and its aplications.
        So they think that radioactive decay is arbitrary?
        Sometimes it decays, sometimes it does not? We have to hit our nuclear powered plants with a hammer to get the reaction going again after it suddenly stopped for no reason.
        Sometimes we see the mushroom clouds when an atom bomb goes of. Sometimes it just goes “poof” like a firecracker.
        There is no way to know. Right?
        Smoke detectors that rely on alpha emitting nuclei are just not reliable at all.
        Because who knows if they emit anything or not?

        Maybe I’m taking it a step to far here, but i really can’t understand how one would get to terms with a denial of knowledge like this.

        Comment by Sparx — January 27, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  4. Is a Lead-238 isotope even possible? If it were, wouldn’t it decay extremely quickly?

    It’s quite funny, they claim to know all about how radiometric dating is unreliable, but can’t get their isotopes right. Of course a scientist could mix them up too, but it looks really bad when you’re trying to say that all of science is fundamentally flawed.

    Comment by Nasikabatrachus — January 26, 2010 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

    • According to a very quick search on Wikipedia, the heaviest lead isotope is lead-215 … nearly a few dozen neutrons short of a would-be lead-238.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — January 26, 2010 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

  5. Wow … the ICR article now has been revised, as KT_trebor pointed out. EVERY quote in this blog post was a direct copy-paste from the original article, and every quote has now been changed. I would love to take credit for that, but I am not arrogant enough to think that my blog gets enough attention for the folks at ICR to actually take note.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — January 27, 2010 @ 10:37 am | Reply

    • The blog post has been revised – see the “Post-Script” section at the end.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — January 27, 2010 @ 10:48 am | Reply

    • You’re welcome, glad it was spotted before someone tried to come after you for misrepresenting THEM!

      I can’t decide whether to be pleased or not that they’ve changed it – on the one hand, more creationist willingness to actually look at the data is a good thing, on the other it is now much less obvious to the non-scientists reading their article that it’s still a meaningless point in terms of YEC views. Not that they care, I suppose…

      Comment by KT_trebor — January 27, 2010 @ 11:38 am | Reply

      • I was actually thinking the same thing as I updated my own post. On the one hand, science is all about revision in the light of new information. Correcting one’s mistakes is ALWAYS a good thing (not to bring in politics, but remember when Bush said that there was NOTHING in his presidency that he would have done differently?). If I make a mistake in my blog, I like when people point it out so I can correct it. Though I usually make a note about it so people know that there was a correction.

        But, as you said, this gives them seemingly more legitimacy than I personally think they deserve. Other than the obvious, “But this shows the entire process is wrong in doubt,” the corrections also make it less of a laughably mistaken article … though again, if it were anyone else, I would be happy that they revised it to make at least some corrections.

        Comment by astrostu206265 — January 27, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

      • It boils down to if they (YEC) are willing to adopt the scientific method (which i doubt) which includes scientific honesty. If they where willing, however, they would not exists.

        Comment by Sparx — January 27, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

  6. […] months ago, I posted on a young-Earth Creationism (YEC) article about uranium-238 radiometric dating of the sola…. In that article, I stated that I had one of my numerous psychic premonitions when I read the […]

    Pingback by The “Youthful” Dynamics of Saturn’s Rings – A Preemptive Anti-Young-Earth Creationism Post « Exposing PseudoAstronomy — March 20, 2010 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  7. […] times that Brian Thomas will not hesitate to bend the actual science to fit his YEC views (such as here, here, here, here, or here). I’ve no doubt that if the New Testament stated that the end of […]

    Pingback by Planet X and 2012: Young-Earth Creationists Actually Can Do Real Science Reporting « Exposing PseudoAstronomy — March 24, 2010 @ 12:17 am | Reply


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