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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Radioactive decay and young-earth creationism

If you were given a bank account, which had had interest added to it for a number of years, and it was important to know how many years that account had been drawing interest, you would need to know a few things, including how much money was in the account to begin with, how much was in it now, the rate of interest, and that the rate had not changed, or, if it had, how much and for how long. (See here for a Wikipedia article on calculations involved with such interest)

In a similar manner, if we want to know how old the earth is, one way of determining this is from radioactive decay. However, to make such calculations, a scientist must know how much of the parent material was present to begin with, how much is there now (or how much of the radioactive product was there to begin with, and how much is there now), and the rate of decay. Constant, or nearly constant rates are assumed. Scientists who are experts in this area are virtually unanimous that the earth is billions of years old. Young-earth creationists do not accept this, based on their interpretation of the Bible. They have raised some scientific criticisms about knowing how much was there in the beginning, how much is there now, and about the measurement of the rate. Scientists who are not young-earth creationists have also raised some questions about these matters, but the current scientific consensus is that the data shows that the earth is very old. (I am not an expert in this area of science.)

In a previous post, I commented briefly on a critique of the RATE project, which project was sponsored by two of the leading young-earth creationist organizations, and was designed to examine the scientific evidence from radioactive decay, concerning the age of the earth.

I have since discovered that the first part of the RATE project report is available freely on-line (Warning -- this is a large .PDF file) from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). As always, it is best to use primary sources, so I have done so. I have not read the entirety of this report, but have looked at the last chapter of the first volume, which I take to be critical. The report is entitled Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth: A Young Earth Creationist Initiative. (ICR and the Creation Research Society (CRS) 2000) There is a second volume, entitled Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, Volume II. It is offered for sale by the CRS web site, but is there listed as being a publication of the ICR. (It can be purchased from the ICR, also.)

In the last chapter of this on-line book, which is "Accelerated Decay: A Viable Hypothesis?" (p. 345), D. Russell Humphreys begins thus:
Geoscience and nuclear data strongly imply that "billions of years" worth of nuclear decay took place within thousands of years ago. [sic] To explain this, I propose that since Creation, one or more episodes occurred when nuclear decay rates were billions of times greater than today's rates. Possibly there were three episodes: one in the early part of the Creation week, another between the Fall and the Flood, and the third during the year of the Genesis Flood.

He goes on to summarize the findings of the RATE project, namely that the scientific evidence, from more than one type of radioactive decay, is that the earth is very old. (He also summarizes other scientific evidence which suggests that the earth is not very old.)

Humphreys also mentions a problem with his hypothesis of accelerated decay. This problem is the danger, to living beings, of exposure to the radioactivity that would have resulted from such decay. The "three episodes" that he suggests, says Humphreys, would have been during times when living things would not yet have been present, or would have been protected -- during the Flood, for example, by the water over the earth.

Another problem would be the amount of heat produced by rapid radioactive decay. Humphreys, in part, says that the Bible describes such heat, so he doesn't take it as a serious problem.

Humphreys explicitly does not believe that the mainstream scientific belief that radioactivity shows that the earth is very old is a biased product of belief that natural selection has been operating for a long period of time.

What to make of this? Humphreys has made two very important admissions, as I have indicated above, in what comes as close as possible to an official publication of the young-earth creation movement. These admissions are that the age measurements of most scientists are not tainted by old-earth bias, and that the evidence, on the face of it, is that the earth is very old.

My reaction, and the reaction of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christian scientists (which was reported in my previous post) is that these are significant statements, and the authors, and their organizations, should be commended for making them. However, a further reaction is that Humphreys has proposed a system something like the epicycles proposed, supposedly to save the hypothesis of an earth-centered universe, in early astronomy. As the Wikipedia article on epicycles puts it:
"Adding epicycles" has, thanks to the Rube Goldberg attempts to make the obviously failed earth-centered model work, come to be used as a derogatory comment in modern scientific lingo. If one continues to try to adjust a theory to make its predictions match the facts, when it has become clear that the basic premise itself should be questioned, one is said to be "adding epicycles".

Proposing that there were three episodes when radioactive decay rates were orders of magnitude faster than they are today, so that one can hold on to the idea of young-earth creation, strikes me (and others) as scientifically unwise. It also may even be attributing deception to God.

Young-earth creationism may be right. I don't know. This report is important to believers in that explanation for origins, but it also exposes some serious weaknesses of that idea.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

June 13, 2007. The epicyclic nature of the RATE report is even worse than I thought. In a comment on my first post on this matter, Randy Isaac says that "
The argument is further complicated by claims that some isotopes experience accelerated decay while others didn't."

July 25, 2007. I have discovered that Answers in Genesis, another important young-earth organization, apparently cooperated with the other two groups, at least initially, on this project. Answers in Genesis has reported favorably on the results, also. (See here)

4 comments:

Steve said...

Martin,
Thanks for putting this together. I grow concerned when I see the lengths to which young-Earth creationists will go to force evidence to fit a predetermined position. It tends to paint YEC-ers - and all Christians, by association - as anti-intellectual boobs.

Martin LaBar said...

I'm afraid so.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I came across your article. You seem quite objective, it's refreshing. I actually attended ICR's conference on the RATE project when that first unveiled their findings. They admitted that they didn't know what caused the alleged accelerated decay, and they didn't know what happened to the massive amount of heat produced. If you want an easy overview, ICR has a dvd "thousands not billions" that races through the material (too fast) if you can stomach the campy acting at the beginning and end.
Hope this helps.
-Nathan
http://www.myspace.com/blastergas

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for the link, Nathan.