An Evolution-Related Challenge

Sent in by Bob K

How many young Earth creationists believe that methods used to date fossils and rock strata that rely on the decay of radioactive isotopes do not give reliable results.

In my limited understanding creationist thought, this would seem to pose some very serious problems for modern technology. If the physics on which the use of radio-isotopes to date fossils and geological strata is "wrong," to use common parlance, then how do the myriads of devices that rely on this erroneous theory work?

The challenge to Young Earth Creationists: if radio-isotope dating is based on erroneous physics, THEN how are MRI's, smoke detectors, lasers, quantum computing, and the like to be explained?

For any of my readers who are familiar with the relevant physics, what would have to be different about the world for the results from radio-isotope dating to be not only wrong but more or less consistent with a 10,000(+/-) year old earth? Think of it as speculative fiction.

As for the Creationists who believe that God created the earth with dinosaur bones in place, do you really want to portray your God as a Deceiver and first runner-up for the title of Prince of Lies?

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Spirula said...
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Spirula said...

what would have to be different about the world for the results from radio-isotope dating to be not only wrong

Since radioactive decay is independent of temperature and pressure, I don't know of any physical properties that could alter half-lives of an isotope.

The only thing I could think of is that the detection devices would have to be proved demonstrably inaccurate, but none ever have.

What many don't realize is that a large number of isotopes have short to very short half-lives (check out the half-lives of Nitrogen isotopes like N-16, N-17). This means we can measure, repeatedly, the accuracy of both the isotopic half-life but also the decay products and the ionizing energy levels. As a result, half-lives of radioactive isotopes have been proved to be remarkably consistent. And certainly no credible mechanism has been proposed to assert that isotopes with very long half-lives will behave differently than those with shorter ones.

I worked, at one time, as a radiation safety officer in a nuclear power plant. Believe you me, if there was evidence of variance in decay rates, not only would the production of nuclear fission be incredibly unpredictable, but exposure of the workers would be extraordinarily lethal.

Take it away Bill (xrayman)!

Spirula said...

Uhhh...that first bit was supposed to be in italics as it is a quote from the post. Don't know where my tags went.

Bill B said...

Hey Spirula. Xray radiation is either on or off and it's usually for less than a second. There is no lingering radiation or decay so I don't know a whole lot about half lifes other than the concept. I like what you said about the fact that if half lifes were unpredicable then there would be a whole lot of trouble in the Nuc Power Plants.

I once had a YEC tell me that the reason the earth appears to be 5 billions years old is because of the wages of sin. It has aged the earth like a lifetime of drugs or alcohol will age a body. He thinks the earth is 6000 years old, but it just looks 5 billion. I found that to be a very cute theory : )


Spirula said...


Guessing from your moniker, you take X-rays so I'm guessing it's medical X-ray (vs research/engineering) and your source is Co-60?

I also like to point out, that with the execption of some atmospheric isotopes (produced by solar energy), all other isotopes on earth have one of two sources: 1)fission reactors which generate neutron bombardment (intentional: research and medical applications; unintentional: contaminants of reactor water in power plants)
2)volcanic rocks from magma that brought them up from the earth's core. This means that isotopes found in volcanic rock were deposited there at the time of the eruption. None are added after (excluding the atmospheric ones that could percolate in, but are not used for geological dating).

Interestingly, C-14 is the target of many (uneducated) creationists, but it is only used to date primarily archeological material that is less than 50,000 years old (basically, an isotope is only useful for dating for a period not to exceed 5X that isotopes half-life). So, C-14 is never used to date the vast majority of the geological column. Other isotopes such as K-40 to Ar-40 are used instead.

Anonymous said...

the OP underestimates young earthers, I have never seen on challenge the physics of radioactive dating, rather they come up with wild theories to invalidate the original amount of the isotope being measured.
These stories would shame the wildest SF writer.


Anonymous said...


I once had a YEC tell me that the reason the earth appears to be 5 billions years old is because of the wages of sin.

I don't know about you, but I'm due some serious overtime for my wages of sin.

Chucky Jesus

Bill B said...

Hey Spirula,
I do take xrays for a living at a large hospital part of the reason I am an atheist is from the many things I have seen over the years at my job. When you see a child slowly die of cancer and loose their childhood and then their life, you realize their ain't no God.


Xrays are generated by an electric current. There is no radioactive element that generates the rays. In radiation therapy it's a totally different story where they do use an radioactive isotope.

Lance said...

As an electronics engineer, I did study semiconductor physics, but took a couple nuclear physics classes just for fun. Not enough to be really knowledgeable in the subject, but enough to be familiar with it.

I have brought up exactly this argument when someone challenges our present understanding of radioactive decay. I bring up your argument about the existence of nuclear subs and nuclear medicine; which they do in fact trust. And I bring up the fact that there are over 40 different radioactive dating methods for different types or rocks that all very closely agree with each other. Potassium - Argon being a good one that spirula already mentioned.

Yet there seems to be a few problems convincing a YEC about the connection between real world use of these technologies and their use in geology.

The specific problem I think you are addressing is their ability to hold multiple conflicting opinions regarding this subject. But that is not surprising given their ability to believe in an all-loving god that will torment you forever. They seem to compartmentalize their trust of the technology they use away from their mistrust of science that disagrees with their viewpoints.

To combat this problem I have used your method with limited success. Namely to bring these two ideas together to show that science really is trust worthy.

Their brains start to spark as I bring these two ideas together, and they typically start spouting something about inconsistencies in the science. They are repeatedly told that the inconsistencies in the science mean the science can't be trusted at all. This really stems from a lack of understanding as to how real world science works.

I explain how all real world science is imperfect. All measurements involve error or tolerance of some amount. That is normal and expected and precautions are taken to understand and quantify this error. I try to show that when the YEC folks point out errors, they are only pointing to errors the scientists themselves have reported and accounted for.

Their eyes seem to glaze over when I start to explain the details, so instead I end up using analogies, which are never good logic in my book, but they seem to work for them. I ask when they mow their lawn if every blade of grass is exactly the same height? They say no of course, so I say "Then your lawnmower must be crap and you can't trust it." But really, most of the grass is about the right height, and the lawnmower does it job as expected. Same with radioactive dating. There are mostly minor variations but sometimes large errors, just as if there was a gopher hole in the lawn that messed up the mower. But we understand and can account for these errors, just as you can see and deal with the gopher hole.

I actually have had this argument stop them and make them think, but I realize they are probably only regrouping and trying to find a different compartment to stick this fact in away from the others. In either case, this argument stopped their line of reasoning (or lack thereof), and twice it has stopped the conversation completely. In both of those cases I am still waiting for them to bring up the subject again. Did that change their mind, I don't think so. Did it add a small bit of doubt, that is all I can hope for.

Now the real problem is that they simply do not want to understand the actual science behind it. That, along with my boring monologues, may be why their eyes glaze over. It seems as if they don't want to understand it because they are happy with taking simplistic pot shots at the science in order to keep on believing their own viewpoints.

That is the real problem. When I detect this kind of attitude I just change the topic, as I have beat my head against that wall too many times. However, if someone is even slightly open to a real discussion, then your idea of connecting real use of radioisotope technology with the science behind it can be fruitful.

Thanks for your post.


Richard said...

The simplest solution I see for YEC is to state that the laws of nature have changed in the last 10000 years. That can solve any problem (all dating methods, size and movement of the universe, any scientific argument). And of course there can't be any evidence that this is not true.
Of course this makes science useless, but they don't really care about science as creationists anyway.

Anonymous said...

If the YEC'rs don't care about science then they surly have to wonder why their God went to such extremes to hide the validation that he was responsible for the creation if he so desparately wants to have a relationship and command belief from his subjects.

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