Radiation, Mistakes, and Assumptions

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Posted on August 19, 2016 in Astronomy, Botany, Dating Methods, Fossils, Geology, Philosophy of Science, Physics, Politics and Ethics, Solar System

Three news items about atomic radiation should cause us to beware of academic overstatement.

Atomic Bomb Effects

Nobody feels “good” about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even those who support Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs in 1945 to end World War II in the Pacific groan at the immensity of suffering for those who survived the blasts. What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that many scientific prophets of doom at the time were wrong; they exaggerated the risks of cancer and radiation disease. Science Daily brings this aspect to light with the headline, “Long-term health effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs not as dire as perceived: Mismatch between public perception and decades of research on nearly 200,000 survivors and their children.” We saw something similar on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster: effects were bad, but not as bad as the experts had predicted (4/21/16). None of these considerations rationalize these disasters or mitigate the suffering. The point is that experts can be prone to overstate what they know.

Tree Rings

PhysOrg reports on new findings that promise something previously unknown about tree ring dating method — one of the most trusted radiometric dating methods in use today: “Tree-rings reveal secret clocks that could reset key dates across the ancient world.” In short, Oxford scientists found that solar bursts are capable of increasing radiocarbon levels in organic material.

Scholars believe that intense solar storms caused major bursts of radiation to strike the Earth in 775 and 994AD, which resulted in distinct spikes in the concentration of radiocarbon in trees growing at that time. The events are precisely datable because the tree-rings belong to archives in which the growth year of each tree-ring is exactly known. In the new research, the authors outline how they could detect similar spikes elsewhere within the thousands of years of available tree-ring material from across the world.

While the scientists can calibrate the radiocarbon with the two known dates of 775 and 994 AD, they believe earlier bursts could be detected. By implication, though, if radiocarbon concentrations are not uniform, what does this do to the accuracy of dates calculated?

Lead author Dr Michael Dee, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Variations in atmospheric radiocarbon concentration are largely the result of carbon dioxide emissions from activity from volcanoes and the ocean, but they are also influenced by changes in solar activity. The spikes in 775 and 994AD were almost vertical and of comparable magnitude all around the Earth. Such markers can be easily identified in known-age tree-rings and are fixed in time. In the past, we have had floating estimates of when things may have happened, but these secret clocks could reset chronologies concerning important world civilisations with the potential to date events that happened many thousands of years ago to the exact year.’

To be sure, the scientists believe their work will refine existing dates. The important observation here, though, is that after over 50 years of radiocarbon dating, scientists just now found “secret clocks” that were previously unknown, and therefore not included in prior confidently-announced dates. The Oxford team thinks that their new knowledge has the potential to reset clocks. The next question to ask is, what other unknowns may surface in the future to cast doubt on today’s confident scientific claims about the past? It’s already happened before in radiocarbon dating. For instance, early on it was discovered that above-ground atomic bomb tests had altered atmospheric ratios of carbon-14. This had to be taken into account in subsequent calculations.

(Note: because of its relatively short half-life of 5,730 years, radiocarbon cannot be used to calculate dates older than 100,000 years maximum. The millions-of-years calculations come from longer-lived isotopes, such as uranium).

Full Fathom Five

A paper in PNAS is confident to the point of being intimidating to the layman. German and Austrian scientists claim to have proven that the Earth was bathed in radiation from a supernova 2.7 million years ago. The radiation left its signature on seashells for a million years, then vanished. The signature is in the form of iron-60 (60Fe) that has a long half-life and can only be produced by exploding stars, they assert. They even think they have located the supernova 300 light-years away. Science Daily shares the gist of the claim with similar levels of confidence, but without the intimidating pages of equations and graphs. It looks certain; their “time-resolved 2-million-year-old supernova activity discovered in Earth’s microfossil record” seems to offer irrefutable proof of long ages. Seashells were deposited slowly in ocean sediments, carrying the signature of 60Fe, as the solar system spent a million years passing through the supernova’s radiation field.

Only a careful look at the Materials & Methods shows possible points of weakness. First, consider that they only studied small samples from two drill cores from the Pacific. Can these speak to the whole earth and its history in interstellar space? Moreover, these cores were already dated by evolutionary biostratigraphy to be Pleistocene in age. The scientists did not question that. Then, we see that the levels detected are extremely tiny. 60Fe isotopes detected were on the order of one ten-quadrillionth the level of normal 56Fe (~10–16 to one). The error bars on both axes are large for all the data points. The scientists still feel that the data exceed the one-sigma confidence level, and they can correlate it with 60Fe in moon dust. But moon rocks were not made from living creatures deposited in water. For these and other reasons, how confident can they really be? Are they overstating their case?

The history of science teaches that the most confident claims of any era are often wrong. Always look for the assumptions. Never take a scientist’s appearance of certitude as a substitute for data and logic. Look for the underlying worldview.

The discovery of soft tissue in dinosaur bones flies in the face of long-age claims. Bob Enyart lists scientific papers showing dinosaur soft tissue that no scientist believed could possibly last longer than a few centuries or millennia. He also lists evidence of radiocarbon everywhere it shouldn’t be, even in diamonds, the world’s hardest material (and therefore impermeable to contamination). These are large, serious anomalies that should cause major doubts about millions-of-years claims, but they are routinely ignored by the secular media. Why? They worship Darwin, who needs the time.

Exercise: Apply what you have learned from this entry to claims in PhysOrg about stalactites in China. Do they infallibly show a record of 640,000 years of monsoons?

3 Comments

Reflectory August 19, 2016

So your argument seems to be that because scientists refine our knowledge, then any number of wildly “alternative theories” like creationism may be true. That’s like a flat earther saying that because we have refined the measurement of the diameter of the earth over the years, scientists may be wrong, therefore flat earthism is a viable alternative.

Christian777 August 19, 2016

So are you pointing out that the Radiation that we have found in the cores may be leftovers from the spikes in the AD 775 and 994?

Buho August 19, 2016

@Reflectory: Good job, you knocked over a strawman. This site has a larger undercurrent of simply teaching us readers to be more critical of the science coming through the popular press and scientific journals. Think more. Question authority. Certainly we all can agree on that. Maybe, hopefully, sometime in the future, science reporters will grow a backbone and ask the scientists some hardball questions.

This article doesn’t say anything about creationism, though there is an implicit connection. A more accurate argument would be: (1) Radiometric dating is nearly impossible to do correctly because we don’t know what factors in the past influenced the radioisotopes we’re counting today. (2) Radiometric dating is used to definitively rule out recent creation. (3) Therefore, that’s not a good argument to use against a recent creation. (4) Further, we are discovering many historic events that can accelerate these radiometric “clocks”, making it possible that these radiometric “dates” can fit into a recent creation model.

That would be a more accurate argument the editor is making. It doesn’t cover the full argument for radiometric dating (such as knowing if radioisotopes leeched into or out of the sample in the intervening years). Let’s talk about that argument instead of the strawman.

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