November 5, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

ICR Challenges Validity of Radiometric Dating

acked out the facilities of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California Saturday.  Their frequent applause was not for contemporary musicians or a preacher, but for scientists.  Ten miles from their headquarters, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) had rented the large auditorium for the formal presentation of the results of its eight-year research project on Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (RATE).
    The seven scientists summarized evidence now documented in a technical book, a popular summary and a documentary film.  The research included both field and theoretical work, including the gathering of samples from rock samples around the world for radiometric dating.  The team members, all Bible believing Christians committed to a Biblical young-earth chronology, followed accepted lab protocols and had their samples evaluated by state-of-the-art equipment at world-class facilities.  Among the many results, four primary geophysical findings and one textual analysis stood out:

  1. Helium residuals:  Radiogenic helium from zircons, extracted from granitic cores three miles deep at high temperatures, was still present in the biotite.  Conventional wisdom would have expected all the “slippery” helium atoms to have escaped long ago.  The team made predictions about how the helium measurements would fit a young-earth model and a uniformitarian model.  They calibrated the escape rate as a function of temperature and graphed their results; the data lined up exactly on the young-earth prediction of 6,000 years plus or minus 2,000 years.
  2. Radiohalo signatures:  The team followed up on earlier work by Robert Gentry on radiohalos, the spherical scars in granites resulting from alpha-particle ejections from the decay of uranium.  Polonium halos adjacent to uranium halos were ubiquitous.  Because of their extremely short half-lives, they would have had to have formed within months, minutes or even milliseconds (in the case of Po-214).  The researchers took this to mean that to have migrated from the zircons, the polonium halos would have to be same age as the fully-developed uranium halos, yet the uranium halos appear to show millions of years’ worth of decay if measured at present rates.
  3. Discordant isochrons:  Igneous rock samples from multiple sites in the Grand Canyon, judged ideal for radiometric dating, were sent to leading test labs and cross-checked by four independent isochron methods with multiple data points and good statistics.  The tests were double-blind; ICR had no control over the analysis, and the lab had no knowledge of the expected ages.  If the methods were reliable, all the dates should have been the same, but even though ages in the billion-year range were obtained, all the techniques differed radically from each other, some by 200% or 300% for the same rock.
  4. Carbon-14;  Samples from coal beds in multiple locales yielded measurable amounts of carbon-14.  According to conventional wisdom, it would be “unthinkable” for any radiocarbon to be present, because it would be undetectable in just 100,000 years, but the coal beds are assumed to be hundreds of millions of years old.  The team also found intact carbon-14 in diamonds, thought to have formed over a billion years ago.
  5. Genesis 1:  A statistical analysis of the verbs in the Hebrew text of Genesis 1 showed that it falls solidly in the genre of narrative, not poetry.  The meaning of “day” in the six-day creation account, therefore, cannot be properly interpreted in a poetical or allegorical sense.  This means that the writer intended the word day to mean ordinary days, not long ages.

The scientists were frank about difficulties with their findings.  They acknowledged that fission-track counts and radiohalo density give evidence that millions of years’ worth of radioactive decay products had been generated, if measured at today’s rates.  To reconcile the above findings with the abundance of decay products, they hypothesized the decay rates had been accelerated in the past.  This suggestion, however, produces other problems.  Large amounts of heat and dangerous levels of radiation for organisms on the earth would have resulted from accelerated nuclear decay.  It is also uncertain why accelerated decay would have been associated with the Genesis Flood, which is when they believe some of it occurred.  They acknowledged that they have only tentative hypotheses to explain these unsolved problems at this point.  Nevertheless, the hard data indicate that radiometric dating methods are unreliable at least, and support a Genesis young-earth chronology at best.
    While acknowledging the need for continued research and sampling, ICR hoped their findings would call into question an important icon of evolutionary geology – the belief in deep time – and would bolster confidence in the plain reading of the Biblical record of earth history.
    The team gave some indication that their results can stand up to scrutiny.  Some of this material was presented in poster sessions at the AGU convention a couple of years ago, where thousands of geophysicists were gathered.  Hundreds of scientists saw the work and many lingered to discuss it.  ICR said that very few were hostile; most were quite eager to learn about the work and figure out what it meant, especially the younger scientists.
    The film Thousands, Not Billions, the laymen’s paperback of the same title, and the technical book are now available on the ICR website.

This is very much a work in progress.  While interesting and important, these findings still need to withstand the critics.  Radiometric dating is one of the pillars of evolution.  It provides the deep time needed for naturalistic accounts of the formation of the earth and the evolution of life.  Hard-core Darwinists will not yield any ground on this stronghold without a fight, and neither will old-earth creationists or theistic evolutionists.  But even young-earth creationists should give it a thorough shake-and-bake test.  All the hard questions should be asked by the friends of ICR first.  The findings are mostly a collection of anomalies rather than a coherent theory that accounts for all the observations.  The admitted problems with accelerated nuclear decay – heat dissipation and abundance of decay products – seem serious; the burden of proof will be on ICR to maintain what will look to critics like an ad hoc suggestion.
    It’s important to note that long-agers have their own formidable problems.  They should examine their own vulnerabilities before doing battle with ICR.  These carefully-performed isochron measurements, cross-checked by four independent methods, reveal that the validity of radiometric dating can no longer be assumed.  Discordant results of this magnitude, indeed, call the entire procedure, including its assumptions and theoretical underpinnings, into question.  The fission-track analysis, in addition, makes it hard to believe that the samples could have remained below the annealing temperature for hundreds of millions of years, throughout multiple episodes of plate tectonics, volcanism and impacts.  The radiogenic helium from deep-earth cores should have escaped long ago.  Let the uniformitarians deal with these, while ICR gives more attention to their own difficulties.
    Nevertheless, ICR is to be commended for the rigor of their sampling and analysis.  They have thrown down a serious challenge to believers in deep time.  Icons are for religion, not science, and radiometric dating has been immune from challenge for too long.  Many do not realize that radiometric dating is one of the few techniques that produces millions and billions of years; many others produce much younger ages.  Long touted as an impregnable bastion against the young-earth interpretation, radiometric dating is now under siege.
    In an ideal engagement, neither side will attack the others’ motives or qualifications, but will respect the empirical data and test the interpretations from all angles.  This can turn a battle into a parley, a debate into a scientific conference.  There are mysteries in the RATE results that will require rigorous and critical study with the highest standards of integrity.  ICR has set a new pace of empirical honesty and constructive engagement.  Some fundamental new insights into the nature and behavior of radioactive decay – perhaps even with practical applications – may lurk in the data.  It remains to be seen how all this will play out, but even if there is a deadlock, all parties may have to concede that no human can know with certainty what happened in the pre-observational past, without faith.  Even that would be progress.

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