Saturday, December 15, 2007

At this RATE

High-speed creationism

The monthly newsletter of the Institute for Creation Research is always a treasure trove of human perversity. ICR is devoted to the notion that a supreme being cooked up the university in six literal days about 6,000 years ago. That's an awfully small container into which to stuff the planet's history. The December 2007 issue of Acts & Facts takes another shot at it.

Many radioisotopes have half-lives of millions or billions of years. The presence of their decay products on our planet give us the opportunity to measure how long they've been in existence. The conclusion is inescapable—the earth is billions of years old—unless, of course, the scientists are all wrong about the half-lives. Working backward from their assumption that Genesis is literally true, ICR's “creation scientists” have figured out that radioactive decay has had periods of enormous acceleration.

ICR's vehicle for “proving” the earth's youth is its RATE project (Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth). Larry Vardiman frequently writes about RATE. His article in the December 2007 Acts & Facts is titled RATE in Review: Unresolved Problems. Vardiman draws out attention to three such problems:
The RATE project found that:
  • A large amount of radioactive decay has occurred in earth history.
  • Nuclear decay processes were accelerated during episodes in earth history.
  • Conventional radioisotopic dates are therefore incorrect by large factors.
These findings led to the major conclusion that the earth is thousands–not billions–of years old. However, RATE left three unresolved problems concerning theology, heat, and radiation.
As explained by Vardiman, the theological problem is especially delicious:
The Theological Problem

The use of the term “accelerated decay” for nuclear processes during the Creation Week seems to create an apparent conflict for some people with the statement given by God in Genesis 1:31: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” The RATE project was able to show that accelerated decay occurred during the Genesis Flood, but this was not sufficient to explain all the observed daughter products in rocks, such as lead. The production of lead by accelerated decay during the first three days of the Creation Week could explain this, but that would introduce the concept of “decay” during this period that was stated by God to be “very good.”
Dear, dear. A damned difficult problem. But the second problem is greater!
The Heat Problem

Of greater concern to both supporters and skeptics of the RATE project is the issue of how to dispose of the tremendous quantities of heat generated by accelerated decay during the Genesis Flood. The amount of heat produced by a decay rate of a million times faster than normal during the year of the Flood could potentially vaporize the earth’s oceans, melt the crust, and obliterate the surface of the earth. The RATE group is confident that the accelerated decay they discovered was not only caused by God, but that the necessary removal of heat was also superintended by Him as well. Dr. Russell Humphreys, a member of the RATE group, has suggested one possible mechanism that may explain this dilemma. He has found evidence, both scientific and scriptural, that cooling of the earth by the expansion of the cosmos may have occurred simultaneously with the heat produced by accelerated decay.
Where exactly is the problem? If God is rigging the game, he can whisk the extra heat away with a snap of his fingers. Despite their faith in an omnipotent God, the ICR folks insist on trying to find science-type explanations for miracles. It's not exactly necessary, but they're desperate to appear scientific.

The third problem is the best one: How did Noah avoid radiation poisoning?
The Radiation Problem

Another consideration is how Noah and his family could have survived the massive dose of radiation unleashed during the Flood. It is likely that the humans aboard the Ark would have been protected from most of the radiation occurring on the surface of the earth by the water covering the planet. It is common knowledge that water absorbs radiation, and an average of 8,000 feet of water covering the earth would have made a very effective shield. However, some have expressed concern that a radioactive element like potassium-40 that is present in the human body may have produced radiation within Noah’s body itself.
Poor old Noah, quick-cooked by the accelerated decay of the isotopes in his own body (probably exacerbated by the glowing bodies of his family members and everything else in the ark).

Never fear: The brave creation scientists of ICR are on the job. Vardiman tells us the next step: “Evidence for accelerated decay in meteorites has been identified as one of the most important research projects for the future.”

“Evidence,” he says. I can hardly wait.


Anonymous said...

I thought of Stephen Colbert while reading your post and the word scienciness occurred to me. I Googled, and it turns out that others were similarly inspired before me. Okay, it's not original, but it's fitting.


Anonymous said...

If your representation of ICR is faithful, then they are trying a little too hard to cling to the "Young Earth" theory. However, a serious Biblical scholar would certainly allow room for the "Old Earth" theory which doesn't require any periods of modified physical laws.

That said, you may not want to use radioactive decay as a method for dating, as it has been shown to be extremely inaccurate. This is particularly true in presence of volcanic activity (of which there has been a fair amount throughout the millenia.)

Zeno said...

Go see for yourself. ICR is completely devoted to hardcore young-earth creationism.

Ritchie Annand said...

That is the same Humphreys that, when positing the formative earth as a giant sphere of water, and realizing that it would not, on its own, have the magnetic dipole that would be needed for further processes, actually added a constant indicating the dipole that God added.

Radioactive dating merely has to be used carefully around volcanoes, but it is still good at establishing minimum ages. The counter is reset to zero in radioactive dating when daughter products are separated out from parent products, which happens in K-Ar dating when the argon bubbles away as the rock is still in liquid form.

I've seen some dishonest smears of radioactive dating techniques by those doing or misrepresenting things like whole-rock analysis when there are xenoliths (e.g. solid rock scraped off by the erupting magma, which will give the whole sample a larger age) or dating rocks where no lava was involved, as in rocks that were flung off from the Mount St. Helens explosion, or using dating in spots with water ingress and not taking that into account.

J Myers said...

Radiometric dating is unreliable? I don't think so--not only do independent radiometric techniques give consistent results, the results agree with several nonradiometric methods.

As for the representation of the ICR here, I have to say that it isn't faithful at all; it's evidence based ;)

Rupert Goodwins said...

Well, look on the bright side.

If ICR is trying to find evidence of accelerated radioactive decay, that means they admit that the radiometric evidence isn't prima face flawed. They've admitted that it appears to show what it appears to show, that the logic and observations are good, and that to be wrong,some hitherto unsuspected (and highly anomalous) event must have happened.

Thus, when you get anyone complaining that radiometric dating is 'unreliable', you can say that it's reliable enough for ICR to take seriously.

As for the hunt for evidence - well, good luck with that. It's not as if you can turn up the wick on radioactive decay without leaving a mark. And we know what those marks look like: be interesting to hear the ICR take on the Oklo reactor.

They've admitted that basic physics is good, and set themselves an impossible task. Could we ask for more?

Anonymous said...

The ICR thinks many feet of water shields their comic story from reality? They conveniently do not mention the radioactive gasses we breath every day. We each receive on average 200 millirem of ionizing radiation from Radon gas each year. Radon is in the decay chain of Uranium-238. The faster Uranium decays, the faster Radon would be produced. Multiply that by the enormous decay rates the ICR proposes and you’ve got a serious acute dose of radiation. GASP! Noah and family just fried their lungs with alpha particles. They went blind since the eye is highly susceptible to alpha radiation. I really don’t expect much from folks who think the Flintstones is a documentary.