Friday, February 5, 2010

ICR: “It’s Official: Radioactive Isotope Dating Is Fallible.”

by Gerard Jellison, Ph.D.  Physics

    “It’s Official: Radioactive Isotope Dating Is Fallible.”
    That was the dramatic headline of a news article posted on the website of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) on January 21, 2010[1]. In the first sentence, ICR Science Writer “Brian Thomas, M.S.” delivered the shocking news: “New data collected by secular researchers has confirmed what creation scientists discovered decades ago – geologists’ cornerstone assumption that the rate of radioactive decay is constant over time is not correct.” A geology professor was quoted: “Everybody was sitting on this two legged stool claiming it was very stable, but it’s not.” Evidently, creation scientists were right all along! Their claims about the unreliability of radiometric dating, and the reality of accelerated nuclear decay that compressed millions of years of apparent radiometric history into less than a year, were vindicated.
    Shocking news, but there’s just one problem. Not a word of it was true.

    The research that was reported – or rather distorted – by ICR was performed by G. A. Brennecka, a graduate student at Arizona State University, along with colleagues at ASU and two institutions in Germany. Published in the January 22, 2010 issue of Science[2], the study investigated whether two uranium isotopes always occur in the same ratio in meteorites. In previous measurements on samples from the Earth, the Moon, and meteorites, the ratio between U-238 and U-235 had generally been found to have the same value, 137.88. This is an important number, because it’s used in Pb-Pb radiometric dating, a crucial technique used to find the ages of meteorites, as well as lunar and terrestrial samples. In Pb-Pb dating, scientists measure the concentrations of two lead isotopes, one derived from the decay of U-235, and the other from U-238. The equation used to derive the age from Pb-Pb measurements requires scientists to know the ratio between the two uranium isotopes.
    Brennecka and his colleagues measured the uranium isotope ratio in thirteen calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions (CAIs) from the Allende meteorite, which fell on Mexico in 1969. Probably the best-studied meteorite in the world, Allende is an unusually large example of a primitive class of meteorites called carbonaceous chrondrites. Evidence shows that its CAIs include some of the first solids to condense during the birth of the Solar System, and their age is thought to represent the age of the Solar System itself.
    Using refinements of existing techniques, Brennecka et al. found that uranium ratios in the thirteen inclusions varied from 137.409 to 137.885. This small variation, if confirmed in further studies, is enough to bring about a change in the radiometric dates of meteorites, and of the Solar System, of about 0.1%. That’s small, but significant for astronomers who want to date events like planet formation to within a few million years.
    The work by Brannecka et al. is significant for another reason. The variation they found is apparently due to an excess of U-235, and the most likely explanation is enrichment of this isotope by decay of a curium isotope, Cm-247. But no one has detected this short-lived isotope in the Solar System before, and it is only created in certain types of supernovae. This new work, suggesting the existence of supernova-derived atoms in the protoplanetary disk, may have important implications for the evolution of the Solar System, and its relationship to its galactic environment.

    So much for real science. What did ICR make of all this?
    Brian Thomas told his readers that the “variation” detected by Brannecka et al. destroyed the “assumption” of constant decay rates. “The clock is broken,” he declared. Assuming for no good reason that the “variation” meant changes over time, he quoted Brannecka: “This variation implies substantial uncertainties in the ages previously determined by Pb-Pb dating of CAIs.” Thomas’s bias about the invalidity of radiometric dating caused him to imagine something that was never even implied in the Science report. Thomas never discussed the actual magnitude of these “substantial uncertainties” (a reference to the difference as “small” was buried at the end of the article). Much of the article was devoted to ICR’s familiar claims that its RATE project had “nullified the idea that the decay rate has been constant.” Thomas even misinterpreted the RATE results, claiming that only with accelerated decay could “microscopic scars called ‘fission tracks’ have formed” (fission tracks are a standard tool for radiometric dating, and their existence and concentration in rocks, even as measured by RATE, are completely consistent with old-Earth science).
    This article was so incompetent that even ICR couldn’t keep it on the site in its original form. On January 26, it was quietly revised (“for accuracy” according to the fine print at the bottom). 
I don’t know who told ICR about the debacle, but the new version tells me all I need to know about ICR’s atrophied sense of integrity. The honest thing, of course, would have been to withdraw the article, with a full explanation and a public apology to the scientists whose work was so blatantly misrepresented. Instead, ICR kept the article and the references to Brannecka et al., but just diluted some of the claims. For example, “geologists’ cornerstone assumption that the rate of radioactive decay is constant over time is not correct” was changed to the vaguer “geologists’ assumptions about radioactive decay are not always correct.” Although the new article doesn’t say explicitly that the work of Brannecka et al. confirmed accelerated decay, about 40% of it is still devoted to Thomas’s credulous (and now laughably out of context) descriptions of the RATE work on (what else?) accelerated decay. And the new article still falsely says that the scientists’ work “dovetails” with creationist research that undermines the validity of radiometric dating.
The message of ICR’s article hasn’t changed. Their conclusions are immune to facts.
    The first version of ICR’s article can, charitably, be explained away as an act of honest incompetence by “Science Writer” Thomas. The new version demonstrates ICR’s inability to admit a mistake, and their willingness to guide readers to conclusions that have nothing to do with the scientific research they cite.
    ICR’s current article says that the varying isotope ratios “call into question the calculated age of the solar system.” In truth, the work of Brannecka et al. suggests a change in this age estimate – from 4.567 to 4.562 billion years. This tiny correction testifies to the precision and reliability of current radiometric dating technology. ICR’s online description of this work testifies to their willingness to deceive their readers.

[1] "It's Official: Radioactive Isotope Dating Is Fallible" by Brian Thomas.
[2] G. A. Brennecka, S. Weyer, M. Wadhwa, P. E. Janney, J. Zipfel, and A. D. Anbar, “238U/235U Variations in Meteorites: Extant  247Cm and Implications for Pb-Pb Dating”, Science, 327, pp. 449-451 (22 Jan. 2010).  For less-technical online explanations of the research, see the ASU press release and the article by L. Grossman, “Age of Solar System Needs to Be Recalculated,” Wired Science.


rspeir said...

Well, I am YEC, and I must admit this is certainly embarrassing. I have been told the biggest problem with a young earth/universe paradigm is getting distant starlight to our cosmic center in mere thousands of years. However, it was late 2008 that I became increasingly convinced that the 'real' biggest problem of our paradigm is the radiation-heat problem. Mere ordinal days do not begin to allow for the enormous heat dissipation necessary to cool the planet. According to Jellison, even a year is pitifully insufficient. He says, “As no creationist denies, compressing billions of years' worth of radioactive decay (at today's decay rates) into a year or less would produce enough heat to destroy the Earth.” I personally offered the YEC camp a model wherein a redefinition of time allowed about 9 million years to elapse in a sort of cross-membered hidden time dimension over the first ordinal day of creation. Day 2 contains about 4 million years, Day 3, about 3 million, etc. The creationist response was dismissive and Bridgman and Jellison, though polite in their remarks, thought the model probably contained only questionable science. But great intrinsic age in the geology of Earth occurring over the passage of mere ordinal days simply does not appear to be an option YECers can continue to dismiss. The Genesis window for the great upheaval of land is simply Day 3 and no more. This rapid “time-lapse” view indicates to me that as land and mountains are pushing up from the planet’s crust, the entire ball is continuing to age in a hidden dimension at a rate that could only be construed as alarming. That is why I still believe that by the end of creation Day 1, the planet contains great intrinsic age, is thoroughly cooled, and is peacefully rotation on its axis. I feel that YECers are waiting way too late to try and cool a planet that absolutely has to already be cooled much closer to the beginning. Beyond Day 1 is too late and Noah’s flood is simply out of the question. Conclusion: in the end I believe that the biggest challenge to the young earth paradigm may well be the radiation/heat problem. (And - with apologies to Walt Brown who is probably a great guy - We don’t need crazy ideas like shooting it into outer space!). It’s time for YECers to shed some of their scientifically juvenile ways, grow up, face the music, and get down to business. Here’s my question to the YEC crowd: how in the Sam Hill are we going to get this done?


You guys know my name.

Gerard Jellison said...


Thanks for reading my articles and for your sincere efforts to deal with these problems.

G. Jellison

Anonymous said...

I noticed you kindly didn't mention that the original creationist post was so sloppy/ignorant that it repeatedly referred to lead-235 and lead-238.

paleo said...

Thanks for acknowledging that the age problem is huge. But that's the tip of the iceberg, since countless other compelling arguments for evolution and an old earth also exist. How do you "get out of it?" I'd suggest the way I did when I first tried to make YECism work (in my youth) and then realized there were mountains of evidence against it, and massive evidence for OE and evolution, and that the Bible did not require it. I faced all this and abandoned YECism. That's the only sensible thing to do.