"Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." - 2 Corinthians 13:1.
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If the Bible does not require that the universe is young, and if God's universe itself testifies that it is old, then the question should be settled; the "days" of Genesis 1 were very long periods of time. Still, it is likely that more proof will be needed to convince some readers. This is because many Christians have a false picture of scientific knowledge - one in which the universe's facts are no more than a confused collection of contradictions, and hence, cannot be trusted. Consider, for example, the following quotation by a young-earth creationist:
"... the creation model permits us to look seriously at those natural processes which seem to favor a young earth and a recent creation. We shall see later in this chapter that there exist many such processes. Unfortunately most people do not know this, since we were all indoctrinated as children in school, with one model of origins exclusively. Only those processes which seem to favor an exceedingly old earth and old universe were included in our instruction." 1
Here the claim is made that the evidence sometimes points to a young universe and sometimes to an old one. Is this possible? The physical universe is the work of God. Like His Bible, God's universe will always tell us the truth. Such a witness can never contradict itself because truth is not like that. It follows that once the universe has testified that it is either young or old, it should always do the same.
Even if the universe itself is always truthful, those who report its facts to us will not necessarily understand them correctly. Because young-earth creationists disagree with other scientists about what the data says, it follows that someone must be making mistakes. Under these circumstances we need to be careful about what we decide to believe. There will be some errors presented to us just as though they were the universe's actual facts.
The Bible provides a method for how we are to deal with a similar situation; in Deuteronomy 19:15, we are told:
"One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses."
One witness would have been enough if we could be sure that he would always tell the truth; but since a witness might lie, the law tells us that we need more. If two witnesses both know and tell the truth, their testimonies will always agree with each other; but two witnesses who lie will sometimes disagree; they have no real facts with which to guide themselves. (See Mark 14:55-59.) Of course even truthful witnesses will disagree with each other if they do not have a firm enough knowledge of the whole situation; but when this happens we cannot use their testimonies with confidence.
This chapter will examine the testimony of many "witnesses" concerning the age of God's creation. These "witnesses" will be the evidences from various scientific fields of study: tree rings, lake sediments, moon dust, volcanic action, erosion, and radioactive dating.
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Of the myriad different ways to tell how old different things are, one of the first ones we learn, often as children, is that we can tell how old a tree is by counting its annual rings. The tree does not even need to be cut down if a thin core is taken. This method is quite easy to understand.
When a tree grows, it adds wood to its outside layer just under the bark. Trees tend to do most of their growing in the spring and summer and to sit dormantly through the winter. This means that wood is added to the outside of the tree in spurts once a year. These growth spurts are easily visible as annual rings in the grain of the wood. Although a tree itself may be alive, the wood at its center is actually dead. The tree is alive only on its surface where the bark is. This is why a hollow tree can survive, but removing the bark from around a tree will kill it. Each year another ring is added to the dead core of wood. Interestingly, each of the rings in a tree will actually have a slightly different carbon-14 date.
As it happens, some trees live for very long periods of time; Bristlecone pine trees, which grow in the White Mountains of California, live for many thousands of years. One lived over 5000 years before it was, unfortunately, cut down in 1964. 2
There is another thing, other than the age of a tree, which can be determined from studying tree rings. Scientists can determine how suitable the weather was for tree growing, each year of a tree's life. During good years, most of the trees in a particular forest will add wide growth rings - during poor years, thin growth rings. Because scientists can count years (rings) backwards from the present (just below the bark), they can figure, quite accurately, which years were good and which were poor for growing trees.
This effect can be used to extend the tree-ring sequence back additional thousands of years by using older dead wood which can be found on the ground. Ring patterns in the dead wood can be compared with those in living trees. Where clear evidence of overlap occurs, the ring sequence of the older dead tree can be added to the living one. Overlap can be seen since the growth patterns will be the same for any trees within a local area whose lifetimes once overlapped. This is because the weather during those years (and hence the relative widths of the related rings) would have been the same for all of those trees. By this method, the tree ring chronology for Bristlecone pines has been extended back about 9000 years as of 1982. 3
Now 9000 years is not the age of the universe nor even that of the earth. This is a minimum age for one single group of trees in California. Obviously, the soil and rocks which lie under those trees were laid down earlier still. This example was chosen as a first step because it is easy to understand (no nuclear physics involved) and because it demonstrates basic principles which will be used in some of the following examples.
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Trees are not the only things in God's creation which keep a yearly record of time; sediments which accumulate in the bottoms of lakes do this too. Different seasons create different conditions for a lake which are reflected in different types of sediment layers. In spring and summer, the layer is rich in calcium carbonate (limestone which dissolves in water). Sediments from the rest of the year are rich in organic material. These layers, which are called "varves," pile up year after year and keep a record of the annual cycles. The Green River Formation, of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, contains a record which is more than four million annual layers deep. 4 Obviously, this means that the lake bottom which accumulated those alternating layers of sediment existed for millions of years. Even this is not the age of the earth; it is only the length of time one particular lake existed.
Like the previous example, this process of layer formation is easy to understand and the record of elapsed time is easy to read. There is no easy way to misunderstand the evidence. This evidence, and the evidence of starlight from the previous chapter, establishes that the universe must be millions of years old at the very least. 5
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Young-earth creationists argue that scientists only concentrate on those methods of dating which yield old ages, arbitrarily ignoring any method which does not give an old enough age. Here we will examine evidence from both sides. One young-earth argument involves moon dust. Because this argument is often cited, it will be examined in some detail.
The amount of dust on the surface of the moon is presented as if it were evidence that the universe is young. According to this argument, it has been estimated that a large quantity of meteoric dust falls onto the earth each year; assuming that the rate of dust falling onto the moon is about the same as that estimated for the earth, it would seem that there should be a great deal of dust piled up on the moon. It is argued that there is insufficient dust on the moon's surface if the moon is billions of years old.
Unlike the moon, the earth is an active environment. Therefore, the dust which settles onto it does not form an undisturbed layer. What has happened to this dust on the earth will be briefly considered at the end of this chapter. Arguments from two different young-earth sources which concern the moon's dust will be examined here:
"Hans Pettersson of the Swedish Oceanographic Institute calculated that about 14.3 million tons of meteoritic dust of the type which contain nickel settles to earth each year. Isaac Asimov has calculated that, if this rate has continued unaltered for the past 5 billion years, then there should be a layer of meteoric dust at least 54 feet thick all over the earth. No such layer is found." [p. 162]"Prior to our first manned moon landing, some NASA scientists predicted that there might be as much as 54 feet of this lunar soil, assuming the age of the moon to be about 5 billion years and assuming that meteorites had been falling on the moon at the present rate since or near the beginning of its birth. We now know that no such thick surface layer exists. Instead, the most recent estimates of average regolith thickness are as follows:
"(a) Near the Apollo 11 site, in the Sea of Tranquility, 13 feet. "(b) Near the Apollo 12 site, in the Ocean of Storms, 11 1/2 feet. "(c) Near the Luna 16 site, in the Sea of Fertility, 2-3 feet. (According to theory, Fertility soil should have been thicker than the other since it is an 'older' area.)"It appears that this 'timer,' the build-up of moon soil, has not been 'running' for about 5 billion years, but rather, has only recently been 'turned on.'" [pp. 150-151.]Science and Creation, by William W. Boardman Jr. et al., C. 1973, Creation-Science Research Center, San Diego, Ca., pp. 162, 150-151.
"It is known that there is essentially a constant rate of cosmic dust particles entering the earth's atmosphere from space and then gradually settling to the earth's surface. The best measurements of this influx have been made by Hans Pettersson, who obtained the figure of 14 million tons per year. This amounts to 14x1019 pounds in 5 billion years. If we assume the density of compacted dust is, say, 140 pounds per cubic foot, this corresponds to a volume of 1018 cubic feet. Since the earth has a surface area of approximately 5.5x1015 square feet, this seems to mean that there should have accumulated during the 5-billion-year age of the earth, a layer of meteoric dust approximately 182 feet thick all over the world!"There is not the slightest sign of such a dust layer anywhere of course. On the moon's surface it should be at least as thick, but the astronauts found no sign of it (before the moon landings, there was considerable fear that the men would sink into the dust when they arrived on the moon, but no comment has apparently ever been made by the authorities as to why it wasn't there as anticipated)." - Scientific Creationism, Ed. by Henry M. Morris Ph.D., C. 1974, Master Books, El Cajon, Ca., pp. 151, 152.
In summary, what is claimed concerning moon dust (which is also called lunar soil or regolith) is as follows:
That earth-based measurements predict a great deal of dust on the moon.
This claim says that dust is falling onto the earth at a rate which would have resulted in a very deep pile if it were left undisturbed over billions of years (no rain washing it away - no volcanos burying it, etc.). Because the surface of the moon has been left virtually undisturbed - there is no weather there - this dust should be visible if the universe is very old.
The problem is the data used to calculate the 54-foot or 182-foot depths is out of date. Recent measurements tell us that this influx to the earth is actually 1000 times less than Pettersson originally estimated way back in 1960. 6 Clearly this first claim is an error. It is based on very obsolete data.
That the dust on the moon's surface should be at least as thick as that estimated from the earth's data.
Because this second claim is based on the same faulty data as the first claim was, we should expect it to be in error as well. Many different determinations of the influx to the moon's surface have been made which confirm this. 7 Direct measurements were even made on the moon by the Apollo astronauts using collector targets. 8 Very little meteoric dust actually falls onto the moon.
The next two claims (3 and 4) will be taken in reverse order to simplify things.
That, according to theory, the soil at the Sea of Fertility should have been thicker than soil at the other areas since it is an "older" area.
This fourth claim, gets progressively weaker the closer it is traced to its source. The publication which the authors of Science and Creation are quoting is the January 23, 1971 issue of SCIENCE NEWS where three soil depths (of claim #3 below) are given in a brief news item with a comment on the fact that the Luna 16 core presented some surprises. From this 35 centimeter (14 inch) core the Soviet scientist Vinogradov concluded that the depth of the dust was "possibly 0.5 to 1 meter." 9 Notice his use here of the word "possibly." This puts the evidence in a less definite light.
Three pages earlier in the same issue of SCIENCE NEWS, we see how Vinogradov arrived at this conclusion. "The Luna 16 drill hit a solid object (which he says could have been bedrock)." 10 It is also possible that the solid object was nothing more than a large buried rock. Luna 16 was unmanned and so it only had one chance to take its sample; it had no way to walk over a few feet and try again.
Although it is claimed that Fertility soil should have been thicker than soil from the other areas, since it is an "older" area, it is not clear that Fertility soil isn't deeper. As this fact has been traced back toward its source, it looks less like proof that the scientists were wrong about moon dust, and more like one Soviet probe may have had the bad luck of hitting a rock after drilling only about 14 inches.
That the dust on the moon at three locations was 13, 11.5 and 2-3 feet deep.
The Luna 16 data point (the 2-3 foot deep one) has already been examined. It is not specifically stated in SCIENCE NEWS whether the Apollo 11 and 12 cores (the other two locations mentioned here) actually bottomed out against bedrock or whether the numbers given were just the length of the cores taken and, hence, would only indicate a minimum depth. In any case, more recent Apollo flights tell us much more.
By the time of the Apollo 16 flight, some more sophisticated experiments had been performed. In NASA's preliminary report on the Apollo 16 mission, results of a seismic experiment are given which place the depth of the lunar soil at about 12.2 meters (40 feet). 11
This large depth could not easily have been determined by merely driving a core rod through it. The astronauts had great difficulty driving even a 10 foot core into the moon's soil; 12 in the moon's low gravity it was hard for the astronauts to press downward, and the moon dust presented an unexpected amount of resistance. The lunar soil is not exposed to weathering effects so the individual grains are jagged and catch on each other. Footprints sink into it even less than they would into sand on a beach. This is why the astronaut's footprints were so shallow.
Finally, there is a NASA report titled, The Soviet-American Conference on Cosmochemistry of the Moon and Planets. 13 This report is a source which, in this author's opinion, contains everything anyone ever wanted to know about meteoric influx and the depth of moon dust. As this report explains on page 574, the moon's "maria" (the darker, more recently melted areas) have dust piled several meters thick over them; but that its "continental regions" are piled as deeply as dozens of meters thick 14 - this would be about 100 feet.
Also in this same NASA report, the effect of the falling meteoric dust on the soil is shown in terms of the amount of mixing of the soil over various time spans. The falling dust, at present day rates, is so low that it would have taken a billion years to have even stirred the moon's top 10 centimeters (4 inches). 15 As it turns out, this rate has not been constant over the moon's lifetime; it will be seen in the next chapter why the amount of falling dust would have been much greater in the early days while the solar system (the earth, sun, moon and planets) was still being formed. This is because of the way God created our solar system.
That astronauts found no sign of this dust and that no comment has been made by the authorities as to why it wasn't there as anticipated.
This claim is clearly an error. A great deal of dust covers the moon; and NASA has released reams of information concerning it. This information is sufficient in scope and detail to bore a researcher to tears. Of course not all of this information was available back in 1973 and 1974 when these moondust arguments were originally composed, but it is certainly available to us now. 16
In conclusion, it is obvious that the amount of dust on the moon does not indicate a young earth. The testamonies of some young-earth creationists have been compared with the testamony of NASA and were found to disagree. Because everyone must get their information indirectly through NASA, the error must be in the young-earth testamonies. There is nowhere else, other than the moon landings, that they could obtain their information.
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There are right and wrong ways to read the Bible. One wrong way is to take a single verse out of context and to simply ignore the rest of scripture. The only correct way to study the Bible is to examine all of the scriptural evidence. The same rule also applies to the study of God's creation. The following will compare the testimonies of two young-earth arguments to illustrate a failure to study God's creation in its full context. The first argument concerns how much mass is being added to the continents each year:
"... it seems reasonable to assume that at least 10 cubic kilometers of new igneous rocks are formed each year by flows from the earth's mantle."The total volume of the earth's crust is about 5x109 cubic kilometers. Thus, the entire crust could have been formed by volcanic activity at present rates in only 500 million years, which would only take us back into the Cambrian period. On the other hand, all geologists would surely agree that practically all the earth's crust had been formed billions of years before that time. The uniformitarian model once again leads to a serious problem and contradiction." 17
Because volcanic rock is being continuously added to the earth's crust and because only so much crust has piled up, we are expected to conclude that the earth must be young. This argument is quite easy to understand and sounds valid, but it represents a single scientific fact being removed from the context of other related scientific facts. What is worse, the critical scientific context from which this has been removed was presented only two pages earlier in the same book:
"Approximately 27.5 billion tons of sediment are being transported to the ocean every year. The total mass of sediments already in the ocean is about 820 million billion tons. Dividing the total mass by the transport rate yields 30 million years as the maximum age of the ocean since sediments first started to flow into it ... the total mass of continental rocks above sea level is only about 383 million billion tons, ... Thus, in only 383/27.5, or 14, million years, the present continents, eroding at present rates, would have been eroded to sea level!" 18
Here also, we are told that there is an upper limit to how old the earth can be. Otherwise, all of the dirt that exists would have washed down into the ocean by now. This argument would also look good if it were taken all by itself; but notice what happens to the two arguments when they are examined together - in the greater context which their combined information provides.
In the first argument, we are told that each year volcanic activity adds at least 10 cubic kilometers to the earth's crust; in the second, we are told that each year rivers are washing 27.5 billion tons of this away. These two work out to be the same amount - the two processes balance each other almost exactly. 19
This material finally settles to the ocean floor, but it does not remain there forever. The sea floor is not stationary; it slides around, riding on the slowly moving plates of rock which make up the earth's surface. Sediments are ultimately carried back down into the hot interior parts of the earth. 20 Some of this material eventually gets recycled by volcanic activity; it completes the cycle by returning to the earth's crust - only to be washed away again.
So what has happened to the two arguments? Both have been shown to be worthless. Their supporting scientific evidence has simply been taken out of the context of the full testimony of the earth's evidence.
One might just as well have argued that the earth must be young because, "All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full." (Ecc. 1:7); but as Solomon continues and explains: "To the place the streams come from, there they return again." (Also Ecc. 1:7). God designed the world in such a way that it can operate well for a long time. As Paul said, the creation was made to reflect the invisible attributes of its Creator (Romans 1:20) and He is not about to run down either.
Again, when witnesses for the young-earth position are examined, errors are found in their testimony. This author does not believe that the men who have presented these arguments are deliberately trying to misrepresent the facts; but it is inescapable that they have not been as careful in checking things out as they should have been.
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Another witness to the great age of the earth is the evidence from radioactive isotopes - radiation dating. It almost seems like no creationist's book is complete without a chapter devoted to pointing out its problems - often imaginary ones. In this book, radiation dating will be explained in enough detail that the reader may get a feel for himself of where problems exist and where they do not. Where the problems are not significant, radioactive dating becomes another of the universe's witnesses to the truth. Anything that can be used to help determine the truth is really on our side!
Different types of radioactive dating are useful for different situations and age ranges. Some types of uranium, for example, can be used to date very old things 21 (ages in billions of years such as the solar system). However, these are not very useful for more recent things (mere millions of years). The potassium-argon method is good for the millions-to-billions-of-years range; but it is only accurate to about the nearest fifty thousand years at best. Also, it can only be used on volcanic materials; one is not likely to find a handy lava flow in the vicinity of, and within 100,000 years of a fossil which one might be trying to date. For these reasons, it is generally not considered to be useful for dating specimens younger than about half a million years of age. Carbon-14 has a useful range that roughly spans the age of modern man. This makes it useful to archaeologists.
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Normal everyday carbon-12 has six protons and six neutrons. 22 Six plus six is twelve which is why it is called carbon-12. The electrons are not counted here. Carbon-14 has six protons (like carbon-12) but has eight neutrons - which totals fourteen. Carbon-12 is stable, which means that it lasts forever. Carbon-14 is not, which means that it changes into something else when given enough time. What happens to carbon-14 is that one of the extra neutrons will suddenly split apart into an electron (which will be ignored) and a proton (which won't). This means there will then be seven protons and seven neutrons. An atom having seven protons and seven neutrons is not carbon, but nitrogen (specifically nitrogen-14).
The rate at which carbon-14 turns into nitrogen-14 has been accurately measured in laboratories and has been found to be quite constant. Decay rates are constant under all conditions for which life is possible; altering those rates takes heroic effort. They can be altered by a small fraction of a percent with pressures so great that the very atoms themselves begin to crush (over one million pounds per square inch). 23 Although rates can be changed significantly by intense neutron radiation, 24 this generates different decay products than normally would be formed; this means there would be evidence if this happened. 25
What has been found, based on laboratory measurements, is that after a period of about 5770 years, half of the atoms in a lump of pure carbon-14 will turn into nitrogen-14. This is called its "half-life." In another 5770 years, half of the remaining half will also turn into nitrogen-14 (not all of the remaining half) and so on. After three half-lives, only 1/8 of the original carbon-14 would remain. The nitrogen produced eventually escapes into the air, which is mostly nitrogen anyway.
Now, if it could be known how much carbon-14 there was in a particular sample at the beginning (for C-14 this corresponds to the time when a particular living thing died), the remaining amount could be used to figure out how long that sample had been around. If only one fourth of the original C-14 remained, then it would follow that the original amount had been reduced by half two times. This would mean that the sample had been sitting for 5770 + 5770 years or 11,540 years.
As with any useful radioactive dating method, it turns out there is a way to know how much of what was originally present. Otherwise the method would be unusable. How much carbon-14 was originally present in a plant or animal at the moment of its death can be determined from the amount of carbon-12 which is still present in that specimen. Here is how:
New carbon-14 is constantly being produced from nitrogen-14 by cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere at about the same rate at which the old carbon-14 is decaying back into nitrogen. The rate of production does change a little from year to year and from century to century; but the ratio between the number of C-12 atoms and C-14 atoms in the air is, more-or-less, always constant. What variation there is will be considered later.
Newly-formed carbon-14 quickly reacts into carbon dioxide, which plants are continually taking in from the air and converting into oxygen and other things like sugar. This is how plants grow. They build themselves up from atoms, including the carbon which they get from the carbon dioxide in the air, and from other atoms which they get from soil and water. Similarly, animals eat the plants and therefore build themselves from the same atoms. Even animals which eat other animals (for example we ourselves) are eating carbon atoms which were recently taken from the air by plants which the food animal ate. This means that whatever C-12/C-14 ratio happens to be in the air at any given time is the same as the C-12/C-14 ratio which exists in all living plants and animals at that time.
When a plant or animal dies, it stops eating and breathing so it no longer exchanges its carbon with that in the air. This means that the C-14 slowly starts to disappear (by turning into nitrogen gas) while the C-12 stays put. Furthermore, because C-12 and C-14 are chemically identical, any chemical reaction which might remove the C-14 from a specimen will also remove the C-12 by the same fractional amount. This will have no effect on the calculated date.
In a laboratory, the amounts of C-12 and C-14 can be accurately measured. Because C-12 lasts forever, the amount of it in a fossil animal is the same as the amount it had when it died. Because it is approximately known how many C-14 atoms were originally present for every C-12 atom, it follows that the original amount of C-14 can be calculated. Thus everything is known which is needed to figure out how long ago the specimen died.
There are still some problems; one is that the sample can be contaminated by other material containing carbon with a different C-12/C-14 ratio. When we closely examine an old bone, we notice that it is full of little holes like a sponge. This means that it can soak things up. Teeth, tusks and antlers are also porous. This does not make the C-14 method unusable. It just means that scientists have to be a little more careful when they try to date this type of specimen. Limestone, which also contains carbon, will often soak into these holes during the thousands of years while a sample is buried. When this happens, it must be washed out before accurate dating can be done. Acid is used for this wash because limestone dissolves readily in acid while bones, teeth, tusks and antlers do not.
This acid wash was apparently misunderstood in one young-earth argument which claimed that, "Yale University dated an antler three different times and got three different ages - 5,340 years, 9,310 years, and 10,320 years." 26 We might picture in our minds a very confused scientist until we check the original source where we find that the three dates were: the antler when it was contaminated with recently formed limestone - 9,310 years, the antler after the limestone had been washed out - 10,320 years, and the limestone itself which had been washed out into the acid - 5,340 years. 27 And so, when we look more closely, this turns out to be a perfectly reasonable set of measurements. 28
Another type of contamination occurs when an animal eats very old rotten vegetation instead of fresh. If a living mollusk - a general type of animal including aquatic (water-living) snails - eats only muck which has been dead for thousands of years, he will eventually carbon-14 date the same age as that muck. This is common for bottom-feeding snails which live in muddy rivers where very old sediments are constantly being churned up. According to C-14's theoretical basis, "You are what you eat;" for these snails, this can be vegetation which has been dead for 3000 years. This is not usually a problem because most animals are more careful about what they eat. Neither is this a problem for aquatic snails which live in clear lakes or in the ocean. 29
One other problem is that scientists don't really know exactly how many C-14 per C-12 atoms there were in the atmosphere during every century all the way back through time; but they are starting to work their way back. How they are finding this out is by carbon-14 dating wood from very old trees. The real age of this wood is determined by counting tree rings. 30 In this manner, carbon-14 dating has been checked back more than 7000 years as of 1971. 31 As of 1982, the ring sequence was extended back to about 9000 years ago.
As a result of testing tree rings, it was found that carbon-14 dates had been slightly in error (about 15% off for a 7000 year old specimen) due to the differing rates of atmospheric C-14 production in past ages. However, the observed error was not in the direction which would suggest a young earth. What had previously been measured and thought to be a mere 6000 years old, was now known to be about 7000 years old. Now that the direction and amount of this error is known, the information is used to correct modern C-14 dates and thereby make them more accurate.
Other checks have been made still farther back. For example, a C-14 date of 45,000 years was cross checked with one of the uranium dating systems with only 1,500 years of disagreement. 32 Here it cannot be known which of the two dates (or both) is in error. With C-14 and tree rings, it was understood that the error was in the C-14 date and not in the tree ring count. Although by no means conclusive, this check is at least a good sign.
In specimens from as far back in time as 50,000 years, less than one fourth of one percent of the original C-14 still remains. This makes accurate measurement quite difficult. With the present state of the art, carbon-14 dates of greater than 50,000 years are not accurate enough to be useful. It is not expected that the C-14 method will ever be refined to a level where it can be used to date material older than 100,000 years. 33
A specimen becomes too old to be dated by the C-14 method when most of its C-14 has decayed away. Coal, for example, has virtually no C-14 remaining. This means that it is impossible to assign a date to coal using this method - except to say that it must be older than C-14's useful range. It is just not possible to calculate how much older.
In summary, with a reasonable amount of caution, and with moderate corrections for known past variations, carbon-14 can be a useful method for dating organic specimens as old as 9,000 years with a high level of confidence. The underlying assumptions can all be tested this far back. At present, the method can be extended to an upper limit of about 50,000 years ago with increasingly reduced confidence.
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There is a period called "the dating gap" which is considered very difficult to date. It extends from where C-14 drops off to where the potassium-argon method becomes useful - about half a million years ago. Techniques for dating this period are still under development. 34 For the present, we will do well to be suspicious of dates which fall into this time period.
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For dates older than about half a million years, potassium-argon starts to become an effective way to date volcanic materials. The way this method works is that radioactive potassium-40 (potassium is a common mineral element) decays into argon-40 (argon is an inert gas). The argon will become trapped 35 inside the rock crystals where the potassium was. The decay mechanism is similar to carbon-14's but it happens at a much slower rate; 36 it takes 1.3 billion years for half of the potassium-40 to change into argon. This is one reason why potassium-argon (K-Ar) is only useful for such old dates.
Another property of K-Ar dating is that a volcano must erupt to reset its clock to zero. Because this does not happen very often in most parts of the world, it is not always possible to use K-Ar dating to assign precise dates. Individual eruptions in one location might be hundreds of thousands or many millions of years apart.
When a volcanic sample is heated to melting (this is the condition of hot lava from an erupting volcano), all of the argon-40 is driven out of it. 37 Because argon is inert, it cannot react with or combine to hot volcanic rock at all. Instead, the argon is boiled completely out of the rock and released into the atmosphere. This means that every time a volcano erupts and ejects hot lava or ash, the lava and ash will have no argon in them. This is how a volcano resets the K-Ar clock; no argon means that no time has elapsed since the eruption which ejected the particular sample.
This is certainly true at the earth's surface; but if a volcano erupts far beneath the surface of the ocean, the tremendous pressure at this depth can prevent the argon from completely escaping. The resulting error can be more than 10 million years of false age when the water is a few miles deep. 38 Because of this, we should allow for the possibility that underwater K-Ar dates might appear significantly older than they really are. However, this is not a problem with surface volcanos; nor does this amount of error appear to be very significant when one is dealing with ages ranging in the hundreds of millions of years.
>From the time of the eruption onward, any argon in an uncontaminated sample has to have been produced by decaying potassium - at least for surface volcanos. By measuring the amount of potassium-40 in the sample and the amount of argon which is released when the sample is re-heated in a laboratory, it can be determined how long ago a particular volcanic eruption occurred. The more argon present, the longer ago it happened.
Because of the small amounts of argon involved and because of the possibility of some contamination, 39 K-Ar dates are usually believed to be accurate only to within about plus or minus 100,000 years. The best dates can be as close as +/-50,000 years 40 but errors approaching a million years are to be occasionally expected when scientists get careless. Although errors of this size are of great concern to scientists working in the field, they will not be too much of a problem for us here. Even these great errors are not too significant when one is dealing with things that happened millions of years ago; three million years with a million years' worth of possible error is still at least two million years.
1996 Update: A new potassium-argon technique, single-crystal laser-fusion dating, gives a margin of error less than one percent. Errors as small as +/-10,000 years are claimed in dating three-million-year-old volcanic ash. See "Face-to-Face with Lucy's Family," Donald C. Johanson, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, March 1996, Vol. 189, No. 3, pp.113,114.
The K-Ar method is useful for determining the ages of the various strata in a segment of the geologic column. When a volcano erupts, ash is spread over a large area of ground. Later, it may become buried. Thus, volcanic ash can often be found between layers of earth. If a pure sample of that ash can be analyzed, then a real date can be assigned to that level of the column. A scientist will know that any fossil found "below" 41 that level is older than the ash. That fossil must have been buried before the volcano erupted or the ash would not have fallen on layers above it. Likewise the scientist knows that fossils which he finds in layers "above" the ash are more recent. Occasionally a scientist will be lucky enough to find a fossil sandwiched closely between two datable layers and can know the age of his find quite accurately. 42
Young-earth creationists often claim that the geological time scale was worked out by evolutionists before radioactive dating was even invented - that the presently assigned dates, therefore, really have nothing to do with radioactive dating methods at all. 43 This claim ignores the fact that when radioactive dating did become available, it was discovered that the first guesses (presumably based on evolutionary assumptions) had been greatly in error and so they were corrected. For example, the Miocene, formerly thought to have begun nine hundred thousand years ago, was found to have begun more than twenty million years earlier! 44 Here the truth was twenty times more ancient than the original estimate! The presently accepted dates have very little in common with the earlier ones.
Potassium-argon dating can also be useful in determining how various parts of the earth have moved around during past ages. The continental masses are gradually drifting around, sometimes colliding with each other, sometimes splitting apart. As a result, over the years the "geologic column" has been broken into many large and small pieces. Also wind and water erode away some top layers, leaving others, and deposit the rubble elsewhere. Dating a vertical sequence of lava flows can help a geologist to determine how the various pieces fit together. Of course there is a good deal of other evidence to help him - such as the visible presence of fault lines.
Working out the particular geology of an area is always a necessary first step which must be taken before any fossils can be reliably dated using the potassium-argon method. 45 This can be either an easy or difficult task depending on how broken up the terrain is or how visible the various layers are. At many places such as the Grand Canyon, where all of the layers are orderly and exposed for observation, this task is simple. At other places, where faulting has displaced the layers and they are only sporadically visible, the task can be quite difficult. Of course, the volcanic materials themselves can always be dated without knowledge of the surrounding geology.
In summary, potassium-argon is a useful method for dating volcanic materials which are older than about 500,000 years and which were erupted from surface volcanos. To get accurate dates, care must be taken that samples are not contaminated. Accuracy will not be better than +/-50,000 years; in extreme cases, it can be much worse. If fossils are to be dated by this method, the surrounding geology must be understood. Volcanic materials which were erupted into deep oceans might date much older than they really are.
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Although it is freely admitted that there are a great many questions for which scientists have not yet produced convincing answers, the question of whether or not the universe is young is certainly not one of them. God's creation consistently bears witness of its old age. There are many ways of assigning dates which have not been discussed here. These include the fission-track method and paleomagnetism. 46 Careful scientists cross-check their dates with as many of the different ways as possible. What they have found is repeated confirmation (within normal experimental limitations) of the very old dates for the various events of the earth's history.
This author has spent a great deal of time investigating various young-earth arguments - chasing down original sources - reviewing the methodology used etc. - and has never found a single argument which stood up when studied in context with other scientific evidence. All of the young-earth arguments which he has examined contain mistakes. Here are just a few more examples:
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That the earth's magnetic field is steadily decaying; it would have been too intense in the past if the earth is old: See Origin and Destiny of the Earth's Magnetic Field, by Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, 1973, Institute for Creation Research, San Diego, Ca.
The evidence shows that, over the long term, it is not decaying; in fact it periodically reverses direction. This would be impossible with a simple decay phenomenon. See Palaeomagnetism, Principles and Applications in Geology, Geophysics and Archaeology, D.H. Tarling, C. 1983, Chapman and Hall, London, pp. 181-187. Also, tree rings keep running records of C-14 concentrations in the atmosphere which relate to the intensity of the earth's magnetic field; but their record shows that the actual variation in C-14 concentrations, since 7000 years ago, disagrees radically with what this young-earth theory predicts. See "Carbon 14 and the Prehistory of Europe," by Colin Renfrew, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, October 1971, Vol. 225, No. 4, pp. 66, 67
. [Beginning of this Chapter] [ Table of Additional Arguments]
That rivers constantly wash minerals into the oceans; there is too little salt etc. in the oceans if the earth is old: See Scientific Creationism, Ed. by Henry M. Morris Ph.D., C. 1974, Master Books, El Cajon, Ca., pp. 153-155.
This argument considers influx rates only. It ignores many aspects of the ocean's chemistry which remove minerals (for example: precipitation, strong sorption process, and nodule formation) and also that plate motion periodically sweeps the sea floor clear. If this argument were valid, the amount of aluminum in the ocean would prove that the earth was only 100 years old. This would mean that the Civil War had never really been fought. But, of course, this argument is not valid. Ocean water does not simply result from concentration of in-flowing river waters. See Marine Chemistry, by R.A. Horne, C. 1969, Wiley-Inter-science, N.Y., p. 424; Continents in Collision, by Russell Miller, C. 1983, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, pp. 80-82; and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Earth Sciences, Ed. David G. Smith Ph.D., C. 1981, Crown Publishers Inc. / Cambridge University Press, N.Y., p. 60.
[Beginning of this Chapter] [ Table of Additional Arguments]
That there is insufficient meteoric dust mixed into the earth's crust if it is old: See Scientific Creationism, Ed. by Henry M. Morris Ph.D., C. 1974, Master Books, El Cajon, Ca., pp. 151-153.
As we have seen, there is 1000 times less meteoric influx to the earth than was assumed for that calculation. There are also processes at work removing this dust. Soil is constantly being washed into the oceans, deposited on the sea floors, and then the sea floors themselves are continuously being pulled down into the earth's mantle. Meteoric elements are "siderophile" (combine with iron) and so they are ultimately scavenged into the earth's core. See The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Earth Sciences, Ed. David G. Smith Ph.D., C. 1981, Crown Publishers Inc. / Cambridge University Press, N.Y., pp. 33, 58.
[Beginning of this Chapter] [ Table of Additional Arguments]
That scientists use circular reasoning to assign dates to the geologic layers and the fossils which they contain - dating each by the other:
This certainly was a problem back before the development of radioactive dating techniques, though it is not really much of a problem today; but scientists are human and may, even today, occasionally fall into this trap. According to proper procedure, index fossils are not used unless they have first been consistently tied to a single radioactive date range. This is not circular reasoning. For a valid (although still controversial) application of index fossils, see Lucy: the Beginnings of Humankind, by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey, C. 1981, Warner Books, N.Y., p. 238.
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It used to be argued that the sun is shrinking too rapidly - that it would have been too big in the past if the earth is old; but this argument is presently losing support. See It's a Young World After All, Exciting Evidences for Recent Creation, Paul D. Ackerman, C. 1986, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506, pp. 61-63.
The measuring technique was changed (giving the sun a different apparent size); but the sun's actual size seems to have stayed the same. If the sun had really been as much larger in the past as was claimed, some historically recorded total eclipses would have been impossible. See "The Consistency of the Solar Diameter Over the Past 250 Years," by John H. Parkinson, Leslie V. Morrison and F. Richard Stephenson. NATURE, December 11, 1980, Vol. 288, pp. 548, 549.
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Comets are short lived; there are too many of them still orbiting the sun if the solar system is old. See Scientific Creationism, Ed. by Henry M. Morris Ph.D., C. 1974, Master Books, El Cajon, Ca., p. 158.
New comets are continuously being introduced into our solar system from out beyond Pluto's orbit. When far away from the sun, comets are not short lived. See Mysteries of the Universe, Nigel Henbest, C. 1981, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, N.Y., p. 22.
This author has found oversights or mistakes in all of the young-earth "proofs" which he has investigated. They simply do not agree with the creation's evidence. 47 Because so many different arguments have been given, the time cannot possibly be taken to systematically refute them all here. It is hoped that any readers who are still unconvinced that the earth is old will be like the Bereans of Acts 17:11 and will carefully examine the evidence themselves. There are plenty of libraries full of data which are free for the using.
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