Evolution in the News - June 2001

Age-Dating Distortions

There was a letter to the editor on page 73 of the May/June 2001 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer titled Age-Dating Distortions. This letter says that one of the Answers In Genesis web pages entitled “Radioactive ‘dating’ failure 1” is “a classic example of how creation ‘scientists’ deceive the general public.”

The letter begins with a personal attack. In the first paragraph the letter writer says,

According to his on-line bio at the Answers in Genesis Web site, Snelling holds a B.S. in Applied Geology from the University of New South Wales in Australia. The bio doesn’t mention where he received his Ph.D., and I can find no evidence on the Internet of where he might have received one.

The implication is that we can’t really trust Snelling because we don’t know where he got his Ph.D. It might have come from an inferior university. It might be a “mail order diploma” which requires nothing more than a payment. Or, maybe, Doctor Snelling doesn’t even have a Ph.D. at all.

The interesting thing, to us, is that this letter is signed “Max T. Furr, Richmond, Virginia.” Where did he get his Ph.D.? What do we know about Max T. Furr? How credible a source is he? All we know is that he, by his own admission, doesn’t know how to use the Internet well enough to find out that Dr. Snelling got his Ph.D. from the University of Sidney. This is particularly surprising because we found it on our very first inquiry 2. Another thing we know about Max T. Furr is that, on at least one occasion, he has distorted information. He told us that “Snelling holds a B.S. in Applied Geology…” instead of telling us that “Snelling received a B.S. (hons) with first class honors.”

Maybe we should follow Mr. (not Dr.) Furr’s lead and see what we can find out about Max T. Furr on the Internet. There is much less about Mr. Furr on the Internet than there is about Dr. Snelling. All we found was a web page titled “Humanism’s Habitat 3” On May 5 it contained nothing more than “The Reverend Matthew ‘Crowbar’ Hale, A Short Story By: Max T. Furr”. We can’t be sure this is the same Max T. Furr who wrote to the Skeptical Inquirer, but since his email address is hobbes95@richmond.infi.net, there is a good chance that the web page author is from Richmond, Virginia. The short story on his web page is about someone who hates his preacher father. Mr. Furr can express hatred for a religious authority figure so well, that one has to believe he has at least some personal experience in this area.

Having said that, we want you to ignore everything we said in the previous two paragraphs. It is totally irrelevant. We merely wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to make a plausible attack on credibility using nothing more than information gained from one letter and one web page. We don’t know Mr. Furr. We don’t know what his credentials are. Nor do we care much. All we care about is the truth of his argument. He may be a brilliant man, who is wrong on this point. Or, he may be an idiot who happened to get this point right. (Even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day.) His credentials are irrelevant. All that matters is the validity of his argument.

So, let’s look at his argument. Snelling sent some samples of recent volcanic eruptions (known to occur less than fifty years ago) to a reputable laboratory for potassium-argon (K-Ar) dating. The laboratory said the samples were 270,000 to 3.5 million years old. Furr says,

Snelling gave a rather simple explanation of how the K-Ar dating method works, but omitted two very important points. First, he failed to mention that the half-life of potassium-40 is known to be 1,300 million years. This fact alone should cause one to suspect its accuracy for dating material twenty-five to fifty years old.

Of course, Mr. Furr is right. The half-life of potassium is so long that essentially none of it will decay in 50 years. Therefore, when sent to the lab, there should be no argon-40 in the sample, and the lab should report that the sample is too young to be dated. But, there was enough argon-40 in the sample to measure, so the lab was unable to recognize that this rock came from a recent lava flow.

The technical literature refers to this as the “excess argon problem.” In fact, there isn’t any excess argon. There is the right amount of argon in the rock. This amount just happens to be more than the amount suggested by an incorrect model used by evolutionists. The model suggests that since argon is a gas, and lava (or ash) is hot when it comes out of the volcano, all the argon should escape from the lava (or ash) before it cools. Therefore, all the argon in the lava came from potassium that has decayed since the lava cooled. That assumption is clearly wrong.

Dr. Snelling’s tests are not the only ones that show that when volcanoes erupt in modern times, the lava contains enough argon-40 to make it appear that they erupted millions of years ago. Since modern lava flows contain “excess argon”, it is reasonable to assume that lava flows contained excess argon 3,000 years ago. Therefore, if a volcano erupted 3,000 years ago in a region inhabited by primitive people who did not keep records, the lava flow could easily be dated at several million years. If that lava flowed over a graveyard, one would assume that the bones had to have been buried before the lava flow, and therefore must be several million years old.

Dr. Snelling’s tests show that K-Ar dating can’t tell a recent lava flow from an ancient lava flow. Therefore, it can’t be used to establish the age of volcanic ash or lava in the rocks above and below hominid fossils (which is commonly done to date hominid fossils).

Mr. Furr says,

The second omission, and most important, was that the K-Ar dating method is known by scientists to be unreliable for dating volcanic rock laid down less than 500,000 (five hundred thousand) years ago, and thus, paleontologists don’t use it for dating recent flows, and certainly not flows only twenty-five to fifty years old because there would not be enough argon to measure reliably.

Yes, that’s exactly what we (and Dr. Snelling) say. There would not be enough argon to measure, if the method were valid. But the method is based on the incorrect assumption that there isn’t any argon-40 in fresh volcanic rock to begin with, and that all argon-40 is the result of potassium decay. Dr. Snelling’s tests show that the assumptions are not valid, and the method is not useful. Suppose all the lava flows on Earth were less than 6,000 years old. They would all date to several hundreds of thousands, or a few millions, of years.

When the rocks are believed to be a few million years old, and the K-Ar test says the rocks are a few million years old, then the test is said to be accurate. When the rocks are known to be young, and the test says the rocks are a few million years old, then the test is said to be inaccurate. Therefore, the test is meaningless. It is of no more value than a “yes man” who tells the boss what the boss already believes.

Please notice that Mr. Furr said, "paleontologists don’t use it for dating recent flows". In other words, the presumed age of the rock prejudices which radioactive method is used for determining the age of the rock. They use a method which will give them a number of years consistent with what they already believe.

Still, even if the samples did contain such an extraordinary amount of argon-40, it is probable that either the team actually took old samples, or the samples of fresh lava inherited argon-40 from the heating of older deposits lying beneath. This has been known to happen.

How could it possibly be known that “fresh lava inherited argon-40 from the heating of older deposits lying underneath?” Suppose you find a place where there are two lava flows, one lying on top of the other. Suppose you believe that the two flows occurred at different times because they have different colors, or because there is a thin layer of some other kind of rock between them. If you find argon-40 in the top flow, how do you know it came from the lower flow? You can’t know that.

It is amazing to us that people who proudly call themselves “skeptics” can be so gullible when it comes to the accuracy of age-dating techniques that have been shown to be wrong by repeated laboratory experiments.

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Footnotes:

1 http://answersingenesis.org/home/area/magazines/docs/cenv22n1_dating_failure.asp?srcFrom=aignews (Cr+)
2 http://www.christiananswers.net/creation/people/snelling-a.html (Cr+)
2 http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/4587/ (Ev+)