On Radiometric Dating and Common Ancestry

This conversation took place a few days ago here on wordpress.  This fellow, let’s call him Rob, and I were debating the validity of radiometric dating and the validity of common ancestry.  Let’s briefly explain these two.

Radiometric Dating:  Is the main technique used by evolutionary geologists to determine the age of rocks.  The basic process uses the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes found in rocks.  These isotopes decay, becoming a “daughter” isotope, with the “parent” isotope being the one decaying.  By measuring the amount of the daughter isotope, the theory goes, the amount of decayed parent isotope can be measured.  Taking into account the rate of decay (the half-life) of the parent isotope, the age of the rock can be calculated.  There are many different types of radiometric dating but Potassium-Argon (K-Ar) is the most widely used. 

Common Ancestry:  Evolutionary theory predicts that as species evolve over millions of years organisms will leave fossils.  These fossils will be a sort of chronicle of the evolution of a specific species.  This is shown by similar species being found in different geologic levels (strata) and locations.

Another blogger, besides Rob, made the statement that the radiometric dating evidence and the evidence of common ancestry clearly supported evolution, directing a question on Creationists about how we reconcile these facts.

(note:  Both Rob and my posts have been cut down to the essential parts and summarized in some cases for the sake of clarity and brevity.  If anyone would like a full transcript of the discussion, or proof that it took place, then PM me.)

I answered with…

“The thing you don’t realize about dating techniques is that they are built upon unscientific, unprovable assumptions. To be able to get a date out of a rock in this way you must assume three things…
1. The rate of decay of the parent isotope has NEVER changed
2. The starting amount of the parent isotope (when the rock formed) is ALWAYS the same
3. There must be NO daughter element in the rock when it hardens (the dating process would be contaminated)

These are things you can’t falsify or test, you must assume them

Also, the evidence of similarity is one that Creationists don’t deny.  We are all looking at the same fossils.  However, only evolutionists point to the evidence of similarity and claim it is also evidence of common ancestry.  The Creationists says that similarity is evidence of similarity only, and not that a species evolved from another.  The fact that species are found in different geologic strata and locations also isn’t suprising to the Creationists, similar species lived in different times…and?  God created similar animals in different places…and?

(At this point, Rob jumped in)

Rob

1. The rate of decay of the parent isotope has NEVER changed
2. The starting amount of the parent isotope (when the rock formed) is ALWAYS the same
3. There must be NO daughter element in the rock when it hardens (the dating process would be contaminated

“Yes, and there are instances where any or all of these things can mess up a dating attempt. Scientists are fully aware that dating cannot be absolutely exact.

However, there exists a truly enormous body of evidence, built up from many different dating methods, that points to this stuff being accurate.”

(Responding to my assertion that radiometric dating needs to use those assumptions)

“Could you provide some evidence for that?”

Geographical distribution: God put them there.

Could you provide evidence that this statement is true?

Me

“This is actually not true. You are attempting to downplay the importance of the assumptions. If these assumptions are true, which you just admitted they are, then radiometric dating is nothing more than a guess, and not even an educated one.

Me (in regards to Rob requesting evidence for my radiometric dating assertion)

Sure, my evidence is my reason. Let me put it into terms of the very basic math that geologists must do to find the age of a rock.
X (amount of starting parent isotope)
Y (Rate of decay)
Z (amount of daughter isotope present)

X(Y) = Z
Sounds about correct? (very basically of course)
1. So Y cannot be known for sure. We have no way of knowing wether or not any pressure, temperature or chemical factors have altered the rate of decay in the unobservable past.                                                       2. X can also not be known in any sense of the word.
3. X(Y)=Z is not completely accurate because there could be some starting initial Z on the other side of the = sign denoted by Zo. So a more correct equation would look like X(Y)+Zo = Z. Zo cannot be known, it must be assumed there is none.

Z is the only value in that equation that can be known. So does the equation X(Y)+Zo = 8 seem like a solvable equation? Of course not. But that’s the equation that geologists are trying to solve, and they must make several assumptions to solve it.

Me (in regards Rob’s request for evidence regarding “God created similarity”)

“The onus of evidence is not on me in this case. We are both looking at the fact that there is a geologic distribution of species. I am making a “God put them there” statement and you are making a “evolution put them there” statement. My assertion isn’t that “God put them there” is right persay, my assertion is that both statements are equal in validity.   The only difference is that you claim your statement to be scientific. By doing so, you must prove that it is.”

(This is where the tone of the conversation changed.  Instead of responding to my assertions and questions, I recieved this…)

Rob

“I’m sorry, but that’s BS of the highest order. If your statement isn’t scientific, it can be safely ignored in a scientific discussion. What you’ve said here is that you have no evidence and no opinion that anybody should care about. From now on when you say ‘God did it’, I’ll switch it out for ‘I have no idea and am not interested in finding out’. Sound fair to you?

I know your opinion on this probably won’t be ’scientific’, and thus will be no different to a wild guess, but what age do you think all of this rock is? What evidence do you have that practically all of modern science is completely wrong? (Sorry, I mentioned the word ‘evidence’ again. I keep forgetting you’re exempt!).

The scientific explanation for similarity is evolution. (Well, not quite, but you don’t know anything about science anyway… ;) Yours explnation is nothing. Nothing at all. Honestly, can you give us a single reason to take your argument seriously? Not only do you have no evidence, but you’ve actually stated that you don’t think you need evidence and that you’re not going to give us any – and yet, you think this is good enough to overturn the entirety of modern scientific thought.

Me

(At this point I basically asked Rob if he was insulting my intelligence and asked how our cordial conversation turned nasty.  I also asked if he could support common ancestry with something other than similarity)

Rob

You’re damn right I insulted your intelligence, and with good reason. You’re attempting to pass off religious belief as science, and you’ve got the gall to pretend that something you know nothing about is equally as valid as Creationism?

No amount of evidence is going to change your religious beliefs, and I can say that confidently because every single one of your posts has demonstrated fundamental ignorance about practically every facet of science.

The fact that you don’t even realize the implications of your argument – that, if correct, it would throw all of science into complete disarray – just proves that you haven’t done the first iota of real research on the topic. You’re trying to replace everything I just listed above with, essentially, magic – ‘God did it’.

Now, I’m well aware of none of this is going to get through to you, but I would hope that anyone else reading this – people who aren’t already addled by Creationist indoctrination – can see how completely ridiculous this kind of thinking is and how facetious is the claim that those who support evolution don’t have the evidence on our side. There’s a very good reason why Creationists steadfastly refuse to advance any evidence for their own ideas – they don’t have any.

Conclusion

Besides an ad hominem attack, Rob makes several other fallacies here that I want to point out.  He ignores the fact that his statement “evolution did it” is just as religious a statement as “God did it”.  In his case, evolution is being worshipped as the “doer of unobservable things” while I’m worshipping God as the same. 

He is equivocating the words “evidence” and “conclusion”.  The scientific evidence is that “the amount of Argon in the rock is X” while the evolutionary conclusion is “that means the rock is X years old”.   A conclusion that is based upon assumptions he is attempting to ignore.  A conclusion is not evidence, it’s a conclusion.

He claims that I have a “fundamental ignorance” of science without being able to show where my ignorance is.  What he really means is, “you don’t believe in evolution so therefore you’re ignorant”.

He argues that the entirety of science is based on “old Earth” and common ancestry.  Come again?  Science was just fine before those two theories came about and would be fine today without them.

He’s got a real problem with his statement that those “addled by Creationist indoctrination” can’t understand real science.  I’ll name a few scientists that were creationists in belief and we can all decide wether or not they understood science; Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes, Kepler, Bacon.  It sure seems like being a Creationist isn’t a hinderance to scientific thought at all doesn’t it?

While most won’t do so as vehemently as Rob, these are several of the common fallacies a Creationist will encounter when arguing with an evolutionist and/or atheist.   Don’t let them get away with it!

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4 Comments on “On Radiometric Dating and Common Ancestry”

  1. Jason Says:

    I only read the first few paragraphs, but you’re way off in your understanding of radiometric dating. Yes, it depends on several ‘assumptions’ but these aren’t assumptions in the sense the ‘oh hey, I wonder how old this rock will appear if we just make up some random criteria and try to date it?’ sense.

    “1. The rate of decay of the parent isotope has NEVER changed”
    Of course, this is a completely logical assumption which is supported by every bit of experimental evidence we have. Can you propose any sort of rational mechanism by which the rate would have changed? Since all experimental data suggests a constant rate, the most direct conclusion is that the rate is constant. Other conclusions can be reached, but they must be contrived through ad hoc explanations. The only reason to pick such an explanation over the directly reached constant rate conclusion is if you have ideological reasons (read: religion) – there is no scientific reason for that. See: Occams Razor.

    “2. The starting amount of the parent isotope (when the rock formed) is ALWAYS the same”
    Again, of course it would always be the same. The molten material that rocks are formed from is a circulating liquid, you probably learned long before you even reached high school that if your stir salt in a glass of water the salt disperses equally. You don’t get the right side of the glass full of salt and the left side full of fresh water, or anything like that. Every rock on earth (save meteorites, and we can tell the difference) will have the same % of parent isotope upon formation.

    “3. There must be NO daughter element in the rock when it hardens (the dating process would be contaminated)”
    This one isn’t even true. The important thing is the parent/daughter ratio, not the sheer amount of parent isotope daughter isotope present. In fact, we *don’t* base radiometric dating upon sheer numbers, it’s based on a ratio. The ratio works no matter if daughter was present at formation or not, as long as we know how much daughter was present at formation (which we do, as the rocks being formed today have the same ratio as the ones being formed a billion years ago, see number 1.)

    As you mentioned, there are many different types of radiometric dating, all involving different isotopes, and they give consistent, correlative results. This simply would not happen if the method was flawed, as the odds against systematic errors in all methods (which would be a different error with each method) would coincide to give consistent results are astronomical.

    To add, there are non-radiometric dating techniques that also give consistent, correlative results with radiometric techniques:
    – The Hawaiian archipelago was formed by the Pacific ocean plate moving over a hot spot at a slow but observable rate. Radiometric dates of the islands are consistent with the order and rate of their being positioned over the hot spot.
    – Radiometric dating is consistent with Milankovitch cycles, which depend only on astronomical factors such as precession of the earth’s tilt and orbital eccentricity.
    – Radiometric dating is consistent with the luminescence dating method.
    – Radiometric dating gives results consistent with relative dating methods such as “deeper is older.”
    The reason radiometric techniques are used so much is because they have been independently verified to work, plain and simple.

    I think you need to learn more about this. Here is a good source – http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/dating.html

  2. Eric Kemp Says:

    Jason

    Thanks for taking the time to respond

    “Yes, it depends on several ‘assumptions’ but these aren’t assumptions in the sense the ‘oh hey, I wonder how old this rock will appear if we just make up some random criteria and try to date it?’ sense.”

    I promise you I’m not attempting to insult scientists and say they are being so arbitrary.

    1. “Of course, this is a completely logical assumption which is supported by every bit of experimental evidence we have. Can you propose any sort of rational mechanism by which the rate would have changed?”

    We can measure what the rate of decay is at the time of experiment, and must assume that same rate has existed for all time. Yes, I can propose some mechanisms; temperature, pressure and chemical factors might effect rates of decay.
    Are you suggesting that the Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, we’ve been testing rates of decay for 300 years, and it’s MORE likely that they haven’t changed?

    “Since all experimental data suggests a constant rate…”

    “All”, are you sure about that?

    “Other conclusions can be reached, but they must be contrived through ad hoc explanations.”

    How am I explaining away evidence that disproves me?

    Occam’s Razor actually works against you in this case. Your assumptions are several, mine is singular.

    2. “Every rock on earth (save meteorites, and we can tell the difference) will have the same % of parent isotope upon formation.”

    Don’t you see how impossible that statement is? Both in sheer volume of rocks on the earth and the fact that the VAST majority of those rocks were formed in the unobservable past, hence you CANNOT KNOW their starting amounts? You just basically restated the assumption.

    3. “This one isn’t even true. The important thing is the parent/daughter ratio, not the sheer amount of parent isotope daughter isotope present.”

    Actually, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that it’s assumed that “all” the daughter isotope escaped before the rock solidified. Firstly, how could we possible know this about ancient rocks, secondly, there is some evidence from newly formed rocks that it might not be true.

    “The ratio works no matter if daughter was present at formation or not, as long as we know how much daughter was present at formation (which we do, as the rocks being formed today have the same ratio as the ones being formed a billion years ago, see number 1.)”

    That’s just not true at all. How would you know how much daughter isotope came from decay and how much was there at formation?

    “As you mentioned, there are many different types of radiometric dating, all involving different isotopes, and they give consistent, correlative results.”

    Firstly, not true, I’ve seen studies done where different radiometric techniques done on the rocks have differed 500 million years from eachother on the same rock, and they’ve differed WITHIN the technique on the rock itself and then on the different elements that made up the rock greatly as well.

    Secondly, all radiometric dating techniques are based on the same 3 basic assumptions.

    The bottom line is, Jason, scientists conclude that the evidence gleaned from a rock today is accurate in the past. It’s a conclusion that is unobservable, untestable and unfalsifiable.
    Making it an unscientific conclusion.


  3. Eric,

    I am going to touch on one aspect of this which I happen to have a lot of experience with. All experimental evidence indicates that the rate of nuclear decay in all elements is constant with respect to time. Your hypothesis that chemical environment, temperature or pressure can affect this has been tested and found to be incorrect.

    This also makes sense given what we know about quantum mechanics. The energy scale of a nuclear decay or reaction is on the order of millions of eV. The energy scale of chemical reactions is on the order of a few to maybe 100’s of eV. This explains why chemical environment has no baring on nuclear decay rates. It would be like going to the Canadian boarder and throwing marbles at the ground and expecting the US to break off into the sea. There simply isn’t enough energy to have an impact. Rather, nuclear decay is the by product of quantum tunneling and the height of the energy barrier is what matters.

    Similar arguments hold for temperature and pressure. Those two things cannot provide enough energy (unless it’s under truly extraordinary conditions like the formation of a star or in the hydrodynamics of a large scale nuclear reaction.)


  4. […] Creationists will claim that all of the evidence points equally towards either naturalistic evolution or the actions of whatever god they happen to worship, and in general they’re right. Not because ‘God did it’ is ever a good explanation for something, but because ‘God did it’ is the kind of vague, lazy explanation that draws Creationists like flies to honey. You can use ‘God did it’ for anything, which is an immediate and huge red light. The LHC will hopefully determine why matter has mass, but we don’t need all of that fancy equipment – God did it, you see. One of our chromosomes looks exactly like a pair of fused chromosomes found in some of the other hominid (or ‘ape’) species. Why is this? Apparently, God did it. […]


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