Glasgow’s Intelligent Design Director has ”open mind” on age of Earth

Al Furqan Mosque, Glasgow, in whose Community Hall Dr Noble spoke last Friday (November 28) on ‘Intelligent Design: Myth or Reality?’

See how many errors of fact and logic you can find in what Dr Noble, Director of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design, said when my friend and Scottish Secular Society colleague, Garry Otton, asked him about the age of the Earth. This was on the occasion of his visiting a mosque as part of the activities of Scotland’s Interfaith Council, which receives £9,000,000 a year of taxpayer money. I offering him  space to reply, but he tells me that “I really don’t think this kind of speculative trivia deserves a considered response.”

Dr Noble said that the scientific consensus is about 3 billion years old, but there is a lot of uncertainty about all scientific things and some think the Earth’s only thousands of years old. He thinks the Earth might be old, but human beings might be “much younger than most scientists would accept”. A geologist has shown him a piece of rock, dated as 300 million years old, but containing a seam of coal carbon-14 dated at 40,000 years. And carbon dating only goes back to around 50,000 years, so [he said with heavy emphasis] “the error is not in the date of the coal.” All methods depend on judgements about initial conditions that we have no way of knowing. The scientific consensus can be very arrogant, so he doesn’t have a serious problem with an old Earth, but is not completely convinced.

Here is my list of errors; let me know if you spot others:

First, and least important, that number, 3 billion years. It should of course be around 4. 5 billion years.

From the fact that carbon-14 is useless beyond 50,000 years, Dr Noble infers that the error is “not in the date of the coal.” The exact opposite is true. The 50,000 limit is the limit of the method, showing that it cannot be used for more ancient deposits.

Actually, it has long been known that ancient coal cannot be dated by carbon-14, because it gives spurious and erratic young(ish) ages, between 20,000 and 50,000 years. This has thwarted attempts to use it as a standard background (see e.g. this 1939 paper). One percent contamination by contemporary material of the area sampled will reduce the apparent age to less than the 40,000 years that Dr Noble quotes, and other potential problems include the presence of modern bacteria (well established by 1931) and carbon-14 generation in the coal from the nitrogen-14 present, as an indirect effect of the radioactive decay of heavy elements in the coal.

I don’t know where Dr Noble got his numbers from, but they are identical with those quoted in a 2002 Talkorigins article, which discusses and dismisses the alleged anomaly. A fuller and more recent critical analysis of claims of detecting carbon-14 in ancient materials  can be found at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/carbon-kb.htm#22 (ASA in this address stands for American Scientific Affiliation, an organisation of Christians who reject attempts such as Dr Noble’s to discard the plain science of evolution and an ancient Earth; the author, Kirk Bertsche, holds a Ph.D. for his work on radiocarbon methods, and an MA in Exegetical Theology from Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon).

As for our judgments about initial conditions, we can check these in at least four separate ways. Firstly, careful mineralogy, picking out well isolated samples or even well-defined individual crystallites. Secondly, available since the 1940s, what are known as isochron methods, which use non-radiogenic isotopes as internal markers. Thirdly, SHRIMP (sensitive high resolution ion microprobe) methods, available since 1980, which allow assessment even of selected regions within crystallites, giving valuable information about thermal history and element mobility; I have a friend who does this for a living. Finally, the good agreement of disparate methods (this was mentioned to Dr Noble) provides cross-validation, and the rare occasions when this does not occur (for example in rocks with anomalously young potassium-argon ages) are themselves highly informative (in this example, regarding subsequent heating episodes). Radiometric Dating, A Christian Perspective, by Roger Wiens,  principal investigator of the Mars Curiosity Rover’s chemical laser analysis team, gives an excellent perspective on this and other alleged problems.

It is just not true that there is a lot of uncertainty about all scientific things. There is no real uncertainty about the age of the Earth, any more than there is real uncertainty about the existence of the atoms of which it is composed. Dr Noble himself would be very upset if I were to allege that there is a lot of uncertainty about the abstruse area of inorganic chemistry in which he obtained his own Ph.D. over 40 years ago.[1] And yes, we should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.[2]

So how did Dr Noble, who evidently still thinks of himself as a scientist, come to make such a concatenation of elementary errors? I would suggest confirmation bias, selecting evidence that supports a view already adopted for very different reasons. And in this case, that view is identified by his wish to take seriously the possibility that human beings might be “much younger than most scientists would accept”. Dr Noble belongs to a church that believes in the “entire trustworthiness” of Scripture, and perhaps he looks kindly on the idea that human beings were specially created in the past few thousand years. But if this is the case, the biological science that shows we are sister species to chimpanzees, and the Earth science that dates undeniably human skulls back to more than 100,000 years ago, must be denounced as unreliable. The rest follows.

Added note: Some commentators have inferred that Dr Noble is a six-day creationist. I, however, interpret his careful distinction between the age of the Earth and the age of humanity a showing a more broad-minded perspective than that, one which also grants credibility to day-age and gap versions of creationism.  Here day-age accepts the order of events in Genesis, but allows that each “day” may refer to an era. “Gap” allows geological tme in between Genesis 1:1 and Genesi 1:2. Both were originally attempts by conservative theologians to accommodate biblical literalism to early 19th century geology, and both, crucially, accept a historical Eden a few thousand years ago, and separate creation of kinds. I deliberately chose impeccably Christian sources for the geological background, to highlight the possibility that Dr Noble’s hermeneutics may be as selective as his geology.

1] The Preparation and Properties of Tungsten Hexafluoride Derivatives, Glasgow, 1970.

2] For the history of this phrase see here.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on December 4, 2014, in Creationism, Philosophy, Religion, Scotland and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Paul, I’m curious… Would you consider doing a debate with me in later 2015 on the respective merits of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and intelligent design? I would be quite happy to explore doing that with you if it interests you.

    Like

    • No. It would look better on your vita than on mine.

      Like

      • Who are you wanting to communicate to, Paul? Those who already share your position? Or those who presently find my position more convincing? Or those who sit on the fence? If your intended audience is the first of those, then avoiding debate may be the best option. If your intended audience is the latter two, then it seems to me that a debate would give you a platform to talk to those sorts of people. Surely the fact that many people take the ideas of the ID community seriously should be sufficient reason for you to engage in debate on this subject. Just think how significant it could be to your cause if you were to show in public in front of all the ID supporters just how silly ID is. Or if you don’t consider yourself up to the task, you can of course put someone else forward to represent the BCSE.

        Jonathan

        Like

      • Debate serves a function when there is disagreement about attitudes or priorities. It is not the appropriate forum where there is disagreement about facts. I am familiar with your work, highly technical and involuted, and full of crucial errors not apparent to a lay audience. So I see nothing to be gained by giving you a platform.

        Let me, however, dissociate myself from the way you have sometimes been treated. I think the way PZ Myers handled you was disgraceful, and had I been there (an unlikely eventuality given my opinion of PZ Myers) I would have protested.

        Like

  2. Dear Paul,

    I really don’t think this kind of speculative trivia deserves a considered response.

    As you must know, your colleague had a casual conversation with me before the event at the Mosque began. He did not identify himself at that point and our conversation was fairly light hearted and friendly.

    The age of the Earth did not, so far as I recall, form any part of the formal proceedings of the evening. Indeed it is not normally an issue for Intelligent Design which does not dissent from the accepted position. I’m sure I explained that to your contact. I know it is disappointing for you, but I do not fit your stereotype.

    I also do not recognise some of the content of your article, but I accept your undercover contact may have made a recording.

    It’s just a pity we can’t discuss the key issues around Intelligent Design dispassionately without resorting to this kind of personal misrepresentation and innuendo.

    Oh, and by the way, is having an ‘open mind’ not the essence of good science?

    Best wishes,

    Alastair

    Like

    • If you think I have misrepresented you, or implied positions that you do not in fact hold, it is up to you to say exactly how. Otherwise I and my readers will remain in perpetual ignorance of the offences of which you accuse me.

      Like

    • Boy – the statement about the intelligent design “which does not dissent from the accepted position…” is really not representative of either its more recent history nor of facts, at least as far as the ID people in the Colonies are concerned. ID has been around since that blind watchmaker (Paley) has. It was only during the run-up to the publication after a US Supreme Court decision made the term “creationism” something that was not to be taught in classrooms as science that intelligent design was pushed. Granted, there were old earth creationists around, but they were definitely not the problem nor the majority. If you look at the polling data in the US over the years, it is quite clear that creationism wins, in fact, over intelligent design, period.

      Alastair, I don’t know you, and will, therefore, give you the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it is true in the UK that intelligent design is really predominant in the old age interpretation, but is sure as heck isn’t true in the rest of the world. I think that the burden of proof of your assertion is on you. And, I do agree with Paul. If you accuse him of something, please make it clear.

      So you have two things to do before you are believable: demonstrate the veracity of your assertion about old earth vs. Biblical interpretations by (ID) believers, and please make clear just exactly what is offending you from what Paul has said. I have known Paul for some time now, and he does not make things up.

      (And as an aside, having an open mind is certainly a paramount principle of science. And that principle has led to the theory of evolution being fully accepted in trumping any of Paley’s old ideas. So, if you wish to enter into debate, you must bring some new, scientifically acceptable evidence to the table, not old, scientifically debunked musings. I guarantee that if you should do so, you will win a place at the Nobel table, and the world will listen to you. In the meantime, the key issues you imply are there, are already gone, much like the belief that insects all had 4 legs. That, nor the things like it that are pushed by the intelligent design community are really not worth the time or effort “dispassionately” discussing.)

      Kim

      Like

      • (My apologies on the terrible editing of the first paragraph.)

        Kim

        Like

      • I think the meaning is clear. You are referring to the version of Intelligent Design embodied in the infamous Of Pandas and People, the centrepiece of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board, which established that in that book, Intelligent Design was thinly disguised religious creationism, and therefore, under Edwards v. Aguillard, its teaching in publicly funded schools was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution. And UK readers may not be aware of how widespread biblical creationism is in the US, with ID acting as a figleaf. I will be reviewing ID in a purely British (or, at any rate, Scottish) context in due course.

        Like

  3. Our department chair, Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson was not too keen on analytical chemistry in general and electrochemistry in particular. After a department seminar given by visiting professor Martin Fleischmann I asked Sir Geoff what he thought. Blunt as usual, Geoff replied, “The man’s a fucking idiot.” I miss old Geoff.

    Like

    • Me too, though I only met him twice. Great guy.

      Like

    • Your quote of GW about the late Martin Fleischmann, FRS, is an unfortunate legacy that is grossly unfair to all parties. Fleischmann made one major error in his academic career (rather as did the late Professor Laithwaite) for which fellow scientists directed a terminal retribution to a man who, up to that time period, had a brilliant career.

      Propagating slanderous comments about a dead scientist is less than cheap!

      Like

  4. Life arose 3.5-3.7 billion years ago; multicellular life around 3.0 to 3.6 billion years ago (yes, the estimates overlap).

    Like

  5. There is no doubt in my mind that Dr Noble is a six-day creationist. Having had dinner with him and his wife (and a few others) a few years ago, just prior to a Durham University debate, he left us all in no doubt of his credentials as a creationist. I doubt that anything woiuld change his mind. Indeed, I asked him what evidence he would need to see to change his mind and his reply, as I recall, was something along the lines of ‘there can be no evidence as the only evidence that carries weight on this matter is that which we find in the Bible.’

    That said I still find it astonishing that he does not know the current scientific consensus on the age of the earth and that (as a chemist) he simply does not understand the limitations of C14 dating!

    Seeing a really bad sci-fi movie the other day about crystal skulls being dated as being 500,000 years old using carbon dating I shuddered – it takes no more than a few minutes to google the subject and understand its limitations – the writer of the film was, however not a PhD Chemist (I looked her up being the geek that I am).

    Like

  6. Reblogged this on James's thinking space and commented:
    Dr Noble here seems to be acting like a six-day creationist who has simply not read enough science to understand the fundamental errors he is making. That he is a six-day creationist is in no doubt for me having had dinner with him before a Durham union debate some years ago. That he simply does not understand carbon 14 dating is astonishing. Paul Braterman’s post, below, neatly dissects his ‘arguments’.

    Like

  7. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    This is a Young Earther without the guts to admit he believes the earth is 6000 years old. Not an open mind but a closed and feeble one.

    Like

  8. So, Dr. Noble received his degree well after reasonable hypotheses demonstrated the problems with, and potential errors with addressing the age of mineable coal past 40 to 50k of age (is there any significant coal that is less than this age that is mineable?) years ago. This means that either Dr. Nobel did not study these hypotheses, he did not know about these hypotheses, or he rejects them because of reasons he has not stated. If the former two reasons are the case, we may forgive Dr. Noble’s errors on simple ignorance and lack of maintaining currency in his field of study. If the latter is true, then it would seem that Dr. Noble owes the rest of us an explanation as to why he does not accept perfectly logical (with a reasonable data driven analysis) of his apparent ignorance. Perhaps he is willing to explain this apparent lack of knowledge?

    Like

  1. Pingback: Fundamentalism in Glasgow Mosque | Garry Otton

  2. Pingback: Fundamentalism in Glasgow Mosque | Scottish Secular Society

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: