Glasgow’s Intelligent Design Director has ”open mind” on age of Earth
Posted by Paul Braterman
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. And yes, we should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.
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 BratermanScience 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 Age of the earth, carbon-14 dating, Centre for Intelligent Design, Creationism, Interfaith Council, Radiometric dating. Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.