Thursday, July 7, 2016

About Time, part 5: Carbon-14 dating, the ice age, and the Bible

For many who call themselves Christians, 'Take it on faith' is a mantra they use when they can't explain something. But in fact, faith should be built on evidence. Annie's claim that “The Sun'll come out, tomorrow” was a good example of real faith. After all, tomorrow's sun hasn't come out yet. We believe it will come out, we have faith it will come out. It requires faith (albeit very little) to believe it, because it is an event that hasn't happened yet. But our belief in it is based on evidence: The sun came out today, it came out yesterday, etc.
Similarly, students of the Bible should not discount scientific claims simply because they conflict with their belief that, for example, an earth-wide flood happened 4,300 years ago. Instead, we need to look hard at the science and see if the evidence is rock-solid. If it is, then it's time to abandon the Bible. But if it is not rock-solid, if there are holes in it, then perhaps it doesn't contradict what the Bible says.
There are two dating methods that science swears by that can sometimes seem to contradict the Bible: Carbon 14 dating, and ice-core dating.
As we speak, powerful electronic particles from an unknown source in the Milky Way are striking stable nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere. These irradiated nitrogen atoms become unstable Carbon 14 atoms – unstable in the sense that they slowly decay back to nitrogen. The C-14 atoms combine with oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide. Along with ordinary carbon dioxide (C-12), the C-14 carbon dioxide is taken up by living plants.(Carbon 14 testing is useless on rock or fossils, as these have never breathed in carbon dioxide.) Currently, there is one C-14 atom to every 1 trillion ordinary carbon atoms in the atmosphere and, it is assumed, in every living plant. It is further assumed that the ratio has remained constant; that is, that a plant living, say, 5,700 years ago also took up one C-14 atom to every one trillion C-12 atoms. When the plant died and stopped taking in carbon dioxide, the C-12 amount froze, but the unstable C-14 atoms continued to decay. In a given amount of Carbon-14, half of it decays back to nitrogen every 5,700 years. So if you were to analyze a sample of 100 trillion carbon atoms from a plant, a modern one would have one hundred C-14 atoms, while 100 trillion atoms of the 5,700 year-old plant would have fifty C-14 atoms. 100 trillion atoms from a plant 11,400 years old would have twenty five C-14 atoms, and so on. Simple, right? The lower the amount of C-14, the older the sample is. Given all that, any sample more than a few thousand years old will have microscopically small amounts of C-14... one might even say "immeasurably small amounts." And, of course, the samples (and the machinery) are subject to contamination.
Notice all the assumptions involved: For the carbon clock to be reliable, the amount of cosmic rays striking the atmosphere would have to remain constant over thousands of years. Yet cosmic rays are greatly affected by magnetic fields. That's why scientists can only say they come from 'somewhere in the galaxy' – because each magnetic field they pass on their way to Earth changes their direction and their intensity. And Earth's magnetic field fluctuates dramatically as well. Further, there are indications that there have been times in Earth's history when a dense shroud of water, dust or other debris covered the planet, greatly inhibiting cosmic rays striking the atmosphere, and greatly reducing the amount of C-14 generated. The relative amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would also have to remain constant for the clock to work. Have they?
In Earth's history, atmospheric oxygen is believed to have been as low as 15%, and as high as 35%. The nitrogen level went down when oxygen went up, and vice versa. Carbon dioxide levels changed nearly every time a volcano erupted. When humans began building fires (6,000 years ago according to the Bible, 350,000 years ago according to science) CO2 climbed. When we began using fossil fuels, CO2 really jumped. Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s also greatly affected levels of C-14 in the atmosphere. So how can we say that the ratio of C-14 to ordinary carbon in a plant living today is the same as the ratio in a plant that lived thousands of years ago?
Most disturbing of all: C-14 should have reached equilibrium about 30,000 years after it began being created… millions of years ago, according to science. What is equilibrium? Well, if you keep pouring water into a glass after its full, the water leaving the glass must exactly match the amount entering the glass. The amount of C-14 generated should exactly match the amount decaying, or our world would be overflowing with C-14.
Yet, each year, about 12 percent more C-14 is generated than the amount that decays. This can mean ONLY one of two things:
  • The C-14 process – cosmic rays reaching the atmosphere, the atmosphere containing the present-day levels of nitrogen, oxygen, and CO2, the C-14 being absorbed by plants then decaying out, etc. – that process began less than 30,000 years ago… or
  • The theory on which Carbon 14 dating is based, is simply wrong
Ice cores
Scientists in Greenland, Antarctica, and other places drill long ice samples out of very deep glaciers. The claim is that the ice forms differently in the summer than in the winter, creating layers in the core, like rings in a tree. (Counting tree rings, by the way, called dendrochronology, has its own flaws. For more on that, read this.) They have extrapolated a historical record of atmospheric conditions going back hundreds of thousands of years by analyzing the microscopic samples of air, dust, pollen and other chemicals trapped in the ice at different levels and assigning them to a date.
The problem? Well, if there really was an earth-wide flood 4,300 years ago, the polar ice caps can't be any older than that. How can this apparent contradiction be resolved?
On July 15, 1942, five brand new planes were flying from the U.S. to Europe when they were forced by bad weather to land on the ice in Greenland. The crews managed to walk to safety, leaving the planes to be buried in ice. WWII plane buffs have coveted the “Lost Squadron” ever since, and concerted efforts were made to recover them. By the 1980s, expedition organizers were making plans, after consulting with the best ice scientists and Greenland weather experts, to dig through about 40 feet of ice to resurrect the planes. Imagine their surprise to finally locate the planes in 1989, buried under 268 feet of ice!
In places, the Greenland ice cap is believed to be 10,000 feet thick, and 250,000 years old. But if 268 feet can accumulate in just 50 years, is it possible the age estimates of the scientists are a bit off? They claim they have correlated their findings of layers showing volcanic activity with known dates of massive volcanic eruptions. But honestly, it's not as if they are finding a layer of ash whose content definitely proves it came from, say, the Vesuvius eruption of 79 C.E. Instead, they are measuring the levels of nitric acid at various points in the ice. So they count back 1,946 'layers', find a spike in nitric acid and say, 'See that? That's when Vesuvius blew.' But lots of conditions could cause a spike in nitric acid, and the layers aren't necessarily years.
Just like evolutionists, ice scientists also ignore data that doesn't fit their hypothesis. For example, the initial dating of Gisp2 (Greenland Ice Sheet Project, an ice core study) counted back 110,000 years/layers. One of their supporters claimed:
‘The first 110,000 annual layers of snow in that ice core have been visually counted and corroborated by two to three different and independent methods as well as by correlation with volcanic eruptions and other datable events.’
However, the scientists themselves admitted that their initial count was off by 25,000 years! When Dr. Meese realized her results didn't match her peers, she went back to the cores with a finer laser and voila! She found another 25,000 'years' of dust layers she'd missed.
A reasonable person might ask: How do you know those are “layers”? The “layers” seem to kind of blur into each other, at least to my untrained eye. Which one is supposed to represent summer and which winter? Even if the layers were more distinct, how do you know they are in fact individual years, and not simply individual freeze/thaw events? Or blizzards? Or shifting snow drifts? Or avalanches? How do you know the dust layers are individual summers? Is it impossible that a drought over a large part of Europe could have been accompanied by multiple windstorms that deposited multiple layers of dust in Greenland within one year?
Beyond that, suppose for a moment, even if you're skeptical, that the biblical flood account is true. According to at least one scientist, such an event would have been followed by decades if not centuries of wild swings in arctic and antarctic weather as ocean temperatures, currents, volcanic activity, and atmospheric gases gradually normalized to the Gulf Stream, El Nino, La Nina, and other patterns that shape our seasons today. It could even have left behind the evidence that science interprets as a 100,000-year-long ice age before the relatively reliable modern temperature patterns settled in.
Given that, isn't it possible that enormous, catastrophic, wild storms, drifting snow dunes and pressure ridges – perhaps interspersed with unstable global volcanic or drought activity – were mixed with melting, runoff, freezing, then more snow, perhaps leaving layers that represented mere months, weeks, or even days?
In the end, if the Bible has proven itself a reliable guide in other areas of your life, you are likely happy to trust its account over these unproven theories. Those who believe that these scientific theories have proven the Bible wrong have perhaps never looked at the Bible's usefulness in other areas of their lives. Or is it possible that, without any evidence, they have "faith" in science, based on inadequate or nonexistent evidence, simply because they deplore the alternative?
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