More Second-Rate Science from the RATE Group

Mr. Knapp's website on 11/16/03 prominently displayed the following heading:  More bad news for evolutionists.  RATE group reveals exciting breakthroughs!  Clicking on the heading takes the reader to an article at the Answers in Genesis (AIG) website which touts "exciting breakthroughs" that are purported to provide "powerful independent confirmatory evidence" for accelerated radioactive decay.  The supposed "breakthroughs"  have to do with discovery of an apparent overabundance of helium in certain zircon samples and the detection of  carbon-14 (14C) in diamond.  The importance of these discoveries, according to the author of  the article, Carl Wieland, stems from the fact that they provide "exceptionally striking evidence" for a young earth (i.e., something less than 10,000 years old).

Are these discoveries really proof of a young earth as specified by a literal reading of the Bible?  Are they "more bad news for evolutionists" as Mr. Knapp so brazenly proclaims?  Or do they represent more of the same old malarkey we have come to expect from the evolution deniers who comprise the RATE Group? (See here for a discussion of  the organization of the RATE Group and the quality of its research.) 

The Charade of Creationist "Peer-review"

Wieland's article attempts to impress upon the reader the fact that the papers which describe this work were "peer-reviewed."  However, what the article doesn't tell the reader is that the peer-reviewers were all hand-picked from a fringe group of biblical literalists who have sworn to ignore any data that conflicts with the young-earth creationist (YEC) worldview.  These reviewers are motivated solely by the desire to defend their sacrosanct religious beliefs, not by the desire to discover the the scientific truth. Anyone who would expect them to actually engage in an impartial and scientifically honest analysis of the evidence is deluding themselves.  (See here for further discussion on the charade of creationist "peer-review.")

Seems a Strange Place to Publish Significant Scientific "Breakthroughs"

If these results are "breakthroughs" that provide convincing evidence which will overturn the firmly established laws of physics pertaining to rates of radioactive decay, why are they only published in obscure religion-based journals?  After all, if it were true, this work would undermine the very foundation of theoretical physics. Surely if this work is as momentous as the article claims it is, it would receive top billing in some prestigious science journal such as Science or Nature.  There is nothing mainstream science likes better than authenticated "breakthroughs" that call into question the veracity of existing theories.  Scientific progress thrives and depends on the testing and questioning of established ideas.  Surely if these studies were of the quality that they could result in a paradigm shift in scientific thinking, they would merit publication in the most prestigious scientific journal in the world - would they not?  But instead they appear in an off-beat publication produced by religious fundamentalists who have a reputation for consistently cranking out junk science.

Creationists complain that they are unfairly discriminated against when they attempt to publish their YEC findings in mainstream science journals.  However, if creationists whine that there is some kind of clandestine conspiracy at work to prevent publication of their young-earth "breakthroughs" in mainstream scientific journals, then they are only revealing their lack of understanding of how the scientific process operates and how receptive it is to legitimate challenges to the status quo.

As is discussed below, there is a very good reason why this work is not published in a reputable scientific journal where the evidence and conclusions are subject to review by objective scientific experts.  The reason, as the title of this webpage implies, is because the methodology employed is scientifically invalid and the conclusions that are drawn from the data are pure unadulterated bunk.  The nexus of the science fiction produced by the RATE Group is a miraculous, supernaturally-mediated acceleration of radioactive decay.  However, as even these Bible-thumping snake oil salesmen should know, science does not permit the use of supernaturally-mediated miracles as part of its explanatory process. Only naturalistic explanations are accepted as being scientifically valid. Any resemblance between genuine scientific research and the self-serving data manipulation practiced by the RATE Group is purely coincidental.

Accelerated Radioactive Decay - Too Hot to Handle

Before delving into a discussion of the studies themselves, it is first informative to consider what would be the actual outcome if radioactive decay had accelerated to the extent the creationists demand. As shown here, had this level of acceleration actually taken place, all life would have been obliterated from the face of the earth in a fiery cataclysm due to the tremendous heat that would have been liberated by such a runaway process. Even if the reports presented reliable information (which they do not), the accelerated radioactive decay, as proposed by Wieland and his anti-science cohorts, renders the entire premise untenable.  If such accelerated decay had actually occurred, there would be no one left to speculate about it.  With that fatal blow having been dealt to the creationist argument at the outset, let's next take a closer look at the two studies in question.

Creationists get Excited about the Passing of Gas

Regarding the helium-zircon study, the author makes the argument that the amount of helium gas (produced by the decay of uranium) in certain zircon samples is not compatible with the claim that the earth is billions of years old. It is the author's contention that, because helium would be expected to easily pass from the crystals over time, the relatively high amounts of this gas found in certain crystals closer to the surface of a test borehole indicate that accelerated radioactive decay must have occurred.  In other words, for the relatively large amounts of helium found to be present in these samples, its production must have occurred within the last few thousand years or so or it would have all leaked out by now. The validity of this argument depends, in part, on the rate at which helium diffuses from the crystals.  If the rate is very slow, then the earth could be very old. If it is relatively rapid, all things being equal, the earth could be relatively young.  The authors report in this study that tests show the rate to be relatively rapid, thus, according to them, the results confirm with the young-earth model they have developed..

At first glance, this all sounds rather convincing to the layman and even to those scientists, such as myself, who lack expertise in the study of radioactive decay as it pertains to geological substrates (geochronology).  But what happens when creationist claims regarding helium diffusion from zircons are evaluated by a mainstream scientists who do have expertise in this area?  The most comprehensive review of this "breakthrough" study has been conducted by Dr. Kevin Henke and can be found here.  Other critiques are available here, here, and here.

One thing to consider up front is whether or not Wieland's claim that "There should surely be hardly any [helium] left" in the zircons under investigation is valid.  As explained here, zircons crystals would be expected to absorb helium from their surroundings when the concentration gradient favors such an exchange.  If helium can diffuse out of such crystals there is no reason to assume that it cannot also diffuse into them as well under the proper conditions.  Since helium is continuously generated in the earth's crust by radioactive decay and can reach quite high levels in certain geological substrates, there is no logical reason to conclude that there should be "hardly any left" in all specimens.  Unless the RATE Groupers can come up with evidence for some kind of hitherto unknown, one-way-sieve effect that would permit helium to diffuse in only one direction, Wieland's claim is without justification.  (While they're at it, they can also provide evidence for the elusive "brake" which they claim prevents micro-evolutionary changes from producing macro-evolutionary results, given enough time.)           

It is also informative to learn under what circumstances the data for this study were obtained.  As Wielands's article states, "The samples were sent (without any hint that it was a creationist project) to a world-class expert to measure these rates."  The world-class expert in this case happens to be Ken Farley, who upon learning that his name had been used in a creationist article, had the following to say, "I ran some contract analyses for an alleged mining company, and, guess what?  They were not a mining company at all.  Does anybody really take this stuff seriously? Seems kinda stupid to me.  Why would a true believer care what science says?"  Indeed, why would a true believer, for whom faith is the ultimate justification, be concerned with what science has to say about this issue or anything else?  To their credit, they at least seem to recognize that without scientific validation of their ideas, they are only preaching to the choir.  And what about this lying about the source of the specimens?  Was that the Christian thing to do?

In his detailed review of the study, Dr. Henke noted a number of serious deficiencies in the paper. 

1. There were gross miscalculations in the data. 

2. The wrong rock type was sampled.

3. Proper precautions were not taken to eliminate possible contamination.

4. Equations were based on invalid assumptions.

5. The authors relied on questionable data.

6.  "Miracles" (verboten in real science) were used to explain away contradictory data.

So after close inspection by  mainstream scientists who have experience in this field of research, the "breakthrough" in helium-zircon studies touted by the RATE Group turns out really nothing more than a breakdown in the utilization of sound scientific practices. 

A Diamond is a Creationist's Best Friend - Or is it?

The other supposed "breakthrough" reported in Wieland's article deals with the discovery of radiocarbon in diamonds.  According to creationist logic (and that is using the term loosely), this discovery lends support to the theory that that the earth is young and some radiocarbon must have been derived from primordial sources. Because of the relatively short half-life of radiocarbon (5,730 years), it is reasoned, that if the earth is billions of years old, most (mainstream scientists would say virtually all) of the original radiocarbon should have decayed away by now.  However, since the creation pseudoscientists have detected traces of radiocarbon in ancient samples including diamond, they proclaim this to be decisive evidence that the earth must be young.

What's wrong with this picture?  Well, for one thing, as any radio-analytic scientist knows, radiocarbon dating is restricted to the analysis of specimens that have obtained their radiocarbon from atmospheric sources.  Radiocarbon dating is inherently useless for deeply buried specimens that are formed under conditions that preclude the incorporation of atmospheric carbon. This fact alone demonstrates the futility of trying to draw any meaningful conclusions about the age of subterranean-formed specimens using radiocarbon analysis.  The fact that creation "scientists" would employ such an ineffectual method for dating these types of samples leads one to seriously question the sincerity of their efforts. It also demonstrates how desperate they are to come up with anything that they can use to fool both themselves and their fellow creationists into thinking there is scientific backing for their ill-founded creation model.

Another consideration has to do with the following statement in the article: "C-14 labs have no real answer to this problem, namely that all the 'vast-age' specimens they measure still have C-14."  It is difficult to tell if Wieland is making this claim in order to confuse the layman who reads his article, or whether he does not know any better himself.  Whatever the case may be, scientists most assuredly do have a plausible explanation for why these specimens contain radiocarbon.  (See here for the answer.)  When one takes into account the likely formation of radiocarbon in situ via the radioactive decay of other isotopes (primarily the uranium-thorium isotope series) and the possibility of bacterial action, this argument concerning the presence of unexpected radiocarbon disintegrates like all the rest of the creationists' fantastic claims for a young earth  . Again we see that this "spectacularly supported" "breakthrough" stems from the failure to take contrary evidence into account and the use of seriously flawed scientific methodology.

Incidentally, the age that the lab determined for the diamond specimen was upwards of 58,000 years. Wieland makes a substantial downward correction based on his claim that "the helium diffusion results have so strongly affirmed dramatic past acceleration of radioactive decay."  In view of the fact that the helium diffusion results have affirmed no such thing, Wieland will now have to come up with some other excuse for fudging the data.              

An Insatiable Appetite for Baloney

As usual, Mr. Knapp swallowed this latest serving of creationist baloney with great relish.  He was apparently so impressed by the quality and impact of this work that he featured a reference to it in large, bold type at the beginning of his webpage. But why, if this research is so revolutionary and paradigm-busting as the creationists claim, is it not now the most hotly discussed topic in every scientific forum in the world?  Why, if this is truly "bad news for evolutionists," have only 0.15% of the most highly trained scientists with the most relevant expertise jumped on the creationist bandwagon?  Why, if it has any validity, has this "exceptionally striking evidence" that would require a complete overhaul of current laws of physics not been featured in the science segment of every major newscast worldwide?  And why, if the creationist laboratories really have produced significant scientific "breakthroughs," are scientists the world over not flocking to these institutions to study with with these illustrious investigators?  Have these obvious questions never occurred to creationists like Mr. Knapp?  Or have they hatched up some far-fetched conspiracy theory to try to explain them away?  It would be interesting to know.                 

Although I do have experience using radiotracers in the conduct of metabolism and environmental fate studies, I readily admit that I do not have the expertise to properly evaluate the geophysical studies in question.  However, rather than rejecting them outright or blindly accepting them as valid scientific "breakthroughs" as Mr. Knapp did, I first thought it wise to determine how well these claims could stand up under objective scientific scrutiny.  Mainstream scientists are skeptical by nature. They ask pertinent questions and do not automatically accept results simply because those results support their favorite theories. Nor do they automatically reject them just because they contradict those theories.  Mainstream science is concerned with obtaining the correct answers, not protecting sacred theories.  As exemplified by these RATE Group studies, creation "science" is far more interested in preserving its antiquated worldview than it is in describing reality.

The Primitive State of Creation "Science" Research

I must give Mr. Knapp credit for including at least one statement on his website that I can agree with.  Below the link to the RATE Group studies he includes the following statement, "Creation scientists aren't real scientists and don't do real research."  I couldn't agree with him more.   (For commentary on this topic from someone else who agrees wholeheartedly with this statement, see here.) 

To be honest about it, this statement was written by a YEC, Terry Mortenson, who posed it as a sort of rhetorical question and them proceeded to argue to the contrary.  Part of Mortenson's commentary is indicative of how desperately creationists want their efforts to be accepted by mainstream science.  In discussing one of the mainstream scientists who attended an International Conference on Creationism, Mortenson commented that he was, " impressed with the scientific excellence of the papers that he admitted to one of the presenters that he was going to have to do some hard thinking about what he heard." The impression Mortenson hoped to convey was that this scientist was so favorably impressed by the quality of the research reported that he would have to reconsider his position as an evolutionist.  Of course, as usual, Mortenson did not identify this mainstream scientist in his article.  But those interested in such claims did eventually determine who it was. The "impressed" scientist was Frank Lovell who had this to say about the situation, "AiG's 'spin' in reporting my 'admission' is a tad over exuberant (imagine that!); it is true that the level of scientific 'excellence' I observed in some of the presentations exceeds any I had observed at prior ICCs, but there are still MILES (light-years) to go before the scientific excellence of 'scientific' creationism approaches the scientific excellence underwriting the case for old earth evolution!" 

I think that pretty well sums up the state of creation "science" research.  Some improvement has been observed in certain areas compared to previous years. (This isn't really saying much considering they were starting from ground zero to begin with.)  Nonetheless, the overall quality of their research still has "light-years" to go to approach the quality of the mainstream science that confirms the theory of evolution.  The shabby quality of the work used to support the "breakthroughs" recently attributed to the RATE Group does nothing to alter that assessment.


Updated: 3/27/05