Monday, January 21, 2013

Evolution is False - Carbon-14 in Fossil Fuels

Moon behind trees
Someone decided to list 10 reasons why evolution is false. I decided to go through them. Here's my list addressing them so far:

10. Pagan Origins of Evolution
9. Planetary Habitability of Earth
8. Hoaxes
7. Irreducible Order of Life
6. DNA

Here's today's argument as to why evolution is false.
5. Carbon-14 in Fossil Fuels: Carbon-14 has the half-life of 5,730 years, and so a consistent decrease of the isotope in organic material would offer possible reliable dating, which is suggested to be about 60,000-80,000 years within the assumption that 14C has been constant through the millennia. Yet, fossil fuels that are supposed to be millions of years old still have detectable amounts of Carbon-14 (Chemical History of 14C in Deep Oil Fields, Carbon-14 Content of Fossil Carbon). Either measuring Carbon-14 is an unreliable means of dating and, or the Earth is less than 80,000 years old. On top of this, dating methods rely on the prejudice of the observer, who chooses between dating something millions of years with Potassium-Argon (etc.) or thousands of years with 14C (etc.).
I did some light reading to make sure I had a semi-competent basis for addressing some of these points. One of the great features of apologetics is the ability to vomit forth compelling arguments that are effectually inert.

I will full acknowledge that I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but... what does this have to do with the theory of evolution? The thesis isn't that explicit, so I'll try to venture a best guess:

Either the Earth is too young for evolution to happen, or evolution is false because Carbon-14 dating doesn't work.
I wouldn't bet money on it, but I think that's the point the author was trying to make.

The thorn in the side of apologists is the idea that humans weren't created by God, but rather we evolved from animals. If the theory of evolution had nothing to say about human history, they probably wouldn't care.

According to our data, humans and chimpanzees (our currently existing closest relative species), shared a common ancestor about 6-8 million years ago. Carbon-14 radiometric dating is good for up to about 60,000 years ago.

So why exactly are we talking about Carbon-14 dating? It isn't relevant to human evolutionary history; although maybe in terms of our closer extinct relatives, like neanderthal and homo erectus - no whoops, those go back millions of years. It's mostly used to date archaeological sites and items from human historical events in the more recent past. In terms of humanity's connection to the big tree of life, regardless of whether we had so many "genus buddies" or not, it's not relevant

If the author had tried to make an argument about the reliability of radiometric dating in general, that would have at least addressed one facet of the total evidence for evolution, but his focus on Carbon-14 isn't even in the same ballpark.

Nonetheless, we can address the particulars of his argument, just so we're clear. I know you'll be surprised by this, but he's quite confused about the topic.

Carbon-14 in Fossil Fuels: Carbon-14 has the half-life of 5,730 years, and so a consistent decrease of the isotope in organic material would offer possible reliable dating, which is suggested to be about 60,000-80,000 years
Close enough. 80,000 years is a bit high, but whatever. This blurb is the closest he gets to stating something that's factually correct.

 ... years within the assumption that 14C has been constant through the millennia.
Oh, I agree. It is absolutely incontrovertibly an assumption... if by "assumption" we mean "supported by multiple independent corroborating lines of evidence", then yes, it is absolutely an assumption.

That does appear to be a common theme among these arguments - the author really needs to repeat to himself "supported by multiple independent lines of evidence... supported by multiple independent lines of evidence .. supported by multiple independent lines of evidence."

Though, maybe I should take a moment to explain why that matters.

On a basic level, it is a valid point. We've only known about radiation for a hundred or so years. In terms of testing the decay rate of Carbon-14, we've only had, maximally, a hundred years to derive the value directly. So, how do we know that the decay constant was the same before a hundred years ago?

Unfortunately, for Mr. Author, his sin is ignorance.

See, we have this capacity to confirm its efficacy from other sources. Overall, we know it's reliable (and not an assumption) because:

  1. Direct observation, as stated before.
  2. Testing the efficacy on archaeological artifacts with known ages going back thousands of years.
  3. Other dating methods confirming the values.
#3 is particularly important. In regards of confirming the accuracy of radiocarbon dating, #2 will get us back as far as we have known artifacts to corroborate - but what of before that?

If we date something as 40,000 years old, how do we know the dating is correct? Just as before, we use another dating method to confirm it - even if it's just another method of radiometric dating. 

We can do a bit of a Reductio ad Adsurdem.


Let's go ahead and assume that radioactive decay rates are not consistent.. that they vary over time for whatever reason. That would mean that if we used two different types of radiometric dating, it would be nearly impossible for the two to agree. The process for dating has to be competently executed, and the underlying concepts must be accurately understood, in order for the two dates to match up, within reasonable tolerance (Carbon-14 is typically +/- 30 years uncertainty value).

It's so unlikely, that it'd be like two hunters  from opposite ends of a field, both firing at a deer, and having their bullets collide mid-air. That's how much of a coincidence it'd have to be for the two dates to match, if the methods didn't work.

When actual real scientists do research, they are very comprehensive. The only times they rely on only one dating method is when there's no other choice, for the time being. They typically use a few different types.

You know - science. That's what science does. It's OCD about error mitigation - about double and triple checking procedure and setup to make sure the data isn't contaminated.

... which is much more than that can be said for creationist "science." This is what knowledge does for a person - the ability to look at these arguments and understand why they're so vapid.

Unless my sarcasm wasn't clear before - No, it's not an assumption. If he had a clue, he'd get that too.

Yet, fossil fuels that are supposed to be millions of years old still have detectable amounts of Carbon-14
The 60,000 year limit on Carbon-14 dating isn't an assertion that zero Carbon-14 particles aren't going to be present. The problem is that after 60,000 years, or so, there's too few of the isotope to get an accurate dating. The implication here is that the presence of Carbon-14 can linger for far longer than that 60,000 years.

A 5730 year half-life means that in 5730 years, we'd expect to have half the number of Carbon-14 in the mass than when it started. After another 5730 years, we'd have half of that - or about a quarter of what we started with. After a few thousand years later, it's possible, depending on how much we sample, to still have some left. After that, background radiation can give false positives when measuring (which is part of the 60,000 year cutoff point). One can get false positives on items that have no C-14 at all. That's why we use the method on objects that have enough C-14 to work with.

Further, there's the question of contamination, which is a problem that is addressed frequently when dating materials. For instance, clams at the bottom of the ocean may date to be older because they're eating material that been removed from the Carbon-14 influx for longer. The situation has to be the correct context for Carbon-14 dating to be useful. It depends on the scenario.

An ancient artifact that was carved from a tree 10,000 years ago fits the appropriate model very well. The tree would have been equalized in the environment for C-14, cut down and then preserved. The artifact isn't going to continue ingesting organic matter, like a clam would, and certainty not from older material. These are the nuances of radiocarbon dating, but to say that it makes it unreliable is like saying that cross-winds make flight unreliable because it's harder to deal with. We fly hundreds of airplanes every day. We've simply figured out how to deal with crosswinds. Likewise, we've learned to compensate for the complexities of radiocarbon dating - and demonstrably so.

In the case of the "deep oil", if more recent plant-life decayed into the reservoir, it'd bring new C-14 into the mix. That'd be a case where it wouldn't work well, which is why you'd get funny looks from geologists if you were to say you were going to perform radiocarbon dating on million-year-old contaminated petroleum.

You may as well tell professional pilots that you're going to fly through a mountain... sideways.

Further reading.

Either measuring Carbon-14 is an unreliable means of dating and, or the Earth is less than 80,000 years old.
... or you're doing it wrong. Radiocarbon dating is very reliable within it's scope. Of course you're going to get bad results outside of that context. The objection here is absurd. It's like saying "Either using a yard stick to measure the distance between here and the Moon is unreliable, or the Moon really is less than 10 miles away."

It's a nice false dichotomy the author has here too. It could be that radiocarbon dating is unreliable AND the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

This is a complete non-sequitur.

On top of this, dating methods rely on the prejudice of the observer, who chooses between dating something millions of years with Potassium-Argon (etc.) or thousands of years with 14C (etc.).
Alright, you weren't here to see it, but my monocle just popped clear off my face and embedded into the opposite wall. "Prejudice?" That's a pretty serious accusation you're making there.

You see, within science, accuracy and intellectual honesty is everything. If you want to continue your career, you need to follow good standardized procedures, and do it well. If you're caught cooking the books, that's career-annihilating.

No, sir. It's not "prejudice". It's logic, evidence and peer-reviewed process - something you are entirely unfamiliar with.

You'd be an idiot to apply radiocarbon dating to granite, because it's out of scope of the tool. Likewise, you'd be an idiot to apply K-Ar dating to a wooden artifact, because it's out of scope of the tool.

A caliper (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Why?

Do I really have to explain why measuring the distance between the Earth and the Moon shouldn't be done with a caliper (pictured right)?

Do I really have to explain why measuring the width of a human hair is bumblingly absurd with radar?

If one has a rudimentary understanding of the dating tools, one will understand, logically and intelligently  when different tools apply - just like anyone, who's remotely competent in any field, could do.

To dismiss this all as "prejudice" reveals this founding dishonesty of the author's position.

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I reward no points for a logical connection to evolution. I reward no points for addressing evolutionary theory. I certainly award no points for successfully doing so.

Argument score: 0 out of 10
Total score: 4.5 out of 60