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Book Review - Thousands, Not Billions, Part I

A few months ago, I asked for a recommendation of the best book creationism had to offer. A friend of mine suggested Thousands... Not Billions: Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth. So, I bought it and read it.

The book is a summary of a research project known as Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (RATE), associated with The Institute for Creation Research (ICR). The book was written by one of the Researchers, Dr. Don DeYoung.

The subtitle of the book, "Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth", might lead you to think that there'd be a bit of discussion of evolution. There wasn't. The book looked only at the age of the Earth, and focused entirely on radiometric dating.

Now, I realize that books can only have a finite scope. This book's focus was radiometric dating. Fine. Just don't expect that pointing out a few anomolies in this one field is enough to overturn the diverse forms of evidence from other fields for an ancient Earth (particularly if your anomolies are down to bad methodology). Keep in mind that radioactivity wasn't discovered until 1896 by Henri Becquerel, and radiometric dating wasn't attempted until the early 1900s. When you consdier that Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, it's obvious that radiometric dating didn't form one of the pillars of the theory. In fact, it was already known that the earth was ancient, though with less certainty of the exact age, from other sources. Uniformitarianism was first proposed in the 18th century by James Hutton, and later popularized by Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology in 1830. These geologists were looking to other forms evidence, such as the layers of sediment that had built up in different areas, and comparing those to known forms of deposition in the present. Just look at the White Cliffs of Dover for a formation that took countless years to form.

There was one passage that didn't come until near the end of the book, on page 169. However, I'm going to include it here at the beginning of the review, because it clearly shows the mindset of those involved.

Furthermore, the unchanging Scripture message has priority over all transient models of earth history. The RATE team concludes that Scripture is the standard to which interpretations of scientific data must conform. This does not imply the rejection of any data whatsoever. However, it does call for the positive channeling of data interpretation in a proper biblical perspective.

This is exactly the wrong way to do science. They've already decided on their conclusion, based on their interpretation of scripture, which, as they made clear elsewhere, is definitely a young earth. From that stance, there is no evidence at all that could convince them of an ancient universe, because they would just 'channel' that evidence to fit with their preconceived notions. They even hinted at this in the book, that where they run into a roadblock that isn't explainable by any other means, they can just invoke divine intervention. This is hardly any better than Last Thursdayism.

Throughout the book, the author indicated that accelerated nuclear decay was responsible for their findings. This hypothesis was mentioned many times throughout the book. Obviously, this raised some serious red flags. When I think of accelerated nuclear decay, I think of this:

Mushroom Cloud from Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plumbbob_Fizeau.jpg

Now, depending on just how accelerated the decay might have been, it might not necessarily have set off an explosive chain reaction. But, it would still release huge amounts of energy. This, to me, is the biggest flaw in the whole hypothesis presented in the book, and is the reason why I've addressed it first, before getting to any of their other points. You simply can't propose that there was accelerated nuclear decay without accounting for the energy it would have created.

Given how huge of a problem this is for the hypothesis, I would have expected that they would have devoted considerable space to addressing it - a chapter, at the least. Instead, it received 3 paragraphs. Here, quoted in full, is their attempt at addressing the heat problem associated with accelerated nuclear decay, and in fact, since the first describes the problem, only the latter two attempt to address it.

HEAT DISSIPATION

The heat energy given off during nuclear decay raises an important question. What prevented the earth from melting completely during the rapid decay which amounted to millions of year's worth at present rates? Calculations show that this much decay of uranium and thorium atoms within a typical rock mass would raise the rock temperature as high as 22,000ºC. This temperature is nearly four times hotter than the surface of the sun and would likely vaporize entire rock masses in explosive events, but the crust of the earth did not melt during the Flood period. In fact, the presence of radiohalos and fission tracks in many rocks shows that rock temperatures remained below about 150ºC during the formation of the halos and tracks. Otherwise, these crystal defects would be thermally erased. Also, zircons in many rocks still contain helium atoms resulting from accelerated decay, yet the zircon crystals themselves were not melted during the nuclear decay process.

Somehow the enormous amount of heat resulting from isotope decay must have dissipated quickly. One tentative, rather novel proposal is called cosmological cooling (Humphreys, 2000). It is highly theoretical in nature and involves general relativity, higher dimensions, and a rapid expansion of space. Consider a kitchen refrigerator which is cooled by the expansion of a confined, compressed gas. In somewhat analagous fashion, an expansion of space would result in cooling on a universal scale. In this explanation, the heat energy generated by the nuclear decay goes into the expansion of the fabric of space itself. The key is to have accelerated decay simultaneously accompanied by a temporary, large-scale stretching of the space surrounding earth. Since there is evidence of much radioactive decay throughout the solar system and in space beyond, the expansion must be universal in its extent. There are definite hints in Scripture of an expansion of space during the Genesis flood (Humphreys, 2000). It is proposed that an enormous expansion of space, 20-fold times or greater, occured during the Flood event.

Big-bang enthusiasts also propose an inflationary stretching of space. However, their inflationary big bang occurs at the very beginning of time, within the first second, and only increases the universe from atom size to that of approximately a marble. In contrast, the cosmological cooling model places its expansion in the time frame of the Flood. Such an extreme alteration of the physical universe actually might drop the temperature too far and cause the reverse problem of over-heating, that is, a frozen earth. Further theoretical work is ongoing regarding the amount of heat produced by nuclear decay and the possible mechanisms for its removal. The RATE team views the extreme heat generation associated with accelerated decay as a serious issue, but not an insurmountable problem. (page 152)

Just to be thorough, here is the only other mention of the problem, from the Challenges for the Future section of the conclusion.

1. Accelerated nuclear decay involves millions or billions of years worth of decay occuring in just days or months of time. Even at present rates, considerable heat is produced by radioactive nuclear decay. An acceleration of this process will multiply the heat output greatly. This heat, which is produced within rocks, must be removed, or it could melt or even vaporize the earth's crust. This clearly did not happen to the earth. In fact, the existence of zircons with helium, radiohalos, and fission tracks shows that the host rocks and minerals have not experienced excessive heating. These physical records of nuclear decay would rapidly disappear if temperatures increased to hundreds of degrees. Possible mechanisms have been explored that could safeguard the earth from severe overheating during accelerated decay events. One of these involves cosmological or volume cooling, the result of a rapid expansion of space. Many details remain to be filled in for this and other proposed processes of heat removal. (page 179)

So, their response to the problem of all this energy is to propose that the very fabric of space time itself expanded! You don't just have a functioning universe, expand space 20 fold, and then expect the universe to keep on functioning just like it was before. And unlike the Big Bang, there's no physical evidence at all for this expansion (and I'm curious just what type of scriptural evidence there is). The only reason they're proposing it is as a post hoc rationalization to maintain their preconceived notions.

More Info:

To tell the truth, with such a gaping hole in their hypothesis, I don't think there's any real need to even address the rest of the book. This is a fatal flaw if there ever was one.

Still, I have fun debunking bad science, and I suspect the type of people who read my blog have fun reading those debunkings, so I'll take a look at their other points. But for that, you'll have to wait for Part II.

Update Part II is now online.


Updated 2010-11-29 Added a link to the entry where I requested creationist literature, and slightly reworded the opening paragraph.

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