Obviously both sides of this debate have agendas to promote, and that means that any summary you're likely to read was probably motivated by one agenda or the other. Let's begin with a basic understanding of the radiometric dating technique used, K-Ar, or potassium-argon. This dating technique depends on the fact that the radioactive isotope of potassium, 40 K, naturally decays into other elements, as do all unstable radioactive elements.
There are two ways that this happens to 40 K. About 89 percent of the time, a neutron inside the 40 K undergoes beta decay, in which the neutron decays into a proton and an electron. This gain of a proton turns the potassium into calcium. But about 11 percent of the time, an extra proton inside the 40 K captures one of its electrons and merges with it, turning the proton into a neutron and a neutrino, and converting the potassium into argon. In both events, the atomic mass remains unchanged, but the number of protons changes, thus turning the element from one to another.
This happens to 40 K everywhere in the universe that it exists, and at the same rate, which is a half-life of 1. This means that if you have atoms of 40 K, 1. You'll also have 83 argon atoms, and calcium atoms.
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If I take a sample and measure an argon to potassium ratio of However, all of these numbers are probabilities, not absolutes. You need to have a statistically meaningful amount of argon before your result would be considered significant. Below about 10, years , potassium-argon results are not significant; there's not yet enough argon created. In addition, the initial amount of 40 K that you started with is never measured directly; instead, it is assumed to always be.
This has a standard deviation, so it also contributes to the margin of error. So when my result says the sample was 2.
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The bell curve of probable age starts at about 1. So whether you call it an exact science or not is a matter of linguistics. Although the exact age can't be known, the probabilities can be exactly calculated. Austin's sample was known to have solidified in , its argon content was clearly well below the threshhold where an amount of argon sufficiently useful for dating could have been present.
And even that threshhold applies to only the most sensitive detection equipment. Potassium-argon dating is done by destructively crushing and heating the sample and spectrally analyzing the resulting gases. The equipment in use at the time at the lab employed by Dr.
References & Further Reading
Austin, Geocron Laboratories , was of a type sensitive enough to only detect higher concentrations of argon gas. Geocron clearly stated that their equipment was only capable of accurate results when the sample contained a concentration of argon high enough to be consistent with 2,, years or older. And so, by any standard, it was scientifically meaningless for Dr.
Austin to apply Geocron's potassium-argon dating to his sample of dacite known to be only six years old. But let's ask the obvious question. If there wasn't yet enough argon in the rock to be detectable, and the equipment that was used was not sensitive enough to detect any argon, how was enough argon found that such old results were returned? There are two possible reasons that the old dates were returned.
The first has to do with the reason Geocron's equipment was considered useful only for high concentrations of argon.
There would always be a certain amount of argon inside the mass spectrometer left over from previous experiments. If the sample being tested is old enough to have significant argon, this leftover contamination would be statistically insignificant; so this was OK for Geocron's normal purposes. But for a sample with little or no argon, it would produce a falsely old result. This was undoubtedly a factor in Dr.
The second possibility is that so-called "excess argon" could have become trapped in the Mount St. This is where we find the bulk of the confusing complexity in Austin's paper and in those of his critics.
The stirring on the mount
The papers all go into great detail describing the various ways that argon-containing compounds can be incorporated into magma. These include the occlusion of xenoliths and xenocrysts, which are basically contaminants from existing old rocks that get mixed in with the magma; and phenocrysts, which are crystals of all sorts of different minerals that form inside the rock in different ways depending on how quickly the magma cools.
Page after page of chemical compositions, mineral breakdowns, charts and graphs, and all sorts of discussion of practically every last molecule found in the Mount St. Summarizing both arguments, Dr. Austin claims that xenoliths and xenocrysts were completely removed from the samples before testing, and that the wrong results are due to phenocrysts, which form to varying degrees in all magma, and thus effectively cast doubt on all potassium-argon testing done throughout the world. It's important to note that his arguments are cogent and are based on sound geology, and are often mischaracterized by skeptics.
He did not simply use the wrong kind of radiometric dating as an ignorant blunder. He was deliberately trying to illustrate that even a brand-new rock would show an ancient age, even when potassium-argon dating was properly used. Austin's critics charge that he ignored the probable likelihood that the limitations of Geochron's equipment accounts for the results, just as Geochron warned.
They also charge that he likely did not remove all the xenoliths and xenocrysts from his samples. However, neither possibility can be known for sure. Certainly there is no doubt that the test was far outside the useful parameters of potassium-argon dating, but whereas critics say this invalidates the results, Austin concludes that his results certify that the test is universally useless. If we allow both sides to have their say, and do not bring a bias preconditioning us to accept whatever one side says and to look only for flaws in the other side, a fair conclusion to make is that both sides make valid points.
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Austin does indeed identify a real potential weakness in potassium-argon dating. However he is wrong that his phenocrysts constitute a fatal flaw in potassium-argon dating previously unknown to geology. Tall and forbiddingly learned, Lloyd Anderson can — and frequently does, his wife complains — discourse at length on pyroclastic flows, steam explosion pits, laminate stratification and the event horizons of dense gravity fields.
If you wish, he could probably do so in ancient Greek or Hebrew, both of which he reads. When you look at Mount St. Helens, Step Canyon, feet deep, is the long gouge trailing down from the mouth of the crater. According to the emerging philosophy, the canyons took just five months to form, illustrating, Anderson says, that magnificent formations like the lava-carved Grand Coulee about miles to the east and even the Grand Canyon could have been formed virtually overnight by a catastrophic event. Anderson says he could marshal any number of scientific arguments to prove that the biblical global flood happened as it is described in Genesis, from inaccuracies in radiocarbon dating to gaps in the fossil record to superfine stratification of sedimentary layers around Mount St.
But scientific young-Earth creationism is a special case. Geologists insist that it is just as wrongheaded as old-school blind-faith creationism, but they do so with a touch of grudging respect. It is bad because it ignores the scientific method in interpreting them.
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They start with their conclusion — that God created the Earth in six days — and then look for the proof. To Mike Clynne, a stratigrapher for the U. Geological Survey — he maps volcanoes — the young-Earth creationists make another fatal error, in how they think of time and scale. The geologic record proves that Mount St. Helens has been erupting for about , years, Clynne said in an interview. And no matter how violent the eruption may seem to us, it pales in significance compared to the awesome processes that created the geologic wonders of the world.
They misunderstand radiocarbon dating. When scientists talk about a theory, they mean something far different from the everyday understanding of a guess or a supposition. The National Center for Science Education works to defeat attempts to teach creationism in the schools as internally illogical, among many other reasons.