Is Radiometric Dating of Rocks Accurate? A Few Thoughts from Patrick Mead

People have often asked me, “Wes, how can you believe the Bible is true when it says that our planet is only six thousand years old?”

First of all, the Bible doesn’t specifically say that. A long time ago theologians counted up the people mentioned in the genealogies listed in the Bible, added up the number of years between them, and came up with the idea that those listed go back six thousand years to Adam. Therefore, it was taught, “The earth must be six thousand years old and six thousand years only, and if you disagree we may just have to burn you at the stake.”

A problem exists with that (the dating part – definately with the burning at the stake part too, but I’m referring to the dating part). Some scholars believe that the biblical genealogies only list people of historical note. Are the genealogies complete, or do they sometimes skip several generations between names? In some instances, we simply don’t know for sure and probably never will. Also, it could be that the Genesis account of creation wasn’t limited to seven, twenty-four hour periods. It could be that God created over the course of millions or billions of years. After all, the stars weren’t even formed until the third creation day. Whose to say that the first two weren’t limited to a twenty four hour period? The stars we measure hours by hadn’t even been created yet!

Then there’s the problem with the scientific perspective. The six thousand year old theory (or young-earth creation theory) doesn’t jive with the teaching of modern-day science.

Biologists and genealogists will tell you that the world isn’t just millions of years old, but billions of years old, and they have the scientific data to back it up! Radiometric and carbon dating, the fossil record – many consider these to be the nails in the coffin of the “the earth is only six thousand years old” belief.

But can we trust these dating methods?

Patrick Mead’s blog is one I read regularly and enjoy. Before taking a demotion and becoming a lowly preacher, Patrick was a scientist holding more degrees than I care to name (including two doctoral degrees).

I have two posts of Patrick’s to share with you today (reposted with permission), both of which reveal problems with the dating methods mentioned above:

Here’s post #1 entitled “Dating Rocks – Question 183:”

This came into a couple of weeks ago. I think we have time to get to it today…

In a recent blog, you talked about creation and warfare and mentioned radioactive dating. Could you elaborate on the problems with radioactive dating and also give your thoughts on the recent “missing link” fossil discovery?

I’ll deal with the umpteenth missing link story another day. Let’s talk about radioactive dating and why I have a problem with it. Again, to review, this world could have been created to be/appear fully grown (re:old) with all its resources in place or it could BE old. One way it could be old is if there had been a creation that fell into chaos somewhere between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. This is not the Gap Theory that some hold, but a warfare based theory that Gregory Boyd calls the Restoration Theory. A few blogs ago, we discussed that.

I also mentioned that I am not impressed with radioactive dating. Why not? Remember that science is supposed to work a certain way. The scientist observes the present state of the system (a rock in this instance). Then, they measure the rate of a process occurring in the rock (any change). The scientist must then build a model using assumptions about the past history of this system and then, last, calculate how long it would take the present, observed process to operate — through a long unobserved past — to bring it to the present state.

In other words… here is a rock. How did it get here and how did it come to be formed in just this way? Some of this is science — observation and measurement. Some of this is scientific guess work — done with the best of intentions, usually. But there are real problems with this. Many assume that the model built of the system and the history posited for the rock are as scientific as the observation and measurement stages. Uh… no. John D. Morris illustrates some problems with this in his Parable of the Potatoes (which I have used extensively in discussions with university profs to good effect). With all credit to Dr. Morris, here it is:

Let’s say you were listening to a boring lecture. Your mind wanders and you see a person sitting beside the speaker peeling potatoes. You watch the man and notice that every time the second hand of the clock reaches 12, he reaches into the basket and peels a potato. Just before it reaches 12 again, he tosses a fully peeled potato in a second basket and then reaches in the basket of unpeeled potatoes and gets another one… just as the second hand reaches 12 again. You have observed the process and timed it. So far, so good. That’s science!

You wonder… how long has he been doing this? You get up (everyone else is so bored by the lecture they’ve fallen asleep so you feel free to move around) and go to the basket of peeled potatoes. You count 18 of them. You build a model of the unobserved past and say, “It takes one minute to peel a potato and deposit it in the basket. There are 18 in the basket. Therefore, this man has been peeling potatoes for eighteen minutes.” Most people would nod their heads and say “That makes sense.” Except… it doesn’t.

Too many assumptions were made in this example. You might be correct, but you might be way off. Was the rate of potato peeling constant throughout the unobserved history of this event? You have no way of knowing. It could be that the man peeled potatoes much faster at first but has now slowed down because he is tiring. It could be that he was much slower at first but is speeding up because he is getting better at it. You simply have no way of knowing. For you quantum buffs, you also have to assume that time progresses in a strictly linear fashion and — you know who you are — that just can’t be assumed!

Also… did anyone or anything add peeled potatoes to the basket? Did anyone or anything take away peeled potatoes from that basket? You don’t know. You weren’t there and neither was any other observer other than the potato-peeler himself and he isn’t talking. Were there peeled potatoes in the basket before the peeler got there?

And those are the very same (possibly) false assumptions used by those who use radiometric dating. They assume a constancy in the rate, an isolation from the environment that might have caused a change in the rate, and they assume what the original state of the rock was. All three of these are assumptions made without observation or measurement. They are, then, not strictly science. They are useful assumptions, for sure, but they are open to being wildly wrong. Leeching from water, chemicals, elements, and the action of weather and other environmental causes not only CAN but DOES change the makeup of rocks, the rates of change within them, etc. We can observe this. Why, then, is it assumed to have never happened in the unobserved past when we want to date it?

This was the first thing that bothered me as I studied science (and remember, I am not coming to this subject as a theologian — which I’m not — but as a scientist — which I am). The second thing that really bothered me was when I found out that rocks are dated according to evolutionary theory and NOT by radiometric dating. I’ll explain. Say you found an interesting rock and took it in to be dated. They would tell you it can’t be dated because it isn’t an igneous rock. Only igneous rock — rock that once was heated to the point of being a liquid before cooling again — can be dated radiometrically. Disappointed, you go back to the original site and dig around some more. You find a fossilized clam (they are everywhere) and take that in to be dated.

You are surprised to find out that you don’t get your clam dated by the geologist but are, instead, sent to the biologist. He looks at your fossil and declares it an index fossil. An index fossil is a fossil that once was widespread but then suddenly became extinct providing, as it were, a bookmark in earth’s history that other fossils can be compared to. He opens his book on the history of clams (yes, those books exist) and goes through the evolutionary history written there, declaring your clam to be 50 million years old. You are disappointed because you have just seen the clam dated by Darwin’s theory and not by any real science done on the clam itself. You ask if it can be dated radiometrically and are surprised to hear that it cannot. Only igneous rock…

You go back and find an igneous rock near the original site. You take it in and have it dated. Each dating method used (potassium-argon, uranium-lead, rubidium-strontium, etc.) gives different dates in wide ranges going from 20 — 230 million years old. Really. This is a true story. You are frustrated with that wide range and ask if there is any way to narrow that down. The prof says “Sure. Did you find any fossils near this rock?” You show him your clam, tell him how old the biology teacher said it was and he then declares the potassium-argon dates are right since it gave the closest result to 50 million years.

Frustrated? You should be. That is how it works. Rocks, fossils, and strata are dated by evolutionary theory and not by hard data. The hard data doesn’t exist — or it varies so widely and wildly that it is unusable. There are other problems but I’ll save those for another blog since this one has gone so long.

And here’s post #2 entitled “183a – More on the Whole Rock Dating Thing:”

The Parable of the Potatoes I used in the last example has real world application. I live a few hours away from Niagara Falls. Before it was somewhat stabilized by a vast engineering project, the Falls eroded the escarpment as they wore away the rock at a rate of 4 or 5 feet a year. Eventually, the Falls would meet Lake Erie if they hadn’t been stabilized.

The Falls are seven miles (37,000 feet) from Lake Ontario. So…. how long have the Falls been eroding that cliff? Simple math would put it at 9000 years but, as we saw in the last column, that requires making several assumptions about the unobserved past. Was the rate of erosion constant? Was the amount of water constant? Did the erosion start at the end of the gorge or did the land tilt somewhere in the middle causing the water to speed up before it got to the edge? What if there was more water at one time… or less? If there had been a global Flood of Noah, there would have been a LOT more water at one time. And how long ago had the bedrock been laid down? If millions of years, then the rock would be hard (or as hard as it was likely to get). If it was recently laid down — say within a couple thousand years — it would be softer and, therefore, erode more quickly.

When the father of modern geology, Charles Lyell, visited the Falls in 1841, he asked the Native Nations there how fast the Falls were eroding. They insisted that it was retreating at the rate of at least 3 feet a year. When he did the math, he didn’t like what came up so he discarded their observations and summarily declared that the Falls were eroding at the rate of only one foot a year. He then wrote that that made the Falls 35,000 years old and, therefore, the Bible was wrong. The dishonesty he showed was breathtaking. By the way, modern geologists say he was wrong… and date the Falls much older. They ignore the observed evidence whether it comes from Natives or from those who came here from Europe and watched the Falls erode for generations. Why do they ignore them? because their observations do not match the theory of evolution. Observed history is tossed aside and unobserved “history” is treated as fact. I have a problem with that.

This is easy to check out. There are many documents out there on how radiometric dating was used on recent lava flows on Hawaii and at Mount St. Helens. Each time, the dates given for the rocks were in the millions or billions of years… even though they had just been formed or laid down in the last century.

Or how about that whole geologic column thing? You’ve seen it in books… and that is the only place it exists. No place on earth has more than half of the sections you find in every geologic chart… and the ones we observe are not in the same order as the ones in the books. This is true regardless of where you dig anywhere in the world. Some graduate level geology text books admit this and say that less than 1% of the history of the earth is found in the rocks and it is shuffled into random order… but they go on to say that through “imaginative reconstruction” of those layers, they can reveal the wonderful tapestry of the world’s creation. Sure.

Everything told you about how many eons it takes to carve a canyon, restore a living environment after a catastrophe, etc. has been disproved by Mount St. Helens, Krakatoa, and other living laboratories. It doesn’t take millions of years to make or fill a canyon or to wipe out a rich environment of flora or fauna or to see it return back, more vibrant than ever.

People like me who just like looking at evidence and thinking about it aren’t trapped by all those presumptions. Whatever is… is. However, the modern evolutionist is like a man who is given the use of a cabin in the woods. He is told that no one has used that cabin for five years. When he unlocks the door, he sees a cigar smoking in an ashtray on a table. Instead of assuming someone has used that room recently, he must figure out a way to make that cigar be the kind of cigar that can burn unattended for five years. He is trapped. I am not.

I will go where the evidence leads. So far, I see nothing in nature or science that makes me want to toss Genesis aside.

Can we fully trust the dating methods science prescribes to? Short answer: not exactly.

Personally, my faith hinges neither on the viewpoint that the earth is six thousand years old or on the viewpoint that it’s much, much older. My faith hinges on the resurrected person of Jesus, and I hope He’s the linchpin of your faith too.

But this issue is a killer for many – that’s why I believe there’s value in examining it. Patrick reveals things in the above posts that I simply hadn’t heard or thought of before, and I hope they bless you as they’ve blessed me.

If you’d like to read more of Patrick’s writing go here, and if you have a question you would like him to answer on his blog email him at

Quick sidenote: Patrick Mead is slated to be a featured speaker at the 2010 Campus Ministry United Workshop and will be spending several hours with college students and campus ministers teaching on the subject of christian evidences. Sound like fun? Plan to join us July 8-11, 2010 at Harding University in Searcy, AR! Email for more info.

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7 thoughts on “Is Radiometric Dating of Rocks Accurate? A Few Thoughts from Patrick Mead

  1. Terry says:

    This was very interesting, Wes. I happen to believe in a literal 6-day creation period, but I can’t pin down exactly how many years ago it took place. I came to the conclusion that the days in Genesis 1 were intended to be understood as literal days while reading the 10 Commandments, believe it or not. As I read the commandment about keeping the Sabbath day holy, I came across the explanation: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11). As I see it, an Israelite who would have tried to work on the Sabbath by claiming that the six days of creation were not to be taken literally would have been in big trouble. It certainly looks like God intended for the creation week to be taken as literally as the Israelite workweek.

    Keep up the good work, Wes. I always enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Greg says:

    Hi, Wes. Looks like I let myself get way behind in my blogging.

    Your friend’s articles on rock and fossil dating were very eye-opening for me. I tend to agree with you that it hardly seems to matter how old the earth is, but my eyes have been opened to the debate, over this past year. The Answers in Genesis folks (Ken Ham, Creation Museum) hinge EVERYTHING on a young earth that was created in six solar days, and it’s fascinating how they tie it all together. However, I am dismayed by their logical fallacies, akin to the ones described by your friend, when talking about evolutionists.

    Oh, please check out my blog: I’ve posted the potato story!

  3. WesWoodell says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Greg – Ken Ham lost me when he made the claim that Adam & Eve rode dinosaurs. lol

  4. Greg says:

    Yeah, I can totally relate. He (and his collaborators) often make assertions and pick and choose from the scientific world, to back them up. Even if they’re totally right, their methodology discredits them, in my mind, and probably also in the minds of many logical-thinking folks.

    God is logical, truthful, and to-the-point. I firmly believe that science will only point to Him, and I highly respect apologists who can approach scientists with logic and the scientific method.

    Ever hear of George Washington Carver? He was a famous black scientist who discovered dozens of properties and uses of peanuts, and gave God all the glory for it. I should probably do a post on him on my Lift Up the Standard blog.

  5. WesWoodell says:

    Yeah … he invented peanut butter, right?

  6. will says:

    The earth is 5.54 billion years old dumbass

  7. Brian1776 says:

    There are any number of mistakes here. First, the potato problem is false. No scientist would make such wild assumptions and make a firm decision. Also, other types of rock besides igneous can be dated by radioactive decay, it’s just not as accurate. Also, clams are found is sediments. Rocks from very different origins can be expected to be found in sediments so the idea that rocks of different ages are found near a clam is not surprising.
    Stop trying to shoehorn science into the Bible. It can’t be done.

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