Radioactivity and ignorant creationists 1

By August 16, 2018Science, Society

To call creationists ignorant is of course an understatement. However, lots of people are ignorant; nobody can know everything as knowledge these days is too diverse and too deep for any one person to cope with. What bothers me about creationists is not so much their promulgating so much abject rubbish, but their attitude to knowledge. You inform them that the statement they have just made is incorrect, whether it be about evolution of humans and apes1, or the difference between the fact of evolution and its mechanism of natural selection2, and you provide references, and what do they do? They simply repeat their ignorant drivel again, and again, and again.

Creationists may not like knowledge, as it upsets their certainty, but they also do not understand science. Science constantly advances because it is self-correcting, and they find that difficult to understand. I spoke to a creationist who even assumed that universities were still teaching evolution at university using Charles Darwin’s book ‘Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection’ as a text. That sort of thinking seems common among your average creationist as they seem to believe that their holy book is immutable, despite its chequered drafting history and its constant reinterpretations, and they presume scientific texts are similarly immutable. Nothing could be further from the truth. The analogy I like to use is that of fossilisation. As soon as you publish a scientific paper, it starts to fossilise, and if you are lucky it becomes part of the history of your field of science; if you are unlucky it is shown to be in error.

One of the creationists with whom I recently interacted, bemoaned the fact that Carbon dating was ineffective at determining the age of the universe (yes, seriously). Despite attempting to enlighten him about the limitations of Carbon dating, he simply reiterated his drivel.

Carbon dating works by comparing the three different isotopes of carbon. The nucleus of an atom contains two types of particles: protons and neutrons, which together are termed nucleons. All isotopes of a particular element have the same number of protons in the nucleus. The number of protons in the atomic nucleus determines to what element that atom belongs3. For instance, if an atom has 6 protons, it is Carbon; if it has 7 protons, it is Nitrogen; if it has 8 protons, it is Oxygen4.

Isotopes of a particular element differ in the number of neutrons in the atomic nucleus. As mentioned above, Carbon has three isotopes. They are 12C, 13C and 14C. The superscript number refers to the number of nucleons in the nucleus. As nucleons include protons and neutrons, 12C with 6 protons therefore has 6 neutrons, 13C has 7 neutrons, and 14C has 8 neutrons. The two lighter isotopes, 12C and 13C are stable (they do not radioactively decay), while the heavier one, 14C, is unstable, i.e. is radioactive3.

14Carbon is constantly generated in the upper atmosphere (mostly at heights of about 9 to 15km) when free high-energy neutrons are absorbed by the nuclei of 14Nitrogen atoms, which emit a proton such that it becomes 14Carbon. This 14C mixes with all the other Carbon isotopes in the atmosphere and is taken in by plants and animals during their life. However, when the plants or animals die, the Carbon in their system stops being recycled, and the concentration of 14C starts to decrease as it decays (back to 14N). It is one of the neutrons in the nucleus which decays, and the nucleus emits an electron and an antineutrino in the process. This decrease in the proportion of 14C can be measured, and given the constant rate of decay (half of the 14C atoms decay in 5700 +/- 40 years; its ‘half-life’), the timing of the death of the organism can be determined. Because this 5700 year half-life is so short, Carbon dating is only ever used to determine the age of archaeological materials, because the level of remaining 14C diminishes beyond our ability to measure it after about 50,000 years.

Creationists find it hard to cope with reality and especially the application of radioactivity to the age of events on the planet. They keep attempting to maintain that science’s understanding of radioactivity is flawed, apparently not realising that if it was, nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons would not work. Still, consistency has never been their strong suit.




  • Maurice says:

    I once had a Jehovah’s Witness open his doorstep prattle with the question: “Do you know how the world will end?”
    I replied that I did know. “Billions of years from now, the sun will expand and eventually explode, destroying Earth and the rest of the solar system.”
    He was taken aback by my confidence and could only reply “So that’s one of their theories is it?”
    His contempt for cosmologists who have studied the subject for decades was palpable. The scientific theory didn’t comport with his book of legends so he dismissed it out of hand.
    Another JW approached me in the city square with a pamphlet. I asked him if he’d read any of Darwin’s theory. He blustered and got agitated. “Of course not. We don’t even mention him.”
    Information for creationists (not confined to Jehovah’s Witnesses) is always a one-way street.
    To them, their belief is truth and MUST be told. No scientific information must ever enter their minds.
    e.g. When presented with the mechanisms of how the giraffe evolved an extremely long neck, they just scoff at the idea. They wouldn’t consider reading an accepted thesis or peer-reviewed paper on the subject.
    Evolutionary scientists are “Satan’s servants” because they go against the “holy” scriptures!
    You know, those inerrant words of god that every christian sect interprets differently.
    But if a scientist disagrees with a published theory and sets out to disprove it, it’s a “controversy” proving that all prior conclusions in that field are false. They might well be, but scientific evidence would need to prove that.
    It can’t be a matter of opinion nor “faith” (another word for willful ignorance).

    • admin says:

      It is always wise to remember that evidence can never prove a theory, only disprove one. As Thomas Henry Huxley said: “The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”.

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