Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Blow out the candles

It's sometimes hard to tell who is for real and who is just volunteering to act as a foil, but the question arises of the age of the earth. What the heck, I'll bite.

Creationists sealed their own doom when they decided to try to meet science on its own turf, through the movement called "Creation Science." If you Google the phrase "age of earth" you'll get a pretty even mixture of sites touting actual facts and logic, and sites maintained by creationists that attack the scientific consensus. Some of these just claim that the Bible is literally true and leave it at that, but many of them try to discredit scientific conclusions using arguments that appear to be scientific and rational. Actually they are completely nonsensical but evidently some believers don't have the necessary reality base to see why.

However, there are some creationists who do sincerely try to engage reality and they have conceded this point. Creationists are now split between young earthers who generally claim that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and old earthers who accept its great antiquity -- about 4.5 billion years -- and simply say that this is consistent with Genesis because that first "day" of creation could have been -- indeed, evidently was -- really, really long. (I've had long days but nothing like that.) And of course, many of them have now fallen back even further, to "Intelligent Design," which does not dispute the evolutionary chronology but insists it must have gotten a boost from, uhh, somebody or other. In other words, once they decided to enter the arena of reason, they found themselves steadily giving way. Now they are up against the wall.

It would be redundant and repetitive for me to review all the evidence for the age of the earth, the solar system, and the universe. An overview of the "controversy," such as it is, with additional links, can be found here. It's pretty dry, though, and I can see why some people just don't get into reading stuff like that and find preaching more exciting and satisfying.

While radioisotope dating may seem like mumbo jumbo to some people, it's very easy to prove that the earth is well over 160,000 years old, and once you've done that, why not go all the way? In 1970-74, a Russian expedition drilled a core of ice in East Antarctica to a depth of 950 meters -- almost a kilometer. In 1982 they returned and continued drilling down to a depth of 2,083 meters. They didn't even get close to the bottom of the ice sheet, which is 3,700 meters thick.

The antarctic ice sheet is created by snowfall. The new snow is exposed to the sun and comparatively warm temperatures of the antarctic summer, then comes the long antarctic night and colder temperatures, and the deposition of new snow. Eventually the weight of overlying snow crushes what is beneath into solid ice. The seasonal cycle causes changes in the properties of the ice which can be discerned as annual layers. The Vostok ice core contains 160,000 of them. Okay, they didn't literally try to count them all, but they dated sections of the core at intervals using several different methods, all of which are in excellent agreement, and determined that the age of the lowest layer was about 160,000 years. You can read all about it here.

The antiquity of the earth is established by numerous lines of evidence -- including various methods that depend on radioactive decay; the laying down of sedimentary rock; the very obvious and consistent presence of characteristic fossils in geologic layers of particular ages which clearly shows the evolutionary chronology -- all the way back to those 3.5 billion year old stromatolites; observations of the stars which place the solar system in the context of known processes of star system formation and development over time; the observation of distant galaxies whose light required billions of years to reach us, thus putting the solar system into the context of an even more ancient universe; and more.

Furthermore, it simply defies common sense to assert that a human population of two (and where did Adam and Eve's sons get their wives from, anyway?) could have expanded from a single location 10,000 years ago, presumably somewhere in the Middle East, to populate the entire earth including all of Europe out to the farthest Hebrides, all of Africa, remotest Siberia, the Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and the Pacific Islands (all of which places can conclusively be proved to have been populated from prehistoric times), create great civilizations in China and India in less than 6,000 years, and oh yeah, even though there's no such thing as evolution people in different places have different pigmentation according to the amount of sun they are exposed to . . .

So the actual puzzle here is why so many people determinedly believe something so transparently ridiculous. Believing in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny is easier to understand than this. It strikes me as particularly odd that people who believe the universe is God's creation would insist on such a limited, puny creation. Isn't God supposed to be grand and glorious? Then why shouldn't He make a grand and glorious universe, one that is really old, and really big? Why do you want to put him down?

For decades, scientists generally elected not to dignify these people with a response. But it's obvious to me that we have to take them on. Intellectually, it's like crushing a flea, but that's not the issue.

Scientists are always careful in their discourse, going out of their way to emphasize the uncertainties and limitations of their data, the provisional nature of all conclusions, the potential weaknesses in their chains of logic. They just can't help using specialized vocabulary and impenetrable forms of mathematical discourse, and they spend most of their time arguing rather uncivilly with each other over what are usually quibbles. Hence they appear at the same time elitist, arrogant and exclusionary; internally divided; and unsure of themselves. That's fine when they're talking to each other, but when you are debating charlatans and meshugeners, that's the wrong style. We need to stamp out this idiocy, without mercy.

That's my final answer.

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