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Paper Draws Criticism;
Peer-reviewed Paper Arguing for the Uncertainty of Radiometric Dating
Raises Anti-Creationist Hackles

By Elizabeth K. Wilson
October 24, 2005
Chemical and Engineering News, Volume 83, Number 43 pp. 60–61

Karen Bartelt was spending an afternoon in the library at Eureka College, Eureka, Ill., where she is a chemistry professor, catching up on the Journal of Chemical Education (JCE).

One paper, in last July’s issue, caught her attention: It was a critical-thinking exercise for undergraduates that cast doubt on a long-standing radiometric method for dating minerals, and thus, the age of Earth (J. Chem. Educ. 2005, 82, 1094).

That made Bartelt, who is a creationism and intelligent design watchdog, sit up. For decades, scientists have used the radioactive decay of 40K to 40Ar to calculate mineral ages, as the ratios of these isotopes bear directly on the lifetime of the parent sample.

The paper argued, however, that chemical reactions in the surrounding mineral resulting from the decay aren’t known, and these reactions may have as-yet-unidentified effects on the 40K/40Ar ratio. “If the full potassium-argon chemistry cannot be known, that calls into question the usefulness of the potassium-argon dating procedure,” the article said.

Like evolution, theories about Earth’s age derived from radiometric dating methods are virtually uncontested in the scientific community. But they are also a prime target of “young Earth” creationists, who believe the planet and its life were created fairly recently by God.

Bartelt fired off a note to the evolution Listserv Evoledil, and the topic was picked up by CHMINF, the Chemical Information Sources Discussion Listserv. She also sent protesting missives to the editors of JCE and C&EN. Her letters say the paper “is written to create confusion in [the] primary audience—undergraduate chemistry students—by implying there is a controversy about the validity of radiometric dating.”

The paper’s author, William A. Howard, an assistant chemistry professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, says he chose the topic for students because it would motivate them to think passionately and critically. “I wanted to pick a subject that people would get emotional about,” he admits.

While he says he doesn’t advertise his beliefs about creationism in his classes, Howard makes no bones that they inspired the paper. “I fully support the literal interpretation of the Bible,” he says. “But I am also a professional scientist.”

The JCE paper marks the second case of a paper espousing arguments influenced by creationism or intelligent design (ID) that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The first such paper appeared last year in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. That publication was seen by proponents of ID as a great victory, while scientists voiced concern that the cachet of peer review could lend undue credibility to ID.

(ID differentiates itself from creationism in that it does not explicitly invoke God as creator of the universe, but rather an “intelligent designer.”)

In the Proceedings paper, author Stephen C. Meyer, a member of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, an ID think tank, argued that evolution could not explain the Cambrian explosion, a period about 500 million years ago when complex life suddenly flourished.

In that case, it was later shown that the journal’s editor, Richard Sternberg, has ties to the ID community. Sternberg left the publication shortly afterward, and the society published a statement renouncing the paper.

JCE’s editor, John W. Moore, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, declined to comment on Howard’s paper, saying he preferred to air any discussions in the pages of JCE. He says he has sent Bartelt’s letter to Howard and the reviewers, but he declined to give any information about the scientists who gave their thumbs-up to the paper.

In the September issue of JCE, against the backdrop of an ongoing, highly publicized trial in Dover, Pa., where parents are suing the school board over its requiring biology teachers to discuss intelligent design in the classroom, Moore published an editorial in JCE disparaging the pressure put on instructors to include “creationism-influenced ideas.” He also referred to the American Chemical Society’s statement, published online last June, which urges the teaching of evolution.

Morton Z. Hoffman, emeritus chemistry professor at Boston University and chair of ACS’s Division of Chemical Education, which publishes JCE, also declined to comment.

C&EN contacted 11 scientists—nine of whom are geophysicists or geochronologists—and all of them disputed the paper’s scientific validity. A number of them also composed detailed rebuttals.

“Howard attempts to couch the argument in pure chemistry, but it is a thinly veiled attempt at the usual ID argument of irreproducible complexity,” says Samuel A. Bowring, a professor in the department of earth, planetary, and atmospheric sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Someone was asleep at the switch.”

The paper also has caught the attention of the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that advocates against creationism and ID. “We’ve been aware of this paper,” says Glenn Branch, NCSE’s deputy director, noting that it “is not in a journal where you expect to see arguments about the nitty-gritty of radioisotope dating.”

Until molten magma crystallizes into rock, any indigenous argon in the system escapes, continuously “resetting the clock” of the newly formed minerals until they are cool.

Potassium-40, which has a half-life of 1.25 billion years, decays into 40Ar when its nucleus captures an inner electron. For the dating to be accurate, the system must be “closed.” That is, argon cannot have escaped or entered the rock since it cooled, as that would throw off the 40K/40Ar ratio.

Howard’s paper asserts that because the chemistry that occurs as a result of the decay is unknown, uncertainties will remain about whether argon has left or entered the system.

But that’s not really the case, geochronologists point out. It’s well-known that decays produce odd species such as free electrons and cause deformations in crystal lattices that may last for millions of years, says Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center (BGC) in Berkeley, Calif. But that alone won’t affect the 40K/40Ar ratio, he notes.

There are many techniques to determine whether or not a system is closed, geochronologists note, and Howard’s paper doesn’t pose any additional mechanisms by which the argon level could be altered.

“All these chemical reactions in the paper look impressive, but they’re completely irrelevant to dating methods,” says G. Brent Dalrymple, emeritus oceanography professor at Oregon State University and one of the pioneers of radiometric dating.

Additionally, 40K/40Ar is only one of a dozen radiometric dating methods, all of which show great consistency with each other. For example, notes BGC geochronologist David L. Shuster, scientists have used the 40Ar/39Ar, K/Ar, Rb/Sr, U/Pb, and Sm/Nd decay chains to date mineral-containing martian meteorites known as nakhlites. All the measurements—despite the very different subsequent chemistries involved—yield the same age, 1.3 billion years.

Howard’s uncommon viewpoints on the subject have created a stir in the chemistry and geology departments at the University of Alaska. Geology faculty protested when they learned that Howard had been using the arguments presented in the JCE paper in an introductory inorganic chemistry class, which prompted an investigation into his teaching methods.

Howard was asked not to use that example in his class. But ultimately, according to Thomas P. Clausen, chair of the university’s chemistry department, the investigating committee decided that Howard wasn’t grading his students based on his beliefs. “I saw no problem, and I think that was the view of the administration as a whole,” Clausen says.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2006 American Chemical Society

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