Snelling On The Ark, Part 2

This, then, is part 2 of my stream of consciousness review of Andrew A. Snelling’s article on AiG, Is the Wood Recently Found on Mt. Ararat from the Ark? Part 1, if you missed it, was here.

To recap, Snelling is arguing against the find being really from the ark. Personally, I agree – but obviously my reasoning is quite different to his. His objection is to do with the radiocarbon dating used to prove the antiquity of the wood retrieved from Mt Ararat. According to him the dating results were never publicised, but he was given them for analysis and told to keep them quiet himself. Frustrated by his perception that people are being told about the find without seeing the evidence Snelling is here revealing the hidden data and using it to show that the samples are not genuine relics of the ark.

Mt Ararat, from Near Earth Orbit

Why is this interesting? Well, for one thing it gives an insight into what a creationist that actually does seem to know what they’re talking about – unlike some people I could mention – thinks about carbon dating, and with that the current creationist world view. Additionally, it’s a useful resource for the next time ark hunting comes up here – John Morris, the Institute for Creation Research’s president, is very keen on these missions. And, well, it’s nice to see a creationist who isn’t a total incompetent. I mean to say, Snelling did start off wanting this to be true, but is now attacking it. Creationist infighting FTW!


Where we left off Snelling had just revealed how three out of the four samples of wood were dated to be only a few hundred years old at most. However, they are getting progressively older, and this final one was indeed dated at more than 4000 years old. How’s he going to get out of that?

We begin at the section entitled “The Fourth Sample—Sample D”:

In spite of the young ages obtained for three of the four wood samples, it was only the dating of the fourth wood sample that was the basis of the press release that a 4,800-year-old wooden structure had been discovered on Mt. Ararat. This fourth sample, sample D, was only analysed at one laboratory, and that was Laboratory 3 (Table 1), a different laboratory than the ones where the other three samples were analyses Why the different laboratory? Could it be that the discovery team was dissatisfied with the ages yielded by the first three samples in the first two laboratories which were too young and recent to have come from the Ark, so they chose a new laboratory to date this fourth sample? Or was it simply that this sample was larger than the other samples which could be brought out unnoticed for testing at laboratories outside the country, and so sample D had to be analyses at a laboratory closer to Mt. Ararat, for example, across the nearby border in Iran? It is not too surprising that there are now even area rumors circulating that Laboratory 3, for a price, fabricated the needed C-14 age for sample D. Proper and transparent dating methodology should not leave the academic community speculating with such puzzling questions.

You must understand that all that Snelling has to work with is a, rather unreadable, table with a small amount of commentary. He can only speculate as to what was actually done by the researchers. (NB – any grammatical errors etc in my quotes are from the original. However, I am removing the citation numbers from the text, though there aren’t all that many of them.)

Regardless, sample D yielded a C-14 age of 4,269–4,800 years BP (Table 1). Obviously, the discovery team had seized on this result and only quoted in the press conference and press release the higher number in the date range, namely, 4,800 years. The appeal of the 4,800 year age for this wooden structure on Mt. Ararat is that the traditional date for the Flood is 4,350-4,500 years ago, using a tight chronology calculated from the genealogies in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Old Testament. Furthermore, the pre-Flood wood used to build the Ark would have grown on trees over several hundred years prior to the Flood year, so the 4,800 year date for this wood sample was exactly what the discovery team wanted and was therefore expecting. Thus the dates for the other three wood samples were ignored or (privately) explained away by the discovery team and/or their advisors, because they inconveniently yielded ages that were too young and recent.

Of course, it is possible that sample D was merely the best sample – again, Snelling has no special knowledge in this regard. Amusingly, this has parallels with the “well you would say that, wouldn’t you?” meme in conspiracy theory. Let’s read on to see if he has anything more than just that the results are ‘too perfect.’

However, the results reported by Laboratory 3 for wood sample D were not as simple as the announced 4,800 year age. In the Remarks column of Table 1 it is stated that both radiocarbon and dendrochronology were used to date wood sample D. The laboratory thus evidently reported a “calendric age” of 6,891±4,647 years cal BP (calibrated BP), the 68% cal BP range. In other words, they concluded that this wood sample was between 2,243 and 11,538 years BP old. Or to put it another way, they reported the age as 4,941±4,647 years cal BC (calibrated BC), namely, the tree from which this wood came died sometime in the years 294-9,858 BC. All these dates, with their reported very large uncertainties, are very different from the emphatic 4,800 year age announced at the press conference and in the press release.

Where this comes from is the idea that you have to calibrate your radiocarbon dates. This is a stunningly imprecise radiocarbon date, and this is indeed a problem for the claim that the wood is the genuine ‘gopher wood.’

It is intriguing that, in the Remarks column of Table 1, it is indicated that dendrochronology was also used to date sample D. In that method, otherwise known as tree-ring dating, the widths and patterns of the growth rings found in wood samples are measured and then compared against a master tree-ring chronology. Master tree-ring chronologies for different tree varieties have been established by comparing the growth rings in various living long-lived trees with woods from previous forests of these trees used in very old buildings and found in archaeological sites. However, the method of comparing and correlating tree rings between different trees and woods is highly subjective, and matches are often first established using C-14 dating. Thus dendrochronology is not objectively independent of C-14 dating. Furthermore, it assumes only an annually repetitive pattern of tree rings. However, in the early post-Flood there are good scientific reasons to think that world climatic conditions would have varied almost weekly, rather than following an annual repetitive pattern, resulting in multiple growth rings in trees per year. So to examine the few growth rings in a small wood sample of unknown tree origin or variety and to apparently use dendrochronology to date it is highly subjective and speculative at best.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen solid evidence from creationists that repetitive layering systems – such as varves (sedimentary layering) and tree rings – can actually happen more often than annually producing an identical result to what is observed today. Thus, the “good scientific reasons” line deserves a {{Fact}} tag (that is, [citation needed]). But anyway, that’s where the dendrochronology comes in.

In any case, the announced 4,800 year date for the wood sample D is based on unsound reasoning on the part of the discovery team. All appearances indicate that they are unaware of the numerous C-14 dating results obtained on pre-Flood wood and other fossils, and simply do not understand the problems with the C-14 dating method.

Ok, here we go – “C-14 Dates for Pre-Flood Fossilized Wood”:

Within the biblical framework of earth history, the Flood was responsible for producing, in about one year, the bulk of the fossil record preserved in the earth’s surface sedimentary rock layers, conventionally dated by secular geologists as being up to 540 or more million years old. Thus the animals and plants that have been preserved as fossils in the rock record were animals and plants that were alive in the latter years of the pre-Flood era just before the Flood catastrophe occurred. Thus wood found fossilized in the geologic record would represent trees that were in forests from which Noah also obtained the wood to build the Ark. Consequently, if we were to find the wooden remains of the Ark, then that wood should yield C-14 test results similar to whatever C-14 is found in fossilized wood, since both represent the remains of pre-Flood trees.

Real scientists would, of course, say that the carbon dating of truly ancient fossilised wood is useless. This is because it will give a date no older than fifty thousand years or so, that being the date that the background level of 14C translates into. The creationists, however, apparently refuse to believe this.

The question for him, then, is that if pre-flood wood dates at fifty thousand years, and post flood wood at more reasonable dates below 4000 years, what would much more accurate results than this one in between – such as the 13,520 years in Ice Age Plants – mean in the “biblical framework of earth history”?

Measurable C-14 has been detected in fossils from the earliest days of radiocarbon dating. In many instances, according to their supposed millions-of-years ages those fossils should be completely C-14-dead. In other words, all the original C-14 initially in them should have decayed away, so they should not have any C-14 left in them. This is because C-14 has a half-life (or decay rate) of 5,730 years. If any organism or plant when it was buried and fossilized contained the level of C-14 currently in plants and animals, then after only one million years, corresponding to 174.5 C-14 half-lives, the fraction of the original C-14 remaining would be 3×10-53. However, a mass of C-14 equal to the entire mass of the earth contains only about 3×1050 C-14 atoms.Thus, not a single atom of C-14 formed even one million years ago anywhere in or on the earth should conceivably still exist. Therefore, there should be absolutely no measurable C-14 able to be detected in fossils claimed to be a million or more years old. On the other hand, if the fossils are the remains of animals and plants that lived prior to the Flood and were then destroyed and buried to become fossils during the Flood only 4,500 years ago, all fossils should therefore still have measurable C-14 in them.

As I said above it decays to a background level. Does Snelling know this and is conveniently ignoring it, or is he more ignorant than what we have seen so far suggests?

A well-kept “secret” and fact is that they do! A survey of all the C-14 dates reported in the journal Radiocarbon up to 1970 found that for more than 15,000 samples, all such fossilized organic matter was “dateable within 50,000 years as published.”These samples included coal, oil, natural gas, and other allegedly very ancient (> one million years old) fossil materials. The scientific community never took these anomalies seriously, because these measurements were obtained using the beta-decay counting method, by which it was difficult to distinguish between the decay of C-14 atoms and background cosmic rays. Thus, for samples such as these that were claimed to be so old they should be C-14 dead, the measurable C-14 levels detected were simply dismissed as due to measurement errors.

So there are many reasons why zero-levels aren’t detected.

The accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) method was developed in the early 1980s. It counts C-14 atoms directly and is thus not compromised by background cosmic rays, so it is far more accurate. Thus a further tabulation of about 70 superior AMS measurements published between 1984 and 1998 in the standard radiocarbon literature shows that all of the fossilized organic materials analyses yielded significant levels of C-14 when according to their claimed millions-of-years ages they should have been entirely C-14 dead. These organic materials included not only fossilized wood, but natural graphite, coal, natural gas, oil, fossilized shells and bones, and even marble, from every portion of the geologic record of the Flood. All contained detectable C-14 levels well above the AMS limits of detection. It was argued that instrument error as an explanation for these results could be eliminated on experimental grounds, and that contamination of the C-14-bearing fossil material in situ was unlikely. Proper laboratory procedures had also eliminated any contamination during field collection and sample preparation. Therefore, it is concluded that the detectable C-14 in these samples most likely originates from the original organisms themselves, including the original pre-Flood trees.

Hopefully, this table was collated by someone more competent than Mr Thomas, who created the soft tissues table I reviewed – but have still not yet summarised – in “I Have A List.” In that list he included – along with many genuine examples of soft tissue preservation over millions of years – numerous examples of papers where he had simply read “soft tissue” in the title and was unaware that it was talking about mineralised soft tissue, which has nothing to give to his point. Whether this table was well-done or not the results are a surprise to no-one – what would be a surprise would be a natural carbon-containing object with no 14C in it at all.

Additional C-14 dating studies of fossilized woods have been undertaken, with samples from various strata levels in the geologic record of the Flood conventionally dated as 30-250 million years old. The fossilized wood samples (see Figure 3) were C-14 tested using the AMS method at two laboratories. In all cases the measured C-14 levels were well above the AMS limit of detection (meaning that the AMS measurements were accurate), with the values equating to C-14 ages of between 20,700±1,200 years and 44,700±950 years (see Table 2).

Figure 3 consists of four photos which are largely unrelated to the topic of this article. For some clarification, the ages derived from the testing done here are uncalibrated, as there is nothing to calibrate with. The fact that the ages found here are quite low shows the importance of using other dating methods along side carbon dating themselves so that you know how far you can rely on your results.

As for the table below the figures, while the radiocarbon ages produced seem to group based on the real age of the sample – although this is more likely to be to do with the location – there is no observable correlation across the board. But there shouldn’t be.

In another study, ten coal samples from the U.S. Department of Energy Coal Sample Bank maintained at Pennsylvania State University were selected as representative of U.S. coal beds geographically, as well as with respect to depth in the geologic record of the Flood. Coal is buried and fossilized plant material, including wood. These coal samples were from Eocene, Cretaceous, and Pennsylvanian coal beds spanning 40–300 million years on the conventional geologic timescale. The AMS analyses detected C-14 levels in all ten coal samples equivalent to an age range of between 48,000 and 50,000 years. In other words, irrespective of their claimed 40–300 million years ages, the trees buried in these coal beds all yielded the same C-14 age of 48,000–50,000 years, consistent with them all being buried and fossilized at the same time, which is also consistent with these coal beds all having formed during the Flood year of the biblical timescale only 4,500 years ago.

Nothing further to say here. What he needs to do now is explain how an age of 50000 years is “consistent with…the biblical timescale,” considering that they’re still an order of magnitude too old. Hence the next section – “Why Does Pre-Flood Wood Yield Inflated C-14 Ages?”:

It is clear then from the C-14 dates obtained on pre-Flood wood buried and fossilized during the Flood, as listed in Table 2, and pre-Flood wood buried and fossilized in coal beds (also deposited during the Flood), that if wood found today on Mt. Ararat were to be pre-Flood wood used to build the Ark, then it should yield a C-14 age of between 20,000 and 50,000 years. The obvious question then is why pre-Flood wood, being only 4,500 years or so old according to the biblical timeframe based on a tight chronology calculated from the genealogies in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Old Testament, would give such inflated C-14 ages of between 20,000 and 50,000 years?

As I said, he’s the explanation.

All these C-14 dates calculated from the AMS C-14 analyses of these fossil woods and coal beds are based on the assumption that the modern atmospheric C-14/total-C ratio existed when these trees were alive just before the Flood 4,500 years ago. In other words, it is assumed that C-14 atoms were produced at the same rate in the earth’s atmosphere 4,500 years ago as they are today. But this assumption is demonstrably incorrect.

Creationists do so love accusing others of making “assumptions,” perhaps to cover up the gazillion assumptions they make themselves with regards to biblical literalism etc. This particular assumption is made on the grounds that there is no evidence to contrary. That is to say, it is known that the ratio has changed, just not to the degree that creationists need it to. That would be quite an ask.

C-14 atoms are produced from nitrogen atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere today as a result of the bombardment of the earth by cosmic rays from outer space. However, the earth is partially shielded from the full brunt of this cosmic ray bombardment by its magnetic field.Furthermore, the earth’s magnetic field is known from real-time historical measurements to have been stronger in the past, such that 1,400 years ago it would have been twice as strong as it is today. Therefore, if the earth’s magnetic field was twice as strong 1,400 years ago, then the production of C-14 atoms in the earth’s atmosphere would have been half of what it is today. This evidence for a stronger magnetic field in the past is also confirmed by measurement of the magnetism “fossilized” in ancient pottery.Therefore, since the amount of C-14 atoms in the atmosphere was much less back at the time of the Flood and beforehand due to a stronger magnetic field, then these C-14 dates for these fossilized woods, calculated assuming the same number of C-14 atoms available in the atmosphere back then as today, would be grossly inflated, as confirmed by the results in Table 2.

Ah, decaying magnetic fields. They seem to be turning up as DpSUs every week or so now. There are a few problems with this. For one, even 1400 years is already far too far to extrapolate such a dynamic trend. Secondly, if all this was truly the case he would be able to point to things as recent as Attila the Hun’s sandwiches and show how they are radiocarbon dated to be much older than the 1550 years they really are. But, mysteriously, while the cause of the inaccuracy continues to this day, the inaccuracy itself only manifests with items from before the flood.

Additionally, animals and plants were far more prolific in the pre-Flood world than in today’s world. We know this from the huge quantities of plants buried in today’s coal beds and from the incredible numbers of creatures found fossilized in limestones and other rock layers in the geologic record of the Flood. Studies indicate that the amount of carbon in the animals and plants of the pre-Flood world could have been 300–700 times more than that in our present world. And the vast majority of this carbon would have been normal C-12, which would have swamped whatever small amount of C-14 was present in the pre-Flood world. In other words, the C-14/total-C ratio in the plants and animals of the pre-Flood world would have been 300–700 times smaller than the same ratio today. Thus C-14 ages calculated assuming the C-14/total-C ratio found today, rather than using the 300–700 times smaller ratio of the pre-Flood world, would be grossly inflated. This is exactly what we find in the C-14 ages provided by conventional radiocarbon laboratories of samples of pre-Flood wood fossilized in Flood rock layers and coal beds.

There is no reason to suppose that “the vast majority of this carbon would have been normal C-12,” other than that that it is necessary to back up his claim.

Now, on to his “Conclusion”:

If the wooden remains of the Ark were to be found on Mt. Ararat, then samples of that wood would be expected to yield C-14 dates of between 20,000 years and 50,000 years, consistent with the C-14 dates of pre-Flood wood found fossilized in the geologic record of the Flood. Even though the true age of such fossilized pre-Flood wood should be only 4,500 years or so old, around the date for the biblical Flood, these grossly inflated C-14 dates obtained in conventional radiocarbon dating laboratories are due to those laboratories ignoring the very much less C-14 in the pre-Flood world compared to today’s world. But in strong contrast, the wood samples that have been claimed by a Chinese-Turkish team to have supposedly come from their discovery of the wooden remains of the Ark on Ararat have yielded C-14 dates from analyses in conventional radiocarbon laboratories ranging from recent (modern) to 6,891±4,647 years. These results are grossly short of what the C-14 dates should be for pre-Flood wood. Therefore, if we logically follow the soundest scientific inference, it must be concluded that these wood samples cannot have come from the pre-Flood wood used to build the Ark. Given the present C-14 evidence, despite the tantalizing wooden remains the Chinese-Turkish team claims to have discovered on Mt. Ararat, such artifacts CANNOT have come from the Ark. So whatever they have found, they are NOT the remains of the Ark.

But, then, how old is a 4000+ year BP piece of wood? Consider another sample of wood, this time from the original radiocarbon dating paper in Science from 1949. The oldest samples that they tested were from Egyptian tombs dated from historical records as being in excess of 4500 years old. The date they got was 4750 ±250 years before 1949, and the real dates were 4650 ±75 (2700 ±75 B.C.) & 4575 ±75 (2625 ±75 B.C.). How does he fit that into his view?


So, to summarise, Snelling indeed overcame his initial wanting-to-believe to turn against the findings. But his reasoning behind this is based, to borrow the creationist line, on “flawed assumptions” about radiocarbon dating, which are not supported by the evidence. There are indeed perfectly good reasons to dismiss the claim, but this isn’t one of them.

There is also an appendix about the “δ13C Parameter,” but I wont go into it.

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3 thoughts on “Snelling On The Ark, Part 2

  1. One has to remember the desperation that must be felt by Creationists in fitting things into their Biblical timescale.

    This: http://www.answersingenesis.org/assets/pdf/2005/TimelineOfTheBible.pdf

    is about as official as the Biblical timescale gets. All recorded history has to fit into the time after the Flood. Worse, another 100 years is lost as nothing much happens until after the Tower of Babel. This takes us to about 2250BCE before people can even start spreading out from the Middle East. The kangaroo might have started galumphing off to Australia as soon as they got out of the Ark – but would the people of Babel really want to build another ocean-going boat in the middle of the desert to enable them to follow?

    The “Curve of Knowns” [Arnold and Libby 1949] already extended beyond 2250BCE and the oldest samples came from Egypt from a time when it had a known king.

    Creationists would of course deny the historical evidence. But this pushes these events nearer to the present creating even more of a pile-up of history to be squeezed into an ever decreasing gap before we reach events that occur in both the Bible as well as other historical records. Creationists can hardly be expected to deny their own Biblical dates.

    Snelling would be quite happy to both bend Libby’s curve and bend the historical dates to fit his theory. But he is making life very hard for those Biblical scholars who are trying to fit in the rest of history.

    • That is quite a useful diagram, thank you.
      The question of how he bends the curve, as it were, is one of the reasons why I bothered to do this post at all. I’ll have to remember it the next time the problem comes up to see if others have different ideas.
      On a totally unrelated subject, you’ve referred before to Henry Morris II. Who was he? I can’t find anything out about him at all…

    • Dr. Henry M. Morris III is the son of Dr. Henry Madison Morris founder of ICR. So presumably we should refer to the latter as: Henry Morris II.

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