Uncertainty in the dating of past events
The volcanic eruption that destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii probably took place two months later than previously thought, Italian officials say. Historians have traditionally dated the disaster to 24 August 79 AD, but excavations in southern Italy have unearthed a charcoal inscription written on a wall that includes a date which corresponds to 17 October. The writing came from an area in a house that was apparently being renovated just before the nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying Pompeii under a thick blanket of ash and rock.
Other evidence that supports autumn rather than summer for the eruption includes:
– The south-easterly debris pattern is consistent with the prevailing winds in autumn, but not those in August.
– The remains of victims of the eruption in heavy clothing.
– Braziers have also been found in the ruins, suggesting a date closer to winter.
– A calcified branch bearing berries that normally only come out in the Italian autumn.
– Remnants of autumnal fruits (such as the pomegranate),
– Large earthenware storage vessels which were laden with wine at the time of their burial by Vesuvius. This could indicate that the inundation occurred after the year’s grape harvest and winemaking.
If such an error (or uncertainty) is possible in recorded history, what about ancient history?
Wikipedia says that recorded history starts at about 3000BC, but the oldest specific date they quote is 1046BC when the Zhou force (led by King Wu of Zhou) overthrew the last king of the Shang Dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty was established in China. 776BC is the legendary start of the ancient Olympics and 753BC the legendary founding of Rome. The dates of events before Greece and Rome are only approximate or traditional and those in the early years of Greece and Rome are in doubt.
The Bible is an amazing record of ancient history. In 1440-1480BC Moses compiled and documented a history of the world up to the time of his death. This included Adam and Eve at about 4000BC, the global flood at about 2400BC, and Abraham at about 2000BC. And in about 1000BC the Hebrew king David captured Jerusalem.
So recorded history is quite short, being a few thousand years.
Dating ancient events
Ancient events have been dated by methods such as recorded history, archaeology, geology, dendrochronology (tree rings), radiometric dating, and luminescence. Most of these methods assume the principle of uniformity.
According to the American Museum of Natural History, “The uniformitarian principle means that the processes occurring today have operated throughout most of the Earth’s history. For example, an ancient sandstone formed exactly as a beach forms today – by the gradual build-up, over many years, of water-transported sands. The principle is one of the guiding rules for understanding rocks and landforms, reconstructing their histories, and estimating the time it took for them to form.”
Uniformitarianism assumes we can look at the present to see what has happened in the past. It is the geological theory that states that changes in the earth’s crust throughout history have resulted from the action of uniform, continuous processes. It can be summarized as “the present is the key to the past” and was pioneered by Hutton (1785) and Lyell (1830).
The geological column was formulated using fossils to correlate between rock layers in geographically distinct areas. The fossils were assumed to occur in an evolutionary order, from early simple organisms to more complex ones later in time. It was assumed that the rock layers were a chronologic sequence laid down gradually at the same rate as they are today, not catastrophically. And the rock strata were dated using radiometric methods. Between the mid 18th century and the mid 20th century the estimated age of the earth increased from 75 thousand years to 4.55 billion years.
Today, earth’s history is considered to have been a slow, gradual process (uniformity), punctuated by occasional natural catastrophic events. So there is some allowance for catastrophic events, but uniformity is still the dominant assumption.
Comparing with recorded history
In a previous blogpost I have shown that, “As a reliable eyewitness is superior to forensic science in the investigation of crime, so reliable history is better than ancient forensic science (the use of science to investigate ancient times) in investigating ancient times. So, history trumps science when dealing with the past”.
So, if a small error is possible in dating events like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius using recorded history, then larger errors are possible and probable in dating events using ancient forensic science.
The presuppositions used when dating ancient events usually involve the uniformity of some parameters over extended periods of time. There is no way to verify these assumptions because they relate to conditions that occurred in the ancient past, prior to recorded history. All these dating methods rely on unprovable assumptions. One of the main assumptions is that geological layers represent the gradual deposition of sediments (uniformitarianism). But archaeologists and geologists were not there to observe how the sediments were built up over time. So they don’t really know how long it took. And they don’t consider factors such as the Biblical flood and the ice age.
Although these dating methods appear to be objective and scientific, they are subjective. They are largely driven by the prevailing “long-age worldview”. However, the ‘age’ is calculated using assumptions about the past that cannot be proven.
The dating methods involve enormous extrapolation from what has been observed during recorded history, which cause a huge uncertainty in the predicted dates (Appendix A). In normal (operational) science such extrapolations would be viewed as being speculative guesses.
Those involved with unrecorded history gather information in the present and construct stories about the past. They use radiometric dating that relies on assumptions that are unknowable like the initial conditions, the radioactive decay rate over time, and that the fossil or rock are a closed system which doesn’t exchange chemicals with its environment. This makes the calculated dates unreliable and untrustworthy.
When I flew to Tasmania last month, the limit for checked in luggage was 20kg. I have a hand-held electronic scale to measure the weight of my luggage. At the airport I check that my scale gives a similar weight to that measured by the airline. This is how I check the calibration of my scales. If the readings are significantly different, I need to purchase a new scale.
The problem with ancient forensic science and the evolutionary/geological time scale is that they have never been calibrated against actual time. It’s impossible to calibrate them against real time because there are no records older than recorded history. Outside the range of recorded history, it’s impossible to calibrate dating methods independently. In fact, the use of all dating methods outside the range of recorded history rely on unprovable assumptions.
Have the methods of ancient forensic science been tested against samples of known age? The only instance that I can find gives examples where radiometric dates are much older than actual dates, where different radiometric methods gave different dates, where known recent lava flows are dated at millions of years, where DNA and soft tissue is found in fossils that are alleged to be millions of years old, and where 14C is found in coal and fossils that are supposedly millions of years old (Catchpoole et al, 2006, Mason 2014). This casts doubt on the reliability of all radioactive dating methods.
The past is the key to the present
We all know that time moves forwards, not backwards; and that causes precede effects. So it’s more accurate to say that “the past is the key to the present”. And “the present is the key to the future”.
This is a fundamental flaw of the principle of uniformity when it’s used to date ancient times using ancient forensic science. It’s a simple and obvious problem. The present isn’t the key to the past.
The Bible (which has the best record of ancient history) says that most of the world was destroyed by a global flood in about 2,400BC. And this was probably the precursor of the ice age (Job 38:29-30). The impact of this flood is evident across the world as widespread thick layers of sedimentary rock, some containing fossil graveyards. As such a catastrophic event would invalidate the assumptions of all ancient forensic science, dates reported to be older than 2,400BC do not represent true calendar dates (see Appendix B). They are purely hypothetical dates that may convey some information about relative dating, but not about absolute dating.
What about cave paintings that have been dated about 40,000BP? Whatever assumptions were made to determine these dates, they are obviously not calendar dates. This confirms that the uncertainty associated with dating events using ancient forensic science can be huge. These uncertainties are caused by the assumptions that are made when calculating the dates.
The hypothetical geological column is based on a fragmentary sedimentary record. And there are far fewer sedimentary rocks on earth than should have been deposited if its age is about 4.5 billion years. This means that either the earth is not that old as is generally believed or that most of the strata are missing because of erosion.
The lack of erosion surfaces between strata, the presence of poly-strata fossils, and the presence of any fossils show that sedimentary rock strata were deposited rapidly, not gradually. Note that when animals die today, they aren’t fossilized.
Cataclysmic events such as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 have indicated that large amounts of sedimentation and erosion can be associated with cataclysmic vulcanism and floods.
Radiometric methods use isotope concentrations which can be measured very accurately. But isotope concentrations or ratios are not dates. To calculate ages from such measurements unprovable assumptions have to be made. The radiometric method is unreliable because of the unknowable assumptions that must be made about the history of the sample being dated. In practice, dates that do not fit the evolutionary/geologic time-scale are discarded. Only dates that fit this paradigm are reported. Because what a person thinks about the age of the earth depends on their worldview, the findings in most publications that use ancient forensic science depend on the author’s worldview.
Radiometric dating doesn’t directly measure the ages of fossils and rocks. It measures the concentrations of isotopes and then many unprovable assumptions are used to determine the probable age.
Let’s be sceptical of ages for events that are claimed to be older than recorded history. These hypothetical dates have huge uncertainties, which are never mentioned by scientists. When the real uncertainties are taken in account, the dates are shown to be speculative guesses.
Appendix A: Enormous extrapolation
Scientists use mathematical methods to make predictions. These mathematical methods (which are called “models”) are developed from measurements (observations) that have been made over a certain period of time and under a certain range of conditions. The predictions are most accurate for circumstances that lie within those under which the model was developed. Predictions made outside these circumstances are less reliable as they are extrapolations outside the realm that was measured and observed.
The ancient forensic scientific explanation of ancient history uses theories and observations made in the past few hundred years to make statements about what happened millions and billions of years ago. In science it is well known that the accuracy of a prediction decreases as it extends outside the region of measurement and observation.
Orders of magnitude are used to compare very large differences between numbers. It this case the difference is expressed as the power of 10. For example, 1,000 is one order of magnitude greater than 100, two orders of magnitude greater than 10, and three orders of magnitude greater than 1.
We will now estimate the degree of extrapolation that is made by ancient forensic science. In order to be conservative, we will assume that the scientific theories and observations have been developed from measurements and observations made in the past 1,000 years. So any prediction that applies greater than 1,000 years ago is an extrapolation outside the range of measurement and observation. Therefore, a prediction of an event 10,000 years ago represents an extrapolation of one order of magnitude. Using the dates taught in the Big History Project, we see that the extrapolations are at least 2 to 7 orders of magnitude. As the degree of uncertainty usually increases with the size of the extrapolation, these enormous extrapolations indicate a huge uncertainty in these predictions. In normal science such extrapolations would be viewed as being speculative guesses.
|Proposed Event||Extrapolation – Orders of magnitude|
|Big bang||7 (a factor of 107 )|
|Earth and solar system formed||6 (a factor of 106)|
|First life on earth||6 (a factor of 106)|
|First humans||2 (a factor of 102)|
Appendix B: The flood and radiometric dating
The Genesis flood would have greatly upset the carbon balance of the earth. The 14C/12C ratio in plants, animals and the atmosphere before the flood would have been lower than after the flood. And volcanism, which occurred during the flood, would have also reduced the 14C/12C ratio at that time.
Catchpoole D, Sarfiti J, Weiland C, Batten D (2006), “The creation answers book”, Creation Book Publishers.
Mason J (2014) “Radiometric dating”, Chapter 6 of “Evolution’s Achilles heels”, Creation Book Publishers.
Written, November 2018