A little context first. This will seem on the surface a tempest in a teapot, where the tempest is the age-old conflict between science and religion, and the teapot is a middle-sized conservative American Christian denomination.
It is those things, but it is also as universal as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, July 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, aka the Scopes Monkey Trial of Bryan/Darrow fame. As universal as the evolution v. creation slash “creationism” slash “creation science” slash “intelligent design” slash “whatever it gets called next.” And knowing the history of this subject, there will be a “called next” time.
I’ve been working on an autobiography. Don’t ask me why. It will be neither a masterpiece nor a best-seller! Well, I do know why. I want my story to outlive me. At least among willing family members.
Anyway, when I closed the chapter on my high-school educational experience (at a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school, Monterey Bay Academy), and likewise with my college experience (Pacific Union College, also an SDA campus), I asked and answered the question “What did I receive from MBA / PUC?”
I was raised in this conservative religious sub-culture, Adventism, and believed the things my home sub-culture believed. Among these things was the unshakably-firm belief that the world we live in was created from scratch about 6,000 years ago – the so-called “short-earth chronology” view. And I made it through high school and into my college years with this particular belief fully intact. After all, … The First Book of Moses – Genesis!
My four years at Pacific Union College opened my eyes to the world in so many ways. As one example, and I have told this story many, many times, in the first quarter of my Freshman year (Fall, 1963), having enrolled as a Pre-Med student, I actually complained in person to the Academic Dean. I believed that members of the Physics Department were introducing scientific heresy into their classrooms, particularly regarding the age of the earth. I have no idea what, if anything, came of my customer-service complaint, but now I’m just embarrassed by the memory. (Oh, and after Fall Quarter I changed my major to Theology, with a Biblical Languages minor – but that’s another story.)
So in retrospect I’m a little surprised that later that same school year (Spring Quarter 1964, as I recall), I attended a well-publicized Sabbath afternoon lecture by an emeritus biology professor, Harold Clark (oops, “Sabbath” being “Saturday” to normal Americans). This man Clark is sainted enough that the PUC biology building had been named for him. In this lecture, in a tiered-floor classroom on the second floor in “Clark Hall,” Prof. Clark disputed the reliability of radioactive carbon (C14) dating methodologies.
Time out while I bring you up to speed, in case you missed the whole carbon-dating wars. C14 is created (I’m lead to believe by my reading knowledge of the subject) when cosmic rays impact an atom of nitrogen, creating this unstable carbon isotope. Radioactive carbon has a “half-life” of known duration (5,730 ± 40 years). A method for dating old things with carbon content was developed by Willard Libby in the late 1940s, and by a decade later there was a dedicated journal, cleverly named Radiocarbon. [This journal is still published today, by Cambridge University, one of the original contributors to the methodology. There are great articles on these topics in Wikipedia, should you be interested.]
Early age-dating results for once-living things came back in the 10,000-12,000 years BP (before present). Consequently, this “science” clearly constituted a substantial challenge to our shared belief in a short-earth chronology.
Okay, back to Prof. Clark’s lecture.
He explained, on that balmy Sabbath afternoon, that C14 was created by cosmic ray bombardment of C12 (at least, that’s how I remembered it). He then went on to assert that before Noah’s Great Flood (Genesis, Chapters 6-9) there had been a shell of liquid water in orbit around the earth. That’s as close as I can come to quoting him exactly. This water shell, he continued, largely protected the earth from cosmic rays, and thus the creation of radioactive carbon. Therefore, ipso facto, the dates of once-living material dated by C14 to a time before the Great Flood were completely bogus and untrustworthy.
His evidence for this “water-shell” in orbit around the Earth? Genesis 7:11 – “… and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.” (NIV)
As further evidence for the unreliability of radiocarbon dating, Clark made reference to a C14 study of peat bogs in that then-new journal Radiocarbon. These peat bog studies were one of the early attempts – by proponents, not doubters – to evaluate the reliability of carbon-dating: You dug down into a peat bog, which you assumed had been built up relatively evenly over time. You extracted samples at regular intervals (say, every 10 centimeters), and sent those samples off to a lab for dating. Under the reigning assumptions, you would expect the resulting series of sample dates to graph in a more-or-less straight line (depth of sample against sample date).
But Prof. Clark asserted that a study showed that a series of test results, again taken from regularly-spaced samples down into a peat bog, showed – not a straight line – but a “hockey stick” break at about the date of the Great Flood. This had to mean, he further asserted, that the levels of atmospheric C14 had obviously changed at that point in time. This was all the additional “evidence” the good Professor needed to reject this newfangled dating method out of hand.
What happened next, you may ask? Sorry, you’ll just have to wait for the exciting conclusion, in next months’ installment of “It All Starts With Science”!
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