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How can you say the world is only 5000 to 6000 years old?

  

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Rabbi Freeman: How can I help you?

Puzzled: The Torah says the world is only 5764 years old.1 What about the dinosaur fossils?

Rabbi Freeman: Yeah, my computer’s a dinosaur—really old…

Puzzled: What?!

Rabbi Freeman: I make joke. Try to make funny.

Puzzled: Oh. :)

Rabbi Freeman: How much do you know about this?

Puzzled: Well, I'm not a scientist. Just a high school kid. I just want to understand.

Rabbi Freeman: Okay, the basic answer is quite simple: We can’t really figure out how old those bones are by examining them. Sure, they look old, but that don’t mean nuttin’.

Puzzled: But the scientists, they have all sorts of ways to figure these things out.

Rabbi Freeman: Well, it all depends on the assumptions you start with. Scientists who study the past make estimates based on three major assumptions:

Rabbi Freeman: (a) The basic conditions of our planet have stayed the same;

Rabbi Freeman: (b) The history of our planet is directed by chance and the laws of nature; and

Rabbi Freeman: (c) Dick Clark was always around.

Rabbi Freeman: Of course, nobody has any proof for either A or B—or C, for that matter, although he reportedly once interviewed Abraham Lincoln. However, there is a lot of scientific evidence that many things have changed drastically—such as the radioactivity on the planet, the power of the magnetic poles, atmospheric conditions, and much, much more.

Puzzled: What do radioactivity and all those other things have to do with dating bones?

Rabbi Freeman: Everything. All the methods for dating old things, such as dinosaur bones or Dick Clark, work something like a clock. You say, “This is how fast we see this process happening. At this rate, it would take this object this long to get from its original state to the state I find it in now.” But let’s say your clock didn’t always tick at the same speed. Let’s say there were much more cosmic rays bombarding the planet at one time. All our carbon dating would be completely off. The same with any of the other changes I mentioned.

Puzzled: But they’re scientists! Haven’t they proven this stuff to work?

Rabbi Freeman: Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Rabbi Freeman: Let me give you some examples of how scientific dating can get real messy: In 1991, Oxford University’s radiocarbon accelerator unit dated some rock paintings found in the South African bush as being around 1,200 years old. Almost as old as Guess Who. But then an art teacher named Joan Ahrens turned up and proved that they were her students’ paintings—they had been stolen by vandals from her garden in Capetown. A little younger, no?

Rabbi Freeman: In Hawaii, volcanic rocks from Mount Kilauea (and don’t ask me how to pronounce that) were dated as being up to three million years old—but in fact they were formed by a volcanic eruption in 1801.

Rabbi Freeman: When scientists tried to measure the age of Earth’s atmosphere using the same data that they use for Carbon 14 dating, they found it could only have been here for around 10,000 years. Darn, guys—that figure doesn’t really work. When trees were dated using Carbon 14 dating, the very oldest seemed to be about 8,000 years old. But counting their rings gets you another figure: About 5,700 years! Hmmm…

All names, places, and identifying information have been changed or deleted in order to protect the privacy of the questioners. In order to preserve authenticity, the chat sessions have been posted with a minimum of editing. Please excuse typographical errors, missing punctuation, and/or grammatical mistakes which naturally occur in the course of informal chat sessions.

Footnotes

  • 1. This chat occurred in 2004.

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