The RATE project (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth) was a research project conducted by the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research between 1997 and 2005 to assess the validity of radiometric dating and other dating techniques in the light of the doctrine of a recent creation. It was funded by $250,000 from the Institute for Creation Research and over $1 million in donations. The RATE team was chaired by Larry Vardiman (meteorology) and included Steven A. Austin (soft rock geology), John Baumgardner (geophysics), Steven W. Boyd (Hebrew), Eugene F. Chaffin (physics), Donald B. DeYoung (physics), Russell Humphreys (physics) and Andrew Snelling (hard rock geology).
The project's findings were published in 2005, and while they acknowledged evidence for over 500 million years of radiometric decay at today's rates, they also claimed to have discovered other evidences that pointed to a young earth. They therefore hypothesised that nuclear decay rates were accelerated by a factor of approximately one billion on the first two days of the Creation week and during the Flood.
Non-affiliated experts who have scrutinised the claims have unanimously rejected them as flawed.
The RATE team acknowledged evidence for over 500 million years' worth of radioactive decay in the earth's history at today's rates. However, they claimed that other evidence indicated that the earth is much younger. The evidences cited were:
- Helium diffusion in zircons: The authors claimed that the high concentration of helium in zircon crystals (ZrSiO4) could only be explained by young-earth timescales.
- Radiohalos in granites: The authors asserted that due to the short half-life of polonium, radiohalo damage should have annealed if the rocks had cooled at the much slower rates expected from geologic timescales.
- Isochron discordances: The authors presented several examples of cases where isochron dates from the same minerals using different techniques yielded discordant ages, differing by up to 10-15% after allowing for maximum errors, to argue that isochron dating is fundamentally flawed. However, they did not explain why errors of 15% would justify the claim that radioisotope dating is in error by six orders of magnitude, nor did they account for the numerous cases where isochron dating has given dates that are in good agreement with each other.
- Radiocarbon in ancient coals and diamonds: The authors argued that trace quantities of carbon-14 in diamonds, coals and other ancient rocks indicated that they were much younger than thought, as there should be no carbon-14 left after 100,000 years. However, the levels reported were consistent with levels expected from contamination and other extraneous sources, which are impossible to eliminate even when extraordinary care is taken in handling the samples, and chronologists disregard levels of carbon-14 below 0.5% of modern levels.
Accelerated nuclear decay
Based on these findings, the authors postulated that nuclear decay rates were accelerated by a factor of approximately 500 million during the Creation week and at the time of the Flood. Short-lived isotopes such as 14C were not affected, while long-lived isotopes such as 40K were affected by a factor of a billion or more. Stable isotopes were apparently not affected.
They identified two unresolved problems with this theory. One was excessive heat generation, which would have been sufficient to raise the temperature of the earth's surface to 22,000 °C, sufficient to evaporate the earth unless some extraordinary cooling mechanism were applied. They acknowledged that neither conduction, nor convection, nor radiation could remove this heat quickly enough, and that therefore a new, esoteric solution would have to be found. They further acknowledged that this solution would also have to have cooled some material more than others to prevent the oceans from freezing over.
The other problem is excessive radiation generation, which would have killed Noah and his passengers on the Ark by the radiation generated from ratioisotopes such as 40K in their own bodies. They speculated that the 40K measured in biological materials today may have been a result of the Genesis Flood itself, although they did not explain how this could have come about.
Randy Isaac of the American Scientific Affiliation noted that the leap from the findings to the conclusion was never made clear and asserted that it was dishonest to claim that the study provided evidence of a young earth given that it had noted insurmountable scientific problems:
In this book, the authors admit that a young-earth position cannot be reconciled with the scientific data without assuming that exotic solutions will be discovered in the future. No known thermodynamic process could account for the required rate of heat removal nor is there any known way to protect organisms from radiation damage. The young-earth advocate is therefore left with two positions. Either God created the earth with the appearance of age (thought by many to be inconsistent with the character of God) or else there are radical scientific laws yet to be discovered that would revolutionize science in the future. The authors acknowledge that no current scientific understanding is consistent with a young earth. Yet they are so confident that these problems will be resolved that they encourage a message that the reliability of the Bible has been confirmed.
[C]laims that scientific data affirm a young earth do not meet the criterion of integrity in science. Any portrayal of the RATE project as confirming scientific support for a young earth, contradicts the RATE project’s own admission of unresolved problems. The ASA can and does oppose such deception.
The project has also been criticized by geologist Kevin Henke for, among other things, using faulty standard deviations, misidentifying rock samples, and correcting "typographical errors" in other researchers' data without providing any evidence that such corrections were warranted. The project's claim regarding helium diffusion in zircon was refuted by Gary Loechelt and Kevin Henke, who noted that, among other problems, the RATE team had used an unrealistic diffusion model, had misidentified the rock samples, had made incorrect assumptions about their thermal history, and had used incorrect standard deviations.
- Isaac, Randy (June 2007). "Assessing the RATE project" (PDF). Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. 59 (2): 143–146. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
- "The RATE Project". Institute for Creation Research. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
- Vardiman, Larry; Austin, Steven A; Baumgardner, John R; Boyd, Steven W; Chaffin, Eugene F; DeYoung, Donald B; Humphreys, D. Russell; Snelling, Andrew A. "Chapter 10: Summary of Evidence for a Young Earth from the RATE Project" (PDF). Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth: Results of a Young-Earth Research Initiative. The Institute for Creation Research. pp. 758–765.
- Henke, Kevin R (20 June 2010). "Dr. Humphreys' Young-Earth Helium Diffusion "Dates": Numerous Fallacies Based on Bad Assumptions and Questionable Data". TalkOrigins.com. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
- Ward, Michael. "Helium Diffusion as a Creationist Clock". University of South Dakota. Retrieved 28 February 2016.
- Loechelt, Gary (18 March 2009). "A Response to the RATE Team Regarding Helium Diffusion in Zircon". American Scientific Affiliation. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
- Loechelt, Gary (11 September 2008). "Fenton Hill Revisited: The Retention of Helium in Zircons and the Case for Accelerated Nuclear Decay" (PDF). Reasons to Believe. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
- RATE project at the Institute for Creation Research