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Creation and Evolution, Science, Darwin, Scientific Method, Natural Selection
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The Polonium 218 Controversy

By Dawn Huxley
Posted on: 4/20/2002

How a tiny mystery turned into an accusation of fraud and incompetence.

The polonium-218 controversy is probably the most abstruse young-Earth creationist argument to date, and creationists often exploit that dilemma during debates by throwing it in the face of their opponents who, even if they’re scientifically literate, often sputter helplessly to understand what their creationist adversaries are talking about. Many just stare in blank, confused silence.

It’s a difficult topic to explain, too, but I’ll give you the brief gist of the creationist argument.

Back in the early 1970s, a physicist named Robert Gentry discovered that many supposedly ancient rocks emitted “polonium-218 halos,” which shouldn’t exist because the radioactive decay of polonium 218 has such a brief, short half-life. And if the rocks are as old as geologists claim, they shouldn’t emit such halos. Their component elements should’ve instead faded long, long ago. Robert Gentry, of course, is also a fundamentalist scientist who testified at the Arkansas trial where creationists fought hard to justify young-Earth creation science as a legitimate substitute for evolution in the public schools. (They lost their case — see Judge Overton’s ruling; he took into account Duane Gish’s famous quote in the original version of Evolution: The Fossils Say No! where Gish claimed that “special creation” was beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. Even pro-creationist author Phillip Johnson, in his book Darwin on Trial, concedes that Gish’s remark blew it for the defense.)

During that trial, a number of geologists thought Robert Gentry’s halo controversy was “interesting,” but dismissed it as “only a tiny mystery.” Later, Gentry published his findings in a book called Creation’s Tiny Mystery.

Old-Earth creationist author Hugh Ross claims that another geologist attempted to accompany Robert Gentry on a tour of all the original sites where he found his rocks, but Gentry remained vague and evasive about the source of his specimens. I can’t remember all the conclusions Hugh Ross reached, but if you consult Ross’ book Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy, you can look it up for yourself. I think Gentry found his halos in “young igneous dikes” rather than ancient metamorphic rocks.

If you go to the the Talk.Origins Archive, there’s an article by an amateur geologist who tried to duplicate Gentry’s experiments without success, and questions Gentry’s professional competence. It’s called Evolution’s Tiny Violences: The Po-Halo Mystery.

The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, by Ronald L. Numbers, gives a brief history of that controversy. Numbers doesn’t have a particular opinion about Gentry’s conclusions, but he does point out that many other young-Earth creationists were unimpressed with his claims and thought that Gentry was showboating. In Numbers’ bibliography, he cites an article by Kurt Wise, a “geologist” with the Institute for Creation Research, who wrote a harsh critique of Gentry’s claims in the ICR’s Impact newsletter. (Numbers’ bibliography also notes that in a follow-up newsletter, Gentry responds with a letter to the editor of Impact defending his work, and Wise responds with an equally harsh critique of Gentry’s defense.)

In the book Scientists Confront Creationism, edited by Laurie Godfrey, there’s a brief mention of the halo controversy, but no conclusion about it. However, one of the contributing authors notes that Gentry was involved in a separate fraud that undermines all his other claims.

Back to Creation/Evolution

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