Personally I think that the RATE team does deserve credit for being as honest as they were about the problems with their hypotheses. Certainly, they moved the YECist position away from claiming that “evolutionists” were just throwing out results that didn’t fit their “uniformitarian presuppositions” (in effect, portraying radiometric dating as a fraudulent exercise in cherry-picking random numbers) and actually admitted that vast amounts of radioactive decay have taken place since Creation.
However, the fact remains that there are still several gaps and very questionable data handling practices in the RATE zircon study. To give just a few examples:
- They failed to take pressure into account; their measurements of helium diffusion rates were made in a vacuum. They should have conducted additional studies to determine helium diffusion rates under pressures of ~ 200 bar to establish exactly how much pressure would have affected the results.
- They prepared the biotite samples (biotite is the mineral in which the zircons were embedded) for analysis by crushing rather than by cutting. This would have resulted in significant helium loss, which would have inflated the rate at which they would have expected helium to diffuse out of the zircons and into the surrounding biotite, further biasing their results towards a young earth.
- They adjusted some data taken twenty years earlier by Robert V Gentry, which they were using as a part of their analysis, by a factor of ten to account for “typographic errors.” However, they were unable to produce any laboratory notes or similar evidence to demonstrate that the data contained typographic errors in the first place. If they had any doubts about the integrity of the data, and the original lab notes had been lost, they should have discarded it and the experiments concerned should have been re-done. “Correcting” data without providing firm evidence that such “corrections” were actually warranted is fudging.
- They misidentified the rock samples concerned because they only identified them by means of a visual inspection. Other scientific literature indicates that the samples they described as “Jemez granodiorite” were in fact gneisses; if they believed this to have been in error, they should have conducted chemical and X-ray diffraction studies to establish that this was indeed the case. Granodiorites are igneous rocks similar to granites; gneisses are metamorphic rocks that only form under much higher temperatures and pressures, indicating that the samples must have spent a significant part of their history at least 15-22 km below the surface before being subsequently uplifted. This too would have significantly affected helium retention rates.
(For more information, see the review by Kevin Henke on Talk Origins.)
Now to be fair, these problems were not necessarily intentional deception; they may have just been inadvertent mistakes or the result of budgetary constraints. However, they were picked up by reviewers and do need to be adequately addressed before they can legitimately claim to have a case. These are serious flaws in their methodology that totally undermine the validity and credibility of their research.
The RATE team’s responses to critique have been far from satisfactory as far as I can see. They dismissed the critiques of their study as “a mountain of minutiae” claiming that they would only affect the results by “a factor of two or so” or “an order of magnitude or so.” However, to the best of my knowledge they have provided no calculations or other evidence whatsoever to demonstrate that the objections really were as trivial as they were making them out to be, nor that the errors would indeed cancel each other out as they supposed. In any case, “a factor of two or so” and “an order of magnitude or so” are already significantly larger than the error bars in the stated result of 6,000±2,000 years, so the stated error in their final conclusion is already wrong even if they did.