Carbon 14 Dating

(Austin) #1

Hello all!

I’m new to the forum. I’m currently a student at an SBC seminary. Over the last year and a half I have undergone a pretty large paradigm shift in my thinking, theology, etc.

I have all but accepted EC personally in that time. I did my undergrad in Exercise Science and had some biology courses, etc. The reason I’m writing is because as I’ve shared (timidly) my new belief in EC, I’ve been attacked with “carbon-14 dating isn’t reliable.”

I’ve tried to find articles on this but, quite frankly, the science is over my head and often written from a naturalistic perspective. I’d love some resources on the reliability of Carbon-14 dating, different ways of dating, etc.

Thanks all!

(Mervin Bitikofer) #2

Welcome to the forum, Austin! This is a great place to kick these kinds of questions around in the presence of people (some of them scientists in relevant fields) who can either give you a direct answer, or else direct you to some other resource that can. I’m not such an expert but have read enough to perhaps at least know a thing or two about it.

One of the complaints often heard about dating methods (especially C-14) is that some specially known sample that gets submitted ends up being dated at some obviously ridiculous value. Then the artifact is eagerly admitted as evidence that such dating obviously can’t work. What they fail to take into account is that various dating methods work for various and different ranges of age. “Aha”, says the skeptic. So you have to presume how old the rock is before your test can tell you it is that old! And off he runs to proclaim the circular logic that has amazingly been overlooked by the entire establishment of experts carrying out these measurements. But this argument just doesn’t do the work that its proponents want it to do.

Yes, there is a presumption of which range is involved when these tests are done. (That is the grain of truth). But what they don’t mention is the deep overlap of so many of these different methods, and the varying methods that end up independently confirming each other.

The occasional flaky result that may turn up if someone submits a “let’s show how wrong they can be” blind test, is a bit like me trying to measure the thickness of a piece of paper by using a yard stick with inch markings, and then being laughed at when my answer is magnitudes off. It’s the wrong tool for that job. Carbon dating only works out to about 50000 years or so, and then the decayed amounts are so small as to be buried by noise. So it definitely has a short range limit. Others are chiming in here that may know a lot more.

In any case, it’s good to have you inquiring here.

(Laura) #3

Welcome! I can totally relate to what you’re talking about, as I’ve heard that one all my growing up years. As an adult I was surprised to find out Carbon-14 wasn’t the only dating method considering how often it was dissed in YEC materials.

I’m sure the more science-minded users here will have better resources, but here’s one that I appreciated in response to some of Kent Hovind’s arguments, since those are ones I grew up hearing:


“Carbon dating” is one of the most misused terms when used outside of science. No one carbon dates a rock because rocks aren’t valid samples for carbon dating. The limit for carbon dating is about 50,000 years, so if you hear someone say that carbon dating returned a date of 10 million years then they are getting something really, really wrong.

Carbon dating can only accurately date organic material from the past 50,000 years, or so. Carbon-14 (14C) is continually made in the upper atmosphere as cosmic rays and other high energy particles bombard Nitrogen-14. Plants take up 14C in the form of carbon dioxide and make sugars from it. Herbivores eat the sugars in the plants, and carnivores eat the herbivores. Therefore, all terrestrial life has about the same 14C content in their bodies as that found in the air. When those organisms die they stop the turnover of 14C in their bodies. The 14C slowly decays over time, and we can determine how long ago something died by how much 14C is left. Since the half-life of 14C is only 5,700 years it can only be used over a relatively short span of time. It is also worth noting that aquatic life can derive its carbon from dissolved stores in lakes and oceans which have a different percentage of 14C than the atmosphere does.

One of the keys to 14C dating is historic levels of 14C in the atmosphere. The production of 14C can change, so dates have to be calibrated to these historic values. Luckily, there are known annual deposits that contain either atmospheric carbon or organisms which allows this type of calibration. Such records include ice layers, tree rings, and lake varves. Here is a graph showing the relationship between uncalibrated 14C age and the actual age of these objects:

As you can see, the actual age drifts slightly from the 1:1 line, and this is the calibration that is added to 14C dates.

The other source of possible error is contamination. If older carbon from the environment works its way into your sample then it will date older than it should. One way to check this is look at the overall carbon isotope makeup of your sample. Photosynthesis tends to favor the ligher isotope of carbon which is 12C. Therefore, if your sample is organic and not contaminated by inorganic carbon from the environment then it should be rich in 12C compared to inorganic sources of carbon.

Long story short, 14C dating can be accurate within a limited time span if done properly with carefully selected samples. In other words, it is just like the rest of science. It is a very reliable technique when done correctly.

(Austin) #5

Thank you for this insight. So, if C-14 only works for about 50000 years, what methods are being used to date the earth, fossil record, etc?


(Austin) #6

Wow. So much I didn’t know. Thankful for your analysis and information.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #7

Rubidium-Strontium is one that comes to mind just off the top of my head for billions of years … but there are bunches more. I have a feeling you’re about to hear from some here who are much more knowledgeable than I am about it. So I’ll defer for the moment and watch the responses myself.


I will describe the general methods, but keep in mind that there are always exceptions. I am not a geologist, so this is stuff I have picked up over the years. If there are any mistakes I encourage any geologists to correct them. With that said . . .

Most of those techniques date igneous rocks (i.e. rocks that form from cooling molten lava) using other radioactive elements with longer half lives. One example is U/Pb dating of zircons. Uranium decays through a whole chain of intermediates until it reaches Lead which doesn’t decay, so these are the elements that are measured for the age of the zircon. The reason zircons are used is that when they crystalize from molten lava they exclude Pb and include U in their crystals. This is due to the difference in charge between U and Pb. Therefore, when a zircon forms it has no Pb in it, but it does have U. Another cool feature is that there are two U isotopes that have different half lives. 238U decays to 206Pb with a half life of 4.47 billion years and 235U decays to 207Pb with a half life of 710 million years. If you date a zircon using both decay chains and they produce the same age then you have extra confidence that the date is correct.

The other common dating techniques are K/Ar and Rb/Sr if you want to google them.


Just one note. Geologists don’t directly measure the age of fossils. Instead, they date the igneous rocks around the fossils, be it in the layers where the fossil is found or the layers above and below the fossil.

(Christy Hemphill) #10

Hi Austin, welcome!

This article explains all the main dating methods used in geology, including a section on radiometric dating, with all the different elements that can be tested for. The neat thing is that different dating methods can often be used to cross-check a proposed date. It isn’t quite the guesswork and wishful thinking operation that YEC sources make it sound like. It’s math.


A great book on the age of the earth written by a couple of Christian Geologists is The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth. In includes a discussion of radiometric dating of rocks in chapters 14 and 15 that covers the various methods.

For an example of how radiometric dates can be cross checked read this article by Joel Duff Smoking Gun Evidence of an Ancient Earth. His site is full of articles that refute the YEC position.

(Phil) #12

Here is a link to thread that links some great articles comparing lake varves, tree rings, and carbon dating. The ASA article has some good graphics charting the comparison, which is tough to argue against.

Here is the graphic, showing how stuff you can look at and count (tree rings and layers in a lake) overlap and correspond to carbon dating.

(Larry Bunce) #13

BioLogos has a lot of resources aimed at non-scientists. Look in the resources section for videos on the science behind evolutIon.
This link talks about dating methods:
Carbon-14 dating only works for organic objects up to 50,000 years old. It compares the ratio of 14C to 12C found in today’s atmosphere to the ratio in the object to be dated. While alive, a living thing has the same ratio of 14C to 12C as in the air. The C12 is stable, but the C14 decays to C12 once the tree or animal dies with a
half-life of 5,000 years. so that an object 5,000 years old would have 1/2 of the original C14, 10,000 years old would have half of that, or 1/4, and so on.
Of course, we don’t know if the amount of
C14 in the air has always been the same, but objects from Egypt and tree rings an with known ages have allowed us to calibrate C14 dating very accurately back 10,000 years. The amount of C14 in air fluctuates a little, but not by orders of magnitude, so that objects measured at 20,000 years are not really less than 6,ooo years old. Some of the Geiger counters used in the 1950s were not very accurate, a fact pounced on by YEC’s at the time, but modern means of measuring C14 are very accurate and more sensitive.
Some YEC’s asked if the earth is billions of years old, why do we have any C14 left. The answer is that C14 is continuously formed when cosmic rays hit the upper atmosphere.

(Austin) #14

Thank you all very much. This is incredibly helpful and reassuring!


It’s this type of data that I have yet to see YEC’s really explain, specifically the lake varve data. I have seen YEC’s try to claim that a flood could create the varves, but how could a flood sort leaves and insects by their 14C/12C ratios? If the leaves and insects in these varves were alive when the flood happened then why shouldn’t they all have the same 14C/12C ratios? Moreover, why would the 14C/12C dates for the lake varves also overlap with the same data from tree rings and ice layers (we could add speleothems to the list if we wanted).

(Matthew Pevarnik) #16

Also, apologies if this is a repeat but @jammycakes has written some excellent pieces on this topic in particular. I don’t have a link to his other blog but found this writeup that covers many of the same ideas:

(Phil) #17

Here is Jammycakes other blog. Good stuff.

(Tom Larkin) #18

That is quite a competitive field!

(Tom Larkin) #19

An internet search of dating methods is probably a bad idea.

Dr. Roger C. Weins is a Christian, but also a PhD Physicist with a specialty in radiometric dating methods and has done work for Caltech and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Wiens has written an excellent paper designed to provide an overview of the different dating methods to Christians which brings the science down to the layperson level.

(Phil) #20

Excellent article, I had read it years ago, but still one of the best at explaining things.