Carbon 14 dating debate


07-Aug-2017 01:25

So scientists performing carbon dating routinely calibrate their findings to adjust for these known issues, using other dating techniques (such as counting the rings on old trees) to corroborate their findings and help them fine-tune the scale.

But these and other seeming sources of uncertainty have been seized upon by some very vocal groups of creationists as loopholes, allowing them to challenge the validity of carbon dating.

It has become my custom here at Interesting Thing of the Day to choose topics that I think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “I’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test.

I think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating.

As a matter of fact, increased hydrocarbon emissions over the past century have greatly increased the amount of carbon-12 in the atmosphere, while nuclear detonations during the past 50 years or so have increased the amount of carbon-14.

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For one thing, the rate of carbon-14 production in the atmosphere (and thus the level of cosmic ray activity) must have been pretty much constant for the past several dozen millennia.

Discussions between creationists and mainstream scientists typically have an apples-and-oranges character, much like discussions between “pro-choice” and “pro-life” advocates or politically “liberal” and “conservative” partisans.

Each side has unshakeable beliefs and therefore insists on bending any available evidence to support them, so very little real discussion takes place.

For example, if a sample emits radiation indicating the presence of 10 carbon-14 atoms and we know from its mass that it originally must have contained 20, that means the plant or animal from which the sample was taken died about 5,730 years ago.

Eventually, however, all the carbon-14 atoms will decay—or at least enough of them will that the amount of radiation they emit can no longer be distinguished from ordinary background radiation.

But I realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, I could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works.