The Carbon Dating Game

Didier Descouens

The Carbon Dating Game

Does the common method for dating artifacts really give us an accurate timeline for civilization’s prehistory?
From the January 2003 Trumpet Print Edition

Most people think carbon dating can be used to establish the age of anything old. They believe every artifact dug up or discovered by archeologists, anthropologists, geologists, or other scientists can have its age accurately determined, within a narrow range, by carbon dating. But is that the truth? Let’s look at carbon-14 dating to discover just how accurate and reliable it really is.

Just what is carbon dating?

First, it is based on the ratio of two elements—carbon 12 (C-12) to carbon 14 (C-14)—found in a sample of the object being dated. The ratio of C-12 to C-14 is approximately 1 billion to one in today’s atmosphere. All living things, directly or indirectly, absorb carbon from the atmosphere. The carbon absorbed is both C-12 and C-14 and it is absorbed at the same ratio as it exists in the atmosphere.

Once a living thing dies, it stops absorbing both C-12 and C-14.

Notice that something must have been alive to absorb C-12 and C-14. Therefore it is not possible to date inorganic material. Anything that was never alive cannot be dated using carbon dating methods. References to carbon dating of rocks, for example, are inaccurate since rocks were never alive.

A basic quality of C-12, the most prevalent form of carbon, is stability—it doesn’t change. C-14, however, is unstable and begins changing immediately after it is formed. Each C-14 atom will lose an electron from the nucleus. The process of losing electrons is referred to as decay. The rate of decay is considered constant and measurable, and is expressed by the term “half life.”

Half life can be understood, for our purpose, by thinking of a block of ice. Our block weighs 10 pounds and begins to melt. The time it takes to melt until it weighs only 5 pounds (half the original weight) is called its “half life.” For this example, let’s say the ice takes five hours to melt from 10 pounds down to 5 pounds. The half life would be five hours. This is not exactly the way C-14 acts, but it serves our purpose.

Unlike ice melting, the half life of carbon and other unstable elements is constant. In other words, if it takes 5,730 years for 10 pounds of C-14 to decay to only 5 pounds, it would also take 5,730 years for 5 pounds to become 2.5 pounds. No matter how much you start with, it will take the same amount of time to reduce it to half, hence the term half life.

C-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. If you begin with 100 pounds of C-14, it would take 5,730 years until there would only be 50 pounds left. It would take an additional 5,730 years for the 50 pounds to decay to only 25 pounds, and so on, halving the amount of C-14 every 5,730 years.

When C-14 is formed, it begins to break down into nitrogen as it loses an electron from the nucleus. If you know how much C-14 something contained to begin with, you can determine how long it has been decaying by measuring how much C-14 is left.

So here is how it works. A piece of wood is tested to see just how long ago the tree died. The C-14 is measured and compared to the amount assumed to have been present when it was alive. If there is half as much C-14 as estimated when it was alive, it is said to have been 5,730 years since it died.

Now, this is based on “knowing” how much C-14 is in the atmosphere when a sample is alive. How could scientists know how much C-14 was being absorbed 10,000 years ago? This is one of the difficulties for those relying on carbon dating.

C-14 is constantly being produced when cosmic rays strike the upper atmosphere. Cosmic rays hit gasses in the upper atmosphere and knock off neutrons. Some of the neutrons react with the nitrogen-14 near them and form carbon-14 and an extra (free) proton. Remember, once C-14 is produced, it immediately begins to decay, so C-14 is decaying at the same time it is being made. When the production rate and the decay rate are equal, the amount of C-14 will be constant. This is called equilibrium.

It is possible to measure the rate of production and the rate of decay quite accurately. Therefore, it is possible to determine how long it would take for the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere to become constant starting from a point in time when there is not any C-14 at all present.

It would take 30,000 to 50,000 years to go from zero C-14 until equilibrium is reached. Since scientists accept the concept of evolution, they conclude that the atmosphere is millions of years old. Since C-14 equilibrium would certainly have been reached in the first 50,000 years, it is assumed to have already happened millions of years ago.

When carbon-14 dating was first utilized, it was based on the idea that the amount of C-14 was, in fact, stable and unchanging and, therefore, the ratio between C-12 and C-14 was thought to be constant. But in the 1960s, research proved this to be incorrect. It was discovered that C-14 equilibrium had not yet been reached. In fact, it was estimated that the formation rate of C-14 was 30 percent greater than the decay rate, meaning the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere is increasing.

What was the solution for scientists to be able to continue using carbon-14 dating? They set the year of 1950 as a standard. Deciding to use the ratio of C-12 to C-14 present in that year, they considered it to be the point of equilibrium.

Further steps were needed since even this point of reference did not produce ages for material complementary to evolutionist thinking. So, scientists produced “correction tables.” When something is tested and carbon-14 dating doesn’t give the age scientists like, they apply these correction tables and change the age to match predetermined estimates of the sample’s age.

Then there is another remedy used in science to resolve conflicts with carbon-14 dating and preconceived notions: They simply don’t include the carbon-14 dating results. If a sample is “thought” to be 32,500 years old and carbon-14 dating suggests it is only 4,000 years old, the carbon-14 dating data is simply dropped from the records. In the proceedings of a symposium on radiocarbon variations and absolute chronology held in Sweden in 1969, two researchers from the University of Uppsala introduced their report with these words: “C-14 was being discussed at a symposium on the prehistory of the Nile Valley. A famous American colleague, Professor Brew, briefly summarized a common attitude among archaeologists toward it as follows: ‘If a C-14 date supports our theories, we put it in the main text. If it does not entirely contradict them, we put it in a footnote. And if it is completely out of date, we just drop it’” (T. Säve-Söderbergh and Ingrid U. Olsson, Proceedings of the Twelfth Nobel Symposium). Just like that, the conflict is resolved.

To review, the concept of carbon dating is based on the fallacy of a constant amount of C-14 in the atmosphere, and the fallacy of a constant ratio between C-12 and C-14. When the problems of C-14 amounts not being constant were discovered, scientists decided to use the amount in the atmosphere in 1950 as a standard; and when the dates still don’t match the assumptions of the scientists, they apply a “correction table” to make them match. And if, after all of these “adjustments” are made, a carbon date still doesn’t match the ideas of the scientist, the carbon dating data is simply ignored.

To see how this looks in a real application, we can examine the example of what scientists call Cro-Magnon man. According to scientists, Cro-Magnon footprints found in France’s Chauvet Cave four years ago are estimated to be about 26,000 years old. The estimate is based on carbon dating of the soot from torches on the cave ceiling. The test shows about 2-3 percent of the C-14 present in the soot as would have been present in 1950 (the standard year). Since it would take about 26,000 years for the C-14 to decay that far, the age is set at 26,000 years old.

But, because we know C-14 is not in a state of equilibrium (stable), it is necessary to “estimate” what it would have been in the past. If we use the current growth rate of C-14 in the atmosphere and calculate back from there, we find it actually may have been only 4,000 years ago that the 2-3 percent figure would have been true. Here is why.

We can calculate backward how much C-14 was in the atmosphere last year, and 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago and so on. Since about 4,000 years ago there would only be about 19 percent as much C-14 in the atmosphere as the standard year of 1950, the wood the soot comes from would only have absorbed 19 percent as much C-14 as expected. Then, knowing the half-life/decay rate, we can calculate the 2-3 percent figure to be all that would be left today.

So the footprints of Cro-Magnon man, considered by evolutionists to be 26,000 years old, may well be only 4,000 years old. Of course, most scientists simply reject such figures.

It comes back to one of the center-planks of modern science, evolution. Anything that does not support evolution is considered wrong, and no further questions are tolerated.

The Bible teaches us that Adam and Eve chose to make decisions for themselves when they took from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3). This means they and their offspring would create a pool of knowledge based on their own thinking and reasoning without the input of God. Since that time, that is exactly what mankind has done.

Modern science is founded upon a rejection of divine revelation and exultation of knowledge based on the corrupt human mind. Man has been living about 6,000 years cut off from the only source of true knowledge, the Creator God. Since man chooses to rely on his own understanding, he is bound by the limits of his carnal mind. Mankind as a whole will continue, for a little while longer, to swim in the stagnant pool of ignorance produced without God’s guiding influence. But this state of ignorance is temporary.

In the near future, God will intervene in events on this Earth. He will cause people to realize that, without God, all human thinking is faulty. God will show the world that He is the Creator of everything and only His way of thinking and living will lead to understanding and truth. Then, for the first time in 6,000 years, all mankind will begin to acquire accurate knowledge (Isa. 11:9).