Can We Trust Carbon 14?


Modern science makes many claims concerning its ability to discover information about the past. While the methods used for determining this information are creative and often complicated, they are, at best, guesses because the scientists were not there and can not know for certain the conditions of the past. This is true for dating methods such as the carbon 4 method.

Carbon is the black substance in charred wood (or charred dinner)). This element comes in many forms and one type has atoms that are 14 times as heavy as hydrogen atoms. This is why it is called carbon-14 or C14 for short. Unlike common carbon (C12), C14 decays rapidly making it radioactive. It is formed when cosmic rays strike the upper atmosphere producing fast moving neutrons. These neutrons collide with nitrogen atoms producing C14.

Carbon is an ingredient in the air we breathe. Therefore, anything that has been living has carbon (C12) in it. C14 is also in the air we breathe, so everything living also has C14 in it. In a sample of air, the Scripture is ratio of C12 to C14 can be determined. This ratio would be the same in any living thing since to live it must constantly be taking in air. When something dies the ratio would begin to change since C14 decays rapidly. Therefore, if the C12/C14 ratio at the time of death could be known, the difference between the known ratio and the ratio found in the dead thing would be an accurate indicator of how long the thing had been dead, since the rate of decay has been measured.

The key here is knowing the ratio at the time of death. We know that the industrial revolution upset the ratio by releasing huge amounts of C12 into the atmosphere. We can determine the ratio before the industrial revolution by studying tree rings, but is this the same ratio that was present thousands of years ago? When W. F. Libby discovered this method of dating he assumed that it was the same for two reasons. First, calculations showed that a state of equilibrium, where the amount of C14 entering the atmosphere would be equal to the amount decaying, would be reached in only 30,000 years. Secondly, geologists of the day had convinced most people that the earth was much older than 30,000 years, so the system would have to be in equilibrium. The problem is, it is not in equilibrium.

Measurements in Libby s day showed that C14 was entering 12% faster than it was leaving. Today, some estimates have this ratio as much as 50% out of balance.’ Therefore, the ratio at the time of death for fossil animals and plants cannot be known, and subsequently, their age cannot be accurately determined by carbon dating.

As a result of this problem, C14 has been known to give grossly inaccurate dates. A freshly killed seal, for example, was dated to be 1,300 years old.2 Living mollusk shells were dated to be up to 2,300 years old.3 Some living snail s shells, when carbon-14 dated, showed they had died 27,000 years ago.4 In these cases, the cause of the errors could usually be determined. But how could we be sure there were no such errors when testing items of unknown age from unknown environments?

Robert E. Lee, Assistant Editor of the Anthropological Journal of Canada (not the general) wrote, Despite 35 years of technological refinement and better understanding, the underlying assumptions have been strongly challenged, and warnings are out that radiocarbon may soon find itself in a crisis situation… It should be no surprise, then, that fully half of the dates are rejected. The wonder is, surely, that the remaining half come to be accepted.”5

While quite ingenious, the carbon-14 method is not an accurate measure of the distant past. For accurate information, we must still look to the only Eyewitness of the events of the past, the Creator.

1 Radiocarbon, vol. 8 (1966).
2 Antarctic Journal, vol. 6 (September October I 971), p. 211.
3 Science, vol. 141 (1963), pp. 634-637.
4 Science, vol. 224 (1984), pp. 58-61.
5 Lee, Robert E. “Radiocarbon, Ages in Error,” Anthropological Journal of Canada, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1981, pp. 9.

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