Originally Broadcast April 5, 1997

Last Revised Jan 27, 2001

  INFINITY #7: Age Dating Before History.

by Daniel H. Harris, Ph.D.


I. The Questions.

            How can a scientist measure the age of a bone, or a rock?  Should such an age measures be trusted?  Is there good reason to believe that the Earth is millions and millions of years old?  This INFINITY will answer these important questions.


II. How Old Is That Bone In the Ground?

            Imagine you are a scientist and someone asks you to find the age of a very old bone which has not yet turned from bone into stone.  The bone doesn't come with a label giving its age!  So what can you do?  One thing a scientist can do, is to measure the amount of radioactive carbon 14 in the bone.  So how does a carbon 14 measurement tell us the bone's age?  To see how, read on.


III. The Basics of Carbon 14 Dating.

            To understand carbon 14 [C14] dating, [also called the radiocarbon method] we must understand where radioactive carbon 14 [C14] comes from, how C14 decays, how it gets into the bodies of plants and animals, and how C14 measures give us an estimated age.  We begin with the process that makes C14.


   A. Making Radioactive Carbon 14.

            Scientists know that today high energy particles called cosmic rays are slamming into the top of the Earth's atmosphere.  Cosmic rays collide with atoms in the atmosphere creating showers of energetic sub-atomic particles, which continue downward into the atmosphere.  Some of these energetic shower particles are neutrons.  When these energetic neutrons strike the nucleus of an ordinary nitrogen atom, high in the atmosphere, the result is the formation of a radioactive C14 atom.

            [An element is designated according to the number of protons in its nucleus, 1= hydrogen, 2=helium, 3=lithium, 4=beryllium, 5=boron, 6=carbon, 7=nitrogen, 8=oxygen, 9=fluorine, 10=neon, etc.]

            [An ordinary nitrogen nucleus has 7 protons and 7 neutrons.  When a cosmic ray neutron combines with an ordinary nitrogen nucleus, the temporary result is a nitrogen nucleus with 7 protons and 8 neutrons, and excess energy.  Without delay, the nitrogen nucleus ejects a proton, which takes away most of the excess energy.  What remains then is a carbon nucleus with 6 protons and 8 neutrons.  This is radioactive C14.]


   B. The Decay of Radioactive Carbon 14.

            Each radioactive C14 atom is unstable because its nucleus has excess energy.  To get rid of that excess energy the C14 nucleus ejects a high energy electron, and the result is a stable nucleus of ordinary nitrogen. [see C. below]  This process of the C14 nucleus splitting apart is called radioactivity, or radioactive decay, which is why C14 is said to be radioactive.  [The electron takes away the excess energy of 0.156 Mev.]

            On average it takes about 5,730 yrs for half of the C14 atoms to decay, so 5730 years is said to be the half life of C14.  A very few C14 nuclei decay right away, others take longer, some atoms wait much more than 5,730 yrs before they decay.  But on average half of the C14 atoms are gone in about 5,730 years.  After another 5,730 years half of the remaining C14 atoms have decayed; leaving only 1/4 of the original C14 atoms; and so forth.


   C. Some Easily Neglected Details of C14 Decay.

            [Each C14 atom has 6 protons and 8 neutrons in its nucleus, thus a total atomic mass number of 14, which is why it is called C14.  The most common isotope of carbon is C12, which has a nucleus made up of 6 protons and 6 neutrons.  The C12 isotope is also the most stable form of carbon.  The two extra neutrons in C14 are what makes the C14 isotope is unstable.  To reach stability the nucleus ejects an electron [one negative charge] which carries away the excess energy.  By this means the nucleus, which begins with 6 positive electric charges, looses a negative charge, giving the nucleus 7 positive charges.  The nucleus then has 7 protons and 7 neutrons, which is the common stable form of nitrogen.]

            [The half life of C14, which is the amount of time needed for half of the C14 atoms to decay, is variously listed in different sources.  Willard Libby reported a half life of 5568 years, others reported values being, 5680 years, 5745 hears and 5730 years.  The value now commonly used is 5730 years.  These half lives are reported on page 5, C.M. Lederer et. al., "Table of Isotopes," Sixth Ed., John Wiley & Sons, N.Y.]


   D. How Carbon 14 Gets Into Plants and Animals.

            When radioactive C14 is formed high in the atmosphere (mostly about 10-15 km. high) the C14 rapidly combines with oxygen to make a radioactive form of carbon dioxide, CO2.  Already present in the atmosphere is the more abundant non-radioactive CO2, containing nonradioactive C12.  When the radioactive form of CO2 is formed, it rapidly mixes with the more abundant nonradioactive CO2, and the mixture is transported throughout the atmosphere.  [The mixing - circulation time in the atmosphere is so short compared to the 5730 year half life of C14, that the C14/C12 ratio shouldn't vary by more than about 1% throughout the atmosphere, so scientists treat the C14/C12 ratio is the same throughout the atmosphere.]

            Nearly all carbon in the atmosphere is part of carbon dioxide gas, so CO2 gas contains small amounts of radioactive C14, with about one C14 for every trillion ordinary C12 atoms. 

            The CO2, with C14, is taken out of the air by plants in the process of photosynthesis, and the C14 is incorporated into plant tissues.  The plants containing the C14, are then eaten by animals.  That is how the radioactive C14 gets into an animal's body. 


   E. How C14 Measures Give an Estimate of Age.

            As long as the animal lives it continues eating and absorbing carbon, including radioactive C14.  But the body is also loosing carbon, as cells die and tissues are recycled by the body.  There is a constant turnover of carbon in the body.  Carbon is leaving the body with very very slightly decayed C14, and at the same time fresh carbon is entering the body with a C14/C12 ratio the same as the bulk of the atmosphere.  Since the carbon recycling time in the body is very short compared to the 5730 year half life of C14, the body will have, as long as it lives, a C14/C12 ratio essentially the same as the atmosphere.  Thus scientists suppose that the carbon which is part of the animal's body at the time of death has the same fractional C14/C12 ratio as does the atmosphere at the time of death.

            When the animal dies the recycling of carbon in the body stops.  No C14 goes into the animal's body, because dead animals don't eat, and the C14 atoms that are already in the body continue vanishing by radioactive decay.  The C14 in the animal's body continues vanishing while the ordinary, nonradioactive C12, is unaffected.  Over time the animal's body looses its C14, and then the remaining carbon is all nonradioactive C12.

            Again remember that about half of the C14 atoms present split apart in the first 5730 years.  After another 5,730 years half of the remaining C14 atoms have decayed; leaving only 1/4 of the original C14 atoms; and so forth. 

            So by measuring the present C14/C12 ratio in the bone, and comparing that C14/C12 ratio to the C14/C12 ratio in the atmosphere when the animal died, a scientist can estimate the how long ago the animal died.


   F. Some Necessary Assumptions.

            When we consider how C14 dating works, it becomes clear that there are three assumptions built into the dating process.  For example, we must, 1) assume that we know exactly how much C14 was in the bone when the animal died; and 2) we must assume that while the bone was buried, that no C14 was either added to the bone, or removed from the bone; and 3) we must assume that the decay rate of radioactive C14 has been constant in the past.  Then, if and only if we making these assumptions, we can use the present C14/C12 ratio in the bone to give an estimate of the age of the bone. 


IV. Some Problems With C14 Dating.

            If we wanted to test the assumptions built into the C14 dating method, we would have to go back in time, and take measurements on the bone, and measurements of the C14 decay rate, etc.  But we can't go back in time, and therefore we can't test the assumptions built into the C14 dating method.

            So, if we want to use the C14 dating method we must make  assumptions.  Because these assumptions are built into the dating method, and because these assumptions are not testable, the resulting age estimate is not empirical science.  The resulting age is an uncertain estimate.  But that's not all, there are other problems with the C14 dating method.


   A. The Amount of C14 in the Bone at Death.

            Because no scientist examined the animal's bones when it died, we must somehow estimate the C14/C12 ratio in the animal's bones when it died [we must know the starting conditions].  To do this scientists assume that when the animal died, the C14/C12 ratio in the Earth's atmosphere was then the same as it is today.  [That is, scientists assume that the C14/C12 ratio in the Earth's atmosphere has been constant during at least the last 100,000 years.] 

            Scientists assume that on average there is a balance between the amount of new C14 being made each second by cosmic rays, and the amount of existing C14, which decays each second in the entire atmosphere.  And they assume that the formation and decay processes have been balanced and unchanging for at least 100,000 years. 

            [For this to be true; 1) the cosmic ray intensity must be unchanging with time; 2) the Earth's magnetic field, which acts as a partial shield of cosmic rays, must also be unchanging; and 3) the volume and temperature of the oceans, which can absorb or release large amounts of CO2, must also be unchanging.  Such constancy seems unlikely for a variety of reasons.  For an in depth discussion see p58-61 of "The Illustrated Origins Answer Book" Fourth Ed. by Paul S. Taylor, Eden Publications, Mesa Ariz. 1992]


   B. But the C14 Abundance in the Atmosphere is Changing!

            One thing we can do is to measure the actual rate of C14 production, and the C14 decay rate, in today's atmosphere.  Actual measurements and calculations of the production and decay rates show that the assumed balance between the production rate and the decay rate of C14 does not exist [see Ref 1]. The present rate of C14 production in the atmosphere [given by Willard Libby (1955) as 18.8 atoms/gram/minute] is perhaps 20% greater than the rate of C14 decay [given by Libby (1955) as 16 atoms/gram/minute].  So the amount of C14 in the atmosphere is increasing. 

            Since the amount of C14 in the atmosphere is presently increasing, we would expect to find that ancient samples of organic material of known age, likely started out with less C14 to begin with.  And that is exactly what we find.  Studies of bones and wood known to be some 5000 yrs old, show that there was very little C14 in Earth's atmosphere some 5000 years ago.  An animal that died then, with a reduced amount of C14 in its bones at death, would start out with less C14 to begin with, and so when dated by the C14 method, would seem to be very old, even on the day it was buried.

            Ref. 1, see p317-320, Ian T. Taylor, "In the Minds of Men: Darwin and the New World Order," Third Ed., TFE Publishing, Toronto, 1991.


   C. Some C14 Measures Which Raise Doubts.

            When the C14 dating method is used on living mollusks, like snails, their shells seem to be as much as 2,300 years old.  It seems that mollusks, including snails, have a way of keeping C14 out of their shells.  Wood from some living trees have given C14 dates up to 10,000 years.  And freshly killed seals have been C14 dated at 1,300 years, while 30 year old seal carcasses have been dated at 4,600 years.  These observations call into question the usefulness of all C14 dates. [For further details see p58-61, of "The Illustrated Origins Answer Book" Fourth Ed. by Paul S. Taylor, Eden Publications, Mesa Ariz. 1992]


V. Other Radiometric Dating Methods.

            Radiocarbon dating is only one of many dating methods which depend on the radioactive decay of substances.  When radioactive decay is used for estimating the age of an bone, or a clam shell, or a rock, the method is called radiometric dating.

            Some of the more commonly used radiometric methods for dating rocks include the Potassium-Argon method, the Rubidium-Strontium method and the Uranium-Lead method.  In these example the first element named is the parent element, which decays into the second named element, called the daughter element, or daughter product.  So in the Uranium-Lead method, Uranium by radioactivity over time turns into Lead. 

            In all such radiometric dating methods the resulting date is an estimate of the date when the rock solidified, when it went from molten to crystallized material.  So these methods can only be applied to volcanic rocks.

            [Sedimentary rock is formed when rocks and/or organic materials [like the shells of mollusks] are broken into small pieces by moving water and later deposited, as the sediment settles out of moving water.  Because the breaking of a rock or shell into pieces doesn't change its chemical makeup, the radioactivity processes inside the material are unaffected.  Likewise, when tiny pieces of sediment are deposited to make a rock, there is no change in the chemistry of the rock, and no effect on the radioactivity processes inside the rock.  Therefore, the erosion and deposition dates of sedimentary rocks can't found by radiometric methods.] 


VI. Uniformitarian Dating Defined.

            Dating events in the distant past, by using an ongoing process, such as radiometric dating, is called uniformitarian dating.  The ongoing process is viewed as if it is a clock running down.  These dating methods are called "uniformitarian," because they rest on the assumption that the process rate has been uniform and unchanging, even in the distant past.


VII. Understanding the Limitations of Dating Methods.

            To better understand the uncertainties and difficulties involved in uniformitarian dating methods, lets look at a simple example.  You arrive at a friend's remote cabin, and find a kerosene lantern burning.  Immediately you think, how long has the lamp been burning.  To answer that question, you must know how much fuel was in the lamp when it was lit.  You could assume that the lamp was full, but maybe it wasn't.  You must also measure the present burning rate, and assume that the burning rate did not change before you arrived.  And you must assume that no unknown events affected the burning process, or the amount of kerosene.

            If all your assumptions are justified, then the burning lamp can be treated as a clock that gives an accurate time.  But if any one of your assumptions is wrong, then your estimate of the burning time will be wrong, and you won't know it, because you believed your assumptions.


VIII. The Unavoidable Assumptions Present in Dating Methods.

   So any uniformitarian dating method rests on assumptions:

            1) You must assume the starting conditions.

            2) You must assume a constant process rate.  And

            3) You must assume that nothing unexpected happened.

            In our example, someone could have added or removed kerosene from the lamp after it was lit.  Or someone could have adjusted the lamp, making it burn faster or slower before you arrived.  They could have even turned the lamp on and off several times over a period of time.

            Every uniformitarian dating process depends upon the same three unavoidable assumptions.   These assumptions could only be tested if we had perfect knowledge of the past.  In that case we wouldn't need to make assumptions, and we wouldn't need to use uniformitarian dating methods.  But we can't go into the past to check, so if we use a uniformitarian dating method, we must make these three unavoidable assumptions


IX. No Dating Method is Empirical Science.

            True science, empirical science deals with the here and now, what we can test in a laboratory, what can be verified in many laboratories.  But we can't examine the past in any laboratory, its beyond our reach, just like the distant stars.  No one knows what happened in the distant past when there was no one watching.  Since we can't directly examine the past, and there are untestable assumptions built into all uniformitarian dating, uniformitarian dating is not empirical science. 

            Every uniformitarian dating method attempts to estimate an age based upon uncertain assumptions.  Because the assumptions are, by their very nature untestable, and their validity is unknowable; every age estimate given by a uniformitarian dating method is in reality just an educated guess.


X. Some Known Problems With Radiometric Dating Methods.

            Each of our three unavoidable assumptions can be questioned for a variety of reasons.


   A. The Starting Condition Must Be Known.

            As we have seen with C14, it is often difficult to estimate the amount of radioactive parent substance present at the start of a decay process.  But some assumption(s) must be made about the starting conditions.  In general the assumed starting composition rests on an uncertain theoretical model of the original chemistry of an ancient material.  [In some cases the assumption(s) rest on uncertain theoretical studies of processes which supposedly make chemical elements in stars.]


   B. The Process Rate Must Be Constant.

            It is well known among nuclear physics experimenters that bombarding particles, and other external influences, can affect nuclear decay processes, and nuclear decay rates.  An extreme example can be seen in a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb, where bombardment by neutrons greatly speeds up the natural radioactivity of uranium.  Bombardment by high energy light waves called gamma rays can also affect nuclear decay processes.  [Bombardment by neutrinos can also affect decay rates.]

            One should also consider that measures of radioactivity decay rates have only been made since about 1920.  That is some 80 years.  If decay rates were variable with external influences, or some as yet unrecognized slow process, then 80 years is such a very short time, such decay rate variations might not be noticed.  Consider, for instance, the decay half life of uranium, which is measured to be 4.5 billion years, that is a factor of 56,000,000 times farther back into time than we have measurements.  That is quite an extension beyond the realm of our measures.  Is it therefore reasonable to assume that radioactivity has always happened in the past, in exactly the same way as it does today, when we must go beyond our measurements by a factor as great as 56,000,000?  I think not. 


   C. There Must Be No Unknown Changes in the Sample.

            If we look at a buried bone, or rocks, it is well known that ground water can flow through buried bones and rocks and either add, or remove radioactive chemicals, altering the estimated radiometric date.  In some methods the daughter element is a gas, as it is in the Potassium-Argon method.  The movement of Argon into and out of rocks is now an important uncertainty in the controversy regarding this radiometric method.

            It should also be noted that in general a radiometric date can be affected by either adding to or removing the parent element, and by either adding to or removing the daughter element.  Thus we have four possible ways that a radiometric date can be affected.


XI. More Problems With Radiometric Dating.

            To illustrate, the reality of radiometric dating, lets look at the example of some actual radiometric dates of volcanic rocks at the Grand Canyon. 

            Lava flows of volcanic basalts on the rim of the Grand Canyon, have flowed down into the canyon.  Samples from these volcanic basalts, give widely differing radiometric ages.  A variety of Rubidium-Strontium radiometric methods give dates near 1.3 billion years for these rocks. 

            Basalt rocks buried deep at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which should be much older than those on the rim and poured into the canyon, give ages of only 1.0 billion years.  So the Rubidium-Strontium methods used tells us that the younger lava flows at the top of the Grand Canyon, are older than the rocks at the bottom of the canyon.  [These measures are reported p58-60 of J.D. Morris, "The Young Earth, Master Books, Green Forest AR, 1996.  Greater details may be found in Chapter 6 of Steven A. Austin, "Grand Canyon Monument to Catastrophe, Institute for Creation Research, Santee, CA, 1994.]

            Numerous dating discrepancies of this kind call into question the validity of the assumptions necessary in all radiometric methods.


XII. The Way Scientists Treat Dating Results.

            When scientists use radiometric methods, they often split a rock or bone up into several samples, which are then sent to different laboratories, where the samples are dated by a variety of radiometric methods.  In general the radiometric dates reported by the laboratories to the investigator disagree, sometimes quite dramatically.

            If, for example, three different laboratories give three different dates for the same rock or bone, how does the scientist decide what to believe?  Most scientists who face this situation pick a date that seems reasonable, on the basis of their existing prejudices, and throw away the others, perhaps not even reporting them. 

            It is allegedly common practice among investigators:

   1) to report in the main text of a research paper, review paper, or textbook, those findings which nearly agree with expectations;

   2) to place those findings in a footnote which only modestly disagrees with expectation; and

   3) to not mention at all those findings that substantially disagrees with the scientist's or reviewer's expectations. 

            The unacceptable dates are disregarded or discarded assuming some error of method, or that the samples were modified of contaminated.  So published ages depend as much upon the prejudices and expectations of the writers as they do upon the dating method itself.


XIII. Why Scientists Rely on Radiometric Dating. 

            If radiometric dating methods are as uncertain as we have seen them to be, then how is it that scientists continue to trust these measurements?  Scientists trust radiometric methods because they have been told by respected authorities that the dates should be believed, and the practice is now widely accepted.

            When a scientist finds a variety of ages, including one number which is close to the number expected, the scientist is happy to believe it.  And the scientist is ready to ignore the other dates, assuming that they are wrong.  And when a scientist finds that other scientists (by similar imperfect methods) are coming up with similar dates, they are all happy to pretend that they know what they are doing.  This is a form of political correctness among scientists.

            [In the early days of radiometric dating there was some doubt among investigators about the validity of radiometric datings, because early results ranged widely, and different radiometric methods gave different dates.  For example, the Uranium-Lead method often gave different ages from the Potassium-Argon method, etc.  This problem of different methods giving different dates is still around, but doesn't surface as often, because many researchers have chosen to use only one radiometric method at a time.]

            [Recently the start up of radiometric dating happened all over again.  It happened when radiometric methods were first applied to samples brought back from the Moon.  The first generation of radiometric dates varied very widely, until the investigators had a few conferences, and settled on the numbers they wanted.]


XIV. So Should We Trust the Scientists?

            It is now clear that the radiometric dating methods, that are so often used to argue that the Earth is millions and millions of years old, are themselves quite questionable! 

            By contrast to these methods, there are other uniformitarian dating methods, which though they are also uncertain, indicate that the Earth is no more than perhaps ten or at most twenty thousand years old. [see INFINITY #9, #11 & #13] These methods are generally ignored or discounted by establishment scientists, because they do not align with establishment prejudices.

            So the age of the Earth and the of universe can not be determined with confidence by the presently available methods of science.  So what are we to do, who should we believe?  Should be trust in uncertain science to tell us the age of the Earth, and the universe?  I think not.


XV. There is Only One Who Can Tell Us.

            When the universe and the Earth came to be, no humans were present to take notes at the beginning of time.  And no method of science can give us a certain description of what happened.

            But the law of increasing disorder proves that the universe did have a beginning [see INFINITY #2] and simple logic shows that the universe was created [also INFINITY #2] and logic also shows that the creator was [and is] a good God [INFINITY #6].  This good God was the only witness present at the beginning.

            So how can we find out what the good God knows about the beginning?  If the good creator God has a purpose in everything, [see also INFINITY #2] and that purpose includes the creation of beings with independent consciousness [see INFINITY #6]; which seems to have been accomplished, in the creation of humans; then is it reasonable to suppose that such a high intelligence [INFINITY #6], the good creator God, would leave His created beings ignorant of how their race came to be? 


XVI. Would the Creator Leave His Children Ignorant?

            Children ask their parents where they came form.  Will a loving parent keep a child ignorant?  Just as a loving parent will not leave a child ignorant, the father of all living, the good creator God, would not leave His children ignorant either.  He has given an account of the beginning in the best preserved and most thoroughly verified of the ancient books, the Holy Bible.

            As a scientist and as a Christian, I prefer to rest my belief about the age of the Earth, about the beginning of all things, on the testimony of the Holy Scriptures [not on the uncertain speculations of science].

            The good creator God tells us that by an act of will, He created all that is.  And He did this just a few thousands of years ago, no millions or billions of years ago.  And He tells us that He created man in His own image [INFINITY #4]

XVII. It's Time to Get Acquainted!

            Because He has gone to all the trouble to make the universe, and to make man, and to tell us about it in His book the Holy Bible, wouldn't it be wise to get to know this good creator God?

What an opportunity, to learn of the one who knows everything.

            You can get to know the good creator God, by opening the door of your heart to Him.  To begin the process click here  [link to salvation page] .  

            If you are still skeptical, and you need more evidence that there is a good creator God, and He is the one who gave us the Holy Bible, then please continue exploring the foundational mysteries of world view with Dr. Truth.