Subject: How Creationists Misrepresent the Carbon-14 Dating Method
By Dr. Robert Holloway
In the continuing disagreement between religious fundamentalists and mainstream science, the subject of various dating methods is often discussed. Typically, fundamentalists are upset by the implications of the scientific dating methods since these methods often show an earth must older than the fundamentalists are willing to accept. Even the radiocarbon method often comes in for criticism although it is suitable only for objects less than 50,000 years old. This criticism usually comes from Young Earth Creationists who believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Because the radiocarbon method can reliably date carbon containing objects much older than this, they apparently feel uncomfortable with the results.
One such critique regarding the carbon-14 method was published by Apologetics Press of Montgomery, Alabama. It is available on the Internet at the following link:
Apologetics Press article on Carbon-14 [http://www.apologeticspress.org/defdocs/rr1993/r&r9310a.htm]
The article is by Trevor Major, who apparently has some education in science. He presents the basic theory behind the C-14 method in a clear and understandable manner. However, his experience with dating methods is apparently limited to a superficial review that focused mainly on writing by other Creationists. I say this because he fails to understand a crucial point about the dating method and also because 6 of his 11 references are from Creationist authors. Major mentions five points that he considers weaknesses of the radiocarbon method. The one he considers most critical is what he claims to be the assumption that the rates of C-14 production and decay are in a state of balance and have been in balance during the age range for which the method is suitable. In regard to this alleged assumption, Major makes the following statement:
"Modern radiocarbon dating assumes that the carbon-14 / carbon-12 ratio in living organisms is the same now as it was in ancient organisms before they died. In other words, the system of carbon-14 production and decay is said to be in a state of balance or equilibrium."
The above statement is not accurate and is highly misleading. When the method was first developed in the late 1940s and for a few years afterward, the method did make the assumption mentioned. As a rough approximation, the assumption is valid. However, as an increasing number of carbon-14 dates were obtained, including many on objects of known age, it became clear that the assumption was not strictly true. This fact has been known to the scientific community for several decades and correction factors have been developed to adjust for the fact that the production rate of carbon-14 in the atmosphere has not been completely constant over the past few thousand years. In other words, modern radiocarbon dating uses a calibration method to correct for the problem that Major views as a critical weakness of the method. But curiously, even though these correction methods have been in use for several decades, Major fails to discuss them. It seems clear that he did not study the method well enough to be aware of the use of these correction and calibration methods. The fact that the raw uncorrected dates must be corrected for the less than perfect equilibrium in no way invalidates the method. To use an analogy, if you had a yardstick that was only 34 inches long rather than 36, it would still be usable, provided that you knew the details of its imperfection.
To me, an interesting question is why did Trevor Major make such an elementary mistake? He is obviously an intelligent man and according to his writing, he has a masters degree in science. Why is his writing on this subject so substandard? Although my opinion is only a guess, let me suggest some reasons. The first reason may be that because of his religious beliefs, he relied too heavily on previous Creationist authors who, in many cases, are not competent scientists. I have previously noted that 6 out of 11 of his references are Creationist references. Another reason is the natural tendency of anyone to avoid looking at information that conflicts with strongly held beliefs. Creationists are not the only ones who have this characteristic, but they seem more prone to this failure than most people. They assume, often without good evidence, that authors who agree with them are more likely to be accurate than those of mainstream science. In my experience, this is a risky assumption, since Creationist writers are often mistaken in their claims.
Creationists often incorrectly claim that thermodynamics is a problem for evolution. For a discussion of that topic, see our web page on thermodynamics. [http://www.ntanet.net/Thermo-Internet.htm]
The following link discusses the way in which Bert Thompson and Apologetics Press discuss Carboniferous Footprints [http://www.ntanet.net/footprints.htm]
For a demonstration of how "quote-mining" works in Creationist circles, see the following link on evolution of a creationist quote. [http://www.ntanet.net/quote.html]
If you wish to write to the author of this page, send your email to: holloway3 @-a-ol.com
Note 1: I was not able to quote Thompson's letter here, because Thompson stated that his letter to me was protected by copyright law and said that I would have to get permission before quoting him. It is unfortunate that he does not want a full and open discussion of this issue and I find it remarkable that for someone who is devoted to truth, that he does not allow me to quote his letter, but I can work around that problem. Thompson even claimed that I could [may] not refer to his letter in a public way, but when I asked him for a specific reference in the federal copyright law to support this claim, he did not reply. I suspect that the copyright law only prohibits quoting private mail without permission and does not go as far as prohibiting references to private mail.