Dating carbon, for the shy and inexperienced

October 26, 2008

A sure sign of scientific naiveté, especially among those of the creationist religion, is the raft of pseudo complaints about dating the ages of objects, especially fossils, through the use of radioisotopes.

First, creationists will complain that dating things with radiocarbon is impossible.  They aren’t sure why they think that, but it just makes sense to them that radioactivity in stones can’t be used to tell time, and don’t confuse them with any information about how their watches on their wrists are driven by electric currents sent through quartz crystals, and for God’s sake do not confuse them with any references to quantum theory and the workings of the cell phones most of them use to tell time since they evolved to lose the ability to read analog watches anyway (evolution always is to the detriment of the creature they believe, and try to demonstrate).

Then, without any hint that they understand or even see the irony, creationists complain that scientists lie when they say isotope dating puts the age of the Earth and the Moon at about 4.5 billion years, because, they observer, carbon dating is only good to about 50,000 years in most circumstances, and certainly no more than 100,000 years.  Don’t confuse them by telling them that dating of rocks almost always involves an isotope of an element other than carbon, like uranium.

As if to prove their science untrainability, from time to time a creationist will send a sample of something to a lab, asking that it be dated.  When the lab returns a date of several million years for the stuff dated, the creationists crow that they had crushed a brick, or in some other way provided a tainted sample, and they’ve “proven” that carbon dating doesn’t work.

Aardvarchaeology offers a quick primer on carbon dating, “Think before you carbon date.” Bookmark the site.  It’s a good rebuttal for whatever pseudo science claims creationists make about carbon dating.

Real scientists have to do real work.  Radiocarbon dating, or any isotope dating, is usually pretty expensive as a general rule.  It’s not something to be done lightly.  In addition to the expense, to get the dating done correctly, there is a lot of preparation to be done.  Martin Rundkvist details the process, from a live project of his. If you read his piece carefully, you note that he’s giving a primer in dendrochronology, too, the science of dating by tree rings.  

Real science is always more interesting than creationists can imagine.  Go see how it works.  Great stuff


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