One of the biggest scientific misconceptions that plagues the untrained minds of Christians and non-believers alike is Carbon-14 dating. Many non-believers point to it as evidence that the Bible is untrue. Many Christians shift their worldview to accommodate it scientifically while still reconciling the Biblical telling of Creation.
Both are actually incorrect.
It is not a matter of whether the science itself is faulty. The reality is that the science is rather elegant in its function. The challenge is that it operates under a set of assumptions. Any scientist with an open mind would tell you that if these assumptions were shifted towards a Biblical view, the carbon dating process would still work, though at a much shorter time scale.
In other words, whether you assume that the planet is billions of years old or if you believe that the earth is thousands of years old, carbon dating still works in both situations. In several documented situations when carbon dating ran contrary to common scientific assumptions, the results were only an anomaly if the world were billions of years old. If the earth were thousands of years old, the results of these tests would have fit in perfectly.
I’m going to go through this very quickly and touch on the basics; one could write a book on this topic and still have more to say.
The Basics of Carbon-14 Dating
First, let’s start with the basics. Carbon-14 (14C) is a radioactive isotope of carbon that is in a constant state of decay. Scientists are able to determine the age of formerly living materials by determining the amount of 14C relative to the amount of Carbon-12 (12C). Since the former is radioactive and decays at a constant pace while the latter is stable, the ratio between the two can determine the age of anything that was on the earth and breathed. Once it stops breathing, it stops taking in 14C and the decaying process begins.
Now, let’s get a quick understanding of half-life. Radioactive isotopes like 14C decay at a constant rate relative to the amount of material present. In the case of 14C, it has a half-life of 5,730 years. This means that if you have 2 grams of 14C today, in 5,730 years you will have 1 gram of 14C. 5,730 years later, you will have a half-gram of 14C.
Using an Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS), scientists can determine the ratio. It’s assumed that an organism will have the same ratio of 14C to 12C as the environment does at the time of death. Since 14C has a steady half-life and the known ratio of our environment is currently at 1 part 14C to 1 trillion parts 12C, scientists can use this to determine how long ago the creature leaving behind their remains had died.
There are two major assumptions that are impossible to prove or disprove. The first is that the earth is old. Based upon the Big Bang theory as well as the theory of evolution, most scientists (and therefore the general public) believe that the universe and the world are billions of years old. This assumption allows for 14C dating to apply to former-living material as old as 80,000 years before it becomes too difficult to distinguish between 14C radiation and other radioactive isotopes such as Potassium-40 (40K).
The second assumption is that the level of 14C in the environment is mostly constant. It was believed for two centuries that it was an absolute constant, but scientists have recently discovered that it fluctuates based upon several different factors. Despite these fluctuations, they believe that it’s steady enough to still make the process work.
This is the biggest assumption that is challenged by many scientists today because 14C is produced when cosmic rays hit the upper atmosphere and change Nitrogen into 14C. Since the amount of cosmic rays hitting these Nitrogen atoms is affected by the magnetic field of the earth and that field has been in a diminishing state since it was first observed in the mid-19th century, many scientists have a hard time assuming that the levels of 14C in the atmosphere is anywhere near constant enough to use in measurements.
According to John Roach from National Geographic News:
Earth’s magnetic field is fading. Today it is about 10 percent weaker than it was when German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss started keeping tabs on it in 1845, scientists say.
If one were to adjust their assumptions and apply the Biblical telling of Creation, Carbon Dating still fits. The reason that it fits is based upon the Flood of Noah.
The magnetic field is decaying. The world itself has been dramatically changed on two occasions according to the Bible – during the Great Flood and in the resulting shifts that occurred.
The Genesis Flood tells of a planet that was much more rich in life than it is today. One particularly interesting theory shows that the majority of the world has a single large land mass. When a huge shelf of water 10 miles beneath the earth was released, the very shape of the earth was changed. Plates moved across the planet, forming the continents and oceans as we see them today.
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
It creates amazing scientific explanations for things such as the Grand Canyon, portions of the fossil record, and the tectonic plates. It also partially explains the various ages associated with fossils of creatures from before the flood.
The second component is the speeding of the earth’s rotation that may have happened as a result of the flood. As the shelf of water spewed forth into the land and the land masses themselves collapsed into the void, the earth may have in essence, shrunk. This would have had the same effect as a spinning ice skater pulling in her limbs to accelerate her rotation. The days were measured at 360 per year prior to the flood and eventually the calendars were shifted to the current 365 day model. Did this happen because the earth had started spinning more rapidly, causing more days to occur during a single revolution around the sun?
If one believes the story of Noah and applies that assumption to current scientific models, they do not conflict. That lack of conflict includes Carbon Dating. In many ways, Carbon Dating is another example of science demonstrating the literal truths found in the Bible.
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For further research from a different angle, here’s an interesting video compiled from research done in the 70s and 80s that points to other effects of the flood.