ICR Says Carbon-14 Dating Is Unreliable

A question that has been bothering you all your life is the title of a new post from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) — the fountainhead of young-earth creationist wisdom: Do Carbon Ages Refute a Biblical Timeline?

It was written by one of ICR’s creation scientists, Brian Thomas, about whom we’re told: “Dr. Thomas is Research Associate at the Institute for Creation Research and earned his Ph.D. in paleobiochemistry from the University of Liverpool.” Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

Many reporters and scientists treat carbon dates like facts. Of course, the more recent dates work well enough. But news reports, textbooks, and even movies present enormous ages like “47,00 BCE” all the time. [Gasp!] Yet, the Bible records only about 6,000 years from creation until today. Does the science of carbon dating disprove the Bible’s reckoning?

You’ve always wondered that, haven’t you, dear reader? Brian says:

To find out, we need to peek into the carbon dating process that specialists use to arrive at tens of thousands of years. Carbon-14 is an isotope of the element carbon. It forms from nitrogen high in the sky at a certain rate on today’s Earth. It turns back into nitrogen usually long after it filters back down to Earth and enters plant and animal tissues.

Not bad. If you want some — ah — secular source of information, Wikipedia has an article on Carbon-14, but so far Brian is doing okay. He tells us:

A sensitive instrument measures the ratio of carbon-14 in organic remains to the more common and stable carbon-13 and carbon-12 isotopes. No scientist can measure the actual age of any artifact. We can measure amounts of things, like grains of sand in the two chambers of an hourglass, but not ages. Carbon dating is no exception. It begins with isotope ratio measurements. Scientists must use math formulas to convert isotope ratios into age estimates.

Math formulas? Egad! Brian continues:

The formulas they use have unknowns — numbers that cannot be measured. [Unknowns?] Workers make four key assumptions for these unknowns:

1. Carbon-14 has been decaying at basically the same rate throughout Earth’s history.
2. No carbon-14 or carbon-12 was added to, or taken from, the sample since it got buried.
3. The carbon isotope ratio in the sample matched the ratio in the rest of the world at that time.
4. The carbon isotope ratio in the ancient skies was the same as it is today.

That’s a lot of assumptions! Let’s read on:

Even when a radiocarbon laboratory measures very precise isotope ratios in a sample, any age estimate from the formula will only be as good as the four assumptions that went into it. Let’s accept the first three assumptions for the sake of argument. How can anyone cross-check the fourth one?

Wowie! Good question! The TalkOrigins Index to Creationist Claims has a few articles on this, e.g.: Radiometric dating gives unreliable results, and also Carbon dating is based on the atmospheric C-14/C-12 ratio, but that ratio varies. Thus the carbon dating method is not valid.

Let’s have another excerpt from Brian:

Here’s the catch. If Noah’s Flood actually happened about 4,500 years ago, as the Scriptures record, then it would have affected, and possibly steamrolled, carbon-14 ratios in very old samples.

Huh? How would a flood have any effect on the decay rate of carbon-14? Brian explains:

In particular, Earth’s magnetic field strength has weakened since the Flood. Almost two centuries of measurements show that Earth’s magnetic field still decays. [So what?] Back when it was much stronger, it would have stymied carbon-14 production in the sky. [Huh?] Fewer carbon-14 atoms in plant and animal specimens (a lower carbon-14 ratio) would give them far more carbon years than they deserve.

*Groan* Here’s Brian’s last paragraph:

In the end, whoever insists that carbon dates of tens of thousands of years refute the Bible’s 4,500-year-old Flood merely reasons in a circle. [Hee hee!] Of course, the Bible’s Flood never happened in the minds of those who already assume it never happened! [The hell-bound fools!] On the other hand, placing the Flood back into world history reveals a bad assumption beneath higher carbon ages. The Bible, not carbon “ages,” gives us reliable history.

Brian’s last sentence is a keeper!

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22 responses to “ICR Says Carbon-14 Dating Is Unreliable

  1. Laurette McGovern

    What do actual radiocarbon scientists think of his conclusions? Has he given presentations at professional meetings? Has he published in refereed scientific journals? If not, why not?

  2. Yes the assumptions (except 1) are approximations. That’s why 14C needs calibration from tree rings and lake varves. Which it has got, with archeological samples and Ar-dated ash for good measure. Impossible to improve on our old friends, Davidson and Wolgemuth: https://christadelphiansoriginsdiscussion.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/davidson-wolgemuth-lake-suigetsu-varvestreeringsand-carbon-14-pscfv702-june2018-pp75-89.pdf

    So how does AiG respond? By saying the tree rings and varves aren’t annual! You can’t win …

  3. And then there is the problem for Young Age Creationism:
    How long does it take light to travel from stars which are tens of thousands of light-years from us?

    And this, from a Old Earth Creationist site:
    Naturalis Historia
    Trillions of Stone Age Artifacts: A Young Earth Anthropology Paradox
    MARCH 14, 2015 BY R. JOEL DUFF
    The number of stone-age artifacts is in the trillions, which is far beyond the number which humans could produce in less than 10,000 years, quoting this
    ” 20 generations x 100,000 people gives us 2 million people who produced stone tools. If each person produced 10,000 artifacts during his or her lifetime then this would result in 20 billion total artifacts, or 40 million artifacts generated per year.
    “Now, 20 billion artifacts in 500 years is a lot, but it is definitely nowhere close to the 15 to 150 trillion artifacts estimated to be in Africa alone. At 40 million artifacts per year, it would take a population of 100,000 individuals 100,000 years to produce just 4 trillion artifacts.”

    How many totally different methods are there which arrive at more than 10,000 years? Radioisotope dating. Ice cores, Tree rings, Astronomy. Stone artifacts.

  4. Michael Fugate

    Did God make the universe ordered so that it was intelligible and we could do science? Or did God make it unordered so that it was unintelligible and young earth creationism could be true?

  5. Depends on the conclusion – as long it’s “6000 years” either standpoint is OK.

  6. @TomS,Joel Duff is very much a theistic evolutionist, not a creationist at all, and an evolutioinary molecular biologist at the University of Akron. I strongly recommend the science on his site; the theologising is outside my expertise

  7. @Paul Braterman
    Thank you for that correction. I apologize to the author, Joel Duff, and the readers for that misinformation.

  8. @PaulB: Duff is quite ambiguous.


    “As I say in the essay, as a biblical creationist I do believe in intelligent design.”
    Immediately followed by

    “However, I am not convinced of the philosophical or scientific theses that lie at the heart of the ID movement. Axe’s book only confirmed my suspicion that ID is nothing more than a political and cultural movement underlain by the appearance of being scientific. Regular readers of this blog will recognize that I have never directly discussed any Intelligent Design book or article. This is because I don’t find the ID movement interesting or important. ID hasn’t provided any tangible solutions for any questions that I’ve ever had about science or my faith.”

  9. @FrankB, don’t underestimate my friend Joel. He is taking the high ground, retaining God as the ultimate designer of the laws of nature (remember that Darwin held that same position, according to his autobiography, when writing Origin), and thus diminishing the spiritual appeal of separate-creationist ID, before dismissing it intellectually.

    Some purists (Jerry Coyne springs to mind) regard Joel’s position as intellectually untenable, and belonging in the same camp as separate creationism. I am not myself sympathetic to such rationalist heresy-hunting

  10. Michael Fugate

    I don’t quite understand as a biologist- even a Christian biologist- why one would take Genesis seriously. It is of no more relevance to science than any other origin story would be. It might matter theologically, but not scientifically.

  11. wackadoodle asks” Does the science of carbon dating disprove the Bible’s reckoning?”I read the synopsis of your article written. y SC, your worst nightmare because he laughs at you. You didn’t succeed in overturning many decades of established peer reviewed science regarding radiocarbon age dating whatsoever in your sermon.. And you can’t dismantle the sciences of nuclear physics and radiometric age dating. One would have to be a fanatic and a madman to spend the time earn a PhD in paleo biochemistry and then throw all that into the toilet to be a biblical fundamentalist and a crea-crapper. This guy is really afraid of the lake of fire. So much so that he’s babbling in fear. Or U Liverpool has some gaping academic issues.

  12. @och will
    Yes, and then they don’t take a bit of effort to go beyond a simplistic reading of the Bible. As if one can ignore what serious readers of the Bible have had to say. Origen, Augustine up to the majority of today’s ordinary Christians and of today’s Biblical scholars. One has to have arrogance to think that superficial and uninformed guessing is superior. In any field of study, one quickly learns what seems obvious is often wrong.

  13. Analysis of nitrogenous compounds in the same or closely associated samples has established that the proportion of atmospheric nitrogen has not changed within the limits of measurement in the last 50K years, that being the practical limit of C-14 dating. That is, nitrogen was being converted to C-14 at the same rate then as now, unless back then nitrogen broke down far more readily, or solar radiation was much more energetic.

    The first is downright impossible. If we are to say that nitrogen broke down far more readily to C-14 back then, we need to vary the intrinsic properties of matter – the weak atomic interaction, for instance, which in turn changes the very structure of matter, or indeed makes matter itself impossible.

    The second requires not only a complete melt-down of the theory of stellar evolution, but would also leave unmistakable evidence on Earth – an irradiated planet only fifty thousand years ago is impossible to miss.

    That disposes of assumptions #1 and #4. They’re sound.

    Assumption #2 is well-known as the reservoir effect. Great care is taken to sample non-adulterated material.

    Assumption #3 is actually to float the suggestion that samples concentrate C-14 at different proportions from the rest of the world. If that were the case, different samples from the same material would return substantially different date ranges. This is not seen. Provided no contamination and no reservoir effect is operating, samples from the same material return closely similar dates.

    The assumptions are sound. C-14 radiometric dating is sound, and quite highly reliable. Samples of human artefacts made of organic materials have returned dates far earlier than 6000 years BP. These dates can be relied on, as can even earlier from other dating techniques. The article is nonsense. Thomas is talking through his hat.

  14. @PaulB: “Some purists regard Joel’s position as intellectually untenable”
    So do I, but for entirely different reasons than JAC, who’s nothing but a very good biologist as he otherwise produces lots of crap. However this all is irrelevant for my understanding of JoelD’s position.
    On his site, which contains quite some interesting stuff, I couldn’t find any explicit acception of evolution theory and specifically common descent (and especially of Homo Sapiens and Pan Troglodytes). I find it weird that someone who does accept that would call himself a biblical creationist. At the other hand I value your recommendation, hence my “ambiguous”.

  15. @TomS: “One has to have arrogance …..”
    For a staunch unbeliever like be this is one of the funniest aspects of creacrap. They claim to be modest, preach humility and in the same breath commit one of the seven deadly sins. It’s very entertaining to hold this against creationists.

    @DaveL: “The assumptions are sound. C-14 radiometric dating is sound.”
    Of course it is. It’s not like it’s the only dating method. Of course all kinds of independent dating methods are compared with each other. There certainly are some problems with C-14 radiometric dating, some of them I even recognize, even if I’m not nearly qualified to explain them. The point is that none of them justifies a 6000 years old Earth. So Brawny Brian, intellectually dishonest as he is, uses that foul but common tactic: he produces some criticism (doesn’t matter whether justified or not), declares the position false and jumps to the conclusion that he’s right. The result demonstrates excellently how stupidity and dishonesty go hand in hand, exactly what I expect from creacrappers.
    Two Dutch proverbs apply. Brawny Brian is searching for nails at low tide and he inflates several mosquitos up to elephants.

  16. @Dave Luckett, the rate of production of 14C has in fact fluctuated somewhat over time, so Brian Thomas is correct in regarding #4 as a questionable assumption. That is why accurate 14C dates are determined, not by simpleminded application of the decay equation, but by calibration against samples of known date. Thomas is an absolutist, and regards this well known fact as justification for total rejection of the method, much as creationists generally regards the anomalous relative positioning of strata in overthrusts as reason to reject the entire sequence of the geological column.

    #2 is only a problem for material that has been chemically reconstituted or that has undergone extensive diffusion since deposition. This is not likely to be a problem with 14C, though it has been a problem wth K/Ar dating, now resolved by Ar/Ardating and the measurement of ratios as a function of the temperature to which the sample is heated.

    #3 is of course a well-known effect. Thus fresh samples that grew near limestone caves have old apparent 14C ages. Every so often, the creationists rediscover the papers exploring this.

  17. @Frank B, you will find Joel’s scientific papers at http://akron.academia.edu/RJoelDuff and at https://www.uakron.edu/dotAsset/1286983.pdf . There is no doubt that scientifically speaking, he is a mainstream evolutionary biologist.

    If you look at the sidebar of his blog, you will find a link to his posts regarding human evolution, which make it quite clear that he accepts hominin evolution and totally rejects, and fiecely attacks, separate creation: https://thenaturalhistorian.com/category/human-origins-2/

    So I see no grounds for any accusation of ambiguity regarding his science, or his status as an ally against creationists.

  18. @PaulB: “There is no doubt that scientifically speaking, he is a mainstream evolutionary biologist.”
    Thanks; the fact that you provide links is good enough for me. I’m happy to change my conclusion (it was not an accusation anyway, only a way to express that I was not sure).

  19. @FrankB Regarding the “biblical creationist” comment. I understand the confusion. This probably won’t be a very satisfying answer but I use that phrase to emphasize that YECs are not the real biblical creationists. I believe their interpretation of the Bible is wrong and so they are in fact, not biblical. A real biblical creationists is one who holds to the view that the Bible actually teaches. I don’t believe the authors of the Bible intends to teach us about the physical origins of the world and thus the biblical creationists is one who seeks to understand origins via God’s general revelation. I would generally concur with this opinion of this pastor and biblical scholar (From “The Liturgy of Creation, 2019). “We should approach the science of origins the same way we approach the scientific study of cancer or electricity or chemistry. The creation mandate (Gen 1:28) urges us to study and explore the world, using the fallible but meaningful tools of human intelligence. The current consensus from scientific study points to the operation of evolution over long eons of time. These conclusions are fallible, like all human investigation. Nevertheless they are results that must be critiqued on their own merits and through further scientific research. It may yet be demonstrated that the world was created in a far shorter time and much more recently than allowed by the current consensus, but that needs to be shown through scientific study. The bible should not more be used to determine the age of the universe than to determine the process of trait inheritance through reference to Jacob’s breeding methods in Genesis 30:37-43. The interpretation of the creation narrative that I have commended neither teaches evolution nor denies its possibility.”

  20. #R. Joel Duff, I hope I described you fairly. I enjoyed being reminded of Jacob and the mottled strips of wood. What happens when you challenge literalists with this?

  21. #Paul, yeah, all good. Appreciate the comments. Mixture of responses. Mostly they just deny this has any relevance to origins but some will go through all kinds of contortions to suggest that this was really a lesson in genetics.

  22. “This probably won’t be a very satisfying answer.”
    You’re mistaken – I already was satisfied with PaulB’s answer so I’m certainly with yours.