How effective is carbon dating

As an outsider to this debate, I find it all rather amusing, in a sad sort of way.Discussions between creationists and mainstream scientists typically have an apples-and-oranges character, much like discussions between “pro-choice” and “pro-life” advocates or politically “liberal” and “conservative” partisans.

What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test.Carbon-14 decays (loses its radioactivity, converting back to nitrogen-14) at a known rate; its half-life, or the time it takes for half a given number of carbon-14 atoms to decay, is about 5,730 years.When an organism dies, it stops acquiring new carbon-14 atoms.Each side has unshakeable beliefs and therefore insists on bending any available evidence to support them, so very little real discussion takes place.Speaking as a layperson, rather than a professional in science or theology, I find the evidence supporting the reliability of carbon dating vastly more compelling than the evidence supporting a 7,000-year-old Earth.But these and other seeming sources of uncertainty have been seized upon by some very vocal groups of creationists as loopholes, allowing them to challenge the validity of carbon dating.According to some people, a literal reading of the Bible (taking into account all the genealogies and so forth) yields a creation date of around 7,000 years ago.And at other points in history, climatic changes and other large-scale global events have altered the picture in other ways.So scientists performing carbon dating routinely calibrate their findings to adjust for these known issues, using other dating techniques (such as counting the rings on old trees) to corroborate their findings and help them fine-tune the scale.Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago.It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities.

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