What is an example of the three radiometric dating assumptions?

Suppose you walk into a room and see a man holding a knife and a potato, and he has a basket of peeled potatoes on a table next to him.  When the second hand on the clock reaches “12,” the man starts to peel the potato.  He finishes peeling the potato and puts it in a basket right when the clock hand has made a full revolution and arrived back at “12.”  In other words, it took the man one full minute to peel the potato.  He grabs another potato, peels it, and puts it into the basket.  Again, this took one full minute.  You see the basket and count 35 peeled potatoes.  You assume that the man has been peeling potatoes for 35 minutes, and each potato took one minute to peel.  Your assumption is reasonable, but it is correct?

There are several things you don’t know about the man and his potatoes.  You do not know if he has always peeled the potatoes at the same rate.  Maybe at first he was slower and it took two minutes to peel one potato, but once he got better, he was able to increase his rate to one minute each.  Or, he could have been very fast at the beginning but is now slowing down because he is growing tired.  Secondly, you do not know if the man has removed any of the peeled potatoes or added the ones he peeled to a pre-existing basket.  This could show that he was peeling faster or slower. Thirdly, you do not know if there were any peeled potatoes in the basket before the man ever started.

In summary, you do not know: the peeling rate (rate of decay); if any potatoes have been added to or taken away from the basket (if atoms have been added to the fossil or leached out); or how many potatoes were in the basket to start with (the initial conditions).  Similarly, scientists do not know if the decay rate of atoms in fossils or rocks has always been constant, they don’t know if any of the atoms have been added or removed, and they don’t know how much of the parent and daughter atoms were in the specimen at the very beginning when the fossil or rock was formed.

This example was from a very well written book about worldviews and evidences for a young earth:  “The Young Earth” (2007) by John Morris.

Similarly, you could compare these assumptions to a candle.  Supposed you walk into a room and see a lit candlestick.  You cannot determine how long it has been burning because you don’t know how long the candle was prior to being lit or how fast it was burning prior to you entering the room (it could have had an accelerant).  You can make assumptions but the truth about the candle’s past cannot be known, just as it is with radiometric dating.

What are the assumptions used with radiometric dating?

There are three assumptions used when scientists measure ages with the radiometric dating process.  1.)  The initial conditions of the fossil are known.  In other words, the scientist assumes that neither the parent nor the daughter atoms have ever been altered outside of the decaying process since the formation of the fossil.  2.)  The rate of decay has always been constant.  This goes back to the idea of uniformitarianism, which is strongly adhered to by those who study historical science.  The rate of decay could have been faster or slower in the past due to numerous factors.  3.)  There has been no contamination of the elements.  None of the atoms have leached out of the fossil, and none of the atoms have been added to the fossil.   Helium, for example, is known to leach out of a specimen.  Uranium and lead are leached by ground water.

These three assumptions are important to know when performing measurements, but it is unwise to make these assumptions because although the test results may produce long ages, how can you really know the test is valid?  An interesting note: when specimens are tested and result in a young age, they are assumed to be contaminated and then discarded.

Has radiometric dating always been accurate?

The quick answer is no.  As mentioned in the article about assumptions, when test results do not measure in accordance with the expected long ages, then the specimens are discarded and assumed to be contaminated.  A 200 year old lava rock from recently erupted volcano has been measured using the potassium-argon method.  The ages ranged from 1.6 million years to 2.96 billion years.  Moon rocks were measured with many different tests, and those results ranged from 2 million years to 28 billion years.   More information about assumptions and inaccurate dates can be found at this website.

One quote to remember: When the age of rocks are known, the radiometric dates are incorrect, but when the age of rocks are unknown, the radiometric dates are assumed to be correct.

What is Carbon-14?

Carbon-14 is commonly talked about as a dating method used to prove that the Earth and are millions or billions of years old.  But what exactly is this element?  Carbon is the 6th element on the periodic table.  It has 6 protons, 6 neutrons, and 6 electrons.  When adding together the protons and neutrons, you get a total of 12, and this is referred to as the “atomic mass” of the element.  Carbon-12 is the element that you see on the periodic table.

It is stable, unlike Carbon-14, which is radioactive.  Instead of having 6 neutrons, Carbon-14 has 8 neutrons, and this makes it radioactive.  How did it become radioactive?  This occurs in the atmosphere.  Cosmic rays come into the atmosphere and produce fast-moving neutrons. These neutrons collide with nitrogen atoms, and this collision results in the creation of Carbon-14.  Note: Nitrogen’s atomic mass is 14.

Carbon-14 then arrives to the Earth and is absorbed by plants.  Animals eat the plants, consuming both Carbon-14 and Carbon-12, and the radioactive atoms enter into the animal.   All living things have Carbon-14 in them, including people, but this doesn’t put us in danger.  People and animals take in Carbon-14 until they die.

Carbon-14 dating can only be used to measure the age of things that were once living.  It does not measure non-living things such as rock layers.  Carbon-14 dating is only accurate to about 80,000 years.  Please see the article What is radiometric dating?” for a continuation of this topic.