Mythical Creation Science: Part 1 – Doesn’t Carbon-14 Dating Disprove The Bible?

Mythical Creation Science: Part 1 – Doesn’t Carbon-14 Dating Disprove The Bible? October 12, 2015

by Mel cross posted from her blog When Cows and Kids Collide

(all images in this posting belong to When Cows and Kids Collide)

Table 1

Table 2

Table 3

Table 4

Welcome back to the crazy world of young-Earth creationism.

Today, we cover chapter 7 of The New Answers Book One by Ken Ham.  This chapter tries to disprove carbon-14 dating in specific and radioactive dating in general.  The author of this chapter – Mike Riddle – and I agree on one thing: a basic overview or review of atomic structure is needed.

Let’s start at the outside of a carbon atom.  As we approach the atom, will first enter the outer shell of electrons.  In carbon, the outer shell has four electrons.  In the most recent understanding of atomic structure, scientists know that electrons are found within a certain three-dimensional area but are not stuck in tracks as the more traditional Bohr model.

Real Outer shell of carbon 14

As we move in past the outer electrons, we move into the inner electron shell that has two electrons in it.

Outer shell of carbon 14

In the majority of chemistry, we’d spend more time talking about the electrons because they are the basis of most chemistry.  Since YEC has decided to take on nuclear chemistry, all we need to remember is that electrons are very small compared to protons and neutrons and electrons are negatively charged.

Moving into the nucleus, we see two different particles in the nucleus.  Protons are positively charged.  Neutrons have a neutral charge.  In terms of mass, one proton or one neutron has the same mass as over 2,000 electrons.  Each element is determined by the number of protons.  All carbon atoms have six protons.  Each (with a few exceptions) element can have differing number of neutrons.  Carbon can have six neutrons, seven neutrons or eight neutrons.

We determine the mass of each atom by adding up the total number of protons and neutrons.  We use the term “isotope” to describe atoms of the same element that have different number of neutrons.
Carbon 12
The diagram above is of carbon-12.  You can tell it’s carbon because there are six protons. The “12” means there are a total of twelve protons and neutrons.   Carbon-12 is the most common type of carbon atom; 99% of carbon atoms are carbon-12.
See if you can figure out the mass of the next diagram:
Carbon 14
It’s carbon-14.  Carbon-14 is very rare and makes up a tiny percentage of total carbon atoms.

What about this diagram?

Carbon 13
Yup, this is carbon-13.  Carbon-13 makes up a little under 1% of the the total carbon engines.

Why is carbon-14 so rare?  Carbon-14 is very unstable.  Carbon-14 will undergo radioactive decay and change into nitrogen-14.  Here’s how it works: Let’s zoom in close to a neutron.

Close-up of Neutron
Much to my surprise when I learned this, a neutron is actually a proton with a single electron tightly bound to it.   The electron is so tiny that it doesn’t affect the mass of the neutron.   In radioactive decay,  the bond between the electron and proton that makes up a neutron breaks.  The electron is thrown free of the atom and the proton stays.
Long story short:  Carbon-14 has a neutron split into a proton and an electron.  The electron is lost, a massive amount of energy is released, and the atom becomes nitrogen-14 because it now has 7 protons and 7 neutrons.
Nitrogen 14
How do scientists use carbon-14 to date objects?
Carbon-14 dating is only used on formerly living items like wood or a fossil.  (This is an important point that Riddle mentions in passing, then violates over and over again.)  When an organism is alive, carbon is being added to the organism through photosynthesis or through eating food.  The ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in the body is equal to the ratio of the two isotopes of carbon in the atmosphere.  For simpicity’s sake, I’m going to follow Riddle’s lead and say that the ratio is one carbon-14 atom for every 1,000,000,000 (trillion) carbon-12 atoms.  Once the organism dies, the carbon-14 decays while the carbon-12 is unchanged.

We know the rate at which carbon-14 decays into nitrogen-14.  In any sample of carbon-14, approximately half of the carbon-14 atoms will decay into nitrogen-14 in 5715 years.  This means that the half-life of carbon-14 is 5715 years.

Since there isn’t any way of knowing exactly how many carbon-14 atoms started in the sample that is being dated, scientist make a ratio of the amount of carbon-14 to the amount of carbon-12.  By comparing the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in  the fossil to the ratio in the atmosphere, you can get an accurate date since the death of the organism.

Let’s run through a scenario.  An oak tree is blown down in a storm.  What would we expect to see (theoretically) if we could count the C-14 and C-12 atoms at 0 half-lives?  We would see that none of the C-14 has had time to decay, so we could count all of the C-14 atoms.  The C-12 atoms are all intact, so we could count all of those and we would find that the ratio of C-14 to C-12 is about 1 to 1 trillion.
I’m going to start a table – very similar to one in The New Answers – so we can keep track of the changes over time.
Table 1
We return 5715 years later and take another sample from the oak tree at one half-life.  Half of the C-14 atoms have decayed into N-14 and don’t show up in our count.  All of the C-12 atoms are still present.  The ratio of C-14 to C-12 atoms is now 1 for every 2 trillion atoms which is half as small as the original.  Let me jot that down.
Table 2
We come back in another 5715 years and repeat.  Another 50% of the C-14 atoms have decayed so only 25% of the original C-14 is left.  Since the C-12 is still unchanged, the ratio of C-14 to C-12 is now 1 C-14 atom for every 4 trillion C-12 atoms.
Table 3
We come back every 5715 years.  The amount of C-14 drops by half each time.  The amount of C-12 is constant (unchanging), so the ratio of C-14 to C-12 drops by half each time.
Table 4
If you are more of a visual person, here’s a graph of the percentage remaining C-14 per half-life.  (Mathy nerd side note: The “Percentage C-14 remaining” axis should actually be asymptotic which means it should approach 100% but never touch it.  This is because C-14 atoms always have a small probablility of decaying into N-14 at any moment in time.  Because of that, you can’t get a pure 100% sample of C-14.  I feel better.)
Radioactive decay curve from Ham's data

This is where Riddle stops giving explanations and starts shooting holes in C-14 dating.  I’ll debunk his mistruths in the next post, but I want to show you why he stops at 5 half-lives instead of 10 or 15 or 20.

Here’s the table expanded out to 15 half-lives.

Table 5
 Notice that there is a natural stopping point at 14-15 half-lives:  The ratio of C-14 to C-12 at 15 half lives is 1 atom of C-14 for every 32,768,000,000,000 atoms of C-12.  The atoms of C-14 aren’t completely gone; in fact, statistically there will always be a few C-14 atoms floating around.  The problem is that trying to get a good signal on the C-14 atoms is impossible.
For the visual folks:
(Mathy nerd bit 2: The “Number of Half-Lives” axis is also asymptoic.  It will never hit zero because cosmic rays and radiation from nearby atoms can cause a small number of N-14 atoms to change into C-14.)
Expanded Radioactive decay curve
The fast way to prove Riddle wrong: If YEC is true, C-14 dating shouldn’t work at all. 
1) If YEC is true, carbon-14 dating of any organic fossil should give us a half-life of 1.2 or less.
A picture helps:
YEC age of the Earth drawn in

The red line is slightly over 7,000 years.  If YEC is true, nothing can give us a date of over 7,000 years or 1.2 C-14 half-lives.    Oddly enough, Riddle NEVER brings this point up.  Ever.  

2) For YEC to be true, the C-14 dates must be off by a magnitude of 16,384 times.

In other words, when Riddle starts poking holes, the answer must be able to cause the YEC ratio of 1 atom of C-14 to 2 trillion atoms of C-12 to somehow appear as 1 atom of C-14 to 32,768 trillion atoms.  A different way of saying it: YEC is arguing that every atom of C-14 we see in a 85,000 year old fossil is off by 16,383 atoms of C-14.
Good luck with that.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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Read everything by Mel!

Mel is a science teacher who works with at-risk teens and lives on a dairy farm with her husband. She blogs at When Cows and Kids Collide

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Friend

    Thank you for taking the time to show why the attacks on science are wrong. You offer valuable skill and insight.

  • Julia Childress

    We don’t need no stinkin’ science. God said it, we believe it, that settles it. Too bad all of the hell-bound humanists waste so much money on science education.

  • This was awesome. I look forward to the next installment!

  • Mel

    Actually, I could deal with that attitude. No, what infurates the hell out of me is when they pretend that they’ve found deep inconsistancies when what they’ve done is write down a problem the original author saw and discussed during the first published paper in 1953(ish) and then either modified the formula to take that issue into account or detemined the issue never existed by the late 1960’s.

  • Mel

    The post is missing the last few sentences of the actual post.

    Paraphrased:
    1) If YEC is true, all radiocarbon dating should give an answer of 1.25 half-lives (7,000) years or less. (Really, it should be 1.02 half-lives or less, but since they can’t get close to that, I’ll sport them the extra 1,100 years.)

    2) The ratios need to be off by 16,383 times to make a radiocarbon date from the YEC earth of 7,000 years look like a radiocarbon date of 80,000 years. In other words, for every 1 atom of C-14 we see in the sample now, we are somehow missing 16,838 atoms of C-14.

  • Mel

    Thank you! It takes way longer than my “Preparing To Be…” series did because they make such strange claims that it often takes me a few weeks to figure out how they are attempting to support the claim in the first place. Once I can figure that out, refuting it takes about 10 minutes with a good scientific calculator.

  • Mel

    Thanks!

    It’s good practice for me to lay-out the basics of science since I work in science education. Poking holes is pretty easy once I can figure out what they are actually trying to claim.

  • I appreciate you taking the time. I was heavily indoctrinated with Ken Ham’s particular flavor of science denial, and even when I returned to public school, I was in a state where most of our biology teachers preferred not to address evolution in any more than the vaguest terms. Series like this give me a chance to really understand the science in a way that I’ve never been able to.

  • Mel

    That makes me happy. I love science and simply want other people to have the experience of learning about how cool the world is.

    I’ve taught in fairly urbanized areas where most students were open to – if somewhat concerned – about evolution. I also taught in a more rural, conservative area of Michigan where the biology department could only teach evoultion under the term “biological change over time”. This wasn’t due to some outside force; students had been so socialized to equate “evolution = attack on Christian beliefs” that even using the word “evolution” would shut the class down in a messy, drawn out battle between the students and the faculty.

  • Julia Childress

    Your post and analysis are wonderful. While I love my word-oriented brain, I envy the science-brain. Until now, I’ve actually never understood carbon-dating. I agree with your fury about pretend science. If you’re going to believe something as a matter of faith, then fine, just don’t try to concoct a rational explanation that supports your beliefs. I also can’t stand those television shows that try to “prove” that Sodom and Gomorrah existed, where the Garden of Eden was, etc. That’s why it’s called faith – you can believe without proof.

  • Mel

    I don’t know “Monkey GIrl”, but I loved “Dark Tide”….well, as much as you can love a horrific accident.

  • Z3ro

    Just a quick correction; a neutron doesn’t include a tightly bound electron with no mass. It’s made up of one up quark and two down quarks. The process of beta decay essentially “flips” a down quark to an up quark, resulting in a proton, an electron, and an anti-neutrino.

  • gimpi1

    Thank you for this. Well done, accessible and understandable. The inability for anything to be older than 1.5 or so C-14 half-lives is every bit as big a problem for Young-Earth Creationism as the “telescope problem.” You know, if the universe is less than 7,000 years old, and light moves at a fixed rate, why can we see more than 7,000 light-years into space. The light shouldn’t have had time to reach us yet.

    Do you address the other radiometric-dating processes used for non-living tissue in your other posts. I’m a bit more familiar with them through my husband’s geological work, but I’d love to read your take.

  • Michael Edwards

    As to the telescope problem, if light was also created as “en route” from those stars, we then have the problem of novas and supernovae that didn’t actually happen, so God is quite the liar. To me, YE creationism just doesn’t work.

  • Sam_Millipede

    Spot on! But surely the Bible must mention beta decay (as you describe) somewhere? What?! It doesn’t? But surely it contains all science? Oh noes!

  • gimpi1

    Yes. In fact, the star that went nova, according to their hypothesis, never existed. Makes God out to be quite the trickster, doesn’t it?