Post 40: Radiocarbon Dating, Adventists and the Antiquity of the Earth

I am a novice when it comes to scientific matters, but I have a bevy of wonderful friends around the world who have earned doctoral degrees in chemistry, physics and a raft of other sciences. Over many years of conversation and by reading what they write, I am convinced that when I ask them questions within their fields of expertise, I receive reliable answers.

Dr Ervin Taylor is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, and a co-founder of the journal Adventist Today. He wrote a book on radiocarbon dating way back in 1987. In an e-mail dated 2 February 2012, he tells me that “the basics are still the same,” but he is working on a revision of the book that should be finished later this year. Recently Dr Taylor has written several encyclopedia entries on radiocarbon dating. He kindly sent me what he calls a “A Brief Introduction” to radiocarbon dating, as follows:

In the second decade of the 21st Century, after more than a half a century of continuing technical refinement and expanding applications, radiocarbon (14C) dating continues to be the most widely-employed scientific method of obtaining chronometric age determinations for late Pleistocene and Holocene carbonaceous (carbon-containing) materials.  Radiocarbon dating is one of a number of nuclear decay or radiometric methods of dating that takes advantage of natural radioactivity to provide a nuclear-based clock.  The routine lower limit of the 14C method is about 200 years while the routine upper limit ranges between 40,000 and 60,000 years. Under some circumstances involving the utilization of special instrumentation, the upper limit can sometimes be extended to as much as 75,000 years.

Critically evaluated suites of calibrated 14C age determinations constitute the “gold standard” for assigning accurate chronometric frameworks for carbon-containing or organic compounds from Late Quaternary archaeological, geological, historical, oceanographic, paleontological and paleoenvironmental contexts.  The development of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) technology for 14C measurements beginning in the late 1970s initiated a continuing expansion in the areas of 14C research made routinely feasible to pursue in a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines.

Radiocarbon dating is widely accepted in the scientific community as a definitive means of authenticating or disconfirming proposed ages of artifacts of historical or cultural interest, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and Shroud of Turin.  It has even been applied to pseudo-artifacts such as wood allegedly removed from a mythic “Noah’s Ark” purported to be situated on the slopes of Mt. Ararat in northeastern Turkey.  Radiocarbon dating by five laboratories determined that the alleged “Noah’s Ark” wood samples dated to the Middle Ages.  

The research that ushered in the “radiocarbon revolution” was initiated in 1946 at the University of Chicago by Willard F. Libby (1908-1980).  Libby received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for 1960 for his development of the 14C method.   There are currently over 100 laboratories in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe and North and South America undertaking 14C measurements on a routine basis.

For those of us who don’t feel drawn to the task of reading a whole book, such a brief introduction to this complex subject is invaluable. Dr Taylor has also sent to me a copy of an article he has just written for The Collegian,”the official newspaper of the Associated Students of Walla Walla University. As a publication made by students for students, its primary objective is to inform, entertain, and serve as a facilitator for relevant discussion.”

This article is so helpful that I will ask The Collegian if I can post it on this website. It seems to me that the newspaper itself is not available on the web. However, let me say that Dr Taylor’s article is entitled “God is the Creator: How and When Are Details.” His first paragraph is as follows:

One would reasonably assume that all Christians are theists and thus, almost by definition, would confess that God is the Creator of all that is good in the universe. We could also reasonably assume that all Adventists are, first of all, Christians. On this basis, we can anticipate that all Adventist Christians would confess without hesitation that God created all good things in the universe. Thus we could say that all Adventists would agree: God is the Creator. But there are major theological battles currently underway in the contemporary Adventist Church over the issue of Creationism. What is the problem?

The problem is that some Adventists are hesitant to listen to both the evidence from Scripture and from the universe. God is the author of both. Dr Taylor puts it well: God is the Creator, the how and the when are details!

I plan to go on discussing some of the details on this website, in ways that may be of help to “thinking believers.” But let me thank Dr Taylor for his insightful “Introduction” (above) to one of the important sciences that tell us plainly the earth is, indeed, very old.

For those who would like to read more of what Dr Taylor has written on the subject in hand, he offers us the following.

Radiocarbon Dating: Basic References

R. E. Taylor. 1987. Radiocarbon Dating: An Archaeological Perspective.  New York: Academic Press.

R. E. Taylor. 1997. Radiocarbon Dating.  In: R. E. Taylor and M. J. Aitken, eds. Chronometric Dating in Archaeology, pp. 65-96. New York: Plenum Press.

R. E. Taylor. 2000. Fifty Years of Radiocarbon Dating.  American Scientist 88:60-67.

R. E. Taylor. 2001. Radiocarbon Dating. In: D.R. Brothwell and A.M. Pollard, eds. Handbook of Archaeological Sciences, pp. 23-34.  London: Wiley.

Arthur Patrick, 2 February 2012