New data widens the margin of error in carbon dating


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The uncertainty of science: New data suggests that the accuracy of carbon-14 dating, used mostly in archaeology and research covering the last few thousand years, has a wider margin of error than previously thought.

By measuring the amount of carbon-14 in the annual growth rings of trees grown in southern Jordan, researchers have found some dating calculations on events in the Middle East – or, more accurately, the Levant – could be out by nearly 20 years.

That may not seem like a huge deal, but in situations where a decade or two of discrepancy counts, radiocarbon dating could be misrepresenting important details.

To me, it seems somewhat arrogant for any scientist to assume this dating could be more accurate than this, especially going back several thousand years and especially considering the number of factors described in the article that they have account for and make assumptions about.

Nonetheless, documenting this margin of error means that the arrogant scientists of the future will have to include it in their research, rather than making believe it doesn’t exist.

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3 comments

  • Phill O

    Bob, your disdain for the arrogance of scientist is; well, how should I say this: Well Founded!!!!

    First, the current method assumes that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to be the same as today. Some may quote analysis to CO2 levels back then, but we get into more assumptions, some may not be valid.

    Secondly, it is well established that the variance for counting statistics is equal to the square root of the counts. Considering the low level radiation being counted and the half life of C14 of 5730 years, the random errors keep piling up. At best 2 significant figure can be had, but more conservative thinking gives one!

    Third, there is the experimental error involved in getting the C14 into solution (a scintillation cocktail).

    If anything, C14 dating can get one significant figure of accuracy.

    What is really scary about this, is the lack of basic understanding of the propagation of error by many “NEW” scientists.

    Yuo yourself are very wary of everything! Too bad the new recruits are not so discerning!

    But this is just my humble opinion: a retired analytical chemist.

  • mike shupp

    Actually, when I was taking anthropology courses a few years ago — well, a few decades ago — at Cal State Northridge, it was common knowledge that C14 dates were likely accurate to only 3 or 4 percent, and that the older the dates were the less certain they were. This doesn’t strike me as arrogance.

    What I suspect here is that somebody made a test. comparing different C14 datings of samples fairly certain to be the same age, demonstrating that this potential error was in fact one which occurred. And that explaining all this to a reporter afterwards wasn’t perfectly successful.

  • Phill O

    3-4% I do not agree! The problem is that there are way to many scientists producing numbers who do not have the expertise of a well trained analyst. If one gets 50% accuracy, that might be closer to the truth.

    I have been involved in many inter-laboratory analysis (Round Robin) and know the real discrepancies in numbers produced even by trained analysts.

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