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Carbon dating is reliable within certain parameters but certainly not infallible.When testing an object using radiocarbon dating, several factors have to be considered: First, carbon dating only works on matter that was once alive, and it only determines the approximate date of death for that sample.Due to all these factors, it’s common for carbon dating results of a particular sample, or even a group of samples, to be rejected for the sole reason that they don’t align with the “expected” results.That’s not unusual in science, so far as it goes, but the relationship between assumptions and interpretations must be kept in mind. At worst, it can make carbon dating circular and self-confirming, though there are other means of dating that can reduce this risk.As samples get older, errors are magnified, and assumptions can render carbon dating all but useless.For example, variations in greenhouse effects and solar radiation change how much carbon-14 a living organism is exposed to, which drastically changes the “starting point” from which a radiocarbon dating test is based.Contamination and repeatability are also factors that have to be considered with carbon dating.A tiny amount of carbon contamination will greatly skew test results, so sample preparation is critical.
Carbon-14 normally makes up about 1 trillionth (1/1,000,000,000,000) of the earth’s atmosphere.Modern effects such as fossil fuel burning and nuclear testing have also changed atmospheric carbon-14 levels and in turn change the “starting point” for a radiocarbon test.All in all, setting the parameters of the carbon-14 test is more of an art than a science.For example, a steel spearhead cannot be carbon dated, so archaeologists might perform testing on the wooden shaft it was attached to.
This provides good information, but it only indicates how long ago that piece of wood was cut from a living tree.
Tiny variations within a particular sample become significant enough to skew results to the point of absurdity.