God. Fucking. Dammit. I did an outreach event today and explained carbon dating to 20 people standing around me. I'll do here what I did out in the real world.
Let's start with some basics. First off, Journalists suck as science. All of 'em. Even the science reporters suck. So, we got to take a step back and explain what "carbon dating" is. Carbon has two stable isotopes C12 and C13. C12 is about 99% of all the carbon and C13 is about 1%. EXCEPT! Biology has a preference to C12 and C12 will be a higher percent of organic material. This, by the way, is how we know oil and coal are biological in origin, and how the increase in CO2 being released is from burning coal and oil.
Moving on. There is an unstable form of Carbon called C14. C14 has a half life of roughly 5700 years +/- 50 years. This means on average, 1/2 of your C14 will decay into Nitrogen14 roughly every 5700 or so years. So, why is there still C14 if it all turns into something else? C14 is made in the atmosphere due to the nitrogen in the air being bombarded by cosmic radiation. This is a fairly steady rate, and has been verified by tree ring counting, archaeology, and sediment studies. (For example, we know a house was made in 1072 from trees that were cut down at that time, so we carbon date the wood. Since we know the exact year the wood died we can calibrate the measurements. Scientists do this all over the world as each biome has different tree ring patterns) As a living plant inhales C02, it takes the carbon from the air and locks it into the plant via photosynthesis. (Trees grow by sequestering carbon from the air and turning it into wood which is why growing trees is a way to combat global warming.) Animals eat the plants and accumulate C14 as well, but the C14 in animals is not as reliable due to may reasons. C14 does not work on anything that was not alive, and works best in woody plants, trees, shrubs and other perennials that live multiple seasons. C14 also does not work well on aquatic plants and animals due to the way that the C14 is produced.
While alive, the plant or animal will intake C14 at a reasonable steady rate and lock that into its body. When the plant or animal dies, it stops taking in C14, which will then decay into the N14 mentioned above. We measure the dates of C14 testings, called radiocarbon dating, from C.E. or Common era, a date set at 1950. Why 1950? Because we set off so many nukes in the 50's and 60's that it screwed up the levels of C14 in the air. We can also easily tell art forgeries due to the levels of isotopes that were only created in the 50's and 60's in the nuclear detonations.
So, basics done. What they did is they took an old piece of paper, made of wood and plant material, and radiocarbon dated it. They then got a range of dates within the expected margin of error that overlapped Mohamed's life. ALL THIS MEANS IS THAT THE PAPER WAS PRODUCED IN THIS TIME FRAME. That's it folks. There are bibles and Torahs that have been dated way earlier than they have been know to be produced due to the authors and copiers using older parchments and wooden blocks that they already had on hand. Some of the original Gutenberg bibles date to 60-70 years before they were printed as they used old materials lying around. A Torah known to have been printed in the 1400's dated to the 1300's for the same reason.
So, we have a piece of paper that was created in a date range that may be earlier than Mohamed. And journalists who either don't understand or don't care about how C14 dating works, yet are desperate for page views. This is why the news sucks and this is why I scream at a monitor watching this garbage be treated as anything other than a curiosity. Fuck the news.