The main point is that the ages of rock formations are rarely based on a single, isolated age measurement.
On the contrary, radiometric ages are verified whenever possible and practical, and are evaluated by considering other relevant data.
James Hutton, a physician-farmer and one of the founders of the science of geology, wrote in 1788, “The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.” Although this may now sound like an overstatement, it nicely expresses the tremendous intellectual leap required when geologic time was finally and forever severed from the artificial limits imposed by the length of the human lifetime.
By the mid- to late 1800s, geologists, physicists, and chemists were searching for ways to quantify the age of the Earth.
For example, a method based on a parent isotope with a very long half-life, such as C method can only be used to determine the ages of certain types of young organic material and is useless on old granites.
Some methods work only on closed systems, whereas others work on open systems.
One of the primary functions of the dating specialist (sometimes called a geochronologist) is to select the applicable method for the particular problem to be solved, and to design the experiment in such a way that there will be checks on the reliability of the results.My purpose here is not to review and discuss all of the dating methods in use.Instead, I describe briefly only the three principal methods. These are the three methods most commonly used by scientists to determine the ages of rocks because they have the broadest range of applicability and are highly reliable when properly used.The K-Ar clock works primarily on igneous rocks, i.e., those that form from a rock liquid (such as lava and granite) and have simple post-formation histories.It does not work well on sedimentary rocks because these rocks are composed of debris from older rocks.Lord Kelvin and Clarence King calculated the length of time required for the Earth to cool from a white-hot liquid state; they eventually settled on 24 million years.James Joly calculated that the Earth’s age was 89 million years on the basis of the time required for salt to accumulate in the oceans.They observed that every rock formation, no matter how ancient, appeared to be formed from still older rocks.Comparing these rocks with the products of present erosion, sedimentation, and earth movements, these earliest geologists soon concluded that the time required to form and sculpt the present Earth was immeasurably longer than had previously been thought.Second, the rock or mineral must not lose or gain either potassium or argon from the time of its formation to the time of analysis.By many experiments over the past three decades, geologists have learned which types of rocks and minerals meet these requirements and which do not.