In short, the assumption that decay rates are immune to outside influences isn't as solid as it once appeared to be.
However, if one does assume a constant decay rate, and if one starts with an originally pure sample of “parent element,” then the proportion of parent to daughter tells us the number of half-lives, which has been used to find the supposed age of igneous rocks. The conclusions of Renne and his team read as follows: Ar can be identified in volcanic sanidine, and while perhaps negligible in pre-Holocene rocks, it has important consequences for sample at the limit of the method’s applicability.
Of course, later scientists, like John Perry and T. After this came to light, Kelvin admitted that he might just as well have set his original upper limit on the age of the Earth at 4,000 Ma instead of 400 Ma.
Of course, this was a close as Kelvin ever came to publicly recanting his position.
Based on these assumptions he at first suggested an age of the Earth of between 100 Ma and 500 Ma.
This estimate was actually reduced over his lifetime to between 20 Ma and 40 Ma and eventually to less than 10 Ma. Perry, in particular, a noted physicists and former assistant to Kelvin, showed that cooling calculations using different but equally likely assumptions and data resulted in ages for the Earth of as much as 29 Ga.
Of course, the detected variation is no more than 0.2% of the published rates, but this paper is still quite interesting since such a correlation was never suspected before.
If magnetic fluxuations or other influencing forces are strong enough, radiometric decay rates could be much more significantly effected.
There is perhaps no beguilement more insidious and dangerous than an elaborate and elegant mathematical process built upon unfortified premises." - Chamberlain 1899b:224Following the discovery of radioactivity by Becquerel (1896), the possibility of using this phenomenon as a means for determining the age of uranium-bearing minerals was demonstrated by Rutherford (1906).
One year later Boltwood (1907) developed the chemical U-Pb method. By combining Von Weizsacker’s argon abundance arguments with Kohlhorster’s observation that potassium emitted gamma-radiation, Bramley (1937) presented strong evidence that potassium underwent dual decay.
These two independent and agreeing dating methods for of the age of two primary members of the solar system formed a strong case for the correctness of his answer within the scientific community.
This just goes to show that just because independent estimates of age seem to agree with each other doesn't mean that they're correct - despite the fact that this particular argument is the very same one used to support the validity of radiometric dating today.
Later, after radioactivity had been proven to be a significant source of the Earth's internal heat, he did privately admit that he might have been in error.