Recent application of time-varying birth–death models to molecular phylogenies suggests that a decreasing diversification rate can only be observed if there was a decreasing speciation rate coupled with extremely low or no extinction. However, from a paleontological perspective, zero extinction rates during evolutionary radiations seem unlikely. Here, with a more comprehensive set of computer simulations, we show that substantial extinction can occur without erasing the signal of decreasing diversification rate in a molecular phylogeny. We also find, in agreement with the previous work, that a decrease in diversification rate cannot be observed in a molecular phylogeny with an increasing extinction rate alone. Further, we find that the ability to observe decreasing diversification rates in molecular phylogenies is controlled (in part) by the ratio of the initial speciation rate (Lambda) to the extinction rate (Mu) at equilibrium (the LiMe ratio), and not by their absolute values. Here we show in principle, how estimates of initial speciation rates may be calculated using both the fossil record and the shape of lineage through time plots derived from molecular phylogenies. This is important because the fossil record provides more reliable estimates of equilibrium extinction rates than initial speciation rates.