Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shrouded in mystery

In a surprising coup, scientists in Italy have done a study, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, and have concluded that the Shroud of Turin is authentic.

The scientists also announced that they'd done experiments concluding that the Pope was infallible and that confession to a priest really works.

Okay, I made that part up, but really.  You're trying to convince me that an experiment could prove that this was the burial cloth of Christ?  And that somehow, the fact that the experiments were conducted with the blessing of the Vatican didn't bias the outcome?

Apparently the answer to both of these questions is "yes," because Paolo di Lazzaro, head of the team that did the investigation, came just short of stating it outright.  "The double image (front and back) of a scourged and crucified man, barely visible on the linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin, has many physical and chemical characteristics that are so particular that the staining ... is impossible to obtain in a laboratory," di Lazzaro told reporters.  "When one talks about a flash of light being able to color a piece of linen in the same way as the Shroud, discussion inevitably touches on things like miracles and resurrection.  But as scientists, we were concerned only with verifiable scientific processes.  We hope our results can open up a philosophical and theological debate but we will leave the conclusions to the experts, and ultimately to the conscience of individuals."

*wink wink nudge nudge*

So what we have here is our old friend Argument from Ignorance, wrapped up nicely in a piece of ancient linen cloth.  What evidence do the scientists actually have?  Well, after analysis, they concluded that they had no idea how the marks were made.  Conclusion: it must have been the burial cloth of Christ.

If you look at the scientific studies of the Shroud, it turns out that it's not quite that simple.  Starting with the fact that a carbon-dating study done in 1988 dated the linen cloth to between 1260 and 1390.  Various other studies have attempted to account for the stains on the cloth as iron oxide, tempera paint, treatment with acid, or due to a technique called "dust transfer."  Some skeptics have attributed the piece to Leonardo da Vinci.

Each of those has been answered by Shroud devotees as false, and the argument has bounced back and forth with the regularity of a tennis ball during Wimbledon.  "It is Jesus' burial cloth.  Attempting to replicate the image using iron oxide haven't worked!"  "No, it's not.  The features of the man are wrong.  It looks like a Gothic painting, with elongated limbs and narrow facial features!  It's a fake!"  "No, it's not!  It looks like a photographic negative, as if the image was made by light coming from Jesus' body!"  "That could be the result of natural processes!"

Oh, c'mon, people.  Let's just step back a moment, okay?  What do we know?

The Shroud was made from linen, an organic fiber.  As such, carbon dating should work fairly well on it.  However, the Shroud was nearly destroyed in a fire that occurred in the church that housed it in 1532.  Fires produce smoke, smoke contains carbon, and there's some opinion that the soot residues could render the carbon-dating procedure inaccurate.  The historical origins of the Shroud are, well, shrouded in mystery -- the earliest reasonably certain mention of it was in 1352.  From the 15th century, its whereabouts are well documented.

My point here:  what do we really know about the Shroud, in the scientific sense of factual knowledge?  Not too bloody much.  Therefore, as befits proper skeptics, our position should be simple:  we don't know.  Espousing either camp's views is unwarranted, given the fact that we've got almost no really hard evidence to go on.  Could the fiber be older than the carbon dating tests indicated?  Possibly.  Is the image's origin enigmatic?  Certainly.  Past that... we can't say.

It's a source of annoyance to me that so many people seem not to be able to withhold voicing an opinion.  It's almost as if everyone has to have an opinion about everything, whether or not they have any evidence, or even a good logical argument, to back it up.  My stance has always been that I am perfectly willing to suspend judgment indefinitely if I need to -- until the evidence drives me to one side or the other.  Until that time, I'm perfectly comfortable saying, "The jury's still out on that one."

This seems to be intensely uncomfortable for a lot of folks, but the fact is, it's an essential characteristic for a good scientist.  There's only one thing that should matter, and that's where the facts lead.  Other than that, it's okay to remain in ignorance.  In fact, it's the only honest thing to do.

Or, as my dad used to say: The world would be a much better place if there were more facts and fewer opinions.

1 comment:

  1. The whole "no idol worship" seems to encompass material objects. Jesus/God seems to say, "don't worship objects, worship me and my tenets."
    The guy who this shroud supposedly belonged too, told people not to take interest in things like shrouds... and yet they persist. Such palpable irony. I love it.