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Francis Bacon and the Shroud of Turin

raymo It is a well established principle in criminal law that if there is reasonable doubt about someone’s guilt, acquittal is warranted. That principle, not often stated that way, is part of science as well. If there is reasonable doubt about some scientific proof, it is not really proof. Knowing that there is doubt, it is unwise for a scientist to say, “In the meantime, an objective observer should assume.” Yet that is exactly what Chet Raymo writes in Science Musings. He tells us:

A reader asks by e-mail why I have not taken note here of the new chemical tests that “prove” the Shroud of Turin, the supposed burial cloth of Jesus, is between 1300 and 3000 years old. The answer is simple. I prefer to wait until I read the original scientific paper, and analyses of the paper’s content by knowledgeable chemists.

Fair enough. But read them.

Raymo writes:

You will have noted that a commenter here suggested recently that I am not aware of the considerable literature on the Shroud. I am indeed aware of it, but I have better things to do that read the many books and web sites that support the Shroud cult, just as I don’t bother reading the voluminous literature on alien abductions or astrology. . . .I reply [sic assume rely] on the filter of the peer-reviewed scientific literature. When one of the two weekly peer-reviewed journals to which I subscribe — Nature and Science — takes notice, so will I. Be assured that I am open to any possibility.

First of all, poisoning the well is not effective scientific commentary. By implying that the scientists who endeavor to study the shroud objectively are part of a cult or that this study is anything like alien abductions or astrology shows the writer to be extraordinarily non-objective. Indeed pay attention to Nature. Philip Ball, writing in Nature Online explained peer-reviewed scientific findings by Raymond Rogers, a Los Alamos chemist, that the carbon dating was invalid. He pointed out that Rogers credentials were impeccable, his approach was objective and unbiased and his science was solid.

But expand your reading, Chet. Scientists know very well that Nature and Science do not have a monopoly on science. May I suggest Chemistry Today (July/August 2008). May I suggest Thermochimica Acta (Volume 425 pp. 189-194). And, though not published, as of yet, but presented to peers at Ohio State University, review the findings of Robert Villarreal and a team of nine scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratories (some cult, those Los Alamos folks). He stated:

the [1988] age-dating process failed to recognize one of the first rules of analytical chemistry that any sample taken for characterization of an area or population must necessarily be representative of the whole. The part must be representative of the whole. Our analyses of the three thread samples taken from the Raes and C-14 sampling corner showed that this was not the case.

And while this recent statement (March 2008) is not peer-reviewed, it is nonetheless a statement by Christopher Ramsey appearing on the website of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at Oxford University of which Ramsey is the head:

There is a lot of other evidence that suggests to many that the shroud is older than the radiocarbon dates allow, and so further research is certainly needed. Only by doing this will people be able to arrive at a coherent history of the shroud which takes into account and explains all of the available scientific and historical information.

This is hardly the stuff of in the meantime merely assuming.

To make a point, Chet Raymo tells us that . . .

Nearly 400 years ago, Francis Bacon wrote: “What a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes.” This is the danger that lurks in every search for truth.

It cuts both ways. To ask us to assume something despite reasonable doubt shows us that Raymo “preferentially believes.”

Better to say, as most in this supposed cult (which is actually a group of very serious scientists, historians and archeologists, many in academia) say, “We don’t know.”

For more information see posting on the Carbon Dating Mistake.

Chet Raymo is the author of Natural Prayers, Honey from Stone, and Climbing Brandon, and many other books that explore the relationship between science and religion. Raymo has also published several novels and books for children. He is a professor of physics at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, and a science columnist for the Boston Globe.

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