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Open Letter to Another Blogger

October 31, 2010

Dear William Bell:

I am impressed by your blog, The Lessons of Evolution. You are, according to your blog, thirteen years old and hope to become an evolutionary biologist. You write well and seem to have a wonderful grasp of facts, logic and scientific reasoning. I wish you the best of success.

It is unlikely I would have ever encountered your public blog had you not mentioned the Shroud of Turin. Thanks to Google, I did. And I will comment on that portion of your posting. First, however, I notice that you have two survey questions on your blog and here are my answers: To the first question, given the choices available, my answer is that I believe in evolution. I suspect that I believe in it in the same way that you do. As for the second question, my answer is that I am a theist. Theist, however, is not specific enough. I am a practicing Christian, more specifically, an Episcopalian. At one time, certainly when I was thirteen and shared your skepticism, I would have found those two answers incompatible. Now, more than fifty years later, I find nothing in science and cannot imagine anything in science, that contradicts my faith; nothing in evolution, nothing in a possible never-beginning-never-ending multiverse, nothing in Hawking’s cosmology, nothing in neurology, nothing in M theory, etc. etc. etc.

I noticed on your blog that you have read Richard Dawkins’ new book. Excellent, don’t you agree? Much better than his “Delusion.”

You mentioned Prof. Baima Bollone in your posting and expressed doubts about his findings pertaining to the famous miracle at Lanciano, Italy. I share your skepticism. But I must pick on a couple of things. First of all, you write, “it was only experimented on by one scientist who happened to also have worked on the shroud of turin.”

Some of the greatest science the world has ever seen was “only experimented on by one scientist” – at least initially. What we want to know is how right or wrong was he. Science has created many safeguards. Is Bollone’s work peer-reviewed in secular scientific journals? Can his experiments be duplicated? Are there similar studies that confirm or challenge his findings? This is what your readers want to know.

To imply anything because Bollone also worked on the Shroud of Turin is unfair. There have been many dozens of scientists, in many fields, who have worked on the Shroud. They represent some of the finest academic, government and corporate science centers of competency in the world. I have met many of them. I have had discussions with some of them over drinks at a bar – you can’t do that yet. I’ve corresponded with others by email. Most of those whom I have come to know, but not all, would answer those two questions you ask on your blog exactly as I have.

One outstanding example of a scientist who worked on the Shroud of Turin, is Raymond Rogers (1927-2005), a lifelong, distinguished chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He had been honored as a Fellow of the prestigious Los Alamos lab, part of UCLA and once upon a time the home of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. In his home state of New Mexico, Rogers had been a charter member of the Coalition for Excellence in Science Education. For several years, he served on the Department of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board as a civilian with the rank equivalency of Lieutenant General. He had published over fifty peer-reviewed scientific papers in science journals. He was also a member of the skeptical organization, New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR). This partial description of the organization is telling:

We are skeptical . . . of those groups who misuse and misrepresent science. We oppose the use of fabrication, flawed logic, distortion of facts, and pseudoscientific propaganda by any and all groups who twist science to suit their own ends, whether they are creationists, advocates of intelligent design, proponents of the idea that aliens crashed at Roswell, extreme academic cultural critics who deny objective reality, or promoters of unproved claims . . .

NMSR is a science organization; it is not a civil liberties or an anti-religious organization. Several of our members, like scientists in general, belong to various religious groups. We see no inherent conflict between science and religion, in that science concerns the natural world (the one accessible to our senses and instruments), while religion concerns the possibility of a supernatural world accessible only through faith. While we respect and cherish religious freedom, we stand ready to challenge those who promote bad science to further their goals, religious or otherwise.

In 1978, Rogers had been selected as one of many scientists asked to go to Turin and study the Shroud up and close. From his work on the Shroud, Rogers’ only substantive conclusion was that the Shroud images were not painted. He did not then offer an opinion on its authenticity. Following the carbon dating, he accepted the conclusion that the Shroud was medieval. He had complete respect for the technology and the quality of work done by the carbon dating labs. In 2005, Philip Ball, a former editor of Nature, that most prestigious international journal of science, wrote in Nature Online that Rogers “has a history of respectable work on the shroud dating back to 1978, when he became director of chemical research for the international Shroud of Turin Research Project.”

Kim Johnson of NMSR wrote in an obituary for Rogers on the organization’s web site:

He was a Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and tried to be an excellent, open minded scientist in all things. In particular, he had no pony in the "Shroud of Turin" horserace, but was terribly interested in making sure that neither proponents nor skeptics let their scientific judgment be clouded by their preconceptions. He just wanted to date and analyze the thing. He died on March 8th from cancer. He was a good man, and tried his best to do honest science.

William, you might be happy to know that Rogers spent a great deal of time and effort trying to make sure that creationism and ID were not taught in New Mexico’s public schools.

Though Rogers had stopped doing research on the Shroud, he had maintained a passing interest, in part because no one had figured out how the images had been made. He was quite sure that they were not somehow miraculously formed. He was annoyed by claims from those who thought they could explain away the carbon dating with pseudoscientific or non-scientific explanations. They were, in his words, the “lunatic fringe” of shroud research.

One hypothetical suggestion, seemingly off the wall, had been gaining traction, particularly on the Internet. Two researchers, Sue Benford and Joe Marino, were suggesting that the sample used in the carbon dating was significantly not part of the shroud but instead part of a medieval repair, a section of the cloth mended using a technique known as invisible reweaving. Rogers thought this was ludicrous, just so much more lunatic fringe thinking. He thought that he could prove they were wrong. He had in his possession some small thread samples taken from the shroud at a spot adjacent to where the carbon dating sample had been snipped away. It would be a simple matter to show that there was no evidence of mending.

As it turned out, Benford and Marino seemed to be onto something. In 2002, after considerable research, Rogers, along with Anna Arnoldi, a chemistry professor at the University of Milan, wrote a paper that strongly suggested that Benford and Marino were right. More work needed to be done, however, and Rogers continued to study the matter with material that had been saved from the actual cuttings from which the carbon dating samples were taken. In January, 2005, following a lengthy peer-review process, Thermochimica Acta, an international journal from Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of scientific journals, published a paper by Rogers entitled, “Studies on the Radiocarbon Sample from the Shroud of Turin.” In it Rogers wrote:

The combined evidence from chemical kinetics, analytical chemistry, cotton content, and pyrolysis/ms proves that the material from the radiocarbon area of the shroud is significantly different from that of the main cloth. The radiocarbon sample was thus not part of the original cloth and is invalid for determining the age of the shroud.

This wasn’t religious opinion. In fact, it wasn’t that much of a scientific opinion of the sort that newspapers and television like. If Rogers could have proven that the shroud was the genuine article or at least that it came from the time of Christ, this would have been exciting news. As it was he was only saying, that for all practical purposes, the 1988 carbon dating was meaningless. It was pure science. It was also a personal admission that he had been wrong in thinking that the carbon dating was the end of the story; that the shroud was certainly a medieval fake.

I don’t know what Rogers might have thought about Baima Bollone’s work on Lanciano. I rather suspect that he would have thought it part of the lunatic fringe. But as a true scientist he would have wanted to see the evidence, see the scientific findings published in a peer-reviewed journal and see if the work could be reproduced.

William, you also wrote: “There is no evidence even that it [=Lanciano] is not a hoax . . .” If you had said that you think it is a hoax or believe it is or assume it is, I might agree. But I cannot agree that the lack of evidence can be thought of as a meaningful argument. Isn’t that exactly one of the things you find problematic with Behe’s ID theory. Follow the evidence, never the lack of evidence.

Not too long ago, I had the interesting experience of spending an evening with two very interesting brothers. Both were scientists. One was a Catholic priest. One was an Atheist. The priest did not believe that the Shroud was authentic. He thought the evidence was insufficient. His brother, on the other hand, thought the evidence overwhelmingly supported authenticity. His difficulty as an Atheist was to separate his conclusions from any supernatural implications. He felt he had done so. I thought he had too.

He based his assessment on the work of Ray Rogers. Like this particular Atheist, I also have reservations about the Shroud’s supernatural implications. But the difference for me is that like the Atheist’s brother, the priest, I believe in God, in Christ, in the Resurrection – Shroud or no Shroud.

But I really think the Shroud is genuine. I think the evidence is overwhelming.

BTW: You make a good point about blood type AB. Al Adler, a blood specialist from Western Connecticut State University, and another Shroud scientist, pointed out that all old blood tended to test AB because the compounds that generated the test response were also in the cell walls and if the walls degraded the blood started to test AB. But it was possible, he felt, to discern false AB positive readings from real AB type readings. Do you have any more information on this? And I wonder if Bollone was aware of this. Have you read his paper?

Congratulations on a wonderful blog. Good luck to you.

Dan Porter

  1. Raymond
    November 3, 2010 at 8:28 am

    Wait a minute, you wrote, “Like this particular Atheist, I also have reservations about the Shroud’s supernatural implications.” But on the History Channel you said that you thought the image was formed by a flash of light from the resurrection of Jesus.

  1. November 1, 2010 at 10:00 am
  2. November 3, 2010 at 4:24 am
  3. February 14, 2012 at 4:46 am
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