imageKyle, your website, Science-Based Life: Promoting the Public Understanding of Science, is excellent. It really is. I particularly enjoy Science Facts of the Day. You should be proud to have an endorsement by Michael Shermer. Your words, “Science works because it doesn’t stumble over ancient traditions or fumble with arcane superstition,” is so absolutely true that it deserves better exposure (lift it from the graphic and put it as text on every page so that it makes it into quotation repositories).

While I imagine we agree on most things scientific such as evolution, the cosmos, logic and pseudo-science, we certainly disagree on religion. I have no issue with your beliefs (or lack of beliefs if that is how you state it) and you should have no issue with mine. I am a Christian. I am Anglican, an Episcopalian. I am someone who believes that a scientifically impossible event occurred, Jesus the Christ rose to new life.

What was it Michael Shermer said about your site? Oh, yes: "Very professional…We’re fortunate to have you on our side." Actually, when it comes to science, most modern-day scientifically-minded orthodox-oriented Christians are fortunate to have you on our side as well. That would be Anglican, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, most mainline Protestant and a significant number of Evangelicals.

What caught my attention and prompted me to contact you was the posting you made on the Shroud of Turin. I happen to believe it is authentic. I don’t think we can ever prove that or prove anything by it. And I don’t think that matters. You are right, however, in recognizing that it is probably the most studied artifact in history.

Let’s look at a couple of points, however:

You wrote:

The shroud’s website (sic, link doesn’t work) claims that it is the most studied human artifact in history, and although this seems pretty steep, I do not doubt it. The reason is it so studied . . .

So what website is “the” shroud’s website? Really there are dozens upon dozens of websites dedicated to the Shroud of Turin and not one is official although some claim to be. There is the granddaddy of them all,, which archives hundreds upon hundreds of papers that are both skeptical and supportive of authenticity. In some cases only links are provided, particularly when the papers are in peer-reviewed scientific journals. However, some papers are republished at this site, including, with the generous permission of the journal, the infamous carbon dating paper from 1989 that appeared in Nature that you cite below. (We will get to that and the mistake made in a minute).

There is a site of the Archdiocese of Turin, the official legal custodian of the Shroud on behalf of the Pope. There is a site (unfortunately private) maintained by the Shroud Science Group, which is a group of over 100 people, mostly scientists, many in academia, who regularly study the shroud. Many of their papers on the shroud can be found in scientific journals from time to time.

You wrote:

The reason why the shroud remains relevant is because of its significant religious importance.

I agree

You wrote:

In debate, this is seemingly the only physical evidence that can be produced to prove some aspect of Christianity true.

Oh, I don’t think that is important. Christianity is nearly 2000 years old and has existed quite nicely without a physical evidence foundation. It has done very well with it historical, biblical and theological foundations. It will continue to do so.

You wrote:

Of course the religious will say otherwise, like we have found pieces of the Ark [not true], or there is geologic evidence of a global flood [not true], or that we have Jesus’ DNA on a spear somewhere [not true].

I agree with you on this. You should not think that all Christians or religious people are alike, however. Why even the great St. Augustine (354 to 430 CE) was closer to modern science than modern day Creationism.

Who have you read. I’ve read many of the great Atheist minds like Russell and Hitchens. I’ve also read all of Dawkins, some Coyne (that’s Jerry Coyne the biologist and not Fr. George Coyne the former head of the Vatican observatory, himself a defender of evolution and all things scientific), Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, etc. Oh, and yes, Michael Shermer.

You wrote:

Like all of these claims, the shroud is powerful enough in religious circles to create faith and support, and maybe this is good enough for them, but shouldn’t we try to at least confirm it?

Oh, absolutely, but only on the last phrase after the comma. I have not found a single scientist, among those in the hundreds who believes that the shroud is real, who would not agree that it should be confirmed, if that was possible. (It’s not, in my view). 

You wrote:

So, when the shroud was discovered, it became the one piece of evidence that could give legitimacy to religious claims.

Wait a minute. Are you aware of the fact that many fundamentalist Christians don’t believe and won’t believe that the Shroud is real, not because of science, put because they think it contradicts Biblical accounts in the Gospel of John. While there are some that agree with what you said, it is my opinion that that is a minority view among all Christians of all traditions.

You wrote:

The most recent study of the shroud, published in the journal Nature (completed 21 years ago and still the shroud is considered proof!) summarizes its results:

The results of radiocarbon measurements at Arizona, Oxford and Zurich yield a calibrated calendar age range with at least 95% confidence for the linen of the Shroud of Turin of AD 1260 – 1390 (rounded down/up to nearest 10 yr). These results therefore provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is medieval. This 13th to 14th century dating matches the first appearance of the shroud in church history.

The results of radiocarbon measurements from the three laboratories on four textile samples, a total of twelve data sets, show that none of the measurements differs from its appropriate mean value by more than two standard deviations. The results for the three control samples agree well with previous radiocarbon measurements and/or historical dates.

No. No. No. It is certainly not the most recent study. May I call your attention to:

1.  Thermochimica Acta (Volume 425 Issue 1-2, pages 189-194, by Raymond N. Rogers, Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of California) – The article is available on Elsevier BV’s ScienceDirect® online information site. The abstract reads:

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.

2.  Microscopical Investigation of Selected Raes Threads from the Shroud of Turin by John L. Brown, retired Principal Research Scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Energy and Materials Sciences Laboratory. This is a 2005 independent confirmation that the carbon 14 dating was flawed.

3.  The 2008 work of Bob Villarreal and a team of nine scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory which confirmed that the carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin is wrong.

4.  Chemistry Today (2008). "Discrepancies in the radiocarbon dating area of the Turin shroud" CO4-08.pdf

5.  A 2010 paper, “Carbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin: Partially Labelled Regressors and the Design of Experiments,” co-authored by Marco Riani, Anthony C. Atkinson, Giulio Fanti and Fabio Crosilla; recently published on the website of the London School of Economics. The abstract reads:

Due to the heterogeneity of the data and the evidence of a strong linear trend the twelve measurements of the age of the TS [=Turin Shroud] cannot be considered as repeated measurements of a single unknown quantity. The statement of Damon, Donahue, Gore, and eighteen others (1989) that “The results provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is mediaeval” needs to be reconsidered in the light of the evidence produced by our use of robust statistical techniques.

Is it any wonder that in 2008, Philip Ball, the former physical science editor for Nature when the carbon dating results were pubished, wrote in Nature Online:

It’s fair to say that, despite the seemingly definitive tests in 1988, the status of the Shroud of Turin is murkier than ever. Not least, the nature of the image and how it was fixed on the cloth remain deeply puzzling.

Is it any wonder that Christopher Ramsey, the head of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, one of the places that was used for the dating in 1988, has written on the Oxford website:

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. It is important that we continue to test the accuracy of the original radiocarbon tests as we are already doing. It is equally important that experts assess and reinterpret some of the other evidence. 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.

Kyle, I’m not asking you to believe that the shroud is real. I think it is, but primarily because I think there is an extraordinary amount of historical evidence. But, if and when science proves me wrong, I’ll gladly accept that. I was a Christian and a skeptic of the shroud before. I could be again. But I don’t think that will happen.

Nobody who has studied the carbon dating of 1988 takes it seriously.

Keep up the good work.

Your blog: Science-Based Life