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Mixing Up Faith and Science on the Carbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin

imageTimothy P. P. Roberts wrote as a comment in this blog:

It is truly a shame that perfect evidence for the shroud being of Medieval origin is dimissed. It is a great disservice to the huge efforts of those involved in the radiocarbon dating testing. The results are accurate and the samples came from the shroud. But this website isn’t about science, it is about faith in a relic. Why pretend otherwise?

Faith in a relic? Disservice? Really? Is this comment, itself, not a statement of faith in the “efforts of those involved in the radiocarbon dating testing?” And is it not dissing those who work for scientific progress?

As an example of progress, we might remember that just last year, an Oregon State University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences along with other recent studies, challenged the long established theory that birds descended from ground-dwelling theropod dinosaurs. "We’re finally breaking out of the conventional wisdom of the last 20 years, which insisted that birds evolved from dinosaurs and that the debate is all over and done with," said OSU’s John Ruben. Was this study a “great disservice” to the evolution researchers of the past whose conclusion are now challenged? No. This is the way science works.

And Einstein comes to mind, as well. He was wrong about the cosmological constant. Was it a disservice to challenge him as many did? No. By his own admission, it was the "greatest mistake of [his] life." Now, as we might imagine, a cosmological constant is being reconsidered to account for the fact that the expansion of the universe is accelerating when gravity should be slowing the process down. Science progresses. It is never a disservice to earlier efforts.

And thus, with substantial new information available some twenty years after the radiocarbon dating tests in 1988, Philip Ball, the former physical science editor for Nature when the carbon dating results were published, would write 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.”

It is significant, as well and perhaps more so, to note that Christopher Ramsey, the current head of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, one of the places 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.

Is further research as Ramsey suggests and are the studies listed below disservices to those involved in the 1988 radiocarbon dating testing? Of course not.

1.  Thermochimica Acta (Volume 425 Issue 1-2, 2005, pages 189-194, by Raymond N. Rogers, Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of California) – The peer-reviewed 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.

Ironically, Rogers was trying to prove that the “results are accurate and the samples came from 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, by-different-means  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. According to Villarreal:

[T]he [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.

4.  Chemistry Today (Volume 126, Number 4, pages 4-12, July-August 2008 by M. Sue Benford and Joseph G. Marino). Discrepancies in the radiocarbon dating area of the Turin shroud.  

5.  A 2009 paper, Cotton in Raes/Radiocarbon Threads: The Example of Raes #7, by Thibault Heimburger; published on the STERA site.

6. 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.

But even in going back to 1988, we can’t help but notice warning signs that something was amiss that the testers, themselves, seemed to ignore. Perhaps that was a disservice to each other and the public at large.

Argumentum ad populum.

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