Jerry Coyne Pounces on the Earthquake Hypothesis

does anyone buy the earthquake thing?

imageJerry Coyne has jumped into the earthquake fray with an article, The Shroud of Turin: why religion is a pseudoscience, which he posted on his blog named for his best selling book, Why Evolution is True (A New York Times Best Seller).

The book was one of the best I read on the subject of evolution. The article on why religion is a pseudoscience, well, interesting, anyway. Too much attitude. There is this:

But as real science arose in the 15th and 16th centuries, and began eroding religion’s claims, religion began turning into a pseudoscience. That is, it still made empirical claims, but immunized itself against refutation of those claims using a variety of devices—the same devices used by other forms of pseudoscience like ESP, UFOlogy, homeopathy, and astrology. These include arguing that the propositions themselves are untestable, using poor standards of evidence (including reliance on “revelation” as a “way of knowing”), reliance on a priori personal biases that are not to be tested but merely confirmed, refusing to consider alternative hypotheses, and engaging in special pleading when religious tenets are disconfirmed.

We can see all of these—but especially in the last—in a paper by A. Carpinteri et al. on the Shroud of Turin, a paper that’s gotten a lot of publicity. It’s an attempt to defend scientific radio-carbon dating of the Shroud, which showed it to be a medieval forgery, by special pleading invoking earthquakes.

imageCoyne puts forth four argument against the earthquake hypothesis, arguments that I think are perfectly valid:

1. The evidence for an earthquake is thin. . . .

2. There is no evidence that neutron emission during an earthquake could alter the C-14 content of a shroud. . . .

3. The alteration of the amount of C14 in the shroud would have to be sufficient to make it look sufficiently pre-modern, but not too young. . . .

4. There is no known way that an earthquake could, by neutron emission, produce an image of a body on a shroud. . . .

The Carpinteri paper is thus a confection of unlikely and untested hypotheses, all assembled to try to save the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as the true burial cloth of Jesus. It is not a piece of science, but a piece of apologetics.

Coyne points out:

Indeed, even Wikipedia does a better job than the popular press, and points out something that Ms. Knapton should have known: Carpinteri is the editor of the journal that published this flawed paper. What does thatsay about the review process? As Wikipedia notes:

A team of researchers from the Politecnico di Torino, led by Professor Alberto Carpinteri (and published in the journal Meccanica, where same Alberto Carpinteri is currently the acting Editor-in-Chief, believe that if a magnitude 8.2 earthquake occurred in Jerusalem in 33 AD, it may have released sufficient radiation to have increased the level of carbon-14 isotopes in the shroud, which could skew carbon dating results, making the shroud appear younger.This hypothesis has been questioned by other scientists, including a radiocarbon-dating expert. The underlying science is widely disputed, and funding for the underlying research has been withdrawn by the Italian government after protests and pressure from more than 1000 Italian and international scientists. Dr REM Hedges, of the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of the University of Oxford, states that “the likelihood that [neutron irradiation] influenced the date in the way proposed is in my view so exceedingly remote that it beggars scientific credulity.” Raymond N. Rogers conducted various tests on linen fibers, and concluded that “the current evidence suggests that all radiation-based hypotheses for image formation will ultimately be rejected.”

But he mistakenly assumes that he understands “the faithful.” It suggests to me that he has not taken the time to understand the shroud and the people who study it before writing about it.

Of course none of this counterevidence will shake the faithful, who will still see the Shroud as authentic, and will come in droves to pay homage when the Shroud has one of its rare showings. Like believers in homeopathy or ESP (or, now, Adam and Eve), they continue to hold their faith despite all scientific counterevidence.

That and the first paragraph show how little he understands religion. But do read the full article, The Shroud of Turin: why religion is a pseudoscience and see if you agree.

7 thoughts on “Jerry Coyne Pounces on the Earthquake Hypothesis”

  1. One of the very great problems of Shroud science are the speculative theories that can’t stand the light of day. Thus an elaborate concept is floated that is fodder for Shroud skeptics. There is enough hard scientific facts about the Shroud to support it’s authenticity in any court of law but not, perhaps, at the Oxford dining clubs.

    The important point of the image is that it’s real and it’s there. Also, it was created at a time the body of Jesus was still in it and that the body appears to have disappeared before putrefaction exuded waste materials on to the fabric,

    An argument that hypothesizes an earthquake of unknown force at an unknown precise time and therefor created the image may provide a some headlines, but those headlines as demonstrated by the earthquake theory are ultimately counter-productive.

    We obviously need more science before we can “solve” the image problem. We are not there yet. However, the authenticity of the Shroud has, in my opinion been established and the attributes if the image point in the direction of the Resurrection.

    In my view, I must admit, if there was a Resurrection it would have entailed a process in itself that created he image. Ascribing the image to an earthquake is a distraction when the proponents capitalize on sensational reporting.

  2. Since Jerry Coyne is incapable of discussing biological evolution honestly, reading his views on religion is a waste of time. His colleague at the U. of Chicago, James Shapiro, advanced the theory that the new paradigm for the source of innovations in evolution is “natural genetic engineering,” replacing the old paradigm of “random mutations.” Coyne ridicules this idea. I’m not qualified to say who is right, but my guess is that Coyne just hates the word “engineering” because it implies that there is an engineer. Coyne is a fanatic as the link I gave to his blog yesterday proved.

  3. Looks like a “straw-man” tactic. Carpenteri’s ‘seismic neutron’ hypothesis is patently false, (like all other unspecified counter-evidence) therefore the Shroud is unauthentic, therefore religion is pseudo-science. An interesting sequence of non-sequiturs, if anyone can make any sense of the thread of Coyne’s argument.

  4. Yes, you’re right; refuting Carpinteri as a way of claiming that Religion is pseudo-science is not unlike refuting Nazi eugenics as a way of claiming that Evolution is false. Every faction has a few “with friends like these who needs enemies” supporters, and Carpinteri is one of ours!

  5. Jerry Coyne has written for important publications and the trouble is that what he is proposing is metaphysical naturalism. If it is difficult to accept much of Christian philosopher Swinburne’s natural theology, it is even worse when it comes to Coyne. He doesn’t even seem to look before he leaps.
    Can he disprove that religion is natural and science is not? Even Freud, who dismissed religion as infantile neurosis, did not deny that there was a search for transcendence and it went beyond looking for “comfort in the mother’s womb”. This transcendence is what we could call faith, and faith is part of religion.
    Lastly, why are scientists like Coyne so worried about the Shroud? Does it make them worry that they will be proved wrong? It looks like it does.

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