Joel Bernstein on Good Science, Bad Science, and the Shroud of Turin

5:11 mark: “… first, I’m going to talk about good science and bad science. We’ll contrast them. And I’ll give you some examples of good science and bad science…. You’ll have then the
rules … I’ll give you the story of one particular person’s research on the
Shroud of Turin and let you judge….”

This lecture by Joel Bernstein, Global Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at NYU Abu Dhabi, was given in May of 2014. It was published on YouTube three days ago where it has so far been watched only nineteen times, including by me.  It runs one hour and thirteen minutes, including questions.


From the YouTube description:

This talk explores the tension between scientific fact and religious faith in the identification and verification of a sacred relic. Many catholic cathedrals and churches can claim some relic associated with Christ. The sanctity of the religious institution is enhanced by proximity of the relic to the time and place of Christ’s life. However, the source and history of many of these relics are often cloaked in mystery due to the scanty historical record. One of the most famous is the treasured Shroud of the Cathedral of Turin. In the 1970’s, authorities overseeing the Shroud enlisted a team of scientists to examine and presumably to verify its source and history. Some of the conclusions drawn from that study, and the absence or presence of scientific evidence for those conclusions, has led to perhaps the quintessential conflict between acceptance of the validity and veracity of the scientific method on the one hand, and religious belief and faith on the other.

Joel Bernstein
Global Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, NYUAD

Hat tip to Joe Marino for spotting this.

8 thoughts on “Joel Bernstein on Good Science, Bad Science, and the Shroud of Turin”

  1. This has to be the “good vs. bad science” everything else has shown that the Shroud is the Shroud of Christ. (by everything I mean all the later checking the 3D the date etc.)

  2. Oh, dear me, what a pity. I had occasion, a few days ago to criticise a ‘comparison’ between the work of Walter McCrone and Heller & Adler, because although it was a reasonable analysis of the STuRP scientists, it said virtually nothing about McCrone. Here, I was expecting something to justify the blurb: “This talk explores the tension between scientific fact and religious faith in the identification and verification of a sacred relic.” and “Some of the conclusions drawn from that study [the STuRP expedition], and the absence or presence of scientific evidence for those conclusions, has led to perhaps the quintessential conflict between acceptance of the validity and veracity of the scientific method on the one hand, and religious belief and faith on the other.”

    But no. After a few interesting comments about good and bad science, Joel Bernstein merely recounted, sometimes word for word, Walter McCrone’s account, in ‘Judgement Day for the Turin Shroud’ of how he investigated the Shroud and the conclusions he drew from it. There was not a single mention of any other findings by any other scientist, let alone anything to dissent from McCrone’s painting hypothesis.

    Bernstein did recall Carl Sagan’s ‘Baloney Detecting Kit’, whose second tenet is ‘Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgable proponents of all points of view,’ but no alternative points of view, let alone debate, were even suggested, let alone debated. Another tenet is ‘Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?’ Bernstein seemed unaware that others had indeed duplicated the experiment (examining the fibres), but got a different result.

    In the question and answer session at the end, one of the audience asked if there were any chance of the radiocarbon dating being repeated, to which Bernstein’s reply (verbatim – see 1:12:06) was: “I recently saw another paper – they didn’t re-date it but they checked all the data of those three institutions and came up with the conclusion there were no errors, the sampling was correct, and all that was perfectly legitimate.” I do not believe this is true.

    I have no reason to suppose that Bernstein is particularly interested in the Shroud for itself, and he is correct that it provides an excellent focus for a debate, or a lecture, on the dichotomy between scientific fact and religious faith. Sadly, this video completely misses the opportunity.

  3. Professor Bernstein exaggerated the amount of work that McCrone put in this work and missed obvious mistakes in that work.

    At 47:36 “he examined more than 8,000 fibers”. It is actually Christine Skirius (a junior high school student, back then) who looked at more than 8,000 fibers to count the colored (yellow) and uncolored ones [1, p. 101][2, p. 83]. But that analysis has a trivial result: there is more yellowed fibers in the image area than in the non-image area. Actually, systematically going through the 32 tapes by McCrone to classify the sticky tapes was done in two days [1, p. 92].

    It is also a bit disconcerting to hear at 34:24 “here’s Rinaldi with the Shroud”. It is not the Shroud but a copy of it on a cloth. Either Bernstein was careless in identifying what was on the photograph or he indeed thought it was the real Turin Shroud. I hope it is the former.

    But major, and fundamental issues, exist in this work of McCrone, obviously not stated by Bernstein. For example, in Table IV [1, p. 93] several sticky tapes are not classified properly, which can be determined by simply looking at the location of the tapes provided on p. 79. Tapes 1HB, 2AF, and 2BF, classified as in image area but are not, and tapes 3AB, 3BB, and 4CB classified as not in image when actually they are. The study is also completely biased because on p. 92 McCrone states that he restudied some tapes that he previously misclassified but without restudying others. And actually his classification
    correlates more with the presence of blood where the sticky tapes were taken then with the body-image (yellow area). McCrone ignores that completely. But it was so obvious to check.

    Also, Bernstein misunderstand what McCrone stated about the formation of the body-image: a forger is using a diluted paint barely visible when you apply it, then the fibrils would have yellowed to create the image. According to McCrone, the body-image does not come from the red ochre as Bernstein states in this video but the yellowing of the fibrils due to the supposed collagen used.

    [1] Walter C. McCrone, Judgment Day for the Shroud of Turin, 1999.
    [2] Walter C. McCrone, The Shroud of Turin: blood or artist’s pigment?, Acc. Chem. Res., 1990, 23 (3), pp 77–83, DOI: 10.1021/ar00171a004

  4. Catholic should obviously be capitalized since the writer is referring to cathedrals that are Catholic. Scanty historical record does not impugn the relics or the veracity of them. Not being able to prove they are or not in no way disproves or even sheds doubt.

  5. Of good science, bad science and its dinosaurs:

    This morning I had the wonderful privilege of attending an address and presentation by Dr Swee Tan with my local Probus group. Tan grew up in Malaysia as one of 14 children in a poor family. Before coming to New Zealand he trained in medicine in Australia, eventually specialising in plastic surgery. He has made breakthrough research in the benign tumours known as strawberry birthmarks, a horrible distinctive disfigurement found in infants. His discoveries have resulted in dramatic shrinkage of these birthmarks using drugs normally prescribed for high blood pressure.

    Coincidentally, I discovered that the current issue of the NZ Listener had also published a fulsome article and interview of Dr Swee Tan. You can find out more about his work from the web-site of the Gillies McIndoe foundation:

    The Listener interview had some interesting observations on his particular research and research generally. I think these comments might well apply to Shroud research!

    On his work in Boston with mentor Professor Judah Folkman, inventor of the world’s first pacemaker, first slow-release contraception, and discovery that tumours could make new blood vessels:-
    “… He was ridiculed by lots of people for years and years and couldn’t get his work published. People now recognise that he was a great inventor. There are drugs based on his research now used for people who are going blind. …”

    On his own research into strawberry birthmarks:-
    “… Our work couldn’t be published for a long time, because people thought we were mad. / Q. Why did they think you were mad? / A. Science is a very conservative discipline. It does not take kindly to disruptors. Those who are regarded as experts often stand in the way of progress. They are the experts of the past but not the present and certainly not of the future.”

    And there you have it. Obstructionism from the old guard. McCrone couldn’t wean himself from his microscope. We see it today with an unwillingness to consider new ideas which just might reveal the secret of the image. But in science, even for Tan, there must still be proof, and results must still be obtained.

    By all means, take a look at the Gillies McIndoe web-site, and see if tells you anything about genuine research, the fruitful results that might be obtained from it, and ponder the obstructionism encountered to arrive at it. What does it tell you?

  6. Interesting thoughts Daveb.
    This got me thinking about homeopathy…skeptics call it pseudoscience. It doesn’t seem to have any scientific basis. But it also works for many people. It really helped my stomach problems.
    Placebo? Or something working at a level that science can’t explain?I felt it worked for me at some deeper level, but that might just all be mental.

    the Shroud…

  7. There is nothing of pseudoscience in the work of Dr Swee Tan, check the Gillies McIndoe web-site. Like many others in the history of Science, he faced obstruction and skepticism, but despite the opposition he persisted and was able to demonstrate his results. That is the key to any new theory, and I think it applies to Shroud research. A version of “By their fruits you will know them” if you like.

    There will always be the naysayers as is evident even on this web-site. Niccolo Machiavelli said it long ago:

    “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” The Prince.

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