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created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton.

About this week’s eSkeptic

Recently, global headlines have resurrected the decades-old case of the Shroud of Turin in response to a group of Italian researchers who have studied its authenticity and claim that the image it bears (ostensibly of Jesus) was not faked. Though the case for fraud has indeed been strong since the 14th century, skeptics know all too well that some topics just never seem to get laid to rest. In this week’s eSkeptic, Daniel Loxton responds to the media hype.

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Shroud of Turin: Redux

by Daniel Loxton

Skeptics sometimes express impatience with discussion of seemingly quaint paranormal claims. (“What, Bigfoot—again?”) But the great lesson of paranormal history is that it is a wheel: no matter how passé or fringe a claim may sound, it is almost guaranteed to come ‘round again, in the same form or in some novel mutation.

In the last few days, global headlines have resurrected a nostalgic case from my childhood, just in time for Christmas: “The Shroud of Turin Wasn’t Faked, Italian Experts Say.” The cutting edge of yesterday—today! Even in my youth, this mystery was centuries old.

The Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot length of linen cloth that bears a stylized picture of a bearded man. Legend holds the Shroud to be a burial cloth wrapped around the Biblical Jesus following his execution. This linen was allegedly flash-imprinted with an image of Jesus during his miraculous resurrection, presumably by an intense burst of energy released under such circumstances.

The case for fraud has been strong since the 14th century, but enthusiasts insist on rolling that wheel ‘round again. According to news reports this week, Italian scientists used an infrared CO2 laser to scorch images onto cloth and ”conducted dozens of hours of tests with X-rays and ultraviolet lights” in an effort to prove that the image could be created by a burst of electromagnetic energy. (Here’s a PDF of their Italian-language report.) What is the wavelength of a resurrection miracle? If there is one, the scientists were unable to discover what it might be. They learned (in ABC News’s paraphrase) that “no laser existed to date that could replicate the singular nature of markings on the shroud.”

Full-length photograph of the Shroud of Turin

Full-length photograph of the Shroud of Turin which is said to have been the cloth placed on Jesus at the time of his burial. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

All this business with lasers is neither here nor there. I’m reminded of magician James Randi’s line from Flim-Flam! about the pseudoscience technique of the Provocative Fact.

The same technique was used by the Gellerites when they assured us that at no time did Uri Geller use laser beams, magnets, or chemicals to bend spoons. This was quite true. It is also quite true that he had no eggbeaters, asbestos insulation, or powdered aspirin in his pockets either. So what?1

Turns out it’s hard to make a Shroud copy using lasers. That’s hardly surprising, but neither is it relevant. There was never a good reason to think the Shroud was created by anything but the tools and artistry of a painter. Failed attempts to replicate the Shroud image using lasers only underline the argument skeptics have made for decades: the object is a medieval fake.

The bottom line on the Shroud remains the same: the Shroud continues to fail several key practical tests, as discussed by skeptical investigator Joe Nickell in his classic work on the subject, Looking for a Miracle:2

  • Provenance: there is no sign that this object existed before the 14th century;
  • Art history: the Shroud fits into art history as part of a genre of artistic depictions and recreations of burial cloths of Christ;
  • Style: the image upon the shroud looks like a manufactured illustration consistent with 14th century religious iconography, not like a real human being;
  • Circumstance: a 14th century Catholic bishop determined that the Shroud was a “cunningly painted” fraud—and discovered the artist who confessed to creating it;
  • Chemistry: the Shroud contains red ochre and other paint pigments;
  • Radiometric dating: carbon-14 dating tests showed in 1988 that the Shroud was likely created between 1260 and 1390 CE. In 2008, the hypothesis that this date was distorted by carbon monoxide contamination was tested—and results of the original tests confirmed.

Overturning the robustly supported conclusion that the Shroud was manufactured by a medieval artist would take extraordinary levels of evidence in favor of some alternate explanation. The current media hype carries no such breakthrough news. The opposite is true, in fact: the Italian researchers concede (as quoted by Vatican Insider) that their “inability to repeat (and therefore falsify) the image on the Shroud makes it impossible to formulate a reliable hypothesis on how the impression was made.”

After decades of controversy, the real shame is not merely the miasma of pseudoscience surrounding the relic (that’s a fog skeptics are happy enough to cut through) but the blurring of the lines between science and metaphysics—or if you like, between science and faith. The Shroud’s popularity seems to stem from the hope that it could deliver tangible evidence for the divine, but that hope is misplaced. Even if Shroud researchers were to prove their (exceptionally unlikely) speculation that the Shroud image was imprinted by “a short and intense burst of VUV directional radiation,” this would in no way confirm the existence of God, only of a unique printing process—a process enthusiasts have thus far been unable to demonstrate. The truth is that the tools and methods of empirical science would remain powerless to confirm the existence of a transcendent metaphysical God even in the event that such a being existed. It’s just not the sort of question science can answer.

Pressing science into the service of metaphysics may do harm to religion—I’ll leave it to the religious to say if that is so—but it cuts out the heart of the scientific enterprise. And that is a Christmas present that none of us should want.END

  1. Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, 1982.) p. 129
  2. Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle. (Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, 1998.) pp. 22–29
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  1. Dan Branstrom says:

    I am skeptical about the shroud’s authenticity as well. What about the claim made after the radio carbon dating was done years ago that the sample was taken from a repair done to the shroud in the middle ages, instead of the original fabric?

    The Vatican doesn’t claim it to be authentic, but there’s always true believers.

  2. Warren Gumeson says:

    Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki is an engaging account of a determined voyage that proves ithat the method could work but not that it did. I always made a point of this to my somewhat credulous high school students back when Kon-Tiki was in their English textbook. Good story but proves nothing.
    I suggest that finding some way for the shroud to have been made would still not prove a thing about its making.

  3. Brian says:

    Two things:

    It seems to me important that an author check his facts, even those that would seem of little consequence to skeptics. This would be particularly critical if his intention in writing were to convince believers of their error.

    I have not read Joe Nickell’s book but find his claim regardng C. S. Lewis as being a Roman Catholic rather than High Church Anglican unfortunate. More importantly, I hope he may in some future edition find his way toward deleting the assertion that the visionary of Lourdes, Bernadette Soubirous, recanted under pressure her claim that the vision had stated “I am the Immaculate Conception”. She did not. Her response to such (so-called) pressure was “That is what the Lady said”.

    There are more important reasons for suspicion regarding the occurrences at Lourdes, but this simple error will undermine them when it is noted by believers. That’s all that belief requires — one mistake, and it is just such a mistake as the one regarding Bernadette that belief will use to refute opposition and justify and reassure itself.

    It has always seemed to me that the crux of Lourdes had to do with the emergent dogma of Papal Infallibility and the controversy surrounding it even among Catholics, some of whom officially split from the Holy See as schismatics forming the “Old Catholics” upon that dogma’s promulgation. (See Council of Utrecht)

    The Anglo-Prussian war threatened the Vatican with a loss of political power when Austria came to recognize the Kingdom of Italy. If temporal power couldn’t be counted on, the Pope’s infallibility (speaking “ex cathedra”) might insure Catholic authority and popular allegiance above and beyond that of the State given that its strict theological parameters would not be understood by the masses as applying to religious matters only. In other words, the Pope would always be “right” regarding anything & everything.

    The first noises surrounding this exercise of power occurred around 1851-53 resulting in the official introduction by Pius IX of the idea of “ex cathedra” resulting in its 1870 elevation to dogma. One of the Holy See’s first testing of the waters in the use of “ex cathedra” powers was its instituting of the dogma of The Immaculate Conception in 1854. Interestingly, only four years later came the visions at Lourdes to the mildly-retarded Bernadette Soubirous, validating the veracity of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, ostensibly by the Virgin Mary herself! Thus a not-so-subtle political ploy was underway using an innocent and easily manipulated young girl as its convincing mouthpiece. Once the “miracles” began the success of the ploy was insured.

    To shut-down the believer’s mind based on a simple error is not a small matter. Aside from the fact that it gives the believer the one needed detail to undermine the entire skeptical analysis, in this case it also gives credence to the story that Bernadette retained her integrity under fire, remaining ostensibly loyal to what she had heard from “the Lady” when the more likely scenario was an easy game of subterfuge on the part of prelates concerned to make her appear brave and certain under (their) pressure.

    All skeptics should understand that unless they get their facts straight down to the most minute detail, they stand no chance of persuading the believer. Of course, they stand little chance anyway but at least they need not feel responsible for aiding and abetting the cause of the irrational based on their own error and carelessness where the facts – no matter how seemingly inconsequential – are concerned.

  4. Charles Munroe says:

    True believers have dismissed the scientific findings that the Shroud of Turin is a fake. I wonder how they will respond to the eyewitness accounts found in the Bible?

    John 19:40 –strips of linen– (plural)
    John 20: 7 –handkerchief on the face of Jesus and Linen cloths– (plural)
    Luke 24:12 –Apostle Peter sees linen cloths– (plural)

    The shroud is one piece and the witness accounts describe multiple.

    If a cloth is dropped over a prone body it will drape itself along the sides. Lay a cloth over a body lying prone and use a marker to trace both ears and a line following the partial circumference of the an arm and a leg. Now place the cloth on a flat surface and note the gross distortion.

    Note that the front view shows legs lying flat on the slab. However the back view appears to show the sole of the right foot where one would expect only the heel to show unless the knee was bent.

    The Shroud of Turin is a fake as was delared by Bishop Pierre d’Arcis, Bishop Henri de Poitiers and Pope Clement VII in 1389. The only remaining questions should be –

    1) Why has the Catholic church allowed the Shroud of Turin to be presented as a holy relic for over six hundred years knowing full well that it is a fake.

    2) When will we hear the end of this infantile nonsense and get on to the more important.

    Charles Munroe

    • doc s. says:

      Isn’t it true that the PLURAL form of nouns was often used as an Honorific for single items E.G “Urim” “Thummim” “Elohim”
      Score one for the believers this time!
      The “Strips” referred to here could mean “The HONORABLE Strip” (or not)

      Clearly, the Space Dudes he(l)ped out with the magic ultraviolet cameras the brought with them on the WHEEL of ‘Zeke

      Answers to remaining questions
      1. We need a recognized fake or two to keep the faithful on their toes

      2. We should drop the Turin stuff and get into Elway and “T-Bone” stuff
      now THAT’S important !!!

      Dr. Sidethink Hp.D

  5. Pandaemoni says:

    Elohim is interpreted as being plural as a way to explain why a plural is used in the Torah and in Jewish tradition, but it makes just as much sense, if you know the Ugaritic (Canaanite) traditions of the god El and his seventy sons, one of which was Yahweh, that Elohim is plural because it originally referred to the whole pantheon of deities that the Israelites worshipped before the monotheistic tradition evolved.

    As monotheism evolved, they didn’t abandon the old stories or even change then, they just reinterpreted them under the new paradigm.

    There is some anthropological theories that the “two” creation stories in Genesis (one in which the world was made by Elohim, and one in which it was made by Yahweh) result from the attempt to merge two different mythological stories as the population of Yahweh worshipping Jews expanded into territories where Elohim was still revered.

  6. Dr. Strangelove says:

    One theory is the Shroud of Turin was made by Leonardo da Vinci. The face on the cloth was Leonardo. It actually looks like the sketch of the old artist. It was a photographic image developed on the cloth, centuries before photography was invented as Leonardo was a scientific genius. The cloth was Medieval but the image was Renaissance era.

    This theory was expounded by scientists and historians in a National Geographic documentary. They cited scientific and historical evidences.

  7. Scott Luzadder says:

    Even if the shroud were proven to be from the time of Jesus, I am sure there were many people who died and were wrapped in burial cloth at that time. The only “proof” there could possibly be that it belonged to Jesus would only exist in the mind of the observer.

  8. carsteering48 says:

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  9. W. Corvi says:

    It seems to me that the investigation scientifically failed before it started. If they could reproduce the image with lasers (which were not available at the time), then it is a true miracle. If they could NOT produce the image with lasers, then it is truly an even BIGGER miracle.

    Why bother to do the experiment? We’ve already proven it was a miracle. QED.

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