On the Turin Shroud, 3

Falsifiability

To distinguish science from pseudoscience the crux is falsifiability (i.e., refutability), not verifiability. For example, for years astronomers had predicted the physics of a collision between two neutron stars. But it had not been possible to verify it by the simple fact that, until very recently, the phenomenon had not been observed in radio telescopes. And there are astronomical hypotheses that cannot yet be verified due to lack of observation. It may be so long without these other phenomena being observed that, when the day comes, we would already be dead.

The idea is to elaborate a solid principle of demarcation that will serve us today to distinguish between true and false science. In addition, in a borderline area of research, such as the shroud of Turin, there is no lab test of ‘Christness’ as there are, say, tests to detect a human pregnancy. What does it even mean ‘scientific verification’ that a cloth covered the body of Jesus? The most we can do is date the linen with reliable radiometric tests. If the results come out after the 1st century of our era, it is ruled out that it was ‘the shroud of Christ’. The point is that this strategy is not verification but falsification of the 1st century hypothesis.

It may not be easy to understand the concept of falsifiability if we read philosophers of science directly. But it is easily understood when we read a pedagogue. The most didactic class I know of to understand the concept is that of the neurologist Terence Hines in the first chapter of his book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, published the year in which the Carbon 14 tests were done on the shroud. I read it in 1990: the year I started reading texts from sceptics after five years of reading exclusively to parapsychologists and sindonologists.

The chapter, ‘The Nature of Pseudoscience’ from Hines’ book begins with the following words:
 

______ 卐 ______

 
What is pseudoscience? It’s difficult to come up with a strict definition. In the real world things are not clearly delineated but surrounded by gray areas that doom any hard definition. As the term implies, a pseudoscience is a doctrine or belief system that pretends to be a science. What distinguishes pseudoscience from real science? [Some authors] have discussed criteria for separating real science from pseudoscience and for helping to decide whether a new claim is pseudoscientific.

The most common characteristic of a pseudoscience is the nonfalsifiable or irrefutable hypothesis. This is a hypothesis against which there can be no evidence—that is, no evidence can show the hypothesis to be wrong. It might at first seem that such a hypothesis must be true, but a bit of reflection and several examples will demonstrate just the opposite. Consider the following hypothesis: “I, Terence Michael Hines, am God incarnate, and I created the universe thirty seconds ago.” Now, you probably don’t believe this hypothesis, but how would you go about disproving it? You could argue, “You say you created the universe thirty seconds ago, but I have memories from years ago. So, you’re not God.” But I reply, “When I created the universe, I created everyone complete with memories.” We could go on like this for some time and you would never be able to prove that I’m not God. Nonetheless, this hypothesis is clearly absurd!

Creationists, who believe that the biblical story of creation is literal truth, often adopt a similar irrefutable hypothesis. They claim that the world was created less than ten thousand years ago. As will be seen in chapter twelve, vast amounts of physical evidence clearly refute this claim. All one has to do is point to something older than ten thousand years. Backed into a corner by such evidence, creationists often rephrase the creationist hypothesis in an irrefutable form. They explain the clear geological and fossil evidence that dates back millions of years by claiming that God put that evidence there to test our faith. An alternative version is that the evidence was manufactured by Satan to tempt us from the true path of redemption. No evidence can refute either of these versions of the hypothesis, since any new piece of geological or fossil evidence can be dismissed as having been placed there by God or Satan. This does not make the hypothesis true—it just makes it nonfalsifiable. Such a hypothesis contributes nothing to our understanding of the physical world.

Another example of an irrefutable hypothesis comes from a doctrine not usually considered a pseudoscience (but which meets the criteria, as will be seen in chapter five)—psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud believed that all males had latent homosexual tendencies, but that in most males these tendencies were repressed. Clearly, homosexual males have homosexual tendencies. But what about heterosexual males? To determine whether the hypothesis that all males have repressed homosexual tendencies is false, you could give some sort of test for homosexual tendencies. What if you failed to find such tendencies? The standard Freudian reply is that the tendencies have been so completely repressed that they don’t show up on the test. Given this irrefutable hypothesis, no test could show that heterosexual males don’t have latent homosexual urges. No matter how sensitive the test, the reply can always be made that the urges are so deeply repressed that they don’t show up on the test.

Those who are skeptical about pseudoscientific and paranormal claims are frequently accused of being closed-minded in demanding adequate evidence and proof before accepting such a claim. But who is really being closed-minded? As a scientist, I can specify exactly the type of evidence that would be required to make me change my mind and accept the reality of astrology, UFOs as extraterrestrial spacecraft, or any other topic considered in this book. But the believer, who likes to paint him or herself as open-minded and accepting of new possibilities, is actually extremely closed-minded. After all, the irrefutable hypothesis is really saying “There is no conceivable piece of evidence that will cause me to change my mind!”

That is true closed-mindedness.

Published in: on May 13, 2018 at 10:45 am  Comments (9)  

9 Comments

  1. The problem with using irrefutability as a criterion of pseudoscience is that whether something has been, or even can be, refuted or not is subjective. For in whose opinion has something been refuted? Apparently Dr. Morales still thinks you have not refuted him, and likely even thinks that he has refuted you, while you think exactly the opposite. In the final analysis, someone is refuted only when he admits he is, and by definition, an adherent of a particular school of thought (or paradigm, worldview, hypothesis, belief, etc.) is a believer in it. He can remain an adherent as long as he wants to, although to an observer his justifications in the face of mounting evidence against his beliefs may seem increasingly absurd. But what constitutes evidence against a belief is also subjective. The proponent and the antagonist of a theory simply don’t regard “the facts” in the same way.

    As Kuhn points out The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, there are problems with all theories. Everything can always be argued against, and everything can always be defended. It’s merely a question of the lengths one is willing to go to in order to do either. This is even the case at the level of simple facts, as the Shroud controversy demonstrates. Recasting this as falsifiability is no help. If you say to me “all swans are white” and I produce a black swan, have you been refuted? For you, only if you admit it. If not, you might argue that the blackness of my swan is an illusion, or that it’s not really a swan, and so on. You could come up with a thousand excuses to continue to believe that all swans are white. The upshot is that the paradigm is always defensible from within the paradigm. Old paradigms, such as the Biblical story of creation, or the supposedly miraculous nature of the Shroud, are like old soldiers. They never die, but just fade away as people gradually lose faith in them.

    All of this leaves the epistemic, and even the existential, status of truth in doubt.

    • Perhaps I forgot to add that these criterions—falsifiability and Occam’s razor—only seem reasonable to honest men.

      The dishonest man, on the other hand, will always believe that Terence Michael Hines is God incarnate :)

  2. Let’s say a female corpse was found in a house stabbed to death, the police’s investigators begin their work to find the assassin. A knife wIth blood is found in the house, and the victim’s neighbor’s digitals are found in the knife.
    Is it the end? The female’s neighbor called Cesar is the culprit, no need to investigate the victim’s life, the video recording, why she was killed, who could have benefited from her death, all other aspects in the crime scene, all other possibilities, no need for a trial, nothing? The neighbor called Cesar deserves death penalty!
    The carbon dating on that shroud could be flawed for many different reasons, the carbon dating is just one aspect of the investigation. And it’s the only one aspect indicating that the shroud is fake.

    • ‘could be flawed for many different reasons’ is a possibility, but the sources in the previous installment of this series say that the 1988 test was not flawed.

      As to the other studies you say, I’ll deal with them starting this week by quoting one of my favorite TS books.

      • People believe in what they want to believe, said Julius Caesar.
        I’m almost neutral about the shroud. My experience in May, 2011 makes all the rest just object of curiosity.

  3. I can’t regard the radio-carbon dating of the shroud as valid. The chain of evidence was corrupted from the start.

    • A flat statement with no peer-reviewed, academic support whatsoever (see the references at the bottom of the previous post).

      This blog is for non-Christians. Are you a Christian, Dan-0-lee?

  4. “Unfortunately, the protocol recommended by a convened panel of experts for the taking of proper cloth samples for the radiocarbon analysis was not followed. Only a single sample was taken and that was from a most unsuitable location, i.e., from the edge of a bounded waterstained scorch area where evident repairs had been made.

    Therefore while this dating study can claim good precision for its reported date, it cannot assign any accuracy to the Shroud’s historical date as it is not clearly established that the location sampled is typical of the rest of the cloth.”

    LINK

    Try that for size.

    • That has been addressed in the first and second installments of this series.


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