On the Turin Shroud, 4

One of the problems with pseudosciences is that, to refute them, almost a career in refutation is required. When in November of 1989 the group of sceptics known then as CSICOP visited Mexico City, I was completely lost in the paranormal. However, unlike people in general I always had a predisposition for honesty, in the sense of being able to change my worldview if coming across facts and solid arguments based on facts.

The visit of CSICOP to the city where I live changed me in many ways. The sceptic who had published a critical book on the Shroud, Joe Nickell, had been unable to come. But for the first time I spoke with the professional critics of parapsychology: two academic psychologists whose hobby was to read all the important journals of parapsychology, and publish their critique in specialized journals. It was because of their work that I learned the enormous amount of dedication that the refutation of a single pseudoscience, such as parapsychology, requires.

But the problems do not end with finding a couple of motivated sceptics. Their criticism may be true, but the popularization of the criticism was difficult to divulge, especially previous to the Internet. In 1989, for example, the Skeptical Inquirer was only sold by subscription, a smaller magazine and more pleasant in its reading than what is currently sold in newspaper stands. Very few knew the work of Nickell and other sceptics on the Shroud. What the market wants are the paranormal claims big time; not taking the sweets away from children. Consider this candy for example:

Jerusalem, Friday before Passover, c. AD 30. The body of a crucified man lay on a slab in a rock-hewn tomb just outside the city walls. It had been placed there by Joseph Arimathea, a secret disciple of the man Jesus, and Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin who brought a large amount of spices to be placed in the folds of a new linen shroud. Joseph placed a great stone in front of the tomb and left in a hurry as the Sabbath was fast approaching.

Sometime during the following night and before the first glimmers of dawn of the first day of the new week, there was a quick flash of blinding light. The stone before the tomb was jarred away; the body vanished, but on the slab remained the Shroud with strange images of the man some called the Son of God.

The passage was not written by a believing sindonologist, but by a sceptic portraying what believers want to hear. With that paragraph David Sox opened the first chapter of his book The Shroud Unmasked, published immediately after the Carbon 14 tests revealed that the relic had been manufactured in the Middle Ages. However, this is where you see the huge advantage that believers have over sceptics in a market society.

Scepticism does not sell. What sells well are sweets for adults who are still children.

The copy I have of Sox’s book, which I read in 1989, is made of cheap paper. If we compare it with the elegant books of Ian Wilson, with whom Sox worked closely, Sox’s book seems, at first glance, extremely modest. Nonetheless, despite the quality of the paper and the covers, given that Sox does not violate Occam’s razor his books are more relevant to understanding the relic of Turin than those of his popular colleague.[1]

I am tempted to rephrase what Sox says in The Shroud Unmasked but here I would just like to quote, in addition to the passage above, the first paragraph of the introduction:

There were times when I thought I’d never live to see the day the Turin Shroud faced its obvious test. The road to carbon dating has been long, contentious and convoluted. There are those who will not appreciate mine and other’s efforts to have this test. That’s their problem.

When you open Pandora’s Box, you have to be prepared for whatever comes out. I have always wondered why many so fascinated with the Shroud mystery were afraid to see the end of the story.

This volume explores the road to the test, and recognises there is undoubtedly more yet to come in the Shroud story. At least now that the identification of the cloth with the historical Jesus has been removed, the new sleuths into the mystery can be more objective than most observers have been in the past.

Update of 21 May 2018: Further thoughts about the relic, and the correspondence that a real scientist addressed to me, will appear: here.

__________

[1] Wilson violates it by lucubrating a hidden history of the shroud from the 1st century until its actual appearance in the Middle Ages, as we shall see.

On the Turin Shroud, 1

‘A love letter from God’

From personal experience I know that, when one is immersed in the dogma of a pseudoscience, the believer swears that it is real science.

A typical believer in a classical pseudoscience, such as the study of UFOs or parapsychology, ignores that there is a litmus test to distinguish between false and true science: the principle of the falsifiability of a hypothesis that Karl Popper devised in The Logic of Scientific Discovery. In short, for a hypothesis to be scientific it has to be refutable. Pseudoscientists follow the opposite methodology: they present their central hypotheses in such a way that they cannot be refuted. A typical case of pseudoscience from the Popperian point of view is sindonology, the study of the Shroud of Turin (Sindonology, from the Greek sindon: the word used in the gospel of Mark to describe the type of the burial cloth of Jesus).

Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who died in 1356 at the Battle of Poitiers, was the first recorded owner of what later became known as ‘the Turin Shroud’. When in the late 1980s I was immersed in sindonology, I not only read a huge amount of literature on the subject where I learnt about the de Charny story, but contacted the ‘experts’ by mail, some personally. The late Dr. Enrique Rivero-Borrell, the foremost ‘expert’ on the shroud in Mexico, told me something I should mention.

I met him at a meeting of a group of Catholic sindonologists who believe that the image of the shroud is nothing more and nothing less than a late ‘love letter’ that God left behind in the 1st century as proof of the Resurrection for our scientific age!

The meeting with Rivero-Borrell, presided by Faustino Cervantes Ibarrola, a pleasant priest, was held in the aftermath of the carbon-14-dating tests results performed on the shroud in 1988. Rivero-Borrell, president of a sindonological organisation, was very confused. The tests, endorsed by the cardinal of Turin himself, revealed that the fabric dated from 1260 to 1380 CE. Keep in mind that the shroud is exactly about the size of an altar cloth; in no way resembles the several burial cloths used by Jewry. Since the shroud made its first appearance in a town in France, precisely in the times of de Charny, it could not be more significant that science corroborated that the cloth was manufactured in the 13th or 14th centuries.

However, I continued my investigation of the shroud because, at that time, I believed that the image remained mysterious. That was how I learned, a couple of years later that Rivero-Borrell left behind all his previous confusion of 1988. Very enthusiastically, he told me that the latest research had revealed that the carbon 14 tests had come out medieval because a fungus had covered the cloth, changing the molecular chemistry and the results turned out aberrant!

In other parts of the world, other sindonologists said that Jesus’ energy in the resurrection, which they call flash photolysis—the very moment when Jesus was resurrected!—not only left the miraculous imprint on the sheet, but changed its molecular chemistry. That’s why the results had come out medieval instead of the 1st century (a rather clumsy deity was this one who intended to leave behind ‘a love letter’ for us)!

The least absurd excuse among the sindonologists that I heard is that the piece of cloth to which they applied the carbon 14 tests was attached to the shroud; not a part of the original fabric.

All these excuses have something in common: they present us their central hypothesis—that the image of the Turin shroud is the result of a miraculous imprint at the very moment of Jesus’ resurrection—as an irrefutable hypothesis. And it is precisely the irrefutability of the central hypothesis of a field of study the most common feature in pseudosciences.

For example, those who study UFOs say that there is a conspiracy that involves all governments since 1947: government officials who have hidden evidence from the American people of extraterrestrial visitors. This is an irrefutable hypothesis insofar as, when a sceptic requests evidence that an alien ship exists in a top-secret hangar, the believer responds that everything is jealously guarded by sinister instances of the federal government. A massive conspiracy involving all presidencies from Truman to Trump, including the CIA and the FBI, and which continues today, cannot be refuted. Every time the sceptic complains that a massive conspiracy stresses the claim to the breaking point, the believer responds that the sceptic himself is a paid CIA agent! I’m not kidding: some ufologists used to say that about Philip J. Klass, the CSICOP specialist in UFOs, whom I met at a conference.

The same happens in the field of parapsychology. Parapsychologists say that extra-sensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK) exist, but that they are such erratic phenomena that it is very difficult to demonstrate them methodically and repeatedly in the laboratory. That is, there is no way to adequately submit the paranormal hypothesis to the protocol of refutability devised by Popper. That does not mean that ESP and PK do not exist (personally I doubt they exist). It means that the parapsychologists, who claim that they have reliable, empirical evidence of the existence of the paranormal, violate the principle of falsifiability by calling their field of study strictly ‘scientific’.

Such a pseudoscientific methodology is what the sindonologists also follow. Take for example the least insane of the above-mentioned excuses about why, according to believers, the carbon 14 tests did not come out of the century they expected: that researchers could have cut a cloth attached to the shroud, not the fabric where the image is.

If the proponents of the authenticity of the shroud were true scientists they would not be lucubrating such things. They would simply ask the Cardinal of Turin to allow another carbon 14 test on the cloth, this time from the area they consider appropriate. Meanwhile, the wise thing would be to suspend judgement until the cardinal approves another series of tests. Instead, what sindonologists do—who after the radiometric 1988 tests continue to claim that image is proof of the Resurrection—is a battery of secondary tests. Most of such tests are unrelated to the dating of the cloth; tests that purportedly show that the image remains mysterious.

That the image is not so mysterious can be seen in the research that Joe Nickell, a sceptic I met in 1994, has made of the shroud. But there is more to Nickell’s research: as we will see in the following entries on the subject.

Before finishing this post I would like to say something else. A white nationalist visiting this site might think that my interest in unmasking the gospels and the shroud buffs is a secondary issue. It is not. A few minutes ago of my writing this paragraph the bell of my house rang. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses gave me propaganda. I wrinkled it in anger and was about to throw it away when I saw the image of these blacks. Then it occurred to me to use it because in the background these neo-Christians put whites in a bucolic world where the races converge.

Christian ethics, so well captured in the propaganda I was given today, is a bigger factor than Jewish subversion, as without such ethics there would be no Jews (or blacks) empowered in the West. Aryans embracing a moral grammar based on the belief of a resurrected Jew is unhealthy, to say the least.

Parapsychology

Or:

The ten books that made an impact in my life
before I became racially conscious

5.- A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology
(autographed inscription 1989)

6.- The Relentless Question
(autographed inscription 1990)

In “The Sickle I said this Tuesday that I arrived to the San Francisco airport in 1985. Living in San Rafael the very first days after my arrival to the US, I paid a visit to San Francisco and found in a bookstore the just released A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology. I remember a pic of James Randi on the dust cover among other notable skeptics and wanted to purchase the book. Alas, I didn’t since I had very limited economic resources and was only starting to look for a job at Marin County.

I mention this little anecdote because had I purchased the book I could have been spared from the extremely agonic stage in California. As explained in “The Sickle,” when I lived there I was immersed in the fantasy to “force the eschaton in history.”

But how do I know that my Quixotic—to say the least—endeavor that so much suffering caused could have been avoided by a book? Because when I returned to Mexico, in 1989 the main contributors to the skeptical handbook, Ray Hyman, James Alcock, Paul Kurtz and James Randi visited my native town and, finally, I could afford to purchase A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology: which started a cognitive process that completely and absolutely disabused me from my “eschatological” beliefs.

Well, it’s more complicated than just a single book. In fact, after these skeptics visited Mexico City I subscribed The Skeptical Inquirer and ordered many books on the paranormal published by the skeptical contributors of Kurtz’s group. If I chose a single book to convey the fact that the process of reading them started an apostasy process of my belief in ESP and PK (again, cf. “The Sickle”) it’s because the copy of A Skeptic’s Handbook that I own was signed by Kurtz in front of me on November 12, 1985.

My previous post was about Childhood’s End, the novel that most influenced my life. I recognize that it must sound crazy that someone took a novel so seriously as to believe that the eschaton could be forced by purely psychic means in the real world. How could I have fallen into such grandiose delusion? (A couple of days ago Deviance, a commenter put it this way, “When I read you, Chechar, I wonder if intelligence is a blessing or a curse—smart people seem to be drawn to sects, cults, pseudosciences and false theories of all sorts…”) The answer is devastatingly simple.

A pseudoscience is a system that pretends to be scientific but that is not. In other threads of this blog I have stated that the process of debunking a sophisticated pseudoscience requires an extraordinary input of energy. You need to be a specialist in a specific pseudoscience (e.g., a skeptical specialist in parapsychology, another in UFOlogy, still another on a very specific conspiracy theory such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, etc). The sheer mass of literature and conferences on purported conspiracies of, say, the assassination of JFK, is such—thousands of books—that it took Vincent Bugliosi twenty years of research to address and refute each claim.

Generally, people who believe in pseudosciences, cults or conspiracy theories never dare to seriously study the critics of their cherished beliefs. That’s precisely the religious mindset: never listen to the critics. Although I was ready to listen when, standing in a San Francisco bookstore I learnt that a skeptical handbook had just been released, I was so sure that parapsychologists had demonstrated the existence of “psi” that I didn’t bother to listen the other side even when I finally got a job in California.

When I believed in the existence of paranormal phenomena, John Beloff of Edinburg University (right), who eventually became my editor in parapsychological matters, was the single most important author that convinced me of the realities of such phenomena. Again, just as I chose A Skeptic’s Handbook as a paradigm of the literature that eventually would became a vaccination for my mind, if I mention Beloff’s The Relentless Question it is only because he sent me by mail a copy of his book with his longhand inscription: “For C. T. who has the courage of his convictions from John Beloff, June 1990.”

When I received The Relentless Question I had already read much of what Beloff had written in professional journals, including some of the articles contained in his book. Just as A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology is representative of what I may call a vaccination, The Relentless Question is representative of the continuing infection that took place in my cognitive process since I left Eschatology for the more “scientific” parapsychological research.

To answer Deviance, that “smart people seem to be drawn to sects, cults and pseudosciences” has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with the human mind’s strayed ways of trying to cope with the unprocessed trauma of earlier experiences at home. This of course goes beyond the reach of this entry, but I nevertheless mention The Relentless Question because it is written in the terse, academic language by a respected professor of the psychology department of a well-known European university: the only university that held an academic chair of parapsychology in the western world.

In the previous incarnation of this blog Lawrence Auster discussed with me the subject of parapsychology: he as a believer and I as a former believer (now turned skeptic). For those who have not made their minds as to whether paranormal phenomena might be real or not, these two books, one edited by the founder of a skeptical group, the other authored by a late professor, are good starting points to listen to both sides of the debate.

For the other eight books see here.