Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Were the radiocarbon dating laboratories duped by a computer hacker? (1)

The evidence is overwhelming that the Shroud of Turin is the burial sheet of Christ. Yet three laboratories: Arizona, Zurich

[Right: Clifford Stoll, 1989, "The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage," Amazon.com]

and Oxford, which radiocarbon dated the Shroud in 1988, claimed that:

"Very small samples from the Shroud of Turin have been dated by accelerator mass spectrometry in laboratories at Arizona, Oxford and Zurich ... The results provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is mediaeval... AD 1260-1390" (Damon, P.E., et al., 1989, "Radiocarbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin," Nature, Vol. 337, pp.611-615, 16 February. My emphasis).
But even the current Director of the Oxford radiocarbon dating laboratory, Dr. Christopher Bronk Ramsay, who as "C.R. Bronk" was a signatory to that 1989 Nature paper, and so presumably was involved in the dating, has admitted:
"There is a lot of other evidence that suggests to many that the Shroud is older than the radiocarbon dates allow and so further research is certainly needed. It is important that we continue to test the accuracy of the original radiocarbon tests as we are already doing. It is equally important that experts assess and reinterpret some of the other evidence. Only by doing this will people be able to arrive at a coherent history of the Shroud which takes into account and explains all of the available scientific and historical information." (Ramsey, C.B., "Shroud of Turin," Version 77, Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, 23 March, 2008. My emphasis).

Philip Ball, a former editor at Nature, wrote in 2005:

"And yet, the shroud is a remarkable artefact, one of the few religious relics to have a justifiably mythical status. It is simply not known how the ghostly image of a serene, bearded man was made. It does not seem to have been painted, at least with any known historical pigments." (Ball, P., 2005, "To know a veil," Nature news, 28 January. My emphasis)

and again in 2008:
"It's fair to say that, despite the seemingly definitive tests in 1988, the status of the Shroud of Turin is murkier than ever. Not least, the nature of the image and how it was fixed on the cloth remain deeply puzzling." (Ball, P., 2008, "Material witness: Shrouded in mystery," Nature Materials, Vol. 7, No. 5, May, p.349. My emphasis).
The midpoint of that 1260-1390 date range is 1325 +/- 65 years, which `just happens' to be only 25-30 years before the Shroud first appeared in the undisputed historical record at Lirey, France in the 1350s. Which date the radiocarbon dating laboratories were well aware of, and even cited it in their Nature paper:
"The Shroud of Turin , which many people believe was used to wrap Christ's body, bears detailed front and back images of a man who appears to have suffered whipping and crucifixion. It was first displayed at Lirey in France in the 1350s and subsequently passed into the hands of the Dukes of Savoy. After many journeys the shroud was finally brought to Turin in 1578 where, in 1694, it was placed in the royal chapel of Turin Cathedral in a specially designed shrine." (Damon, 1989, p.611. My emphasis.)
Before the 1988 tests, Prof. Harry Gove, the co-inventor of the Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) method which was used to date the Shroud, when he found out that the number of laboratories had been cut by Turin from seven to three, and the number of methods from two to one, he was so sure that at least one of the three laboratories would produce a markedly wrong date, making it impossible to determine which laboratory's date was correct (if any), that he drafted a letter to the Pope, calling on him "not to date the Shroud at all":
"The draft letter to the pope read as follows: ... The procedure that the Cardinal of Turin is suggesting is bound to produce a result that will be questioned in strictly scientific terms by many scientists around the world who will be very skeptical of the arbitrarily small statistical basis when it is well known that a better procedure was recommended. Since there is great world expectation for the date of the Shroud, the publicity resulting from a scientifically dubious result will do great harm to the Church. ... Rather than following an ill advised procedure that will not generate a reliable date but will rather give rise to world controversy, we suggest that it would be better not to date the Shroud at all'." (Gove, H.E., 1996, "Relic, Icon or Hoax?: Carbon Dating the Turin Shroud," pp.218-219. My emphasis).
Gove had good reason to be worried. Two years years before the Shroud tests, in 1986, three British radiocarbon laboratories, including Oxford, dated Lindow man a range of 800 years apart:
"Although radiocarbon-dating laboratory scientists are notoriously chary of admitting it, carbon dating can produce results with errors considerably wider than their quoted margins, a fact well known to archaeologists. A prime example of this was Lindow Man, the well-preserved body of a sacrificial victim unearthed from a peatbog in Cheshire, England in 1984. Samples from this body were sent to three different British radiocarbon-dating laboratories: Harwell, which dated him to around the fifth century AD; Oxford, which dated him to around the first century AD, and the British Museum, which dated him to the third century BC. Although each laboratory claimed its dating to be accurate to within a hundred years, in actuality their datings varied between each other by as much as 800 years, the discrepancy remaining unresolved to this day, with each institution insisting that its estimate is the most accurate." (Wilson, I., 1998, "The Blood and the Shroud," p.192. My emphasis).
Then a year after the Shroud's dating, in 1989, an intercomparison test of 38 radiocarbon dating laboratories (with Oxford abstaining), only 7 of the 38 dated the artifacts of known date correctly, with the AMS laboratories being among the furthest out:
"Nor are such examples isolated and anecdotal. In the same year of 1989 Britain's Science and Engineering Research Council commissioned a special inter-comparison trial for radiocarbon-dating laboratories in which altogether thirty-eight different laboratories took part, collectively representing both the conventional Libby method and the accelerator mass spectrometer one. Each laboratory was given artefacts of dates known to the organisers, but unknown to them. The shock finding of this totally scientific trial was that the laboratories' actual margins of error were on average two or three times greater than those that they quoted. Of the thirty-eight who participated, only seven produced results that the organisers of the trial considered totally satisfactory, with the laboratories using the new accelerator mass spectrometer technique faring particularly badly. It is also a matter of record that the Oxford laboratory, inevitably the highest profile of any, actually declined to take part. Yet this is the method that we are supposed to believe `conclusively' proved the Shroud a mediaeval fake." (Wilson, 1998, p.193. My emphasis).
After the 1988 tests, when the three AMS laboratories claimed to have reached agreement that the Shroud was dated 1260-1390, Gove admitted that before the tests he thought the "new [AMS] procedures seemed to me to be fraught with peril" but he was relieved that the "three laboratories performed their measurements flawlessly":
"My main concern was that this highly public application of the AMS technique, which I had played a major role in inventing and developing, be successful. The new procedures seemed to me to be fraught with peril. If one of the three laboratories obtained an outlier result as one did in the British Museum inter-laboratory comparisons [that was in 1985 when Zurich laboratory was 1000 years out] it would be impossible statistically to identify it and the three measurements would all have to be included in the average thereby producing an incorrect result. The inclusion of the other laboratories would have obviated this potential risk. As it turned out my fears were not realized. The three laboratories performed their measurements flawlessly and the final result is a public triumph for AMS if not for the `true believers'." (Gove, H.E., 1989, "Letter To The Editor: The Turin Shroud," Archaeometry, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp.235-237, p.237)

But what is the likelihood that the three AMS laboratories "flawlessly" dated the Shroud, yet a year later, with the experience of dating the Shroud behind them, two of the three laboratories "far[ed] particularly badly" in an intercomparison test and the third laboratory, Oxford, declined to take part? Not likely at all!

Continued in, "Were the radiocarbon dating laboratories duped by a computer hacker? (2)".

Posted: 18 February 2014. Updated: 5 November 2016.

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