The Shroud Comes to Plano

Old NTS Logo

This is from 24 years ago. I don’t see the Shroud of Turin in the news much now. In 1990 the world of the gee-whiz was still getting over the result of some analyses of the Shroud. Two years previous the keepers of this artifact allowed carbon-14 tests to be conducted by the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Working independently these agencies had “concluded with 95% confidence that the shroud material dated to 1260–1390 AD.”

The original was published in our early newsletter, which was hard copy only, and there was not much opportunity for embedded links (the WWW was still a few years away), and our ability to do images was about nil. I have revised this from the original by inserting links and an image.

by John Blanton

On a Saturday in August a friend of mine who is an ardent creationist phoned me to tell me about an exhibit he had just attended. A shopping mall in Plano was featuring a rather impressive display of photos and history of the famous “Shroud of Turin,” said by its proponents to have been the burial cloth of Jesus, and said by its detractors to be a fourteenth century artifact. The evidence, I was told, was impressive. I took this as some testimonial by someone who was not a Catholic and resolved to take in the exhibit before it closed.

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The display lived up to all of its billing. The centerpiece consisted of three large color transparencies fitted together to form a life-size photo of the cloth (which usually is kept in a silver case at a church in Turin, Italy). Mounted display panels told the story of the Shroud and vouched for its authenticity. Furthermore, two highly articulate speakers lectured at length to a very attentive crowd.

The two speakers (who later introduced themselves as Larry [Crowder] and Chuck) were with the Shroud Society of Texas, which may or may not have some association with STURP (the Shroud of Turin Research Project). After Larry had talked mainly about the historical and the religious significance of the shroud, Chuck got into the meatier aspects.

Allowing the carbon 14 dating tests to be performed, Chuck told his listeners, was a big mistake. Proponents had miscalculated gravely in letting a single test determine the shroud’s authenticity. The tests, he announced, had been badly botched in a number of ways: 1) The chain of custody of the samples had been broken (they had been left unattended for some time in a room). 2) The samples had been taken from a region where reweaving indicates some repairs have been made using newer material. 3) Besides that, carbon 14 dating is old hat. The uranium-thorium process has superseded the C-14 process. Chuck further related how the results of the tests had been unscrupulously leaked to the press in October of 1988, prior to publication in a legitimate scientific journal. Fortunately, Chuck explained, an unauthorized test (that presumably did not have all of these problems) had dated the fabric at AD 200, which, apparently, was close enough.

Chuck saved his best for last. He told of STURP scientist John Jackson‘s “vertical mapping” process which led him to conclude that the image on the cloth had been imprinted as the cloth (previously resting on the supine body of Jesus) fell straight down through the body to the table below. This, we were told, was an example of a new kind of physics. This was the physics of miracles. An event that happens once and cannot be repeated is not natural, but is miraculous. When I later asked Larry about this analysis, he referred me to Jackson’s published work. He told me to check Applied Optics, 1982 and 1984 for particulars, and he went on to say that Jackson will publish his actual calculations in the future (where, we were not told). NTS Secretary Mark Meyer was able find “Correlation of image intensity on the Turin Shroud with the 3-D structure of a human body shape” in Applied Optics, Vol. 23, No. 14 (pp 2244 – 2270). It is a very detailed article, with charts, photos and computer-generated images. I have not had the time to read it.

After Larry’s talk, and before Chuck got up to speak, I went up and introduced myself to Larry. He saw that I was taking notes and asked me if I was an interviewer. By way of introduction, I gave him a copy of The North Texas Skeptic (a mistake, as it turned out) and allowed him to read it while I listened to Chuck. When Chuck was finished I once again conversed with Larry, and he began by stating that he hated to offend me by accusing me of being non-objective (I told him to go right ahead).

Relations between Larry and me seemed to go down hill from there, and he later came up to me a couple of times to tell me he did not have time to talk to me. The speakers had previously announced that the SST held regular meetings in this area and that the public was welcome to attend. When I indicated to Larry that I was interested in attending, he declined to reveal anything about meeting times or places, and he said that I (and the rest of us Skeptics) would not be welcome there. I was crushed. He said they only wanted believers at their meetings. He asked how would I like it if he came to one of our meetings and asked a lot of embarrassing questions (I told him to go right ahead). He said he didn’t think he would do that, because in his line of work he saw a lot of human injuries. I couldn’t make any sense out of that line of talk, but Larry was so pleasant about it that we went on to other issues. He says that the SST provides objective information and makes no attempts at conversion. He, Larry, presents his own opinion.

So there you have it. If we were to rely on what we read in Scientific American or Newsweek for our information we might go on thinking the shroud was manufactured in the fourteenth century so that someone could charge admission for its exhibit. We might not know how faulty the C-14 dating process is (especially when mishandled by a bunch of skeptical scientists). And we would probably not know about the physics of miracles.

At one point during our conversation, Larry accused me of planning to write a biased article, but I promised him that I would be completely objective. How am I doing so far, Larry? Lest readers think this is a one-sided testimonial for the authenticity of the shroud, allow me to present a few words from the other side. Readers will have to follow up on these leads for themselves. You are not going to hear anything derisive from me.

CSICOP Fellow, Joe Nickell, has written a book entitled Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, and excerpts have been printed in “Unshrouding a Mystery: Science, Pseudoscience, and the Cloth of Turin”, appearing in the spring issue of the Skeptical Inquirer. Joe Nickell’s article lists several references, pro and con. Here are some of them:

Heller, John. 1983. Report on the Shroud of Turin. New York: Houghton Mifflin. Schlafly, Phyllis. 1979. Proven by Shroud of Turin “The Most Remarkable Miracle in History.” St. Louis Globe Democrat, December 13. Stevenson, Kenneth E., and Gary R Habermas. Verdict on the Shroud. 1981. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books. Wilson, Ian. 1979. The Shroud of Turin, revised edition. Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books.

Also, in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier and consisting of excerpts from S.I., is an article by Marvin M. Mueller entitled “The Shroud of Turin: a critical appraisal.” In the same volume is “Shroud image is the work of an artist” by forensic microanalyst Walter McCrone.