An open letter to the President of the Royal Society. Would you and your Fellows be willing to assist in separating the science from the pseudoscience?

Draft letter to Sir Paul Nurse PRS

This posting has now been updated.  Read by all means, but then check out  the new one here, March 2013:

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society

From wiki:

“… ( Sir Paul) Nurse believes that scientists should speak out about science in public affairs and challenge politicians who support policies based on pseudoscience”.

Comments invited, preferably here, before I submit. I shall of course monitor comments on Daniel Porter’s shoudstory.com site, but any responses from me will appear here, and here alone. (I am posting this without having carefully proof-read as yet. Links may be missing, but bear in mind that this will be sent as a snail mail letter in the first instance, with references rather than links, and even the latter will be kept to the bare minimum initially to avoid overkill).

(ed: Thoughts re title: I’m not sure as yet about the title – whether to focus (robustly perhaps) on science v pseudoscience, or rephrase with the emphasis on the need for ‘adjudication’ between opposing views or camps – authenticist v medieval forgery. But what goes to Sir Paul finally is a letter, not a copy of a blog, and a letter needs at most a simple heading like ‘Shroud of Turin (revisited)’, so it’s probably not worth worrying over unduly.)

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Dear Sir Paul

The subject of this open letter is not of earth-shattering importance, compared say with anthropogenic global warming, in which you and the RS have taken a stand against organized lobbies that deploy not just science, but- shamelessly – much pseudoscience too.

This letter is written off my own bat, so to speak, by a retired science bod, someone who incidentally graduated at Birmingham University some four years before you (having opted for a less glittering career trajectory than the President of the Royal Society,   you did, carefully eschewing such fripperies as Nobel Prizes and the like 😉

My missive (or missile, as it will no doubt be perceived in some quarters)  is do with that Turin Shroud. As I expect you know, many still claim  it to be the authentic burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, despite the (sadly ridiculed) 1988 radiocarbon dating that gave the linen a medieval origin (1260–1390AD, 95% confidence level).

But the Shroud and climate-change debate do have something in common, which is why I am approaching you at this time, asking that you and your membership take a look and perhaps render assistance as this (arguably) critical juncture. Both involve what one might describe as a battle between science and pseudoscience. In the same way that you and others expressed concern that AGW science was being  unfairly targeted and discredited by the pseudoscience of anti-AGW lobbies, something similar could be said  happening where the Turin Shroud is concerned:  science is being supplanted by pseudoscience, opinion is being manipulated by some very smooth operators, and it’s all being done in the name of “science”, even if the new “understanding” rarely if ever reaches any of the (major) peer-reviewed journals.

To give you a flavour of the way in which genuine research is being thwarted and replaced by pseudoscience, let me briefly relate to you a core issue regarding the Shroud and the question of its provenance – either 1st century AD or a medieval forgery, namely the nature of the faint sepia-coloured body image, the one that is described as accurately as akin to a photographic “negative”. I refer to the photographic inversion (light/dark reversed), that was  first chanced upon by Secondo Pia in 1898, yielding the iconic life-like image that conforms to most people’s ideas of the “real” appearance of Christ, regardless of whether one believes or not in the divinity and resurrection of the Man on the Shroud.

Go to virtually any “sindonological” website and you will see two or at most three rival theories on offer to account for the body image. One says it was formed by a “diffusion” process, in which decomposition amines – ammonia, putrescine, cadaverine etc –  from a cadaver reacted with impurities in the cloth – starch fractions and even soapwort saponins (don’t even ask!) – to produce a browning reaction (viz. Rogers’ Maillard hypothesis). Another, from Italy’s ENSA, receiving widespread publicity around Christmas 2011, says that the image could only have been formed by shortwave radiation discolouring the linen, based on some experiments with high tech uv excimer lasers.  Thus  a spate of headlines referring to a supernatural event:

e.g. link

A third says it could have been produced by producing an imprint of a body with pigment, baking to discolour cloth in contact with that pigment, then washing out the latter to leave just the scorch.

There is, or rather was a Cinderella hypothesis that has been almost universally rejected by  “sindonologists” dismissively and with barely a sentence or two in most cases,  that is the reason for writing this letter.  It is the thermal scorch hypothesis that says the Shroud image is simply the imprint left on linen by impressing with a hot metal, plaster or ceramic effigy of a human being. One Shroud investigator after another has given that hypothesis short shrift, citing any number of reasons why it fails to fit the “facts”. Yet the facts are often in question, and the alacrity with which the scorch hypothesis is dismissed must invite the suspicion that it is perhaps not so much wrong on account of the science, but wrong on account of its implications – namely that it represents a forger’s technology, preempts  and excludes any realistic 1st century scenario,  and thus detracts from the “authenticity”  and “enduring mystery” of the Shroud.

Yet if one looks closely at the scorch hypothesis, one finds that it can account for an extraordinary number of features of the Shroud image –not only  immediate first impressions but also more subtle details to have emerged from the STURP investigations (credit where credit is due, even if this commentator is sceptical about much that appeared under the STURP banner and is now STERA copyright).

A thermal imprint from a heated template with 3D contours, say a bas-relief – gives a negative image, just like the Shroud. Photographic inversion to produce a positive can result in a remarkable transformation to a luminous image that closely resembles the initial template. What’s more that 2D image can be given a 3D (or semi-3D) appearance in any of the programs that read image density as height – just like the Shroud  with its so-called encoded 3D information. I could go on, listing more resemblances between scorch and Shroud.

But what you may well ask has any of this to do with the Royal Society and this letter?  Let me now briefly explain why I feel the time has come for RS members to get involved – as adjudicators between a broad separation in to two rival camps – the major pro-authenticity camp that rejects any idea of the Shroud being a thermal scorch,   and the “voice crying in the sindonological wilderness” camp  – with a present membership of 1 –  name appended at end – that says the Shroud image IS simply a thermal imprint, due to direct contact and passage of conducted heat between template and linen.

It is on the details of those opposing views – discoloration by scorching or by any other mechanism that does NOT involve scorching, whether diffusion, coherent uv radiation etc. Are the arguments being used to dismiss the scorch hypothesis valid ones that stand up to close scientific scrutiny by individuals who have achieved recognition for their discoveries. Conversely, are the arguments in favour of a scorch sufficiently valid to support a medieval provenance for the Shroud that is in keeping with the radiocarbon dating?

Here is a link to a  synopsis of the main arguments that have recently been deployed against the scorch hypothesis:

 (Feel free to ignore my own arguments and rebuttals at this stage, but be aware there is more pyro-exhaling comment where that came from – much more).

Note: if there were just one question I was allowed to put to the Society’s membership it would be this:

Are there indeed theoretical or other grounds to support the now entrenched belief in ‘sindonological’ circles that a thermal scorch, produced from a hot template, can NEVER be as thin nor as superficial as the image layer on the Shroud? 

(The latter is allegedly 200nm, though that figure is  a “guesstimate”, not actually measured,  from an image “ghost” – as it has been dubbed –  being too thin to see in profile under a light microscope after STURP-team members’ sampling procedure using sticky tape and tweezers).

But I would not be asking the RS membership to apply its collective mind and critical faculties to the Shroud if there were only that one question, crucial though it is There are a host of supplementary questions, too numerous to list here, where adjudication is needed on claims and counterclaims. To mention just a few:

Is it true, as alleged, that the Shroud image cannot be a thermal scorch due to its lack of fluorescence under uv light, as maintained by Mr. Barrie Schwortz, President of STERA Inc (STERA = Shroud of Turin Education and Research Association).

 Link

Is it true, based on available evidence, that the Shroud image is not intrinsic to linen, but is deposited on an impurity coating, as proposed by the late Raymond N Rogers, Director of STURP Chemical Investigations?

Is it true that the curious  and unexpected permanently-red colour of the blood(?)stains on the Shroud can be due to a trauma-induced complex formed in the bloodstream of a dying man by complexation between an unusual species of methaemoglobin and bilirubin, conferring everlasting protection on storage, as proposed by the late Alan D.Adler of STURP, and again cited by STERA  Inc’s  President as explaining the permanently-red blood and influential in persuading him towards the Shroud’s authenticity? 

 Is it true that radiation of whatever source or wavelength could ever leave an image on linen without a focusing system or radiation-absorbing chromophore, other than the linen constituents themselves? More generally, is it true that the overall characteristics of the Shroud image defy explanation by present day scientific knowledge? Are there methods available, not yet tried or even contemplated, that might assist in resolving some of these questions?

For as long as they remain unanswered, the Shroud can continue to be promoted as enigmatic, as a mystery, but at the same time ,in the hands of those with agendas to promote, as a means by which to taunt science  and/or individual scientists (a present high-profile FRS included )

Link to Enigma Challenge

with the result that attacks can be made not just on the competence of those charged with the planning and execution of the radiocarbon dating, but with their integrity too (a specialist side issue perhaps, but one where question marks persist over the validity of single-site sampling of Shroud linen or the protocols followed – or allegedly not followed- by the 3 labs that performed the testing in 1989).

Indeed attacks can be made on the integrity of those who dare to question the authenticity of the Shroud, as this individual can attest, to be accused as I am from time to time of selecting data that fits my case, of willfully misrepresenting the views of others, both charges which incidentally I strongly deny,  the writer of this missive being interested purely in establishing by scientific means the nature of the Shroud, and having no interest whatever in the polemics or the theological implications.

To summarise: an impasse has been reached in Shroud studies due to failure to agree on how the Shroud image was created, its chemical nature – assumed but not proven to be a modification  carbohydrates – intrinsic or non-intrinsic to flax fibres and linen – and whether a mechanism that is guaranteed to produce a negative image, as per Shroud, namely thermal imprinting /scorching can be ruled out on a priori grounds as theoretically or practically non-feasible.

It cannot be good for the reputation of science that such an impasse still exists, some 30 years after the STURP investigators worked and reported on Shroud specimens. It cannot be good for the reputation of science that there is still an air of mystery, of ‘enduring enigma’ given the accumulated data on that artefact. Is there something that has been overlooked, or perhaps prematurely discounted? Or should we be discarding ALL present theories and looking for entirely new explanations as to how this puzzling  and/or challenging artefact came into existence?

Would it be presumptuous of me to suggest that perhaps the time has come to put these questions to the general membership of the Royal Society, for the UK’s premier learned society with its 350 years of distinguished research and scholarship, to examine the issues and controversies, to issue a call for clarification and expansion where deemed necessary, to invite submissions from those (like this retired scientist) who may have views they wish to express and receive wider circulation, especially among his more illustrious peers?

No, Shroud research is not in the same league as more urgent matters such as climate change etc where the RS has recently become involved over the use/misuse of science. But there is a sense in which this piece of cloth with its bloodstains has come to symbolise in many people’s minds the limitations of the scientific method, and even raised doubts as to the competence or objectivity of  the scientists on one or other side of present controversies. Might this not be a good moment to “call in the umpire”?  Who better to serve that role than the formidable collective brainpower of Britain’s Royal Society, the heirs to Newton, Hooke, Pepys, Faraday, Darwin, Rutherford and a host of other luminaries?

Kind regards

Colin Berry  BSc (University of Birmingham, 1966), MSc (UCL, 1970), PhD (RFHSM, London, 1975)

Retired biomedical researcher, previously Head of Nutrition and Food Safety at FMBRA, since gobbled up by merged with the Chipping Campden Food RA.

Published work: best known/most cited for early characterization of enzyme-resistant starch as short chain linear alpha-glucan,  what I termed “mini-amylose” and  has since been  dubbed  ‘the trendiest form of dietary fibre’ (googlable).  It has since been discovered that this form of short-chain crystalline amylose has a double-helical structure.

Websites: sciencebuzz

Casting a critical eye at the Shroud of Turin

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Have you seem my more recent posting? If not, please do so. It is I believe the clincher that says that a heat scorch can be every bit as superficial as the Shroud image.

See also my reasons (some 20 of them) for thinking that image of the Man in the Shroud was achieved with nothing more sophisticated than thermal imprinting (“scorching”), well within the capability of medieval technology, and able to achieve any desired degree of image intensity and ‘superficiality’.

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From The Other Site – a selection of responses I (I’ll simply display them here first, feeling no obligation to respond to comments posted elsewhere, but may respond with an overview at a later date).

September 16, 2012 at 7:34 am | #1

Colin, defines himself as a scientist. OK, then start by adopting the protocols of science and if your scorching experiments are successful, send a paper to a peer-review journal. Please, don`t try to involve a prestigious institution to do the science that you haven’t already done. Are you suggesting that this institution should -instead of yourself- carry out the experiments, send results to a peer-review journal and eventually say “Colin was right from the beginning”?
Good luck, but my friend, this is not how science works and in my view, with this letter you are trying to get the attention from the media instead of from academic journals. Just like previous challenges, and reports we see a new (anti)Shroud emerging. Too bad.

Gabriel

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Change of mind – I will respond to that one now:

“Colin, defines himself as a scientist. Ok, then start by adopting the protocols of science and if your scorching experiments are succesful, send a paper to a peer-review journal.”

I do not “define” myself as a scientist, anymore than an electrician “defines himself” as an electrician. I am, or rather was, a scientist, and have the qualifications and published work (peer reviewed)  to back up what I say.

But I am no longer a working scientist, have not been near a  research lab in some 20 years, and have no desire or intention to posture or operate as if still in harness. That’s why I operate as I do, writing a weblog that is a scientific journey. I report experiments done at home without specialist equipment, and give enough description, usually with photographs, that allows people to check my results. Those who take the trouble to read my earlier blogs can see how my thinking has evolved to arrive at my present position, namely that the Shroud image is a contact scorch, formed by heat conduction. Look at my very first posting in Dec 2011, and you will see a different explanation – what I called ‘thermo-stencilling – suggesting that the source of energy was radiant heat, trapped by thermo-opaque charcoal. Inasmuch as you will not find the same focus on scorching anywhere else in the conventional scientific literature, or even those Shroudological congress presentations that somehow never reach peer-reviewed journals, I believe I am performing a useful service. Anything I write COULD be checked out by those who still have laboratories and funding to research, travel etc. The truth will out, as they say, and the truth does not always come through conventional channels. Indeed, those same “conventional channels” even with peer review do not always guarantee that what one reads is error-free.

“Please, don`t try to involve a prestigious institution to do the science that you haven’t already done. Are you suggesting that this institution should -instead of yourself- carry out the experiments, send results to a peer-review journal and eventually say “Colin was right from the beginning”?”

I am quite happy for the Royal Society to judge my case for scorching on the evidence that I have presented so far, showing (see my banner) that a scorch is a pseudo-negative that can have 3D properties if produced from a 3D object, that it can be highly superficial. In any case, the reason for involving the RS is for it to look at the totality of evidence, and decide what is science and what is pseudo-science. I am 100% confident that my own work will never be described (by the RS) as pseudo-science. (How can heating a horse brass and pressing into linen, then processing the image in ImageJ software be described as pseudo-science? Can others be so confident?

“Good luck, but my friend, this is not how science works and in my view, with this letter you are trying to get the attention from the media instead of from academic journals. Just like previous challenges, and reports we see a new (anti)Shroud star emerging. Too bad.”

It is comments such as that – ad hominem comments- that made me decide to give up commenting directly on Dan Porter’s site.

You can’t possibly know the reasons for my interest in the Shroud, or the numerous other topics I have addressed on ‘sciencebuzz’ or earlier websites I have hosted. If you do not know what makes me tick, either professionally or as a human being, then why besmirch me with the kind of claptrap you have written above?

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About Colin Berry

Retired science bod, previous research interests: phototherapy of neonatal jaundice, membrane influences on microsomal UDP-glucuronyltransferase, defective bilirubin and xenobiotic conjugation and hepatic excretion, dietary fibre and resistant starch.
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3 Responses to An open letter to the President of the Royal Society. Would you and your Fellows be willing to assist in separating the science from the pseudoscience?

  1. Pingback: Shroudie-Alert: Day 12: time now to write that long-overdue letter to the Royal Society… | The Turin Shroud: medieval scorch? Separating the science from the pseudo-science…

  2. Pingback: Colin Berry: Getting the Royal Society involved is now my top priority. | Shroud of Turin Blog

  3. Pingback: Dear Royal Society. Time maybe to take a hard line on those who peddle Turin Shroud pseudoscience? | The Turin Shroud: medieval scorch? Separating the science from the pseudo-science…

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