Research update (Saturday am ): unrelated to this post. Hugh Farey has emailed some very pretty pictures of linen fibres taken under high magnification which I shall display in a day or two. The question that is bothering both of us at the moment is whether or not the primary cell wall (PCW) plays an important role in capturing a thermal imprint (“scorch) in comparison with alternatives, e.g. Rogers’ hypothesised impurity layer or even those nodes (see previous posting) .
Strategy: experiment with ways of getting linen fibres to shed their PCW, then see how readily the remaining SCW can accept a scorch.
It’s possible to become – or at any rate be perceived as – an expert without doing any original research – i.e. through ‘merely’ analysing and criticizing other people’s findings (Please don’t misconstrue that word ‘merely’ as in any way pejorative – I am not here to demean patient, meticulous scholarship). That makes an expert, thus qualified, entirely dependent upon existing literature with others’ findings. What’s more, one has to ask why he or she has made no original contributions. Well, one might just as well ask why certain people get first class honours degrees but are not invited to stay on at University to do research. Being a good scholar and being a good researcher are like two different sets in a Venn diagram which partially overlap. Some are in one or the other, some are in both, and even in that overlap area, there are some who are good on the hands-on research, but weaker doing the laborious background reading and analysis and vice versa. Wouldn’t the world be a boring place if everyone was equally endowed in all respects?
As for that rather rare breed – original researchers – of varying aptitude for their chosen mission in life (to boldly go where no man has gone before, freely splitting infinitives along the way) they may or may not be seen as experts. They may be seen as an expert in their own specialized area of research, except that co-researchers usually have little or no use for the term “expert”. What does the latter mean when one is wrestling with new and maybe fragmentary data, attempting to get a handle on the problem? One may be seen as a gifted researcher, or a plodder.
The term expert comes into its own when wider society is confronted with an emergency, where decisions are needed quickly, and quite naturally one goes for those who are familiar with the general area in which the emergency is concerned.
Thus the Spanish cooking oil disaster (aka Toxic Oil Syndrome) in 1981 pulled in scores of toxicologists etc. who were properly described as experts at the time. But why have I chosen that particular episode? Despite vast recalls of cooking oil in a plethora of different containers, of detailed chemical analysis, of toxicology studies no one knows for certain, even to this day, what caused the deaths and appalling disability. Original views of the experts that it was adulterated cooking oil , linked maybe to attempts to “clean up” industrial oil by removing aniline impurities etc, proved to be premature and in all probability wrong. What was the real culprit? Organophosphates or other agricultural pesticides? Something triggering an immediate autoimmune condition? Who knows? If the experts don’t then it could have been almost anything…
Suppose the real agent had been X. Anyone working in the area of X might quickly have been elevated to the role of expert, but might have been hopelessly incapable of dealing with enquiries that were peripheral to their narrow area of expertise. So there are “experts” and “experts” with differing breadth of vision.
Now to the nitty gritty. Is there such a thing as a Shroud expert?
I shall now be controversial, and say NO, there is not, and try to explain my thinking (or culture-based non-thinking – see below).
Firstly, no one knows the precise chemical nature of the Shroud image, despite decades of research (actually, little research has been done directly on the image, for reasons we’ll address on another occasion). So there are no experts on the Shroud image – just some who are well informed about how little we actually do and do not know.
That’s where someone like myself fits into the picture. I too know next to nothing about the Shroud image. Since I have no access to the Shroud itself – and probably would not be able to wave any magic wands if I did – I have to fall back on the time- honoured approach of the scientist who is under no great time pressure to deliver a solution. That is to propose a model, to study that model, and then patiently attempt to spot points of similarity or difference between model and unknown subject. In my case the model is thermal imprinting aka scorching. I cannot be described as a Shroud expert – but with time there might be one or two charitable souls prepared to regard me as an expert on scorching… C’est la vie.
What about the other aspects of the Shroud? Are there experts in those areas? History? There’s been a lot of attention on the question as to where the Shroud was prior to 1355 when it was first put on display. Prior to that it was in private hands and well-concealed, but for how long? (The Vatican claimed recently that it had been in the care of those mysterious Templars). But no one knows for sure where the Shroud was. They can only make proposals, based on references that might (or might not) refer to the Shroud, e.g. as that famous Mandylion, the “Edessa image” etc. But that does not make those historians ‘experts’ on the Shroud, merely experts on the fragmentary knowledge as it relates to the Mandylion etc. So their approach is no different to mine with the scorching – they have had a hunch – an intuition if you like – and developed it into a model – a working hypothesis – but have no claim to be regarded as a Shroud expert. Knowledgeable, perhaps, quickly able perhaps to dismiss or at any rate point out the defects in alternative theories. Come to think of it – is that not the attribute that really defines the expert – someone who has sufficient background knowledge to be able to quickly narrow down the options through being able to rule out the improbable? Isn’t that where experts come into their own when there is a crisis or emergency? They prevent the decision-makers wasting too much time and resources on chasing up blind alleys? But is that not what happened in the Spanish Cooking Oil crisis, despite the plethora of experts?
So let’s redefine an expert as someone who is perceived as capable of focusing on essentials, able to spot and reject the irrelevant, while not necessarily having anything new or original to say in the area that they have isolated as the one where the likely solution is to be found. Experts in that view act effectively as sieves aka filters. They are highly desirable in the short term when there’s an emergency. But here’s the rub. They are NOT necessarily of great use if or when no immediate solution is found to a crisis. Indeed they might become an encumbrance if they impede the search for the new solution. Could that happen? Could an acknowledged “expert” in a field suddenly become surplus to requirements?
Here I have to tread carefully. My answer is yes – possibly. Why? Because an expert who has a sound grasp of existing literature, but is not themselves an original mind, in the sense of seeing new directions that others have overlooked, is by the same token not especially well equipped to cope with current new research. How can they be, if not directly involved, and having to rely entirely on what others are currently discovering and thinking, only some of which is published in the open literature? That is where the Great Divide opens up between those who have established reputations as experts, and the young (or not so young) Turks who are perhaps dissatisfied with received wisdom, or lack thereof, and are pushing into new lines of enquiry, ones that may be seen by the expert as irrelevant, or addressing problems which they consider to have been settled a long time ago.
There’s another difference: experts have minds that tend to crystallize through long acquaintance with a subject area – and is that so surprising (after all, who wants to live constantly in a fog of uncertainty?) while the new blood researchers will take an entirely different view, unwilling to take anything at face value, and certainly suspicious of anything that is held to be unquestionable or sacrosanct if it conflicts with new evidence,
To summarise: experts have their uses in certain situations, as I have suggested and they may acquire guru status if they have a track record for sound judgement, i.e their previous positions having proved correct in the fullness of time. But they may not be able to bring unique insights into an ongoing problem if the latter has defied solution, and may indeed hinder progress if they are too quick to criticize or dismiss current lines of research. That is especially the case if they are not actually researching it themselves, and not immersed in that indefinable quality I would describe as the ‘culture of research’, especially that which attempts to discover not just the known unknowns, but those entities once famously described as ‘unknown unknowns’.
Yes, a reference right at the end to ‘culture’ might look somewhat grandiose, but let me disabuse you of any such desire or intention of self-aggrandisement immediately. I recently came across a definition of culture that clicked immediately – it’s those things that people do without thinking, or feeling they have to think.
There are different approaches to the Shroud – some that require thinking, some which do not. It’s part of the human condition for the thinkers and non-thinkers to eye each other suspiciously. But all of us are occasionally thinkers or non-thinkers, depending on context, and if some or all of that ‘non-thinking’ is cultural, then there’s little point in taking cudgels to each other.
Missus will shortly be along to ask what I want for breakfast. I shall rely mainly upon prior experience and cultural conditioning to provide a quick answer, and without having to divert mental effort away from more important matters, like where that image is on the Shroud, what it comprises chemically, how thick, and most important of all – how formed … Me, I’m no expert, just a humble (and occasionally less-than-humble) seeker after truth.