Tuesday is Science Section Day

Sorry for the delay in posting.  I’ve been wrapped up finishing the final exams/programming assignments for the distance learning classes I’ve been taking from Stanford on Machine Learning and AI.  If you want to register to take any of the Spring offerings, you can check the listings here (scroll to the bottom).  Anyway, it’s left me in a mood for some science sniping.

I’m coming down on the side of Marc from Bad Catholic when he complains about the overhyped claims of scientists (but mostly science reporters) after electromagnetic stimulation managed to trigger religious feelings.  Marc is correct that being able to stimulate religious feeling does not falsify the claims of religious mystics.  Transcranial magnetic stimulation can get people to hear music, but that doesn’t mean music does not exist.

Put it this way: if you accept religious people’s subjective experience of god(s) presence as true (meaning they truly think that’s what they’re experiencing) it makes sense that there is a physical change in their brain when they experience rapture and that this experience can be retriggered if you can get close enough to the in-brain conditions.  What else would you expect?  Christians who reported that they were happy during a religious experience but whose dopamine levels stayed flat?  Saying an experience can’t be true if you see physical markers in the brain or endocrine system is like saying anxiety can’t be real if it’s subjective experience can be triggered by adrenaline shots.

“Hmm, we’ve activated the existential doubt region”

The mind-brain question is complicated, but there’s no denying physical stimulation can have a powerful effect on our emotions (cf the facial feedback hypothesis).  It’s not a disproof of religious claims and experiences.  The only cases in which it would be is when visions are always or usually paired with physical stimulants.  I wouldn’t trust the subjective experiences of a cult that made a habit of licking hallucinogenic toads or a futurist one that implanted electrodes in their brains.

— — —

The next example of bad science writing also comes from the Bad Catholic blog.  He linked today to an article in The Guardian that reports Italian scientists believe the Shroud of Turin could not have been created using any process know at the time of its provenance.

The scientists set out to “identify the physical and chemical processes capable of generating a colour similar to that of the image on the Shroud.” They concluded that the exact shade, texture and depth of the imprints on the cloth could only be produced with the aid of ultraviolet lasers – technology that was clearly not available in medieval times.

I’ll confess I have no rebuttal, but this is largely because the article is horribly vague.  Let’s assume the Italian team tried a variety of ways to mark a similar piece of cloth and found that UV lasers best resembled the Shroud.  Well, then my first question is how they scored the contenders.  Are they looking for the best color match?  The best chemical match?  Did they make the marks and then put all the cloths through a simulated aging process so any pigments could go through the appropriate degradation?

Like the methodology, the image is a little faint for me to make out

And how close did the UV laser test get?  Remember that the newest Higgs data hit the two sigma mark (less than 5% chance of getting that strong an indicator if there wasn’t anything to cause it) and the scientists reminded us that, for this result, they would hold out for a five sigma result before they would confirm the Higgs’s existence.  It’s not uncommon for science writers to completely ignore methodology and significance, so it’s not uncommon for me to ignore these articles unless I see them picked up by publications I trust.

I’d love some links to scientific, peer-reviewed write-ups of these kinds of results.  I was told in RCIA that the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has similar, unreproducable properties, but the book I was lent only repeated these claims without explanations.  If these claims were verified, I’d see them as fairly strong evidence in favor of the Christian claim.

But, lest I be accused of concealing my true rejection, I should note that an inability to reverse-engineer old artifacts is not proof of their supernatural origin.  Otherwise our failure to reproduce Greek fire would be evidence of… I’m not sure what; magic or aliens or Zeus or just the generally uncanny.  Evidence that the Shroud of Turin or the Guadeloupe tilma were not made by historically available materials would substantially shift my posterior probablity that Christianity was true, but they might not be able to push it past the critical value needed for conversion.  To date though, I still haven’t seen evidence, just claims.


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  • ” I wouldn’t trust the subjective experiences of a cult that made a habit of licking hallucinogenic toads or a futurist one that implanted electrodes in their brains.”

    I should hope that would depend on what the implanted electrodes did? If they somehow negated common perceptual errors, shouldn’t that improve one’s trust of their subjective experiences?

    What always strikes me about things like the Shroud of Turin–though correct me if I’m wrong on this–is that it makes no difference whether it’s authentic or not because all that would prove is that it covered a body. The next step–a much harder step–would be to prove that it covered Christ’s.

    • Gilbert

      In all likelihood the shroud isn’t authentic, but it would make a difference if it was. The point is that normally shrouds don’t acquire an image of the persons wrapped in them. Now if there was a shroud that unexplainably got imprinted with the image of a crucified person in the holy land around the year thirty the conclusion that it was Jesus would seem fairly natural.

      As a fun diversion, the blood on the shroud is supposed to be type AB. If true and if the shroud was authentic that would point to a diploid Jesus.

  • @b

    I wouldn’t trust the subjective experiences of a cult that made a habit of” responding to divine poetry with amen. Mind altering. I believe. So be it.

  • keddaw

    Leah, I think you misunderstand the point of replicating religious experiences in the brain – it allows us to have the same cause in different people and show that the reaction is based not on some deeper truth but on the person’s cultural background; Christians might see Christ, Muslims see Allah, etc. etc. Similarly, sleep paralysis used to lead to many people claiming abduction by witches but since they’re no longer in the cultural lexicon (Christine O’Donnel excepted) people now experience alien abductions instead. This allows an atheist to experience what the Christian does and see what experience they have.

    It doesn’t disprove the reality of the non-induced religious experience, but it does diminish the likelihood of it being divinely inspired (a la Occam’s razor).

    As for the Shroud of Turin, that has been thoroughly debunked – it has been dated to a long time after 33AD so even if the production of it was beyond what was available at the time it was created it has no positive bearing on the truth of Christianity and would, in fact, lend itself as evidence of some miraculous event long after Christ and hence towards some later religion.

    The ‘evidence’ of artefacts like the Shroud and Eucharistic miracles is strange to me as it appears to give a real world anchor to the tenuous belief that sensible people actually have on religion, yet when they are debunked, and they all are, the belief still remains. Yet many people still jump on the next ‘miracle,’ from weeping statues to appearances by Mary.

    • deiseach

      Well, as to whether or not the Shroud has been debunked, I’ve seen to-ing and fro-ing on that one.

      I think the best we can say is that there isn’t a good chance of getting an uncontaminated sample – the fire of 1532 and the patch job done then, for example, not to mention all the handling and the way it was stored over the past four or five centuries – but I don’t much care either way.

      You don’t have to be a scientist to disbelieve; Calvin wasn’t convinced, and he didn’t have access to carbon dating. I do agree that breathless use of “Scientific testing demonstrates that there is no possible way this could have been produced at the time!” is both annoying and has a very real chance of coming back to bite the enthusiast in the butt, if better tests done later show that actually, it could, and here’s how.

      I’ve seen debunking programmes showing that it could have been done by scorch marks on cloth from wrapping it around a heated metal sculpture of a head. Maybe so, maybe no. I remain equally unconvinced by those who push for it being the real, true relic (based on selective use of SCIENCE!!! when it suits their interests) and those who push for it being a fraud (usually putting the blame on Leonardo da Vinci, who gets the credit/blame by default for anything like this).

      I don’t base my belief in the Resurrection on the evidence of the Shroud proving it, nor would I lose my belief if the Shroud was demonstrated to be a mediaeval image. In general, I think that the best way to treat it is as the Church does; it’s permissible to venerate the image the same way you’d venerate a crucifix or an icon. As long as you don’t make any too-crazy claims, it’s not forbidden to think it’s the real thing, but this isn’t a matter of faith, and neither are you a bad Catholic if you don’t accept it.

      Same with the tilma – the meddling of various bodies over the centuries means we don’t have the untouched original, e.g. artists painting in the angel bearing the Virgin, adding the golden rays and so forth. It seems to be a natural human instinct that we can never leave well-enough alone but always have to improve it 🙂

      • keddaw

        Well, unless the radiocarbon dating of the shroud at around 600AD is another miracle I’d say it was completely debunked.

  • Quid est veritas

    Leah, in re your question about where to find the actual results of the studies done on The Shroud of Turin/Guadeloupe tilma. Can’t you find out who conducted the studies, when they were done, and which scientific journal the findings were published in? Wasn’t there a study done by a group of scientists on the Shroud in the 70s/80s? I remember something about it on Wikipedia.

    • deiseach

      May I ask where you get that date? My recollection is that the original dating put it somewhere in the Middle Ages (looking hastily on Wikipedia puts it “a range of 1260–1390 CE”, so I’m interested to know who or how this date of 600 A.D. came about?

      • deiseach

        Ah, never mind, I think I’ve answered my own question: reading down the article further, they say:

        “the weighted mean was 689 ± 16 years, which corresponds to calibrated ages of CE 1273-1288 with 68% confidence, and CE 1262-1384 with 95% confidence.”

        So I’m thinking (correct me if I’m wrong) you maybe made a small mistake in that they tested the age of the cloth to around 700 years (making it originate somewhere in the 13th century), not that it dates back to A.D. 600 or so?

  • Heartfout

    Here’s the link to the study. It’s in Italian though. http://opac.bologna.enea.it:8991/RT/2011/2011_14_ENEA.pdf

  • Patrick

    If you want to be mean to the Catholics in a particularly LessWrong kinda way, just ask this question:

    When did Christianity first predict that Jesus radiated in the ultraviolet spectrum?

    From after this test, right?


    Oh well. I do appreciate these “scientific” studies, though. Just like when evangelicals “find” the Ark on top of a different mountain every three years, or just like when judges perjure themselves in church/state rulings, they serve to remind us of the exact nature of the persons with whom we’re dealing.

    • Hey, I’m Catholic an I think that’s funny. It’s not mean to Catholics, it’s an appropriate response to research findings that make no sense.

      That you think it’s mean to Catholics (all 1.1 billion of them) and “the persons with whom we’re dealing,” (tribe alert!) says some interesting things about your perspective, however.

    • deiseach

      My favourite study comes from way back in the “Journal of Irreproducible Results” where they determined that Heaven is, in fact, hotter than Hell.

      Which, in some theology, is actually correct as taking the furnace of divine charity and the radiance of the divine light as being perceived as the fires of hell: “According to Iōannēs Polemēs, Theophanes of Nicea believed that, for sinners, “the divine light will be perceived as the punishing fire of hell”. Or to quote from the Eucharistic Prayer IV of the Mass, addressing God, “Through all eternity you live in unapproachable light.”

      In other words, the same light is both the joy of heaven and the pain of hell 🙂

  • Hibernia86

    Finding a scientific reason for the religious feelings does not disprove God, but it does kick the legs out from under one of the main “proofs” of God’s existance that religious people like to use.

    • deiseach

      Given that most mystics probably didn’t have a scientist waving an electromagnet over their head when they had their experiences, Hibernia86, how would you explain the causative factors for those experiences?

      If it kicks the legs out from proof of God, it also kicks the legs out from proof of external reality, leaving us with only subjective events taking place in the brain as our knowledge of ‘reality’ and no way of coming to an agreement on common meaning (you and I may both say that grass is green, but how do I know that what you perceive as green is actually the same green I see, and not red or yellow?)

  • Sam Urfer

    Here’s the abstract for the paper: http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=21882421

    And scienctific papers on the Shroud in general: http://www.shroud.com/papers.htm

    Personally, I don’t think it matters terribly whether it is authentic or merely a striking Icon. I am more interested in how obsessed people get with it, in both directions.

    • Sam Urfer

      Oh, and this book is about the Shroud and at least one other “image not made by human hands.” It is from a German journalist, and is supposed to be quite readable: http://www.ignatius.com/promotions/faceofgod/