It’s back. The Shroud of Turin, which every credible scientific evaluation has exposed as a medieval hoax, is once again at the center of a vacuous debate.
This time a Vatican researcher claims to have found nearly invisible words written in Greek, Latin and Aramaic across the Shroud. The words, she claims, include the name “Jesus the Nazerene” in Greek. If the Shroud was a medieval forgery, the contention continues, Jesus’ name would not have been used without reference to his divinity. Even a smarmy forger wouldn’t make such a blatant error, the Vatican’s entirely impartial researchers argue; hence, the Shroud must be from the first century.
The lead researcher is Barbara Frale, a historian employed by the Vatican known for her studies of the secret order of the Knights Templar. During that research campaign, she claimed that the Knights at one time had the Shroud in their possession–which strikes most historians who study the period as odd since the Knights were disbanded in the early 14th century and the first record of the Shroud’s existence occurred around 1360 in France.
Her recent contention about the Shroud (which she claims is as unbiased as the last one) is being met with well-deserved skepticism. For years people who’ve studied the Shroud have known that it’s peppered with words–nothing new about that–but Frale is the first to claim that she’s found definitive proof within the text of the artifact’s authenticity. There are just a few insurmountable problems with her conclusion. For example, she claims that part of the text is written in Latin–a language never used during Jewish burials in the first century. Hmmm.
But this post isn’t really about the inauthenticity of the Shroud, but rather why people dedicate themselves to proving something true that has already been proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, solidly false. If we grant that Frale isn’t just an out and out fraud trying to sell books (I have no idea if she is or isn’t, but for the sake of argument let’s say she isn’t), the analysis focuses where it so often does–cognitive bias.
We’re all familiar with the first bias in the medley: Selective Perception–the tendency to allow expectations to affect perception. If you are deeply religious and work for the Vatican, what expectation might we understandably assume you to have about a “holy” artifact, venerated by the Pope himself and guarded like a vault of gold?
From there we move into Framing Bias–the tendency to frame information in a way that will lead to a different conclusion. Never mind that radiocarbon dating has already proven that the Shroud is a 13th or 14th century creation. Never mind that the words on the Shroud have already been studied without any momentous conclusions reached. Reframe and re-conclude. If you do it skillfully enough, you can even publish a book about it (as Frale did).
Then we have the mother of all biases: Confirmation Bias–the tendency to interpret information to align with your preconceptions. Again, ignore the well-established conclusions of past research. Forget the language discrepancies and the historical inaccuracies. There’s a preconception to confirm here and, by golly, it’s gonna get confirmed!
Which leads to the last on this list: Subjective Validation–the tendency to assign meaning to dubious connections in order to prove one’s belief correct. This one is written all over this research, not unlike the Latin that wasn’t used at Jewish burials.
And the thing about all of this bias is that, by way of news reports and books and whatnot, it trickles down to those who want to believe, feeding and inspiring them. Maybe truth will set us free, but it’s bias that makes us feel good.
On and on the reinforcing circle of cognitive bias goes. So has it always been, and, let’s be honest, so shall it always be. Amen.