The Shroud of Turin, pseudoscience, and journalism

When I signed on to my AOL e-mail (retro cool!) on Thursday, a headline flashed on the screen saying something about the Shroud of Turin. Instinct said: Look away! Nothing good can come of reading a Shroud of Turin article. Fact-free zone! But I was weak, and I looked, and soon discovered that I had plunged down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience and bunk.

It was a Huffington Post article. The headline said: “Shroud of Turin Formed by an Earthquake? Scientists Say Face of Jesus Image Caused By Neutron Emissions.”

(Be wary, always, when you see the “scientists say” formulation. They rarely speak in unison like that.) (Also I find myself wary when I hear the term “neutron emissions,” though this may be a sign of irrational anxiety.)

In HuffPo fashion, the story was enthusiastically tagged: Shroud of Turin Real Shroud of Turin Date Shroud of Turin Jesus Jerusalem Earthquake Shroud of Turin New Evidence Shroud of Turin Origin Biblical Archaeology Jesus Shroud of Turin Earthquake Christianity Shroud of Turin Jesus Burial Shroud Turin Shroud New Evidence Religion News

From the story:

While some consider it a miracle, others search for a more scientific explanation for its existence, and researchers from the Politecnico di Torino have come up with a theory that they believe might provide some answers. They say that it’s possible that neutron emissions from an earthquake around the time of Jesus’ death could have created the image, as well as affected radiocarbon levels that suggested the shroud was a forgery from medieval times, reports LiveScience.

So it’s not original reporting: It’s a parasitic reformulation of a story produced by LiveScience. LiveScience produces syndicated science material that runs in a variety of publications, including, sometimes, my newspaper.

LiveScience included some skeptical commentary, and the average reader might well conclude that this earthquake-shroud connection was an iffy proposition at best (though why cover it in the first place?). The story states:

Now, a study claims neutron emissions from an ancient earthquake that rocked Jerusalem could have created the iconic image, as well as messed up the radiocarbon levels that later suggested the shroud was a medieval forgery. But other scientists say this newly proposed premise leaves some major questions unanswered.

The group of scientists, led by Alberto Carpinteri of the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, suspect high-frequency pressure waves generated in the Earth’s crust during this earthquake could have produced significant neutron emissions. (They simulated this by crushing very brittle rock specimens under a press machine.)

The LiveScience piece popped up across the Web. Here it is at FoxNews.  And at BusinessInsider. And at Discovery.com.

And here is a piece in the Telegraph that ran a few days ago: “Turin shroud may have been created by earthquake from time of Jesus.”

The shroud story was also aggregated, HuffPo-style, by other news organizations. Here’s USA Today’s version, which was written by Newser, an aggregator.  The Newser piece cites both the Telegraph story and the LiveScience story.

The story seems to have been sparked by a EurekAlert item placed by someone working for the publishing company Springer, which produces the journal, Meccanica, that ran the shroud paper.

I am not familiar with “Meccanica.” I do not know if it is peer-reviewed or is open-access. But this paper is, to put it delicately, unpersuasive. The author cites as an authority on an earthquake in A.D. 33 the writer Dante, who was born more than 12 centuries later. There’s a reference to a hypothetical earthquake that is an 11 on the Richter Scale. Never mind that, as far as I know, seismologists do not use the term “Richter scale” anymore. The question is: ELEVEN on the Richter Scale? The strongest earthquake ever recorded is a 9.5. This sounds to me like “Spinal Tap” science. “This one goes to 11.”

The hypothesis of a connection between an earthquake and the shroud is based on a nuclear process known as piezonuclear fission, but a cursory examination of the process would lead the skeptical reader to conclude that there’s no such thing. A leading advocate for the existence of piezonuclear fission is the very same professor Carpinteri who wrote the Meccanica paper. The briefest of Internet searches turns up a story from Nature reporting on controversy over government funding of research into this iffy field of alleged nuclear reactions.

Good journalism has a subtle feature of reticence. We don’t publish everything we hear. We filter. We curate. The goal of the traditional journalist is to create a reputation for accuracy, fairness, relevance and timeliness, and this requires the willingness to not publish things that are unlikely to be true.

The Shroud of Turin story brings up all the usual issues about click-bait journalism and our current struggle for survival in a highly disrupted news industry. Here’s a basic rule I’d suggest:

The clicks don’t count if the story is wrong.

More problematic is when the story isn’t wrong but is hyped, even a little bit. This has been on my mind the last couple of days because I did a story on the new fusion energy result at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It was the subject of a paper in Nature, and a teleconference earlier in the week. As with all high-profile, embargoed science stories in the major journals, this one attracted a great deal of news coverage. Because this was about progress in fusion research, it needed to be carefully reported so as to avoid hyping the new result and creating a false expectation that we’re about to start generating electricity for the grid via fusion reactions. But that same danger of hype creates a commensurate click-bait opportunity. What’s going to get better web traffic, a nuanced story about an incremental advance, or a piece declaring that there’s been a major breakthrough? [Update: Charles Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker has a posted a comprehensive review of the coverage.]

There’s nothing at stake here except the survival of credible journalism. For those who are trying to figure out a business model for journalism — and I desperately want these folks to be successful — let me suggest that the ultimate killer app is quality. Quality comes in many forms. In the news business, being fast — ideally first — is a form of quality. Packaging the material in a beautiful way visually is another virtue. But the ultimate virtue in this business is getting it right.

I know that in turning this item into a screed I run the risk of declaring myself an insufferable fogey, and you can see me sprouting mutton-chop sideburns and wearing a monocle. I know, I know: There is no future in being boring. But getting it right, in the long run, will pay off. News executives should not assume that there is a digital gimmick, or technique, or facility with visuals, or dexterity with software, that will mask a deficit in comprehension and expertise. The audience is smarter than that. The audience will reward accuracy and intelligence. At least that’s what I believe — perhaps as matter of faith more than anything else.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | February 11