Absence of Evidence…

…is not evidence of absence. This is a common mantra among the spiritual communities – both in the traditional, religious meanings, and the more new-agey or pseudoscience types such as ghost hunters and demonologists – used to explain how they hold their supposedly “aberrant” or “illogical” viewpoints despite little or nothing to back them up.

It’s cool. I get it. I mean, I believe in ghosts and have my own slightly odd eschatological beliefs, and I concur; just because we haven’t found something yet doesn’t mean it’s not there to be found. I don’t have a problem with that, and most logical people probably shouldn’t, either. I mean, once upon a time, there was no evidence that there was a western half of the world. We used to think you’d just fall right off if you sailed far enough in any given direction. Folks took a long time to figure out how to prove microorganisms were there, but we knew there had to be something swimming around in our blood, or the water, or in the air. And so on and so on.

But that’s not really what this post is about, or why I’m irritated. Because there’s the next group of people, the ones who take that credo, then run off the edge of the world with it, meanwhile warping it into “evidence of absence proves a thing exists!” Or they’re the ones who stick their fingers in their ears, stick out their tongues, and go “nyah, nyah, not listening!” when you present anything that might counter whatever their belief of the day might be.

This comes up because I just watched a program called Myth Hunters, specifically an episode about the Titulus Crucis. For those not up on their Latin, it roughly means “Title of the Cross,” and refers to the plaque that the Romans supposedly hung over Jesus’ head when they nailed Him up.

Long story short, somebody found a plank that has something resembling the correct inscription on it, some scientists and religious types go ape, they do a bunch of studies, think they’ve found unassailable proof that Jesus was a real, historical person and was indeed crucified with a bad joke above his head. Then the Big Bad Science Machine comes along and kicks them in the shin, but it’s okay, because they still believe it’s the real deal.

Basically, for the “proof”, the lead egghead on the project claims that 1) It has a typo. They apparently misspelled “Nazarus” on the plaque. 2) The order is wrong, according to the Gospels (Luke says it was Hebrew, Latin, Greek; John says Greek, Hebrew, Latin; the actual plaque is Hebrew, Greek, Latin). I chose to ignore for the moment that the Gospels contradict each other, thus negating the value of worrying about the order in the first place, but oh well. 3) It’s theoretically possible, given the correct conditions, that a chunk of wood could have survived for 2,000 years.

So your proof that this is a high holy relic of the One True Cross is that it’s got a typo, doesn’t match any known description of the article in question and that it’s possible something could be that old? Wow. That’s amazing! Now, to be fair, his argument regarding the difference from printed descriptions and the typo is that “if it’s a fake or a forgery, they wouldn’t have made mistakes like that; they’d want it to be as authentic as possible.” Okay. I get you. And that’s a fair statement. But it is in no way evidence or proof. The age part is almost irrelevant, since until you can prove somehow that it might be the real deal, I’m really unconcerned about the age; worrying about if the thing could last that long should be a little further on the list of concerns, if you ask me. But I am neither a religious zealot nor a scientist, so what do I know?

So, they took some samples, and subjected it to radiocarbon dating. The result? 95% certainty that it’s from somewhere between the 8th-10th century. Ruh roh, Raggy. The lead egghead then goes on to sputter and exclaim that radiocarbon dating is only accurate 75% of the time, that the age range could be “vastly corrupted” by things like candles being burned near it or human breath on it, that the results are just plain wrong, damnit, because he knows in his very soul it’s the real deal.

Two other labs apparently looked at it. Took their own samples. Did their own tests. They also say “Uh. No. This is a Middle Ages piece of work. And the process isn’t going to be thrown off by a thousand goddamn years because somebody was breathing on it or you burned a candle near it. And it’s not going to reliably hit, over the course of 18 separate tests, that same range if the ‘false’ date is coming up due to such contamination, because those contaminants are not going to evenly and perfectly spread at a rate that makes that same number keep hitting every single time.”

Egghead says “but studying the writing will prove it’s the right age!” So submits pictures of the writing to several experts who study the evolution of writing and writing processes over the centuries. All of them come back and say it’s a fine example of the way things were written in the first century. So he says “See, it means it’s real!”

Um. No. It just means that someone around 900 AD was capable of copying old writing. Which isn’t exactly newsworthy; there’ve been forgery artists pretty much since there were documents, paintings or seals to forge in the first place.

The whole thing reminds me of all the hoorah regarding the Shroud of Turin, which underwent pretty much the same series of tests and the same exclamations that “No, ur science is wronguh and stuff!” without really having any evidence in their corner to dispute it. Except for the theory that an earthquake in Jerusalem could have released radioactivity and screwed up the half-life of the isotopes and thus made it seem younger than it actually is, which is perhaps the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. Especially when one counters with “Uh, then why aren’t practically all purportedly Biblical items found in the same location, ostensibly from the same time period, way off when we date them, and why is nothing off in a consistent manner when you whip out this excuse, and further why has this never been observed, proven or shown to occur in any other circumstance where big earthquakes coincide with historically significant items that we’ve tried to date?”

And that’s why I’m annoyed. Honestly, I think you could take this in a totally hopeful way; someone in the Middle Ages saw, handled or otherwise had access to something that was the real deal, and based their forgery on it. How’s that for an idea? Sadly, none of the people involved in the program seemed to hit on that as a concept, or it wasn’t considered interesting or important enough to take it into consideration. Well, that’s annoying, and the fact that individuals like this will cling so tightly to something that has pretty categorically been proven wrong again and again, and any evidence that contradicts them goes immediately into the pile of “Well, that type of evidence is unreliable, wrong, heresy and just silly to use! Use my pet way of thinking and you’ll see I’m right, no matter how illogical it may be!”

Anyway. Just ranting.

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