Scientists fail in the courts: The James Ossuary forgery case

This is a nuanced story of how scientists do a terrible job when they have to venture outside their realm. Once again, ideology trumps science and reason. Truth did not prevail.

In Israel’s James Ossuary forgery trial, science was the loser –

On March 14, a Jerusalem judge acquitted a man accused of forging an inscription on a small stone coffin. The writing, on what’s known as the James Ossuary, reads “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.” Its promoters claim that it’s the first archaeological evidence of Jesus Christ’s existence and that the box once held the bones of Jesus’ brother James. Its detractors, including most scholars, say the last two words of the inscription are faked, modern additions to a genuinely ancient limestone casket.

The box was first brought to public attention in 2002. Tens of thousands lined up in freezing Canadian weather to see it go on exhibit — with a sly caveat about its authenticity — at the Royal Ontario Museum in January 2003.

The box was seized on by believers as proof of the Bible. But Israeli authorities, who eventually found what appeared to be a forgery workshop in the apartment of the box’s owner, Tel Aviv industrial designer and antiquities collector Oded Golan, called it a fraud. The workshop contained half-made “antiquities,” plans for others and even labeled baggies of silt from different archaeological sites around the Holy Land. The state would later assert that the silt was used to create a paste to coat the objects and fool scholars.

This is a case about relic forgery, a known problem that can be exposed with good science. However, scientists (from all fields) where challenged, must be able to convince a group of non-scientists, including a judge, that the evidence supports their view. They often do really poorly. As a scientist who has testified under oath for a case, it is imperative that you learn what to say and HOW to say it. The court is not like science. The public does not get probabilities and expressions of reasonable doubt. They hear “doubt” and your case goes out the window compared to a crank who is “convinced”. Scientists also fail under legal cross examination because the arguing is different.

Also in this case, the archaeologists were attacked not for their science but for going against an ideology. Sound familiar? It should.

The ossuary’s loudest supporter is American lawyer and publisher Hershel Shanks, whose magazine Biblical Archaeology Review first revealed the object. Shanks has spent the last seven years attacking the “pack of scholars” at the Israel Antiquities Authority and one in particular, an archaeologist named Yuval Goren who found modern silicone glue in the carved ossuary inscription.

Because he dared to cast doubt on the ossuary — and therefore on the literal truth of the Bible — his professionalism was trashed and he was variously called a religion-hating atheist, a hater of Israel and a self-hating Jew.

Attacking scientists is increasingly common as religious and ideological zealots flatly reject data that offend their creeds. Recently a pro-mining consortium threatened legal action against academic journals about to publish studies linking mining-related air pollution and lung cancer. Climate scientists whose work indicates that global warming is caused by humans’ burning of fossil fuels now routinely receive hate mail and have had their emails systematically hacked by those who disagree, mostly on faith.

Tip: @SkeptInquiry on Twitter

  5 comments for “Scientists fail in the courts: The James Ossuary forgery case

  1. Undoubted
    March 29, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    This blog has two significant issues, the first of which is its blatant errors (in grammar, spelling, and fact), the second of which is its author’s blatant disrespect for the belief systems of others. The use of belligerent language (i.e., “crank”) will not encourage someone to take up one aspect of a case, but rather to advocate for the opposite. All of the issues this blog treats could be approached in an intelligent, open-minded way; however, the only “fact” that these articles “prove” is that most people, whether religious or skeptical, are too close-minded to engage in a fruitful, respectful intellectual debate.

  2. March 29, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    Oh dear. Two typos in grammar and one in spelling. I apologize. I do this mostly from a phone app. Typos will occur. They typically get corrected within a day thanks to some sharp readers who specifically point them out to me.

    Second, anyone who defends something by faith instead of evidence is at a disadvantage at logic and, while I have tolerance for those with scientific evidence, that is NOT the case here. We do not engage in faith-based worldviews at this blog. There is plenty of that online already. This is site that respects a scientific methodology and scientific consensus.

    In cases where the evidence may suggest otherwise, we encourage you to present evidence for the alternate view. Can you do that? If so, please do.

    Finally, the point of the article was in the title, that scientists need to do a better job in court. With that in mind, I’m not going to equivocate. Evidence shows pretty certainly that this is a forgery.

  3. Chew
    March 29, 2012 at 6:23 PM

    A belief system does not give someone the right to be wrong.

  4. March 29, 2012 at 6:25 PM

    Now that I think about it…

    This is the only blog of its kind that considers news stories in a skeptical, critical way. I do a tremendous amount of heavy lifting to keep this thing running UPDATED MULTIPLE TIMES EVERY DAY so, errors will occur. (It’s amazing I don’t have more actually.)

    And, yes, I do have to take a position. Like I said, I am willing to allow most comments that do not break our commenting rules. That’s more than you would get on conspiracy or pro-paranormal forums. So, maybe I take back my apologies… I do the best I can. If that’s all you got, hell, that ain’t bad.

  5. Eliyahu Konn
    March 30, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    I am not sure if you posted this to prove a point about science, but the science was very well done. The accused forgers were acquitted because the experts did testify and even the judge could tell that the accusations were unfounded.
    I am wondering if you are familiar with the physical evidence and if perhaps you had a knee jerk reaction as so many do that this is proof of the existence of the mythical man-g*od, Je*sus, instead of proving the existence of the authentic and historical Jewish man Yehoshua. The authentic 1st century history is like the rest of recorded history. A man comes and dies and his bones are proof of his existence. The history is verifiable. The extant sources are compiled in the History Museum at

Comments are closed.