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.
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.
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