The Air Force Academy hosted a pseudo-science talk promoting the alleged authenticity of the “Shroud of Turin"--perverting science as well as the US Constitution.
Air Force Academy Shrouded In Embarrassing Easter Pseudo-Science
A poster advertising the talk at the Air Force Academy. Credit: Air Force Academy via Colorado Springs Independent
April 22, 2019

As first reported by Pam Zubek at the Colorado Springs Independent, on Wednesday, April 17, the Air Force Academy hosted a talk promoting the alleged authenticity of the “Shroud of Turin,” which carbon dating and other evidence strongly indicates is actually a 14th-century forgery, as pointed out by Academy computer science professor Barry Fagin.

“I’ve been at the Academy for 25 years and in that time I've heard this talk 3 times,” Fagin told Crooks and Liars. “I find these talks to be embarrassing.”

The talk was given by Dr. Rolf Engler, a member of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which has been promoting the authenticity myth for over 40 years.

Hosting the talk violated two core responsibilities of the academy: first, its Constitutional responsibility—codified in Air Force Instruction 1-1—not to favor one religion over others, and second, its educational responsibility as a science-oriented institute of higher learning.

“If we take ourselves seriously as an academic institution – we shouldn't have people here talking about Bigfoot or talking about astrology,” Fagin said. “At the very least, if we do that, then we ought to have people present the alternative, and have a robust debate. And then, I think the answer would pretty much reveal itself.”

Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Mikey Weinstein told the Independent that 23 people — cadets, faculty and staff — had complained to him about the lecture. (Fifteen are Christians, he later told Crooks and Liars.)

It was presented during duty hours, in a main lecture hall, giving it the imprimatur of official endorsement, despite a written disclaimer. The day afterwards, retired Brigadier General Martin France, former head of the AFA’s astronautics department wrote to AFA’s Vice Superintendent Houston Cantwell and Superintendent Jay Silveria via email, calling attention to the violation:

As I'm sure you're by now aware, AFI1-1 states: 2.12. Balance of Free Exercise of Religion and Establishment Clause. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for their own free exercise of religion, including individual expressions of religious beliefs, and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. They must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.

The rationale behind that regulation derives from the 1974 Supreme Court case Parker vs. Levy, which places priority on maintaining good order and discipline in service of the military’s mission. France, who is also an MRFF advisory board member, continued:

My colleagues were shocked that this sort of briefing, not even hiding its relationship to a specific religious belief (but proclaiming it) would be held during the duty day. Sure, it's voluntary, but when many of the attendees are in uniform, wearing rank, and in supervisory roles, we know that judgments are made. Moreover, just posting these flyers requires DF approval, so it's fair to assume that this is the endorsed position of the Dean.

France went on to say that if anyone wanted a "special Easter presentation", then “they should use the chaplains' facilities (Cadet Chapel, Oases, Community Center Chapel) and hold it outside of duty time for those that are interested, wearing civilian clothes. Had that been the case, I wouldn't be writing you and my former colleagues wouldn't be so concerned.”

It’s all about “time, place and manner,” the long-standing considerations guiding First Amendment law, Weinstein noted. “There’s one building they teach in, that's the Fairchild Hall building, that's where this was being held,” Weinstein said. in one of the largest lecture halls, in the middle of the lunch hour, “and it's billed as a special Easter event – which is not this is not even remotely close to being acceptable from a legal perspective, with the Constitution and the regulatory provisions as to time, place and manner.”

Shrouds Of Pseudo-Science

Then there’s the academic integrity perspective. In addition to being a computer science professor, Fagin is contributor to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. “I’ve published articles in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and one of things I do in Colorado Springs is I promote skepticism and critical thinking,” he said. “I’m a flawed human being, subject to confirmation bias just like everybody else.” But the ideal he strives towards is following the evidence, which in this case is overwhelming. It starts with the question of provenance.

“There are approximately 40 ‘true shrouds of Jesus’ that have been around since the beginning of time,” Fagin said. “The first historical provenance of the cloth of Turin is in the mid-14th century, before that there's no documentation of it whatsoever. It's been missing for 1300-ish years, so that’s suspicious. That right away should put the burden of proof on those who think that it’s something other than a forgery.”

Next, “It's been carbon dated rigorously by three independent testing laboratories,” Fagin noted. “They all put it-- surprise, surprise—in the mid-14th century, right when its historic provenance begins. So that's two. That's two pretty big ones.”

I had been aware of the first two lines of evidence. But the third surprised me.

“We have a letter from that time” from a Bishop, Pierre d’Arcis, Fagin told me, “complaining that this thing is being used to extract money from the faithful, and it's dated in the mid-14th century.” He read a few passages. The first described how his predecessor “discovered the fraud and how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed.”.

The second passage summarized, how a church elder, “falsely and deceitfully, being consumed with the passion of avarice,” procured the forgery. “So that's a pretty big one,” Fagin concluded.

But he wasn’t done. Next was the issue of forensic microscopic analysis of the stains on the shroud. “No test has ever shown that they are blood,” he said. STURP had concluded that the stains were blood, but those tests were done by non-experts. In contrast, “The expert on the committee, on STURP, was a forensic micro-analyst named Walter McCrone, and he found iron oxide, red ocher, tempera paint. His conclusions were very explicit.” In short: no finding of blood.

“Testing for blood actually is very simple and conclusive,” Fagin went on to explain. “You can search for hemoglobin, DNA, corpuscles, etc. But, unfortunately, the actual test for blood, the authoritative ones now, have never been done,” he said. “It's my understanding are not permitted by the church, because that would be destructive to the shroud even though you just need a little bit.”

But there’s another huge problem with the blood claim. “Blood actually when it's old stains black. It turns red, dark reddish brown and then black,” Fagin said. “Stains on the shroud are not black. So again, still more evidence.”

He wasn’t done, but by then the point was clear: the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, from multiple lines of inquiry, all pointed to a 14th century forgery,

Taking a step back, one has to ask, “Why?” Why so much investment in claiming scientific proof for authenticity of a relic that even the Catholic Church itself has never claimed? No one’s faith depends on it, surely. So why?

This is where issue of religious bullying returns to center stage.

“Our job is to be the voice that the 23 faculty members, cadets and staff—15 of whom are Christians—are not allowed to speak with,” Weinstein said. “They fear – and rightfully fear—the four R’s: reprisal, retribution, revenge, and retaliation.” He went on reference Game of Thrones. “The philosophy here is very simple, the hungry lion does not concern itself with the opinions of the lamb,” he said.

“You're probably getting bullshit science, but that's beside the point. That's bad enough, and the school that prides itself on being a science and technical school, but again, what do the sheep do, when the hungry lion is there? You fight back, your career is over.

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