Saturday, February 22, 2014

Were the radiocarbon dating laboratories duped by a computer hacker? (3)

Continuing from part 1 and part 2 and concluding (or so I then thought!) with this part 3 of my series, "Were the radiocarbon dating laboratories duped by a computer hacker?"

[Above (enlarge): Schematic of the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating system at the University of Arizona in 2005. Note the "Control Console" bottom left next to the photo of a computer. While this is presumably not the actual system used to radiocarbon date the Shroud of Turin in 1988, that 1981 system is apparently still operational. And as we shall see below, both then and now it is the computer which that actually reports a sample's radiocarbon date. Although too small to post an image of it, the computer to the right of the bottom left photo is similar to photos of a DEC PDP-11/70 minicomputer (i.e. mini-mainframe computer)]

As we saw in part 2:
• If the Shroud is authentic (as the preponderance of the evidence indicates), the probability that it would radiocarbon date to AD 1260-1390 is "about one in a thousand trillion" (Gove:1996:303. My emphasis);

• The radiocarbon laboratories Arizona, Zurich and Oxford would have had to each, independently, performed their tests "flawlessly" (Grove, Archaeometry, 31:2:1988:237. My emphasis) to each, independently, converge on a date range of 1260-1390, the midpoint of which, 1325 +/- 65 years, is only 25-30 years (an unheard of degree of accuracy for carbon dating) before the Shroud first appeared in the undisputed historical record in the 1350s at Lirey France;

• It is easier to believe that a fraud was committed, even if it was only "making results appear just a little crisper or more definitive than they really are, or selecting just the `best' data for publication and ignoring those that don't fit" (Broad & Wade, 1982, p.20) than by a "one in a thousand trillion" chance the three radiocarbon dating laboratories `just happened' to independently arrive at the `too good to be true' 1325 +/- 65 years date of the Shroud;

• Especially given that the laboratories and/or a potential fraudster were well aware of that approximate date, given that 1335 +/- 30 years was publicly predicted in 1984, by leading Shroud sceptic, Denis Dutton, in a widely read journal, as the date the Shroud would radiocarbon date to (Dutton, 2005);

Agnostic art historian Thomas de Wesselow, considers fraud to be a real possibility for the Shroud's "1325 ± 65 years" radiocarbon date" because "If the carbon-dating error was accidental, then it is a remarkable coincidence that the result tallies so well with the date always claimed by sceptics as the Shroud's historical debut. But if fraud was involved, then it wouldn't be a coincidence at all." (de Wesselow, 2012 p.170).

But leading Shroud pro-authenticist Ian Wilson came to know some of the radiocarbon laboratory leaders and he considers it "as absurd and far-fetched as it is unworthy" that "these men may have `rigged' the radiocarbon dating":

"For during both the preliminaries to and the immediate aftermath of the Shroud radiocarbon dating I struck up a moderate acquaintance with the British Museum's Dr Tite, the Oxford laboratory's Professor Hall and the Arizona laboratory's Professor Damon, from which experience I can say with some confidence that any scenario suggesting that one or more of these men may have `rigged' the radiocarbon dating - let alone conspired with the Vatican - may be judged as absurd and far-fetched as it is unworthy" (Wilson, I., 1998, "The Blood and the Shroud," p.11).
Accepting that at face value (although there is evidence of Gove, Hall and Tite's dishonesty), there is another form of fraud that does not seem to have occurred to anyone, namely that the laboratories may have been duped by a computer hacker.

In 2007 I read David Sox's "The Shroud Unmasked" (1988) in which he described the results of the very first radiocarbon dating of the Shroud, when the date (which Sox didn't give) of the Shroud's flax appeared on the computer screen in the Arizona laboratory, and indicated that the Shroud was "a fake" (Sox, 1988, pp.147,153). Later I read Gove's own eyewitness account, which evidently is the original, since he gives the date "1350 AD", and Sox was not there:

"At 9:50 am 6 May 1988, Arizona time, the first of the ten measurements appeared on the screen. We all waited breathlessly. The ratio was compared with the OX sample and the radiocarbon time scale calibration was applied by Doug Donahue. His face became instantly drawn and pale. At the end of that one minute we knew the age of the Turin Shroud! The next nine numbers confirmed the first. ... Based on these 10 one minute runs, with the calibration correction applied, the year the flax had been harvested that formed its linen threads was 1350 AD-the shroud was only 640 years old! It was certainly not Christ's burial cloth but dated from the time its historic record began ... When the results of all three labs were finally averaged, the date of the flax harvesting came out to be 1325 AD ±33 [sic] years. That agreed with this initial Arizona result ... I had a bet with Shirley [Brignall] on the shroud's age-she bet 2000 ±100 years old and I bet 1000 ±100 years. Whoever won bought the other a pair of cowboy boots. Although my guess was wrong, it was closer than Shirley's. She bought me the cowboy boots." (Gove, H.E., 1996, "Relic, Icon or Hoax?: Carbon Dating the Turin Shroud," pp.262-263).
In the early 1990s I was the Systems Administrator of a network of UNIX computers at seven hospitals in Western Australia's Mid-West and Gascoyne Health Region. That was about a decade before I became interested in the Shroud in 2005. When I read Sox's account in 2007, I realised that it was not the actual carbon dating results that those in Arizona's laboratory were seeing, but what the computer was displaying. That is, between the actual carbon dating by the accelerated mass spectrometer, and those watching the computer screen, was a computer program!

I remembered having read in the mid-1990s Clifford Stoll's "The Cuckoo's Egg" (1989) where he described how easy it was to hack into university networked computer systems in the 1980s. Stohl [right] was a very computer literate astronomer (who actually earned his PhD at Arizona University) and was in 1986 redeployed to help manage a large computer network at Berkeley University's Lawrence National Laboratory (not to be confused with the nearby high security Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). My emphasis below:

"Clifford Stoll is an astronomer by training and a computer security expert by accident. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in 1980 and has since then worked as an astronomer, scientific programmer and computer systems manager in various observatories and laboratories." (Stoll, C., 1989, "The Cuckoo's Egg Tracking a Spy through the Maze of Computer Espionage," p.ii).
Stoll explained how lax was the computer security at universities in the 1980s:
"Our laboratory's computers connect to thousands of other systems over a dozen networks. Any of our scientists can log into our computer, and then connect to a distant computer. Once connected, they can log into the distant computer by entering an account name and password. In principle, the only thing protecting the networked computer is the password, since account names are easy to figure out. (How do you find account names? Just use a phone book-most people use their names on computers.)" (Stoll, 1989, p.8).
Indeed, many the computer programs were written by university students:
" I discovered our accounting software to be a patchwork of programs written by long-departed summer students ... Over the years, a succession of bored summer students had written programs to analyse all this accounting information." (Stoll, 1989, p.4).
It was "easy to muck around computers at universities where no security was needed":
"Every few months, I'd hear a rumour about someone else's system being invaded; usually this was at universities, and it was often blamed on students ... Sure, it's easy to muck around computers at universities where no security was needed. After all, colleges seldom even lock the doors to their buildings." (Stoll, 1989, p.12).

[Above: Extract of "Timeline of computer security hacker history," Wikipedia, 16 February 2014. As can be seen, 1988, the year the Shroud was claimed to have been radiocarbon dated as "medieval ... AD 1260-1390" was also a peak year for early computer hacking against poorly secured, or even unsecured, online computer systems.]

I put two and two together back then in 2007 and realised that, since the Shroud is authentic, one explanation of its 1260-1390 radiocarbon date is that a hacker had logged in to each of the three radiocarbon laboratories' AMS machine's computer while the Shroud's test was being run and had substituted the Shroud's actual dates coming from the AMS machine for bogus dates which agreed with the ~1350 date when the Shroud first appeared in the undisputed historical record at Lirey, France.

Note how gullible those present were. Gove himself, knowing the problems of radiocarbon dating, expected a "1000 ±100 years" date for the Shroud, but it never occurred to him or anyone else present how unlikely it would be that the very first radiocarbon date of the Shroud would be the `bull's eye' date, 1350 AD"! Even those present who believed the Shroud to be authentic, meekly accepted the computer's "1350 AD" date.

The same presumably happened at the other two laboratories, Zurich and Oxford when they later ran their tests, 26 May and 8 August, respectively. And contrary to their agreed protocol, the laboratories were talking to each other about their results:

"A member of the audience then raised the question whether the laboratories had been in contact with each other during the test phase. After categorically denying it at first, Tite admitted that there had probably been leaks contrary to the agreement ..." (Kersten, H. & Gruber, E.R., 1994, "The Jesus Conspiracy," p.69).
So groupthink pressure to accept dates which clustered around the 1325 +/- 65 midpoint, and exclude as anomalies any dates that did not fit the desired pattern, would likely have also been a factor:
"Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences." ("Groupthink," Wikipedia, 19 February 2014).
The hacker could have been someone inside one of the three laboratories or an outsider. In favour of it being an insider is that the hacker would have to produce an uncalibrated date which would then be calibrated to "1350 AD. But any one of Arizona University's archeology or geophysics students would know how radiocarbon dating calibration worked and an especially computer literate one could gain access to each of the computer at the end of the accelerated mass spectrometers, not only at Arizona but also its counterparts at Zurich and Oxford laboratories. All three laboratories had AMS systems, presumably with the same hardware and software. And all would have been online, as Stoll explained that all university computers were, and only those in military establishments with the highest need for security were offline:
"Mulling over the situation, I kept doubting that a hacker was fooling around in my system. ... There's nothing special here to tempt a hacker ... no classified data. Indeed, the best part of working at Lawrence Berkeley Labs was the open, academic atmosphere. Fifty miles away, Lawrence Livermore Labs did classified work, developing nuclear bombs and Star Wars projects. Now, that might be a target for some hacker to break into. But with no connections to the outside, Livermore's computers can't be dialled into." (Stoll, 1989, p.13).
In favour of it being an outsider, is that the 1325 +/- 65 years average of the three laboratories' dates for the Shroud is (again) too good to be true. If the hacker was one of the laboratories' radiocarbon dating staff or graduate students he/she would more likely substitute the Shroud's AMS dates with more sophisticated bogus dates, like Gove's "1000 ±100 years", which would still appear to refute the Shroud's first century date, but would not look too good to be true. And an outsider would more likely feel the need to start with the "1350 AD" date and then vary that date slightly on successive runs to avoid anyone becoming suspicious.

The hacker whom Stoll detected, Markus Hess, was actually a German, living in Germany, and dialing in to a pre-Internet network in the USA, from where he could hop from one university and military network to another, due to their lax security in the 1980s:

"Hess's initial activities started at the University of Bremen in Germany through the German Datex-P network via satellite link or transatlantic cable to the Tymnet International Gateway. Tymnet was a `gateway' service that a user called into that routed him to any one of a number of computer systems that also used the service. Tymnet was one of a number of services available that provided local telephone numbers, where directly accessing the computer would have been a long distance call. Users normally used packet switching services like Tymnet for their lower costs. Once he accessed Tymnet, Hess branched out to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and to the Tymnet Switching System. It was through this switching system that he accessed the LBL [Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory] computers. Hess was able to attack 400 U.S. military computers by using LBL to `piggyback' to ARPANET and MILNET. ARPANET was a civilian wide area network created by the Department of Defense which would later become what is now known as the Internet. MILNET was its military counterpart." ("Markus Hess," Wikipedia, 18 November 2013).
Hess was a freelance spy who sold any secret information he discovered to the KGB:
"The hacker's name was Markus Hess, and he had been engaged for some years in selling the results of his hacking to the Soviet KGB." ("The Cuckoo's Egg," Wikipedia, 8 February 2014).
So it would not be surprising if the atheistic Soviet regime of the 1980s would see it as a legitimate target to discredit the Shroud, and through that Christianity, by one its agents hacking into each of the three radiocarbon dating laboratories' computers, and replacing the actual radiocarbon dates of the Shroud that the laboratories' accelerated mass spectrometers were determining, with bogus dates which when calibrated would cluster around 1325 +/- 65 years.

I have presented this proposal as a question, "Were the radiocarbon dating laboratories duped by a computer hacker?" because in the nature of the case, barring a belated confession, my proposal is unlikely ever to be confirmed as correct, even if it is correct. The hacker would be unlikely to admit it because he would be prosecuted and gaoled for breaking into government computers, as Hess was. And the laboratories would be unlikely to admit they had been duped by a hacker, even if they realised they had been. Whatever evidence there was in the laboratories' computers, the hacker would almost certainly have deleted it, and even if he didn't, it is most unlikely that it would still exist in the laboratories' 1988 computers.

Anyway, in the final analysis it is the Shroud anti-authenticists' problem to find a explanation for what went wrong with their carbon dating of the first-century Shroud to the 13th-14th centuries. As Thomas de Wesselow pointed out, we Shroud pro-authenticists don't need to find an explanation of what went wrong with the 1988 radiocarbon date of the Shroud. We can just dismiss it out of hand as a "'rogue' radiocarbon date" as archaeologists routinely do when a radiocarbon date is contradicted by the majority of the other evidence:

"Contamination, reweaving or fraud: three potential sources of error, any one of which could have caused the incorrect carbon dating of the Shroud. But can we legitimately reject the carbon-dating result without determining exactly what went wrong? Of course we can. Archaeologists routinely dismiss 'rogue' radiocarbon dates out of hand. The success of a carbon-dating result should never be declared unilaterally; it is always measured against other evidence. The 1988 test may therefore be declared null and void, even though, without further direct study of the Shroud, it is unlikely we will ever be able to say definitively what went wrong." (de Wesselow, T., 2012, "The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection," p.170).
See also "Were the radiocarbon dating laboratories duped by a computer hacker?: Summary."

Posted 22 February 2014. Updated 7 October 2023

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