Monday, June 29, 2009

Wanna buy a bridge of sighs?

Regular reader John raised the issue of "may" heds in a recent comment, so it's probably useful to review one of our favorite bans. "May," "could," "can" and "might" fall in the category of "then-again" heds, which are forbidden unless they appear with a deck hed saying "then again, may not" or something to that effect. Looking back a few weeks, I hope we could all agree that "LOCAL MAN MIGHT BE BOY WHO WAS KIDNAPPED IN NEW YORK IN 1955!!!!!!" would have gotten more appropriate treatment if it had had the appropriate deck: "And then again, he might not be."

Hence our concern with the hed at right. Sure enough, having narrowed the age of the remains down to a couple of centuries, the tests apparently show that the remains "could" be St. Paul.* That's primarily by virtue of the tests' not having shown that the remains couldn't be St. Paul, which -- with all due respect to the nice old guy in the cool hat -- is nowhere near "seeming to conclude" that they are.

Pope and plowman alike, we're all entitled to our opinions. It'd be nice to think we were entitled to slightly less credulous journalism by way of getting the material that lets us form those opinions.

* This isn't the sort of testing we do over on the fifth floor; any of you stalwarts out there know what sort of confidence level these tests are conducted at?**
** "Excuse me, but at Research-Intensive University, we don't end our sentences with prepositions." Anyone want to try for the punch line?

4 Comments:

Anonymous Thomas said...

The radiocarbon lab tests are usually reported as point estimate and standard error. It looks as though these have been used to construct a confidence interval, which would typically have 95% coverage.

The standard error is just based on measurement error, and doesn't include uncertainties about contamination or mixture of samples of different ages.

It is actually pretty much the kind of testing you do with opinion polls: you take a sample of carbon atoms and ask them if they are intending to vote carbon-14. The only difference is that you then convert the percentage to an age by looking up a table in the back of the book.

In this case, though, the main evidence isn't the carbon dating. There's no real doubt that several of the Epistles in the Christian bible were written by a well-defined single person called Paul, in the 1st/2nd centuries AD (I think in this context AD rather than CE is appropriate). That is, we're not in the situation of finding the tomb of Moses or Homer or King Arthur.

There is a long tradition that this person was buried in that tomb, and I would have thought the carbon dating was just to make sure that the bones weren't too old to be from that period.

The article seems pretty reasonable (the conclusion is given as a direct quotation from the guy with the hat, not as fact), and the hed is regrettable, but less bad than many 'then-again' examples

11:01 PM, June 29, 2009  
Anonymous raYb said...

That's all well and good, but there was a long tradition that a piece of cloth with some weird stains was the burial cloth of Jesus. And there's a long tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Certainly long tradition counts for something, but even coupled with a test that says "those bones are really old," long tradition doesn't prove or really imply anything that long tradition didn't prove or imply all by itsownself.

11:17 PM, June 29, 2009  
OpenID outerhoard said...

There's a lot wrong with that article. For one thing, if I may be so pedantic, it's bordering on "cheeky" to call Paul a Roman Catholic saint, given that Roman Catholicism hadn't been invented in Paul's day. Yes, it's possible to read it as "regarded by Roman Catholics, among others, as a saint", but that is not the natural reading.

11:41 PM, June 29, 2009  
Anonymous Thomas said...

raYb: even coupled with a test that says "those bones are really old," long tradition doesn't prove or really imply anything that long tradition didn't prove or imply all by itsownself.

I think that's more or less what I said, though.

The difference between this and the Turin shroud (and between this and a lot of the religion stories that fev properly castigates) is that no claims of miracles etc are being made. The guy who wrote Paul's epistles is a reasonably well-documented historical figure, who died at a reasonably well-established time. He might not have been buried here, or he might have been dug up since then (which is part of the point of the testing), but 'St Paul's tomb' is sufficiently well-defined to be an object of archaelogical research, in the way that the Turin shroud isn't.

And I think the claim that he is a Catholic (Roman isn't mentioned) saint is also fairly clearly an indirect quotation from the Pope.

All I'm saying is that you can fall over worse religion stories any day of the week, where the reporter actually commits to the religious content, and much worse uses of 'could' in heds.

12:58 AM, July 02, 2009  

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