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Listen to the Engineers

April 23, 2022


Thomas Kuhn explained it. It’s all about paradigms, he said. With apologies to Dr. Kuhn, one might say that scientists load their apples onto carts and push the carts on well-traveled roads over hill and over dale on into the sunset. Science, powerful and efficient, moves forward if not exactly in most exciting way imaginable.

A scientific revolution, what Kuhn called a paradigm shift, is like an earthquake. Afterward, new roads carry altered apple carts filled with apples of a type no one previously imagined.   

Thomas Kuhn, Ph.D. (Harvard 1949) may be rolling in his grave: he did not use an apple cart-earthquake metaphor; we cannot know if he would approve. So let us make amends. Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, requires a certain amount of commitment to read cover to cover but is eminently quotable. We need some clarity about Kuhnian paradigms before engaging the subject of the present work — false paradigms, or rocks in the apple cart. 

Let us hear about Kuhnian paradigms from ipse, the man himself. Kuhn notes that scientists have plenty to do without trying to change everything. They quite reasonably limit themselves to a conceptual “box” created by their professional education.

No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit in the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.

One’s job as a “normal” researcher is to make progress.

The most striking feature of . . . normal research problems . . . is how little they aim to produce major novelties, conceptual or phenomenal.

Once a paradigm is established, open questions exist which can be solved by making breakthroughs — big ones and little ones — that aren’t earthquakes.

Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.

Kuhnian paradigms are necessary for scientific progress because they offer focus and clarity. If scientists just wandered off in random directions all the time, science wouldn’t function. Until anomalies pile up into a crisis, paradigms work amazingly well.

In the interim [between revolutions], however, during the period when the paradigm is successful, the profession will have solved problems that its members could scarcely have imagined and would never have undertaken without commitment to the paradigm.

Revolutions, or paradigm shifts, don’t merely solve puzzles or accelerate advances; a paradigm shifts changes the way we see the world. After the shift, an array of never-traveled roads branch out over a landscape we never knew existed: science fiction has become science. 

When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals . . . Though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.

Paradigm shifts, being such monumental things, naturally encounter resistance.

The source of resistance is the assurance that the older paradigm will ultimately solve all its problems, that nature can be shoved into the box the paradigm provides. Inevitably, at times of revolution, that assurance seems stubborn and pigheaded . . . 

Philosophers call it “fear of novelty.” This, and the fact that a Kuhnian paradigm has solved many puzzles already and may even continue to be useful after being superseded, makes Kuhnian paradigms hard to dislodge.

For false paradigms, which are useless from day one, “stubborn and pigheaded” may not fully capture the enormity of the resistance to jettisoning nonsense. When a false paradigm is finally put to rest, sometimes after fierce battle, it’s not a revolution, it’s embarrassing.

Kuhn’s book is a landmark in the quest understanding how science actually works, but Kuhn didn’t treat this important other side of the paradigm coin. If I had to pick a one book to elucidate nonsense occasionally championed by credulous experts, it would have to be James Watson’s famous memoir, The Double Helix. The work has been called “irreverent” and that seems apt.

The young Watson was nonplussed as he was surrounded by scientists more interested in “fuzzy-minded speculations” than actual progress. How could they ignore scientific dynamite?

Almost none of them seemed to take seriously the evidence that genes were made of DNA.

Watson didn’t want an academic position one step removed from parasitism.

It was better to imagine myself becoming famous than maturing into a stifled academic who had never risked a thought.

Many scientists were sure genes were proteins; such foolishness, to Watson, was laughable.   

One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull but also just stupid.

Watson’s book tells the story of an ambitious young scientist surrounded by peers with rocks in their apple carts too busy tooting their own horns about their insignificant discoveries to notice a great scientific prize there for the taking; clowns with Ph.D.’s stumbling around like blind robbers in Fort Knox evidently made Watson either giggle or gag depending on his mood.

Watson and Crick solved the puzzle and built their famous three-dimensional model of DNA on February 28, 1953. Scientists immediately embraced the structure: the “tinker-toy” model sitting on Crick’s desk fit perfectly into the genetic paradigm established circa 1900 by Gregor Mendel and others who repeated his work and still others who isolated chromosomes. Publication in 1953 was a breeze: the double helix was so beautiful and made so much sense, it had to be right.

Franz de Waal knew early in his career as a primatologist that many of his his fellow scientists were wedded to the idea of underestimating the similarities between humans and other primates, similarities de Waal and his colleagues continue to elucidate as they manage to work effectively in a system in which “authority outweighs evidence” and scientists regularly cling to  “unsupported paradigms.” Like Watson, de Waal is painfully aware of the dark side of science.

The typical scientist has made an interesting discovery early on in his or her career, followed by a lifetime of making sure that everyone else admires his or her contribution and that no one questions it. — The Bonobo and the Atheist

Joao Maguiejo didn’t know what he was in for. He’s a big bang cosmologist, a practitioner of perhaps the most speculative field in all of science. Joao wondered if the speed of light might have been faster in the early universe, if physics itself has evolved. If so, it might explain a lot about the universe as it is now. Joao called his theory VSL for “variable speed of light” and was promptly told it really stood for “very silly.” A number of professional physicists went on to embarrass themselves as they blocked a perfectly reasonable idea worked out in careful mathematical detail. Joao’s book records the battle to get published.

They employed a first-class moron as an editor . . . picture having a scientific argument with a referee behaving as if he had been bitten by a rabid dog . . . many of the criticisms you receive are pointless and simply reflect the view that anything new is bad. — Faster Than the Speed of Light

Joao was not the first VSL physicist. The “constants are constant” false paradigm already had a ten-year track record of blocking VSL. Joao calls VSL “obvious.” He’s right: I thought of it myself as an undergraduate. But when people did the hard work and created a detailed theory, the system blocked it for at least ten years: today VSL is a thriving subfield of cosmology.

Pushing aside dead weight as Watson, de Waal, and Maguiejo did is one thing. But a false paradigm might also be an avalanche; it might block the road of progress semi-permanently. The ulcer debacle is a classic example.

In the 1950’s, almost all medical researchers became convinced that ulcers were caused by too much acid. Thirty years later, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren realized ulcers were actually caused by bacteria. The cure — antibiotics — had been under everyone’s noses the whole time.

But the false paradigm had become so deeply entrenched, it took another ten years to dislodge.  Early in the battle against the “fringe” label, Marshall cultured some ulcer-causing bacteria from a patient and made himself a cocktail. On his knees, vomiting, in his house, his horrified wife watching, Marshall promised her he would cure himself by the weekend. The mother of his young children was not pleased though one imagines she forgave him when the Nobel committee gave him a call in 2005.

Usually, Kuhn’s “normal science” works fine. Dalton and Mendeleev, Galileo and Kepler, and Darwin and Wallace gave us paradigm shifts: the periodic table of the elements; a grand cosmos accessible by telescope; dramatic evolutionary changes remaking species. Today, we make three-dimensional models of molecules with objects that look like toys. We know which pairs of elements make carbon dioxide, water, and methane. We know Uranus is a fifty-earth ball of these three compounds mixed and frozen solid. We’ve discovered other solar systems; soon we hope to learn about their chemistry. 

Going back in time here on earth, Kuhn’s “normal science” tells a story of wild changes in life itself. We know single-celled life appeared soon after earth formed a little over four billion years ago. Then, less than a billion years ago, multi-celled life appeared eventually giving rise to fish, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals. Fifty million years ago, some of those furry, four-footed mammals returned to the sea: millions of years later, they were manatees (basically aquatic elephants), seals, dolphins, and whales. Some mammals — hippos, capybaras, and proboscis monkeys — transitioned from terrestrial to coastal. Hippos spend half their time in the water; capybaras are diving rodents; proboscis monkeys cross rivers in Borneo aided by partial webbing between their toes. Each story of evolution is more amazing than the last.

The stories of chemistry, astronomy, and evolution indeed could be “scarcely imagined” before the Kuhnian paradigms on which they are based appeared. But this success is tempered by the presence of the false paradigms that led to Watson, de Waal, and Maguiejo’s colorful language. False paradigms are an ongoing plague and need a book all their own: examples abound.

Ocean-sized quantities of methane may or may not exist deep within the earth. Today, scientists who claim to know everything about earthly methane have a long series of incorrect predictions to be embarrassed about. The idea that large amounts of methane (aka natural gas) may be present hundreds of miles beneath the earth’s surface is still just barely acceptable to mention in scientific papers — the “fringe” label looms like the sword of damocles over the heads of scientists who dare question conventional wisdom. We’ll talk methane in Chapter 3.

For all we know, the galaxy is littered with space-junk from non-human civilizations. Scientists who point out that other civilizations may have sent out interstellar probes — humans have sent out five so far — risk being labeled “fringe” as if they are claiming to have bedded an alien. Our galaxy may contain a trillion planets: we don’t know how many civilizations have risen and fallen in the past few billion years. We’ll know more soon as telescopes improve. In Chapter 4, we’ll discuss one observation that elicited some interesting commentary.     

Something happened six million years ago to a group of apes. We don’t know what happened, but we wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t happened. Scientists used to think what drove our ancestors out of the trees was the one-two punch of tools and big brains, but now we know those changes came much later. Today, we look in the mirror and see a straight, soft, smooth, curvy primate and no definitive theory tells us why we look the way we look. The answer may be between your thumb and forefinger, but that’s a “fringe” idea. We’ll talk evolution in Chapter 5.

Before we begin discussing these false paradigms holding us back today, we need a way to recognize them without needing to become experts in this or that field. When a handful of experts challenge their peers on the conventional wisdom, how can we determine when the majority, the authorities, are defending a false paradigm? After all, maybe the rebels are just a bunch of mavericks dying to question everything. We need an identifying framework, a template.

If we can find such a thing, maybe non-experts and experts alike can identify false paradigms before they do too much damage. Maybe, if we get good at doing this, the phenomenon of scientists barking up the wrong tree for decades because they ignore their own colleagues will be more of a rarity than it is now. 

To build our template, we need a “textbook case” of irrational certainty. Such a case exists, a tragedy so terrible and so avoidable that it was studied intently by many people who left behind almost a minute-by-minute account of experts convincing themselves they had certainty or near-certainty when they had nothing of the kind. This case is dramatic, powerful, and frighteningly perfect.

On January 28, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle carrying the first “teacher in space,” Christa McAuliffe, and six professional astronauts, launched in historic Florida cold. Engineers who worked daily with the shuttle’s many components watched with sweaty palms. They knew the launch should not be taking place. A minute into the launch, at least some of the engineers breathed a sigh of relief because the most dangerous part had passed.

But thirteen seconds later, the shuttle exploded as McAuliffe’s students watched on live television. The Presidential Commission convened after the disaster interviewed everyone involved and a consensus emerged about what had happened: the Challenger case offers us rare, perhaps unique, clarity.

On the evening of January 27, 1986, a small group of engineers met to decide whether or not it would be safe to launch the shuttle in the historic cold that gripped Florida. These engineers worked for the Utah contractor that built the solid rocket boosters that powered the shuttle. They made the “launch-or-don’t-launch” decision quite quickly and then spent some time gathering the data accumulated over dozens of shuttle flights so that the decision could be made comprehensible to their bosses and the people at NASA who knew the shuttle but didn’t work with these particular components on a daily basis. 

The engineers suspected pairs of O-rings in six places on the solid rocket booster might not work at low temperatures. If the O-rings don’t seal properly in all six joints, hot propellant gases will ignite in the wrong place: the gases will explode rather than propel. There is always fine line between a rocket and an incendiary device, that is, between a rocket and a bomb. In the case of the space shuttle, the O-rings were that fine line.

The O-rings had occasionally not worked properly on previous flights, bringing these flights close to disaster even as they appeared strikingly successful. The engineers were of course extremely concerned; many people at NASA and at the Utah contractor worried about O-rings. An “O-ring task force” had been created to deal with the ongoing concerns and make suggestions for improving safety. Under the circumstances, there was no way the engineers were going to give the “go” signal for a launch in freezing temperatures. They knew that at some unknown lowish temperature, the O-rings would become too “brick-like” — too stiff — to effectively seal the crucial joints in the rocket.

The engineers gathered their data and let their bosses know the launch would have to be canceled and rescheduled. This was a routine occurrence for shuttle launches because each launch depended on many factors including weather in multiple places — shuttle hardware had to be safely recovered at sea post-launch, an aborted launch had to have a safe landing site, and so forth.

The bosses trusted their engineers. If it was too dangerous to fly, it was too dangerous to fly. The bosses sent a fax to NASA informing officials of the situation. That’s when things went bad.

Technically, the fax sent to NASA was a “recommendation,” but since NASA’s policy was to launch only with contractor approval, the fax was, practically speaking, a cancellation of the launch previously scheduled for the next morning.

NASA’s response surprised everyone: NASA officials questioned a safety postponement. This had never happened before. But now NASA officials rejected the engineers’ recommendation. What started as a careful discussion morphed into contentious debate.

It began with the word “appalled.” A NASA official told the engineers and their bosses in Utah that he was “appalled” by the postponement. Another NASA official, setting aside the concern about O-rings becoming like bricks in the cold, added, “My God! When do you want me to launch, next April?”

The low level of discourse given the life-and-death nature of the decision did not, needless to say, make members of the Presidential Commission happy. The national press too was all over these comments when they came to light. When a mechanic looks at an airplane engine and expresses concern, one does not expect his superiors to make comments about his mother’s footwear, but that’s how NASA’s comments sounded to some people. Cartoonists had a field day. NASA administrators said their statements had been repeated without sufficient context.

The chair of the Commission, William Rogers, let the matter of the possibly inappropriate commentary drop. But NASA challenging the contractor’s recommendation was another matter.

NOTE: This and other excerpts have been edited for clarity. See Appendix A for the relevant full-length exchanges.

COMMISSION CHAIR WILLIAM ROGERS: Do  you remember any other occasion when the contractor recommended against launch and that you persuaded them that they were wrong and had them change their mind?


So the debate was unusual, but maybe the comments made by NASA officials had indeed been taken out of context. However, the next stage of the conversation as recounted to the Commission made these odd-sounding comments seem like part of a pattern.

The engineers pointed to two temperature boundaries that seemed relevant. At one temperature, call it X, a partial O-ring failure brought a previous launch close to disaster. Nothing bad had happened on the flight, but when the solid rocket booster was recovered and examined, engineers got a nasty surprise: thick black soot on the wrong side of a crucial O-ring meant it had nearly failed. They recommended to NASA no flights should take place below temperature X: this is what it said on the first fax NASA received.

The other temperature, call it Y, was the lowest temperature any of the rocket components had been tested at. This temperature was lower than X. Surely, the engineers thought, going below temperature Y should be off the table. This was stated during the debate.

Temperature X was 53 degrees; temperature Y was 40 degrees; temperatures in Florida were going to be in the teens overnight and not much better by morning. No data existed that could predict O-ring behavior degree by degree. The sixty-degree temperatures predicted in a few days would be a lot safer. The engineers couldn’t offer much more than that.

The Commission wanted to know what NASA’s issue was with the engineers’ recommendation.

MULLOY: I didn’t find that argument to be very logical at all.

ROGERS: Why is that not logical if he said why don’t you at least require a 40 degree temperature? You say you didn’t think it was logical. It seems very logical to me.

MULLOY: Not on an engineering basis, sir. If one was concerned about data that said 53 degrees is unsafe, there is certainly no logic for launching at 40 degrees.

This was a surreal moment in the hearings. NASA had rejected both the 53-degree boundary and the 40-degree boundary. The shuttle had exploded. The meaning of the term, “logic,” was now at issue. Rogers moved on and just asked, essentially, “Why did you argue with the engineers?”

NOTE: “Thiokol” is the name of the Utah contractor that built the solid rocket boosters.

ROGERS: What is troubling, very seriously troubling, is why you were sure it was okay to launch. You were not able to convince any of the engineers at Thiokol who were working on this on a daily basis.

MULLOY: I was not aware they were not convinced.

This last statement opened up a new line of inquiry. Half a dozen key NASA officials said they didn’t know the engineers were not convinced. All of these officials said they would not have launched had they known that the engineers had in fact simply been over-ruled by their bosses.

During the two-hour debate between NASA officials and the engineers at Thiokol, opinions were abundantly clear, but then the phone lines were muted and Thiokol managers and engineers spent a half hour discussing whether or not to launch the shuttle on its 25th flight.

None of the engineers wanted the shuttle to launch. One of the four managers, Bob Lund, didn’t want to over-rule them. But Lund’s boss, Jerry Mason, suggested he take off his “engineering hat” and put on his “management hat.”

Bob Lund did as suggested and the four managers unanimously over-ruled the engineers in favor of what NASA seemed to want. They got back on the phone with NASA. The launch was now approved. Executives did all the talking. None of the engineers said a word. Thiokol faxed NASA a document signed by executive Joe Kilminster recommending launch. And that was that.

Commission members were not happy with what everyone agreed upon: the temperature data was not conclusive; O-rings get harder in the cold but this can’t be easily quantified; the lack of knowledge was one reason for launching; the two-hour argument didn’t matter in the end.

COMMISSION MEMBER SALLY RIDE: The engineers’ main problem was that they felt their temperature data was inconclusive. They didn’t have the data to quantify what problems the temperature could cause. They didn’t have proof that it was safe. Did you think you had proof? Did you think you had the data to show it was safe?

COMMISSION MEMBER DONALD KUTYNA: If this were an airplane and I just had a two-hour argument with Boeing on whether the wing was going to fall off or not, I think I would tell the pilot, at least mention it.

NASA officials responded to Ride and Kutyna and other Commission members who pushed them on these points by repeatedly (more than ten times) saying that they had “relied on the fax” from the contractor to make the final decision to launch.

MULLOY: I rely on Mr. Kilminster to make a flight readiness recommendation, and he has been doing that for some twenty-four flights now.

NASA OFFICIAL GEORGE HARDY: I clearly know in my mind and again reiterate the fact that I would not recommend launch over the contractor’s objection.

Ultimately, the (rather bizarre) question about whether or not the lack of conclusive, quantifiable evidence about temperature effects on O-rings was a good reason to launch became a focus of the Commission’s investigation. A clarifying moment came during the Commission hearing of 26 February, four hours and thirty-six minutes into that day’s testimony. 

ROGERS: How do you explain the fact that you seemed to change your mind when you changed your hat?

THIOKOL EXECUTIVE BOB LUND: I guess we have to go back a little further . . . I had never had those kinds of things come from the people at NASA. And so we got ourselves into the thought process that we were trying to prove to them it wouldn’t work and we were unable to do that. We couldn’t prove it absolutely.

ROGERS: In other words, you honestly believed that you had a duty to prove that it would not work?

LUND: Well, that is kind of the mode we got ourselves into that evening. It seems like we had always been in the opposite mode. I should have detected that, but I did not. The roles kind of switched.

COMMISSION MEMBER JOSEPH SUTTER: Why didn’t you just tell them it’s our decision, and this is it, and not respond to the pressure?

LUND: As a quarterback on Monday morning, that is probably what I should have done, but you know you work with people and you develop some confidence and I have great confidence in the people at NASA.

COMMISSION MEMBER ARTHUR WALKER: But when it was predicted the temperature at launch was going to be twenty-nine degrees, the O-ring was outside of qualification.

LUND: That is correct.

WALKER: Then how could you make the recommendation to launch if you were more than ten degrees outside of your lowest temperature qualification?

LUND: Our original recommendation, of course, was not to launch.

ROGERS: But something caused you to change your mind. What was it?

LUND: I guess one of the big things was that we really didn’t know whether temperature was the driver or not. The data was inconclusive.

COMMISSION MEMBER RICHARD FEYNMAN: But logically, from the point of view of the engineers, they were explaining why the temperature would have an effect, and when you don’t have conclusive data, you have to use reason, and they were giving reasons.

LUND: That’s right and that is why we included in the fax the fact that temperature could have an effect on the O-rings.

COMMISSION MEMBER ROBERT RUMMEL: I have great difficulty with this. In the usual practice, when there is any real doubt about flight safety, you simply don’t, and it seems to me this is the reverse, and I just have great difficulty understanding your answer. I just haven’t heard it as to why, if there was any doubt in your mind, why you went ahead, why you changed your mind. I just don’t understand it.

At this point, the chair intervened and said Bob Lund had been questioned sufficiently. Lund’s boss, Jerry Mason, the creator of the “hat” analogy, testified along much the same lines.

THIOKOL EXECUTIVE JERRY MASON: In every flight we have had to break some frontiers.

RIDE: The time you go through frontiers is during testing, not during the flight. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

WALKER: Twenty-five degrees outside of your experience base is a large extrapolation.

MASON: That is the certainly the reason we had the extensive debate. We listened to all the arguments and we found ourselves in a position of some uncertainty that we were not able to quantify.

COMMISSION MEMBER DAVID ACHESON: It comes down to a point of view that says the burden of proof is on the people who want to stop the launch.

MASON: Since the incident, we have been searching our minds and our souls on the question of did we address it properly. You know, everyone has said if I could have stopped it, I wish I had. But here we are, trying to present the thought process that we went through that day rather than what we could do over.

The Commission concluded that better communication would have made a launch “highly unlikely” given that Thiokol engineers spent two hours arguing that the likelihood of O-rings failing and the shuttle exploding was too high in freezing temperatures only to run head-on into demands for “conclusive” and “quantitative” data.     

The Commission imagined better communication within the NASA hierarchy. But we wish to focus on the debate itself to see where things went off the rails in a rhetorical sense.

The launch was more or less a coin toss and the engineers knew it. But they couldn’t prove it and so they didn’t say it so starkly. They stuck to the cold, hard facts about the cold, hard O-rings. That was their training. That’s what they were hired to do. But they clearly knew just the same. 

They didn’t say, “Don’t even think about launching.” Maybe it was a matter of minding their places. They didn’t try to take over. They respected the hierarchy.

One of the engineers, the one on-site in Florida, did say this to NASA officials: “If anything happens to this launch, I wouldn’t want to be the person that has to stand in front of a Board of Inquiry.” He received for his trouble a pat on the head: “It’s not your concern.”

In Utah, after Bob Lund changed his mind, two engineers got out of their chairs. They stood next to their still-seated bosses and laid down photographs of the damaged O-rings from a launch with temperatures in the low fifties. “Look carefully at these photographs,” one of them said. All they got were cold stares. 

Engineer Bob Ebeling watched from his chair. He didn’t think the launch was even as safe as a coin toss. He had assisted in the initial presentation to NASA. After his colleagues failed to get anyone to listen to them, Ebeling left the office, went home, and boiled it all down for his wife, Darlene in five words: “It’s going to blow up.”

Ebeling died in 2016 at the age of 89. Before he died, he told the world via an NPR interview that he had never forgiven himself for his inability to convince those who needed convincing. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job,” the former Thiokol engineer said. Ebeling was talking about God. “He picked a loser,” Ebeling said.

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, one of the physicists on the Commission, believed the problems at NASA ran deep. He didn’t mince words when he concluded his appendix to the Commission’s report as follows: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Feynman believed overzealous launch schedules in pursuit of public relations encouraged NASA officials to ignore reality. NASA administrators, he wrote, had been engaging in “fantasy” when it came to safety concerns. During the hearings, he called the process by which NASA accepted more and more risk as the number of successful flights increased “a kind of Russian roulette” and this comment became part of the Commission’s main report.

The Challenger tragedy is for us a touchstone for irrationality in general and also a touchstone for a pointless form of debating in which one or both “sides” cleaves to a preconceived notion and cannot be moved. We have before us a “textbook case” of how not to think.    

We’ve already laid the groundwork for the template we will construct in Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, we will see how the template fares when put up against the already-resolved ulcer debacle. In Chapters 3-6 we will use our template to elucidate four ongoing cases in which a majority of experts claims certainty in the face of rebellion from some of their own colleagues.

All of us, the present author included, have learned a great deal of “conventional wisdom” that we quite reasonably accept — after all, if the vast majority of experts are absolutely certain of a thing, surely they must have solid evidence. Sometimes they do; but sometimes they don’t.

Fortunately, one does not have to be an expert to recognize when the experts are fooling themselves. Our template, together with arguments made by rebellious experts, will help us to see what is going on. But it is the majority experts’ own arguments that will be crucial for us. This essay will claim that spotting guesswork masquerading as certainty is as easy as seeing sparks fly from a magician’s wand.

Shakespeare’s Titania offers a fanciful and cautionary tale. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania, under a spell, falls in love with an ass. Among scientists, professors, and scholars of all types, a false paradigm often takes root after the equivalent of a “spell” has been cast. 

(The ability of Shakespeare to have Titania/Queen Elizabeth fall in love with an ass has caused some controversy among academics a small number of whom believe Shakespeare had to have had a direct connection to the Queen in order say essentially anything he wanted and get away with it: this “audacity” — as Harold Bloom called it — means different things to different scholars. The controversy has majority scholars bragging about the “walls” they’ve built to block dissent. This will be the topic of Chapter 6.)

A false paradigm “spell” is not performed by a magical creature of the forest: it is a finding or claim that is taken as definitive without good reason. The claim might be made by an especially highly regarded individual or it may be nothing more than a wild guess that stuck around so long everyone saw it as an evidence-based theory even though it’s asinine. 

When rebellious experts begin questioning the false paradigm, when they point fingers and cite evidence or even prove it dead wrong, the “spell” would seem to have worn off. But now the rebels have a new enemy: pride, the same pride that made the proverbial emperor strut naked.

The real-life emperors we will meet in what follows claim to be absolutely sure they are fully clothed in spite of polite comments from wide-eyed colleagues. Professor-emperors with storied careers in positions of authority like to say their rebellious colleagues are nuisances. But they act as if they fear the results of even a brief downward glance.

The emperors instinctively cover sensitive areas. “I am most certainly not naked,” they say. Their arguments are quite convincing though not in the way they would like. Sometimes false paradigms are so obvious it makes me blush. Some emperors are not just naked: some are naked, covered with oil, and dancing on tables.

Chapter 1: The Four Horsemen of the False Paradigm


The battle to block VSL followed the pattern we will see in the ten examples we will look at here (I guess VSL is our “zeroth” example). The first thing you have to do if you want to prevent all creativity, block all original thought, push hard the idea that “anything new is bad” (that’s from Joao’s book) is get away from evidence. The best way to get away from evidence is to start with insults like “very silly” and move on to nonsense. Joao describes some of his colleagues as behaving like “rabid dogs.”

Next those whose lifework is to defend tradition can move into the evidence-based part of the battle. The key is to reverse the burden of proof. In other words, the old theory is right as long as it is possible that it is right. You are the authority so possible is good enough. If you can create plausible scenario, even if you have to make it up, even if your scenario is unprecedented, intrinsically unlikely, and/or just plain idiotic, that doesn’t matter.

The old theory or the preconceived notion is automatically assumed to be true unless the challengers have absolute, 100%, perfect, untouchable, video-and-audio-and-fifty-eye-witness proof that their new theory is right, the old theory will continue to be the standard no matter how weak it is. Reversal of burden of proof happens all the time.

In science the burden of proof is not supposed to be placed on any particular scientist but often is. The claim is often made, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” where an “extraordinary claim” is any idea that isn’t the old idea. In Joao’s case, his claim that the speed of light might not be constant over astronomical timescales was treated as “extraordinary.” However, physicists have zero idea about this: there is nothing even slightly extraordinary about the claim. Either the speed of light evolved or it didn’t. We just don’t know.

In a courtroom, the burden of proof is supposed to be placed on the prosecution. And yet legal scholars know well that juries can easily drop “innocent until proven guilty” and drift into “guilty unless proven innocent.” All it takes is a taste of a preconceived notion and suddenly a jury is perfectly willing to believe someone who has a provocative tattoo is guilty of murder even when there is no real evidence. People can die as a result.

This process in which evidence is first ignored via insults and nonsense and in which burden of proof is used as a weapon to elevate plausible scenarios for the mainstream and crush even very solid evidence presented by the mainstream’s rebellious colleague is something we will see again and again. I call insults, nonsense, plausible scenarios, and demands for perfection the “four horsemen of the false paradigm.”

A “false paradigm” might be a preconceived notion or an outdated theory or just a plain old mistake or even an unstated assumption that has been accepted by so many people for so long that it has become entrenched. It might come from a time before there was any real evidence either for or against it and it might have become entrenched just by happenstance. A mountain of new evidence might contradict it to the point where if it were proposed now, it would just be laughed it.

In Joao’s case, he ran into an unstated assumption that the speed of light has been constant from the beginning of the universe. It wasn’t even a theory, it was just what was in the back of physicists’ minds because the speed of light is called a physical constant and “constant” must mean constant forever. But of course it means no such thing. In the Challenger case, the false paradigm was a preconceived notion — the shuttle is safe unless I see it actually explode.

We will look at a false paradigm that resulted from a mistake made by a medical researcher that was accepted as fact and that persisted for forty years while people (including my great uncle) died from a curable illness. We will look at a false paradigm in chemistry that was a guess made before chemistry was even invented and that has persisted to the present day as common knowledge even though modern chemistry has pretty much proven the old guess to be a dead end useless theory that scientists regularly champion but never actually use. In this case, a number of credentialed experts have stated a simple and compelling alternative theory — I’ve spent years looking for any coherent refutation of this alternative idea and have found nothing but insults, nonsense, plausibility arguments, and demands for perfection.

False paradigms can be identified of course by mainstream “four horsemen” arguments. But false paradigms also have a two interesting precursor characteristics that can allow for a “quick and dirty” identification. The first question to ask is, “What happens if you reverse the hierarchy?” In the Challenger case disaster would have been averted by simply asking Christa McAuliffe (or one of her high school students) to weigh in. In Joao’s case, any student studying physics could be asked whether or not we should consider the possibility that physical constants can evolve and all would say “of course.” Only the arduous process of becoming a tenured professor would cause someone to worry that the idea is too “radical.”

The other trick aside from a hierarchy reversal (or just asking yourself what happens if we reverse the hierarchy) is to check to see if the theory you suspect is a false paradigm is actually ever used and if it is used, it is being used successfully. There are, after all, many useful paradigms in engineering, medicine, and science and they become deeply entrenched not simply because a lot of people accept them but because they are amazingly useful. These paradigms I call “Kuhnian paradigms” after the philosopher Thomas Kuhn who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 

Kuhn made a strong case that paradigms used by experts are good things even if they are a little rigid sometimes because they are so powerful that they allow experts to make progress that would be impossible if said experts were constantly questioning the paradigm. So Kuhn’s book might be said to be about the bright side of the paradigm coin.

False paradigms are the dark side. They are NOT useful or powerful. And their lack of value and power is often evident because a false paradigm might have never even been proposed before it was needed to block someone’s idea — it might have been made up just for the occasion. Or a false paradigm might have been accepted for a long time but effectively ignored by researchers who have to ignore it because if they didn’t, they would get stuck and never make any progress. Or a false paradigm might get used a lot with horrific results.

In the Challenger case the theory that “the space shuttle is safe” was brand new. The engineers who were used to the essentially the opposite assumption — space flight is dangerous — normally had to prove to skeptical people at NASA that this or that concern had been adequately addressed. They were blindsided by the sudden appearance of a new (false) paradigm, one that hadn’t existed before that day in 1986.

In Joao’s case too, the false paradigm he had to deal with — the speed of light is constant on astronomical timescales — might have been a tacit assumption in the backs of the minds of many physicists but was never a theory. Joao, like the space shuttle engineers, was fighting a ghost, a theory that came into existence just to stop him from publishing.

The medical case in which people died for forty years because of a mistake we will see came about because of a false paradigm that took hold but was largely useless: doctors used it to try to help people but usually failed. In the chemistry case, the false paradigm has simply been ignored: the theory is probably wrong but this fact has little practical impact because no one uses it to do anything which is a good reason to consider moving on (aka getting off the table and getting dressed). I doubt either of these theories could have convinced students if they, the students, were allowed to form any opinion they wanted to: again, sometimes only tenured professors are vulnerable to false paradigms.

So we’ve got our two precursors: a previously nonexistent or useless theory might be a false paradigm; a theory that would instantly crumble with a reversed hierarchy might be a false paradigm. And we’ve got our four horsemen. If the mainstream is challenged by their own colleagues and they respond with insults backed up by nonsense, gibberish, foaming mouths, circular reasoning, and wild illogic we can then expect two more horsemen to come forth and mindlessly defend the status quo with plausible scenarios presented as certainties and demands that all new idea be perfect and proven beyond doubt.

False paradigms are, this essay hopes to show, self refuting. As a result, this essay claims, they are  not only easy to identify but this identification can be established by any thoughtful group of people via consensus: no clever debating is necessary. Members of this hypothetical “thoughtful group of people” might disagree about the probability of the mainstream’s false paradigm someday being proven correct after all (50%, 10%, 1% or 0%) but, I claim, can agree on the status of the paradigm as false — as an idea claimed by experts to be virtually certain that is in fact very much up in the air and that is disputed by a minority of experts.

Of course, there may be false paradigms that are accepted by all experts but those are, as the saying goes, “beyond the scope of this work.” It’s hard enough dealing with the false paradigms for which there is extensive minority expert commentary explaining why the mainstream has mired itself in cement. Trying to marshal one’s facts in the case of a suspected false paradigm and making the crucial first step of determining what common ground exists for all observers is just too hard without credentialed experts who have weighed in. “Too hard” doesn’t mean “impossible” of course but we’re not going to attempt it here: all four of the modern false paradigms we discuss have extensive expert analysis and a clear common set of facts for us to work with.

Before we see how the four horsemen killed seven people aboard the Challenger and before we walk through the graveyard populated with the victims of five other false paradigms and before we look at how the lack of a culture of open discussion in our scholarly community has led to the adoption of at least four false paradigms by practically the whole world, it behooves us to have look at Kuhn’s work. After all, he coined the term paradigm shift and my use of the word “paradigm” was inspired by his work.

Kuhnian paradigms are as different from false paradigms as can be imagined: when a Kuhnian paradigm is overthrown, that’s a scientific breakthrough and everything changes, but when a false paradigm is finally cast off, progress continues as before but without the ball and chain of a dead end idea. But, as the reader has undoubtedly guess, there is an important connection between the two side of the paradigm coin.







Each of these cases will have its own “Monday morning quarterback” moment, the commentary from the mainstream that reveals why they are not susceptible to discussion, logic, evidence, or even reality itself. In the Challenger case, part of the tragedy is that the engineers — many of whom still feel guilty today because they weren’t able to get through to their colleagues — didn’t know what they were up against.

Part of the motivation of this essay is to provide us with some understanding of just how bad bad can get when a preconceived notion gets its jaws around our experts. With understanding may come strategies for reform and improvement to systems and for dealing with mindless resistance to reality when it does rear its head. We’ll discuss some of these strategies in the following chapter.


Insults, nonsense, perfection, plausibility. Get away from evidence. Reversal of burden of proof.

Reverse hierarchy, squash dissent, ignore own theory, adjust theory.

Rating system








To understand the ubiquity of folly we will look at six examples from the past in which intelligent, credentialed, upstanding, experienced, authoritative, good-looking, well-dressed, well-paid, well-spoken, professional, decorated, titled, highly respected, thoughtful, decent, caring, knowledgeable experts claimed absolute certainty. In these six cases, the fools weren’t so lucky. People died, in some cases a lot of people.

Armed with the six horrific lessons and having examined the commonalities that bind them together, we will next look at four non-life-threatening examples of egregious folly with which we are beset right now, today. These are four ideas that intelligent, credentialed, upstanding, . . . etc., people have saddled us with, four ideas that just about everyone takes for granted.

In all four ongoing cases, a minority of credentialed experts have rebelled against their colleagues and have pointed out that the emperor is stark naked and covered with grease. These classic nude emperors strut with such smug certainty that they are basically caressing shiny quivering bodies to the point of deeply embarrassing obscenity. We’re way beyond walking around in underwear. It’s actually a little gross.

In all four cases we will examine, a majority of respected emperors have shouted down their own colleagues claiming certainty or near-certainty displaying a level of unbridled hubris that makes me happy no lives are at stake. No lives are at stake. And yet sometimes if feels that lives are at stake. The four ongoing cases are all in academia involving research and evidence and knowledge and experience and so forth. All four bits of overstated certainty have become common knowledge to the general public and serve as stark reminders of the power of experts immersed in hierarchies to deceive themselves and us.

In all four cases, credentialed professionals have not only silenced many of their own colleagues who have independently put forth carefully reasoned, evidence-based arguments that in some cases almost reach the level of proof (!) but the naked, shiny people atop professional hierarchies have also been amazingly effective at labeling interesting ideas as “fringe” by engaging in tactics commonly used by schoolyard bullies.

As a result, you have to be pretty open-minded to read this essay especially if you skip past the six already resolved false paradigms which prepare the reader to accept the possibility that usually intelligent authorities can be out of their minds sometimes and can fool a whole world. Propaganda is a powerful thing and it’s not just on the radio.

Now any bright new idea can be made to look interesting and/or plausible so one cannot risk embracing a cool new idea just because it is cool and new and advanced by this or that expert — all fields have their mavericks and they can’t always be taken at face value even if they are credentialed. In the four cases we will examine, it is the mainstream’s response to their rebel colleagues that really opens one’s eyes. When the mainstreamers make the rebels’ arguments for them, one really has to begin to wonder. Indeed, in all four cases it is as if the mainstreamers know deep down that something really is rotten in the state of Denmark.

They seem to know but they just can’t bring themselves to admit it even though in many cases the rebels are merely asking the mainstream to take their own, mainstream, research seriously. It often seems like their shouldn’t be such a bitter controversy at all because there is so much common ground.

One might look at a well-reasoned, evidence-based challenge to conventional wisdom put forward by multiple independent credentialed experts working at accredited institutions all over the world and wonder why the discussion of the issue can’t simply take place in mainstream professional journals. Eventually, a consensus would be reached. Why would the mainstream build walls blockading their own colleagues and then brag about the walls they’ve built?

Sometimes, looking at what the mainstreamers and the rebels say, one wonders what the fight is about. Tradition vs progress? Pride? What’s going on? It’s truly bizarre and this essay won’t answer these questions.

When one reads the mainstream’s responses to their colleagues (who must often create their own minority journals), one might feel a little embarrassed. In some (or all) of these cases, mainstreamers aren’t just naked and covered with oil, they can be seen dancing on tables in crowded restaurants. Now I’m no prude and I think if you want to strip and dance in public, well okay. I don’t care what your body looks like. If you want to have fun and there are no children around, go for it.

But a professional journal seems to me a sacred place like a church or temple or mosque or other place of worship. Does the dancing really have to extend to professional journals? Surely professors who are the keepers of the chalice of rationality can respectfully discuss — with the help of impartial journal editors acting as referees — any topic of interest.

But they can’t and they don’t. And I don’t know why.

I considered “Dancing Naked on a Table in Public” as the title of this book but decided that might be misleading for some readers and deeply disappointing for other readers. So I settled on the less provocative term false paradigm to describe what happens when experts say they are sure of something when really they aren’t at all sure and might well be wrong, when they say they are so sure that they feel justified building walls, and when they brag about the walls they’ve built.

I don’t know if I can convince journal editors to act as impartial referees as opposed to rabid fans. I don’t think I can. I’m hoping to convince students that this should be that case so that when the students become professors and when they have some power, maybe they will insist on open-minded journals as opposed to ones surrounded by walls of pure mindless, status-conscious, knee-jerk drivel.

I should note for the readers benefit that my evident frustration with journals is much more general than personal. I’ve only published one academic paper as sole author and it was accepted just fine by a journal. I explained the Twin Paradox in relativity in an especially simple way and the journal and the referees were fine with it. That same journal then asked me to referee someone else’s paper and I had to recommend rejection because several of the calculations were just plain wrong. I don’t think I had the final say on that particular paper and I don’t know if the author was able to correct his equations and get his work published. I say all this to make it clear that I have no problem with the idea of journals and referees and so forth. My problem is when I read about challenges to conventional wisdom that I would immediately publish if I were a journal editor and I find out there’s a wall.

A perfect example, sort of a zeroth example for us as it is not one of the ten false paradigms we will study in detail, is discussed in a book called Faster Than the Speed of Light written by a physicist working in the highly speculative field of big bang cosmology (how the universe may have begun). He and other physicists independently realized that the speed of light, although it doesn’t seem to evolve or change as time goes on relative to the other physical constants, may have been faster 14 billion years ago when the universe may have looked a lot different from how it looks now.

Actually going faster than the speed of light would be a Kuhnian paradigm shift and would be revolutionary like turning off gravity or controlling the electric force to the point where you could walk through a wall or something absolutely crazy like that. That level of revolution may happen in a hundred years or in a million years when our descendants (if any) will look a lot different from us or it may never happen. But this physicist was just pointing out that we don’t actually know that the physical constants are constant on astronomical timescales and, if the speed of light was faster billions of years ago, that may explain some of the features of our current universe.

I know for a fact that many physicists had this same idea. It is, as the author of the book points out, rather obvious: a fast speed of light makes the universe much more connected, effectively smaller and therefore more homogeneous and this can help a lot with big bang theory. Of course actually creating a detailed theory of a variable speed of light (VSL) is quite difficult and only a handful of people did it.

They were all blockaded by their own colleagues and not because they had their equations wrong but simply because their theory differed from the conventional wisdom which was that the homogeneity of the universe was explained by a rapid expansion of the universe that happened 14 billion years ago called “inflation” which is an ad hoc plausible theory that helps the big bang theorists come out with coherent models but is far from proven.

Nevertheless, it took ten years or more before VSL became the thriving sub-field it is today. Why would professional physicists working in the most speculative area in all of physics stop their colleagues from pursuing interesting new ideas? Was it simply because no physicist had ever tried to discuss the possible evolution of physical constants? Is a physical constant to a narrow-minded physicist like mommy and daddy, always perfect and never changing?

I don’t know what the problem was.

Our goal will be to begin to create a template that will help us identify false paradigms. We will look at six false paradigms of the past — horrific but now resolved though not without great human cost — in order to identify commonalities. What is the fingerprint of a false paradigm?

I must note here that identifying a false paradigm is not the same as proving it wrong. Experts can be absolutely sure of something they have no business being sure of and be right and then smugly say, “I told you so,” even though they were just lucky. Then again, the mainstream, which seems unduly enamored of absolute certainty (let’s face it sometimes a group of mainstreamers all hot and bothered about their precious theory act like teenage boys at a bikini contest disguised wrinkled professors wearing staid ties) seems to crash and burn again and again.

Another important note: false paradigms are NOT the same as Kuhnian paradigms. The paradigms Thomas Kuhn talked about in his famous book and the idea of a paradigm shift are MUCH bigger deals that false paradigms. A false paradigm is simply a dead end that has hobbled a field. It may have killed people. When a false paradigm is finally thrown out, scholars can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with their work; there’s been no breakthrough.

First, creative and clever insults are made almost ubiquitous by a mainstream that becomes dedicated not pursuing reality or humanity or safety or life but to power and control. Anyone can throw around an insult or two when they are arguing a point, but the insults, in the case of a false paradigm, take on a different character. When a false paradigm is holding court, insults are not just primal but primary, they become central to the “argument” made by the ruling class and are repeated again and again like talking points in politics.

Once the credentialed professionals making reasoned arguments about the possibility that maybe their colleagues have been barking up the wrong tree for a long time (or are killing people) have been put in their place by insults, the people who care only about winning the argument throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. They know they can make up nonsense faster than it can be refuted and they use this fact to their advantage. Mainstream arguments supporting false paradigms contain overt circular reasoning, wordplay utterly devoid of logic, and clever zingers presented as if they end all possibility of discussion. Sometimes even utter nonsense is shamelessly stated or put in print and then repeated with straight faces even after it has been embarrassingly refuted.

Again, a real argument might have mistakes in logic or wordplay but in the false paradigm world sometimes the entire argument boils down to “we know we’re right because we’re right and therefore we’re right.”

Insults and nonsense are just the warmup. No theory or knowledge is perfect, so any rebel argument can be attacked on this entirely correct basis. The mainstream, defending a false paradigm that may only have a one percent chance of being true will demand that any alternative theory be proven beyond any doubt whatsoever in order to be published. Sometimes they will say this in writing. The “your theory isn’t perfect” approach is quite powerful because, after all, it is always true — no theory is perfect. This trick is used in politics all the time. No policy is perfect so whoever is pushing the policy can be said to “not care” about the people because this policy will have this or that (very real) negative effect.

Finally, we see in all false paradigms pushed by a terrified mainstream, the ubiquitous plausibility argument. Anything is possible. Any theory might be true. We know our theory is true (circular reasoning) and so this or that problem with it “must be” explainable by this or that possible scenario (plausibility argument). Sometimes the entire mainstream theory is one long possible scenario. If you are in power and in control of professional journals and have a death grip on professional and public opinion, all you have to do is create a “must be the case” scenario in which your theory is true and then that’s it, you’re done and you can go home and continue your work whilst ignoring the useless theory you are defending to your dying day.

Even before looking at what mainstream false paradigm warriors say, a failed idea can be identified by one or more of the following four precursors. First, a false paradigm may be strongly touted but not actually used in practice. Second, false paradigms often require constant extreme adjustment to fit new facts. Third, false paradigms can’t tolerate challenge; dissent must be squashed, sometimes viciously. Finally, if a reversal of the hierarchy dooms an idea, it may be a false paradigm.

Suppose your teacher is boarding a space shuttle. Suppose you are told that the engineers who are asked to sign off on the safety of the launch have unanimously said, “No way can we launch today because, under the present circumstances, the launch is a live-or-die coin toss for which the astronauts did not sign up; if we launch, heads says all is well, tails says the shuttle explodes takeoff so we need to postpone the launch.”

Those weren’t the exact words of the engineers. We will quote them precisely below. But they said words to that effect. No sane person would launch. You would not. I would not. Christ McAuliffe’s students would not. The fact that building space shuttles is rocket science is irrelevant: the launch-or-don’t-launch decision process is NOT rocket science. Anyone can see that the engineers should be listened to.

As part of our work towards understanding false paradigms, we will examine the arguments from atop the hierarchy, the arguments that killed seven people. We will see that they began with insults. They then threw logic to the four winds. That was the warmup. Next, they carefully and correctly and mindlessly and fatally pointed out very real imperfections in the engineers’ knowledge. Finally, the top people in the hierarchy squeezed out a perfectly sound plausible case for the possibility that the shuttle might not explode based on real experience with the actual shuttleOn this basis, the engineers were over-ruled.

It sounds absurd and it is absurd and it really happened and it happens all the time. It’s difficult to capture in words how absurd it all is. Writing a longish essay about this phenomenon as it applies to the whole world may help me to get a handle on the absurdity of it all OR it will do nothing of the kind.

I like to imagine asking one of Christa McAuliffe’s students to make the final launch decision. It’s reversing the hierarchy. One needn’t actually do this; one needs only to remember that reversing the hierarchy or imagining the hierarchy reversed offers one a certain amount of wisdom to which one might not otherwise have access.

I was a teacher for a long time and I did teach my students but I like to say I learned as much from them as I ever taught to them. And I really did. Hierarchies are okay. I do know more physics and more calculus than most of my students did. But they still had plenty to teach me. A child’s voice would have been helpful on that day cold day in January.

“Daddy, why are they doing to the count-down when the engineers say not to?”

No matter how much I learn about the Challenger disaster I can’t answer that simple question. Maybe there is no answer. What is clear however, is that it happens all the time. Hierarchical thinking if that’s what you want to call it is commonplace. It’s a ball and chain attached either to our throats or our ankles. When it isn’t killing people, it is hobbling in our quest for understanding.

False paradigms, this essay hopes to demonstrate, besiege the world. Experts say they are certain or nearly certain about this or that thing that may be life-and-death or extremely important or just interesting and the world accepts the judgment handed down from on high.

Again and again we find the Kings of the Land of Absolute Certainty have colleagues pointing out their folly. But the Kings control the discussion. Dissent gets squashed. False paradigms rule.

False paradigms of the past will illuminate for us false paradigms of the present. After cutting our teeth as it were on six “ghosts of false paradigms past,” and after mourning the people who died as a result of these false paradigms we will examine four false paradigms currently wrapped around our ankles but so far not killing anyone.

Four ideas that most of us have taken to heart because we have trusted the hierarchy of experts are actually no nearly so certain as certain Kings would have us believe. And lots of credentialed experts trained by those very Kings are saying so with well-reasoned evidence-based commentary definitely solid enough to be worthy of publication in professional journals. But dissent gets blocked.

I have a rating system that I will apply to the false paradigms of the past and that readers may choose to use (or not use) to rate the false paradigms of the present.

My rating system is morbid, maybe too morbid. The morbidity came about because the false paradigms of the past that we will discuss killed so many people. It’s true that the four false paradigms of the present that we will discuss haven’t killed anyone yet but I nevertheless can’t accept them as part a natural part of the process by which we, by hook and by crook, try to understand the world.

Even false paradigms that don’t kill seem terribly dangerous to me. Suppose I say the Moon is made of green cheese and then suppose I insist that everyone who studies the Moon accepts that idea. Okay, I’m an emperor with no clothes. Eventually I will be laughed at. But for the time being, I’m controlling how people are allowed to think. The emperor story ends with people laughing. I just don’t think real-life thought control stories end that way and I think the past false paradigms that killed people can come back in another form if we aren’t careful about how we think.

Let’s start with the launch of the Challenger space shuttle carrying Christa McAuliffe and six professional astronauts. Shuttles don’t launch unless everyone involved says a successful launch is a near-certainty. The temperature was 20 degrees above zero Fahrenheit, the O-rings were frozen, and the low-ranking experts closest to the actual day-to-day implementation of the technology said it was a coin toss whether or not the O-rings would leak on takeoff and cause the shuttle to explode: they had reams of evidence supporting this view point and they were unanimous.

The shuttle actually might have launched successfully even under those circumstances. It’s hard to do real estimate of what the actual probabilities were because we can’t set up a hundred similar situations and do the experiment. But a coin toss is an okay guess about how dangerous this way. So the people who over-ruled the engineers were claiming near-certainty about a coin toss and they had zero reason for doing this. They had no evidence, no dissent from with the ranks of the engineers. They didn’t even claim to have anything. They just decided.

Claiming certainty when it’s really a toss-up gets a “one space shuttle” rating whether or not it’s a life-or-death situation.

It gets worse of course. Certainty is sometimes claimed when it isn’t even a toss-up. Suppose it was forty below zero outside. The O-rings might seal. Anything is possible. Now there’s maybe a ten percent chance the shuttle won’t blow up. Russian roulette with five bullets in a six shooter would offer better odds. I know! Let’s launch anyway.

Claiming near-certainty when there’s only a 10% chance you are correct and ignoring your professional colleagues who point this out to you gets a “two space shuttle” rating. Amazingly, even this happens all the time. Sometimes people die, sometimes the world is numbed by mindlessness.

Is that as bad as it gets? Well, no.

It’s forty below zero AND the O-rings are visibly leaking. At best there’s a one percent chance of a successful launch. Let’s launch anyway. Why? Because we’re absolutely sure. A doctor in Vienna in the 19th century figured out that hand-washing before delivering babies could save thousands of women from “childbed fever” which you might call “I didn’t wash my hands and my patient died fever.” He pretty much proved his point. He was run out of town, literally. It took additional decades before doctors figured it out. Sure, it wasn’t exactly clear what was going on because no one knew about germs, not even the doctor who figured out hand-washing, but the bottom line is this: he knew and he had almost complete proof.

Lest you think “three space shuttle” certitude is something we’ve outgrown, something very similar happened again in the 20th century and people died, again, for no reason, my great uncle included. You may decide one of the ongoing false paradigm cases deserves a “three space shuttle authorities claim certainty but they are almost certainly wrong” rating. That will be your call.

Finally, we reach the horrific “four space shuttle” level. Your theory or idea or claim is utter nonsense and always has been. There is zero chance you and your colleagues are anything but charlatans though you all may have convinced yourselves that you are “real scientists.” And you’ve convinced a whole system or even a whole world that you are correct with your theory or idea or claim. You think, for example, you can determine arson from patterns in burn marks. You convince the U.S. legal system. People wind up on death row based on the testimony of your “arson investigators.” A man is executed in Texas in 2004.

“I didn’t murder my three children,” the man says as the poison goes into his vein. A year later, the U.S. court system bans “arson investigation” from its hallowed halls now permanently stained with the blood of a broken-hearted innocent. The New Yorker covers the story. Sixty Minutes does a piece on it. The Innocence Project is well aware.

But are we? Could anyone launch a space shuttle in forty below weather with visibly leaking O-rings and then, AFTER the shuttle explodes with the cockpit intact, would anyone watch it arc into the Atlantic Ocean with the crew inside still alive and say, “Oh, it’ll be okay.”?

Well, yes, we did do that, metaphorically. We allowed for many years in court a procedure with no more validity than Madame Trelawney’s tea-leaf reading: arson investigation by eye with no chemical testing. Todd Willingham was executed in the United States in the 21st century on the basis of “pour patterns” which don’t actually exist in real life. Todd had some things to be grateful for: while he lived and before death row and before the fire he had his three babies whom he loved more than anything he ever knew in his life. Nevertheless, very few people suffer as Todd Willingham suffered. Todd’s totally pointless death gets four space shuttles.

Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the crew actually did survive the explosion. They died instantly when the cockpit slammed into the Atlantic Ocean. No one is on record as having claimed they would survive such a crash but if someone can approve the launch in the first place, I suppose that person is capable of anything.

The Challenger crew died because an administrator at NASA and four top bosses at Morton Thiokol (that’s the company that built the engines) lost sight of reality just as I did when I pulled the switch on that magnet AND when reality was pointed out to them by their own colleagues, they didn’t budge.

How can professionals avoid losing sight of reality. First of all, they can resolve to listen to their junior colleagues. Full-on hierarchy reversals work too. If Christa McAuliffe had been asked about launching (this would have been easy to do) she would have instantly said, “Go with the engineers’ recommendation.”

And that would have been that.

For scientific disputes, it’s not that hard for journal editors to act as impartial referees as opposed to rabid fans. Most credentialed experts know how to write a well-reasoned scientific paper. Even if it’s a “fringe” idea, it might be right and even if the old theory is right, professionally written challenges to that theory will do nothing but make it stronger. Censorship is not necessary.

When in doubt, journal editors can use hierarchy reversal. Students can be asked whether this or that topic should be acceptable for discussion. Let’s look at an example, over and done with, of a false paradigm to see how this can work.

In my own field, a theory called VSL (variable speed of light) was not meant as a breakthrough or anything like that. No one knows how or when physical constants got set to their present values. Some of the constants may well vary over large enough expanses of time and/or space.

Today, the idea that the speed of light was faster in the early evolution of the universe is a thriving sub-field in a speculative area of physics sometimes called big bang cosmology. Faster Than the Speed of Light documents the ten-year effort to get the physics community to drop a rather trivial false paradigm. Any student could have told the journal editors, “No, of course we don’t know that the speed of light has been constant since the beginning of the universe, so of course you should accept a professionally written paper introducing VSL.”

VSL was actually developed by a number of people independently and I know for a fact that many physicists considered the idea without trying to publish a detailed theory. It’s a pretty obvious idea, actually, if you are a physicist. The ten-year blockading is absolutely absurd. The book about it is worth reading: the physics is described at the non-specialist level and the profanity that comes up now and then is entirely appropriate.

At some level, this essay is simply an argument for journal editors to act as impartial referees. The rabid fan thing is just absurd. So I think I’m wrong saying I’m arguing for that. I’m taking it as a premise. I daresay anyone would and no, being skeptical and careful is not the same as blockading for ten years. Being skeptical and careful is not the same as derision and insults and maligning and approbation and threats to careers. In fact, going out on a limb is to be celebrated.

So what if you’re wrong. The editor who published relativity in 1905 assumed Einstein (a totally unknown physicist working in a patent office) was wrong about the universe having a speed limit but he published the paper anyway because the theory was clearly spelled out so why not publish it? The propagation of light had been a huge mystery since Maxwell discovered it was basically ghostly electricity zipping along all by itself with no propulsion except mathematics. Einstein’s paper of 1905 simultaneously clarified and deepened the mystery and so it was quite interesting to discuss even if Albert was sticking his unknown neck way out there.

Being a good journal editor is not that hard.

Einstein’s theory was a huge breakthrough and quite hard to believe and truly revolutionary so I would have forgiven a journal editor for being extremely skeptical and I can forgive scientists for not accepting relativity for many years. I mean, if you have a particle accelerator, relativity slaps you in the face. I like to tell people that I could have easily discovered relativity. And I could have. Give me a particle accelerator and I’ll have the whole theory worked out in a few weeks. I should not that a smarter physicist than me armed with an accelerator and no knowledge of relativity would have the theory worked in a matter of hours.

VSL, on the other hand, was just an idea to add to the plethora of speculation about the early universe. It got blocked not out of healthy skepticism but because of a false paradigm.

The false paradigm that the speed of light has been constant for the past 14 billion years (a claim for which there is no evidence) can be identified as such partly because abandoning it is not only painless, it is freeing. After all, as any student of physics could have told the journal editors, there’s no theory at all about how the physical constants came to be at their present values.

One particularly stupid journal editor said VSL theory couldn’t be published until it was proven beyond doubt. A more fatuous argument can hardly be imagined. This essay takes as a premise that journal editors should be open minded and intelligent (having an ivy league degree does not guarantee that a person is open-minded and intelligent). Dissent and interesting ideas are good things to be encouraged. This we hold to be self-evident. We claim here as well that there’s plenty of high quality dissent out there for journal editors to publish. Thus, if your journal is nightmarishly boring, there’s no excuse. And no, journals that publish big bang cosmology don’t need to create a special journal for speculative theories — all of big bang cosmology is speculative for god’s sake.

If a field is loaded with propaganda writhing like so many pythons and if exaggerated claims of certainty where there is none to be had is the norm and if that field has successfully used threats to control professional meetings and tenure decisions and so forth and if that field has pushed its agenda onto the general public, then it is up to impartial journal editors and rebellious credentialed experts to remedy the situation.

I don’t actually know how to get what I am proposing to actually happen, but I claim it can be done and I offer this essay as a tool, perhaps to be wielded by students.

The distinction between breakthroughs or, as Thomas Kuhn put it, paradigm shifts, is crucial for us.

False paradigms are not like Kuhnian paradigms; false paradigms are not the basis of whole fields of endeavor. False paradigms are dead ends. One way, in fact, to determine right away that an idea or theory or claim might be a false paradigm is if it is touted again and again as absolute truth but ignored in practice even by those paying lip service to the “official” story.

Dropping a false paradigm is not at all the same as creating a new paradigm. There’s no paradigm shift. When a false paradigm is finally recognized as such, one is simply able to go on with scholarship or research without the ball and chain of nonsense. A few books (maybe more than a few) have to come out in new editions to account for the change and some new books have to be written, but mostly the field is unchanged.

A false paradigm does not define a field which, as a practical matter, has to have continued on without the false paradigm because if it didn’t no progress could be made. Once the false paradigm is dropped, however, progress might well accelerate. But it will do so along lines already well mapped.

An example of a true paradigm shift in my field would be if someone found a way to make a particle go faster than the speed of light. I would scoff at any such claim. That’s natural expert resistance to paradigm shifts. Sure, someday some descendant of ours that looks nothing like us will (if we survive long enough to have descendants) be able to turn off gravity or go faster than light. Or maybe they’ll be able to turn off the electric forces between them and, say, a wall and walk right through the wall as if it isn’t’ there just as trillions of neutrinos pass through your body and the entire planet every second.

Anything is possible. But I’m not dropping relativity lightly (get it?). I’m an expert. I’m supposed to be resistant to paradigm shifts and I am indeed resistant just as Thomas Kuhn famously noted in his book. We will need to talk about Kuhn a bit because this essay can be said to be about the flip side or the dark side of Kuhn’s paradigms.

All four of the ongoing false paradigms we will discuss are well known to the general public. In fact, the extent to which the false paradigms have become part of the public’s mindset is partly responsible for their longevity. If the false paradigms were minor technical details, the experts might have dropped them long ago. But the four cases we will discuss here, when and if they are revealed as false paradigms, will be terribly embarrassing for most experts. Fear of embarrassment is the foundation for many a false paradigm.

In one of the four cases, something happened in 2017 that everyone should know about but that most scientists downplayed because they felt like it. It might be nothing. Or it might be something absolutely earth-shattering. When I found out about this one, I was angry, not because I know precisely what happened in 2017 (no one does) but because the mass of scientists (with a few important exceptions) looked at their own data and spun a yarn that suited them. That isn’t science.

The second case involves a scientist who, almost a hundred years ago, came up with a theory about our evolution. To this day, scientists have no idea why hominids first appeared. It was, for a long time, assumed that tools made our ancestors what they were. This was a good guess and, millions of years later, tools did matter a lot. But big brains and tool use (technology, basically) wasn’t what got everything started. No one knows what happened six million years ago. The guy from a hundred years ago still has what is arguably the best theory but no one liked it back then because the tool thing was still considered the answer. Today, this brilliant insight is still basically a third rail, untouchable and unpublishable. A philosophy of science professor at Tufts who is an expert on evolution spent decades going to conferences asking why this theory is unworthy of discussion. He was wasting his time: the Tufts professor said he never got a coherent answer from any expert he asked.

The third case involves a bizarre twist in history that many modern scholars have accepted as fact but that is embarrassing to the mainstream who have a great deal invested in an idea that even they seem to have a lot of doubts about. They cling to the old theory anyway even though their own research is the best reason to drop it. Sometimes, when experts talk about this old theory, they lapse into what can only be called propaganda. It’s so bad that one wonders if the experts who are killing themselves to silence their own colleagues are consciously aware that their precious theory they’ve clung to for so long may well be wrong.

The fourth case involves something that affects the entire planet and all of us. The old theory is a bit odd-sounding actually. It’s not clear it could even be proposed today without engendering laughter. And yet its claws are dug deep into the flesh of scientists and the general public too. The old theory was actually proposed before science as we know it was developed. I want to say thank goodness no lives are at stake but actually lives are at stake. It is very important that we embrace reality. The whole planet might depend on it.

I’ve arranged the four cases in order of increasing absurdity. However, I will leave it to readers to determine how many “space shuttles” to award each case. Maybe it’s one, two, three, four. Or maybe they’re all one-space-shuttle cases. In each case, I claim the level of certainty professed by the mainstream is dangerously nonsensical. That doesn’t mean the mainstream is wrong, however. Readers will have differing opinions on the likelihood of these false paradigms eventually being revealed as “truly” false.

I write this essay and readers should read this essay based on a premise that provides the common ground we must start with: if three or more independent credentialed experts wish to discuss a theory and if they are able to provide a fact-based logical discussion of that theory, then they should be able to publish in mainstream journals without derision; in fact, journals should encourage dissent simply because even if a theory is absolutely correct, well-reasoned challenges to that theory do nothing but strengthen it. Journal editors, acting as impartial referees, can easily block the rare cases in which three or more independent credentialed experts embrace some crackpot idea but simply applying impartial standards of scholarship to submissions.

If you feel that the mainstream should have the power to control dissent like a dictator controlling the media, then this essay isn’t for you. Probably you think dissent should be allowed. But you might not like the ideas you have to entertain. I must caution you that some of the ideas held by credentialed experts will strike you as “crazy” not, I claim, because the ideas actually are crazy, but because you have been conditioned to think so. I ask you to consider the possibility that you have been conditioned and to refrain from rejecting any idea out of hand. Remember, we won’t be discussing any idea that are not held by at a minimum several credentialed experts.

It is, I think, extraordinarily hard to change the culture in which fashionable science is elevated and dissent derided but someday this might be possible though probably not in my lifetime.

Einstein is said to have become inconsolable as a child when he saw soldiers marching in uniform, in unison, like automatons. His parents spent hours promising that he would never be a soldier and even then the boy was still upset the next day. (I don’t know if that’s exactly how it went down with little Albert but the story is true in its essence regardless of whether the details have been accurately recorded.) Later, Einstein’s paper in which he said the universe has a speed limit was accepted for publication by an editor who was pretty sure it was nonsense. Einstein was a credentialed expert, unknown at the time, and his theory was clearly stated in language any physicist could understand and in no place did it conflict with known facts.

It wasn’t so hard for a journal editor to accept Einstein’s idea as worthy of discussion. I claim it is self-evident that scientists, scholars, researchers, and professors do not benefit from acting like soldiers marching in unison.

The much simpler ideas put forward by credentialed experts to try to correct their colleagues’ egregious errors are not at all revolutionary or hard to believe as relativity was (with a particle accelerator, even an ordinary physicists like the present author would immediately discover relativity, but in Einstein’s time, it was quite a shock and even today is hard to get one’s mind around) but these ideas are routinely rejected or grudgingly accepted and then viciously derided by scholars who claim absolute certainty when they have no business doing so.

I tend to see false paradigms as defined by four characteristics which I call the “four horsemen of the false paradigm” but readers are encouraged to define four or more or fewer characteristics that identify false paradigms and create their own techniques for “fingerprinting” false paradigms. Perhaps future studies of this phenomenon will coalesce on a set of telltale signs that will come to be commonly used. I hope so.

Before we dig into the ten false paradigms (six life-and-death issues long since resolve and four not-life-and-death issue) that will hopefully look like ten examples of one phenomenon even though there are big superficial differences among them, we must briefly dig into Kuhn. He coined the term paradigm shift and talked about resistance to breakthroughs and the power of paradigms and their usefulness.

All of this is relevant as we dig into what might be called the dark side of the paradigm coin. And, if you haven’t read Kuhn (he’s a bit turgid but worthwhile if you are willing to do three readings), this is a nice summary with many of the key quotes from his influential essay.

The term paradigm as applied to rational thought I am taking from Thomas Kuhn’s famous essay in which he explained that scientists, when they are practicing a healthy version of science, must embrace paradigms — which I call “Kuhnian paradigms” — in order to make progress. Kuhnian paradigms are, simply stated, useful ways of looking at the world.

Every now and then a Kuhnian paradigm is superseded by a more sophisticated viewpoint which itself will eventually be superseded. It’s like a continual and sometimes painful process of growing up which Kuhn called a paradigm shift.

So, for example, it once made a lot of sense to think of the earth as the center of everything. Having the earth go around the sun created difficulties because the constellations don’t get twisted up as the year goes on so unless the stars are ridiculously far away (which they are) the earth must be sitting still relative to the stars and NOT going around the sun (which it is). So the geocentric people had a reasonable and even useful idea.

Kuhn pointed out that paradigms are so useful that even when they are superseded by a more sophisticated point of view, they continue to be used. So we still talk about the sun coming up and we note when mercury in retrograde motion even though we all have a viewpoint that spans the solar system and says the sun doesn’t really “come up” and mercury’s “retrograde” motion is to be expected.

Kuhn reminded us not to be too proud because whatever we think is the big fat truth is going to be superseded someday by a more grown-up viewpoint and though we might feel all grown up with our new viewpoint, we will still use the old paradigms that we’ve supposedly moved beyond. And if you really want to get fancy, the earth doesn’t really move around the sun, the earth travels in a trajectory determined by the warping of space by the sun so even motion itself isn’t so simple as we believe it to be.

Newtonian dynamics — baseball physics essentially — was a paradigm superseded by relativity. Motion isn’t what we think — the universe has a speed limit, a speed limit that it most certainly should not have by any “reasonable” viewpoint. But there is a speed limit at least for us for now. Quantum mechanics also pushed aside Newtonian physics. Quantum mechanics has been defined in many ways. If you don’t mind I will cheekily define it as the knowledge that everything we think we know about the universe is wrong.

We have a high-tech society. We all use relativity and quantum mechanics and the fact that earth goes around the sun. And yet the sun still rises in the morning and in our minds, spacetimes does NOT warp in our bedrooms, and the people we live with have definite locations. So who needs the new paradigms?

We don’t really need them per se but we, or some of us anyway, like the progress we have made which Kuhn likes to see as an ever-growing sophistication that never arrives at a final version of reality. Kuhn didn’t think truth was relative, he simply thought understanding was an ongoing process and regarded the current paradigms as more advanced than the old paradigms but not necessarily any more True with a capital “T.”

Now you may argue that the idea that the sun goes around the earth was just plain wrong while Newtonian physics is still correct to a very good approximation in many instances. But Kuhn argued that if you are going to say the geocentric theory and Ptolemaic epicycles and so forth are flat-out “wrong” then you have admit that your everyday baseball physics is also flat-out “wrong” because it really is just an illusion and the real world is quantum mechanical and relativistic.

I will take Kuhn’s viewpoint and see Kuhnian paradigms, even the ones that have been superseded, as perfectly acceptable descriptions of reality bearing essentially no resemblance to false paradigms which are basically wrong turns that never did anyone any good. A false paradigm is not like the geocentric theory. A false paradigm is when someone says they have a “theory” that the sun is going to go out in 2020 because, they say with no evidence, a giant comet is going to hit it and cause it to disperse. We’re all going to die in 2020. You believe him and get your affairs in order. When it doesn’t happen, he then he says it’s going to happen in 2050.

You ignore him. He didn’t have a theory. He was just spouting nonsense and was happy to adjust (rather than abandon) his theory when it made its incorrect prediction. Maybe he’ll be right the second time. Anything is possible. But anything is possible isn’t a theory. “Anything is possible” is true but it doesn’t save a theory that runs contrary to experience and evidence.

All theories have to make some assumptions. We never have complete information. We have to fill in gaps with speculation, guesswork, and deduction. But that’s not “anything is possible.” Anything is possible is your ticket to the false paradigm train (we should not here that anything is not, in fact, possible though even if anything were possible, this would still not be a good basis for a theory). Anything is possible is a telltale sign of a theory dominated by assumptions and is as likely to be an indicator of a viable theory as a meal made entirely of salt, pepper, and sugar is likely to be delicious to a professional chef.

Another way to identify a false paradigm is to ask what is lost if one gives it up. If the answer is “nothing,” it is probably a false paradigm. Kuhnian paradigms are just the opposite: giving up a Kuhnian paradigm is a big deal because Kuhnian paradigms, by definition, have proven themselves useful (and often continue to be useful even after they are superseded).

In fact, Kuhn notes that most scientist have no significant interest in inventing or exploring possible new paradigms. They don’t want new paradigms because the old paradigm allows them to make progress. The idea of “normal science,” Kuhn tells us is to make progress. If you spend your career trying to make that big breakthrough that will set you down in history forever, if you think you are Einstein, if you aren’t realistic and focused, you are liable to just get stuck and stay stuck and never contribute anything.

Better to stick to the guidelines offered by Kuhnian paradigms. It’s okay to have your thought process guided by by a useful paradigm even if you get blindsided when a breakthrough comes because you’ve gotten a lot of work done. A Kuhnian paradigm is not like a false paradigm which substitutes for thinking. In the Kuhnian case, the paradigm is merely guiding one’s thinking: make a small number of assumptions, trust the paradigm, move forward. That’s a recipe for success in science.

Kuhn regarded this as a necessary evil, perfectly reasonable even if scientists sometimes become rigid in their thinking. Kuhn was looking at the bright side of the paradigm coin: he never said a word about false paradigms. But his (somewhat turgid, truth be told) treatise on paradigms and paradigm shifts gives us a jumping off point for our study of the dark side of the paradigms coin.

The importance of Kuhnian paradigms partially explains why scientists, scholars, researchers, and professors in a variety of subjects are vulnerable to false paradigms. It is after all their habit to accept certain ideas without question. The superficial similarity between Kuhnian paradigms and false paradigms explains why ordinary non-experts like you and me are vulnerable to false paradigms. It would be silly of us to routinely question that which is accepted by a large swath of professionals in a given field.

So it’s crucial for us to know a bit about Kuhnian paradigms as we follow the path of this essay and try to train ourselves to discover the wolf in the fold as it were. Most paradigms are perfectly fine, like sheep. But every now and then a false paradigm lurks in our midst shielding us from reality itself and costing us a clear-eyed view of the world or even killing us.

What follows is a short summary of Kuhn. Don’t worry, it’s really short. And it’s a lot easier to read than Kuhn himself. And when you read my summary you’ll feel (perhaps incorrectly) that you can get away without ever wading through Kuhn. Really you should, though, at least twice and maybe three times (that’s what it takes I’m afraid). But if you’d rather not, I understand. I’m doing you a favor here; just don’t tell anyone.

Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his famous essay, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that scientists and, by extension, experts in all fields, are very good at limiting themselves with what he called “rigid” paradigms which reward the rigidity by allowing researchers to operate in an amazingly efficient manner.

Here’s how Kuhn, looking squarely at the limitations of healthy science, described most research in pretty much any field:

“. . . a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.

Kuhn tells us that scientists and researchers typically don’t even try to make big new discoveries while pursuing what he calls “normal science.”

No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit in the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.

The most striking feature of . . . normal research problems . . . is how little they aim to produce major novelties, conceptual or phenomenal.

“Mopping up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers.”

But it’s totally worth it, Kuhn convincingly argues:

In the interim [between revolutions], however, during the period when the paradigm is successful, the profession will have solved problems that its members could scarcely have imagined and would never have undertaken without commitment to the paradigm.”

We can already see that within Kuhn’s bright side lurk the seeds of what I call the dark side: the need for researchers to stick to a Kuhnian paradigm makes them vulnerable to getting stuck on a false paradigm. That’s the other side of the paradigm coin, the side Kuhn avoided. That’s the subject of this essay.

A false paradigm is NOT part of the never-ending march toward ever-greater sophistication. A false paradigm is more of a wrong term. False paradigms are NOT useful at all and, in fact, experts will often quietly (not admitting it even to themselves) ignore a false paradigm because if they don’t, they might not be able to make any progress.

A false paradigm often has virtually no evidence supporting it and ends up being used as evidence to support itself. A false paradigm has nothing to do with growing up  — it’s more like a drug addiction or any wrong turn that a scientist or scholar must overcome.

False paradigms can be identified by their defenders. The rebels, experts in the given field, will offer a convincing story indicating that the paradigm followed in their field has never had the status of a Kuhnian paradigm; they will say it’s been nonsense from the beginning. But the story told by the rebels, though it provides important background, doesn’t help us determine if the paradigm is really false. The mainstream response does that.

We will see that the mainstream response to their colleagues in the cases of false paradigms follows a recognizable progression like a deadly disease might. It is the mainstream response that we must focus on to determine if the paradigm is really false. When A (the rebel argument) and B (the mainstream argument) lead to the same conclusion, you know you’re dealing with a false paradigm.

Both the A and B arguments will have weaknesses and will sometimes contain nonsense. But the B argument, in the case of a false paradigm, will be defined by weaknesses and nonsense — in fact the B argument will consist of little else. It will almost be funny.

Beyond that, I won’t list characteristics of B arguments though the reader can use the information in the following chapters to create their own list which I realized as I wrote this essay would probably be better than anything I could come up with especially if the list of characteristics is a product of discussion amongst many people.

I will note only that B arguments are often so transparent that one begins to wonder whether or not the mainstream even believes what it is saying or if they know they are defending a false paradigm and are actually lying when they say they believe it. In one of the examples below, there is good evidence that in fact those making a B argument were doing so fraudulently. That is, they knew they were spouting nonsense and were engaging in conscious propaganda hoping to fool as many people as possible. However, in general, we will assume (perhaps wrongly) that mainstream defenders of false paradigms are themselves deluded while keeping in mind that the extent to which this is NOT true is an interesting area for study or at least speculation.

Without further ado, here are six life-and-death reasons to remember that experts can delude themselves and do monstrously stupid things.

The Touchstone of Rationality

The schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and the six professional astronauts in the cockpit of the Challenger didn’t hear the conversation. They didn’t know all five engineers said the O-rings won’t work at cold temperatures. The didn’t know all five engineers said launching was insane (without using the word “insane”).

“It’ll be all right.” That’s what the people in authority who over-ruled their own engineers literally said. They didn’t have a reason. They just wanted to launch.

If Christa McAuliffe, Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik had been informed of the situation, had they heard the conversation, had they known about the O-rings, they would have instantly vetoed the launch. No one would ignore five unanimous engineers. “Why are you even discussing launching at all?” the seven daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers would have said.

It was January 28, 1986 and there was nothing to discuss. The shuttle’s engines operate on the principle of a controlled explosion. As long as the combustible gases mix in the right place and at the right time, the rocket takes off. If the primary and secondary O-rings both fail in either engine, the explosion becomes uncontrolled and that’s the end of the shuttle.

Frozen O-rings don’t work. Coin-toss safety isn’t safety. Russian roulette with three bullets in a six-shooter isn’t what Christa McAuliffe signed up for.

The details matter only inasmuch as they help us understand the level of insanity that a false paradigm can bring, so we’ll talk about them from that point of view. Regardless of how complex the details might seem if you dig into them the fact remains that there was nothing to discuss. That said, here are some details.

It boiled down to five numbers: for a 75-degree launch, there had been a bit of a problem with the primary O-ring; for the 53-degree launch the previous year, that same O-ring failed completely and the shuttle would have exploded if the secondary O-ring hadn’t held; below 40 degrees the whole engine including the primary O-ring, the secondary O-ring, and every other component, was NOT rated for flight. That’s three numbers so far 75, 53, and 40.

That day, the temperature in Florida was in the twenties — call it 22 degrees if you like; precision is irrelevant here. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, there was a fifth number in the mix. Cold gases venting from the liquid oxygen tank were accumulating near the O-rings on the right side of the shuttle. The light breeze that day wasn’t enough to push away the gases and the O-rings on the right side were at 10 degrees — a measurement made by an infrared sensor but not communicated to the engineers at the time. That’s the fourth and fifth number: 22 and 10.

The book Truth, Lies, and O-rings tells all, and I mean ALL. Every detail about the engines and the fuel and the discussions that can be packed into a few hundred pages is. The details are interesting to us not in and of themselves but because obscured the fact that seven people were being condemned to death. Of course one can discuss to what extent one can extrapolate from the numbers the precise risk of low-temperature launches and one can ask how safe the secondary O-ring is since it has never failed. One can talk about these questions for hours without being able to come up with anything definitive.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

When experts and authorities go down rabbit holes, reality can get buried by details and people can die: in such cases, the devil isn’t in the details, the devil is the details. In the end, the experts and authorities find themselves arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, rational discussion becomes mindless debate, and you don’t want to be in the cockpit of a space shuttle when that happens.

In the Challenger disaster, one might say details were used as “weapons of mass delusion” because it’s such an extreme example. Authorities embraced a false paradigm absurd on its face — we are absolutely sure the space shuttle is safe to launch in sub-freezing temperatures even though all of the engineers effectively say we’re insane.

If the engineers had known they were about to face the four horsemen, they might have just said, “It’s a coin flip. If you approve the launch, you may be committing murder.”

Or they could have said something more formal but just as strong such as the following:

“The shuttle is not safe to fly at these temperatures. We rate the odds of survival at no better than 50%. We cannot in good conscience discuss the details of this assessment until our superiors have accepted our recommendation and canceled the launch because the cancellation must not be subject to debate and we are concerned that going down rabbit holes might distract us from an undeniable fact: there is absolutely no way the shuttle can be launched safely at these temperatures.

“We do not have absolute proof of anything: in particular, the fact that the launch is roughly a coin toss at these temperatures is not provable but is our unanimous assessment. This may not be what you want to hear. That’s too bad. We will not accept insults or new definitions of what logic is or plausibility arguments about how the shuttle might possibly launch successfully even at these temperatures.

“We don’t care about what is possible. We don’t care about the fact that our data isn’t perfect. Our assessment stands. We can launch in a day or two when the temperature is forty degrees higher.

“We would be happy to discuss the details of our assessment so long as everyone understands that our unanimous determination is not subject to insults and gibberish, zingers and one-liners, wild guesses and fantasies, and finger-pointing and posturing. You can technically launch without our approval but you cannot ethically launch without our approval so — and we’re sorry to put it so bluntly — don’t even think about launching.

“If you over-rule us, we will go straight to the newspapers and this will be a national scandal before the sun rises in the morning.”

But the engineers didn’t make any such statement in real life. Why would they? They were used to NASA being rational. Normally, NASA pushed hard on every possible safety issue to the point where the engineers knew if they couldn’t convince NASA that every single possible issue was under control and that none of a multitude of concerns actually threatened the shuttle there would be no launch because NASA wouldn’t allow it.

“We’ve analyzed this very carefully and we think it is safe,” the engineers would say. NASA would respond, “Are you sure? What about this and this and this?” The engineers would say, “We knew you would ask that and so we’ve prepared three fifty-slide presentations covering each of those concerns which will be presented in each case by a different engineer who has put in hundreds of hours working through that particular issue.”

In the old days, that’s what it took to get a launch approved.

But everything had changed. To this day, we don’t know why this one guy at NASA decided to drop all previous caution and actually pressure the engineers to launch when the engineers had already decided a safe launch was not possible. The NASA guy’s name is not noted here because for our purposes it doesn’t matter.

The “it doesn’t matter” claim above requires some discussion. We want to know how irrational decisions get made, how false paradigms get embraced. It happens all the time, so naming and blaming, while it may be necessary for example in determining who should play what role in the future at NASA, doesn’t help us much long after the fact.

It’s not that this one person at NASA wasn’t responsible for his actions, of course he was. It is easy to look up his name and print out a photograph for use on a dartboard for those of us who still feel angry about the loss of the shuttle all those years ago (I’m still angry, for example). But for the purposes of this essay, I am leaving out his name because I hope, at length, I am able to convey the following at-least-partly-true notion: the NASA guy who killed the McAuliffe and the others could be anyone, even you or me.

That said, the five engineers were totally blindsided by the sudden irrationality they were facing not just from the NASA guy but from their own colleagues, people who happened to be managers but who were just as intelligent, experienced, and caring as the engineers. Somehow, the engineers were unable to convince their own colleagues of the danger. The long conversation they had, NOT prefaced by the fantasy-statement above or anything like it, obscured what was happening.

For years and even decades afterward each of the five had to deal with inevitable guilt feelings: given the situation we found ourselves in, facing irrational behavior, what more could we have done? They didn’t yell or scream or throw things or make threats. They didn’t even flatly say, “It’s a coin toss whether they live or die. You’ve all gone crazy!”

The engineers believed the facts — even facts that didn’t allow for proof — would speak for themselves; they believed this deep in their bone marrow. But facts only speak for themselves when people are in a place where they can calmly listen.

The dialog below shows the horror of what happened to the engineers. The dialog is fictionalized but NOT made up. Every tactic, every bizarre argument, every idiotic claim that appears below was actually part of either the discussion prior to the disaster or the investigation after the disaster. What I’ve done here is simple: I’ve removed the veil of civility and given everyone a little taste of truth serum.

The dialog below, BECAUSE it is fictionalized, is, I claim, in some ways a MORE accurate representation of what actually occurred than a perfect word-for-word reproduction (which is available in books and video) could ever be. This is how seven people died. The four horsemen — insults, gibberish and nonsense, possible=certain, and imperfect=wrong — are all here. A “fifth” horseman, lies and corruption, also makes an appearance. Quotations are used when the exact words of the participants appear. But, again, I claim this entire conversation actually happened.

ENGINEERS: We can’t launch tomorrow. The O-rings are frozen and won’t seal at these temperatures.

NASA: Temperature has never been an issue before! This is “appalling,” just absolutely “appalling.” I am shocked, shocked to hear that we have to have a longer safety discussion just because it’s colder than it has ever been in south Florida. My God! When do we get to launch? “April?”

ENGINEERS: The O-ring system has never worked as designed. We even had a problem with the primary O-ring at 75 degrees. At 53 degrees the primary O-ring failed. If the secondary O-ring had also failed we would have lost the shuttle.

NASA: But there was no problem at launches in the 60’s so you haven’t proven anything.

ENGINEERS: We aren’t claiming to have perfect ability to predict O-ring failures. They don’t work right at any temperature and the chances of failure go up at low temperatures. The soot we saw on the other side of the primary O-ring after the 53-degree launch was terrifying. If it was any worse we could have lost the shuttle. Launching below 53 degrees makes no sense.

NASA: Your data is “inconclusive.”

ENGINEERS: We don’t claim it is conclusive. We claim the O-rings have never worked properly, the O-rings had a big problem at 53 degrees, and the O-rings might not seal at all at 20 degrees.

NASA: Your data is “non-quantitative.” We can’t accept it.

ENGINEERS: We’re not trying to win a Nobel Prize. We’re just trying to protect the seven human beings aboard the shuttle.

NASA: We need to see perfect data.

ENGINEERS: Well, the shuttle engines as a whole beyond just the O-ring issue, aren’t rated below 40 degrees. So why are we even talking about launching?

NASA: Aha! You said forty degrees. But just before you said fifty-three degrees. Which is it? Oh, I guess you don’t know do you?

ENGINEERS: No, we don’t know. The shuttle could explode even at 75 degrees for all we know. At 53 degrees it was a bit scary but the secondary O-ring held. At 40 degrees we’re at the edge of what is specified for all the engine components. At 20 degrees, the primary O-ring is almost guaranteed to fail.

NASA: Your temperature requirements are “inconsistent” and therefore “illogical.” We can’t have two different temperature boundaries.

ENGINEERS: There is no temperature boundary. The colder it is, the greater the risk.

NASA: You didn’t pick a temperature and stick to it. Your argument started off non-quantitative and inconclusve. Then it became inconsistent and illogical.

ENGINEERS: It doesn’t matter whether or not you like our argument. We will be relying on the secondary O-ring holding at sub-freezing temperatures.

NASA: Aha! There’s a secondary O-ring. It has never failed and it might well hold on this launch. We think it will hold. It sounds to me like you think it’s okay to launch.

ENGINEERS: It’s not okay to launch. Both O-rings could easily fail.

NASA: If that happens, we’ll just say you told us the secondary O-ring was a safe backup.

ENGINEERS: You’re actually willing to lie in the event of a disaster?

NASA: It won’t be lying. You said the secondary O-ring is crucial.

ENGINEERS: It is crucial but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to launch.

NASA: But your statement about the presence of a back-up O-ring can be interpreted as being in favor of launching.

ENGINEERS: Dr. Ride is sure to be on any investigating commission. You won’t be able to fool her [she was not, in fact, fooled].

NASA: We don’t have to fool her. We just have to keep a straight face while we testify.

ENGINEERS: How can you be so callous?

NASA: It’s easy. I’m under a lot of pressure and my humanity has been squeezed out of me.

ENGINEERS: Have you thought about getting another job?

NASA: I like being a big-shot. We need BOSS approval on this. You BOSSES should keep in mind that we will be deciding where billions of dollars get spent.

BOSSES: Let us now “take off our engineering hats and put on our management hats.”

ENGINEERS: This should be an engineering decision, not a management decision. Would you please let us draw you a diagram right here in this room right here on this table?


ENGINEERS: But you are reversing the usual burden of proof used for decades in space flight.

BOSSES: True but we can always tell any investigators that they being “Monday morning quarterbacks.”

ENGINEERS: But we’ve already cancelled the launch. We sent the fax with the official recommendation. If you uncancel it now and the shuttle explodes, your “Monday morning quarterback” comment will be remembered for centuries as among the stupidest things anyone has ever said.

BOSSES: Yes, well, if there is an unfortunate accident we will have to cover up the fact that the launch was cancelled at first. We’ll hire lawyers.

ENGINEERS: So you’re launching no matter what we say.

BOSSES: “It’s no longer your responsibility.”

ENGINEERS: Fine, but know this: if those seven people die, we are not going to lie for you.

BOSSES: We think you’ll knuckle under if it comes to that. But for now we are going ahead with the launch.

ENGINEERS: We won’t knuckle under.

BOSSES: Yes, you will.

ENGINEERS: No, we won’t. Try us. [The engineers ignored the company lawyers.]

NASA: I hate to interrupt the bickering, but there’s one more thing. Under the circumstances, we’re going to need a “signature” from an ENGINEER or a BOSS and a clear  recommendation that it is safe to launch.

ENGINEERS: But you’ve never needed this type of documentation before! We never have to sign anything!

NASA: Look, we need a “signature” because we’re over-ruling five engineers who say not to launch. I’m not going to take responsibity for that.

ENGINEERS: It was your idea to overrule us.

NASA: I didn’t overrule anyone. I consulted with the experts in Utah and eventually got an answer I liked from those in authority. That’s the way it goes sometimes. All I need now is a signature.

ENGINEERS: None of us are signing any such document.

NASA: It’s a management decision.

BOSSES: Where do we sign?

A few hours later, the engines ignited and the shuttle lifted off. A minute passed; the shuttle was high in the sky and moving fast. Christa McAuliffe’s students were proud of their teacher, the first civilian in space. The engineers, fearful of an explosion immediately upon liftoff, breathed a sigh of relief.

A few seconds later their breaths got stuck in their throats. On the right side of the solid rocket booster, the primary and secondary O-rings, frozen but somehow holding for the first minute, now failed. The engines exploded but the cockpit, with the teacher and six professional astronauts still alive, was intact. It arced into the Atlantic Ocean at 200 mph. At that speed, McAuliffe and the others were crushed by the sudden deceleration. They died instantly.

After the unthinkable disaster, with the nation mourning and the gravestones erected, sanity briefly and narrowly prevailed as people realized that there was no safe temperature at which to launch a space shuttle with an O-ring system with a known design flaw. The shuttle program was suspended for a two-plus years while a new O-ring system was designed, built, and tested.

Bulletproof was what was needed and bulletproof was what the engineers now delivered: in a test with half the parts in the system purposely broken, the O-rings sealed perfectly anyway. The test conditions were far worse than anything that would happen during an actual launch: no one else was going to die from an O-ring failure if the engineers could possibly help it. Even with the new invincible system, launches at freezing temperatures were strictly ruled out.

Sanity reigned too late for the Challenger crew and too narrowly for the Columbia crew who would die seventeen years later.

The engineer who guided the O-ring redesign driven by the narrow window of sanity that opened after the disaster was also one of the people who tried to stop the launch of the Challenger. He was proud of his work and said he was so confident in the new O-ring system that he himself would be willing to fly in the space shuttle though he noted that he would not, under any circumstances, allow a family member anywhere near the space shuttle.

He knew better than to think the shuttle was suddenly safe but even this insider didn’t really understand how bad things were at NASA. O-ring system can be fixed in a couple of years. Cultures are another story. As false paradigms go, “Authority trumps reality” is as bad as they get.

To say the NASA culture was borderline psychotic sounds like an overstatement but isn’t. Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate physicist who had been part of the presidential commission investigating the disaster understood as well as anyone can the dangerous mix of ego, authority, and public relations pressure causing NASA officials to behave like rabid dogs.

Feynman wrote Appendix F in the commission’s report. He discussed insanity at some length without actually using that word.

It appears that, for whatever purpose — be it for internal or external consumption — the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.

. . . an almost incredible lack of communication between the managers and their working engineers.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.   

Feynman’s Appendix F was stronger language than the other commission members wanted to use. One can understand the commission members’ desire to be circumspect and to avoid strong words like “fantasy” and “incredible” and “reality” and “fooled.” Even Feynman didn’t go so far as to use the word “insanity.” But maybe he should have. In hindsight, one can say that Feynman’s Appendix F perhaps didn’t use strong enough language.

It’s hard to imagine a more insanse disaster than the Challenger disaster. But NASA found a way to not only imagine it but to do it.

We Have a Lot to Learn Including How to Learn

The Columbia launched in January 2003 with seven astronauts on board. It’s not a spoiler at this point to tell you that they all died.

ENGINEERS: The wing was hit during takeoff by a piece of insulation but thank God the shuttle is safely in orbit.

NASA: We need to check on the debris-hitting-the-wing-issue. I want us to cross it off our list as soon as possible. One phone call ought to do it. I pride myself on my efficiency.

ENGINEERS: Um . . . wait . . . we need to study the problem in detail. If the wing was damaged even a little bit, it will rip off the shuttle during re-entry. The shuttle will disintegrate. Everyone will burn up in the upper atmosphere. It will be bad.

NASA: Hmm. Let’s see. Who do I need to talk to get this cleared up?

ENGINEERS: We’re working on “clearing it up.” We’ve already set up a satellite flyby with the air force so we can get high resolution images of the wing and see if the damage looks like it can be repaired by the astronauts. Of course they should also do a spacewalk to get a hands-on look at the wing.

NASA: This is interesting. I see there’s been an satellite flyby scheduled. That seems like unnecessary extra work for us. It doesn’t seem efficient. I’m going to cancel the photographs.

ENGINEERS: But . . . but. Wait . . . I don’t think anyone can hear us. That’s odd? What’s going on? Maybe we don’t have the security clearance to be involved. The higher-ups must be taking care of this without us but it’s odd that we say and do things and it’s as if we aren’t here at all.

NASA: Hello. Yes, I’m calling about the wing issue. Is re-entry safe? It is? Good. I’ll put a check next to that one and move on to the next item on my checklist.

ENGINEERS: It would really have been nice to see some pictures. And the spacewalk would have helped too. If the wing is damaged beyond repair the astronauts might be rescued if we can launch another shuttle before their oxygen runs out. I guess the higher-ups determined all that without us but I don’t see how. Do you think we should rattle some chains or something?

The engineers from the above not-literal-but-truer-than-truth dialog were the “Debris Assessment Team.” They had no authority.

Again, the engineers didn’t throw things or push anyone’s office door open or do anything extreme. They assumed their superiors were behaving rationally. They assumed appropriate measures were being taken but that they, the engineers on the Debris Assessment Team, were out of the loop. They never considered the possibility that their bosses were doing nothing at all.

Like the Bruce Willis character in Sixth Sense, the engineers on the Debris Assessment Team didn’t know they were ghosts. Everyone at NASA was existing in their little boxes, blissfully unaware of anything but their own worlds. One imagines them occupying the same hallways walking toward one another and then walking through one another.

Open communication was, as Feynman might have said, a fantasy.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Columbia floated weightless in the darkness of space and in the dark about their situation. As far as they knew, their mission had been an unqualified success. Soon they would be home with their loved ones.

Re-entry seemed a little rougher than expected. The wing glowed red-hot. That was normal enough. The shuttle slowed down in the intense atmospheric forces. That was normal too. When the wing tore away from the shuttle, the vehicle disintegrated. The astronauts came home but only as ash.

A hierarchy topped by confident up-and-comers is mighty impressive. But, as Feynman reminded us, impressive humans can’t change reality.

Hierarchies are practical necessities. But hierarchies historically have had problems with reality and those problems have killed people in very large numbers. Let’s go back to 1850 and look at a nightmarish hierarchy.

Irrational Doctors

If I were a doctor in 1850 and my patients were dying again and again and one of my colleagues figured out how to keep them alive, I hope I would not shun him. Who would do that? You don’t have to have watched a space shuttle explode to have humility. And you don’t have to be Mother Theresa to care when your patients die.

But false paradigms are blinding. “I’m a fancy doctor. I know what I’m doing. I’m not killing my patients.” But you are.

A woman in Vienna circa 1850 was a whole lot better off giving birth at home than going to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital would regularly dissect cadavers and then deliver babies. They didn’t know about germs. They didn’t wash their hands. They didn’t wear gloves.

For a woman in labor, having one of these Vienna doctors deliver a baby was like tossing three coins: if all three land heads, you die. They called it “childbed fever.”

But women still came to the hospital even as the bodies began to pile up. The doctors saw what was happening. But they couldn’t believe they were killing their patients.

One of the more concerned doctors noted that a colleague cut his hand during a cadaver dissection. He proceeded to die of childbed fever. It was quite clear he had not just given birth and his surviving colleague put two and two together.

This one doctor started washing his hands and had everyone in his clinic do the same. The death rate from childbed fever for this doctor in this clinic went almost to zero. Of course, he immediately publicized his discovery: childbed fever didn’t have to kill and kill and kill. All we have to do is wash our hands.

CARING DOCTOR: There must be some kind of “cadaverous particles” that are deadly if they get into a person’s bloodstream.

AUTHORITY: Are you saying it’s our fault when a woman gets childbed fever? How dare you!

CARING DOCTOR: Of course not. I’m saying our colleague died of childbed fever after cutting himself during a dissection.

AUTHORITY: So what? People die all the time. You don’t know it was “cadaverous particles” that killed him. You’ve never seen a “cadaverous particle.” You sound like an idiot.

CARING DOCTOR: He had the exact symptoms of childbed fever and he’s a man. Everyone in my clinic has been washing their hands and no one gets childbed fever in my clinic anymore. Giving birth is suddenly far less dangerous. Isn’t that a good thing?

AUTHORITY: Get out of town!

CARING DOCTOR: You mean to say that you are surprised by what you are hearing? I was surprised too but then pleasantly surprised to find out how easily the problem was solved. Think of all the lives we can save if my idea of “cadaverous particles” and handwashing becomes widely known. What’s strange is that that idiom you just used won’t be invented for another hundred years.

AUTHORITY: We mean it literally. It’s not an idiom yet as you point out. So get out of town. Now.

The caring doctor was in fact driven off by angry colleagues. He returned to his native Hungary, to Budapest. There he found work in a small hospital and there the one-time Vienna doctor was able to get everyone washing their hands. The fatality rate from childbed fever dropped and dropped and got very close to zero.

Our hero never knew exactly why hand washing was so important and he never convinced the mass of his colleagues and he died deeply disappointed and even miserable and a little crazy. He was right but he was ignored and women kept dying of childbed fever. It would be decades before germs were discovered. In the interim, a lot of people died unnecessarily.

It happened again a century later.

That’s Some Stunt You Pulled

Around 1950 one researcher decided ulcers (a huge health issue in those days) were caused by acid because bacteria, he discovered, couldn’t survive in the stomach. He was wrong but most everyone agreed at the time. For the next thirty years, most doctors didn’t use antibiotics to treat ulcers; they focused on stomach acid; frequent treatments were necessary because stomach acid wasn’t the problem.

Fast forward three decades and thousands of dead ulcer patients (ulcers too often lead to fatal stomach cancer) and a conversation something like this took place.

AUSTRALIAN DOCTOR: I’ve cutured the bacteria that causes ulcers.

COLLEAGUES: We know what causes ulcers. Acid.

AUSTRALIAN DOCTOR: That’s wrong. It’s bacteria and I can prove it.

COLLEAGUES: This was solved thirty years ago and we’ve been treating ulcers based on the acid theory ever since. We’re not changing.

AUSTRALIAN DOCTOR: Then I’ll culture more bacteria, drink them down, give myself ulcers, and cure myself with antibiotics just to prove it to you even if doing so causes my wife and the mother of our two young children to freak out.

COLLEAGUES: That’s a stunt. Make yourself sick if you want. We’ll need a lot more research if you want us to change the way we do things downtown.

Ten years later, my great uncle was dead from ulcers that were NOT caused by stomach acid. By then, the medical community had accepted reality. My great uncle was rolled so much in his grave, they had to soundproof the coffin. In 2005, the Australian doctor won a Nobel Prize and his wife finally forgave him. (Actually, I don’t really know that she took twenty years to forgive him but I’m sure the Nobel Prize caused her to look at the whole affair a bit differently.)

Lethal Injection by False Paradigm

Todd Willingham’s house burned down and his three children died. Some houses have safe electrical wiring, some don’t. The father woke up to a house about to collapse. He barely escaped and was unable to save his children. Standing outside with fire fighters on the scene, he tried to re-enter the burning building but was tackled by fire fighters who correctly calculated that re-entering the house would do nothing but possibly add him to the list of casualties.

In those days (the early 1990’s, NOT four hundred years ago), something called “arson investigation” was accepted by U.S. courts. An “arson investigator” is a person who had been led to believe by other “arson investigators” — who had created an impressive-but-nonsensical hierarchical system of “trained experts” — that he or she was capable of determining by the patterns in the burn marks whether or not a chemical “accelerant” such as gasoline was used to start a fire. “Pour patterns” and “crazed glass” and other “don’t try this at home only trained experts can see it” nonsense was allowed in court.

Of course, arson investigators never subjected their techniques to any kind of rigorous testing. They never asked themselves if they were, possibly, fooling themselves. They were people who wanted to do good and they put a lot of other people in jail some of whom had actually committed arson. Todd Willingham had not.

In the early days of arson investigation, the investigators were humble: they looked for (real) tell-tale signs of arson in order to alert authorities. At that point — and this is crucial — the police, thinking arson was something that may or may not have occurred, would order testing to determine whether this possible case of arson was actually that. The investigators were, now and then, correct, and, now and then, mistaken in their assessment.

Looking over a fire to check for obvious signs of arson (NOT “pour pattens”) is a good idea and sometimes led to testing when it might not otherwise be conducted. Eventually, a whole field was created. This field was called “arson investigation.” But then it happened. The possible became the certain.

Suddenly (actually, it took decades), the testimony of “arson investigators” was deemed accurate enough to count as evidence of arson even when there was no corroborating evidence of arson such as chemical tests. 

Todd Willingham, watching the poison go into his vein, used his last minute of life to say that he would never kill his children and had not lit his own house on fire. He had not. The New Yorker article about his case is definitive.

After Willingham died, scientists purposely produced electrical fires exactly as would happen in a non-arson accident. The scientists did their experments using abandoned buildings. The “pour patterns” and the “crazed glass” showed up. Arson investigation was, provably, nonsense. It has been banned from U.S. courts because it is no more accurate that Madame Trelawney’s tea-leaf reading. But it was too late for Todd Willingham, executed for a crime that no one had committed.

Actual scientific tests done on ash from various places in Willingham’s house before the trial showed no evidence of any chemical used to start the fire. There should have been no trial, much less a conviction, much less a death sentence, much less an execution. But the judge didn’t know enough to throw the case out of court.

There are people who can look at the remains of a fire and tell you whether or not it is likely to have been caused by arson. But it is obviously easy for them to overstate their abilities. In the case of arson investigation, the entire field became a false paradigm.

Monty Python in Real Life

A mentally ill man who had been abused by his father was in the middle of a crime spree. The police caught him in the act with loot from previous crimes on his person but let him go because he was apparently acting as an informant for them. It is a normal part of police work to use criminals as informants and sometimes police have to look the other way when their informant commits a crime.

Meredith Kercher interrupted the man burglarizing her house and he cut her throat and sexually assaulted her while she was dying.

Her housemates, three of them, were not in the house at the time. Two of them were Italians and wisely retained lawyers for all of their interactions with police. Amanda Knox didn’t know this was necessary in Italy and she talked to the police by herself assuming she was helping with their investigation.

Since Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, alerted the police that something was wrong and were present when Kercher’s body was discovered, the police regarded Knox as a suspect. They questioned her and her boyfriend, who also did not retain a lawyer, repeatedly and eventually decided they were guilty of the crime.

A “see you later” text to Knox’s employer — a bar owner — was taken literally by police (in idiomatic English “later” in this context is an indefinite later; in Italian this is not the case) and they concocted a theory that Knox, Sollecito, and the bar owner had killed Kercher.

The police immediately set about coercing “confessions” from the lawyerless young man and the lawyerless young woman. It isn’t clear exactly why the young man didn’t retain a lawyer — as an Italian by birth he should have known better. He had very little experience with women before he met Amanda and he had certainly not had anyone as beautiful as she fall for him. After a week of romantic encounters mostly taking place in his apartment, he was in love and perhaps not thinking straight. He certainly didn’t think he would spend the next four years in jail in one of the most egregious miscrarriages of justice in history.

The police of course succeeded in getting their “confessions.” In Knox’s case they insisted she verify their theory that her boss had first raped and then murdered Kercher. She signed a document (NEVER do this) that said she had let her boss into the house and heard the whole thing happening but had blocked it out of her memory because it was so traumatic. That was good enough for the police who admitted that it was their theory and that Knox only signed off on it after they broke her. Nothing in Knox’s “confession” had any relation to the actual crime except for the end result: Meredith’s death.

Sollecito was harder to crack so the police purposely put the wrong date into a statement they wanted him to sign. He told them the date was wrong but they told him to sign anyway and he did. He had described his girlfriend leaving the house the night before the murder and in the house with him the night of the murder. By transposing the dates, they had him saying she had left the house the night of the murder. Later, when he said the date was wrong, they blamed him for lying and used that to convict him of murder. And yes, it really was that ridiculous.

The police recorded both interrogations (they record everything that happens in the police station including waiting-area conversations) but denied, for obvious reason, having recordings of either interrogation.

When the actual murderer was caught — his handprint in the victim’s blood was at the crime scene and his DNA was inside the victim’s body — and the bar owners patrons told the police their prime suspect had been serving drinks at the time of the murder, police had to let the bar owner go. By this time, photographs of the beautiful Amanda Knox had circled the globe and the police felt they had no choice but to manufacture evidence.

They took a large knife (too large to have been the murder weapon) from Sollecito’s house and tested it for blood, DNA, and human tissue with the results negative, negative, negative. They then tested the negative knife using an amplification process called PCR. The technicians running the equipment got extremely low-level positive results matching Kercher’s DNA from both the negative knife and their negative control samples indicating that the lab had become contaminated with Kercher’s DNA after many, many tests had been run on bloody items from the bedroom where she bled to death while being sexually assaulted.

In the first trial, the knife was the primary piece of evidence used to obtain convictions and even Knox and Sollecito were fooled by the finding of Kercher’s DNA on the knife — they knew they hadn’t killed her and they knew they hadn’t brought the Sollecito’s kitchen knife to Amanda’s and Meredith’s house so they tried to figure out how the victim’s DNA had gotten on the knife. Of course, it hadn’t. The police simply didn’t release the positive results on the negative control samples, so everyone was fooled.

The judge (there was no jury; everything was up to the judge) wanted a conviction. He decided the knife — even though it had tested negative three times and was too big to be the murder weapon — actually was the murder weapon and that two knives had been used with the assailants switching to the larger knife to create the fatal wound even though it was obvious that all three wounds on Kercher’s neck were made with a pocket knife. He also decided that footprints in the house with Knox’s DNA in them were “bloody footprints” even though the footprints had tested negative for blood.

The police had destroyed (“by accident”) three hard drives containing photographs and videos of Knox and Kercher getting along just fine so the judge was able to make up a motive — Knox hated her housemate, was jealous of her, and so forth. Sollecito’s motive was that he would do anything for a young woman with amazing curves.

The judge made a remarkable statement in his report in which he “explained” that even a scientific test that can detect microscopic amounts of blood can be wrong and, since he believes for other reasons that Knox and Sollecito are guilty, therefore the tests must be wrong and there must really have been large amounts of blood in the footprints which actually contained no blood. So a judge in Italy was behaving, one might say, like a rabid dog.

Knox had not tracked blood all over her house. But the judge wanted this to be the case. In his report he wrote the following:

“In considering these specimens [all of which tested negative for blood], one must also consider the possibility that they arose from other sources [Knox walked around barefoot in her house all the time] and are irrelevant to the investigation. But it must be noted that the negative result for blood does not necessarily indicate that no blood was present [the test is positive if there are five blood cells]. The result may have been negative because there was not sufficient material . . . “

This was not even the most deranged statement in the judge’s report but it’s enough for us. We should note that the judge himself is clearly not literally insane. However, he finds himself immersed in a system that causes him to make insane statements.

As horrible as the young woman’s murder was, it was equally simple. A burglar killed her, left his handprint in her blood on her pillow, stole money out of her purse, and fled to Germany where he was quickly caught. Even when something is quite simple, false complexity can fool lots of people. False complexity can turn the absurd into the plausible. Then all you need is a reversal of the burden of proof and now the plausible has become the certain.

Even Meredith’s own family was fooled. To this day, they believe two people with no motive killed their daughter and sister and they haven’t asked the police to answer for the poor judgment that caused them to let a deragned young man walk away from a crime spree. There’s no way to know whether the first judge was fooled like the Kerchers or was simply corrupt and didn’t want Italian law enforcement embarrassed in the eyes of the world.

The second judge cut right through the false complexity. He called the University of Rome: “I need forensics experts to look at the data.” The experts in Rome didn’t have to look too hard. They delivered a fancy report, but, again, it was a simple case. The PCR test on the triple-negative knife should not have been conducted at all because one is testing a sample already known to be negative. Even if one accepts a test on a negative sample, it is meaningless without a negative control (basically a white glove test) to prove the equipment is not itself contaminated with the murder victim’s blood as a result of dozens of tests performed.

The Italian scientists said the positive result for Kercher’s blood on the triple negative knife looked to them like clear indication of contaminated lab equipment. If the negative controls came back clean (that is if the blank sample showed nothing) then in theory one might accept the knife data. But you can’t say anything at all without seeing the data from the negative controls.

The second judge issued a court order for the negative controls to be released. The police lab refused repeated orders from the judge to release the data. And that was that. The judge sent the two kids home.

Obviously, the negative controls — something done routinely by lab techs with each sample — showed the contamination and the police lab didn’t want to admit that they had entered into evidence a triple-negative kitchen knife too big to be the murder weapon that only tested positive because the PCR machine was contaminated. Two crimes had been committed: murder and evidence suppression.

Raffaele said when he got home, he just stood in front of an open refigerator full of food he hadn’t tasted in four years. He stared. He doesn’t remember how long he stood there. He revealed that the police had offered to have him released if he would testify that Knox left his apartment the night of the murder. He refused. Knox called him a hero. “I don’t feel so,” he said. He never considered helping the police frame Knox.

Knox, on the plane ride home, kept forgetting that her family didn’t speak Italian.

Raffaele also shared a moment years later when he visited Amanda in the U.S. and at one point while remembering the horror of it all from the cold blustery day Meredith’s body was discovered to the interrogations for which the police “lost” the tapes to their learning from jail about the knife that supposedly had DNA on it to the show trial to the horrific conviction to the second trial with the real judge to their release from prison after four years all of it deeply colored by the worldwide attention focused almost entirely on Knox’s breasts. Together, they both fell apart unable to contain themselves. But they weren’t crying.

Sollecito said they laughed together uncontrollably for a couple of minutes.

And it was funny. In fact, it’s hilarious. It’s a Monty Python skit (“Burn the Witch” comes to mind) played out in real life. And yet millions of people were fooled including the victim’s family. The funniest part to my mind was the Harvard Law School professor saying he thought Knox was lovely-I-mean-guilty and would probably get the death penalty here in the good old USA. He didn’t actually say “lovely” instead of “guilty” but he might as well have. I won’t look at Harvard Law the same way ever again.

With Knox back in the U.S. and the rational part of the world able to see the case for what it was, Diane Sawyer had a serious question for the beautiful yoga afficionado: “Did you kill Meredith Kercher?” Sawyer asked.

Sawyer went on to ask Knox about the police theory that she and Sollecito had selectively removed DNA from the crime scene and Knox restrained herself. She quietly informed Ms. Sawyer that the reporter was asking her about a feat that no human being could accomplish even if they had a world-class lab and a thousand assistants at their beck and call. “That’s impossible,” Knox said.

The engineers trying to keep the Challenger launch cancelled had self-restraint. Look where it got them. What might Knox have said when asked if she killed Meredith Kercher?

“Are you a witch, Ms. Sawyer? Did you cast a spell that caused a young man to tear out a hunk of Meredith’s hair, slash her throat, and then remove her clothing and press his hands into her vagina while she literally drowned in her own blood? Oh, does that bother you? Are you perhaps laboring under a false impression? Did you think the story you are covering is about how nice my breasts look in a tabloid photo?”

Maybe then Sawyer would not have asked Knox if she had discovered a new method of selectively removing DNA from a crime scene. But Sawyer did ask about the “clean up” and Knox had to explain that when an Italian court says Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are real this should not alter our sense of what is real and what is not.

Sawyer, ironically from the viewpoint of this essay, made the mistake of not being certain enough. Usually, with false paradigms, the problem is experts become overly sure of themselves. In the Knox false paradigm, which is a social false paradigm, we assume western police and courts in the 21st century would never act like deranged children. This assumption is incorrect not only in Italy but here in the U.S. as well as The Innocence Project has repeatedly shown. In the Knox case, nonsense was foisted upon the Italian, British, and American public — and upon Meredith Kercher’s grieving family — but we did not call it nonsense because we made an assumption: “It can’t be that bad.”

One of the important points I hope to get across in this essay is that sometimes it really is that bad. Sometimes you are sitting in the cockpit of the space shuttle and a guy at NASA is pushing hard to ignore five engineers who say it’s too dangerous to launch.

One might say that we all — certainly Sawyer fell for this — are vulnerable to the false paradigm in which we assume that otherwise reasonable people cannot be taken over by false paradigms and start behaving like rabid dogs . . .

The Story of the Terrified Astronomers

This last example before we get to the big kahuna is not cut and dried like the Knox case and it doesn’t involve life and death. This last one is an example of scientists who are so concerned about their popularity (like at a high school prom or something) that they run screaming from a huge discovery simply because it is so huge that to tell about it might make the scientists “sound funny.” The problem is the scientists don’t have certainty and they are just terrified of saying something dramatic and being wrong. But that’s just weak, sorry.

Something really dramatic happened in 2017 and yes, it might not be what it looks like, but so what? If it isn’t it isn’t. That doesn’t mean scientists should pretend it didn’t happen. It could be the biggest discovery in human history for god’s sake! Why hide it?

Suppose it’s 2016 and you are offering interviewing an astronomer and you have an idea about something that might, hypothetically, happen.

YOU: Have we ever tracked an object passing through our solar system that came from another solar system?

ASTRO: No, not yet, but we will someday.

YOU: I know we can track asteroids in our solar system and they follow predicatable trajectories. Would that be true for an asteroid coming in from outside?

ASTRO: Yes indeed. We would know from its trajectory that it came from outside and we would be able to predict its path.

YOU: That’s great. But what if it was a comet from another solar system?

ASTRO: We would also know it was from outside and we can easily track comets. However, they do go off course a bit because of the outgassing when they get close to the sun. The outgassing is random so we can’t predict the exact deviation from what we call the gravitational trajectory but they are still eminently trackable not least because outgassing comets have highly visible tails.

YOU: So when the tail is created by the sun’s heat and the particles come off, the comet gets a little random push?

ASTRO: Exactly. And the tail is bigger than the comet; you can’t miss it.

YOU: Okay, now what if something from another solar system comes in and goes off course but suppose there’s no tail?

ASTRO: There would always be a tail at least as far as we know but if somehow there were no visible tail, we would still know it was a comet because the deviations would be random and would stop when it got far from the sun.

YOU: Okay, now can we imagine an object coming in from another solar system, going off course smoothly, showing no tail at all, and continuing a smooth deviation even after it is far from the sun?

ASTRO: Of course we can imagine such a thing. It’s science fiction. You are describing some kind of alien spacecraft with some sort of propulsion system or maybe what we call a lightsail. That’s the only thing we know of that would behave as you’ve specified.

YOU: Really, that’s how we would identify an alien spacecraft, by its trajectory and its lack of any tail?

ASTRO: Yes and I can see you are hoping we see something like that. But don’t hold your breath. I’m sure the first extra-solar objects we track will be comets and asteroids spit out by distant solar systems, making their way across interstellar space, and eventually passing by our sun. It will be interesting to track such objects but maybe not quite as interesting as you would like.

YOU: Okay, but hypothetically if something came through and deviated smoothly with no tail, would we know for a fact that it was a spacecraft?

ASTRO: Well, it would be quite a big deal if what you are imagining happened, but unless it passed by very close to earth, we wouldn’t have enough data to be sure what it was.

YOU: So it would either be some exotic object that we’ve never seen or imagined or a spacecraft.

ASTRO: Right. We know there are extra-solar planets and there could be life and this life could created artificial objects and those objects could eventually reach our solar system. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly many natural objects in the galaxy that we know nothing about and maybe one such object would come through our solar system and smoothly deviate from a gravitational trajectory with no visible tail.

YOU: Speaking of alien space probes, how many have we sent out of our solar system?

ASTRO: Five.

YOU: And all of them will eventually encounter other solar systems right?

ASTRO: Probably yes, and I’m sure if there is anyone in those solar systems they will find our space probes a most interesting sight.

YOU: So it could happen here on earth. We could see an alien space probe and we’d know it by its trajectory and its lack of a tail even if we didn’t get a good look at it.

ASTRO: Well, I appreciate your excitement about the possibility.

YOU: You don’t seem to think it is very likely that we see any such thing.

ASTRO: I’ll put it this way: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Except they didn’t. Astronomers saw in 2017 that which was described above and no, they did not believe their own eyes, literally.

Oumuamua, the first object ever detected in our solar system that came from outside, passed though the plane of our solar system and is now long gone. It deviated from a gravitational trajectory indicating outgassing but there was no tail and the deviations were smooth and constant. A lone astronomer at Harvard pointed out that it acted the way a “lightsail” would. A lightsail is a type of craft we may well build ourselves one day that uses a large, flat, reflective mirror to harness sunlight the way a cloth sail harnesses wind.

Oumuamua wasn’t an asteroid or comet: its acceleration off of the gravitational trajectory made it look like a lightsail. But there was more to it than that. It also had a shape that astronomers had never seen before. The data allowed astronomers to narrow its shape to two possibilities: long and skinny like a cigar or flat and thin like a pancake. If we knew it was a pancake, that would be make it look an awful lot like a lightsail though astronomers would be probably still be unwilling to believe their eyes even in that scenario.

Almost every astronomer who had anything to say about it had a problem with their Harvard colleague stating the obvious: the only thing we know of the would behave like Oumuamua is a spacecraft. But almost the entirety of the rest of astronomy community (well, the professors anyway) shouted their colleague down saying he was being silly. Now you might wonder how they could say such a thing given the evidence that they themselves had uncovered.

It was easy: they did the possible=certain thing. It is possible Oumuamua was an exotic object never before seen, never before imagined. It is possible that Oumuamua was solid mass of hydrogen that somehow made it across interstellar space, a so-called “hydrogen iceberg.” It is possible Oumuamua was a tenuous-but-gravitationally-bound cloud of gas that likewise made the interstellar journey.

Since it was possible Oumuamua was something other than an alien spacecraft, that meant to the other astronomers that this was certain. The guy at Harvard was ridiculed. And a lot of people don’t realize that in 2017, we may have made the most important discovery since we learned to control fire. Of course, the cautious astronomers who are terrified of “sounding funny” are correct inasmuch as Oumuamua is a single data point, the first extra-solar object, and we can’t say for certain what it was.

A second extra-solar object came through after Oumuamua and it was an ordinary comet. So now we have two data points. Of couse two data points is still insufficient for firm conclusions. We’ll all have to check back when astronomers have tracked a hundred extra-solar objects.

Meanwhile, consider this. We discovered space travel basically yesterday as far as the evolution of the galaxy goes. And we’ve already launched five probes all of which will eventually encounter other solar systems. We’ve got a space telescope up and running with a giant heat shield that was roughly as hard to build as a light-sail spacecraft. We already build tens of millions of cars every year and the space above earth is, right now, filled with all kinds of artificial orbiting stuff. What is to stop us at some point in the next thousand years from sending out millions (or tens of millions . . .) of space probes as often as we want? Nothing, obviously.

There are billions of planets in the solar system and billions of years during which civilizations could have begun to fill the galaxy with probes (maybe purposely aimed at other solar systems) just as we have filled our skies with satellites. The idea that Oumuamua might (the Harvard astronomer who got yelled at by his colleagues did NOT claim certainty) be a space probe is not at all far-fetched and, in fact, Oumuamua looked EXACTLY like a spacecraft, at least what we could see of it which admittedly wasn’t as much as we’d like but was definitely enough to blow anyone’s mind so long as that mind is locked in up in the Fort Knox of “don’t say anything that might sound funny.”

Oumuamua is a reminder. The galaxy might well be as full of life as earth’s oceans. And look what evolution did. We started with single-celled creatures and moved on to fish and then reptiles on land and then mammals on land. And then some of those land mammals became coastal and then semi-aquatic and, in some cases, became fully aquatic and returned to the sea full time. Imagine four-legged furry creatures losing their limbs, losing their body hair, gaining layers of fat and becoming hippos, manatees, seals, dolphins, and whales. The hippo didn’t go all the way to fully aquatic. The manatee did become fully aquatic while its cousin the elephant stayed on land. The land mammal precusors of seals, dolphins, and whales are no longer with us (thought their fossils are). What I find interesting about this is the fact that mermaids are quite real, at least if you are an elephant.

So evolution can seemingly do anything if it has millions of years in which to do it. So why can’t the galaxy that has billions of years to do what it is going to do be filled with life and space probes that might be an inevitable result of that life? It’s not guaranteed but no reasonable person would say it is silly.

And yet this does nothing for Avi Loeb at Harvard. Many of his colleagues have said outright that his viewpoint is silly. But he isn’t silly. They are.

Something from another solar system passed through our solar system. It wasn’t an asteroid. It wasn’t a comet. It wasn’t like anything we’ve previously seen or imagined EXCEPT for a spacecraft. Of course it could be an exotic natural object. Of course astronomers who want to be cautious about postulating extraterrestrial civilizations should use their imaginations to come up with possibilities for Oumuamua that allow us to still be alone in the galaxy.

But do we really have to ignore the possibility that Oumuamua was what it looked like just because we would have to use the word “alien” to describe it? Imagination is important. But claiming that Oumuamua is certainly a hydrogen iceberg or gas cloud or some other natural object just because it is possible to create such an object in an astronomer’s imagination seems to me a horrid mis-use of imagination. Of course it could be a new type of tail-less comet or whatever the super-cautious astonomers want it to be. But the fact remains, there is every reason to believe we are not alone in the galaxy even if there are tail-less comets causing false alarms.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” So said Einstein. When he realized the universe was not as simple as previously thought, he allowed himself to imagine a universe that had features that were beyond what is normally thought of as “common sense.” He contemplated a speed (the speed of light) that would make two apparently distant points in the universe not distant at all, a speed that would be both a limit for us and a path to the infinite, a speed that would make those points A and B as close together as you like no matter how far apart they appear to be. When Einstein was done with his theory and when the other physicists were done verifying it, we were suddenly living in a universe where spatial separations and temporal separations were mere illusions, a universe that doesn’t just challenge our imagination but that is actually beyond our imagination.

That’s our universe. And in that universe, human astonomers looking at Oumuamua aren’t even willing to allow one of their colleagues to point out that it looked a lot like a spacecraft without ridiculing him. These astonomers know all about Einstein and the extra-solar planets and they’ve even got a guy at Harvard sticking his neck out and saying Oumuamua might possibly be the most important discovery in human history. And there are other astronomers saying we should be cautious about jumping to conclusions.

And they’re right, we should be cautious. The problem is caution isn’t good enough for these astronomers. They have squashed Oumuamua. If this is the first you’re hearing about Oumuamua, then you know that mindlessness carried the day in 2017. Practically everyone on Earth knows the name and face of the person who won the U.S. presidential election in 2016 but only a tiny fraction know about a much more important thing that happened almost exactly a year later. What’s wrong with this picture?

It is a fact that in 2017 astronomers saw what looked like an alien spacecraft travel through our solar system. But they were too afraid to make a fuss about it. Yes, really.

The Show So Far

Before we do the big kahuna, let’s review a bit.

Engineers: If you launch today, the shuttle will blow up on takeoff and everyone on board will die.

Four Bosses: Oh, come now, don’t be silly, it’ll be fine.

Real Doctor: If we wash our hands more infants will come into the world with their mothers still alive.

Fake Doctors: How dare you imply that we are dirty! “Three heads and you’re dead” are acceptable childbirth odds. You, sir, will have to leave town now. Goodbye.

Future Nobel Prize Winner: I discovered what causes ulcers.

People Who Are Never Wrong: Nyah, nyah, nyah. We’re not LiSSSteninGGGG!

Hardy: Maybe human primates evolved streamlined posture, smooth skin, and head-to-toe fat for the same reason other mammals got these three adaptations.

Faux Scientists: We’re still holding out for the tool-use theory. Maybe someday someone will discover a six-million-year-old bow and arrow. But please don’t repeat this.

Innocence Project: If you are going to kill someone in the name of justice, you had better be sure.

Arson Investigators: We divine by these markings that this fire had origins in an evil heart.

Inventor of DNA Forensics: I didn’t invent this tool so people could burn witches.

Italian Judges: We love DNA forensics because most people don’t understand it so we can twist it however we like.

Harvard Astronomer: The “Are we alone?” question may have just been answered.

Terrified Astronomers: Be vewy, vewy quiet. Don’t tell anyone what we saw. Or tell them it was a gravitationally bound gas cloud. There are no LGM’s. There are no LGM’s. There are no LGM’s.

Human Evolution and Faux Scientists

No one has the slightest clue about what happened six million years ago when our branch primates separated from the branch containing chimpanzees and bonobos and, if you go back a little further, gorrillas and the other apes. In fact we humans are in the primate order and ape family: we still have a lot in common with our evolutionary cousins.

But we’re different, a lot different. It has nothing to do with making and shaking spears or with writing Shakespeare or with typing on computers. The separation was physical. A group of apes found a new way of living and they changed.

How did they change? Well for one thing, they stood up. It was NOT to free their hands to use spears or type on keyboards: that came much later. Standing up is nice. Standing up lets you wield a stick better and allows you to walk long distances so maybe we became stick-wielding nomadic apes and maybe that’s why half a dozen species of upright small-brained apes roamed the earth six million years ago like so many sasquatch species.

But these creatures were not human at all. They were just ordinary apes with ordinary ape brains. What were they doing? A hundred years ago someone figured it out. Humans don’t just stand up. We are also hairless, relatively speaking. We have smooth skin that our cousins don’t have. Maybe the sasquatch creatures all had smooth skin too. Maybe bipedalism and smooth skin go together. Maybe these adaptations are somehow advantageous in the right situation.

There’s another difference. Chimpanzees have fat just like us, but not really just like us. Our primate cousins can all get fat, but they store their fat internally. A fat chimpanzee doesn’t have fat fingers or a fat face or fat thighs or fat butts or fat arms any more than a human can get fat ankles. Even the stomach fat on a chimp isn’t the same as our stomach fat: for the chimp, the fat is internal as opposed to just under the skin.

Humans have a head-to-toe layer of subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. No other primate has anything remotely like this. We stand up straight and we have smooth skin. No other primate has these three major adaptations.

But what (think outside the box) is the point of straight posture, smooth skin, and head-to-toe fat. What advantage does it give a small-brained ape with no spears? What can we do physically that other primate can’t do? Does straight posture, smooth skin, and head-to-toe fat exist in any other mammalian species? That is, is there precedent for these three major adaptations that separate us from our scramble-on-all-fours, hairy, skinny cousins?

For the moment, we don’t have proof that the changes to posture, body hair, and fat deposition happened at the same time. We would need to isolate the genes that govern these characteristics and use DNA studies to determine how long the genes have been extant in order to find out if these adaptations were simultaneous. We don’t have the ability to do this yet, but someday we will know if that upright ape from six million years ago was also naked and curvy.

Assuming it is the case that the three big changes — bipedal posture, smooth skin, subcutaneous fat — all evolved six million years ago, what is the best guess for WHY they evolved? The wonderful thing is that it is obvious. For one thing, other mammals have evolved these three characteristics and always for the same reason — they confer a huge advantage under certain conditons. Again and again throughout evolutionary history, mammals have changed the way they live and created new evolutionary lines of wondrous creatures that have streamlined postures, smooth skin, and subcutaneous fat.

And there is one thing humans can do that no other primate would even try to do. Imagine if you and twenty friends were going to transported someplace naked without tools. You have to survive. Where do you want to be?

How about a nice island with a seashore with plenty of shellfish available? Or would you rather hunt big game on the African savannah without a spear or any other handmade tool? Of course you are better off on the seashore.

Do you know what happens when a human baby spends a lot of time in the water or at the seashore? Human babies are born to swim. Human babies, as long as they have a chance to learn (and even baby dolphins have to learn to swim) will swim and dive and retieve objects from several feet under water BEFORE they learn to walk. For humans, learning to swim is completely natural. We have the physiology for it. No other primate does.

What the great professional anthropologist Alister Hardy realized a hundred years ago is the simple fact that every aquatic or semi-aquatic mammal evolved NOT in the water but on land as a hairy, four-footed mammal without subcutaneous fat that then went BACK to the water to become hippos, manatees, dolphins, seals, and other aquatics all of which are outfitted with the standard set of three aquatic adaptations.

Whether you personally love to swim or hate the water is irrelevant. If you have a baby and expose it to the water and play with it in the water, it will swim and dive before it walks. It doesn’t matter whether your baby is a boy or a girl: if he or she is human, he or she is born to swim. If you are human, you are a semi-aquatic primate, the only surviving species out of half a dozen branches that split off from the other apes six million years ago.

Of course, it is possible that the ability of humans to out swim and out dive by far any other primate (how many gorrillas have you seen swimming across the English channel or pearl diving a hundred feet down with no technological aid?) is just a coincidence. All this theorizing is predicated on the guess that the changes to posture which are preserved in the fossil record occured right along with changes to skin and fat that are not preserved as hard fossils. The DNA “soft fossils” that could prove that our distant ancestors were coastal apes that walked and waded and swam and dove have yet to be dug up and examined so we can’t claim the theory proven just yet.

If an elephant were to watch a manatee swimming, the elephant would be watching an actual mermaid because from the elephant’s point of view, the manatee is a mermaid — a fully aquatic elephant. Manatees and elephants share a common ancestor which was probably semi-aquatic or at least coastal. Elephants of course are superb swimmers and their famous trunks may well have first evolved as snorkels. Anthropologists know all about the manatee/mermaid and they know all about the elephants semi-aquatic past and they are happy to consider the possibility that the elephant’s trunk evolved as a snorkel, but they do a 180-degree shift when anyone talks about humans.

Humans were supposed to have separated from the other apes because we got big brains and started using tools. Anthropologists have yet to wrap their little minds around the fact that this was long since proven untrue and they are unwilling to accept even the possibility that Hardy may have been right: our ancestors evolved on the coast or on an island and the current human swimming and diving ability is not just a lucky accident.

The great philosopher of science, Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, knows all about Hardy’s theory and is himself an expert on evolution. He wrote the rather Turgid but also brilliant Darwin’s Dangerous Idea which I regard as the best book ever written about evolution, as if all the knowledge and understanding of all the most brilliant evolutionary theorists in the world were woven together in one package. Dennett doesn’t say much about Hardy’s idea except for one thing.

Dennett has been all over the world to conferences and has asked every anthropologist he could find about Hardy’s theory. Dennett understands why Hardy’s theory isn’t yet proven. What he wants to know is why it isn’t even possible to discuss it in journals. Dennett wants to know why the theory isn’t mentioned in textbooks. Dennett wants to know why anthropologists who have no idea at all what happened six million years ago when our ancestors stood up with their small brains and with no tools claim not merely that Hardy’s idea is unproven but that it is definitely wrong.

Do you think Dennett ever got an answer to his simple question: why are anthropologists certain that Hardy’s theory is definitely wrong to the point where the idea shouldn’t even be discussed? The answer is NO:  Dennett got no answer at all. Dennett wrote in his book that he’s never heard an answer worth repeating.

How could he have heard an answer worth repeating? Humans have the same three adaptations as every aquatic or semi-aquatic mammal. Humans are naturally equipped to learn to swim and learning to swim happens for us quicker than learning to walk as long as we have a beach or a pool. There’s nothing natural about walking, we have to learn. If you grew up in a gravity-free environment, you would fall on your face as soon as you landed on a planet with gravity.

Humans in particular and mammals in general do hardly anything right out of the womb. Human babies can grasp and suckle pretty much immediately. Their next trick is swimming. If we developed streamlined posture, smooth skin, and subcutaneous fat simultaneously, we were following a path traveled over millions of years by many other mammalian species. But Hardy, a professional anthropologist, was certainly wrong even though he correctly predicted that we would find that tool use happened millions of years AFTER our ancestors split from the other apes and even though his theory has ample precedent throughout the animal kingdom.


The Big Kahuna

In 1990, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst approached his professors with an unusual request. He wanted to write his doctoral thesis in comparative literature assuming that the greatest playwright of Elizabethan times was NOT a Stratford businessman named William Shakespeare who arrived in London in the early 1590’s but was instead a literary earl who used his direct access to the Queen’s court and the protection of the Queen herself to write plays whose sheer audacity would still be raising scholarly eyebrows centuries later.

Here’s the late Harold Bloom, that scholar of scholars, most impressed.

“Many in the original audience [of As You Like It] must have appreciated Shakespeare’s audacity in alluding to Marlowe having been struck dead . . . by . . . a member of . . . the CIA of Elizabethan England . . . Shakespeare hints strongly that it was a state-ordered execution . . .”

The ability of Shakespeare to “hint strongly” about anything and everything he felt like bringing up in thirty-six explosive, informed, daring works of art without being dragged before the authorities is where the mystery begins. Shakespeare was not just tolerated by the Queen — she embraced the works and took advantage of their popularity.

An anonymous play called The Famous Victories of Henry V captivated the Queen, her court, and the people of London with its stirring message of communal courage in the face of looming threats. Most likely played through most of the 1580’s and definitely played before 1588, its title was on the Queen’s lips in the crucial summer of 1588. If the Spanish Armada could not be prevented from crossing the English Channel, England would likely be unable to resist the invasion that would follow: England would be forced back into the orbit of papal Rome.

The Queen rallied her people:

“We shall shortly have a famous victory.”

And they did.

The woman who was perhaps the greatest of the English monarchs may have been consciously quoting the title of the early version of Henry V and why sholudn’t she? Since 1583, when she went “all in” on the theater with the creation of the Queen’s Men and the initiation of what Thomas Nashe called “the policy of plays,” the theater had been an arm of the state. In 1586, she approved an extraordinary grant of gold and silver to support the leading court playwright, a literary earl whose abilities were compared to Homer’s and his words likened to mother’s milk but whose name never appeared on a play.

The Queen and her chief adviser Lord Burghley and the top national security man, Francis Walsingham, did not use the modern idiom “all in” but they would have understood the phrase from context. A lot was at stake, everything as a matter of fact. A wild, unpredictable, brilliant insider singing the praises of the Tudor Rose dynasty while also delivering the biting satire and dark humor that helped make the scandalous plays outrageously popular was just what the doctor ordered.

A minority of credentialed experts — I call them “rebels” — believe the anonymous author of Famous Victories was Shakespeare and, what’s more, that he was the literary earl who officially became the Queen’s playwright in 1586 and who was allowed wide latitude in his writings as long as he didn’t openly take credit for the works.

The Henry V from the 1580’s, part of a group of plays referred to here as “1580’s Shakespeare,” featured classic Shakespearean innovations including comic scenes interspersed with history scenes, experimentation with the artifice of a play within a play, foreigners comically butchering English creating bawdy multilingual puns, and so on. This relatively crude Henry V was the basis for what came to be known as Shakespeare’s “Prince Hal trilogy” — the two parts of Henry IV and the mature version of Henry V.

The close relationship between canonical Shakespeare and 1580’s Shakespeare is widely recognized. Mainstream scholars who aren’t quite sure who wrote the early Henry V note that the Prince Hal trilogy “emulates the stagecraft” and “follows exactly the contours” of the 1580’s play but generally regard the question of who wrote 1580’s Shakespeare as a mystery “of so dark a nature” as to be permanently unsolvable.

John Dover Wilson expressed the mainstream view as follows:

“. . . a very intimate connection of some kind exists between Shakespeare’s plays and this old text.”

One “intimate connection” we can list is the Queen herself: she seemed rather enamored of both canonical Shakespeare and 1580’s Shakespeare. How could she resist? “His cause being just and his quarrel honorable . . . ” and so on from soldiers facing death in Henry V getting at the all-important inherent goodness of dying for king and country — is surely manna to a monarch whether one is a king or a queen. The patriotic fervor of Henry V was and is arguably irresistible in as many contexts as one can imagine.

The UCLA scholar Lily Campbell wrote a book in 1947 holding up a lens to the intimate connection between Shakespeare plays and Elizabethan politics. In the introduction and in chapter 11, Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, Campbell sketches for us a 16th century tableau.

“Shakespeare’s plots were clear and sure because he had a definite, fundamental conception of universal law . . . each of Shakespeare’s histories serves a special purpose in elucidating a political problem of Elizabeth’s day and bringing to bear upon this problem the accepted political philosophy of the Tudors.”

And so it was that Henry V was valuable to 20th century leaders just as it was to Elizabeth centuries before: at war once more with bombs raining down upon London released from devices that would have fascinated and terrified Elizabeth and Burghley and Walsingham, Henry V appeared on the magic silver screen stiffening the sinew once again of Londoners facing destruction and conquest.

Fictional centuries later, the Starship Enterprise helmed by the brave Captain Picard portrayed by sometime Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart crossed the Neutral Zone only to be confronted, outgunned, by two Romulan Warbirds. “Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it,” a brooding PIcard muttered to himself before giving the fateful order taking the ship and its crew into danger.

Trapped by the aptly named Romulans and facing imminent destruction, Picard challenges the confident Romulan commander:

“If the cause is just and honorable, they are prepared to give their lives. Are YOU prepared to die today . . .?”

The representative of Romulus, thinking his position secure and superior, scoffs at this “idle threat.” But then the fruits of Picard’s forethought appear before the suprised eyes of the clever-but-not-clever-enough Romulan. The galactic version of the Spanish Armada turns tail and heads home.

We are fortunate that Henry V in all of its various versions finally found its way to the printing press for it was almost lost to us. It wasn’t until 1598 that the early version of the play was printed. It was still anonymous even though the name “Shakespeare” was famous by then. The first play of the Prince Hal trilogy also came out in print that year, anonymous as well.

But soon after that, the famous name “Shakespeare” (famous from epic poems published four and five years before) finally began appearing on plays. The first two installments of the trilogy were published WITH bylines. Interestingly, the mature version of Henry V, a shortened version of the play we know but more polished than the early version, also appeared at this time and in multiple editions BUT with no byline.

It may be the case that once a play had been published sans byline, publishers tended to continue the trend. Romeo and Juliet was also published repeatedly as if it were anonymous though it was anything but. Titus Andronicus, another recognized Shakespeare play, was published anonymously before 1598 and again and again with a blank on the title page even though the anonymity seal had been long since broken.

So the mystery of 1580’s Shakespeare is compounded by the mystery of the bylines that didn’t appear on plays until the 1598 and even then seemed to be treated as optional by publishers. But the haphazard bylines are really nothing compared to the haphazard quality of the published works. This is where the mainstream’s choice of author, the Stratford businessman named William Shakespeare, comes in.

He arrived from the town of Stratford — a few days’ journey away in those days — in the early 1590’s. He was one of several William Shakespeares living in and around London at the time — Shakespeare, from the French Jaques-Pierre, was a moderately common surname so “William Shakespeare” wasn’t exactly “John Smith” but a name more like “Robert McIntyre” or something similar.

By 1595, this William Shakespeare, a Stratford investor in real estate and agriculture and a dealer in grain and malt was one of the major shareholders in London’s leading acting company, a fact that would both comfort and confound biographers centuries later.

Despite the apparent high profile of the author, if you wanted to publish a “Shakespeare” play, the author was nowhere to be found. Two epic poems had been published (everyone agrees) as authorized versions but after those publications in 1593 and 1594, the author vanished. The plays were huge, but whoever was writing them wasn’t cooperating with publishers.

This odd state of affairs with high profiles and low profiles and authorized poems and bootlegged plays and the Shakespeare name appearing and disappearing becomes one of the many mysteries of Shakespeare: the greatest of them all is the one and only Elizabethan playwright to be exclusively bootlegged.

Now bootlegging happened to many Elizabethan authors but it happened sporadically — except for Shakespeare. Bloom is probably the most famous Shakespeare scholar of them all with full rights to be confident in his view of the Shakespeare world and so we go to him, the great man himself, ingenio ipsum, for understanding and clarity.

But Bloom comes across rather humble when he confronts what we might call the invisibility mystery.

“There is an inverse ratio, a little beyond our analytical skills, between Shakespeare’s virtual colorlessness and his preternatural dramatic powers.”

An “inverse ratio” is, from a mathematical standpoint, meaningless, but it is nevertheless poetry to my physicist ears. How can I resist the come hither of an “inverse ratio” that challenges even the analytical skills of Yale’s late great Shakespeare standard-bearer?

I’m sure I don’t know what an “inverse ratio” is exactly but I know I like it. How could there be a more fitting math-poetry amalgam to delineate the mystery of the invisible author: if great writing combined with famous plays combined with a shareholder named Shakespeare combined with no one to feed hungry publishers does not make for an “inverse ratio” why then I daresay nothing does.

As we’ll see, Bloom is far from the only mainstreamer to wonder aloud about that which rebels are wont to scream from rooftops.

For the UMass student and for rebels in general, the story of the Queen’s playwright — who was anything but colorless — saves us from having to strain our “analytical skills” or turn ourselves upside down to try to understand what conquered the redoubtable Bloom. Rebels point out that there’s nothing mysterious about the Queen’s playwright who had plenty of courtly dirt to dish, gold in his saddlebag, and a name that graced no play.

The  Queen’s playwright aka the literary earl was at the center of London’s literary scene: he knew personally most if not all of the major Elizabethan writers; they dedicated work after work to their mentor and their compliments went way beyond polite obsequiousness to a patron. The literary earl’s erudition, intellectual abilities, and “dramatic powers” were noted throughout his life and beyond. The encomiums began in childhood and persisted after his death for a few decades until he was mostly forgotten.

No play byline ever had his name. None of the people praising him for his literary work ever mentioned a title. He vanished, seemingly forever, into the mists of history.

Secrecy was the watchword: the lavish support the literary earl was receiving from the crown was a state secret not openly discussed at the time. It was not discovered by historians until three centuries had passed. By then what the worms had left us of the literary earl’s life boiled down to a historical footnote: he was an “interesting” figure; only this and nothing more.

But then the documents were discovered: the equivalent of a Nobel Prize every year for life was awarded to a wild young man with one outstanding talent — writing. And that’s more than interesting. For people who wonder, taking Bloom more seriously that than ingenio ipsum would like, how it could be that the Stratford real estate genius was also the writer of the Prince Hal trilogy, 1000 pounds a year for life is a lifeline.

The grant was set up with more than the usual level of secrecy: there was to be no overt tracking of the money as it left the crown’s possession; no indication appears noting what the recipient is being paid to do; and the recipient was explicitly exempt from any accounting.

With the discovery of the payments, the literary earl was a footnote no more. Suddenly, rebels say, everything makes sense.

In contrast, the businessman who breezed into London in 1592 — twenty years too late to hear rebels tell it — and supposedly took the Queen’s court and the London populace by storm but left no record of having done so, confounds every biographer who looks into the question.

The fact that there is no shortage of paperwork documenting the businessman’s mercantile life only deepens the mystery.

To rebels, the documents from his lifetime end the discussion: he wasn’t a writer; he was just a man named Shakespeare (born Shakspere) who opportunistically bought into London’s leading acting company and may have pranced around London bragging about his name but never raised more than a jocular eyebrow in London and lived and died as a well-known deep-pocketed money-man in Stratford-upon-Avon, a hundred miles northwest of London. Rebels and mainstreamers look at the same documents and, interestingly enough, reach amazingly similar preliminary conclusions considering how far apart their final determinations are.

E. A. J. Honigmann was no rebel and yet he is often quoted by rebels who don’t understand why he didn’t come over the dark side as it were.

Honigmann was passionate about finding hints of Shakespeare’s writing career so he studied the trove of more than seventy documents. He was disappointed. Honigmann discovered a businessman apparently writing great literature between real estate deals. He continued to disagree with rebels but he was so honest about his findings that he might as well have been knighted as a honorary member of the rebel clan. Here is the brilliant, thoroughly mainstream scholar, a man I call Sir E. A. J. Honigmann, commenting on the business activity of the man he was sure (not without reason as we’ll see) was the greatest writer in Elizabethan England.

“If one lists all of these various activities in chronological order, one wonders how the dramatist found time to go on writing plays.”

Park Honan, another fully committed mainstreamer, looked at the same documents as Bloom and Honigmann. With a bit of what one might call rhetorical fluorish, Honan made a concerted effort to explain some of these mysteries starting on page 115 of his book and ending on page 118. Here is the flickering picture he paints for us of the man who lived centuries ago. NB: John Lyly was an Elizabethan writer whose writings and Shakespeare’s have much in common.

“Throughout his life, he had little to gain [financially] from seeing his name in a London bookshop . . . Shakespeare may have begun with The Two Gentlemen of Verona . . . [with] its elegant Lylyan theme . . . Borrowing and assimilating widely, as if he could hardly trust what he knows of life, Shakespeare is an accomplished parasite . . . despite the ambiguous evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare seems to have fluorished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself . . .”

So, according to Honan, William Shakespeare, the Stratford businessman and erudite genius and acting company shareholder and courtly playwright, annihilated himself not so much like matter meeting anti-matter in a huge explosion but more like the Cheshire Cat of Lewis Carroll’s (real name: Charles Dodgson) imagination, fading out of existence with a sly smile in a way that would drive future historians (rebels would say literally) batty.

Mark Twain (real name: Samuel Clemens) didn’t believe a word of the story about the audacious-hyper-efficient-colorless-businessman-writer-dramatic-powerhouse-Cheshire-Cat great writer.

Claiming mainstreamers were all out of their collective minds in insisting “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” Twain/Clemens wrote a satirical tract (before the grant to the literary earl was discovered) containing an oft-quoted satirical remark that sounds bizarrely like what mainstreamers say in their writings.

“We are the reasoning race and when we see a vague file of chipmunk tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there.”

An inverse ratio of colorlessness, a man who can manufacture time, a Cheshire Cat, and vague file of chipmunk tracks — that’s what we’ve got. Sometimes the mainstream seems to agree with Twain/Clemens with what might be called a paradoxical vehemence.

Without an accessible author in London in the 1590’s even though “William Shakespeare” was in town and holding shares in the most famous acting company of the time (this company had picked up where the Queen’s Men left off) publishers were lucky if they could get their hands on a partial script. If unlucky, they might sit in theaters furiously taking notes. That was how it was and sometimes it was terrible. The first edition of Hamlet contained the immortal line (corrected the following year), “To be or not to be, Aye, there’s the point.” And — small problem — half the play was missing.

Maybe the author was so appalled by the first edition that he actually got involved and saw to it that a decent edition made it to press: no one knows.

Schoenbaum, arguably the premier Shakespeare biographer, like everyone else found the “absent author” part of the story frustrating and bizarre.

“Towards the quartos printed while he lived he maintained a public aloofness . . . The man keeps his mask always firmly in place; apart from the works themselves there is only silence.”

The messy “quartos” — printed works on “quarter” sheets of paper — from which the Cheshire Cat was “aloof” are just the beginning of the “masquerade” for most of the plays weren’t published at all: no quarto, no mistakes, no mixed up scenes, no missing lines, just a lot of nothing.

MacbethJulius Caesear, All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Tempest, Othello, The Comedy of Errors, and many other plays rested somewhere with someone in manuscript until finally thirty-six plays, essentially the entire canon, appeared all at once in 1623 long after anyone who might have written them was dead.

Some plays, including HamletKing Lear, King John, Taming of the Shrew, and even Henry V had been published after a fashion, but the great 1623 compilation — called the First Folio for its larger-sized paper — contained new versions of these plays. Hamlet and King Lear now appeared with changes scattered throughout the plays; King John had been completely rewritten and was now mature Shakespeare; Taming of the Shrew too had grown up and now sported a richly detailed Italian setting; The Life of King Henry the Fifth in the First Folio was almost twice as long as the original mature version, the anonymous Chronicle History of Henry the Fifth, which itself was vastly improved from the also-anonymous Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.

By my count (I compiled a complete list below) nine of the plays in the First Folio previously existed in print close to the author’s final form. The other twenty-seven plays were either not published at all or had significant changes between the author-who-doesn’t-care quarto printings and the author-who-is-dead folio printing.

All of this mystery — the “ambiguous” sonnets, the “annihilation,” the “vague file of chipmunk tracks,” the “aloofness,” and the “mask” — isn’t a mystery to rebels. Rebels say the sonnets — kept private and written in the first person — tell the story of an author who had to remain hidden though he cared deeply about posterity.

Reading the sonnets as written, Shakespeare seems concerned about his works living on. Actually, he’s extremely concerned, obsessed almost. He speaks of works that must outlast stone and brass. He seeks immortality for himself and for the subject of his sonnets who sounds an awful lot like a real not-ambiguous person (typically regarded as the Earl of Southampton by reluctant mainstreamers and rebels alike). The excerpt below is typical of the sonnets’ author expressing his need to carve out his place in the literary afterlife.

For himself and for his subject (commonly thought to be the Earl of Southampton) Shakespeare wanted immortality.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.

Given that he wanted his works to endure, that he was very concerned about it, he must have had a good reason for keeping his distance from publishers. One might guess that he was given no choice in the matter.

The great Bloom was “puzzled” to study a writer who had to have cared about his works but didn’t act like it.

“Shakespeare puzzles us in his apparent indifference to the posthumous destiny of King Lear . . . the amalgam we generally read and see acted is not very satisfactory. The only works Shakespeare ever proofread and stood by were [epic poems] Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, neither of them worthy of the poet of the Sonnets, let alone of Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. How can there have been a writer for whom the final shape of King Lear was a careless or throwaway matter?”

How can there have been a writer? Bloom asks. He calls it a puzzle. Schoenbaum refers to a mask. Honan sees annihilation. Honigmann practically invented the Harry Potter time turner in his effort to understand what magic was this.

Rebels say it is much ado about nothing. Rebels say there’s no magic. The businessman named Shakespeare investing in the London theater wasn’t hidden and wasn’t the hidden writer. All the puzzlement is due to a false premise. It’s obvious, rebels say, who Shakespeare was. He was a connected, protected, 1580’s literary trailblazer, keeping a low profile vis a vis the public and receiving an unprecedented royal stipend.

If rebels are right, the Queen’s playwright used his position and the protection of the Queen to write explosively popular plays full of jabs at courtiers (including himself), informed political commentary, advice aimed directly at his sovereign, scary comments about state-sponsored executions, and full-blown lampoons of powerful people. He even got away with writing a play (Richard II) with a deposition scene. The price of this unheard-of freedom, the freedom to be brutally honest, was anonymity.

The author of the sonnets is perhaps telling us about this compromise.

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
. . .
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
. . .
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone . . .

To rebels, the literary earl, a playwright with no plays, and Shakespeare, a playwright invisible to publishers, pretty much had to be the same person: two invisible men are one. The Queen’s support and the content of the works and the publication history make a compelling case that rebels say is confirmed by the sonnets which were finally published in 1609 with the title “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS” and no byline. “Shake-speare,” to rebels, was a label that identified the works, not the name of a person.

Rebels say this is confirmed by the author himself in the not-at-all-ambiguous Sonnet 81:

From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:

Rebels regard this as a direct statement, not in need of interpretation.

Mainstreamers disagree but must face a businessman disconnected from the works he is supposed to have written and disconnected from the tribe of Elizabethan writers of which he was supposedly the chief.

No writer claimed to know personally the great playwright Shakespeare and, except for a set of sonnets that begin with “From fairest creatures we desire increase . . .” and finish with “O thou my lovely boy . . .” written to an unnamed person who was evidently very important to the author and another set of sonnets written to a powerful dark-eyed “mistress” with whom the author evidently had a tempestuous relationship, Shakespeare-the-author wrote the dedications to the Earl of Southampton and was otherwise totally isolated as far as the record is concerned.

Here, again, is Sir E. A. J. Honigmann putting his finger on the central problem Shakespeare biographers face.

“What I find astonishing is that, in an age when writers so frequently adorned their books with complimentary verses addressed to them by their friends, not a single such poem survives from [Shakespeare’s] pen.”

It’s only “astonishing” rebels say, if you insist that Shakespeare was the Stratford businessman.

After all, the Stratford businessman knew many, many people. None of them were writers but some were literate and some of these literate friends wrote letters mentioning Shakespeare. None called him Homer or said anything about mother’s milk. Schoenbaum hung on every word any of the businessman’s friends and associates said.

Schoenbaum was disappointed though not so dissappointed he couldn’t turn his usual fine phrase.

“What did fellow townsmen think of the distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain’s company and the admired poet of love’s languishment who sojourned each year in their midst? They probably troubled their heads little enough about the plays and poems. Business was another matter; they saw Shakespeare as a man shrewd in practical affairs and approachable (if need be) for a substantial loan on good security.”

The businessman, as we know, was a member of an acting company: he even mentioned three of his fellow shareholders in his will. That sounds like the start of something but is it really? Here is a man named Shakespeare in London and part of London’s leading acting company and therefore cutting a very high profile with a name that matches his on title pages. He’s as large as life on one hand but on the other hand. he is not connected with writers or publishers and all of his plays are either bootlegged messes or just sitting in manuscript somewhere, basically rotting.

And we have a stack of documents covering the life of this theater man and nothing about his writing.

But we have the sonnets. Maybe they tell us something about this msyterious “business was another matter” author. The sonnets were written in the first-person and were kept private for a decade or two before finally being published in 1609 so they might be pretty useful. The Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s sole dedicatee, is regarded by rebels and mainstreamers alike as the most likely subject of the “lovely boy” sonnets (the “mistress” in the second set of sonnets is more of a mystery) as they seem to follow his life pretty well.

Shakespeare apparently knew the young earl so well he could admonish, advise, and counsel him offering love and unconditional support through an eventful ten-year period of the “lovely boy’s” life. This is wonderful — at least in theory — and gives us a solid connection between Shakespeare and the outside world.

Unfortunately, the businessman did not make any recorded visits to Southampton’s home, exchange any known gifts with Southampton, accept any known commissions from Southampton, or mention Southampton in his will. Centuries of sleuthing have turned up nothing at all to verify a connection between the businessman from Stratford named Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton unless one assumes he was the author of the epic poems which assumption makes the dedications proof of connection.

But the connection between Shakespeare and Southampton indicated by the sonnets makes no sense. The sonnets are intimate, too intimate. How could the Stratford businessman have been telling an earl when to get married and have children and how to live his life and don’t be a churl and don’t be self-willed and we need you to do this and that? He could not have done. So the dedications in the epic poems and the sonnets together create well-recognized problems for biographers.

Mainstream biographer Peter Levi has a solution to this problem, an obvious one: the businessman may have written the sonnets as a commission. So they sound odd coming from a Stratford businessman because they are actually written from someone else’s point of view. Here are some Levi excerpts.

“The first few sonnets . . and perhaps many more, are clearly written to Lord Southampton . . . Shakespeare is attempting on behalf of [Southampton’s] family and friends to persuade Southampton to take a wife . . . Shakespeare wrote . . . probably on behalf of the young man’s mother. . . . The Sonnets, which were commissioned poems . . . are among the most perfect poems . . . Shakespeare is writing a polite, intimate set of verses from the point of view of Southampton’s mother . . . almost as an older brother at times.”

So Shakespeare’s most intimate writings are from someone else’s point of view (cue rebels gagging). Southampton was under pressure to marry Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter. Since Burghley was the Queen’s closest adviser and the most powerful man in England and the likely arbiter of the royal succession, a marriage alliance into his family was a huge offer Southampton would have done well to accept. The first seventeen sonnets are called by scholars the “marriage sonnets” and this is why Levi regards them as “clearly written” to Southampton.

Schoenbaum did not comment on the “sonnets were commissioned” theory but it is clear from his work that he had little patience for such theories. About one sonnet-related theory, for example, he agreed that it was “not the most idiotic guess ever made” and said nothing more. Schoenbaum was an honest biographer who necessarily engaged in some storytelliing but who for the most part eschewed speculation. In the case of the sonnets in particular, Schoenbaum kept a respectful distance.

Nevertheless, the sonnets come up repeatedly for Schoenbaum because the Southampton dedications appear 1593 and 1594 and the sonnets are published in 1609. On page 271, Schoenbaum summarized the situation with sonnets and Southampton as far as he was concerned as a cautious biographer:

“All the riddles of the Sonnets — date, dedication, sequence, identity of the dramatis personae elude solution, while at the same time teasing speculation. This writer takes satisfaction in having no theories of his own to offer.”

Not going down the rabbit hole of sonnet speculation wasn’t all that much help to Schoenbaum. He was still stuck with no “complimentary verses” either to friends or by friends, a dedication to an earl but no known contact with said earl, and a set of mysterious first-person sonnets that may have been written as private missives to the earl but that create more mysteries if this was indeed the case.

If a biographer doesn’t want to follow Levi and assume Southampton’s family commissioned the sonnets then, Schoenbaum realizes, it is best to drop Southampton altogether which tactic he employs on page 179 after discussing the 1594 dedication. In the follow-up on page 180, the great biographer seems to comfort himself and his readers with a beautiful explanation for the unfortunate uselessness to biographers of Shakespeare’s private first-person writing:

“Southampton now departs from the biographical record . . .  the ambiguous language of poetry resists the fragile certitude of interpreters . . . it is not clear to what extent the personages of these poems . . . represent real individuals: the imperatives of Art, no less than the circumstances of Nature, dictate their roles.”

Southampton may have departed from the biographical record that Schoenbaum wishes to consider but Southampton most certainly did not depart from the historical record in 1594. His adventures were just beginning. In 1601, the earl tried to control the royal succession. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to death in 1601. The sonnets may have been written to Southampton — Schoenbaum notes that Southampton is the leading candidate for the subject of the sonnets even among mainstream scholars — and may have recorded these real events as poetry.

Southampton’s sentence was commuted in a stunning reversal with no reason given in any surviving. Southampton’s amazing good fortune is a mystery to historians. But Shakespeare appears to have known all about it and appears to have celebrated this turnaround in the sonnets. Rebels disagree with Schoenbaum’s “we don’t know exactly where the imperatives of Art end and history begins” stance. Rebels don’t think this line of inquiry should be dropped.

When the sonnets are published in 1609 they contained a publisher’s dedication which creates more problems. Schoenbaum notes a dedication would normally be supplied by the author and calls what the publisher said one of the more “mystifying problems” associated with the riddle ridden sonnets. He then prints the dedication for the reader’s edification throws in his quip about “idiotic” guesses. Schoenbaum finishes off with his announced “satisfaction” in his “no theories” stance and moves on to other things.

Rebels agree that the publisher’s dedication is mystifying though part of it seems quite clear. The publisher refers to the author of the sonnets as “our ever-living poet.” This, rebels say, is obviously a eulogy reminiscent of a Shakespeare king calling his dead predecessor “that ever-living man of memory” in Henry VI part 1. Schoenbaum, if asked, would undoubtedly regard eulogizing the still-living Stratford businessman as “mystifying” and leave it at that but he didn’t mention the “ever-living poet” reference that rebels regard as important evidence.

No biographer or scholar has ever explained it. Many have pointed out (correctly) that “our ever-living poet” might not be a eulogy. If one assumes that the businessman from Stratford wrote Shakespeare and if the publisher regarded the businessman as the author of the sonnets and if the publisher knew the businessman was still alive then “our ever-living poet” must NOT have been a eulogy.

Rebels say there is no way the person who held the priceless sonnet manuscripts in his hands in 1609 did not know who Shakespeare was and almost no way he would have referred to him as “our ever-living poet” while he was still alive. For rebels the publisher’s dedication comes close to excluding the businessman as a possible Shakespeare even when considered by itself. Considered in the context of the historical record, a 1609 eulogy is regarded by rebels as definitive.

Mainstreamers disagree but have nothing to say except, as in Schoenbaum, literally nothing, or, in other books, simply that it’s a matter of interpretation which of course is always the case.

So Schoenbaum, Honan, Honigmann, Bloom, and other biographers and scholars, leaving Southampton and sonnets mostly out of the picture, have always been stuck with a series of bootlegged plays, a large number of unpublished manuscripts, and no known contacts with patrons, publishers, or fellow writers. But a bereft scholar like Schoenbaum attempting a biography must deliver around three hundred pages.

It couldn’t have been easy. Reading Schoenbaum’s work, one sympathizes. For comparison one can look at, for instance, the work of Rosalind Miles who wrote a biography of Ben Jonson, another great Elizabethan writer who, like the Stratford businessman, left behind dozens of documents for scholars to pore over.

But the dozens of documents in the case of Jonson are of an entirely different character.

Jonson was a largely self-taught classical scholar whose brilliant, controversial, and sometimes dangerous writings reflected his hard-won knowledge. Jonson’s classical erudition didn’t have nearly the breadth and depth of Shakespeare’s, but the lesser of the two greats nevertheless had a library big enough to impress his scholarly friend John Selden who, Miles tells us on page 161, borrowed a work of Eurpides from his “beloved friend, that singular poet Ben Jonson” who graciously allowed Selden access to a “well-furnisht” library in his home.

Modern scholars estimate at least a few hundred books needed to impress Selden. Two hundred books (206 last time I checked) with a Ben Jonson provenance survive to this day, many of them decorated with Jonson’s distinctive signature. None survive for the Stratford businessman though a bible owned by the Queen’s playwright which has many of Shakespeare’s favorite verses underlined does survive and formed the basis for the UMass student’s dissertation which the faculty approved as a proposal and accepted as a completed work, awarding the Ph.D. in 2001.

The student, like many rebels or pre-rebels, had read Schoenbaum and found it well written, well researched and convincing . . . convincing in the sense of a clear indication of a problem. Miles, after reading Schoenbaum, is said to have muttered to her spouse, “There but for the grace of God go I . . .” But this story may be apocryphal.

Miles, whether she checked her privilege or not, was fortunate. She had John Selden to look at along with plenty of other people who knew Ben Jonson as a writer and who left a record of it. For Shakespeare, arguably the most erudite man in Elizabethan England with access to essentially every book in the land, there is no Selden. One imagines a library with a thousand books or more and a long list of scholarly Seldens but all one gets is grain dealing, real estate holdings, and a business relationship with an acting company that might have involved plays written for the company, given to the company, paid for by the company, and maintained in manuscript over the decades in the hands of company shareholders . . . if only there was a clear record of this agreement and exchange (mainstreamers say there is such a record as will be discussed forthwith but it is a posthumous record).

A comment about a Greek authors and a borrowed book would have set Schoenbaum, Honan, Bloom, Honigmann, and Wilson quivering and squealing with delight. One might guess that Shakespeare biographers don’t read Jonson biographies unless they have a high tolerance for pain: virtually every page of the book by Miles refers to evidence that would be front-page news if found for Shakespeare.

But surely a great scholar like Schoenbaum must have white-knuckled his way through at least one Jonson biography. I can see him in my mind’s eye, reading and keeping his despair in check as his jealous eyes scan page after page packed with information. Maybe getting through a book by Miles or one similar was what inspired the great Shakespeare biographer to make the following oft-reproduced comment, pain begest pith, despair is distilled, the abyss is faced:

“Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record. What would we not give for a single personal letter, one page of diary!”

Is it possible that Schoenbaum, even though he regarded alternative author theories as mostly “nutty,” harbored if not doubts then maybe some nagging concerns?

I think this is possible. But we must consider comforting thoughts that might allay concerns. It could be that we’re just unlucky when it comes to the Stratford businessman. Maybe we should not despair. Suppose we simply temper our expectations.

Yes, the man named Shakespeare seemed to arrive in London a bit late to write Famous Victories and Hamlet and other plays in the “1580’s Shakespeare” category but maybe he arrived unbeknownst to history in time to write these plays. And maybe, even though he was cutting a high profile as a theater shareholder and should have been involved with publishers and writers, he had his reasons for being “aloof.”

After all publication didn’t pay very well. The proofreading that Bloom says he didn’t do takes time. We know from Honigmann that the man from Stratford didn’t have much time. And why should the country folk in Stratford be expected to “trouble their heads” about poetry and love and such?

One can’t eat et tu Brute but thousands of paying customers could be packed into a London theater. So what if Julius Caesar wasn’t published until 1623? Of course, this is contradicted by the sonnets which definitely did not say, “So what?” when it came to posterity. Then again, Schoenbaum says the sonnets were just Art.

It could be that the sonnets don’t say anything about anything real and it could be that Schoenbaum’s’ “vertiginous expanse” is nothing more than a measure of our frustration with the vagaries of history. It’s not so much an abyss as an illusion that has fooled doubters for centuries convincing them to seek another author. So we don’t have documents. So what?

We might do well to say “So what?” about the documentary record from the businessman’s lifetime because in 1623, with the literary earl and the Stratford businessman named Shakespeare both long dead, the First Folio came out under the auspices of two earls. Now one of these earls happened to be married to the youngest daughter of the Queen’s playwright and that’s more grist for the rebels’ mill (cue rebels saying “What else is new?”) and even mainstreamers have to admit it is hard to keep the literary earl out of our story.

We must remember he had three daughters and marriageable earls didn’t exactly swarm out of the woodwork in Elizabethan England so it could easily be a coincidence (cue rebels snorting) that Shakespeare’s missing plays ended up in the hands of the literary earl’s family.

But, rebels say, this is the last straw: we have a connected, protected playwright getting 1000 pounds a year straight from the crown but not putting his name on any play while people call him a great playwright but don’t name plays and all that is added to widely acknowledged erudition dating back to his childhood and so many known contacts with so many writers that one loses count. And now his family is JUST BY COINCIDENCE publishing the plays all at once more than doubling the size of the canon. Come on, rebels say, seriously?

Why, rebels ask, is there even a question about who the “real Shakespeare” was?

Here’s why. The First Folio says different. It’s that simple and it is the First Folio that caused Bloom, Honigmann, Honan, Schoenbaum, Campbell, Wilson, and the rest of the mainstream to find a way, any way, to make the Stratford businessman who was an acting company shareholder into the author. The First Folio, a highly reliable source, identifies the man named Shakespeare as the author.

For the first time, in the First Folio preface, the author of the plays is explicitly identified by more than a name on a title page: Shakespeare of Stratford, the businessman, was most definitely the author.

According to two letters in the First Folio preface, the Stratford businessman’s fellow shareholders — the ones he mentioned in his will — have “collected” the plays and these shareholders are now gifting the complete set of plays “without ambition either of self-profit or fame” to the two earls one of whom happens to be married to the daughter of an interesting figure in Elizabethan literary history.

The letters in the preface, apparently ghostwritten by Ben Jonson (they have his unmistakeable style) but over the names of the shareholders, calls the Shakespeare plays “his own writings” and does not say anything about the acting company actually owning the plays but does say the shareholders collected them doing an “office to the dead.” Still, it is possible the acting company owned the plays all along. And it is possible they held them in manuscript though a few decades.

And there you have it, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It says so in the First Folio. And no one at the time cried “Foul!” — at least not directly.

Rebels, taking a chronological view of the story, say if you start in 1577 and proceed from there, by the time you get to the First Folio, you already know enough to have grave doubts about the attibution of the great works to a Stratford real estate mogul who got nowhere near the Queen’s court, would not have survived writing the plays even if he did have access to the Queen’s court, was not in London in the 1580’s, did not cut anything like a low profile when he was in London except for his lack of connection to any writers, and, far from being the most erudite man in England, could not write his name.

That last is a big thing even to non-rebels. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the owner of the second largest house in Stratford who was born “William Shakspere” was a businessman. So he would need to sign his name now and then. We don’t have books, letters, or manuscripts that can be traced to the businessman’s warm body but we do have five signatures that would qualify as so traceable IF they weren’t in five different handwritings.

When Schoenbaum had a good look at the signatures, he is said to have muttered, “Houston, we have a problem.” This may be apocryphal. Still it would make sense if it were true. He later used the word “impossible” in the context of discussing the likelihood of anyone ever writing a true literary biography of Shakespeare. In any event, Schoenbaum didn’t pull punches when discussing the signatures. He quotes documents expert Jane Cox of the London Office of Public Record who sums up the signature situation as follows:

“It is obvious at a glance that these signatures . . . are not the signatures of the same man. Almost every letter is formed in a different way in each. Literate men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed personalized signatures much as people do today and it is unthinkable that Shakespeare did not . . .”

Schoenbaum accepts Cox’s analysis, praises her for having the courage to “milk a sacred cow” and also throws in a couple of plausible excuses for the signatures.

Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t present when documents were signed in which case the signatures would be proxies done that way for convenience. Other people signing the same documents were present, however, and their recognizable signatures provide a stark contrast to those of the businessman. Schoenbaum also said some of the signatures are on the businessman’s will and he may have been “gravely ill” for the signing and this may explain their “shakiness.”

Professor Scott McCrea, writing his book, The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question (emphasis added), had yet another excuse.

“The autographs are curious and it’s easy to see how one might question them. But they don’t prove the man who signed them wasn’t a writer. Their oddness might just as easily reveal their maker’s teeming imagination.”

It’s plausible. But if you were going do die if the businessman was illiterate, would you be happy with plausible?

George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, John Daye, Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, Robert Duborne, Edward Dyer, Nathan Field, John Fletcher, Gabriel Harvey, Richard Hathway, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, John Marston, Philip Massinger, Thomas Middleton, Anthony Munday, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Henry Porter, George Peele, John Philips, Edmund Spenser, Anthony Wadeson, William Smyth, Robert Wilson are hardly documented at all compared to Ben Jonson and the Stratford businessman, but ALL of these people were demonstrably able to write their names.

I was unable to find a signature or much of anything for Francis Beaumont except a letter in his handwriting and the record of his burial in poet’s corner at Westminster Abbey. Thomas Watson and John Webster also left us almost nothing but, even with almost nothing, we have for Watson education records and avowed friendships with Lyly, Marlowe, and Peele and for Webster multiple payments specifically for writing plus avowed friendships with Heywood and Rowley. That’s what we get with a tiny handful of documents.

The businessman was well known and left record after record after record including the five non-matching signatures. It’s not just a handful; it’s a big pile. There is no precedent for literate Elizabethans appearing to be unable to write their names. Is it possible? Of course it’s possible. Anything is possible. If all we need is a plausible scenario, “teeming imagination” is just the beginning: we an easily make up ten more scenarios under which the Stratford businessman only appears to have been illiterate.

But if your life were at stake you would not be happy. You would want certainty. We have plausible. We don’t have certain. We don’t have anything even in the ballpark of certain or even in the same universe as certain. The fact that many scholars have assumed “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” and have written a vast library of extraordinarily unsatisfying analysis based on a dubious plausibility argument does not make that plausibility argument so certain that credentialed experts should be “walled off” from thoughtful inquiry.

Schoenbaum, bless his heart, was writing a biography starting with the premise that the businessman wrote the plays. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t write a biography and constantly question whether or not the person whose life you are researching is really the person everyone thinks he is. So Schoenbaum can note the signatures, speculate a bit and leave it there. When the nonexistent relationship with the Earl of Southampton rears its head and the sonnets with their “I” that biographers are forced to assume is the poetic “I” and the mystifying publisher’s dedication hits poor Schoenbaum over his mystified head with a 1609 reference to “our ever-living poet,” the unfortunate biographer has no choice but to speak of “riddles” and move on.

Professor Scott McCrea is a different story. He wasn’t writing a biography; he was writing about the authorship question. His subtitle said he wanted to “end” the authorship question. But ending the authorship question isn’t any more likely than launching the space shuttle safely at 40 below zero (Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same number at this temperature). The four horsemen cometh and in particular the third horseman comes up a lot.

McCrea’s book is a textbook case of a false paradigm in action providing textbook example after textbook example of plausibility mistaken for certainty. It’s a great book actually with a perfect and perfectly ironic subtitle.

In a perfect world, people who overstate their case to the point of absurdity would always be wrong. But it is possible that the businessman was the playwright after all just as it was possible for the Challenger to take off safely. In fact, a little bit more wind might have saved the lives of the crew and Voila! a false paradigm would be proved true. It can happen though I think it would take more than a bit of wind to turn an apparently illiterate businessman into Shakespeare.

We must remember, however, the First Folio attribution is quite clear — it definitely says the Stratford businessman wrote the plays. In fact, it goes out of its way to make this crystal clear.

The people who held the priceless Macbeth manuscript in their hands knew who wrote it. Rebels claim the earls behind the publication of the First Folio instructed Ben Jonson and to falsify the preface either as some kind of joke that they didn’t think anyone would take seriously OR as a serious attempt to deflect attention from the Queen’s playwright even though he was long since dead OR as both depending on who was reading it.

But there’s no smoking gun where someone writes a letter with the truth or pens a diary entry saying how silly the First Folio preface is or scribbles the name of the Queen’s playwright on a copy of Shakespeare. With no smoking gun, that is with no certainty that the old theory is wrong, the mainstream persists in claiming certainty that the old theory is right.

The rebels keep asking their questions. How did he know courtly details that went into the plays? How did he get away with it? Where was he in 1580? Where are his books? Where are his writer friends? Why all the bootlegging? And, finally, five different signatures, seriously?

All of these questions are well known to the McCreas of the world and all of them have plausible answers. Take Love’s Labors Lost for example. This play, published in 1598 and the first play with the “Shakespeare” byline, has a scene that seems to indicate first-hand knowledge of a member of France’s royal family at the time, Henri of Navarre and negotiations he was involved in. It, like many scenes in Shakespeare’s plays is full of accurate detail taken from real life. McCrea knows all about this particular scene.

“In Love’s Labors Lost, the Author seems to have an insider’s’ knowledge of a foreign court . . . He knows [details of a land dispute] . . . he knows [details about the French queen’s retinue] . . . he’s aware [of political and social details attending the meeting at the French court] . . . he even knows [the French queen’s favorite story]. How could he know all these things . . .?”

And he knows more. He knew how Henri of Navarre like to write his love letters, how he folded them, and how he signed them. The Queen’s playwright knew Henri personally and visited France in the mid-1570’s. In the late 1570’s, a French delegation visited England and a play was performed for them with a different title but with plot elements that sound suspiciously similar to Love’s Labors Lost which rebels say dates to the late 1570’s, twenty years before it was published.

Throughout his book, McCrea points out that all of the “inside information” in the plays could plausibly be acquired from gossip or good connections or access to source material. In the case of this particular example he says, “All of the details known to the Author would have been familiar to many French men and women who were adults in 1578.” Fair enough. Just in case, McCrea throws in a suggestion about a “source now lost,” that common fallback for biographers — who also regard 1580’s Shakespeare as “sources” — when there are no other explanations for how the author knew what he knew or wrote what he wrote.

Plausible answers may be had for the price of guesswork, that is for free. Does that mean credentialed experts who disagree with the traditional theory should be locked out of mainstream journals? Ivy league professor James Shapiro says YES and brags about the power wielded by the mainstream in his book Contested Will.

“There remains one subject walled off from serious study by Shakespeare scholars: the authorship question . . . Those who would deny [the businessman’s] authorship, long excluded from publishing their work in academic journals or through university presses . . .”

The ivy league professor professes no doubt. But in a long book covering the whole history of the authorship question the brilliant expert does not mention the five different signatures or the Queen’s grant to her playwright. People who believe the businessman wrote the plays are called by Shapiro “Shakespeareans” while the dissertation written by the UMass student and accepted by the faculty should not (he strongly implies) have been accepted because “independent [uncredentialed] scholars . . . pointed out a good deal that [the] dissertation committee had apparently failed to notice.”

The term “Shakespearean” used by Shapiro and others asks for a definition other than “people who agree with the majority.” I propose that “Shakespearean” be defined as follows.

Shakespearean: A professor who writes a book subtitled “Who was Shakespeare?” but doesn’t mention the five different signatures.

Despite the unacknowledged doubt demonstrated almost comically by the mainstream in every biography and even more starkly when they write books discussing the issue directly, it’s not surprising to see no doubt directly professed except by a tiny minority of credentialed experts. Our UMass student now a professor has been telling a thousand politely debating fellow scholars arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin that angels don’t dance.

No wonder they get mad (the professors, not the angels). Recently Oxford University Press effectively added its stamp of approval to the one offered by UMass Amherst. Can we say the era of Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare as an automatic assumption is over? No, not really. Many professors who have devoted careers to the Stratford businessman’s Cinderella story will only let go of their assumption on one condition: if it is taken from their cold dead hand.

Even ordinary people who aren’t professional Shakespeare scholars are pretty attached to the story of the businessman-genius from Stratford showing up in London and proving once and for all that “talent will out,” that brilliance cannot be shaded, that nothing can stop the flow of creativity, that advantages and coddling and tutors and libraries and money and time are not necessary if one has the spark of greatness within one . . . cue rebels retching.

It is a nice story (without the retching part) but, in the end, according to the great Vermont aphorist Peter Fried, who once regarded “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” as self-evident, the mainstream story just doesn’t hold up. The grain dealer and real estate mogul from Stratford was not Shakespeare, says Fried.

Mr. Peter has read my little treatise and was a little bit shocked. He trusts me but he didn’t believe me. He checked with another friend (a woman of towering intellect, wiser in the ways of literature than a poor old physicist could ever be) to be sure that his first friend (that would be me) was not making it all up. Having asked a few questions and checked up on a few facts, he felt a bit put out by the wool that had been pulled over his eyes by academia.

His emotional reaction sublimated into one of his classic aphorisms, one for the ages I think, reproduced here with permission:

“Saying Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is like saying Mike Pence wrote On the Road.”

I don’t think even this whole essay would convince the late great Harold Bloom of Connecticut but I’m pleased to have (rather easily) convinced the still-living great aphorist of Vermont. But let’s have a closer look at the history. Maybe we can see where the mainstream went wrong. Or maybe we’ll see that the rebels’ case is only circumstantial (which it is) and therefore somewhat convincing but not so entirely clear as the aphorist now believes it is.

Or maybe you’ll lose all hope in the ability of humanity to embrace rational thought. Anyway, the sketch below is just a that, a sketch. But that’s all that should be needed if we’re really looking at a false paradigm which, by definition, is something that can be identified without expert-level knowledge.

Even if we conclude (and we will) that we are looking at false paradigm, we will not, of course, make the same mistake as mainstream scholars: it is possible that the businessman did, after all, write Shakespeare. The certainty that he did is, I think, a classic false paradigm, but that doesn’t mean the false paradigm isn’t true: the Challenger, we recall, almost made it — a bit more wind might have saved the crew.

I hope the false paradigm isn’t true mostly because if it turns out that the businessman really did write the plays, it will encourage professors to continue to embrace ideas mindlessly. There’s nothing worse than a lucky fool unless it’s me flipping magnet switches.

With that, let’s dig a bit.

A fine play, a wonderful play (presumably), called The History of Error entertained the Queen and her court in 1577 and in 1583 and probably many times in between. It was anonymous. We hear about A Comedy of Errors in 1594. It gets called Errors in 1598 and again with the same shorthand a few years later. Finally, in 1623, it shows up as The Comedy of Errors, an early play that pays homage to two plays by Plautus, the ancient Roman writer.

We don’t know if History was a Shakespeare play because we don’t have text for it. We do have text for Twelfth Night finally published in 1623. This play seems to have an audacious reference to the 1581 execution of a priest named Campion whom the author boldly implies was mistreated. But we have no idea when Twelfth Night was written.

But we do know some things and we do have some text. In 1583, the Queen decided plays were a matter of national security and the Queen’s Men appeared. This move was followed by extraordinary grant of 1000 pounds a year in gold and silver to be delivered by horseback and under guard to the literary earl in quarterly installments for the rest of this life.

The grant was continued by King James after Elizabeth died.

The boy who had lost his father at age twelve and who had become a royal ward and who had impressed his uncle Arthur Golding (the first person to dedicate work to the literary earl and the translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shakespeare’s most important source next to the bible) and who had also impressed the finest tutors in England was now the Queen’s playwright.

It wasn’t an easy road. Golding expressed concern about his nephew who was irrepressible to the point of wildness and irresponsibility. He spent money without a care in the world and, in 1581, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting gave birth to his bastard son. After the Queen released him from his vacation of a few weeks in the Tower and after he was wounded in a battle with family members of his former lover (the beautiful, brilliant, witty Anne Vavasour whose family evidently disapproved of the earl’s seductions), the Queen banished him from court for a few years.

The Queen was perfectly capable of killing earls who crossed her too often but she forgave this one for these and other transgressions and, by 1586, with the Queen’s Men active and “the policy of plays” in full force, the brilliant but wild literary earl was working for the crown. He had already set himself up at his estate as the man at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene.

Robert Greene called the earl’s home a “shrine” where Greene and other writers could soak up “learning” from the master playwright who wrote we know not what. Gabriel Harvey said the earl’s pen was “more polished” than Castiglione’s and all but called him a literary God. Angel Day, dedicating work to the earl, told readers the earl was “sacred to the muses.” The great Elizabethan trailblazer, John Lyly, introduced to us above by Honan, was literary secretary to the literary earl. Lyly likened his boss to Homer and the knowledge he bestowed to mother’s milk. Anthony Munday, also serving as a literary secretary, found his boss’s “special knowledge of languages” especially noteworthy.

Of all the writers who consented to drink the “mother’s milk” offered by the literary earl, Thomas Watson may have owed the most to his patron and mentor. A work of Watson’s — a collection of one hundred poems — was one of dozens eventually dedicated to the literary earl and is interesting because of external commentary Watson included. Watson thanks the earl directly for “perusing” his work “favorably” and then, in the work, the reader is treated to a series of brilliant critiques (one for each of Watson’s poems) made by an uncredited someone, either the earl himself or some hitherto unknown literary genius.

The comments are breathtaking. Educated Elizabethans were very good classicists by modern standards but the range, precision, economy of language, and pithy wisdom dispensed by whoever wrote the critiques would make any ten classicists raise twenty eyebrows. Whoever it was put on quite a display casually quoting legions of obscure classical writers: a photographic memory seemed to back up a finely honed sense of classical philosophy. Rebels typically assume the critiques were written by the literary earl (who else?).

Greene published a novel in 1588 called Pandosto which is a version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale not published until 1623. Thomas Lodge, who probably also knew the literary earl, published Rosalynde as a novel in 1590 with its many similarities to Shakespeare’s As You Like It also not published until 1623. John Lyly’s biographies mention prominently the similarities between his work and Shakespeare’s.

Munday is a known Shakespeare collaborator. One scene from his play Sir Thomas More is not his style at all. It is thought by mainstreamers and rebels alike to be Shakespeare through and through. Needless to say, the businessman from Stratford never met Munday as far as anyone knows unless one assumes he was Shakespeare and one then says this is proof that the businessman knew Anthony Munday.

Whether he was Shakespeare or not, the literary earl was earning his pay if his contacts with other writers are any indication. If he was Shakespeare, he may have borrowed or even plagiarized for The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It but it is also well within the realm of possibility that Greene and Lodge were the borrowers. Then again, his position as a mentor and patron of writers doesn’t necessarily make him Shakespeare despite the Munday connection: for all we know, he was helping a Stratford businessman develop from a country boy into a great writer.

One can look at the evidence and see what one wants to see up to a point. Mainstreamers dismiss the literary earl as too irresponsible to have been Shakespeare. Rebels disagree. It is not clear that experts have any good method for determining just how irresponsible one can be and still be Shakespeare.

Rebels tend to look for clues in the works themselves — a method derided by the mainstream. But rebels say some of the plays have lines in them that seem to come from out of the blue as if the author is trying to tell us something.

In The Comedy of Errors one character is angry because some other characters have locked him out of his house. He sends a servant to buy a rope which he plans to use to beat the people who locked him out. The servant’s name is DROMIO and he mutters rather oddly to himself as he exits the stage. The muttering has no clear meaning in the play. No Shakespeare annotator can interpret it. It could just as well be left out.

DROMIO: I buy a thousand pound a year! I buy a rope!

All we can say about this for sure is this: “What on earth is DROMIO talking about?”

DROMIO is equating a thousand pounds a year to a rope. Money is mentioned in a number of places in the play — a thousand marks comes up now and again as the cost of bailing oneself out of jail — but this is the only mention of pounds and the only mention of a yearly stipend.

Rebels regard this as an obvious aside to a knowing audience.

DROMIO: I’ve been ordered to buy a rope to so my master can beat people with it. Probably I will end up being beaten by the rope myself because that’s how these farces tend to go. My master is very concerned about money and is always blaming me for losing forty ducats or five hundred ducats or a thousand marks. People will find “a thousand pound a year” confusing but anyone who knows what’s going on will get the joke.

The author might be complaining about the limitations imposed upon him by the Queen. Or not. Maybe this was supposed to have something to do with the marks and ducats mentioned elsewhere in the play and just didn’t come off clearly. Many of the published plays suffered from poor editing, even those in the First Folio. Rebels see this particular line as a winking “message in a bottle.” Mainstreamers scoff.

Bottom line: no one knows.

Technically, we don’t even know that the literary earl was the Queen’s playwright at all. The document granting him 1000 pounds a year doesn’t specify any exchange — he just gets the gold (and silver). If we want to speculate and if we don’t want the literary earl to be the Queen’s playwright, we can say the Queen was paying her bad boy earl to obtain his good behavior. Or we can say the Queen didn’t want his earldom to go down the drain because of the bad boy earl’s spendy habits.

It could be that he had pretty eyes and the Queen was rewarding him. The Queen often rewarded courtiers with property or state monopolies that would create income. The grant of cash was unprecedented especially if it was for pretty eyes. Also, if it was for pretty eyes, it means King James also appreciated the earl’s optics and there’s no evidence of that so it’s not something we are going to stake anyone’s life on.

We do know the literary earl was a playwright and poet at least because he was repeatedly identified as such. George Puttenham listed the literary earl as a great writer in 1589. Nine years later, Francis Meres put the literary earl and Shakespeare on a list of 16 classical writers followed, oddly, by 17 Elizabethan writers. The chapter in Meres’s book comparing classical and Elizabethan writers has dozens of paragraphs all with an equal number of each writers from each group.

There are a handful of paragraphs which are “off by one” and Meres seems to ask us to figure out the game. One of the “off by one” paragraphs mentions the Elizabethan writer John Davies. Aha! There were two well-known writers named John Davies, so one name stands for two people.

The 16/17 list seems to have one extra writer on the Elizabethan side. The first writer on the Elizabethan side is the literary earl; the eighth is Shakespeare. But the eighth writer on the classical side is “Aristonymus” which means “aristocratic name.” If you replace Shakespeare with the literary earl then he lines up with the obscure Greek writer Aristonymus.

At the same time, all the other writers suddenly line up nicely. Archippus who wrote The Fishes lines up with Nashe who wrote Red Herring and so forth.

Aha! say some rebels. We’ve assumed Meres is playing a little game with his readers and we’ve figured it out.

Mainstreamers, with justification, are suspicious (to say the least) of this kind of analysis. Rebels think Meres knew “Shakespeare” was the pen name for the Queen’s playwright and carefully let readers know he knew. Experts argue about the extent to which Elizabethan writers played such games. It is certainly the case that Elizabethan writers had to be careful what they wrote and often used obfuscation to say things and leave themselves what we would today call “plausible deniability.”

We are not experts. We can note that the the 16/17 thing in Meres’s book is interesting. It either means something or it doesn’t. We have to leave it at that (though I am tempted to buy myself a copy of Meres and see for myself if I agree with the rebels; I’m not a fan of code-breaking because of its obvious limitations but if the game-playing is obvious enough and the code simple and clear enough, I might be willing to be convinced; I don’t think this is crucial to the rebels’ case).

We can say that if indeed the literary earl was using “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym, it is quite likely Meres would have known all about it. He knew Shakespeare was a playwright even though the name hadn’t appeared on any play as of 1598.

Meres knew the previously published Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet were Shakespeare plays. He knew Shakespeare wrote a play he called Errors even though The Comedy of Errors wouldn’t be published for another quarter century. He knew about a dozen plays in toto including Love’s Labors Won which was either lost or retitled to All’s Well That Ends Well.

Meres even knew about the sonnets being circulated in manuscript amongst Shakespeare’s conspicuously nameless “private friends.” So he knew pretty much everything though he did not quote any sonnets or allude to who the private friends were.

The “balanced list” argument is worth considering but can’t be seen as undeniable evidence simply because it involves an assumption that Meres was playing numerical games and such an assumption — whether you ask mainstream experts or experts who happen to be rebels — is just that, an assumption. Game-playing by a writer is impossible to prove. It’s not like Meres is alive and challenging us to break his codes.

Peacham, on the other hand, did not play any numerical games. He was, like Meres, well informed and in 1622 told us what he knew.

Peacham took Puttenham’s list from the pre-Shakespeare-the-famous-name days, dropped five writers and added two keeping the long-dead literary earl on the list. With 1589 long gone and Shakespeare the most dominant writer in history ever to watch edition after edition rain down upon London bookstalls (he remains uneclipsed to this day: J. K. Rowling, despite her massive presence and number one status in our time, never came close to selling more books than every other writer combined as Shakespeare appears to have done), Peacham rather conspicuously didn’t put Shakespeare on his list of famous writers.

Peacham, whose extant hand-drawing of scene from Titus Andronicus is, today, a priceless piece of Shakespeare history (I’d take it in a second over my favorite gem, the 500-carat star saphire known as the Star of India), may have chosen to ignore Shakespeare but keep an earl who wrote we-know-not-what for some reason other than “Shakespeare was a pseudonym.” We don’t know. Maybe Peacham’s omission and Meres’s alleged numerical game-playing are being used by goal-oriented rebels cherry-picking the data.

Perhaps in 1628, Thomas Vicars, who did the listing thing too, tells us what was really happening.

Vicars had a list that didn’t have Shakespeare on it and decided to add three writers to it including Shakespeare. Probably Vicars would have known if Shakespeare was pseudonym and yet there is Shakespeare along with two other people added to a list of writers. No one has claimed Vicars was doing numerology. And Vicars didn’t say a single word about the literary earl. So now we’ve got Meres who has both the earl and “Shakespeare” and we have Peacham who has just the earl but NOT Shakespeare balanced by Vicars who does NOT have the earl but does have “Shakespeare.”

Vicars’s three writers added to his list were John Davies, John Vicars (no relation), and William Shakespeare. Vicars wrote out the first two names in full but did not include the first name of Shakespeare, “William.” Actually, Vicars didn’t include the name “Shakespeare” either. Instead he referred to the greatest English writer since Chaucer as “the celebrated poet whose name comes from shaking and spear.”

Feel free to stand back while mainstreamers and rebels clash in a predictable and horrific melee — hopefully with no one being injured — over what Vicars was saying. Vicars was writing in Latin which adds another fun layer to the discussion: maybe the fact that he was writing in Latin is what drove him to refer so obliquely to the great businessman-writer. Who knows? Anything is possible. But I wouldn’t want my life to depend on William Shakespeare of Stratford being “the celebrated poet whose name comes from shaking and spear.”

Meres, Peacham, and Vicars said what they said and meant whatever they meant. Mainstreamers ignore the 16/17 “Aristonymus” thing and just note Meres’s list treats the literary earl and Shakespeare as separate people. They say Peacham didn’t like Shakespeare and they don’t know why Vicars turned Shakespeare’s name into a verb and a noun. Mainstreamers have an ace in the hole as we would say today: No one came out and said, “We all know Shake-speare was a pseudonym.” Without a smoking gun, rebels have to be satisfied with a circumstantial case.

Had The History of Error from 1577 been published, if we had text and if that text was undeniable Shakespeare, rebels might have their smoking gun going all the way back to the 1570’s. Too bad for them there’s not text of History. It was played again in 1583 and probably many times in between but there’s still no text. But then the 1580’s came along and the Queen’s Men was formed on the Queen’s orders by her national security man, Walsingham. They put on Henry V, King John, Richard III, and King Lear (cue rebels smiling and licking their chops).

Beginning in 1591, these early plays were published and those publications survive. Now we have text. And thereby hangs a tale. The titles are slightly different from the official Shakespeare plays. For example, the 1591 King John is called The Troublesome Reign of King John while the 1623 King John is called The Life and Death of King John. But there’s text for both.

All four of these plays are definitely early versions of Shakespeare plays. This is huge for rebels. The early versions aren’t as good as the mature versions of course: they are clunky and unpolished with weak characterizations and confusing stage directions. Individual lines aren’t as clever. The famous line from Richard III started life as, “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!”

I’m not sure how many English speakers would not recognize, “A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!” I know I was no expert on Shakespeare (I’m STILL no expert, mind you) but even I recognized the famous line though I hadn’t known its early incarnation until I started digging into this lovely issue of who was Shakespeare. Anyway, King Richard in both versions suffers from precisely the same desperation as he willingly faces the abyss. The scenes are arresting and powerful in both versions. Despite the unpolished nature of the early version, it’s still recognizable (even to me) as Shakespeare.

Rebels say Shakespeare wrote The History of Error by 1577 and also wrote the early versions of the four Queen’s Men plays by the 1580’s. The mainstream ignores The History of Error because there’s no text. However, the situation for the mainstream and the four plays with text is completely different: these four plays are yet another Shakespeare mystery for mainstreamers.

As is typical with the mainstreamer mysteries, the number of theories and the number of mainstream scholars may be said to be roughly the same. Even if this “roughly the same” business somewhat exaggerated as a claim, we can safely say no mainstreamer would claim 1580’s Shakespeare is a settled matter.

Most mainstreamers begin with the assumption that since Shakespeare wasn’t in London in the 1580’s, he must therefore have appropriated and rewritten these plays improving them greatly in the process. So there is some consensus if you don’t include the rebels who are, to put it mildly, not big fans of the theory that Shakespeare rewrote the plays of other Elizabethan writers.

It is indeed a big claim the mainstream is making though it is often soft-pedaled, de-emphasized, played-down, and glossed over. Everyone who knows Shakespeare knows The Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare’s version of two Plautus plays melded into an enriched and complex farce with a love story added in. Comedy was regarded as an homage to the classical writer as it was both highly original while also clearly harking back to the two-millenia-old classical plays.

The same is true for Romeo and Juliet which closely follows a story repeatedly told in novel form by mutiple Italian authors. The original star-crossed lovers story goes back to Ovid. The fact that Shakespeare turned Italian novels into an Elizabethan play was well within the bounds of acceptable practice. Even today, it would simply be taken as an English-language remake altered for the stage.

But 1580’s Shakespeare isn’t Plautus and it isn’t Italian novels or Danish folktales or any other of the multitude of “sources” used by the brilliant wordsmith who happily and openly re-imagined many classic plot-lines. Appropriating and rewriting Elizabethan plays scene by scene would be in an entirely different category assuming Shakespeare had really done this. Rebels point out, quite rightly I think, that mainstream analysis makes a gigantic shift from ordinary sourcing to, let us say, aggressive appropriation when in its presumption that 1580’s Shakespeare was written by someone else.

Rebels say, with no little irony, “Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare.”

The mainstream dances around the issue with phrases like “gut renovation” and “loose piracy” and “accomplished parasite” and “reviser of genius” and so forth. Rebels have a very strong point when they say this dance borders on being purposely misleading. Rebels say many in the mainstream have found it necessary to cast Shakespeare as an astonishingly successful Elizabethan plagiarist, and, rebels say, if that’s the theory, mainstream scholars should come out and say it.

Some do. McMillin and Maclean for example note that the four plays comprising 1580’s Shakespeare for which we have text were all Queen’s Men plays. They say this seems to indicate that the Stratford businessman must have been part of this acting company even though there is no record of it. They believe the four plays were written by someone else. They say the plays became Shakespeare plays, “in an act of appropriation extensive enough to make us think it could have occurred from the inside.”

Not all mainstreamers agree, however, that Shakespeare stole 1580’s Shakespeare simply because the connection is TOO intimate.

Honigmann and Bloom and their view of King John offer an instructive example. Both experts have an issue with the someone else theory applied to the invention of a classic Shakespearean character in King John, a character that in many ways was as Shakespearean as Shakespeare gets.

Here’s Honigmann not happy with someone else writing the early King John.

“Who except Shakespeare could have imagined Philip the Bastard.”

Bloom’s famous book is entitled, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. He brilliantly discusses each play and is happy to delineate the many mysteries of Shakespeare’s biography though he is thoroughly mainstream as he regards the businessman as the author; Bloom ignored throughout his career suggestions that someone else wrote the plays. He doesn’t believe anyone but Shakespeare himself could have written King John and just assumes that the “early” King John is a stolen, dumbed down, broken version of the Shakespeare play that didn’t see print until 1623 but was around anyway before 1591 so that it could be rewritten by someone who removed the poetry to create an unpolished, rough version of King John with a slightly different title.

Here’s Bloom on the Philip the Bastard character in King John.

 “. . . he is the first character in Shakespeare who fully can charm and arouse us . . . it is not too much to say that the Bastard in King John inaugurates Shakespeare’s invention of the human . . .”

Wilson respectfully regards the Bloom-Honigmann dumbing down theory as nonsensical. No one would do that, Wilson says. Shakespeare must have appropriated the early King John from some other writer not the other way around.

What Bloom, Honigmann, and Wilson agree on is the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the play that was published as The Troublesome Reign of King John in 1591. But this play was republished in two more editions after 1600 both of which had Shakespeare’s name on the title page. Also, when the First Folio was published in 1623, no new entry for The Life and Death of King John was created in the official registry indicating to mainstream biographers such as E. K. Chambers that the authorities accepted King John as a previously published Shakespeare play.

But none of that matters to any mainstreamer. It is generally agreed that the second and third editions of King John must have been misattributed to Shakespeare either by fraud or by mistake or by God’s will for all anyone knows.

Campbell, in her study of the history plays as political mirroring, agreed with the consensus about the authors being two different people and simply assumed they were kindred spirits sharing a single point of view about Elizabethan politics and rallying the troops with stylistically similar exhortations.

“. . . it is generally agreed that [Shakespeare] derived his play of King John, scene by scene, from [the early version] . . . King John is, indeed, so like [the early version] that for our purposes it seems unnecessary to discuss the plays separately.”

The author of the first King John wrote this:

If England’s peers and people join in one,
Nor Pope, nor France, nor Spain can do them wrong.

The mature King John following the early King John “scene by scene” famously rewrites the patriotic exhortation like so:

Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

Campbell didn’t speculate about the identity of the possible kindred spirit of her politically engaged Shakespeare. She did not discuss the Shakespeare byline on the second and third editions of the early King John.

Rebels find the endless theorizing of Campbell, Bloom, Honigmann, Wilson, and the rest of the mainstream instructive inasmuch as it indicates a failed theory. Stop this useless debate, rebels say: 1580’s Shakespeare isn’t a mystery worth a thousand theories; the angels aren’t dancing.

Rebels say it’s simple. Shakespeare wrote both The Troublesome Reign of King John and The Life and Death of King John as indicated by the style, content, brilliance, characters, and political message in both plays not to mention the bylines on two of the editions of the early version. Yes, the play was probably performed by the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s, possibly as early as 1583. It was not stolen.

Shakespeare was active in London in the 1580’s. Yes, that seems to point to the Queen’s playwright. But partisans of the literary earl theory did not go back in time to London and create 1580’s Shakespeare. They didn’t even discover the existence of 1580’s Shakespeare: it’s a mainstream discovery that their own analysis indicates significantly reduces the likelihood that the Stratford businessman wrote the plays. The mainstream have simply been unwilling to accept the results of their own research.

Mainstreamers regularly insist that the name on the title pages of plays published after 1598 proves the businessman named Shakespeare was Shakespeare. But when the name appears on two editions of the early version of King John, mainstreamers cry fraud. This makes rebels want to throw themselves from the top of the nearest building.

The anonymous texts from 1580’s Shakespeare — The Famous Victories of Henry V, The True Tragedy of Richard III, and The True Chronicle History of King Leir — are in the same boat as King John according to rebels even though these plays, like the pre-Folio Romeo and Titus and Henry V, never got bylines. Arguing along exactly the same lines as Bloom and Honigmann, rebels claim these plays are too closely tied to Henry V, Richard III, and King Lear to be anything but first drafts written by a young author who, despite his evident genius, developed and learned his craft over time.

What’s interesting, according to rebels, is that the mainstream analysis, taken as a whole, largely supports their conclusion about 1580’s Shakespeare. Campbell, Wilson, Bloom, Honigmann, McMillin, and Maclean might as well be honorary rebels. Yes, rebels say, the connection between 1580’s Shakespeare and Shakespeare is intimate. Yes, “who except Shakespeare” could have written the plays. Yes, it is “unnecessary to discuss the plays separately.” Yes, 1580’s Shakespeare “inaugurate” Shakespeare. Yes, 1580’s Shakespeare “occurred from the inside” — Shakespeare wrote all four plays and you can’t get any more “inside” than that.

The 1580’s Shakespeare issue strongly favors the rebels. It’s not that the mainstream must be wrong. But even they seem to realize that the only reason they are killing themselves to explain the “mystery” of 1580’s Shakespeare is that the First Folio identified the Stratford businessman as the author and they feel they must find a way to understand history under the assumption that this identification is real and “history” is refusing to cooperate.

Why bother? says rebels.

A number of other plays from the 1580’s have titles reminiscent of Shakespeare plays and rebels wonder if they might also be early Shakespeare. It is possible that Cymbeline, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Timon of Athens, Much Ado About Nothing and Troilus and Cressida were performed in the 1570’s and 1580’s under different but suggestive titles. In Cymbeline, for instance, the queen is the stepmother to the king’s daughter and tries to marry the daughter to her step-brother who is an idiot. A 1570’s play (for which we have no text) called An History of the Cruelty of a Stepmother might or might not be an early version of Cymbeline. 

Titus Andronicus was published anonymously in 1594 and remained anonymous. It was referred to by Ben Jonson in 1614 as a 1580’s play. Rebels guess that most of the plays, including Hamlet, were written by 1590 though rebels think the plays may well have been more or less continuously revised until the literary earl died in 1604. After 1604, very few new plays appeared until the avalanche of 1623. Rebels note that no one knows when any given Shakespeare play was first written. For some plays, no record at all exists until 1623.

According to rebels, the historical record makes it quite clear that Shakespeare plays can easily be written long before any record of their existence shows up. The claim that plays like The Tempest were written after 1604 is, rebels say, nonsense. In fact, the UMass student who later became a professor published a book recently that was a bombshell. And its reception was an even bigger bombshell.

The book details evidence dating The Tempest, widely regarded as Shakespeare’s farewell play, to around 1600 or before. The fact that this work was actually praised by Oxford University Press (!) possibly marks the beginning of the crumbling of the wall blocking credentialed experts from challenging the orthodoxy. If this dating of The Tempest is widely accepted — and the work is rock solid — the mainstream’s dating of the plays might fall apart completely.

This brings us to what Bloom calls the “greatest mystery in Shakespeare” — the Hamlet from 1589 mentioned prominently by the great Elizabethan satirist, Thomas Nashe.

In 1589, Nashe engaged in what an imaginative person might call a conspiracy to make life difficult for 21st century mainstream scholars. Imbuing Nashe with psychic powers is just a joke of course but one can say with some certainty that if there is anything left of Nashe overlooking the present state of affairs, this version of Nashe would be overjoyed to learn of the trouble he caused in his flesh and blood form.

But let us not wallow in fantasies about mysterious people dumbing down Shakespeare and Nashe watching over us and seeing what he hath wrought (though I think some rebels would believe the latter before the former), let us tell the story. Nashe introduced a fifth 1580’s Shakespeare play into the mix that, like the plays with text, is rather had to ignore. Though there’s no text for 1589 Hamlet, there’s plenty of evidence Shakespeare had already written some version of his great masterpiece by 1589. As rebels gleefully point out at this point, Nashe dedicated work to the literary earl and likely knew him personally.

Nashe introduces us to Hamlet via a quip in a delicious satire serving as prefatory material to a work of Greene’s called Menaphon (after the name of a character in the story). In his preface to Greene’s work, Nashe made brutal fun of university graduates overusing their Latin and mindlessly convincing themselves that they were great poets because they knew Latin. Nashe bemoaned the lack of real greatness in modern London amidst an outpouring of junk, Hamlet being a conspicuous exception as we’ll see.

The junk was manna to the satirist. Nashe warmed up with a thousand-plus words complaining about “vainglorious tragedians” and “choleric encumbrances” and “threadbare wits” and “apish devices” and “over-racked rhetoric” and “trivial translators.” He didn’t generally name his targets. He alluded to Thomas Kyd as more clerk than poet and eventually openly ridiculed Richard Stanihurst. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, he was pretty careful to avoid direct, named attacks.

It was a different story when it came to praise. Nashe eventually delivered a profusion of praise as if to provide a contrasting canvas against which to set off his barbs. Nashe would not let it be said that he “should condemn all and commend none” so he spoke of those “men of import” who quietly wrote high quality work despite being surrounded by “lovers of mediocrity.” There was no shortage of men to praise. Nashe was overjoyed to call them out by name and sing their praises.

Roger Ascham was on a list of eight people who “set before our eyes a more perfect method of study.” Edmund Spenser was “divine” and Thomas Watson “high-witted.” Nashe positively worshipped George Peele as the “Atlas of poetry” with a “pregnant dexterity of wit” and “manifold variety of invention.” Arthur Golding was one of more than a dozen named “exquisite” scholars.

And then there’s Hamlet. After Nashe’s vitriolic warmup iced with the jab about “trivial translators,” we finally get to his first compliment. This is his only compliment directed at an unnamed recipient. So we don’t technically know who it was — we have only the nickname Nashe used likening this great Elizabethan writer to a classical writer.

Here’s the end of his last barb followed by a reference to the mystery writer who was, for Nashe, a breath of fresh air.

“. . . that could scarcely Latinize their neck-verse if they should have need; yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences as Blood is a beggar and so forth, and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.”

The bit about the “neck-verse” is Nashe’s sour cherry atop the bitter icing of “trivial translators.” In Elizabethan England, if you could prove literacy by reading a passage from the bible in Latin, you would get better treatment in court. Ben Jonson, for example, charged with murder, read the “neck-verse” in Latin and literally saved his neck. Jonson had killed a man in a fight and now he received a brand on his thumb and a warning that next time would be different.

Nashe meant if it was all you could do to Latinize your “neck-verse,” you were literate but just barely and definitely not artist material.

This great Elizabethan writer, known here only as English Seneca (Seneca was a great Roman dramatist who wrote tragedies such as The Madness of Hercules two millennia ago) was different from those that could scarcely Latinize their neck-verse. Nashe apparently knew this paragon well enough to know that he could, under the right conditions, be generous with his tragical speeches, maybe in manuscript and maybe ex tempore, we don’t know. But if approached properly, this author might bestow upon you some pretty language. English Seneca wrote a whole Hamlet full of tragical speeches. English Seneca also wrote “many good sentences as Blood is a beggar.”

So who was this nameless great writer of tragical speeches worthy of comparison to Seneca and worthy of Nashe’s admiration after more than a thousand words of creative insult? Shakespeare wrote Hamlet but no Elizabethan wrote “Blood is a beggar” as far as anyone knows. The phrase “Beggared of blood” appears in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. That’s as close as we can get.

Demands for perfect evidence aside, Nashe’s reference seems clear enough: he knew the author of Hamlet personally as of 1589 and had seen the play performed or read the play in manuscript or both; he had seen Shakespeare’s Sonnets (not to be published for another twenty years) in manuscript. Finally, it seems this great writer was so unnameable he couldn’t be praised along with more than a dozen other living writers all of whom Nashe saw fit to worship by name when he was resting from his outgasing of scathing satire.

After rhetorically making love to English Seneca, Nashe goes back to vitriolic eruptions concerning “twopenny pamphlets” and “home-born mediocrity” at which point he interrupts his diatribe to deliver his first named praise followed by more complaints about “our idle age” and “divinity dunces” and “abject abbreviations of arts” and “penury of art” and “barren compendiums” and “bungling practitioners.”

Nashe’s capacity for stringing together novel insults seems bottomless so when he throws in some more named praise and finally finishes attacking the “rabble of counterfeits” with a promise that he will “persecute those [unnamed] idiots and their heirs unto the third generation that have made art bankrupt of her ornaments and sent poetry a-begging up and down the country” one breathes a sigh of relief and one thanks one’s lucky stars Nashe didn’t set his sights on us or anyone we know.

Nashe’s Hamlet comment is fascinating of course. But technically, we can’t even be sure English Seneca was Shakespeare at all. Maybe this Hamlet was written by someone else and maybe Shakespeare later wrote his version of Hamlet with different “tragical speeches.” Who knows if Nashe really saw the sonnets in manuscript? There was no Shakespeare in London in 1589 as far as the historical record is concerned so this Hamlet is assumed by most in the mainstream to be someone else’s Hamlet.

Bloom disagrees. He thinks the Hamlet Nashe went on about was Shakespeare’s first draft. For Bloom, the Hamlet question piled atop the mystery of King John becomes “the greatest mystery in Shakespeare.”

“I associate the mystery of the play [King John] with the greatest mystery in Shakespeare, which is the missing first Hamlet, where I have followed Peter Alexander’s lead in believing that “lost” work to be Shakespeare’s own, partly embedded in the texts of Hamlet we now possess.”

For rebels, 1580’s King John and 1580’s Hamlet aren’t mysteries: they are exactly what one would expect if the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare.

That takes care of the 1580’s. In 1593 and 1594, the name “William Shakespeare” appears in print on two Ovidian epic poems — sexually charged instant successes. The name “Shakespeare” is now famous. The writer of these poems clearly worked closely with the publisher as the poems were beautifully executed and accompanied by letters dedicating them to the young Earl of Southampton.

Southampton, at the time, was involved in highly consequential negotiations about who he was going to marry. Marriage alliances were part and parcel of power politics in Elizabethan England and Southampton’s marriage decision would determine the balance of power in a country with an aging and heirless monarch.

Whether or not Southampton married Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter or tied his fortunes to the “Essex faction” could impact the succession itself — a topic whose very discussion was illegal. The dedication to Southampton at this time by Shakespeare may have had something to do with all of this manuevering especially when one considers what are called today “the marriage sonnets.”

The first seventeen or so sonnets are all about marriage and making babies. Sometimes they’re called the “procreation sonnets.” Shakespeare repeatedly, eloquently, and earnestly encouraged an unnamed young nobleman (Southampton of course is the leading candidate) to take some vows and take his bride to bed. The young nobleman is complimented and admonished, encouraged and driven, advised and ordered in intimate terms: get married; get a son; “Make thee another self for love of me.”

But the sonnets were not published at this time and no one can prove they were written while Southampton was making his big decision. The sonnets were first mentioned in 1598 and published in 1609 at which time the publisher wrote a dedication referring to the author as “our ever-living poet.” Mainstream scholars, unable to explain even the publisher’s dedication (the Stratford businessman was born in 1564 and died in 1616) do not usually try to interpret the sonnets. Indeed, they must come up with creative alternative meanings for “our ever-living poet.” The search for a connection between the Stratford businessman and Southampton has been fruitless not for lack of effort. The mainstream regards the sonnets as another mystery.

Rebels regard the sonnets as easy to understand in broad terms and often perfectly straightforward. Unconditional support, guidance, deep caring, and love seem to characterize a real relationship between author and subject. Rebels regard as self-evident the status of Southampton, Shakespeare’s sole dedicatee and a hot property in Elizabethan England, as the subject of the sonnets.

Southampton is also the leading candidate for the “fair youth” of the sonnets among mainstreamers though the mainstream reminds us that the sonnets are poetry, not personal letters. That is, we don’t know if the “I” in the sonnets is the actual “I” or the poetical “I.” Mainstreamers favor the poetical “I.” For rebels, the sonnets, written in the first person and kept private for many years, are as personal as they sound.

If one reads the sonnets as personal, one learns a lot about Shakespeare.

The great author seems to identify with Southampton to the point where he regards the young earl’s life as a mirror of his own.

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee,
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart . . .

The great author seems to have known Southampton’s mother when she was young.

Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;

The great author represents himself as a generation older than his subject.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
and dig deep trenches in they beauty’s field
. . . [you’ll be old and wrinkled and god-forbid childless]
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The great author regarded it as very important that Southampton have an heir:

Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

The great author takes Southampton’s actions VERY personally:

Make thee another self for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee.

There is no evidence the Stratford businessman ever met Southampton. The Queen’s playwright was  However, we do know that Burghley’s grand-daughter was also the literary earl’s eldest daughter.

Given that the marriage alliance proposed by Burghley would alter the balance of power in England, there is every reason to believe the father of the proposed bride had a strong interest in it.

For rebels, the sonnets end the discussion: if they are regarded as personal, even as partly personal, they identify the Queen’s playwright — who was indeed a peer of Southampton and a generation older AND heavily interested in the marriage alliance — as the author even if the full extent of the relationship between Southampton and the literary earl remains mysterious.

But the mainstream persists and emphasizes the businessman’s status as an acting company shareholder spending time in London and involved with the theater at the very time the plays finally started to get published. By the middle 1590’s, with the bootlegging going full tilt and the Shakespeare name famous, the Stratford businessman named William Shakespeare had officially become a shareholder in London’s leading acting company either by putting cash on the barrelhead or by writing brilliant plays as the company’s chief author. But we don’t know what the arrangement was amongst the shareholders as there are no records other than the record of the businessman named Shakespeare as a shareholder.

The idea that the acting company owned the plays — often presented as fact by mainstreamers — is actually a guess based on the the claim in the First Folio preface that two of the shareholders “collected” the plays.

London records don’t say much about the businessman’s status. He was a shareholder. That’s all we know. But in Stratford, Shakespeare shows up again and again. He’s in court to collect debts and gets in trouble for storing too much grain. He owned one of the biggest houses in town. When land was to be enclosed, he was involved. If you needed money, you might ask him.

He may have written poetry for a moneylender friend. John Combe loaned money at the legal maximum of ten percent. Legend has it that Shakespeare suggested the following humorous epitaph:

Ten in the hundred lies here engraved.
‘Tis a hundred to ten his soul is not saved!
If any man ask who lies here in the tomb,
Oh ho! quoth the devil, ‘Tis my John-a-Combe.

This seems a little different from the lovely April of her prime but Shakespeare might have been quite versatile. As Schoenbaum noted, Stratford isn’t much help for understanding the businessman’s alleged writing career.

Back in London, though the legal documents say only that he was a shareholder, two direct, non-legendary, well-documented references to Shakespeare-the-acting-company-shareholder are quite interesting to both rebels and mainstreamers.

Both of these references mention writing. If the acting company shareholder was identified as a writer during his lifetime by two different sources, it would be impossible to make a reasonable claim that the First Folio preface had been falsified. It’s one thing to mislead in a publication but quite another to alter history itself.

So we need to take a close look at these two references.

The first reference is a series of skits put on by Cambridge students. It’s called the Parnassus Plays and is all about writers. It’s a lot of what we would call slapstick or farce today. The plays are also topical mentioning and alluding to real people throughout. Shakespeare may be parodied quite a bit in many skits but here, in this particular scene, he is mentioned by name and by profession along with his acting company buddies including Kempe. On top of that, Shakespeare’s favorite author, Ovid. is mentioned along with Shakespeare’s favorite poem, The Metamorphoses. 

This one speech from this one skit has it all — Shakespeare as an actor, Ovid, writers in general, Ben Jonson, Kempe, The Metamorphoses — it’s a gold mine. No wonder it appears in virtually every Shakespeare biography.

KEMPE. Few of the university [men] pen plays well; they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, aye, and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow; he brought up Horace, giving the poets a pill; but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge, that made him bewray his credit.

This is a farce. Kempe is an idiot. He doesn’t know the difference between a writer and poem. He thinks Shakespeare, the Ovidian poet, is nothing like Ovid. He loves his fellow shareholder Shakespeare saying he’s better than Ovid, better than Ben Jonson, and better than “that writer Metamorphosis.

The mainstream says, “See, Shakespeare-the-actor was also a writer.” Rebels say, “Metamorphosis wasn’t writer.” You are neither mainstream nor rebel. Interpret it however you like. There’s one more example and that’s all we’ve got from Londoners referring to Shakespeare as a person as opposed to referring to the works without knowing the person the way you or I would.

John Davies of Hereford wrote many epigrams, generally straightforward ones, often to his friends.

He told his friend Ben Jonson that he (Davies) wished to someday be good enough to elicit Jonson’s envy. He congratulated his friend Samuel Daniel on having his works accepted in courtly circles and predicted that for Daniels the sky was the limit. The epigram to Shakespeare compared him to a Roman writer and also talked about him as an actor. So Davies may have been identifying Shakespeare as an actor and writer. He didn’t call him friend, but since he talked about acting, that points specifically to the Stratford shareholder, so this counts as a reference to Shakespeare-the-person.

Davies addressed thirty-six epigrams to his friends whom he named as follows: Alexander, Ashfield, Boughton, Brooke, Butler, Cheyny, Daniell, Mistress M.D. (Davies’s wife), Gough, Gwin, Mr. H.H., Hackwell, Holcroft, Johnson, Jones, Locky, Lucy, Marbery, Maynwarring, Murray, Murray (brother of the first Murray), Norton, Panton, Parrham, Poynes, Sanderson, Seager, Sharpe, Sherley, Simonds, Smith, Speed, Towne, Tracy, Twiddy, and Welsh.

Another nineteen people not referred to in familiar terms were named as follows: Bond, Carre, Chapperline, Coningesby, Constable, Dun, Fletcher, Hayes, Hall, Harrington, Herbert, Marston, Marten, Mountgomerie, No-body, Northumberland, Ormond, Percy, Shake-speare, S.I.H., Smith, and Some-body.

Here are the three epigrams that may tell us who Shakespeare was.

   To our English Terence Mr. Will: Shake-speare.
Epig. 159.
SOME say good Will (which I, in sport, do sing)
Had’st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst been a companion for a King;
And, beene a King among the meaner sort.
Some others raile; but raile as they thinke fit,
Thou has no rayling, but, a raigning Wit;
   And honesty thou sow’st, which they do reape;
   So, to increase their Stocke which they do keepe.

   To his most constant, though most unknowne friend;
                           Epig. 160.
You shall be sev’d; but not with numbers now;
You shall be serv’d with nought; that’s good for you.

   To my neere-deere wel-knowne friend; Some-body.
                           Epig. 161.
You look that as myself I you should use;
I will, or else myself I should abuse;
And yet with rimes I but myselfe undoo,
Yet am I some-body with much adoo.

As was the case with the student’s skit, there’s some funny stuff going on. Why Shake-speare with the hyphen? Davies didn’t hyphenate anyone else’s name in the fifty-five epigrams addressed to people. Who is No-body and why does No-body get “nought.” Who is Some-body and what’s with the apparent reference to Much Ado About Nothing?

No one knows but we do know something about Terence besides the fact that he was a Roman writer. One Roman writer was also known to Cicero and Elizabethans as a front-man for aristocrats.

Ascham: “. . . it is well known . . . that some comedies bearing Terence’s name were written by . . . Scipio and Laelius . . .”
Montaigne: “Scipio and Laelius . . . resigned the honor of their comedies . . . unto an African servant . . . and Terence himself doth avouch it . . .”

Shake-speare and No-body and Some-body and “Some-body with much adoo” and Terence and Scipio and Laelius are fighting words if rebels and mainstreamers are duking it out. I’m too close to all of this at this point to even have an opinion. I don’t know what it means.

Shakespeare died quietly in Stratford in 1616 having outdone his father at wheeling and dealing. His three-page lawyerly will lists twenty-two friends, family members, and business associates including three members of the acting company. His acting company fellows received modest cash bequests. John Combe of “ten in a hundred” fame had a living nephew who got a sword. A great deal of ink was spilt explaining what any given “issue of the body” of his daughters would get.

Five houses, land, cash, silverware, and so forth were disbursed. Shakespeare-the-author could reasonably be called the most erudite man in England. Certainly he was high on a list of scholars vying for the “most erudite” crown just based on the breadth of knowledge — from horticulture to music to falconry to horsemanship to Italian art, culture, and geography to medicine to law — evinced in the works. He had to have had a library but, if he was also Shakespeare-the-businessman the bound sources of his vast learning would not have interested his illiterate daughters or his illiterate wife. To make a long story short, if the businessman owned any books, no one knows what happened to them.

But a book-buyer walked into the businessman’s house, now occupied by his daughter whose doctor husband had just died. The book buyer was a doctor too and recognized his colleague’s medical journal. The businessman’s daughter didn’t know what it was but she sold it to the book buyer. The journal is now in a museum — the only written or printed material known to have been in “Shakespeare’s” house and perhaps a touch more famous than it might otherwise have been.

We don’t have books, but he seems to have left us a four-line poem, an epitaph along the lines of the one he supposedly composed for his friend John Combe but this time for himself. It appears on his gravestone and may be seen today by those who travel to Stratford to see his gravesite.

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed by the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

It’s another mystery. How is it that we have two four-line pieces of doggerel and no books, no letters, and no manuscripts? We don’t even have a signature.

One of the essays in the book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, written by a credentialed expert, looks at Nashe, Harvey, Lodge, and Lyly in particular and points to “frustrating gaps” in each man’s biography. Nashe, even though he was quite famous and wrote many things, died at some point and we don’t even know when.

And yet, these four men together left behind a couple of dozen signatures, letters, books, and manuscripts.

But the First Folio epistles in the preface, letters written in high style loaded with allusions to Pliny and Horace, tell us Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Mainstream researchers have no trouble identifying Jonson’s style in the letters — the shareholders were not writers or classicists of any kind and they weren’t in the process (as Jonson was) of translating works of Pliny. Seeing thus-far untranslated Pliny in the First Folio letters is about as Jonsonian as one can get.

The point about Jonson as ghostwriter can be argued of course but there is no reason to. Classic Shakespeare biographers like Chambers regard Jonson as a the likely author of the letters and this doesn’t tell us about their truth: ghostwriters aren’t necessarily making up what they write — they are simply practicing their craft in writing for someone else.

Jonson explains on behalf of the shareholders that now that Shakespeare is dead, his work “asked to” become the property of two brother earls, Pembroke and Montgomery, the “pair of incomparable brethren” to whom the works are being presented as a “present” by the two shareholders who are the “presenters.” Jonson, in marketing mode, hopes people looking at the book will be “weighed” the way silver and gold is weighed. In other words, don’t just stand there, buy the book, you won’t be sorry unless of course you aren’t able to understand Shakespeare which is your problem.

Jonson also tells us, as if we don’t already know, that past printed versions of Shakespeare have been sub-standard to say the least and this First Folio, the first authorized publication of plays, will finally and for all time correct that horror. But Jonson said it better. Here are excerpts.

. . . they out-living him, and he not having the fate, common with some, to be executor to his own writings . . . the volume asked to be yours. We have but collected them, and done an office to the dead, to procure his orphans. [We are] guardians, without ambition either of self-profit or fame: only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare, by humble offer of his plays to your most noble patronage . . .

From the most able, to him that can but spell: there you are numbered. We had rather you were weighed; especially, when the fate of all books depends upon your capacities and not of your heads alone, but of your purses. [It is your privilege] to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a book . . . But, whatever you do, Buy.

. . . It had been a thing, we confess, worthie to have been wished, that the author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings; but since it hath been ordained otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we . . . have collected and published them . . . as where (before) you were abused with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors . . .

Read him, therefore; and again, and again . . .

People have very different responses to this, the most important of ALL attribution documents according to Schoenbaum: rebels DON’T buy it; the mainstream SWEARS by it.

In addition to the outright claim in the First Folio that the businessman named Shakespeare was also a great writer, there is an inscription on a monument in the Stratford church where the businessman’s doggerel-etched gravestone resides. The monument is mentioned in the First Folio as “thy Stratford moniment” with that spelling. It doesn’t say much but it says something the doggerel doesn’t: the businessman was a great man. He is compared to King Nestor for judgment, Socrates for genius, and Virgil for art which would make a lot more sense if the monument was for Beaumont, Chapman, and Spenser who were often described in these terms and who are all buried in Westminster Abbey where Elizabethans buried famous writers and other important people.

Gravestones were not typically written with gibberish but this one is as cryptic as cryptic gets, nearly meaningless.

Stay passenger, why goest thou by so fast,
Read if thou canst, whom envious death hath plast
With in this monument Shakespeare: with whome
Quick nature dide whose name doth deck this tomb
Far more than cost; sieh all that he hath writt
Leaves living art, but page, to serve his witt.

No one can translate this. Mainstreamers say, “See it says he wrote things.” Rebels say it’s gibberish but might mean the following: “Figure out from this monument, if you can, with whom Shakespeare is buried because his name is here but his body is elsewhere.”

That’s the whole story. Mainstreamers say there are lots of strange things about the biography but, with no smoking gun to back the rebel theory, a clear identification in the First Folio preface and an odd sort of identification at the gravesite monument (they ignore the doggerel on the gravestone), there’s no reason to toss centuries of Shakespeare scholarship into the trash heap.

Rebels say all that scholarship has failed to elucidate anything at all about Shakespeare as an author; they say it is a failed theory. They say assuming the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare leads to clarification and understanding and pays for itself almost immediately by allowing us to understand Shakespeare in ways that were closed to us before. Hamlet becomes naked autobiography, a hundred times more interesting to read and perform (so says Sir Derek Jacobi, a famous rebel) when you have the right author.

I boil it down to ten characteristics seem to be must-haves for anyone regarded as Shakespeare. The name “Shakespeare” on your birth record isn’t among them nor is prancing around the London theater scene with the name “Shakespeare” while the plays are published as bootlegs.

If we’re looking for Shakespeare, we’re looking for someone with the most, or preferably, all of the ten characteristics below.

  1. Courtly playwright.
  2. Invisible to publishers.
  3. Untouchable by any authority short of the Queen herself.
  4. Active in the 1580’s.
  5. Close to the Earl of Southampton.
  6. Dead by 1609.
  7. Erudite in the extreme.
  8. Traveled extensively in Italy.
  9. Trained in the legal profession.
  10. Collaborated with Anthony Munday.

Shakespeare biographers know these ten characteristics better than anyone. Each of these characteristics has been called a mystery by this or that biographer. Some biographers leave them as mysteries. Other biographers speculate. For each of the ten mysteries, a plausible scenario exists that allows the Stratford businessman to be Shakespeare.

For example, even though he appears to have been unable to write his name, the signatures can be explained by his “teeming imagination.” An infinite number of plausible scenarios can explain the five different signatures. Maybe he was too busy to be present to sign documents. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he hurt his hand. Maybe this and maybe that.

All ten mysteries have been “explained.” Rebels don’t have to explain anything. The literary earl who never put his name on a play while receiving the direct support of the Queen was at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene in the 1580’s, was the father of the bride Southampton was supposed to marry, died in 1604, was recognized from childhood as brilliant, spent a year in Italy, received a law degree, and hired Anthony Munday as a literary secretary.

If you made up a candidate for Shakespeare, you couldn’t do better. The rebels candidate hits ten out of ten characteristics AND his son-in-law was behind the First Folio. So the rebel candidate is better than perfect. It’s like asking the fates for ten million dollars and winning an eleven-million-dollar the next day.

If my life depended on the rebels being right about who wrote Shakespeare, I wouldn’t be happy as I don’t want my life depending on any conjecture. But I wouldn’t be too worried.

But scholars, though presented with a candidate who could not be more perfect don’t even look into the possibility that the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare. Instead, they go insane.

Really. Scholars, many of them, look at the five signatures in five different handwritings and decide they can use these signatures to do a handwriting analysis. The handwriting analysis on these five different signatures can then, according to people working at universities not bouncing around in padded cells, be used to identify a handwritten scene that survives in manuscript. The scene appeared in a play authored by someone with known handwriting. The scene was not in the author’s handwriting or in his style.

Everyone, including rebels, agree that this scene in someone else’s play is Shakespeare. What the insane people have done is claim that the handwriting matches Shakespeare’s five different signatures. Actually, they pick one letter of one signature and try to match it to the manuscript written in Shakepeare’s style and they claim a confident match.

I couldn’t make something like this up. It’s so crazy it’s hard to believe. The play is called Sir Thomas More. This is a true “Monday morning quarterback moment.”

Actually, no one can identify the handwriting in the manuscript pages from Sir Thomas More. Elizabethans used two types of writing, Italian hand and secretary hand; the manuscript is in secretary hand. Of course we have no idea what the businessman’s handwriting looked like — the best guess from the five different signatures is that he couldn’t write at all. We also don’t know what the literary earl’s secretary hand looked like because his letters are all in Italian (aka italic) hand. So we can’t use the scene from Sir Thomas More to solve our mystery.

But there is one interesting fact to note about Sir Thomas More. We may not know who Shakespeare was but we know with whom he was collaborating. We know who was the author of Sir Thomas More. It was Anthony Munday, literary secretary to the Queen’s playwright. What do insane academics say about the fact that their precious manuscript of a Shakespeare scene was probably written in the literary earl’s house where Munday did a lot of his work? They say look at the gravesite and at the First Folio preface.

They have a point, nutty as they are. We mustn’t forget the doggerel and the gibberish at the gravesite. We mustn’t forget that we can ignore the doggerel and that the cryptic phrase “all that he hath writt leaves living art but page to serve his witt” might mean the businessman was a writer. We mustn’t forget the ghostwritten marketing copy in the First Folio said the shareholders have “collected” the plays and are making a “present” of them to the two earls. That too might mean the businessman was the author after all.

And yes, a hoax involving a front-man so successful as this one is indeed hard to get one’s mind around. So we can’t pretend the mainstream doesn’t have its reasons for going insane though we can ask them if insanity is really useful here and if we might make some progress if sanity were made a requirement of discourse.

Because even though the a hoax seems inherently unlikely, the fact is front-men are real things even in modern times when it is arguably much harder to pull off. Roman Holiday won an Oscar for the screenplay and the “author” Ian Mclellan Hunter accepted the statue which remains in the possession of his family to this day. Despite photography and video and reporters and telephones to augment old-fashioned gossip, decades passed with no correction. Finally, a new statue was created for the family of the real author, Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted by nutcase politics. The truth came out, finally.

Could a couple of earls have pulled off a hoax that fooled us for four centuries and that continues to fool us?

I don’t know if such a hoax could be executed in Elizabethan times or not, but if I just look at the ability of people to fool themselves, it almost seems easy to pull off the Shakespeare hoax. Mainstream scholars, many of them, take seriously the idea of using five different signatures to match “Hand D” to Shakespeare. Why? Because they’ve decided to believe something and they are quite capable of ignoring reality in their overwhelming need to believe what they want to believe. Would they launch the space shuttle at 40 below zero if they got it into their heads that it was “safe to launch” no matter what engineers say?

Yes, they would.

If I had to stake my life on knowing who Shakespeare was, it would be nice to have a smoking gun like a manuscript copy of Twelfth Night written in the earl’s handwriting or something similar. We do have letters written by the earl in Italian hand and they have nice lines in them like “I am that I am” and “Truth is truth though never so old” and “Time cannot make that false which was once true” which are, respectively, exact duplicates and close approximations of Shakespeare lines. But we don’t have Twelfth Night though someone in the 1700’s said they had a manuscript of a play by the literary earl about the rising of a “mean” gentlemen at court circa 1580 which sounds a lot like Twelfth Night but no one’s ever found the manuscript.

So there’s no smoking gun. Yet.

But still, if you had to pick one of the two choices, would you really choose someone who couldn’t write his name, never went to Italy, didn’t know Southampton, was alive in 1609, had no known education, owned no books, cut a high profile as an acting company shareholder with the name “William Shakespeare” but had nothing to do with publishers, and who could never in a million years have gotten away with writing Richard II with its deposition scene or Hamlet with its lampoon of CORAMBIS/Burghley or the As You Like It scene featuring commentary about Marlowe’s murder or any of the plays that put on the stage that which other playwrights wouldn’t dare to whisper to the person they trusted most in all the world?

You would have to choose the literary earl. You would be worried if your life was at stake. But there’s just no argument for the businessman being more likely. Possible, yes. Likely, no way. Diana Price, in her book, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, went over all the documents left for Ben Jonson and other Elizabethan authors. Some fraction of documents are literacy documents like signatures and books and letters. It doesn’t take much to generate literacy documents — they appear for Elizabethan writers even who leave behind just a handful of documents. You can pick any probability for a document attached to the life of a professional writer being a literacy document.

I would pick fifty-fifty for the probability just to keep it simple. Then we can ask, What is the probability of a professional writer leaving behind seventy documents none of which demonstrate literacy? Seventy documents. No books. No letters. No manuscripts. No signatures even. No publisher mentioned in the will. No writers mentioned in the will. No friends referring to him as a writer. Heads you’re literate, tails you can’t even write your name. Is it possible to be literate and leave seventy documents NONE of which are literacy documents?

Mainstreamers argue that Price’s definition of what document would prove Shakespeare literate is not right. There was a letter written to him but not sent found in the possession of one of his neighbors. It was all business but if you wrote a letter to Shakespeare, even if you didn’t send it, isn’t that proving him literate? And what about the people who said he was better than “that writer Metamorphosis”? Doesn’t that prove him literate? And what about calling him “our English Terence”?

You can see the argument can tend to go in circles. But let’s cut to the chase. Mainstreamers say the businessman was Shakespeare. Rebels say they’ll believe that when you flip seventy tails in a row (if you had a billion years, your chances of success would be quite small).

I think the rebels are probably right though I understand their case is circumstantial. It just seems quite strong and the more mainstream stuff I read, the more I’m convinced that even mainstreamers know there are lots of problems with their theory.

It is possible of course that someday someone will discover something that proves Mike Pence did write On The Road after all. Anything is possible. For instance, a letter written by someone living in Stratford at the time of the Essex Rebellion might be found. This is a wonderful fantasy for mainstreamers to savor. Everyone in England knew about the Essex Rebellion. People in Stratford might have written about it. They might have mentioned Shakespeare. Such a mention could end all doubt in favor of the mainstream. Something just like this might “shut the buggers up” as one put-upon mainstreamer once colorfully dreamed.

So let’s tell the story of the two stupidest earls who ever lived. The day before the Earl of Essex threw his life away in an idiotic gambit to control the crown, he arranged a presentation of Richard II presumably with the deposition scene intact. After his idiotic plan crashed and burned spectacularly, he was charged with treason as sort of an encore to the play whose performance he had recently arranged.

The Queen likened herself to Richard the Second: “I am Richard the Second! Know ye not that!” she said to William Lambarde who wrote about his meeting with the Queen. Essex tried to bring the play “from the stage to the state” as it was put during his trial. Essex lost his fool head. Four knights were also executed. Some nobility implicated in the plot escaped with fines. It’s impossible to imagine a bigger scandal.

In Stratford, in the mainstream world, the townsmen of the businessman-playwright had to have been worried for the great and daring author’s safety. It was a scary time in England. Civil war was possible. A rebellion had been squashed. A nobleman lost his head. Another (Southampton!) languished in the Tower waiting for death. And a Shakespeare play had been staged the day before — a play with a deposition scene!

Ben Jonson wrote the wrong thing once and was jailed and threatened with mutilation; his mother brewed poison for him to take should the authorities make good on their threat. Jonson managed to pull strings and extricate himself. Would the author of Richard III, the epitome of the local boy made good, be so lucky as Jonson? His house, the second-biggest in Stratford, might be surrounded by men utterly loyal to the Queen at any moment.

We know “Shakespeare’s townsmen” regarded him as shrewd in business. If only a townsman’s concern about his non-shrewd play that included and deposition scene and that was staged the day before a rebellioin was recorded somewhere! With such a letter in our hands, authenticated by experts, we could rejoice and stop arguing.

What would the mainstream say. “I told you so,” would be kind. “Never doubt us again,” would be not entirely out of line. “Next time you waste our time with wild theorizing about courtier playwrights you will be beheaded just like Essex,” would be maybe overdoing it a bit.

Someday it could happen. We could find something like this, maybe written by the businessman’s “cosen” Thomas Greene who wrote quite a bit about his friend Shakespeare about whom he felt such a kinship that he called the businessman “cosen.” Greene might have written something like this.

I fear for our townsman, his audacity may finally be his undoing for all know the play was the thing Essex hoped would rally the rabble to his sinful cause. And now see what has become of Essex, a headless corpse, his soul burning in Hell with four other traitors. Southampton awaits death, his worry as sharp as any axe. No company will dare stage Richard II until Essex’s grave has decayed to dust. But what of our beloved Shakespeare for whom time cannot pass fast enough?

My concern about false paradigms would have to be re-examined!

It would be an interesting story — the false paradigm that was true. Unfortunately, all we have is a play with a deposition scene played on the eve of a rebellion with no consequences or even commentary about possible consequences for the author of the play, the Elizabethan Cheshire Cat, not just unfindable by publishers but untouchable by the Queen herself.

It may seem like we have no information to work with, like the mystery of who wrote Shakespeare is unsolvable. But we have Southampton. For rebels, Southampton is the key to everything.

As he was contemplating the Burghley marriage alliance, the dedications of Shakespeare appeared. Sonnets may have been delivered to him. If so, they didn’t convince him to drop Essex and embrace Burghley and take Burghley’s grand-daughter/the literary earl’s daughter to the marriage bed. Seven years before the Essex rebellion, the young earl refused the marriage alliance (bad idea) and metaphorically got into bed with Essex.

It was he and Essex who together attempted in 1601 to control of the succession. He and Essex were tried together. He and Essex were sentenced to death. Essex was dead in a week give or take a day. Southampton brooded, literally sick with fear.

In Sonnet 87 Shakespeare writes enigmatically: “The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing . . .”

A nod of Elizabeth’s head at this point would have cost Southampton his. But she commuted his sentence. No, we don’t have an exact account perfect in all its particulars. But we have something. Maybe she thought that killing Essex and four knights was enough. Maybe that’s all it was. Or not.

Maybe “The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing . . . ” means what it sounds like it means.

Southampton remained confined in the Tower, eating again (one imagines) and no longer worried about a falling axe. No one knows what saved Southampton. The Queen should have killed him.

But in 1603, the Queen went to where queens go when that bloody tyrant time settles its accounts. Burghley’s choice of monarch, King James VI of Scotland, became King James I of England. He took the throne what was his very first order? We don’t know exactly but a good candidate was, “Release Southampton.”

The much-luckier-than-Essex earl stared up at a blue sky with the sun in his blinking eyes not only free but his earldom restored and not only an earl once again but one about to made a Knight of the Garter, a HUGE honor then and even today. His freedom he had; his earldom he presided over; honors were his. But King James never gave Southampton any real power. For obvious reasons, the new king watched the once-rebel earl extremely closely, constantly wary.

The “Charter of thy worth” and “since your worth wide as the ocean is” and “thy own worth then not knowing” and “they had not skill enough your worth to sing” and seven other references to the “worth” of Shakespeare’s subject might just be admiration for Southampton on the part of Shakespeare. But it’s not crazy to wonder if, maybe just maybe, it was this “worth” that allowed Southampton to live through a literal death sentence, “worth” known to Shakespeare but not to historians.

What happened to Southampton was something of a miracle, one entirely unexplained by history. If the sonnets are really the private missives to Southampton that rebels say they are, then Shakespeare indeed knew what was going on. We can’t be certain of anything, but, rebels say, there’s no need to pretend that a common assumption made by plenty of mainstreamers over the years — that the sonnets were written to Southampton — is not worth pursuing.

Mainstreamers will note with justification that mere poems are not properly treated as authoritative autobiography. But do these poems really fall into the category of historically ignorable Art? These poems written over a ten-year period with a unity of treatment, a clear subject, first-person statements, and utterly private handling with no publication for years and years and years — are these poems really to be set aside entirely from any historical analysis?

The sonnets sit at the center of the “Who wrote Shakespeare” controversy. Levi’s commissioning theory aside, if they are personal letters to Southampton, the businessman was very likely not their author. The sonnets present us with a stark choice.

It is therefore not surprising that a very smart high school student I was tutoring in math once told me there was only one thing he needed to know for his Shakespeare class: the sonnets aren’t personal. What a wonderful thing that high school students can KNOW this information! I did not try to counter the programming his teacher had downloaded.

Despite the supposed “danger” of interpreting sonnets like Sonnet 87 as anything other than mysterious poems, many scholars on both “sides” of “Who was Shakespeare?” have over many years regarded Sonnet 107 as a clear celebration by Shakespeare of Southampton’s release upon the Queen’s death and simultaneously a celebration of the peaceful ascension of James. Reading it that way, for whatever it is worth, strengthen the emotive power of the sonnet considerably which is probably why so many mainstreamers are willing to consider this particular sonnet to be “real.”

Mainstreamers sometimes treat this sonnet as some kind of exception. This one we understand. The others we don’t. So we’re done. But is that really the safest route? What if that’s not right? Should we really ignore the possibility that the sonnets offer us a glimpse into Shakespeare as a person?

Rebels don’t claim to understand every sonnet but simply say it might be worthwhile to treat the sonnets in a unified way, as what they appear to be, private poems written in the first person from Shakespeare to the Earl of Southampton. Why not at least consider this interpretation especially since it could answer questions mysterious to historians but possibly not mysterious to Shakespeare.

Sonnet 107 seems to starkly chronicle history: “sad augurs” of a feared civil war did not come to pass; Elizabeth, called the Moon Goddess throughout her reign, had died and would not return; death would “subscribe” (capitulate) to Shakespeare’s pen; the monument of his verse would outlast monuments made of harder stuff. And Southampton, Shakespeare’s sole dedicatee, his “lovely boy,” was not only not dead, now he was free.

Nothing in Shakespeare or really in any poem I’ve ever read is as ebullient as Sonnet 107 though I am no doubt biased in this regard. Still, I think one can safely say this is not a sad sonnet.

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

Can you (assuming you are not an ivy league Shakespeare expert) read this without getting chills or tears or having some reaction? Is this really “just a poem”?

And so, released from the Tower with his head still attached to his body, the still-young earl apparently immortalized in the sonnets walked in real life into the sunshine of his restored earldom under a generous but suspicious monarch. Shakespeare wrote nineteen more sonnets to the subject that would be called by posterity the “fair youth” and most commonly identified, even by mainstreamers, as Southampton.

Shakespeare completed the sequence with Sonnet 126, the envoi, his farewell beginning with the five words, “O thou my lovely boy . . .” and ending with a muse upon existential brevity in a universe ruled by Nature whose debts are always collected.

Quietus est = “it is settled” (lawyer talk).

O thou, my lovely boy . . .
If Nature, sovereign mistress . . .
Yet fear her . . .
Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

The sonnets may be all we’ll ever have to anwer mysteries about Shakespeare.

Suppose the hoped-for letter written in Stratford about Richard II never materializes; suppose what we see is what we get as far as the Stratford businessman is concerned. Suppose the sonnets really are the equivalent of personal letters? Must we ignore this possibility?

The mainstream asks us to do just that not because they love their colorless Cheshire Cat who conducts business deals and then vanishes into a vertiginous expanse; not at all. The mainstream is clearly unhappy with their inability to write a real biography. But they aren’t going to budge. And it’s clear why.

Here’s the problem. If the mainstream woke up one morning and everyone agreed the “I” in the sonnets might be a personal “I” and not a poetic “I,” the mainstream might be faced with their worst nightmare: the need to re-write entire libraries of Shakespeare books. The personal “I” would almost have to be the “I” of the Queen’s playwright. And that’s scary.

If the Queen’s playwright wrote the sonnets and the plays, every play and every sonnet published with annotations would have to be re-annotated to account for this critical new information — all of Shakespeare written from within the Queen’s court!

Shakespeare, whoever he was, wrote a million words or so (not counting revisions). Just the eight words from Sonnet 87 “The Charter of thy worth gives the releasing . . .” could spawn a dozen books.

After Shakespeare scholars and historians dealt with the new information offered by these eight words, a lot of work would remain: eight down and another 999,992 words to go!

FORL — the fear of rewriting libraries — is a powerful thing.

And so the four horsemen cometh. They’ve only been alluded to in the discussion above. Mostly I’ve presented the sensible, intelligent mainstream arguments. And the mainstream might yet be perfectly correct. I haven’t forgotten about the businessman’s fellow shareholders who say they collected his works and gave them to two earls. Their testimony is clear enough. Evidence is evidence. But evidence is not certainty. The fact that the secondary O-ring might hold is not a reason to launch a space shuttle.

I’ve left the desperate arguments or us to review separately as we complete our study of analyze this classic false paradigm.

But before we delve into the muck of insults, nonsense, plausibility seen as certainty, and perfection demanded of anyone daring to be rational, here is the promised convenient list of some of Shakespeare’s major sources followed by another convenient list of all thirty-six plays that eventually appeared in the First Folio followed by yet another convenient list of the five (5) published early versions of Shakespeare plays likely performed in the 1580’s.

The Folio plays are listed in three groups: plays not published at all until they appeared in the Folio (18 + 1 published the year prior); plays significantly updated from their old “quarto” editions and then published in the Folio (8); and quartos published in the Folio with relatively minor changes (9).

Some observers regard 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI as appearing for the first time in the First Folio because the quartos were such a mess as to be hardly recognizable as the eventual First Folio version. If we assume the second and third parts of Henry VI first appeared in 1623, then the three numbers above get amended in that case to 21 never before published, 6 updated, and 9 reprinted. However you look at it, the First Folio is Shakespeare as we know Shakespeare. As far as posterity is concerned, the First Folio is everything.

Performance records, edition dates, presence or absence of a byline, and sources in bold with closely followed sources in italics are included for each play. This list will necessarily be imperfect as I am not a Shakespeare scholar and, even if I were, this kind of list would be open to examination and discussion and nitpicking. But this will give you a good background in the publication history that I wasn’t able to find gathered in one place anywhere.


History and Philosophy:

  • Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) philosophical treatise Castiglione Italy 1528.
  • History text Edward Hall 1548.
  • History text Raphael Holinshed 1577.
  • Biographies Plutarch Greece 1st century AD translated by North Plutarch’s Lives 1579.

Italian Stories:

  • Il Pecorone (The Simpleton) novella “Fiorentino” 14th C.
  • Decameron (Ten Days) stories and adapations Boccaccio 14th C.
  • Giletta di Narbona (Decameron III, 9) story Boccaccio 14th C.
  • I Suppositi play Ariosto 1524.
  • Orlando Furioso epic poem Ariosto 1532.
  • Giulietta e Romeo (Romeo and Juliet) story adapted Da Porto 1531.
  • Hecatommithi (One Hundred Myths) story collection Giovani Battista Giraldi aka Cinthio 1565.
  • Un Capitano Moro (A Moorish Captain) story Cinthio 1565.
  • Epitia (proper name) story Cinthio 1565.
  • Novelle (stories) story collection Bandello 1570.
  • Giulietta e Romeo (Romeo and Juliet) story adapted Bandello 1570.
  • Gl’inganatti (The Deceived Ones) story adapted Bandello 1570.

Other European Stories:

  • Vita Amlethi (The Life of Amleth) folktale Saxo Denmark (In Latin) 13th century.
  • Troilus and Cressida Chaucer 14th century.
  • Tale of Gamelyn in Chaucer. 
  • The Boke Named the Governour Elyot England 1531.
  • Los Siete Libros de la Diana (The Seven Books of the Diana) Montemayor Spain 1559.
  • Histoire Tragiques collection incl. transl. Bandello’s Giulietta e Romeo Boaistuau France 1559.
  • Romeo and Juliet re-re-adapted narrative poem “Ar. Br.” England 1562.
  • Des Cannibales essay Montaigne France 1580.
  • Pandosto novel Greene England 1588 (may have been based on 1580’s Shakespeare).
  • Rosalynde novel Lodge England 1590 (may have been based on 1580’s Shakespeare).


  • The Manaechmi (The Brothers Manaechmus) comic play Plautus Rome 3rd century BC.
  • The Amphitruo (proper name) comic play Plautus
  • Thyestes play Seneca Rome 1st century AD.
  • The Metamorphoses twelve thousand line narrative poem Ovid Rome 1st century AD.
  • Timon the Misanthrope story Lucian Greece 2nd century AD.


Published 1st time in any form 1623 (exc. Othello 1st pub. 1622; King John (early version) pub 1591, 1603, 1622; Taming (early version) pub 1594, 1596, 1607).

  • Macbeth: one possible performance record; no other records; Hall and/or Holinshed.
  • The Tempest: some performance records; Ovid, Montaigne.
  • Julius Caesar: one performance record (diary entry); Plutarch.
  • As You Like It: no performance records; one mention, legal context; Lodge Rosalynde unless Lodge saw As You Like It in the 1580’s, Chaucer, Tale of Gamelyn. 
  • The Comedy of Errors: On Meres’s list 1598; some performance records; Two Plays by Plautus, The Manaechmi and The Amphitruo
  • The Two Gentleman of Verona: On Meres’s list 1598; no records at all ex-Meres; Montemayor, Elyot.
  • All’s Well That Ends Well: no records at all unless it is “Love’s Labors Won” in Meres retitled; BoccaccioGiletta di Narbona. 
  • Othello (second edition): 100+ new lines; some performance records; Cinthio, Il Capitano Moro.
  • Henry VIII: one performance record (letter mentioning play); Hall/Holinshed.
  • 1 Henry VI: one performance record; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Winter’s Tale: one performance record (diary entry); Ovid, Greene Pandosto unless Greene saw The Winter’s Tale in the 1580’s.
  • Twelfth Night: one performance record (diary entry); Bandello Gl’inganatti.
  • Measure for Measure: one performance record; Cinthio Epitia.
  • Timon of Athens: no records at all; Lucian.
  • Cymbeline: one record (diary entry); Hall/Holinshed, Boccaccio, Ovid.
  • Coriolanus: no records at all; Plutarch.
  • Antony and Cleopatra: no performance records; title reg anon 1608; no other records; Plutarch.
  • King John (mature version): no perfomance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Taming of the Shrew (mature version): no performance records; Ariosto and traditional folktales.

Published 1623 with major changes from or additions to original “quarto” editions:

  • 2 Henry VI: pub anon 1594, 1600; org title is The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York . . . TLDR; ~2X longer than messy orig; no records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • 3 Henry VI: pub anon 1595, 1600; orig title is The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York . . . TLDR; ~2X longer than messy orig; no records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Richard II: pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub byline 1598, 1608, 1615; partial deposition scene 1615, full scene 1623; one record; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Richard III (mature version): pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub byline 1598, 1602, 1605, 1612, 1622; 200+ new lines; no performance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Henry V (mature version): pub anon 1600, 1602, 1619; full-length play first pub. 1623; some performance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor: pub byline 1602, 1619; ~2X longer than messy orig; one performance record; no clear sources.
  • Hamlet: pub byline 1603 half of play missing; pub byline 1604, 1611, 1622; multiple editions often combined to create coherent whole; one performance record; SaxoCastiglione.
  • King Lear (mature version): pub byline 1608, 1619; one performance record; multiple editions often combined to create a coherent whole; English legend, Hall/Holinshed.

Published 1623 with minor changes from original “quarto” editions:

  • Titus Andronicus: pub anon 1594; Meres 1598; pub anon 1600, 1611; some performance records; Ovid, Seneca.
  • Romeo and Juliet: pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub anon 1599, 1609, 1622; no records; Da Porto, BandelloBoaistuao, “Ar. Br.” Giulietta e Romeo.
  • 1 Henry IV: pub anon 1598; Meres 1598; pub byline 1599, 1604, 1613, 1622; possible records w/ different titles; Hall, Holinshed.
  • Love’s Labors Lost: pub byline 1598; Meres 1598; first play with byline; accounts of diplomatic visit to France in 1578 somehow obtained by the author.
  • The Merchant of Venice: pub byline 1600, 1619; Meres 1598; Fiorentino, Il Pecorone Giornata Quarta Novella Prima. 
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: pub byline 1600, 1619; Meres 1598; one record; Ovid.
  • Much Ado About Nothing: pub byline 1600; some records; Bandello, Ariosto.
  • 2 Henry IV: pub byline 1600; possible records w/different titles; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Troilus and Cressida: title reg anon 1603; pub byline 1609; no records; Chaucer, Boccaccio.

Early versions published or registered 1590’s NOT published 1623:

  • The Troublesome Reign of King John: pub anon 1591; Meres 1598; pub byline 1603, 1622; the only early version to have the Shakespeare byline; no records.
  • The Taming of A Shrew: pub anon 1594, 1596, 1607; set in an unconvincing Athens; one record.
  • The True Tragedy of Richard III: pub anon 1594; in this version the famous line reads “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!”; no records.
  • The Famous Victories of Henry V: pub anon 1598; amateurish but contains Shakespearean innovations; no records.
  • The True Chronicle History of King Leir: title reg anon 1594; pub anon 1605; Leir spelling occurs sporadically in Lear; no performance records.







Without further ado, here’s the dialog.


STUDENT: You may be right but other evidence is far stronger than the Davies epigrams, so they are secondary for me. What is interesting is that the mainstream’s search for contemporary evidence that the Strat-ford share-holder was the author of Ham-let and Mac-beth leads them straight to Shake-speare and Terence and No-body and Some-body with much adoo and they tout this as evidence in their favor which is an odd thing for them to do.


STUDENT: In my favorite book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, one of the essays written by an expert in the field reproduces the Davies epigram as part of a list of Shakespeare references that he says constitutes “overwhelming” evidence that the businessman wrote the plays. He notes that the Davies epigram is “obscure,” but ignores the fact that none of his other epigrams are the picture of indecipherable, abstruse, enigmatic, arcane, and perplexing.

PROFESSOR: What does the essayist in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt say about the epigrams?

STUDENT: The author of The Case for Shakespeare on page 162 tells us all about the grant:

“By 1586 [the literary earl] was ruined politically and financially. He had been selling off estates to pay his bills for years, dramatically reducing the value of his earldom. If there was to be an [earldom] in generations to come, Elizabeth would have to provide funds to support him. Which she did. She granted [the literary earl] a pension of a thousand pounds a year.”

PROFESSOR: So the bad boy earl got paid for being a bad boy. That’s insane.

PROFESSOR: Ha-ha. No, I’m going to remain aloof and give no opinion until you seal your lawless bloody book of forged rebellion.

STUDENT: Henry IV Part 2, Act IV, Scene 1. Maybe that should be the title of my dissertation. It’s time to draw my sword: SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS as they were called.

PROFESSOR: Ah, yes. I thought we would be talking about the sonnets. But you haven’t told me what the author of Contested Will says about the signatures.

Rebels say the literary earl wrote The Tempest in the early 1600’s as an envoi, a coda, a farewell, a goodbye, a finis, an epilogue as the play is often understood. The literary earl died in 1604 and is for this reason alone a better candidate for “our ever-living poet” than someone who was still alive. If the personal nature of the sonnets written to Southampton together with the 1609 publisher’s dedication don’t make the situation sufficiently clear, one simple fact about the young woman Southampton was supposed to marry to unite two powerful Elizabethan families should, finally, end the discussion.

She was Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter but she was also the literary earl’s eldest daughter.

If that doesn’t wrap things up what would? ask the rebels. Why come up with speculative theories whose justification is necessarily circular as a means to explain away “make thee another self for love of me” and explain away “our ever-living poet” when a simple explanation has been handed to us on a silver platter? Of course the writer of the explosive courtly plays who did not want to reveal himself and who also wrote the marriage sonnets to Southampton was the father of the prospective bride, the Queen’s playwright, a man who was indeed an older peer of Southampton precisely as presented in the sonnets.

Rebels are incredulous about this. Getting Shakespeare wrong because of the First Folio preface given the evidence pointing to the literary earl is, rebels say, like a wide awake adult expert swimmer in good health surrounded by other people drowning in the shallow end of a pool. What gives?

The trap that the mainstream fell into is a classic false paradigm trap — over-reliance on a single piece of evidence.

Yes, the First Folio preface says the businessman was Shakespeare. But it behooves anyone who wishes to discern what is real and what is not to imagine a world without any one piece of evidence in order to avoid this classic trap.

Without the First Folio preface, how many scholars would identify the Stratford businessman as the author based on his name and his acting company affiliation? How many would look at Hamlet — already famous in the 1580’s — and the rest of the evidence and wonder if perhaps the businessman traveled to London and purchased shares in London’s leading acting company simply because the name “William Shakespeare” had become famous?

There is direct evidence offered by people alive at the time that this “late arrival” followed by “opportunistic posturing” is exactly what happened, but, as in the case of the “our ever-living poet” phrase in the Sonnets’ dedication and virtually every other piece of evidence, the commentary made by Londoners is subject to interpretation.

Rebels who have dismissed the First Folio preface claim poetry written by the Queen’s playwright as a teenager prefigures the mature Shakespeare. The argument that two and only two Elizabethan writers were virtuosos with falconry metaphors is either compelling or inconclusive depending which way you are already leaning.

A “haggard” is an untamed hawk or, if you are either the literary earl or Shakespeare or both, a faithless lover:

. . . mark the choice they make and how they change,
How oft from Phoebus they do flee to Pan;
Unsettled still like haggards wild they range,
These gentle birds that fly from man to man.
Who would not scorn and shake them from the fist,
And let them fly, fair fools, which way they list? [The literary earl as a teenager]

If I do prove her haggard,
though her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind
to prey at fortune. [Shakespeare, the mature author of Othello]

Only the Queen’s playwright as a teenager and the mature Shakespeare wrote of haggard hawks as wayward lovers as far as anyone knows. All we really know is that Shakespeare loved to use falconry terms in his plays — many of them, like hoodwinked, are part of the language now. More parallels appear in the appendices.

Finally, there’s a scene in As You Like It that seems; there is broad agreement that it serves obvious no purpose. The play with the scene deleted flows just fine, better actually without the interruption.

And yet the scene has hot emotion that edges close to violence. “Writers” are mentioned in this scene just once. The word “writers” appears six times in the canon, always referring to specific writers or their specific writings; this is the only instance of “writers” in a general sense in any Shakespeare play.

On the other hand, if the Stratford businessman was really strutting around pretending to be Shakespeare, the scene is devastating.

The authorial character — Shakespeare often used characters that, like a Greek chorus, offered commentary and the author’s viewpoint  — TOUCHSTONE confronts a know-nothing fool, WILLIAM, who wanders into the play just for this scene.

WILLIAM does nothing and says almost nothing. He listens to the angry TOUCHSTONE make fun of his lack of education, erudition, and knowledge. He listens to a lecture TOUCHSTONE gives about a classical metaphor in which widsom can be imagined as a liquid: a liquid, Plato says, can be poured from one vessel into another emptying the first vessel and filling the other; wisdom cannot be treated so.

Then comes the scary and completely meaningless Latin lesson about intensive pronouns.

The Latin “intensive pronoun” ipse tells us who the big guy is and can be translated as “he himself” or “the one and only.” We use intensive pronouns all the time: Walt Disney himself cut the ribbon when Disneyland opened; Matt Damon himself appeared at a screening of Good Will Hunting.

TOUCHSTONE, angry enough to kill, rhetorically grabs the intellectually defenseless WILLIAM by the shirt. If acting this scene, the TOUCHSTONE actor would speak inches from WILLIAM’s face.

TOUCHSTONE tells WILLIAM EXACTLY what ipse means in the bitter rivalry that is evidently their relationship. The “writers” who appear here appear nowhere else in the play:

“. . . all your writers do consent that ipse is he.
Now you are not ipse for I am he . . .”

TOUCHSTONE then unleashes an overdone barrage of every possible threat including a promise to KILL WILLIAM in “a hundred and fifty ways.” That’s the end of WILLIAM’s role in the play. He exits and the play returns to the original plotline.

The First Folio preface, on the other hand, says in no uncertain terms it was the businessman from Stratford, the shareholder in London’s leading acting company, who was Shakespeare himself.

If the preface is telling it as it was, it means Shakespeare had a double life as both “a man shrewd in practical affairs” in Stratford and, simultaneously as “the admired poet of love’s languishment” in London. That’s how classic biographer Samuel Schoenbaum put it. In theory, the scene in As You Like It could be interpreted as an illustration of Shakespeare’s two personas dueling with one another but good luck trying to find a mainstream scholar willing to dig himself into that hole!

The scene in As You Like It is much more likely to be ignored by scholars who assume the First Folio preface accurately identified the author. For them, a dolt named WILLIAM being told who is who in a gratuitous scene tells us nothing — we  simply don’t know why the author put it in. Without the preface of course, the scene might well raise more than a few scholarly eyebrows. In fact, without the First Folio preface, it seems unlikely the businessman would be regarded by anyone as the author.

And yet mainstream observers regularly claim that the case for the businessman as author does NOT rely on the First Folio preface!

We can only guess of course whether or not sans preface a mainstreamer might see much of the Shakespeare story — Hamlet from the 1580’s, “our ever-living poet” in 1609, Jonson’s “poet-ape” who fooled no one, haggard hawks as wayward lovers, “you are not ipse for I am he” — by the rebels’ lights.

I believe if there were no preface, the Queen’s playwright would be regarded as the obvious author and someone digging up the fact that someone named “William Shakespeare” owned shares in an acting company and claiming he was the real author would be laughed at — “How could an illiterate businessman have written the plays?”

But we do have the preface and there is no direct contradiction to it in any letter or diary entry. No one scratched out William Shakespeare on their copy of the First Folio and wrote in the name of the literary earl. So the mainstream can continue to hold to the traditional idea that the businessman was also the greatest writer in England, and can continue to argue that “you are not ipse for I am he” is being overinterpreted by partisans of the Queen’s playwright.

The question for us is not so much a matter of “Are the rebels right or wrong?” Rather, the question is, “Is the mainstream claiming certainty when there is none to be had?”

The answer to this second question is unequivocally yes. The reliance on a single piece of evidence is, by itself, sufficient cause for doubt. If the whole theory evaporates without the First Folio preface, that doesn’t mean the theory is wrong but it does mean the theory cannot be considered a certainty or a near-certainty.

If indeed the preface is nonsense that would put “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” right up there with “the Pope doesn’t have sexual partners” as nonsense touted in the sixteenth century that had no connection whatsoever with reality.

If the businessman-author is a hoax like Hunter-Trumbo, the strange scene in As You Like It is historical narrative; Hamlet becomes nakedly autobiographical; the complaint in Sonnet 66 about “art made tongue-tied by authority” drips with real-life bitterness; and Sonnet 81, ringing with the confidence of a genius who writes for the ages who says he knows his words are immortal but laments, “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die,” is telling us outright that “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym.

PROFESSOR: Very good, yes, yes. If the sonnets were commissioned they were written in the voice of SOMEONE ELSE. I’m starting to see how your argument is coming together.

STUDENT: Do you know who Southampton was supposed to marry?

PROFESSOR: The grand-daughter of Lord Burghley.

STUDENT: But do you know who was the father of the bride?

PROFESSOR: Again, I see your point. The father of the bride was the literary earl was it not? That might mean something.

STUDENT: Indeed it might very well mean an awful lot of something. The literary earl hired Lyly and Munday AND it was the eldest daughter of the literary earl who was supposed to marry the subject of Shakespeare’s marriage sonnets in the most important marriage alliance of Elizabethan times. So we have a courtly playwright supported by the Queen writing courtly plays who is connected to all of the people Shakespeare had to have been connected to and he was actually active in the 1580’s but has zeo plays attributed to him even though he was praised to the skies as a playwright and handed an ungodly sum of money year after year.

PROFESSOR: That’s your argument in a nutshell. But don’t you think you are overstating your case if you say the proposed marriage of Southampton into the Burghley family was THE most important marriage alliance of Elizabethan times? Certainly, it was ONE of the most important.

STUDENT: That’s a fair point but I’m not sure I am overstating here. Southampton, as you know, refused the match and joined the Essex faction which tried to control the succession ten years later and failed. Essex and Southampton were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Essex was beheaded a week later, but Southampton’s sentence was commuted and he was released from the Tower after James took the throne. No one knows why Southampton wasn’t also executed.

PROFESSOR: You are suggesting there was something special about Southampton.

STUDENT: Yes, but there’s not enough evidence to determine exactly what was going on. All we know is that everyone, including Shakespeare, made a big fuss about Southampton throughout his life.

PROFESSOR: Okay. I’ve followed you so far. Give me a quick summary of your position based on what you’ve said so far.

STUDENT: I think the plays had been performed regularly since the 1570’s, became so popular in the 1580’s that the Queen created an acting company and set her playwright up for life, and then in the early 1590’s the name “William Shakespeare” finally appeared in print. That’s when the guy from Stratford who was one of half a dozen people with that name in and around London, decided to show up in London, twenty years after the fact, and buy his way into the acting company and prance around with his fortuitous name.

PROFESSOR: That’s all pretty speculative, you must admit.

STUDENT. It is speculation. But if you assume the businessman was Shakespeare, you have to turn him into some sort of absurdly well-connected genius plagiarist commoner who wrote sonnets to a young earl in someone else’s voice and stole work from someone who could have been a younger version of himself but who had turned his back for a moment.

PROFESSOR: It is the case that many commentators have imagined that the writer of the plays ought to be one of the “wolfish earls” as opposed to a commoner just because of the viewpoint in the plays. But that is a subjective judgment. Your plagiarism comment is a good point — there’s no point using euphemisms, if the Stratford theory requires plagiarism then so be it. And I agree that the connection between the literary earl and Southampton is compelling.

STUDENT: And let’s face it, even Shakespeare’s biographers who assume he was the businessman openly wonder how he even had time to write plays given all the business he was transacting. They openly wonder why his business activities are so well documented while his writing activities aren’t documented at all. They express surprise that none of his family members or friends or neighbors ever said a word about him being the greatest writer in England until he was long dead and his fellow shareholders in the acting company finally said, “Oh yes, he was the great Shakespeare, the guy who wrote the plays, and here they all are, you should really buy them.”

PROFESSOR: I see you’ve read Honigmann and Schoenbaum. You seem to find their biographies to be convincing demonstrations that the subject of their biographies was NOT the playwright. If you can make the case that even mainstream biographers have some doubt or at least some incredulity about their subject being Shakespeare the great writer and a businessman, that would certainly strengthen your case.

STUDENT: Yes, I think all the work that has been done so far, including the work of mainstream biographers, indicates that we need a member of the nobility who was active in the 1580’s, who knew Southampton and had an interest in his marriage, and who knew Lyly, Munday, and other writers. That person is not the Stratford businessman, it’s someone else and I think the someone else was the Queen’s playwright. I don’t think the Queen handed him the equivalent of a Nobel Prize every year for his whole life because he was pretty good.

PROFESSOR: Okay, but the literary earl who you call the Queen’s playwright died in the early 1600’s. Are you prepared to discuss the dating of the plays?

STUDENT: More than prepared. I think I can prove that The Tempest, arguably Shakespeare’s last play, was written in the early 1600’s just before the literary earl died. A play being performed in Germany at the time was too similar to The Tempest to be anything but an adaptation and the people putting it on were known to frequently adapt English plays.

PROFESSOR: Well, that’s a big question which you might want to come back to after you’ve earned your doctorate. But you haven’t talked about the First Folio. You’ll have to have an extensive discussion since that is really the source of the focus on the Stratford businessman.

STUDENT: I know. Suddenly in the early 1620’s, the size of the canon more than doubles. Nineteen plays never before published including Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, As You Like It, and All’s Well That Ends Well appear out of nowhere and a massive thirty-six play compilation is published in 1623 with the Earl of Montgomery thanked on the dedication page. I know the First Folio is the main evidence favoring the Stratford businessman but I think just the fact that half the plays hadn’t yet been published and that fact that they all show up at the same time and the fact that the Earl of Montgomery was involved makes the First Folio good evidence in favor of the literary earl.

PROFESSOR: What’s so important about Montgomery?

STUDENT: He was married to the literary earl’s youngest daughter. He and his brother were the dedicatees of the First Folio. They were nobility. They obviously bankrolled the project and they got all the plays together. The fact that the literary earl’s immediate family member — his daughter — was that close to the First Folio is almost a smoking gun in my view.

PROFESSOR: But the preface to the First Folio was quite clear about who the author was and it didn’t say anything about any literary earl.

STUDENT: Ah yes, the First Folio preface — the source of all the problems.

PROFESSOR: Or one might say the primary piece of evidence supporting the Stratford businessman because it clearly identifies him as the author.

STUDENT: Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentleman of Verona, the mature version of The Taming of the Shrew, the mature version of King John, Henry VI part 1, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Henry VIII. Diary entries occasionally mention some of these plays as having been performed though three have no mention at all prior to the First Folio. These and seventeen previously published plays, some with alterations never before seen, were published all at once in the First Folio in 1623.

PROFESSOR: You’ve sketched out a case saying that it may have been the literary earl’s family retaining the manuscripts as opposed to the acting company. Do you have any other thoughts? Any putative smoking guns?

STUDENT: A couple. First, the businessman’s two daughters were known to be illiterate. We are being asked to believe that the man who wrote Beatrice, Cordellia, Rosalind, and Portia, four truly great heroines even by modern standards, didn’t see to it that his daughters could read his works.

PROFESSOR: It’s usually assumed — there’s that word again — that he didn’t have time to teach them or that he didn’t bother because they were country girls and didn’t need to read.

STUDENT: All we really know is that his daughters were illiterate and he didn’t sign important documents himself. Everything else is speculation.

PROFESSOR: Those are indeed the bare facts.

STUDENT: The second smoking gun is Sonnet 81 two lines of which read, “Your name from hence immortal life shall have, though I (once gone) to all the world must die.”

PROFESSOR: I can see where this is going.

STUDENT: The sonnets would outlast brass and stone and so forth and be eternal. The works with the Shakespeare byline were the most famous in England. But what happened? The author complained in the sonnets about “art made tongue-tied by authority” and hinted that “every word doth almost tell my name” and then (once gone) he died to all the world just as Sonnet 81 said. I see only two ways to interpret the author’s only first-person writing: either the author was constrained by politics to use a pseudonym or the sonnets are so uninterpretable that they are gibberish.

PROFESSOR: And you vote for the former.

STUDENT: As did a number of people alive four hundred years ago. After the First Folio was published, with Shakespeare still considered the greatest writer ever and with no plays attributed to the literary earl, some commentators published lists of late great authors including Chaucer, Spenser, Daniel, and the literary earl but they didn’t bother with “Shakespeare.” The canon had just doubled in size but “Shakespeare” might as well have been alphabet salad. The literary earl had no bylines and these early dabblers in comparative literature eventually died without spelling out their opinions about who wrote what so we don’t have anyone saying in any direct way, “the literary earl was Shakespeare.”

PROFESSOR: Even one comment to the effect “the author of Hamlet was the literary earl” would probably bring the Stratford theory crashing down. But no such direct comment exists. Traditional theorists claim that if the literary earl had written Shakespeare, a direct comment would have been made at some point.

STUDENT: I would counter that with the fact that although a lot of people praised the Queen’s playwright — one writer called his home a literary “shrine” — they always carefully avoided anything that would tie him to a specific play. If he were named as the author of even one non-Shakespeare play, that would change my view. But that is not the case. He was, to his contemporaries, a playwright who must not be linked to any play. I think it is obvious that the only Elizabethan playwright to have no plays attributed to him and the only Elizabethan playwright to have no authorized plays published in his lifetime are the same person.

PROFESSOR: Well, even if many people would say your conclusion is not “obvious,” I think it is at least defensible. If you put together a detailed proposal, I will endorse it and I think the rest of the faculty will be willing to accept it even if it is, in some circles, considered controversial to even discuss the question of who wrote the plays.

Mark Twain wrote a book in which he argued the point that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays without having been immersed in the law at a professional level. Mr. Clemens regarded the idea that “Shakespeare” was not a pseudonym as proof that humans as a group are incapable of reason. In 1909, he estimated three centuries at least before humanity corrected this particular blunder.

Also along the lines of “how did he know that?” are the Italian plays with their lovingly detailed settings. It is clear that Shakespeare visited Italy and learned about the waterways connecting sixteenth century Italian city states that at first confused modern scholars until they did some research and discovered the author knew whereof he wrote. He knew a lot about Italian art and artists that was not common knowledge in England at the time. Even today, with the advantages of photography and video and google earth and so forth, scholars have to physically travel to Italy to catch up to Shakespeare. As of the beginning of the 21st century the Duke’s Oak (capitalized) in a Shakespeare play was mysterious to countless editors who sometimes removed the capitalization. This remained the case until a researcher visited Italy and stumbled upon the no-longer-mysteriously-capitalized Duke’s Oak.

Scholars dealing with the Italy “issue” face a stark choice: note that it is possible the businessman went to Italy at some point OR embarrass themselves by claiming that it was possible for someone to write the Italian plays without ever actually going to Italy. If you are a betting person I offer you a good way to make money: find a mainstream researcher, it doesn’t matter how big an expert they are, who says Shakespeare was wrong about this or that Italian detail and bet on Shakespeare. Making such bets with researchers who have in the past questioned an Italian detail in a Shakespeare play would been extremely lucrative. But who knows, maybe someday someone will find an inaccurate Italian detail in Shakespeare play. It hasn’t happened yet to my knowledge but there’s always a first time.

The Stratford businessman may indeed have traveled to Italy and may have read a lot about legal proceedings and may have been politically astute and even politically connected. It would mean a lot if he could write his name and if researchers could find a way for him to write 1580’s Shakespeare (he was sixteen and living in Stratford in 1580). Then maybe I could ignore the fact that he was eulogized while still alive.

Whoever wrote Shakespeare had a number of the following characteristics (most likely he had all of them): he could write his name, he spoke multiple languages, he knew details of the Queen’s court, he had first-hand knowledge of Italy, he had legal training, he was an avid falconer, he was close to Southampton, and he was writing in the 1580’s.

Also of interest is one person writing in Latin who didn’t mention the literary earl but didn’t quite mention Shakespeare either. Instead, the great writer was referred to in Latin as “the celebrated poet whose name comes from shaking and spear” — celebrem poetam qui a quassatione et hasta nomen habet. Two other writers had their names Latinized in the more traditional way: Ioannem Davisium (John Davies) and Ioannem Vicarsium (John Vicars).

To create “from shaking and spear” in Latin, the verb quassare, to shake, becomes the noun quassatio, the act of shaking, which becomes in the “ablative” case quassatione which case implies an origin for which in English we would use a preposition like “from.” No one knows why the great author was referred to in this roundabout way.


Ben Jonson writing a sonnet in the “Shakespearean” abab cdcd efef gg form.

Poor poet ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery [thrift-store clothing] of wit
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it,
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth and credit in the scene
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,
And told of this he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours,
He marks not whose t’was first and after times
May judge it to be his as well as ours,
   Fool! As if half eyes will not know a fleece
   From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.


STUDENT: And how would you Latinize John Vicars?

PROFESSOR: Ioannem Vicarsium obviously.

STUDENT: William Shakespeare?

PROFESSOR: Guilielmus Shaxperium.

STUDENT: Very good. Can you translate “celebrem poetam qui a quassatione et hasta nomen habet?”

PROFESSOR: Ah, that uses the ablative of the noun quassatio, the act of shaking, which comes from the verb quassare, to shake.

STUDENT: You don’t seem rusty to me.

PROFESSOR: I’m just getting lucky. Anyway, it translates as “the celebrated poet who has a name from shaking and spear.” The ablative case implies an origin, hence the insertion of “from” in the translation.

STUDENT: What do you think of that way of naming Shakespeare after the First Folio came out.

PROFESSOR: It’s pretty roundabout, not a straightforward Latinization.

STUDENT: I think it indicates that the writer who Latinized Davies and Vicars normally, knew the “celebrated poet” wasn’t actually named Shakespeare.

Before we get to the dialog I must clarify for the reader that what we have here really is a false paradigm as opposed to an ordinary controversy and so we must make a brief foray into my favorite book of all time, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt. 

On the second page, of the introduction of a book destined for legendary status we meet the first horseman:

“Thoughout this book, we use the term ‘anti-Shakespearian‘ to describe those who propagate any theory which disputes Shakespeare’s authorship and co-authorship of the works attributed to him.”

An essay goes after the “anti-Shakespearians” for being concerned that the businessman was not identified as a writer while he lived:

Anti-Shakespearians often proclaim this fact in self-satisfied triumph, brandishing the phrase ‘in his lifetime’ like a mantra but . . . the evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is overwhelming and to dispute it is to challenge the entire validity of historical research.”

The anti-Shakespearians, we learn in another essay, are bad people:

“In general, anti-Shakespearians’ depictions of sixteenth-century Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwichshire are rooted in distortions, driven by an irrational hatred of William Shakespeare of Stratford and all he represents.”

The second horseman cometh and that right soon.

The literary earl, we learn at the feet of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (did you catch that? BEYOND DOUBT), had a “fickle head.” So said a contemporary. The fickle-headed earl spent his daughters’ inheritances and left their care to their grandfather Lord Burghley marking him as a “classic dead-beat father” with a “self-indulgent lifestyle.” Thus, the irresponsible literary earl was NOT being paid by the Queen to write. Here’s the one sentence proof as presented by an experienced expert at a top university:

“Then, beginning in 1586, in exchange for his good behaviour, [the literary earl] accepted an annuity of 1000 pounds carefully disbursed in quarterly increments.”

It is not impossible but it would be surprising if a historian not associated with this “who was Shakespeare” issue offered even the tiniets shred of evidence for any claim that Queen Elizabeth AND King James could be wrapped around the finger of a “fickle-headed” earl with a penchant for misbehavior and improvident spending.

I believe the suggestion that these two monarchs could be made to pour out gold like a couple of royal volcanoes without two IQ points to rub together would be regarded as laughable outside the context of Shakespeare which seems to make otherwise smart people engage in commentary and analysis that is hard to describe without falling into ad hominem attacks.

But what do you call such an idea as that Queen Elizabeth, regarded as among the canniest monarchs of all time, known for her parsimony, unafraid to use the Tower and the axe to her benefit, would yield a mountain of gold to a bad boy earl and get “good behavior” in return? I want to say the smart people have gone berzerk, barking mad, batshit crazy but that’s just not nice so I will disavow those statements and just call it the desperation of someone defending a false paradigm with the second of the four horsemen — utter nonsense.

It gets worse as it always does with false paradigms.

Gibberish comes next: the five signatures by five different people, we learn, can be analyzed and the handwriting of these five signatures written by five people can be compared to the handwriting on Anthony Munday’s Sir Thomas More (known as Hand D). Thus, the Shakespeare contribution to the play written by the literary earl’s secretary definitely came from a man who couldn’t write his name based on official paleographic analysis.

Yes, really. Here’s the quote.

“From the point of view of Shakespeare study, the most consequential finding is that the hand otherwise known simply as ‘Hand D’ is Shakespeare. The evidence is complex but finally compelling. The most numerous and most expert studies of the handwriting find strong links between Hand D and the few samples of Shakespeare’s writing in legal documents.”



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