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Listen to the Engineers

April 23, 2022


The accelerator was humming along crashing protons at almost the speed of light into graphite and the energy of the collision was creating particles called pions out of thin air which were being directed to my polarized target so that I could pick up the results of the collisions and collect billions of data points and turn those data points into a handful of numbers and then get to call myself “doctor” because I’m such an amazing genius (aka counter of particles that go this way and that).

The amazing genius was tired when the night started and now it was 4 in the morning and the polarized target needed to be “flipped.” Giant electromagnets supercooled with liquid helium were making my target polarized. But now the magnetic coils had to be turned off and then turned back on again with the current switched from clockwise to counterclockwise. Then I could collect more billions of data points with the flipped target.

Even amazing geniuses can be electrocuted so it was important to shut down all the magnets before pulling the wooden handle down disconnecting the power and then pushing the wooden handle further down thereby reconnecting the power but with the current going the other way. So of course I shut down every magnet in the experiment just to be sure and then double-checked that they all read zero and then checked once more because I was bleary-eyed and today was NOT a good day to die.

Then I got my special key-that-ensures-safety and crossed to the other end of the accelerator building where I opened the special gate covering up the wooden handles that switched the high-voltage currents. The keys guaranteed that only I could access my magnets so no poor sap would accidentally grab a wooden handle attached to a “hot” magnet and flip it and get a huge spark (imagine the spark you get when you unplug your toaster while it’s toasting and then multiply by a few thousand and that gives you an idea). The key also meant that I couldn’t access a magnet not in my experiment and fry myself on someone else’s voltage.

So the amazing genius was doing great but when he opened the safety gate he found himself looking at two wooden handles as opposed to the one wooden handle he expected. Fortunately, the magnets were labeled but unforutunately the labels weren’t especially clear as to which magnet they referred to. Oh boy. Obviously the amazing genius needed to find a technician who could tell him which magnet was which so that the correct one could be flipped. But it was late and time was of the essence since collecting the most data in the shortest time is the fastest route to those three letters — give me a P, give me an h, give me D, give me a Ph.D. before I get too old to enjoy it.

You know what’s coming don’t you? You’ve seen this sort of thing before, haven’t you? Oh, yes. Not that you’ve ever done anything like what I was about to do (perish the thought) but you know what’s next because you know what people, especially amazing geniuses, are capable of.

It was time for some amazing not-very-rational rationalization. All of my magnets were definitely off so therefore I could conclude that the second magnet behind the gate that really shouldn’t have been there at all but really did seem to there anyway would have to be off too. The second magnet couldn’t possibly be someone else’s magnet because if it was it wouldn’t be behind MY gate accessible with MY key. So what if I wasn’t sure which was which. The magnet “must be” off.  I was certain and how could I, the soon-to-be-PhD, be wrong?

And even if it somehow wasn’t off, as long as I was careful to only touch the wooden part of the handle, then even if there was a giant “backflow” spark as thousands of volts were instantly reduced to zero (nature in general is not big on sudden changes and usually bites back ferociously when you forget that little fact), I probably wouldn’t die and besides . . . I knew my magnets were off and I knew the key system was foolproof and therefore, for all those good reasons, it wasn’t necessary to go to the trouble of findng a technician.

Technical types like me are very good at making brilliant “arguments.” But really there was no argument. I was looking at something I hadn’t expected and these were high voltage magnets. You don’t grab even wooden handles unless you know exactly what you are grabbing and what it is connected to and how much voltage is on it. The safe voltage is zero volts and the safe magnet is the one that is labeled properly.

You’ve heard of never-never-land right? Well I was in never-EVER-land. I mean what was I thinking? You don’t need a Ph.D. or any expertise or detailed knowledge of magnets and backflow voltages or classes in electricity or really any knowledge at all to know the difference between certainty and guesswork.

What I should have done — get a tech guy — was quite simple. What I did do — wishful thinking — was quite human.

I guessed which magnet was the one I wanted to reverse and pulled the wooden handle. Nothing happened. Aha! I was right. The magnet was off. Next, I pushed the handle down and reconnected the magnet with the current reversed. Again, nothing happened . . . sort of. Nothing happened to the amazing genius but something was wrong with the accelerator. Lights that had been on a moment before were off and lights that were off were now on. The guts of a particle accelerator filled with room-sized concrete blocks slowly disintegraing from the radiation they are absorbing is never a pretty sight but now it looked kind of eerie because there had been a sudden change whose details I could not quite put my finger on.

I looked around wondering if perhaps I had done something that wasn’t completely ideal. Eventually, I saw an annoyed-looking person in the distance. He was as tired as I was and he was slowing walking toward me. “Would you mind putting that switch back the way it was?” He was actually very nice about it and I complied and then reversed the other magnet behind that gate which was the one I needed reversed for my experiment.

I had crashed the main proton beam and stopped everyone’s experiments. Apparently there was some sort of “just-in-case” safety relay on that particular magnet which prevented me from finding out what ten-thousand-volts-to-zero looks like up close. And so we have yet another example to prove the old saw: “it’s better to be lucky than smart.” Only my ego was hurt.

I started to feel a little better the next day when one of the technicians who worked full time at the accelerator pulled me aside and said, “I’m glad you did what you did. I’ve been complaining about that relay for years. For one thing it’s mislabeled. And for another thing, it should have its own gate and its own key. What were they thinking when they set it up that way? Maybe now they’ll listen to me. Not all the relays are low-voltage you know. They all need to be labeled properly and they need to be gated properly goddamnit. But I don’t think they’re going to listen to me unless someone dies.”

So much for feeling better.

I convinced myself that I was analyzing the situation but really I was just fooling myself. I had a preconceived notion and I held to it in the face of uncertainty. Sometimes you just don’t know. But then wishful thinking takes over and you  think you’re so smart and you end up risking your life for no reason.

But surely groups of people don’t behave this way. We would never launch a space shuttle when all of the engineers say it’s a coin toss whether it blows up or not. We would never execute someone on the basis of a faux science no more accurate than tea-leaf reading. Scientists and researchers would never prevent their credentialed colleagues from publishing journal articles exploring new ideas. NASA authorities know enough to listen to their own engineers. Judges don’t want to sentence an innocent person to death. Professors at top universities want to hear about new ideas.

Alas! No. Groups of people pull the lever on the wrong magnet all the time. Everyone knows this. Yet we as a society may not be not aware of the depths of our own self-deception.

This is not to say authorities are always wrong. Usually they’re right. Usually, when they say they are nearly certain of something, they really are. The point of this essay is to explore the following question through case studies: How do we know when authorities, scholars, researchers, and scientists — “the experts” — are overstating their level of certainty? That is, how do we know when the experts are the victims of a self-inflicted wound: a false paradigm.

I’m an authority on Einstein’s theory of special relativity — a theory which may someday be superceded but has been tested extensively and has proved extremely useful and practical. Sure, someday some creature that may not look at all human will fold space or jump into hyperspace or something like that and get around the speed limit of the universe. But someday is not today. Today, relativity is what we’ve got. No ordinary ship is going to go faster than light no matter how big you make the engine.

So when some scientists said they were seeing neutrinos in their particle accelerator traveling faster than the speed of light, I scoffed as an arrogant expert might scoff. But I scoffed with reason. “It’s probably a loose wire,” I told my wife. I have shed not-so-manly tears at accelerator labs hunting down loose wires so I know whereof I speak. And this time, the expert was right. Not only were the neutrinos not superluminal, it was in fact a loose wire that got them.

So no, I don’t claim we should carelessly toss aside the opinions of experts (especially not my opinions!). But we have to realize what we’re dealing with before we decide whether or not to trust the experts on this or that issue. Let’s start with Thomas Kuhn who wrote what I think of as the prequel to this essay — the famous essay called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in which he talked about “paradigms” and “paradigm shifts.”

Kuhn had a very clear idea about the limitations of experts. Here’s how he described most research in pretty much any field:

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

In other words, you and your fellow professionals create a comfortable paradigm and then try to fit everything into it.

Kuhn tells us that scientists and researchers typically don’t even try to make 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.

Kuhn is aware of the limitations imposed when experts commit to what he often calls a “rigid” paradigm but is also aware that the paradigm, for all its rigidity, is a model of efficiency.

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 [rigid] paradigm.”

Kuhn summarizes the good news and the bad news. The good news is you don’t want your researchers riding off in every direction at once and paradigms make sure everyone stays on task. The bad news is “mopping up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers.”

Get more decimal places and don’t be too creative. That’s the message scientists (and other scholars) get and it works well enough, Kuhn says even if sometimes it is necessary to wait for old scientists to die before progress can be made.

So Kuhn did consider the resistance to paradigm shift as a negative but perhaps unavoidable side effect of how science is done. His discussion of paradigms, by the way, was not meant to imply that truth is relative or that all science will eventually turn out to be wrong. He simply meant that the way we see things now is merely the best we can do at the moment and will naturally seem quaint, outdated, and/or simplistic in the future (and especially in the distant future) as our knowledge of ourselves, our world, and the universe continues to grow. \

I appreciate Kuhn’s work of course, but his sunny analysis left open some interesting and, I think, important discussion vis a vis paradigms.

Kuhn did not, in his essay, discuss the looming presence of false paradigms. A false paradigm, like a Kuhnian paradigm, is rigid, controlling, and hard to dislodge. A false paradigm, like a Kuhnian paradigm, is a generally accepted “box” into which reality is pressed. But false paradigms, unlike Kuhnian paradigms are NOT useful. A false paradigm does NOT produce wondrous efficiency. A false paradigm is not the best that can be done at the time. False paradigms impede progress. Sometimes they kill.

Kuhn focused on fundamental scientific knowledge like “the world is made of atoms” and, with that focus, his optimistic take on the effect of “restrictions, born from confidence in a paradigm” makes perfect sense. However, if we step back a bit and look at what happens when the experts’ “confidence in a paradigm” is actually arrogant blindness, if we examine the creation and maintenance of false paradigms, the darker side Kuhn didn’t wish to take on emerges.

In this essay, we will consider ten false paradigms. Six of these false paradigms have been resolved. In five of the six cases, experts and authorities ignored reality in favor of a preconceived notion with disastrous results. In one of the resolved cases, authorities knew what the reality was but used the fact that people can be easily fooled to convince millions of people that, for all intents and purposes, a woman with a carrot placed over her nose was a witch (it was a real life Monty Python skit). All six of these false paradigms had a body count. That is, they were life and death decisions.

The four unresolved paradigms we will discuss are not matters of life and death. And that’s a good thing because in those cases, the experts and authorities are exhibiting truly grotesque overconfidence. They are absolutely certain they are right and yet it is quite possible the conventional wisdom in all four cases is doing nothing but impeding progress. In all four cases, credentialed experts are challenging the status quo with well-reasoned arguments. In all four cases, the well-reasoned arguments of credentialed experts are met with what I call the four horsemen of the preconceived notion: insults and zingers; plausible scenarios presented as fact; utter nonsense tossed out just to slow things down; and an absurd demand for perfection in any evidence that contradicts the preconceived notion.

The “four horsemen” appear again and again and are actually quite helpful in identifying a false paradigm.

  • Anyone challenging the preconceived notion is “silly.”
  • The old theory has always been thought to be correct and still could be correct and therefore by the kind of logic only authorities can wield, we conclude that the old theory is certainly correct.
  • If that doesn’t shut you up how about some inane nonsense for you to beat back and when you’re done doing that we’ve got a million more rotting bits of nonsense to throw at you.
  • And finally, you’ll need audio and video to back up your argument plus testimony from a thousand eyewitnesses and don’t whine to me that you’re studying the beginning of the universe — we need absolute PROOF of any unusual theory which is any theory that isn’t the standard theory.

To get us started, here is a sort of zeroth example from physics, specifically big bang cosmology aka the study of the beginning of the universe. A number of physicists independently propose what Kuhn would call a “major novelty.” Their colleagues predicatbly bring out the four horsemen. It takes ten years but the four horsemen are finally defeated and the major novelty becomes part of normal physics. This was not an example of a Kuhnian paradigm shift because there never was anything resembling what Kuhn would call a paradigm; instead, cosmologists were clinging to a classic false paradigm, a mindless exercise in “we’re right you’re wrong” that yielded zero benefits.

The big bang was about fourteen billion years ago as near as we can tell. Cosmologists have finally gotten some clarity on this number of billions of years and there’s no reason at this time to suspect they have it wrong though this of course possible. So fourteenish billion years ago the universe began with “big bang” accompanied supposedly, by a surging expansion of time and space called “inflation.” It is this amazing “inflation” that explains why the universe is so uniform now. The rapid expansion period smoothed things out way back when.

But some physicists questioned the inflation theory which seemed a bit contrived to them though they couldn’t prove it was wrong. These physicists suggested that maybe the speed of light wasn’t quite the constant physicists usually think of it as, that maybe the speed of light was much faster at the beginning of the universe than it is now and maybe that smoothed out the universe and then maybe the speed of light settled down to its present value. If the speed of light can really change and if this could be proven we might get insight into how the physical constants were set to their current values and oh my god that would be crazy important. These badass physics rebels, credentialed experts all, named their idea VSL for variable speed of light and turned it into a detailed theory.

Of course, the four horsemen entered stage left.

  • It was promptly declared that VSL really stood for “very silly” and, in an official correspondence, the idea and its orginators were lumped into the “unprofessional” category and it was quite surprising that the out-of-the-box thinkers weren’t said to have “cooties” but we must remember these are professional scientists, not children.
  • The speed of light was declared to be constant forever and always all the way back to the big bang even though there is no evidence for this.
  • VSL theory had a problem, one person said, because the speed of light is always variable because what if a foot were 11 inches, then suddenly the speed of light would be faster and my gosh if you are able to choose arbitrary units then you can get anything you want for the speed of light so you had better explain that before you publish your paper.
  • The editor of one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world declared that unless the VSL theorists had absolute proof of what had happened fourteen billion years ago and unless they could prove that no other theory was possible, they couldn’t publish in this particular precious journal.

All four horsemen of VSL are documented in Faster Than the Speed of Light written by the stubborn physicist whose efforts caused VSL to be delayed only ten years as opposed to a couple of centuries. The author, whom I revere as among the most stubborn physicists ever to walk the earth, discusses at some length with what I regard as entirely appropriate profanity his battle with physicists who strongly feel that thinking outside the box is dangerous and sinful and all manner of terrible, scary things. Dr. Stubborn also gives in his book a pretty accessible tutorial on cosmology and relativity.

Now third horseman noted above was not strictly speaking one hundred percent nonsense. A careful discussion of how units are chosen and ultimately reference to a unitless ratio is crucial. In the case of the speed of light for example, how “fast” it is we must technically note is not a matter of a number of meters per second but is a matter of how fast it is relative to other things in the universe. The fact that the speed of light is much faster than you can walk for example which means that when you go out for a walk while your spouse cooks dinner, you don’t return to an angry partner who cooked and ate dinner three days previously and is wondering where you are but your watch only says you were walking for twenty minutes which is something that would happen if the speed of light were a lot slower.

So the third horseman above is more an example of overdone pickiness dumped on a new theory which isn’t really that bad. In fact, Dr. Stubborn even admitted that all the nitpicking had resulted in a better though much longer publication. But, he tells us, it wasn’t just Mr. Nitpicky he had to deal with. At various points durin the arduous publication process he was faced with a professional physicist spouting “gibberish” and “a referee behaving as if he had been bitten by a rabid dog.” I don’t know the details of the nonsense people used to try to derail the new idea but I have little doubt it was as bad as Dr. Stubborn says it was.

Anyway, VSL is now a vibrant subfield of cosmology and it isn’t terrribly hard for credentialed professionals to get their VSL papers published. Inflation is also still considered a viable theory and plenty of inflation papers get published. As far as VSL vs inflation goes, here is the situation: the speed of light may be truly constant or not; the early universe may have undergone a sudden expansion or not. In an amazing turn of events, cosmologists are now willing to admit that they aren’t sure exactly what happened fourteen billion years ago. Their openmindedness may someday be the stuff of legend.

By way of apologizing for the previous outburst of sarcasm, I will say in all seriousness that I believe that with a little experience false paradigms can be identified as easily as a whiskey connoiseur can identify bootleg hootch: one sniff is often enough and if not, a few sips and the hangover the next day will tell you what you need to know. If one reads the commentary produced when the “the only safe place is in a box” people are challenged, the four horsemen seem always evident and indeed in many cases this trembling commentary spouted by frightened experts is more convincing than what the new idea people are saying.

And so now we come to our case studies, ten false paradigms, four of which are ongoing controversies. A word of warning. Not all false paradigms involve esoteric discussions of cosmological theory. Some false paradigms kill.

The Touchstone of Rationality

On a cold day in January 1986, five engineers made a mistake.

The top engineers at Morton Thiokol knew the space shuttle’s systems better than anyone. They knew the o-ring system had never worked as designed. The engineers on the “O-ring Task Force” knew the only way to fix the problem was a complete redesign (this was eventually done) but that would have cost two years of shuttle downtime. So the O-ring Task Force monitored the issue.

Many launches took place with the imperfect system. It wasn’t safe but then no one ever said space flight was like driving to the grocery store. During the launch, two o-rings kept combustible gases from mixing inside the engine. If they were ever to fail simultaneously, the shuttle would explode. One of the o-rings (the primary) had already failed twice but the secondary o-ring had never failed so the shuttle kept flying.

On that cold day in January 1986, five engineers took one look at the historic weather forecast (mid-twenties fahrenheit — unheard-of in south Florida even in January) and knew the mission had to be delayed. O-rings get bricklike at twenty degrees. They told their bosses and the no-launch recommendation was sent to NASA.

A launch above seventy degrees had a problem with an o-ring. Some colder launches in the sixties had no problem at all. But one launch in the low fifties had a full-on failure of the primary o-ring. The secondary held and in that instance and the shuttle launched successfully but that launch really worried the engineers. Below fifty degrees seemed like trouble. The engines were rated down to forty degrees but that seemed too optimistic given the failure at fifty-three degrees. In any case, launching below the freezing point of water would obviously be insane so the decision to delay the launch was easy.

NASA typically delayed launches if there was any issue at all. The engineers were used to having to go over every potential with data to back up all statements and then NASA would say, “But are you absolutely sure it’s safe? Do all engineers on the team concur with your analysis? Let’s go over this again.”

But on that cold January day in 1986, everything was turned upside down. When the engineers made their presentation with all the data and the no-launch recommendation, the NASA administrator produced an argument that the engineers were being over-cautious! Not only that, but the four managers at Morton Thiokol (who outrank the engineers) bought the “argument” (it was just nonsense) of the NASA administrator. The managers at Morton Thiokol “uncancelled” the launch. A few hours later the engines were ignited in the bitter cold as the engineers watched with their palms drenched in sweat.

The discussion with NASA had been a nightmare. The (smart, experienced) NASA administrator talked nonsense and even shouted insults. He (correctly) noted that the engineers didn’t have perfect data about the behavior of the o-rings. The possibility that the secondary o-ring would hold he treated as a certainty. Finally, he used the fact that the engineers had a lot of detail to talk about as a way to make it seem like there was something to discuss when really the whole thing was clear as day from the beginning: no one knew if the o-rings would hold at twenty degrees.

I call these four debating techniques “the four horsemen” — talk nonsense and see if any of it sticks; demand perfection of any evidence you don’t like; create a plausible scenario and turn that scenario in a certainty; use details to obscure the fact that you are wedded to a preconceived notion. The four horsemen regularly run roughshod over rationality as they did on that day in January.

If only the five engineers had known what they were dealing with, they might have framed the discussion in a way that would protect against the four horsemen. “We can’t launch tomorrow. We will be happy to discuss the details but we want to know first and foremost that we all agree that we can’t risk the lives of seven people on wishful thinking. We don’t know if the shuttle can launch safely at these temperatures. Therefore we can’t launch.”

But they didn’t know and their rationality ended up buried beneath a mountain of unearned confidence, false certainty, cynical self-interest, mindless debating tactics, immovable preconceived notions, and stark redefinitions of logic itself.

The dialog below is based on conversations involving five engineers who worked for Morton Thiokol, one NASA administrator, and four Morton Thiokol manager/bosses. It’s completely insane, FAR crazier than anything I could ever make up. It’s all documented in a book written by one of the engineers called “Truth, Lies, and O-Rings” and in televised hearings of the presidential commission still available online.

ENGINEERS: We can’t launch tomorrow. The o-rings get bricklike at these temperatures.

NASA: Temperature has never been an issue before! This is appalling. My God! Do you want us to wait until April?

ENGINEERS: The coldest previous launch was fifty-three degrees and the primary o-ring failed completely. We don’t think it’s safe to go below that temperature.

NASA: But you don’t know that temperature is even the problem! Launches in the sixties had no problems and then there was a launch in the seventies that had a problem so it might not be temperature at all.

ENGINEERS: We don’t have proof but we know the o-rings become less resilient at low temperatures and we know the primary o-ring can fail at any temperature because of the design flaw in the o-ring system and we know the worst failure was at the lowest temperature. We also know the engine isn’t rated below forty degrees so why are we even talking about launching?

NASA: We’re talking about launching because you are making non-quantitative statements about the connection between o-ring failure and temperature. Your data is inconclusive. On top of that, you have an inconsistent recommendation — sometimes you say fifty-three degrees and sometimes you say forty degrees. Non-quantitative, inconclusive, and inconsistent: that’s what you’ve got.

ENGINEERS: Look, if the shuttle explodes, do you really want to talk to an investigating commission about non-quantitative, inconclusive, and inconsistent?

NASA: Yes, I would be happy to do that. And I would simply tell them it isn’t logical to cancel a launch when the engineers can’t decide between fifty-three degrees and forty degrees which you can’t seem to do.

(The commission members in real life looked shocked at the new definition of “logic” they were presented with at the hearings; somehow the NASA guy kept a straight face the whole time.)

ENGINEERS: But if we launch at these temperatures we are basically guaranteeing failure of the primary o-ring and so we will have to rely on the secondary o-ring exclusively.

NASA: Exactly. And the secondary o-ring has never failed. If it does fail and if the shuttle explodes, I will tell the investigating commission that you engineers said the secondary o-ring would work and that’s why we launched. Maybe they’ll blame you.

(The NASA administrator actually did try this at the hearings but Dr. Sally Ride and the other commission members saw right through it.)

ENGINEERS: But we’re saying that if we are going to launch we will be relying on the secondary o-ring. That’s not at all the same as saying we should launch.

NASA: That doesn’t matter. You said what you said and I’m prepared to spin it any way I want should it become necessary. Now I need to know what the big bosses at Morton Thiokol think about all of this. We need your approval to launch and I know you want to make me happy because I get to decide where billions of dollars of government money gets spent.

(The NASA guy never actually said anything overt about billions of dollars; nevertheless, it seemed clear that Morton Thiokol was desperate to please NASA.)

BOSSES: Well, we all have to take off our engineering hats and put on our management hats now, don’t we?

(The “hat statement” is real and was discussed at the hearings.)

ENGINEERS: Look, let us draw you a quick diagram here with the o-rings to show you what happens if they both fail.

BOSSES: No need, we’ve seen all that.

ENGINEERS: But what will you say to a commission if the o-rings fail and the shuttle explodes?

BOSSES: We’ll just say they are being “Monday morning quarterbacks.” Accidents happen.

(Needless to say, I could never have made up the “Monday morning quarterback” comment which was made on live television.)

ENGINEERS: But you’re reversing the usual standard of proof for shuttle missions. Why are you doing that?

BOSSES: We just are. And if we’re ever questioned about it we’ll just say it was an honest mistake.

ENGINEERS: But there are seven human beings on the shuttle. If they could hear this conversation, they would refuse to launch.

(I’m sure the astronauts would have vetoed the launch had they been privy to the conversation but they weren’t and this comment was NOT made during the discussions though it should have been. On a commercial airliner in the U.S., the pilot always has final say when a decision has to be made about the safe or unsafe condition of an aircraft about to fly.)

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

(The engineers refused to follow the instructions of the company lawyers and told the truth in dramatic fashion during a particularly emotional part of the early hearings. Dr. Ride hugged a couple of the engineers after that particular hearing and thanked them for their honesty.)

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

BOSSES: It’s no longer your responsibility.

NASA: Under the circumstances, we’re going to need a signature from someone at Morton Thiokol and a clear recommendation that it is safe to launch.

ENGINEERS: But you’ve never needed this type of documentation before!

NASA: Well, we need it now.

ENGINEERS: We’re not signing anything!

BOSSES: No problem, one of us will sign a document and fax it over to you.

NASA: Great. Everything is going to be fine.

But it wasn’t fine. There was very little wind so the cryogenic gases vented from the liquid oxygen fuel tank settled around the right side of the shuttle cooling the o-rings on that side all the way down to ten degrees. They might actually have held at twenty degrees but the cryogenic gases were the last straw. Chista McAuliffe’s high school students were watching on live television. The shuttle launch seemed successful at first and the engineers with the sweaty palms and the sleepless night breathed huge sighs of relief. But then, a little more than a minute into the launch with the rocket already moving at high speed, the o-rings on the right side of the shuttle gave way.

The explosion destroyed most of the shuttle and sent the cockpit, still intact, arcing into the Atlantic Ocean at 200 mph. Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian in space, and the six professional astronauts were crushed by the impact. They died instantly. Wishful thinking killed them. The four horsemen killed them. Irrationality killed them. A false paradigm killed them.

The shuttle was not safe just because authorities said it was.

The five engineers spent the rest of their lives feeling various levels of guilt that ranged from painful to crippling. Naturally, they couldn’t help asking themselves what more they could have done. They knew it wasn’t safe to launch. They could have thrown things. They could have made threats. They could have called the newspapers. They could have called the president of the United States for that matter (or tried to, anyway).

But short of taking exceptionally strong measures, the engineers did try to protect the shuttle crew — they tried to reason with their colleagues. They just didn’t realize that you can’t stop the four horsemen with facts, data, logic, analysis, or discussion.

After the disaster, the engineers re-designed the o-ring system so that it wouldn’t fail even if half the parts were broken. Now the bosses (who were still angry that their cover-up had failed and were still taking it out on the engineers who told the truth at the hearings) decided to overdo the safety thing. They again were not being rational but at least overdoing safety won’t kill anyone so we can say that for them. Anyway, the bosses now directed the engineers to test the new system under absurdly bad conditions that would never happen in a real launch.

The new o-ring system was tested with almost every part purposely damaged — a test nearly impossible to pass. Amazingly, it worked anyway: the engineers had designed a truly bulletproof system. Too bad the rest of the shuttle was NOT so overdesigned. Even worse, the culture issue that had killed Christa McAuliffe and the others was far from resolved. (I wish to note here that I used to be a teacher so McAuliffe’s death bothers me especially, but I do not mean to imply that her life was more important than the lives of the six professional astronauts who were also killed by irrationality and who also left loved ones behind.)

One design flaw had been fixed, but preventable death still awaited another seven astronauts.

Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate physicist who had been part of the presidential commission had some very harsh things to say in an appendix to the commission’s final report — and his comments, we eventually discovered to our horror, were right on target.

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.

Fantasy. Feynman backed up his rather strong claim with a lot of data and it was hard to argue with him given that he was looking at a vaporized space shuttle and seven dead bodies. Feynman went on to tell the country about “an almost incredible lack of communication between the managers and their working engineers.”

It seemed to most observers who didn’t know what Feynman knew that the problem was just that management, on this occasion, refused to listen to the engineers. But Feynman was saying it was much worse than that.

First of all, NASA had very good reason to suspect that flying in the shuttle even under the best of circumstances was quite dangerous but they studiously ignored their own engineers and the engineers who worked for the companies that built the shuttle’s components. Feynman said it was one thing for professional astronauts to take big risks but quite another thing for NASA administrators to delude themselves into thinking the shuttle was safe enough for a civilian to fly on when it clearly was not and when the engineers repeatedly said it was not.

Feynman regarded the fact that NASA’s “exaggerates of the reliability of its product” as deeply unethical and as an indication of a deep management-engineer divide.

Feynman also decried unrealistic flight schedules that cause undue pressure on everyone. Sloppy decision-making, he said, was virtually guaranteed to result from this kind of pressure.

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

No one listened to Feynman in 1986.

But everything he said was exactly right. As the years went on and as the shuttles kept launching, engineers and bosses at NASA gradually became more and more divided and the hierarchy became even more impenetrable. The decision-making that worried Feynman turned into what almost seemed like a real-life Shakespearean tragedy with big-shots acting like evil despots while all of the “little people” scurried around watching every word they said for fear of being ridiculed, demoted, or fired or all of the above.

By 2003, it was so bad that when the next space shuttle crew died, the engineers couldn’t even say they were ignored! To be ignored, you have to be in a room with a decision-maker. But this never happened! The engineers were effectively locked away from conversations with anyone who had any authority. It was as if they didn’t exist at all.

I know that sounds crazy but here’s what happened. The January 2003 launch was successful. But, during the launch, a piece of insulation broke off from the external tank and struck the shuttle wing. It was okay. The shuttle was safely in orbit just with a possibly damaged wing. The shuttle could launch and go into orbit just fine with a broken wing. The problem was the re-entry into the atmosphere at high speed when the wing would be subjected to huge forces.

It should have been okay. After all, NASA had a “Debris Assessment Team” on the job. Unfortunately, this team of talented, hard-working people had no authority. The Debris Assessment Team, we found out later, seemed to exist just for show.

The engineers on the Debris Assessment Team assumed they were not “just for show” so they did what they thought was their job: they requested air force satellites be redirected so that they could get close enough to take pictures of the space shuttle’s wing. With high-resolution photographs, the engineers reasoned that they would be able to properly assess the damage. As an added layer of protection, the Debris Assessment Team recommended a spacewalk so that the astronauts could get a hands-on look at the wing.

Once they had good information, the Debris Assessment Team and other NASA engineers would determine if the wing was (a) in good enough shape to withstand intense re-entry forces or (b) needed a repair that could be accomplished in space by the astronauts with the tools and materials they had on hand or (c) damaged beyond space-based repair in which case a rescue plan would have to be devised in order to save the astronauts.

In hindsight, we can say it is likely that the wing was damaged beyond repair — the seven astronauts on the Columbia were effectively marooned in space on a shuttle that was safe in orbit but that had zero chance of surviving re-entry. A rescue via a second shuttle would have been difficult because it takes time to prepare a shuttle for launch and there was only so much oxygen on the Columbia. But a rescue was by no means impossible. Of course, no rescue plan was ever put into practice because the Debris Assessment Team might as well have been ghosts, unseen and unheard.

I know, the reality of ghosts is far from certain. But the engineers really were ghosts in every sense of the word that matters. Yes, the engineers on the Debris Assessment Team ordered the satellite redirection and the photographs. But no, the photographs didn’t happen.

What did happen is a hyper-efficient administrator who prided herself on her hyper-efficiency blocked the photos. That is, the satellite pictures the engineers on the Debris Assessment Team had scheduled were summarily “unscheduled” (i.e., CANCELED) without anything approaching an extensive discussion. The administrator who canceled the pictures had no direct contact AT ALL with the Debris Assessment Team.

The ghosts on the Debris Assessment Team didn’t try to frighten anyone: they didn’t throw things or push anyone’s office door open or do anything spooky or extreme. When they found out their request for pictures had been blocked, they assumed the problem of the insulation striking the wing on takeoff and the possibly compromised re-entry were being dealt with by higher level people with higher security clearances who were not telling them what was going on: like the Bruce Willis character in Sixth Sense, they didn’t know they were ghosts.

It was not the case that the engineers didn’t know what was going on. It was the case that nothing was going on: no pictures, no spacewalk, no discussion. There was efficiency. There was box-checking. Re-entry will be safe? Check! Next question . . .

Everyone at NASA was existing in their little boxes, blissfully unaware of anything but their own worlds. 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. The shuttle slowed down in the intense atmospheric forces as it was supposed to. But when the wing tore away from the shuttle, the vehicle disintegrated. There would be no homecoming: all seven astronauts were incinerated.

Richard Feynman had given his warning. He wrote Appendix F to the report of the commission investigating the Challenger disaster. His colleagues on the commission didn’t want to state things quite so strongly as Feynman did but they did include his prescient comments as an appendix and for that we should be grateful. There’s was nothing complicated about what the Nobel laureate said but he said it skillfully and only said it after burying himself in the engineering data and analyses that supported the shuttle missions. He said what we all already know: A hierarchy topped by confident up-and-comers might impress people, but it can’t change reality.

We all understand this in our bone marrow. Someday, maybe, our society will reflect this understanding.

The Big Kahuna (teaser)

We will, soon enough, get to what I think is the most successful bit of propaganda ever produced by the mind of man. I call it the “big kahuna.” But first I want to provide a few more examples of the propaganda phenomenon in which otherwise intelligent people delude themselves and, often, all of us. Indeed, everyone, present company included, can be fooled.

When I was first exposed to the big kahuna I was surprised. I thought I had seen everything: surely it couldn’t be that bad; surely such a large number of intelligent people can’t delude themselves. And yet there it was. In hindsight, the big kahuna is nothing crazy like we never went to the Moon or the holocaust never happened or George Bush planned 9/11 or Hillary Clinton is doing bad things in a pizza place or anything like that though a lot of people (probably most people) do indeed put the big kahuna in the category of claims that can be immediately dismissed. In fact, I was one of those people so I got a little angry when I found out I had been fooled.

People who feel threatened by this particular issue — the propagandists — have expertly played the “we never went to the Moon” game to try to dissuade their professional colleagues from asking embarrassing questions. But these credentialed professionals — the engineers in this story — have made a compelling case that is becoming impossible to ignore and in fact, at this point, has made institutional inroads that signal the end of the propaganda.

The propagandists have tried counter-arguments, but, in so doing, they expose themselves. There is still a remote possibility that the propagandists will turn out to have been right all along and to this thin chance they cling with increasing desperation. It’s a beautiful, textbook case of irrationality with circular reasoning galore, barely plausible guesses presented as certainty, demands that all contrary evidence be perfect, and of course, the assumption that the old theory is so solid that it can’t even be questioned unless the (credentialed professional) questioner comes armed with absolute proof.

The big kahuna is truly beautiful as a textbook case AND it is a famous question that everyone has heard about. So when the bubble finally bursts, when reality finally defeats propaganda, there could be a huge impact. Maybe, just maybe, the explosion of the big kahuna (which will NOT involve anyone dying but may well involve a historically large number of people eating crow) will bring about a rennaissance of openmindedness. Or not. It could take a lot longer than I think. Mark Twain said it would take three hundred years for people to come to their senses. That was a hundred years ago. And yet I’m thinking/hoping we’re almost there. Anything is possible, right?

Childbed Fever, Ulcers, and Vaccines

I do know one thing: 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 would not shun him.

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 enough to wash their hands and they didn’t wear gloves. For a woman in labor, having a Vienna doctor deliver a baby was like tossing three coins: if all three land heads, you die. No wonder so many women were staying home. But women still came to the hospital and the bodies began to pile up.

One day, one of the more concerned doctors noted that a colleague cut his hand during a cadaver dissection and continued with the dissection. That colleague then got sick and the illness looked exactly like childbed fever. He wasn’t a woman in labor. He hadn’t just given birth. But there he was with childbed fever. He died and a lightbulb went off in the head of our concerned doctor.

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: all those women didn’t have to be dying. All we have to do is wash our hands. There must some kind of “cadaverous particles” that are deadly if they get into a person’s bloodstream. He didn’t have a complete theory or a full explanation of what was going on. He had solid evidence but not perfect evidence. His fellow professionals in Vienna (ALL of them) reacted the way we humans seem to be good at reacting.

“What! You’re saying it’s our fault and you don’t even know exactly what is being transmitted from the cadavers to the women? How dare you accuse our illustrious profession of being dirty! We are not dirty. Childbirth is known to be dangerous. Where’s your proof?”

The familiar ring to these stories haunts me like the furies of Greek mythology.

The doctor was of course hounded out of his job and basically run out of town. 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. But he was right. He was the engineer. He didn’t care about status. He cared about his patients.

It happened again a century later. 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 even though the evidence wasn’t terribly strong and a whole useless treatment regimen focusing on stomach acid was developed. This went on for decades even though some doctors were having success treating ulcers with antibiotics.

When a doctor in Australia finally cultured stomach bacteria in the early 1980’s, he was ignored. He had not only proven that bacteria could survive in the stomach, he had isolated the strain that caused ulcers. He knew how to get rid of this bacteria. He had the cure. No one listened to him. Maybe he was too enthusiastic about it. Maybe you have to be very serious and speak slowly in a deep voice in order to be taken seriously. This doctor didn’t do that.

In desperation, the Australian doctor used the bacteria he had cultured to give himself ulcers. His “stunt” didn’t work: his colleagues accused him of improper behavior and continued to focus on stomach acid. It took the Australian doctor ten years to convince a stubborn world that ulcers could easily be cured by antibiotics. During that time, my great uncle suffered from ulcers that led to the stomach cancer that ultimately killed him and thousands of others like him.

Given the tight grip that irrationality can have on our species, we can applaud the doctors for ONLY taking ten years to accept reality. In 2005, the doctor whose wife discovered him on his knees vomiting in his bathroom and whose wife couldn’t believe her ears when he told her he had infected himself, the doctor who risked his health and scared his wife half to death just to convince his mindless colleagues, the doctor who collided head-on with irrationality won the Nobel Prize.

Personally, I love eccentrics. I love out-of-the-box thinkers, mavericks. If you have an idiosyncratic idea, if you march to a tune the rest of us don’t hear, I want to hear what you have to say. I might not agree right away but so what? Show me I’m wrong. Convince me. I love being wrong.

There is no better learning experience than being wrong, no better way to grow, no greater opening of horizons than what happens for me when I’m wrong. I first realized this in high school. I was learning physics and I was sure that a bullet a fired horizontally in a flat field would stay in the air longer than a bullet dropped simultaneously from the same height. It just didn’t make sense that they would land at the same time. And then, with a little experience, a switch was flipped and I couldn’t even remember why I had previously thought that horizontal motion would somehow keep gravity from making the moving bullet fall as fast as the dropped bullet. I must have been crazy before — a bullet isn’t a frisbee, any fool can see that! How could I have ever seen it any other way?

That’s growth and I loved it and so I became a physicist.

Then again, boring old conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. In fact, no matter how charming wild theories might be to my physicist’s eye, I have to admit that conventional wisdom is usually right. It would be bizarre to claim otherwise. And yet the “conventional wisdom is bound to be wrong” argument can be awfully compelling: it gets made all the time in the investment world to justify amazing new ways to absorb large amounts of money. “Conventional wisdom says it won’t work but people said blah (insert innovation) wouldn’t work and untold riches passed them by; don’t let this happen to you . . .” and so on and so forth.

Yes, one can point to a famous stodgy naysayer for every advance from light bulbs to cars to computers. But we would be rather foolish to take that to mean that every new thing succeeds. Take bitcoin. Is it the answer to national currencies controlled stupid or short-sighted or reactionary or corrupt government officials who again and again leads us headlong over economic cliffs? Some very smart people say that. One professional investor guy said a while back that a single 300-dollar bitcoin would be worth ten thousand dollars in three years and people laughed at him but he missed absolute perfection in his prognostication by just a few weeks. Not bad.

On the other hand, Warren Buffet scoffs at bitcoin no matter how high it goes. He won’t touch it. It has no value he says. Are bitcoin and other crypto-currrencies just ponzi schemes in which people buy in for one reason and one reason only — to sell it to someone willing to pay even more?

Warren Buffett thinks so. He made a lot of money buying stocks priced according to a short-term popularity contest and then holding them for long time knowing full well that in the long run the stock market is more like a scale than a popularity contest: products and services that people want and need and the ability to deliver those products and services is what counts in the end.

Bitcoin, Buffett says, is worthless. Even gold isn’t so great because most of it doesn’t get used — it has to be dug up and then buried again with a guard at the new burial site. Buffett doesn’t buy bitcoin or gold. He buys Apple. He may or may not lack vision, but right now he’s got all the money.

So yeah, the guy who said, “no one needs a computer in his house” was monstrously wrong. But, at the same time, a million other people had attractive ideas that went nowhere. So how do you know which is which? How do we judge bitcoin for example? I don’t know, actually. I’m not going to buy bitcoin but I wouldn’t bet against it either.

Sometimes it’s pretty clear. The space shuttle disaster, many deaths from childbed fever, and many deaths from ulcers could have been avoided with even tiny amounts of rationality, willingness to question authority, and/or humility.

Often we can determine if a question is legitimate by studying both sides. When a “question” is actually pretty one-sided (o-rings, handwashing, stomach bacteria) the counter-arguments are what give the propagandists away: the minute you see circular reasoning, plausibility turned into certainty, demands for perfect evidence, and clever uses of burden-of-proof or even reversals of appropriate burden of proof, you know who you’re dealing with.

Before we look at another piece of obvious propaganda, let’s have a look at a controversial arena in which the conventional wisdom is probably right or maybe mostly right.

When it comes to vaccines, I lean pretty strongly toward the conventional wisdom. But immune systems and immune reactions are really complicated and I don’t think any doctor or scientist would say we know everything about human immunity or all vaccines are always safe for everyone in both the short term and the long term or anything along the lines of absolute certainty. Overall, doctors seem to be right when they say vaccines have been, in general, beneficial.

But some people say we’re overdoing it.

I haven’t looked at the arguments made by some of the more thoughtful people who have doubts about vaccines. Maybe there’s something there. I just don’t know. I mostly trust the conventional wisdom and the majority of doctors and the institutions made up of those doctors. But even if some “anti-vax” studies have falsified data and even if some “anti-vax” people have said ridiculous things about vaccines, that doesn’t mean there is no issue at all. To be fair to the people with the concerns, we would have to look carefully at what the most reasonable ones say.

A long time ago, women in Turkey would use pus from a smallpox infection to innoculate their babies by simply painting the pus on a cut on the baby’s arm. Usually it would make the baby immune to smallpox but sometimes it killed the baby. The women in Turkey were facing a disease that, in just the twentieth century, killed hundreds of millions of people, more than all the wars put together and the virus has been with us basically forever (thousands of years at least). So it’s no wonder Turkish mothers were willing to take a risk to protect their babies from this scourge.

More recently, some people noticed that milkmaids were immune to smallpox. They eventually figured out that the milkmaids all got cowpox at work which protected them from the much nastier human-specific version of the virus. So if you are ever transported back in time a few centuries ago and if you are young enough that you haven’t been vaccinated against smallpox, you now know what you must do: get under a cow and stay there for a while. These days people under fifty haven’t been vaccinated against smallpox because, simply stated, the milkmaids saved us.

Someone observed milkmaids and made a vaccine from cowpox which led to the modern version which I got when I was born but which is no longer necessary because the vaccine allowed humanity to eradicate a deadly strand of presumably mindless RNA. We vanquished our greatest enemy. There is no more smallpox — it’s extinct now except in laboratory freezers.

The last cases of smallpox ran their horrid courses in the 1970’s. Late in that decade someone in a lab made a mistake and some virus escaped to Birmingham, England. The World Health Organization vaccinated hundreds of people and stopped the spread but the person who somehow got it from the laboratory — a photographer who specialized in medical photography and worked in one of the few places researching smallpox — died horribly. The next day, the doctor in charge of the lab where the photographer had been infected killed himself.

There hasn’t been a case since Birmingham but there’s still smallpox virus known to be sitting in the freezers of two labs — one in the U.S. and one in Russia. Experts are divided about whether to (a) destroy the remaining samples or (b) keep studying the virus so that we’re ready in case it ever somehow re-emerges. Both sides make good arguments. What seems inarguable is that we’re better off without smallpox spreading and killing.

So vaccines are pretty valuable in a historical sense. But, as noted above, there’s a battle going on. Do we administer too many vaccines? Are some autoimmune disorders related to vaccination? Are some neurological problems actually caused by vaccines overstimulating our immune system or poisoning us in some other way?

Honestly, I don’t even know if these are good questions to ask. The point here is this: even if the mainstream doctors fully have their act together when it comes to vaccine safety, it’s understandable if some people want to express concern and perhaps ask for more safety studies. Those studies are, we hope, being conducted NOT for the express purpose of proving vaccines safe; they must be conducted for the express purpose of elucidating legitimate concerns.

I find the story of Marie Curie’s lab assistants edifying whether I’m thinking about vaccines, cell phones, food additives, pesticides, air pollution, or any of the countless risks (and they are risks no matter how harmless they may seem) we accept every day.

Marie Curie was sure it wasn’t the radiation in her lab that was killing her lab assistants because Curie herself was exposed to much more radiation than anyone else in the lab and she was fine. She didn’t know why her workers kept dying but she was obviously concerned. Curie, the doctors, and everyone who was looking into the problem thought it couldn’t possibly be the radiation. But they hadn’t learned about all of the effects of radiation and yes, today we know it was the radiation killing the lab assistants. In fact, for most of us, the dangers of radiation is such common knowledge, it feels like common sense now. But Curie had no way of knowing how dangerous radiation was.

Marie Curie happened to have higher than normal resistance to radiation. She may have been naturally (genetically) resistant or perhaps gradual exposure over many years had built up some sort of immunity. Anything is possible — there’s still a lot of unknowns about the effects of radiation on the body. The bottom line is Marie Curie didn’t get sick at first even though her assistants did get sick and did die. Of course, the radiation eventually got to her. She couldn’t have known but perhaps she should have been a little more careful when it came to the unknown.

One purpose of this essay is to answer in the affirmative, “Can people who disagree nevertheless find common ground in their rationality?”

Someday, maybe not in my lifetime, this will happen. There will be places where discussions (NOT debates) can happen and where consensus on some issues and clarification of the remaining areas of disagreement can be achieved. In these not-debates, people won’t just use evidence and twist it to score points for their “side.” Anti-vaxxers and epidemiologists, for example, will talk to each other.

In this fantasy-world of mine, doctors who think long-term Lyme-related disease should be treated with huge doses of antibiotics (the conventional wisdom says this is dangerous and doesn’t work) will NOT need to have their own journals. Sadly, the Lyme controversy has pitted doctor against doctor and has gotten out of control.

To get to my fantasy world, to move away from mindless debate and toward productive discussion, we have to learn how to be openminded and skeptical at the same time.

We can all agree that it’s hard to know where exactly to draw the line when someone comes up with some astounding something. What is reasonable dissent? I am claiming here that in many areas the line needs to be moved a away from skepticism and toward openmindedness and that by looking at history we can, maybe, catch ourselves when we are rejecting something that might possibly be a huge safety issue or the right answer or the cool new thing or the just outcome or whatever wonderful thing that we just can’t stop ourselves from naysaying. If all of the Lyme doctors did this, they wouldn’t need separate journals.

The next example comes from anthropology. It’s absurd. It’s been going on for a hundred years. It’s wildly irrational. Nothing has blown up. No one has died. No one is going to die. But scientists have not lived up to even the mildest expectation of thoughtful embrace of new theories. Note that is the case even when those theories come from their own credentialed colleagues. Worse still, even after being proven embarrassingly wrong in their ideas about human evolution, scientists continue to resist new theories and engage in essentially a popularity contest as if they are kids choosing the King and Queen of the prom.

It’s crazy and crazy instructive too.

Human Evolution and Faux Scientists

Our ancestors stood up and got big brains and used tools with their now-free hands and therefore took over the world, right? Wrong. The anthropologists who study human evolution used to be sure of this “fact.” But we don’t know why our ancestors stood up.

Raymond Dart discovered that millions of years ago, a species of apes totally changed their posture. But they didn’t have big brains or tools. They were still apes. Somehow they were (apparently) able to access a food source unavailable to their tree-dwelling cousins. But, even today, we don’t have a clear idea how this happened, what the new food source was, or even for certain if it had anything to do with food (though it probably did).

A hundred years ago, when Dart discovered that he and his fellow anthropologists were wrong about free hands and tool use and bipedalism and all that, he was studiously ignored by his colleagues for a solid couple of decades because the tool theory just sounded so good to these faux scientists.

I am sorry to be so mean about this, but really, when one of your colleagues discovers something amazing, you are supposed to be happy. If new discoveries upset you, are you really a scientist? I think not. Anyway, eventually the people I’m sorry to call faux scientists eventually accepted that bipedalism in our ancestors appeared long before big brains and tools and was therefore totally mysterious.

There are many possible explanations for bipedalism but to this day we don’t really know how it happened and modern faux scientists have continued to pick which theories get a hearing the way high school students vote for king and queen of the prom. They won’t even consider what is arguably the best theory.

There are many possible theories. Bipedalism might have allowed walking apes with small brains and no fancy tools to travel further or wield sticks better or throw rocks further than the tree-climbing apes. It’s possible one of those ideas will eventually turn out to be right. But there’s a better theory that has been ignored.

Eventually, there were several species of bipedal ape. Only one survived to give rise to us. The rest didn’t make it. But our tool-using big-brained ancestors coexisted for a time with some of the last surviving walking apes. For them, Sasquatch and Bigfoot were quite real. Without tools, bipedalism turned out to be a dead end for primates.

At first though, the new posture must have conferred some sort of advantage. But what advantage? There’s a lot of food up in the trees so giving up the arboreal life could not have been done lightly. Walking is efficient for long distance travel and standing up is good if wielding a club is crucial but again, is that enough to make it worth it to come down from the trees without tools.

It would be nice if a good mystery brought out the best in scientists and if a whole variety of theories were considered until such time as one could be settled on. But instead of considering all theories, the scientists reject any theory that “sounds funny” and only accept theories that seem boring enough to put people to sleep at conferences. I’m not sure it that’s really the criteria being used, but sometimes it seems so. Maybe the tool-use people are still angry about being wrong. Maybe they’re squashing interesting theories hoping against hope that someone will discover a six-million-year-old spear.

Anyway, after Dart’s discovery, another scientist (a guy named Hardy) guessed that maybe our streamlined posture, our smooth skin, and our layer of head-to-toe fat under the skin might all be related. In fact, Hardy went further and suggested that maybe our ancestors developed these three adaptations all at the same time for the same reason. And, Hardy said, maybe we developed these adaptations for the same reason they developed in other mammals.

Imagine that. Human evolution has something in common with the evolution of other animals. Who’d a thunk it? Wouldn’t it be better if human evolution was totally unique in the animal kingdom? Where’s a really, really old spear when you need one?

So Hardy, looking at what happened with other animals, believed the new abilities made possible by these three big adaptations and the new food sources made available to primates with these three adaptations benefitted our ancestors in exactly the same way the adaptations benefitted the other mammals that developed them. Thinking! What a concept!

(Sorry. I just happen to really like Hardy’s theory. That doesn’t mean it’s right but a theory that can point to many examples in the animal kingdom that explains multiple adaptations at once and that also explains a lot of modern human behavior and abilities at least deserved a hearing. Instead, Hardy was ridiculed.)

Maybe you can guess what his theory was. Chimpanzees and gorrillas can’t get fat fingers, fat thighs, fat arms, or fat cheeks because they don’t have the head-to-toe fat layer. They easily outclimb us in trees and also outrun and outmaneuver us over short distances on land. But there’s one place where humans outshine all other primates. This is a place that, tens of millions of years ago, suddenly was teeming with mammals when that had not been the case before.

The path that led to this place had a LOT of traffic on it. Did we, six million years ago, begin down this same well-worn evolutionary path? Did our walk down this path impact our behavior to this very day? Faux scientists don’t like these questions.

In case you think I’m the only one frustrated by the lack of imagination on the part of professional scientists, a very highly regarded philosophy of science professor at Tufts wrote a beautiful if somewhat dense book about evolution. In his book he talks about Hardy’s theory: in the course of his career the professor asked every expert on human evolution he could find why they still rejected Hardy’s idea out of hand. The Tufts professor, after decades of asking this question, finally threw up his hands and wrote in his what might be the best book about evolution you can read (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), “I’ve never had an answer worth repeating.”

And this is a guy who can talk about evolution for so long you will visibly age before he’s finiishes telling you all he knows and he’s saying, literally, that there is ZERO argument for rejecting Hardy’s theory. That’s not the same as saying Hardy was right. He may have been right. Or not. But you can’t limit your the theories you are willing to consider based on whether it seems too far “outside the box” to you. Sometimes “outside the box” is right. Not always, but sometimes. Proms are great. Proms are fun. But science isn’t the prom.

Hardy and Dart were engineers. Dart, we can say for certain, was right though he was ignored for decades despite literally having rock-solid evidence. Hardy may have been right and was ignored even though his theory is probably the best thing we have at the moment. We may someday find out that streamlined posture, subcutaneous fat, and hairlessness evolved at different times (geneticists will eventually find the genes responsible for these differences between humans and the other apes and will be able to use dating techniques to determine when the adaptations happened) in which case we would have to drop Hardy’s theory. On the other hand, if it turns out that the three adaptations appeared in our genome at the same time, then Hardy’s theory would suddenly be a lot more attractive.

Right or wrong, Hardy didn’t simply repeat the party line. He was willing to think. So he gets to be called an engineer. If he’s proven wrong someday, he retains his title. Engineer doesn’t mean “always right,” it just means evidence is held above a popularity contest.

Justice, Legal Murder, and Monty Python

Let’s move on to legal questions. In a few days, the state of Texas is planning to murder Melissa Lucio. If they go through with it, she will be at least the second innocent person accused of killing his/her own child and murdered by the state of Texas with no basis whatsoever. The first was Todd Willingham. Willingham’s house burned down and his three children died. He barely escaped and was unable to save his children. He tried to re-enter the burning building but was tackled by fire fighters who correctly calculated that re-entering the house would not save his children and would just add him to the list of casualties.

In those days (the early 1990’s), something called “arson investigation” was accepted by U.S. courts. Arson investigation sounds reasonable at first but is actually yet another example of faux science. The “arson investigator” thinks he or she can determine by the patterns in the burn marks whether or not a chemical (like gasoline) was used to start the fire. But the arson investigators never subjected their techniques to any kind of rigorous testing. They just convinced everyone that they were experts and could do it and they put a lot of people in jail. 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. The New Yorker had a nice article about him.

Bottom line: a year after he was excecuted, “arson investigation” was banned from U.S. courts because it is no different from tea-leaf reading. Tests (real ones) done on Willingham’s house showed no evidence of any chemical used to start the fire which was clearly an electrical fire. The tests were done before the trial and if the judge had understood anything about science, there would have been no trial. But since even scientists often don’t seem to understand about science, it’s hard to expect a judge to understand. Hopefully Todd Willingham was the last person executed in the U.S. in the 21st century based on Madame Trelawney’s mindless hobby (I apologize if you dear reader do tea-leaf reading for your own interest and amusement; it’s fine with me if you ask your tea leaves for guidance and then follow that guidance just as long as you don’t use the tea leaves to decide that someone should be killed and then proceed to kill that person which I’m sure you would never do).

If Melissa Lucio is executed on Wednesday next week, her death will be due to the use of coercive interrogations in which police spend hours forcing vulnerable people to say, “Okay, okay, I did it, please let me go to the bathroom.” I haven’t studied her case closely but The Innocence Project (an amazing organization) has and they don’t lightly declare people innocent. It seems quite likely that she is, in fact, innocent and that her child fell down the stairs, suffered internal injuries, and died two days later. The interrogation, as it was conducted, is meaningless and without this meaningless “evidence,” she would not have been convicted in a million years if I understand the case properly. It is likely that killing her would be murder and, since this is a democracy, we will all be responsible.

The Amanda Knox/Raffaele Sollecito case has long since been put to rest and is a perfect example of propaganda in action. Two innocent people were put in jail in a trial that rivals Monty Python’s Burn the Witch skit for inanity. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

The Italian police decided the beautiful Knox must have been involved (they had no reason to believe this) and looked at a text to her boss on her cell phone the night of the murder. Knox’s boss owned a bar and told Knox it’s slow, don’t come in. Knox texted back “see you later.” The genius cops, Columbos all, decided this meant Knox and her boss had plans to go to her house so that he could rape her housemate. They told Knox they knew she had been a witness to the rape and murder of her housemate and if she didn’t remember Knox would never see her family again. It took them a few hours but they got Knox to sign a document saying her boss had had sex with Meredith and had then killed her. Of couse, nothing even close to that happened.

The police routinely record everything that happens in every room of the police station including every word Knox said while she was waiting to be interrogated but claim they didn’t record the actual interrogation. They also claim they didn’t coerce Knox or strike her but they themselves admitted coercion and the lack of a recording is suspicious to say the least. They undoubtedly did strike Knox during the interrogation and had to hide the recording to cover this up. It’s also illegal in Italy to interrogate someone when their lawyer isn’t present but the judge allowed the “confession” to the police nonsense theory to be admitted anyway. The police said Knox was trying to trick them by agreeing to their idiotic theory. Four years later, the second judge dismissed this brilliant idea out of hand noting that it is exactly as stupid as it sounds.

Actually, the police theory about the reason Knox signed off on their theory is not what I would call stupid. The police had a predetermined conclusion and were prepared to say anything to support. All of the nonsense can be refuted and debunked but propagandists can make things up faster than people can tear it down. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth ties its shoes” is how the saying goes I think and it is a perfect description of the power of endlessly making things up: “it could have been this and it could have been that and she possibly did this and she acted funny and did this and did this and isn’t that odd and she must be guilty.” Knox and Sollecito spend four years on prison on the basis of literally nothing.

Kercher was killed by a mentally ill burglar who left his DNA inside her body and his handprint in her blood in the room and who fled to Germany. The police didn’t ID him until after Knox had signed off on their little theory. They had Knox and Sollecito locked up and had also arrested her boss who had been serving drinks to a dozen people the whole night. Knox’s boss had to be released because of all the witnesses but Knox and her boyfriend remained on jail on the “they tricked us by confessing” theory. Sollecito told the cops that Knox had left his apartment on Halloween night (the night BEFORE the murder) and they wrote up his testimony but changed Halloween to the next day, got Sollecito to sign off, and used that to put him in jail too. During his incarceration, the cops repeatedly offered to admit the mistake about the dates and release him if he would turn on Knox, but he refused. (Years later, Raffaele visted Amanda in the U.S. and Knox told him he was a hero for remaining in prison when he had a way out.)

Five days before the actual murderer slashed Meredith’s throat, they police had caught him during a break-ins but had let him go for no apparent reason and had not charged him with any crime. It looked bad for them, but they sensationalized their way out of it by pretending that Knox, Sollecito, the murderer, and Kercher had been involved in some sort of sex game, a theory that even the first judge rejected as idiotic.

In fact, Knox was having sex at the time of the murder. She had been living in her new boyfriend’s apartment for the whole week prior to the murder of her housemate. When Meredith arrived in her house and surprised the burglar, Knox was watching Amelie on her Sollecito’s computer, smoking pot, and having sex. A witness who lived in Sollecito’s complex visited both of them in the apartment at the time of the murder. No DNA of Knox or Sollecito was found at the scene of the crime of course and there was basically no way for them to have killed Kercher in the time available. Also, they had no motive, no history of violence, and the perpetrator had been easily caught.

But the police wanted to convict three people not one. So they pulled a big kitchen knife out of Sollecito’s apartment and tested it for DNA, blood, and human residue to try to pin the murder on the two kids. The results were negative, negative, negative. But they then ran the triple negative knife through PCR amplification and got a positive result on their negative sample at an extremely low level which is a classic indication of contaminated equipment (the protocols require that negative samples NOT be amplified but the police lab said it “accidently” did PCR on the negative knife). The PCR machine was contaminated with Kercher’s DNA so both the knife and the clean control tested positive for Kercher’s DNA. The police buried the data from the clean control and the first judge allowed this but the second judge demanded the police release all of the data.

The police simply refused the court order. The defense demanded the control data be released and also demanded that the knife be taken apart and the hilt examined because if the giant kitchen knife was really the murder weapon (it was too big to have caused the wounds on Kercher’s neck) the hilt would have a lot of easily analyszed residue on it. The police refused to release the data from their lab and refused to analyze the hilt of the knife. They obviously knew Knox and Sollecito were both innocent. The judge sent the two kids home and wrote a scathing opinion.

The police, by the way, had also destroyed three hard drives containing photos and videos and Knox and Kercher enjoying each other’s company and claimed it was an accident. They created a fantasy in which the assailants switched knives in the middle of the attack in order to make it possibly that the giant kitchen knife was the murder weapon. They sprayed a pink chemical in Knox’s bathroom and released the “bloody bathroom” picture to the press but did not try to introduce it as evidence. They found Knox’s DNA in footprints in her own house and claimed they were “bloody footprints” even though the samples tested negative for even a single blood cell. The first judge, in his opinion, said the footprints were Meredith’s blood and the testing must have been wrong because he the rest of the case seemed to implicate her so strongly. The second judge simply said this was nonsense.

With Knox back in the U.S. and the rational part of the world able to see the case as a real-life Monty Python skit, Diane Sawyer had the gall to seriously ask Knox, “Did you kill Meredith Kercher?” Knox played along and answered the ridiculous question. I remember her having to restrain herself during the interview when Sawyer asked her about he police theory that she and Sollecito had removed their DNA but left the murderer’s DNA at the crime scene. Knox simply said, “That’s impossible,” but I think “Are you an infant?” would have been a better response.

Actually, Knox should have answered Sawyer’s first question as follows: “No, I did not kill Meredith. Are you a witch, Ms. Sawyer? Did you cast a spell that caused a young man to slash Meredith’s throat and then remove her clothing and then press his hands into her vagina while she bled to death? Oh, does that bother you? Did you think this story is about how nice my breasts look in a tabloid photo? Meredith died, Ms. Sawyer and I am just another victim regardless of how pretty I look in photos. Did you learn in journalism school about covering the real story or are you gunning for a job at a tabloid or are you just plain stuipid?” Maybe then Sawyer would have been too embarrassed to move on to the selective DNA removal.

The most horrible part of the whole story aside from Meredith’s death itself is that Kercher’s family actually fell for the police story about Knox and her unfortunate boyfriend. If I were Meredith’s father, I would be asking the Italian police why they released the murderer after he was arrested five days before, why they tried to pin the crime on Knox’s boss who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and why they turned my daughter’s death into an excuse to create what is now literally the textbook case for misuse of forensic evidence. One of the inventors of modern forensic genetics wrote a book about cases in which faulty (or in the Knox/Sollecito case, faked) DNA evidence did more harm than good: the Knox case was featured prominently and stands out as by far the most egregious amongst the cases discussed by the author. The Kercher family has ignored the science in the case and has never confronted the Italian police who allowed a mentally ill habitual burglar to go on a crime spree and did not charge him even after arresting him at the scene of the crime with items from previous burglaries on his person.

I often wonder how human beings can embrace absurdity so easily. It seems like if a person was that gullible, you could tell them to jump off a thousand-foot cliff “and don’t worry there’s a special updraft that will catch you and float you back up to the edge of the cliff” and they would do it before you could say you were joking. How does Diane Sawyer even cross the street safely. (Actually, she probably knew Knox was innocent before, during, and after the interview but apparently thought the situation required her to be “objective.” There’s nothing wrong with objectivity but sometimes there are not two sides to a story. Turning the sudden end of a young woman’s life by the hand of a disturbed monster wielding a pocket knife into a gigantic farce is just plain wrong.

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.

The Big Kahuna

One might say the Shakespeare story begins with the bible since that was one of the great author’s most important sources. Ovid ran through his works to such an extent that he was thought of by the Elizabethans and a classical Ovidian poet. Perhaps his greatest play, Hamlet, was based on a Scandanavian folktale. Romeo and Juliet can be traced back to Ovid and Dante and a number of Italian writers whose stories of star-crossed lovers and their feuding families were well known all over Europe by the 1500’s.

Well-used plotlines, old stories reimagined, familiar tales told in a new voice, and other “remakes” were standard fare for Elizabethans. This kind of writing was an homage, expected and encouraged, a feature not a bug as we would say today. All Elizabethans writers (though I’m sure someone could find an exception) routinely adapted the word of classical and foreign writers. By doing so, one could show off one’s erudition. And, as far as erudition goes, to say Shakespeare was no slouch would be a gross understatement. He was as erudite as they come, so well-read and so experienced and so knowledgeable that his plays are still blowing minds today. Pick any area of knowledge and understanding from that period — art, music, law, seamanship, Elizabethan politics, the lands and languages of Europe, botany, medicine, falconry — and there are books and/or marveling about Shakespeare’s mastery of this or that subject.

Shakespeare’s printed source material would make for an impressive library, no single library in England at the time had all of it, and Shakespeare made extraordinary use of everything he could get his hands on. Of course working from an foreign or classical source was one thing and a fine thing. Displaying technical knowledge gleaned from books or experience was another perfectly okay thing to do. “Rewriting” (as some modern scholars put it) the recent work of one of your countrymen — now that was something entirely different. Call it what you want. Some scholars call it “borrowing” while others like to say Shakespeare was “an accomplished parasite.” In some cases, this borrowing was “almost verbatim.”

There are several plays of uncertain origin that are so similar in plot, characters, scenes, language, and style that they do seem almost like early versions of Shakespeare plays. One scholar studying the political implications of the history play called King John noted the existence of this “early version,” noted further that the two versions could essentially be regarded as the same play, and assumed that someone else had written the early version even though the Shakespeare byline appeared on two printings of the early version.

The reason scholars regard the two King Johns as effectively the same play is simple: they are the same play. And they were plays no monarch facing multiple threats from abroad could fail to love. Both King Johns are loaded with patriotic fervor. Indeed, four hundred years later during the Blitz as bombs fell on London Shakespeare plays were still being used to stiffen the sinew amongst a populace facing a mortal enemy. Here are examples of speeches from the two King Johns made by the same character in each play calling for unity against the triple threat of France, Spain, and the papacy.

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

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. 

If you like the second somewhat more poetic version better than the first relatively straightforward version, then you agree with Shakespeare who altered the line from the original King John in his rewritten play.

But there’s a bit of a conundrum here. Why would scholars routinely assume that someone else, some unknown playwright, wrote the first King John when Shakespeare’s name is on the title pages of both versions and when the plays are essentially the same play? Why turn Shakespeare into some kind of plagiarist not only with King John but with a number of other “early versions” of Shakespeare as well?

The answer is that the early versions are from the 1580’s or before and are therefore too early to be Shakespeare. The standard theory of how Shakespeare came to us goes like this: a businessman from Stratford arrived in London in the early 1590’s; he was a genius; he used many classical and foreign sources in the usual Elizabethan manner; he also pushed the bounds the permissible becoming a “reviser of genius” in several cases in which he crossed the line between respectful homage and heinous theft, loving allusion and literary laziness, happy adaptation and vile plagiarism.

The Stratford genius-businessman-writer became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company and presumably wrote plays which the acting company presumably took ownership of. This explains why Shakespeare was the only Elizabethan playwright who did not publish any of his plays, a circumstance that caused publishers to bootleg about half the canon with incomplete, messy, clearly unauthorized versions and to leave the other half of the canon entirely unpublished. The Stratford businessman died in 1616 leaving his considerable estate to his two daughters neither of whom was literate with the result that his books, letters, manuscripts, and other trappings of Elizabethan writing have been lost to history. But in 1623, the acting company pulled together all of the plays, handed them over to two earls, and got the famous FIrst Folio published which is the reason we have Julius Ceasar, Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, and many other masterpieces that would otherwise have been lost.

In another school of thought long championed by amateurs but now gaining traction even in some institutional circles, Shakespeare wrote both King Johns, was not a plagiarist, and was active in the 1580’s. For credentialed professionals who champion the minority view, early Shakespeare is not the “insoluble enigma” that seems to terrify traditional Shakespeare scholars and it is a question “of so dark a nature” that it cannot be answered. According to a handful of credentialed radicals, the answer is simple: Shakespeare wrote early Shakespeare.

The “radicals” who are maybe not so radical believe that Shakespeare was a member of the Elizabethan nobility, a “literary earl” who never published a play under his own name but was nevertheless regarded as the leading court playwright and who was frequently listed during his life and after as among the best English playwrights in history. The literary earl was known from childhood as a genius and as an adult received unprecedented monetary support directly from the Queen, an enormous amount of money handed over ever year with nothing overtly expected in return, completely out of character for the Queen. The literary earl was in fact the highest paid member of her government.

According to the radicals, the Stratford businessman arrived twenty years too late to be Shakespeare: the literary earl was putting the finishing touches on his plays and wrapped things up in the early 1600’s with his last play, The Tempest, another play that did not see the light of day until the First Folio was published in 1623. And yet in the First Folio, the preface makes it clear that the Stratford businessman was the author and that he left his complete works with the acting company which was now gifting the plays with no thought of profit for themselves to the two earls to whom the First Folio is dedicated one of whom was married to the literary earl’s youngest daughter.

You can see right away that there is room for a rolicking controversy. Unfortunately, the stakes are so high that the appropriate controversy has been squashed.

If such a thing were true, if the Stratford businessman was actually not even literate, and if such a thing became generally known, whole libraries of books about Shakespeare would have to be rewritten. If the literary earl was Shakespeare, if his life is reflected in the plays, if his point of view is reflected in the speeches, if some of the characters in the plays are speaking with his voice, then every analysis of every Shakespeare play would have to be rewritten — a monumental task.

Monumental and terrifying. The controversy has been going on for a long time with little resolution and with many amateurs saying many silly things. Professionals, either unwilling to think outside the box or unwilling to stare into the pit into which many fine books would have to tossed, have been able to paint those who support the scary side as nuts who flit from alien abduction stories to Shakespeare was an alien to god-knows-what. But those days are over.

In the 1990’s, the professors in the comparative literature department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst had a decision to make. A student who regarded the “Shakespeare was an accomplished parasite” idea as nonsense and who believed the Queen’s playwright (the literary earl) was the only Elizabethan who had any chance at all of being Shakespeare and who regarded the history of the literary earl and the history of the Shakespeare plays as quite obviously linked wanted to write his dissertation about the connection between the literary earl and the works of Shakespeare.

No institution had ever granted any such Ph.D. for any such “crazy” idea.

But the professors approved the project and the student got his Ph.D. and is now a professor. He has continued his non-traditional work and recently published research establishing the date of The Tempest to around 1600. This is considered a late play, possibly the final play written by the author, it reads as a goodbye, an envoi, an adieu, a coda — I can’t find the right word; I’m no Shakespeare, but if The Tempest was really written around the turn of the century and if it really was Shakespeare’s last play, that leaves roughly 1590-1600 for the Stratford businessman to somehow write the complete works and not even the most credulous biographer would be willing to try to explain that! Even with the 1590-1610 dates usually assumed, biographers marvel how the full time Stratford businessman — his business activities are well documented — “managed to find time to go on writing plays.”

Though no one has yet proven that the literary earl was Shakespeare, things keep getting worse for mainstream professors who bristle at even the suggestion that such a thing might be true. It was bad enough that UMass Amherst granted the Ph.D. but now, knowing full well that this student-now-professor was endeavoring to hammer nails into the coffin of the traditional theory, no less than Oxford University Press itself  praised the work on The Tempest.

It is still that case that doubters of the traditional theory, even if they are credentialed professionals, cannot publish their research in mainstream journals and must independently publish or publish in “off-broadway” journals that have been created for the express purpose of an open discussion of the third rail of comparative literature. So we’re still badly lost in “false paradigm land.” In fact, one professor at an ivy league university bragged in print about the “wall” that exists to block credentialed professionals from discussing the question in mainstream journals.

The great wall of “we are absolutely sure we’re right” seems to be crumbling. This doesn’t mean the traditional professors will be ultimately proved wrong — it’s impossible to know until there is a full discussion in the journals with the editors of the journals acting as impartial referees as they are supposed to and with students asking proving questions as they are supposed to. Here I will put a little more flesh on the skeleton of this issue and readers may judge for themselves. But no matter what probabilities for being correct you ultimate ascribe to each “side,” I don’t think any rational person would conclude that the Stratford businessman was certainly Shakespeare. This is a classic false paradigm: the majority of experts claim near-certainty but they have nothing even close to certainty. Their claim of certainty is as insane as the NASA’s claim that the Challenger could launch safely.

The story begins in 1562 when Romeo and Juliet first appears under a byline not Shakespeare’s and not belonging to any known poet at all. This early work had a slightly different title but it was, nevertheless, an early version of the Romeo and Juliet that eventually became the great play we all know and love. As published in the 1590’s, it was too similar to the 1560’s play to be called a source the way Ovid or Castiglione or a folktale could be called a source. Shakespeare’s play was rewritten form of this play with the plot and even many lines taken essentially as is.

In both plays Romeo and Juliet locked eyes and fell hopelessly in love and their fall was narrated thus:

Through them he swalloweth down love’s sweet empoison’d bait. 

Or, from Juliet’s point of view, we have this line:

And she steal love’s sweet bait from fearful hooks. 

It doesn’t matter which line goes in which play. Take your pick. No one on either side of a Shakespeare debate (a typically useless exercise in zingers and assumptions) believes the great author did not have the original version at his side when he wrote the more mature version. Some say he plagiarized it (mainstream scholars call Shakespeare “an accomplished parasite” or use similar phrases that diplomatically avoid that other p-word) while others say he was rewriting his own work.

In the 1570’s, more plays come out largely to entertain the queen. These plays have titles that sound like Shakespeare plays. There is “The HIstory of Error” for instance that became popular and may or may not have been an early version of “A Comedy of Errors.” Other plays name characters that are in Shakespeare plays that eventually had different titles. You can call a play “Two Gentlemen of Verona” or you can call it by the names of the two gentlemen. Since Elizabethan played fast and loose with titles, there’s no way to know in these cases. A classic example of title swapping may (or may not) be “Love’s Labors Won” which was mentioned but never performed or published and is assumed lost but might also be “All’s Well That Ends Well” which was never mentioned and never performed and not published until anyone who might have been Shakespeare was long dead.

But the 1580’s get more interesting. Now plays that are clearly Shakespeare plays come out including early versions of King Lear, King John, Richard III, and Henry V. These are all either Shakespeare plays or plays he plagiarized. Again, they aren’t sources because the later definitely Shakespeare plays owe structure, plot, characters, lines, innovation, word choices, and the whole shebang to these early versions. The great UCLA Shakespeare scholar Lily Campbell wrote in 1947 for example that the two version of King John we so similar that they should be regarded as the same play.

There were differences of course. In the first version of Richard III, the title character says, “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse.” In the later version, the same scene plays out but the title character famously says, “A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!” The new version is a massive improvement but there’s no question in anyone’s mind about the similarities. Either Shakespeare rewrote his own early work or he was not only the greatest author since Chaucer, he was the greatest plagiarist since Fidentinus (history’s first plagiarist who stole from someone named Martial who called his rival a plagiarus which means kidnapper — this according to Jonathan Bailey who seems to have made a career out of fighting plagiarism whom I am overjoyed to credit for this information about Fidentinus).

The 1580’s was huge for plays and playwriting and playwrights. The Queen loved plays from early days but now she was beset by threats from the Rome (the pope), from Spain (the dreaded Spanish armada), and from rebels in the north. As Lily Campbell points out in her book on the subject, the history plays were mirrors of contemporary events and were written to put the Tudors in a good light and to push patriotism. Henry V was still put to this purpose four hundred years later in WWII London as the bombs fell and people, to say nothing of government officials, were desperate for patriotic uplift.

Anyway, the Queen went all in. She created the biggest acting company in English history up to that point in the early 1580’s and she used her top national security man to make it happen. This company took plays that had entertained the court and put them on for the general public. The early Shakespeare plays were fantastically popular partly because they were just well put together but also because the plays were loaded with insider quips and were able to make fun of the queen’s court and even gently poke the queen herself! How could they be anything but popular under the circumstances? Whoever wrote the plays was either a commoner with great connections or a member of the nobility.

In 1586, the Queen was still going all in. Now she set up the leading court playwright, a literary earl, with a gigantic yearly stipend that he collected for the rest of his life. This literary earl never published anything under his own name and so historians for a long time regarded him as an interesting figure but nothing more. Known from childhood as an incredible genius who quickly outgrew the finest tutors in England, this wild, spendthrift, brilliant earl loved writing and writers. He supported many of Enland’s leading writers, had many books dedicated to him, and was praised not just for his generosity but also for his acumen and not just for his acumen but for writing plays, plays that were never named.

We don’t know what the stipend was for. It was unprecedented for the Queen to hand money over to any courtier with nothing expected in return. And the literary earl was known largely for being a brilliant, dashing, irresponsible, unpredicatable storyteller, and writer, hedonistic beyond belief while being self-centered and wildly generous at the same time. He loved music, languages, and all things Italian in addition to his literary pursuits. Once, in a fit of generosity reminiscent of the Shakespeare line, “I know a man sold a goodly manor for a song . . .” he handed over an estate to England’s leading composer because he felt like it.

The Queen’s order specifically said her literary earl could spend the money however he wanted: it would be disbursed quarterly. The amount (“gigantic” doesn’t describe it properly) was on the order of money spent for national security purposes and immediately made the spendy earl the highest paid member of the Queen’s government — even her top advisor didn’t earn so much.

Needless to say, the forgotten literary earl, arguably the Queen’s playwright and the first poet laureate in English history who never had a play published under his name, is a candidate for the author of the Shakespeare plays especially if one doubts the conventional story of the businessman from Stratford as the great writer.

As 1590 rolls around, things get interesting. The name “Shakespeare” has yet to appear. And no one has said anything about who was writing the plays. One person in 1589 spoke of Hamlet with its “tragical speeches” and told of “English Seneca” (Seneca was a Roman philosopher-dramatist) who had written Hamlet and would offer you tragical speeches if you “entreat him fair on a frosty morning.” So he apparently knew all about Shakespeare as a person but was unwilling to name him.

Of course anonymity was nothing unusual in those days. Pierce Penniless, Cuthbert Curry-Knave, Martin Mar-Prelate, other pseudonyms, and just plain anonymous were commonly used masks when writing anything that had political overtones or that criticized someone. Someone might write about unpublished Shakespeare sonnets distributed among the author’s “private friends,” or a writer who writes inappropriate things and “hides behind another’s name,” or a nameless, thieving, phony “poet-ape who would be thought our chief,” or a controversial writer in “purple robes” (nobility) who can’t be named, or just a straight out members of the nobility whose names cannot be “made public with the rest” or it could be “English Seneca,” the nameless author of an unpublished play called Hamlet, but it was often not at all clear to whom references were being made and this was by design.

You couldn’t be too careful especially when it came to the nobility. To call Elizabethan politics a hornet’s nest of conspiracies and poisonings and gamesmanship wouldn’t do justice to the winner-take-all system of that time that makes our winner-take-all system look as harmless as a family game of Monopoly.

In 1590, the only thing that was certain was that the Queen was going to die sometime in the next twenty years and she was going to die without a legitimate child. With no clear heir to the throne, a bloody civil war that would set England back decades was a real possibility. But even talking about the succession was illegal. It was more than illegal: it was ill advised unless you didn’t care about having your ears and the tip of your nose and god knows what else cut off.

There were two factions when it came to power in England (actually, there were almost as many factions as there were nobility, but we need to keep things simple): the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton led one faction; Lord Burghley, the Queen’s chief advisor, and his son Robert led the other. No one knew who was going to select the Queen’s successor and there was no public discussion though many believed the Queen had had one or more children that she had hidden with other families but to this day we don’t know if this is true and even if we did know we would have to guess who those children were and without DNA testing we could easily be wrong.

And so the stage was set one might say. Around 1590, Lord Burghley, arguably the most powerful man in England, offered the Earl of Southampton a sweetheart deal, literally: marry my grand-daughter. “Marriage alliance” is the term of art used to describe this particular maneuver. Love was irrelevant. What mattered was power. If the Earl of Southampton accepted this arrangement, Burghley’s grand-daughter was guaranteed to say yes. The young woman’s name was Elizabeth but it wasn’t Elizabeth Bennet. Pride and Prejudice was centuries in the future. No Elizabethan girl was going to disobey Lord Burghley.

Skipping forward a bit I can tell you that the rash young earl said NO to the great Burghley. Ten years later, he and his buddy Essex tried to control the royal succession and went up against Burghley (bad idea). The elder Burghley was dead by this time and his title, his position at the Queen’s side, and his spy network had all fallen to his son Robert. The two earls and their sympathizers had about as much chance of defeating the newest Lord Burghley as a run of shrimp has of avoiding the net of trawler — in a word, none.

Southampton should have taken the sweetheart deal. Instead he watched his supporters die. Even the popular Earl of Essex himself, once a war hero and favorite of the Queen, was beheaded. Essex’s head joined those of several earls the Queen ordered killed during her reign: she was forgiving when it was in her interests to be so but ruthless otherwise. Southampton, sentenced to death, awaited his turn with the axeman. And yet he did not die just then. His sentence was commuted with no reason given and when the Queen died and James ascended, Southampton was released with his earldom restored to him. He was even made a Knight of the Garter, a huge honor then and now though this honor wasn’t anything that would give him any real power.

No one knows what was so special about Southampton that he didn’t join Essex after being convicted of treason but knowing his future makes his association with Shakespeare all the more interesting. It was 1593 when the name “Shakespeare” appeared on a highly polished and beautifully published epic poem — a sexy Ovidian story dedicated to everyone’s favorite young earl — Southampton. Shakespeare wasn’t the byline exactly; instead, it was the printed signature on the dedication letter which was an extraordinarily florid tribute to the youngster even given the time and Southampton’s status.

No plays had yet been published (though many had been written and performed) and now the name “Shakespeare” was famous. The epic poem with the Southampton dedication was an immediate unqualified success. It was followed the next year by another epic poem also dedicated to Southampton and also published beautifully. This was the last Shakespeare publication with authorial cooperation. No other Shakespeare work was dedicated to anyone else and on one dedicated work to Shakespeare either and no publisher could get near the author.

Plays were published starting in the mid 1590’s, at first anonymously and then with sporadic “Shakespeare” bylines. These publications are universally regarded as bootlegs with no author-publisher cooperation. Bootlegs with their missing lines, mixed up scenes, misnamed characters, egregious misprints, etc., are easy for experts to spot and happened occasionally to all Elizabethan authors. Shakespeare is the only Elizabethan playwright whose published plays were all unauthorized.

But it wasn’t just the dedications to Southampton getting the great author involved in 1590’s Elizabethan politics. At this time, the author was also writing sonnets, sonnets years later said to be available to the author’s unknown “private friends” though still unpublished for yet more years. In these sonnets, obviously addressing Southampton, the author referred to the earl as “my lovely boy.” Today, scholars often refer to him as the “fair youth.” Whatever you call him, scholars centuries ago realized that Southampton was the obvious identity of the fair youth.

The first dozen-plus sonnets (out of more than a hundred) ask the young nobleman to marry. These are called, as one would expect, the “marriage sonnets.” The author tells the earl that he and the boy’s mother want him to marry and produce an heir. They insist in fact as it is his duty to his family to procreate. The author holds nothing back: “Make the another self for love of me,” he implores.

As you know, Southampton refused the marriage alliance and ended up in the Tower ten years later waiting to die. The great author had continued writing sonnets to him over the intervening years. They are written in the first person and some of them are hard to understand for anyone who doesn’t know Shakespeare and Southampton personally, but this isn’t surprising for private poetry. Sonnet 107, however, concerns known historical events. When the Queen died and James took the throne, civil was was averted and Southampton was released. This sonnet records these events in flowery but clear language and is sometimes called the “dating sonnet” because the events described are public so the sonnet can be dated. The author is ecstatic that his lovely boy’s life is will not be “forfeit to a confined doom.” It is an ebullient fourteen lines obviously written in the spring of 1603.

It’s a bit strange, obviously, to have the author Shakespeare telling an earl how to live his life and following that life all the way from stupid marriage refusal to imprisonment, death sentence, and release. Whether Shakesepare is the liteary earl or the Stratford businessman, not much if anything is known about the relationship that led to the sonnets. Some mainstream scholars simply regard the sonnets as an “unsolvable riddle” while others guess that perhaps Southampton’s family commissioned them.

Of course, there is another theory that rebellious scholars who favor the literary earl regard as more believable. Elizabeth, Burghley’s grand-daughter, the young woman Southampton was supposed to marry also had a father. And yes, the father of Southampton’s betrothed was indeed the literary earl. If “Shakespeare” was a pen name used by the literary earl then it was he who wrote the original Romeo and JulietThe History of Error, and the early versions of King Lear, King John, Henry V, and Richard III as well as the later versions of these plays. This same earl also write the sonnets imploring Southampton to marry his daughter simply because it would empower his family.

Except for the fact that Southampton was supposed to marry his daughter, we don’t know much about the relationship between the rash young earl and the older literary earl. They were a generation apart. They were both brought up as royal wards because their fathers died young. And that’s about it. There are no surviving letters linking them beyond the marriage alliance thing.

It’s a side issue, but I find it interesting that the Burghley line continues to this day and the modern Lord Burghley regards the alternative theory of Shakespeare to be likely largely because he doesn’t think a commoner had enough inside information to parody his ancestor as Corambis (changed to Polonius in the next edition) in Hamlet. The Burghley motto is cor unum son una which means one heart one way and Corambis means “two-hearted.” The parody if the great man in Hamlet was recognized centuries ago and is vicious even by Shakespearean standards. It is also viciously accurate as the modern Burghley notes and one could argue that parodying the great lord so nastily and so accurately would have been both dangerous and difficult, perhaps out of reach of a commoner like the Stratford businessman.

And yet there was a Shakespeare who showed up in London just as the epic poems and sonnets were being written and published. In Stratford, he had been a businessman, a wheeler-dealer like his father before him (but the son outstripped the father). Arriving in London, he would have had to have plagiarized Romeo and Juliet from the 1560’s publication and he would have had to plagiarize King Lear, King John, Henry V, and Richard III presumably by getting his hands on 1580’s manuscripts as these “early Shakespeare” plays were not yet published.

Also, the Hamlet mentioned in 1589 would have to have been someone else’s Hamlet. This would allow the Shakespeare story to start around 1590 instead of in the 1560’s and this is a hard sell for some scholars though the majority say that other evidence that points to the Stratford businessman is sufficiently strong to justify these assumptions. In any case, there is no doubt that one of the half dozen or so William Shakespeares living in and around London was in London just as the name Shakespeare was becoming famous.

Shakespeare of Stratford was a little mysterious as a playwright but he was definitely a businessman. In fact, his business dealings are so well documented that mainstream scholars like Honigmann, not trying to cast doubt on the traditional story, nevertheless aren’t afraid to wonder how in the world someone doing so much land buying, agriculture investing, house buying and renting, barn buying and renting, grain holding and selling, stone selling, moneylending, horse trading, stable buying, orchard buying, etc., etc., etc., could have had enough time to also write the plays. Honigmann and others marvel at the state of the documentation and simply assume the Stratford businessman-author found the time to be a full time writer and a full time businessman. Plenty of people work hard after all and it helps to be a great genius obviously.

Anyway, Shakespeare’s first record in London is in 1592: he is making a loan. But by the middle of the decade and after that, Shakespeare of Stratford is clearly involved with the theater. This is a big reason that scholars have for a long time regarded him as perfectly believable Shakespeare. His status as a shareholder in London’s leading acting company is documented not only in London but in Stratford as well. In Shakespeare’s will, he leaves money to his daughters, to business associates and to three acting company shareholders. So Shakespeare of Stratford was definitely a theater man, certainly with a business interest and maybe also as a writer though there is nothing specific about his writing plays for the company.

You might lean one way or the other at this point in the story as far as choosing between the literary earl and the Stratford businessman, but there is more to it so hang on.

Some of the evidence generated at the time is a little bit on the useless side in my opinion (at least for non-experts) because looking at the obscure writings of Elizabethans allow a person to interpret things any way they want. But it’s worth looking at some of this just to get the flavor of what the experts spend their time arguing about when, that is, they aren’t busy ignoring one another and publishing in separate journals.

Early on a dying London writer complained about someone he called “Shake-scene.” Specifically it was someone with a lot of money who thought he was “the only Shake-scene in a country” whatever that means. This person was heartless and cruel and took advantage of “rare wits” — poor writers who had brains but no money. He imitated the real writers like an “ape” and beautified himself with their feathers like Aesop’s crow. This is the famous “upstart crow” reference and it also includes an allusion to a line from a Shakesepare play: the bad person, Shake-scene, has a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” just like Shakespeare’s evil Queen Margaret.

Obviously, you can interpret this reference any way you want assuming it is even about Shakespeare at all. There was another rich actor in town who put on Shakespeare’s plays and whom the dying writer yowling about the “upstart crow” was known to hate so it could have been him theoretically. Or it might have been Shakespeare the phony Stratford businessman taking advantage of a name similarity. Or it might have been Shakespeare the brilliant writer breezing in from Stratford with his genius and showing the local hack writers how it’s done. Take your pick or make up another scenario.

Another reference is clearly to Shakespeare the acting company member. In this one, a play put on by students involves a famous actor from London’s leading acting company being portrayed on stage. The actor is characterized as a bumbling fool who loves his fellow actor Shakespeare. The bumbling fool says Shakespeare is nothing like Ovid even though Shakespeare is regarded as an Ovidian poet and everyone in the audience knows this. The bumbling fool says his fellow actor Shakespeare is much better than “that writer Ovid” and is also better than “that writer Metamorphosis.” The audience knows of course that The Metamorphoses are epic poems written by Ovid. The bumbling fool doesn’t even know the difference between a poem and a poet. Ha-ha.

Again, this can mean whatever you want it to mean. Maybe it means anyone who thinks the man named Shakespeare is a writer is an idiot or maybe it just means the students putting on the play regarded Shakespeare’s colleagues as too stupid to know who they were working with.

The final means-whatever-you-want contemporary reference to Shakespeare-the-acting-company-member is a cryptic poem by a guy named Davies. Now this Davies guy was not just referring to Shakespeare’s works or to Shakespear the way you or I would refer to Shakespeare. Davies clearly knew Shakespeare-the-person and was writing about him. The little epigram Davies wrote (Davies was fond of epigrams and wrote a whole book of them) can’t be interpreted at all but the title is quite interesting: it calls Shakespeare “our English Terence.”

Now Terence was a Roman whose name appeared on plays. However, Roger Ascham, one of Queen Elizabeth’s tutors, and Montaigne and others who knew about Cicero’s writings and about the Roman aristorcrats Scipio and Laelius and their writings said this about Terence: he put his name on the work of Scipio and Laelius. In other words, Terence was known to Elizabethans as a front man for aristocratic authors. Is this why Davies called him “our English Terence” or did Davies just mean their writing styles are similar? No one knows.

No one who knew the Stratford businenessman such as his neighbors or friends or family said anything in the 1590’s about their townsman being a writer. One of Shakespeare’s most famous biographers notes this in his book and wonders at the fact that people who lived in Stratford did say things about Shakespeare but only about his business activities — it was as if they didn’t know the guy they sometimes broke bread with was the greatest writer in England in his spare time.

Sometimes people read biographies of Shakespeare that really have no choice but to talk about the mismatch between Shakespeare’s life and works and they start scratching their heads. One biographer even wrote that Shakespeare seemed to fluorish with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself which is a weird thing to say but does seem to be the case if he was really both a businessman and a writer. Anyway, lots of people who wonder who really wrote the plays start their wondering after reading a conventional Shakespeare biography.

Biographers of the other famous Elizabethan writer, Ben Jonson, have it much better than Shakespeare biographers. Here’s one example you can find in any Jonson biography. Jonson’s friend was in his house and borrowed a book. This friend then wrote his own book and wanted to brag about how he knew the great Ben Jonson so he wrote all about how he knows the great writer Ben Jonson personally and he was even in Jonson’s house because that’s how close they are and he got to see Jonson’s fancy library and from that library he borrowed a book loaned to him by, you know, the famous Ben Jonson who only loans precious books to people he trusts don’t you know. And so on.

A couple of hundred books known to have been owned by Jonson are extant today — many have Jonson’s distinctive signature in them.

Nothing like this exists for Shakespeare. There was someone visiting Shakespeare’s house after he died. Shakespeare’s daughter was selling manuscripts (imagine being in J.K. Rowling’s house someday and she’s dead you are being offered manuscripts by her progeny). The visitor was a doctor and Shakespeare’s daughter had been married to a doctor (now deceased) and so the doctor (the one still alive) bought from her the handwritten medical journal of her late husband. Shakespeare’s daughter wasn’t literate and she didn’t know what it was and didn’t really care. She wanted the money. The doctor who bought the book tells this story in print and the medical journal of Shakespeare’s daughter’s husband is now in a museum.

Maybe this doctor guy wasn’t interested in literature and so even though he was in the home of the most famous writer who ever lived and even though his daughter was in a selling mood, all he wanted was the doctor stuff. Or maybe she sold off her father’s writings and his library and his musical instruments and his maps and his art already. This one incident isn’t meant to prove anything; it just gives you a flavor for how the discussion goes.

So we know all about the business activities of the Stratford Shakespeare but all we know about his writing activities, if any, is that he was in London in the 1590’s and owned shares in London’s leading acting company and may have been writing for them. But we don’t have books or manusripts or letters the way we do for Jonson.

It gets worse. We don’t even have a signature for Shakespeare and that’s really unusual. There are five documents with “signatures” in five different handwritings. But these aren’t distinctive signatures which all literate Elizabethan had. Of course it could be due to Shakespeare not having the time or the inclination to sign the documents himself so maybe it was just a logistical thing. That’s the usual explanation given.  It might possibly be just a matter of Shakespeare having a “teeming imagination” that causes him to write his name differently every time. One scholar offers that idea to defend the signatures which even he admits are a bit strange.

And, of course, there are a million other possibilities. But the bottom line is there’s no signature and this is not the case for other Elizabethan writers. There are no books, letters, or manuscripts either and people who lived near him didn’t describe him as a writer and no one dedicated anything to him and he was in London and involved in a high profile way with London’s leading acting company but all the publications except for the epic poems dedicated to Southampton were bootlegs.

Some people who regard the alternative theory as the most viable can’t understand their colleagues. They say the Stratford guy seems to have no even been literate and we’ve got someone who was basically the Queen’s playwright whose daughter was supposed to marry Southampton and you won’t even consider the possibility that the Queen playwright might be the author? Seriously?

If that was the end of the discussion, it would be hard for mainstream scholars to keep up the idea even that the businessman might have been Shakespeare. However, recall that the businessman was identified as Shakespeare by a reliable source after he and the literary earl were both dead. This is posthumous evidence, but it can’t be ignored. Maybe the Stratford businessman was not only literate but the greatest writer in England.

By the late 1590’s the name Shakespeare was finally appearing on bootlegged copies of the plays and publications ranging from horrendous to not-too-bad were coming out. Maybe the businessman was writing these plays but was keeping his distance from the publishers anyway. Maybe he and the acting company thought they were better off and would make more money with minimal publications and maybe they didn’t want to go to the trouble of trying to stop all the bootlegging.

In any case, half the plays weren’t published at all, some weren’t recorded as performed, and some lack even a mention in the historical record until much later.

Around this time, what seems to be Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, was written and wound up performed in Germany around the turn of the century. The dating of this play is controversial of course but, as noted above, Oxford University Press praised work by the guy who got his Ph.D. saying Shakespeare was a pseudonym and this work they praised is the redating The Tempest which used to be placed around 1610 given the Stratford businessman twenty years to write the complete set of plays. But if The Tempest is really the last play and if it was written around 1600, that makes it the timing very tight for the Stratford businessman and could be final nail in the coffin of the traditional theory.

But that’s a lot of ifs. There are many possibilities. Anyway, in 1604, the literary earl died. Experts argue about whether there are any post-1604 references in the plays and you know how that goes. In 1609, the sonnets written to Southampton were finally published. In the publisher’s dedication, the author is referred to as “our ever-living poet” which sounds like a eulogy and actually is a Shakespearean eulogy from Henry VI part 1. If the businessman wrote the sonnets, he wouldn’t have been eulogized in 1609 so “our ever-living poet” would have to mean something else which of course it might. We can’t ask the long-dead publisher.

But the sonnets themselves tell us a lot about their author. He was close to Southampton for one thing. The sonnets also go on and on about how the writing is so great it will last forever. When stone and brass turn to dust the great lines of the greatest writing in history will survive and so on. Shakespeare was evidently not modest.

Shakespeare believed correctly that his subject (Southampton) would thus be immortalized in the sonnets. But he, as the great author, would for some reason be forgotten even though the writing was so good it would live forever and Shakespeare was famous overnight once first epic poem was published. Here’s what the great author said about his fame:

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die. 

What gives? Poetry can always be interpreted but these lines seem clear enough and the meaning doesn’t change if you read the lines in context either.

So the sonnets seem to be a smoking gun that has fired three bullets: first, “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym; second, the real author was someone who cared a lot about Southampton’s marriage; third, the author was dead by 1609.

In 1616, the Stratford businessman died and left his barns, stables, houses, land, cash, silverware, and everything else to his daughters in a detailed three-page will. He listed business associates including members of the acting company. No writers or publishers or books or manuscripts or art or musical instruments or maps or quills or desks or anything remotely literary is mentioned but many wills written by local lawyer-types were pretty dull even when the person who died was not dull so the boring will might not mean anything though it would have been helpful had he listed a writer amongst the businessmen.

Suddenly, in 1623 all the plays showed up in a compilation called the First Folio. The canon was doubled in size at a stroke. The First Folio is why we have Julius Caesar and Macbeth and the mature version of The Taming of the Shrew and A Comedy of Errors and All’s Well That Ends Well and a slew of other plays. The epic poems and the sonnets were left out of the First Folio.

Someone had all these plays. Who? We don’t know really. The preface in the First Folio has some marketing copy written in Ben Jonson’s style. The marketing copy says the plays have been in the hands of the acting company all this time and two members of the company are giving the complete set of plays to Earl of Montgomery and the Earl of Pembroke to whom the First Folio is dedicated. The acting company members want no profit from this, they just want you to buy the First Folio and they want their friend and colleague Shakespeare to be remembered and they are sorry the public has been abused for so long by all the bootlegging but these are the real thing finally.

Lots of people agree that Ben Jonson ghostwrote the letters in the preface to the First Folio and it is clearly marketing copy. But that’s where the agreement ends. The identification in the First Folio of the Stratford businessman as the great author Shakespeare is a clear identification but as with all statements, one can argue about whether to accept it or not.

Most mainstream scholars say we should accept it until there is hard evidence, such as someone at the time directly saying it isn’t true, that it is false. People like the guy who got the Ph.D. doubting the traditional story say it’s reasonable to assume at first that the Stratford businessman was the author but when the documents from his lifetime are examined together with the history of the plays it seems obvious that the Stratford businessman arrived in London decades too late to be Shakespeare and he would be a much better candidate if he could write his name.

That’s almost the end of the reasonable part of the discussion. After the First Folio was published two people published retrospectives of past great writers that implied the First Folio preface had been falsified. One of them listed great writers by name plus another writer who used as his name vibrating lance. The other person listed great writers along with the literary earl (he was the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere) and didn’t mention the greatest of them all, Shakespeare. Various counter arguments are possible of course (maybe the first guy was being cute and the second guy didn’t care for Shakespeare, there’s no accounting for taste as they say). Also, one of the dedicatees of the First Folio, the Earl of Montgomery was married to the youngest daughter of the literary earl. It is possible she had the manuscripts.

In general, acting companies did not retain the lifework of authors who wrote plays that the company performed. Then again, most Elizabethan writers weren’t shareholders in acting companies.

The unreasonable part of the discussion is in some ways the most interesting. How do you avoid talking about an idea you just can’t bear to see questioned? Easy. Just say anyone who disagrees with you is crazy. The rebels are perfectly capable of overstating their case too but the fact is, they are the underdogs here. The mainstream journals don’t allow credentialed professionals to publish ideas about the literary earl or anyone else who might possibly have been in a better position to write Shakespeare.

We find ourselves in the odd position where professors at ivy league colleges tell us that a possibly illiterate businessman absolutely positively was the great writer and serial plagiarist Shakespeare and even if their own colleagues disagree, these colleagues should not be allowed to publish in mainstream journals and they’ll have to create their own journals if they want to have a discussion but we won’t contribute to those journals either even though they are open to the discussion.

The facts of this case could go either way but most definitely do not allow certainty. Actually, the full arguments of mainstream scholars (I’ve only included reasonable ones here) give them away. They are not rational.

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