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Listen to the Engineers

April 23, 2022

Preface

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. Lights that were off before were now on and lights that were on before were now off.

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. He didn’t say much except, “Would you mind putting that switch back the way it was?” 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 cold. 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. You may have heard “It’s better to be lucky than smart,” and I can attest. 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 need to be labeled properly and they need to be gated properly. Even now, I don’t think they’re going to listen to me. Nothing ever happens around here until someone dies.”

So much for feeling better.

I had convinced myself that I was analyzing the situation but really I was just a very smart person fooling himself. I had a preconceived notion — the system is foolproof. I held to my preconceived notion and got lucky. Yes, I’m a fool, but no I’m not so foolish as to think the system really was foolproof simply because one fool on one day lived to tell the tale. No system is foolproof. And if something doesn’t look right, all the rationalization in the world isn’t going to fix it.

I’m just one fool. Surely groups of people don’t behave this way. We would never launch a space shuttle when all of the engineers say heads it launches, tails it blows up. We would never execute a human being in the 21st century on the basis of faux experts effectively reading tea leaves and claiming certainty. And actual experts would never claim near-certainty when their credentialed colleagues not only point out the old theory has never made a correct prediction but also present a new, far superior theory.

But this happens all the time and is happening right now. I’m not talking about big new discoveries overturning previously useful paradigms — the classic Kuhnian paradigm shift that is part and parcel of doing rational science. This essay is about false paradigms. A false paradigm can be a matter wishful thinking, never a good idea. A false paradigm can be a flat out, self-serving, nonsensical lie, always wrong. A false paradigm can also be a perfectly reasonable guess, doubtful from the start, never proven, and then finally replaced by the correct theory but so deeply entrenched that most people hold to the original unproven wild guess for decades or longer.

In this essay, we will study ten false paradigms, six of which are now universally recognized as false paradigms and four of which are still “controversial” but are perfect examples of experts claiming certainty or near-certainty when their own colleagues have pointed out that the old theory is probably wrong. In these four cases, a minority of credentialed professionals make a good case for their side of the story, but it is not these minority arguments that are so convincing. What is convincing is the response of the majority of “experts” who openly abandon evidence-based reasoning and cling bizarrely to an old theory as long as there is even a tiny possibility that this old theory might still be “saved” but still declare absolute certainty sometimes to the point of preventing their colleagues from publishing contrary ideas. It is truly stunning and definitely worth more of a treatment than I can give it here.

Again, we are not talking about Kuhnian paradigms. These are not understandable misunderstandings about a mysterious universe. A false paradigm is utter nonsense. A false paradigm is launching the space shuttle when every engineer says not to, explains why you shouldn’t launch, begs you not to launch, draws you pictures showing you why the shuttle is going to blow up, and refuses to sign any document that says anything about the shuttle being safe. A false paradigm is killing seven astronauts and then chiding the investigating committee for being “Monday morning quarterbacks” (yes, really).

A false paradigm is refusing to abandon a medical procedure that is clearly killing hundreds or thousands of people. A false paradigm is looking the other way when a legal system doesn’t work. A false paradigm is falling in love with ideas about the universe, the solar system, human evolution, and history that were never more than guesses and that have been proven wrong and propping up these ideas with nothing more substantial than a system that worships authority over reality.

For the false paradigms that are still technically controversial, this essay does not attempt to “make the case” for the minority viewpoint. That can only be done by experts publishing in journals with nonpartisan editors acting as referees. These four false paradigms involve scientific disputes in which the minority viewpoint is so far superior to the old theory that only authority-based, pride-based nonsensical “reasoning” can argue that there is more than a tiny chance of “saving” the old theory. It makes no difference whether the minority viewpoint turns out to be right in these cases: what matters is the observation that our intellectual system is mired in a quicksand that far exceeds the resistance to ordinary “paradigm shift” discussed by Kuhn.

Paradigms will always come and go as we humans learn more and more, but false paradigms, I hope to show, are things we can banish forever if we play our cards right. The point of this essay is not to sketch out a solution, however but merely to show that false paradigms are far more common than almost anyone believes and scholars are far more likely to be nakedly political than they are given credit for even by someone who is pretty cynical.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear what this essay is NOT about. I do not claim that experts are usually wrong, just the opposite: experts and authorities are usually right. They have the knowledge and the expertise to be right and, in the absence of a false paradigm, are a linchpin of our quest to make the world a better place.

Of course, any theory based on ordinary paradigms and embraced by experts may someday be superceded in an ordinary paradigm shift, but even though this is bound to happen, it isn’t sensible to call a theory that will someday be set aside “wrong.” Of course, even the most carefully tested theory, a theory which makes enormous numbers of correct predictions is limited.

Relativity is a good example of an extremely powerful theory. I’m an expert on relativity and I know the theory is as “right” as a theory can be even if someday someone figures out how to fold space or jump into hyperspace and even if they someday do something I currently regard as “impossible.” Even if that happens one day (it seems unlikely to happen in my lifetime), that won’t mean there was something “wrong” with relativity — it, like everything else, is a paradigm and therefore subject to paradigm shift. Thus, using the terminology of this essay I would say relativity is based on a paradigm but or even is itself a paradigm but it is not a false paradigm because it actually does work.

One day not too long ago, some scientists said they were seeing neutrinos in their particle accelerator traveling faster than the speed of light. The author of this essay who is a relativity expert of course regarded the superluminal neutrinos as tremendously unlikely, almost not worth considering because relativity says the universe has a speed limit (short of folding space and hyperspace and other speculations).

I know what it’s like in the bowels of a particle accelerator so I said to my wife when she read me the article about the neutrinos, “It’s probably a loose wire.” Working on my experiment, brought up to be a proud American male, a loose wire once reduced me to tears in public so that would be my automatic reaction and I knew the researchers would have looked for loose wires but I also knew how sneaky loose wires could be when one is using high-speed electronics.

Guess what? The not-so-manly expert was right. Again. Not only were the neutrinos traveling at just under the speed of light, as has to be the case for all matter as far as we can tell right now, but it was in fact a loose wire that embarrassed the physicists who thought they might be seeing something dramatic (and dramatically unlikely in my expert view).

Again, relativity will be pushed aside someday (probably for something even crazier) but it is an extremely powerful and well-tested theory, just the opposite of a false paradigm. False paradigms are guesses and wishful thinking bolstered by the well-known bizarre and overly reverent worship of authority that nature built into our firmware treating us no differently from the other members of our primate order.

In case you haven’t read Kuhn’s somewhat turgid treatise on paradigm shifts, I will quote him a bit here to provide context and to help make the difference between Kuhn’s paradigm shift and the present essay’s false paradigm as clear as possible.

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.”

So the good news is you don’t want your researchers riding off in every direction at once: paradigms make sure everyone stays on task. The bad news is scientists don’t spend much time looking for breakthroughs:

“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 because in the future, especially in the distant future, our knowledge of ourselves, our world, and the universe will be far beyond what anyone can today imagine.

But here’s the problem from my point of view. Kuhn didn’t discuss false paradigms. False paradigms have a lot in common with Kuhnian paradigms: both are 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 actually impede progress. Some false paradigms kill. Of course, everything that isn’t perfect kills someone at some point. But, I hope to show here, false paradigm kill without rhyme or reason; false paradigms kill people who should not have died. And even if a false paradigm doesn’t kill, it numbs. The four false paradigms dicussed in the second half of this essay won’t kill anyone, but they do prevent thoughtful discourse and they do represent the danger of authority acting as thought police even here in the United States in our wonderful colleges and universities.

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, this darker side Kuhn didn’t wish to take on emerges.

The main goal of this essay is to demonstrate the pervasiveness of false paradigms. A secondary goal is to explore commonalities in false paradigms, commonalities that (perhaps after refinement by others) allow even non-experts in a given field to nevertheless identifty false paradigms in that field.

When credentialed experts challenge a long accepted, probably wrong theory, what I call the “four horsemen” seem to appear pretty regularly as the system fights back in a way that betrays the desperation of experts who are embarrassed by their own theory but who can’t let go of it. What was a theory has now become a preconceived notion not to be challenged on pain of the “four horsemen” running roughshod over the challengers. Often a relatively small number of experts who claim to speak for the majority of their colleagues don’t actually speak for these colleagues but have merely cowed them into submission.

The “four horsemen” as I currently think of them may be described as follows:

  • Insults: Experts who dare challenge the preconceived notion are silly snobby know-nothings who want attention.
  • Possibility=Certainty: The old theory has always been thought correct and may still be and therefore is.
  • Utter Nonsense: We have made and continue to make demonstrably false statements and will continue to do so as long as it helps our cause.
  • Imperfect=Wrong: We only accept new theories if they are perfect; no theory is perfect; therefore, your theory is wrong.

To get us started, here is a sort of zeroth example of a false paradigm from physics, specifically big bang cosmology aka the study of the beginning of the universe.

The big bang as far as we know was about fourteen billion years ago. The “big bang” was 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.

Another way to explain the smoothness we see now goes like this: maybe the speed of light isn’t the constant physicists usually think of it as. If the speed of light was faster at the time of the big bang that would also “smooth out” the universe as seen today. The detailed theory in which the value of a physical constant can evolve along with the universe itself was called by its originators VSL for “variable speed of light.”

Inflation came first and no theory has ever imagined changing values for physical constants. VSL was rejected for no reason. The “four horsemen” showed up.

  • Insults: VSL really stands for “very silly” and the idea is “unprofessional.”
  • Possibility=Certainty: Inflation might be correct and therefore it is. And constants might be constant forever and therefore they are.
  • Utter Nonsense: The numerical value of the speed of light depends on the units you use; therefore, talking about the speed of light changing is meaningless.
  • Imperfect=Wrong: The editor of one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world said that VSL had to be proven before it could be published.

The four horsemen of VSL are documented in Faster Than the Speed of Light written by a physicist whose stubbornness may one day be the stuff of legend and whose efforts caused VSL to be delayed by only ten years as opposed to a couple of centuries. The author, employing profanity where appropriate, documents his battle with his fellow physicists who apparently regard thinking outside the box as a mortal sin. The book also gives a pretty accessible tutorial on cosmology and relativity.

The author is actually forgiving about some of the nonsense he had to deal with. He excused the bit about the arbitrariness of units implying the speed of light can’t change as merely absurdly nitpicky and he even went through how he explained the “problem” to the journal editor who brought it up. This journal editor was quite reasonable compared to some of his other colleagues some of whom offered nothing but “gibberish” while others “behaved as if they were bitten by a rabid dog.”

Dr. Stubborn won his battle: VSL is now a vibrant subfield of cosmology. Inflation is also still considered a viable theory but the idea that it is the only possible answer has been dropped. Thus, an amazing thing has happened. (Sarcasm warning.) Cosmologists who speculate about the condition of the universe at its birth fourteen billion years ago no longer regard their theories as certainties.

That’s a bit strong — cosmologists know their field is highly speculative. And yet, even though they know this, they still blocked the first person who proposed VSL because he dared think outside the box. That person gave up on the theory when his colleagues blocked him and that’s why there was (at least) a delay of ten years before Dr. Stubborn came along with a different version of the same idea and forced it through the thick skulls of highly moral cosmologists who evidently draw the line at original thought.

And so now we come to our case studies, the ten false paradigms, six resolved and four ongoing. A lot of lives were lost because of these first six: the stories aren’t pretty. The four unresolved false paradigms have not killed anyone but they maintain a death grip around the throat of the whole idea of rational discourse. As of 2022, all four “official” theories have been disputed by credentialed experts. In all four cases, the majority has offered its version of the situation and in all four cases all we get are the four horsemen.

In one of the four cases, a monumental discovery — perhaps the most earth-shattering in human history — may have been made. All of the scientists who have studied it agree on what they’ve seen and they agree it is not just completely unexpected but can be described without hyperbole as shocking. But there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the discovery because the data, even though quite clear, is nevertheless meager. It is always dangerous to conclude too much from a single data point no matter how amazing the discovery. While the majority of scientists cast about wildly for conventional explanations and have made up exotic idea after exotic idea to explain the data they didn’t expect, a few scientists quietly note that the discovery might actually be exactly what it looks like and these scientists, though they have been allowed to publish, have been ignored or scoffed at by their less brave colleagues.

In another of the four cases, an old theory that has never made a single correct prediction has long since been provably nonsense and the new theory, a much simpler idea suggested by a minority of experts, explains new things we are seeing, fits beautifully all the old data we have, and tells us something extremely important for humanity’s future. The extraordinary superiority of the new theory over the old (like the periodic table of elements as against earth, air, fire, and water) means nothing because the old theory became entrenced over centuries and cannot be dislodged. The new theory is considered “silly” by the mainstream but has been pretty much proven. There is always some chance that any theory, even one as useless as this, might still be correct, but the chance is almost so small it isn’t worth considering.

One of the four new theories was proposed almost one hundred years ago and is far from proven but is clearly the best theory available to explain a mystery that continues to baffle not just scientists but basically every human on earth. It’s a fascinating question and a fascinating possible answer that has basically been shoved under the carpet by scientists who act like they are embarrassed that they didn’t think of it themselves but continue to block their colleagues who embrace the better idea. The theory is obvious once laid out: when I first heard it, it made me mad because I couldn’t understand why this wasn’t the leading theory.

The fourth idea has been successfully tarred and feathered as nonsense by a majority of scholars who have spent more time on propaganda than they have studying the question. At this point, the professionals who are pretty sure that the old theory is wrong have simply had to move on as they wait for the old guard to die. This “old guard” continue to strenuously argue their case but their arguments are the most convincing thing there is that they are wrong. Major institutions have quietly begun to accept the fact that the old theory — an understandable mistake — seems to be crumbling, but it’s a painfully slow process. There is actually some evidence for the old theory and so it cannot be entirely dismissed, but the evidence is weak and the evidence for the new theory is incomparably stronger. If the “old guard” allowed their professional colleagues (a minority) to publish in the mainstream journals, the old theory would likely disappear quite quickly.

But first, let’s look at six resolved cases just so we can get used to how bad bad gets. I claim that no matter how cynical you are, the truth is worse than you think but I’d love to meet (in a public place) a reader who is so cynical that they aren’t surprised by what comes next in this story. (BTW, when I say “surprised” here I mean like the feeling you had when the wife in The Shining looks at the stack of paper her husband has been typing for weeks.)

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 perhaps the great author’s most important source. Style, wording, and plotlines dating back two millenia to the Roman poet Ovid ran through the works to such an extent that “modern Ovidian poet” would get the return “Who is Shakespeare?” in an Elizabethan “Jeopardy!” game show. The play many regard as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, was based on a Scandanavian folktale from a few centuries prior. The classic love tragedy Romeo and Juliet pays homage to Ovid and Dante and to a plethora of 15th and 16th century Italian writers whose stories of star-crossed lovers and their feuding families were well known all over Europe by the time Shakespeare upped the stakes as it were and combined stories well told, philosophical treatises, and unforgettable poetry into by far the most popular works of the Elizabethan era.

Well-used plotlines, old stories reimagined, familiar tales told in a new voice, and other such “remakes” were standard fare for Elizabethans. Indeed, this kind of writing, the not-fully-original homage to the past, was expected and encouraged — “a feature not a bug” as we would say today. Virtually all Elizabethans writers (no doubt exceptions exist) routinely and openly adapted the work of classical and foreign writers for their own stories.

It was all good as we would say today. It was a way to show off one’s erudition. Speaking of erudition, to say Shakespeare was no slouch in that area would be the understatement of the millenium. Shakespeare was so well-read and so experienced and so knowledgeable that the density of references in his plays continues to blow modern minds. Pick any area of Elizabethan knowledge and understanding — art, music, law, seamanship, politics, botany, medicine, astrology, astronomy, and falconry together with lands and languages, stories and histories, paintings and sculptures, waterways and alleyways, and customs and celebrations throughout Europe — and there are books and articles marveling about Shakespeare’s mastery of this or that subject and/or his knowledge of this or that tiny detail.

Shakespeare’s printed source material would make for an impressive library and certainly no single library in England at the time had all of it. A story told or a discovery made, if it got anywhere near Shakespeare showed up in a play maybe in an offhand line. Of course offering a new wrinkle on a classic story was one thing and, as we know, a fine thing as was displaying technical knowledge gleaned from books or experience. But “rewriting,” as some modern scholars tactfully put it, was a different thing altogether especially when the that which was being “rewritten” belonged to a recently active or still-active Elizabethan author.

Scholars have come up with a plethora of words and phrases for this particular activity of Shakespeare’s. Some call it “borrowing” while others go so far as to call Shakespeare “an accomplished parasite” who sometimes did his borrowing “almost verbatim” making him a what one might call (at what some do call) “a reviser of genius.” The more common word for one who engages in this activity whether during Elizabethan times or now — “plagiarist” — is diplomatially avoided.

Several Elizabethan plays are so similar in title, plot, characters, scenes, language, and style that these plays and Shakespeare’s plays were then and are now treated as two versions of the same play. For example, one scholar at a well-known university in California studied some decades ago the political implications of Shakespeare’s history plays and the politics in Shakespeare’s King John in particular. There are two King Johns with slighly different titles, both with Shakespeare’s name on the byline, one obviously an early version of the other. This particular scholar noted the existence of the early version of King John and noted further that “for our purpose [studying political implications] it seems unnecessary to discuss the plays separately.”

The two King Johns were plays no monarch facing multiple threats from abroad could fail to love. They are loaded with patriotic fervor as are most of the history plays. Indeed, four hundred years post-Shakespeare during WWII as bombs fell on London, Shakespeare plays were being used to stiffen the sinew amongst a populace facing a mortal enemy just as Queen Elizabeth, who spent gobs of national security money on plays, players, and playwrights did when she faced threats.

Fine speeches from the two King Johns were typically made by the same character as in the speeches below: the character in this example is calling for unity in England 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. 

This was revised to the following more poetical version:

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. 

But here’s the rub. The California scholar quoted above and most scholars today believe the early version of King John was NOT written by Shakespeare even though his name is on the title page. But why? It’s the same play with the same characters, the same plot, parallel speeches, the same scenes, and very similar writing styles. Both plays are loaded with made-up words — Shakespeare is the undisputed champion of neologisms many of which are in common use today. And, again, the name is right there on the title pages.

Why, under these circumstances, do scholars turn Shakespeare into a plagiarist not only in the case of King John but also when they look at a number of other “early Shakespeare” plays including versions of Romeo and JulietKing Lear, Henry V, Richard III, and The Taming of the Shrew?

The answer is simple: early Shakespeare plays date from the 1580’s or before and are therefore too early to be Shakespeare according to the standard theory of who wrote the plays. The standard theory goes like this: a well-known businessman from Stratford named Shakespeare arrived in London in the early 1590’s; he happened to be a literary genius as well as a superb wheeler and dealer; he used many classical and foreign sources in the usual Elizabethan manner, but also pushed the bounds of the permissible and in several cases crossed the line between adaptation and plagiarism.

The Stratford genius-businessman-writer-plagiarist became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company in the mid 1590’s. As part of his status as a shareholder it is assumed he must have been writing plays which the acting company took ownership of. This explains why Shakespeare was the only Elizabethan playwright who did not publish any of his plays. This also explains why publishers only managed to get their hands on half of the plays in the canon and why the best they could do is publish messy versions that are universally regarded by scholars as bootlegs.

The Stratford businessman named Shakespeare 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 apparently pulled together all of the plays and handed them over to two earls, an act of generosity that allowed the famous FIrst Folio to be published and gave us Shakespeare as we know Shakespeare: without the First Folio, Julius Ceasar, Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, and many other familiar works may well have been lost.

As far as the author or authors of “early Shakespeare” go, tradition says we just don’t know. Early Shakespeare is an “insoluble enigma” and who wrote early Shakespeare is a question “of so dark a nature” that it cannot be answered.

However, according to a handful of radicals, who also happen to be credentialed experts, there is nothing enigmatic or mysterous about early Shakespeare. According to the radicals, Shakespeare wrote early Shakespeare.

The “radicals,” who are increasingly seen as not so radical, believe that Shakespeare was a member of the Elizabethan nobility, a well-known and highly regarded “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 despite having zero plays to his name. The literary earl was known from childhood as a genius — he apparently outgrew his tutors at an early age. As an adult, the literary earl received unprecedented monetary support from a notoriously fiscally conservative Queen: a gigantic amount of money was handed over to every year with nothing officially expected in return.

The literary earl who might have been Shakespeare was known to be a bit wild, more than a bit irresponsible, and good for pretty much one thing — writing. He became the highest paid member of Elizabeth’s government for doing technically we-know-not-what but he might reasonably be described as the Queen’s playwright.

According to the radicals, the Stratford businessman is unlikely to have been Shakespeare since he arrived in London ten or twenty years too late to be the great author. They say the literary earl was putting the finishing touches on the Shakespeare plays by the mid-1590’s and that he wrapped things up in the early 1600’s with his last play, The Tempest.

And yet in the First Folio, the preface makes it clear that the Stratford businessman named Shakespeare was the author of the plays. The preface clearly says the businessman left his complete works with the acting company in which he owned shares and which was now generously gifting the plays to two earls to whom the First Folio would be dedicated. Two members of the acting company say in the preface that they have no thought of profit for themselves and merely want their fellow shareholder Shakespeare to be properly remembered with proper versions of his plays as opposed to the stolen copies previously published.

The two earls are the famous “incomparable brethren” to whom the great compilation of Shakespeare is dedicated. One of these brethren was married to the literary earl’s youngest daughter.

You can see right away that there is ample room for a rolicking controversy. Unfortunately, the stakes are so high that the controversy we would like to see enacted at the level of disagreeing scholars has been shattered, swept up into a dustpan, dumped in a steel box, protected by a heavy padlock, and buried in a random place in the back acreage. There is no controversy: the traditional theory is correct period. That’s where we’ve been for a long time: it’s not a good place for this really is an interesting question.

The problem is the high stakes involved. 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 either burned or demoted to coasters. 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. Questions about who Shakespeare was go back a long way and amateurs have said many silly things creating an “overhang of nonsense” that gets in the way when credentialed professionals ask valid questions. But most 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 pushing silly nonsense who flit from alien abduction stories to claims that Shakespeare was an alien before they get back on their anti-psychotic medications even though this is not really the case when it comes to many of the questions being asked.

Mainstream professionals have so far been successful in keeping their distance from the edge of what is to them an abyss. But their own doubting colleagues are becoming too numerous and too highly placed to stop. Mark Twain didn’t know about the Queen’s playwright because the name of the literary earl never appeared on a play and the efussive praise offered him in print only lasted a few decades after his death, but Samuel Clemens was certain “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym simply because, in his opinion, historians had dug up enough about the Stratford businessman to make it clear he wasn’t Shakespeare depite his name and despite the posthumous identification. Mark Twain guessed in the early 1900’s that historians derived from “the reasoning race” (i.e., humans) might come to their senses in perhaps three centuries if we’re lucky.

However, we seem to be ahead of schedule. In the 1990’s, less than a single century after Twain’s pessimistic projection, 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 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. UMass Amherst has a reputation to protect. The dissertation was to focus on a bible owned by the literary earl in which a large number of passages that would later become some of Shakespeare’s favorite allusions, appearing in multiple plays, were marked. Some obscure passages also marked led the student to discover allusions in the plays that no one had previously noticed. He had ample volume of material for a dissertation, but the majority of professors at institutions of higher learning regarded the very idea of someone other than the Stratford businessman being Shakespeare as akin to sacrilege.

It couldn’t have been an easy decision.

But the professors approved the project and the student got his Ph.D. and is now a professor himself at another college. He has continued his non-traditional work and recently published research which pretty much nails down the date of The Tempest, thought by many to be Shakespeare’s last play, to around 1600. The Tempest, one of the plays not published until the miracle of the First Folio, reads as a goodbye, an envoi, an adieu, a coda. If it really was Shakespeare’s last play, the time for the Stratford businessman to write the plays becomes absurdly short.

Biographers routinely marvel at how a man with so many documented business activities could have “managed to find time to go on writing plays” but assume that the genius-businessman-writer-plagiarist somehow managed it. However, even the most credulous biographers would not be able to bring themselves to type 1590-1600 as sufficient time for the complete works of Shakespeare, not even for a great, multitasking genius. So the new research on The Tempest is a clear effort to put a nail in the coffin of the traditional theory and, as noted above, the stakes are extremely high.

Nevertheless, no less an institution than Oxford University Press added its voice to the professors at UMass Amherst. The prestigious academic publisher praised the work on The Tempest or at least allowed one of their writers to parise the work under the imprimatur of the institution. No matter how you look at it, the certainty about the traditional theory, if not the theory itself, seems to be a thing of the past.

However, 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. Wondering who Shakespeare was is the third rail of comparative literature — most people who care about career advancement won’t even discuss it.

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.

And yet the great wall of “we are absolutely sure we’re right” does seem to be crumbling. Soon enough there will be, maybe, a full discussion in the mainstream journals in which the journal editors act as impartial referees as opposed to protectors of the status quo. When this happens, we’ll have a lot better idea about the merits of the two theories because the entire community will be able to weigh in without fear and students will be able to ask questions without fear. For now, as long as the two “sides” publish in separate journals and free-thinkers are frightened into silence, we non-professionals will have to make do with just a rough idea of what is going on.

One thing is clear though: the certainty that the Stratford businessman really was Shakespeare as the First Folio preface claimed is nonexistent. The businessman may indeed have been a writer as well but the majority of experts claim near-certainty even though reading their own work makes it clear that they are extremely uncertain. Thus, they turn out to be right in the end, they will have blind luck to thank, not rationality.

In this part of the essay, though I will not attempt to settle the question by covering every detail as this would be an impossible task for a single person to do even if he were a professional literary historian which I am not, I will try to put enough flesh on the skeleton already presented so that readers can determine for themselves whether the probability that mainstream experts are correct is ten percent, fifty percent, or ninety percent. I think it is already abundantly clear that the 99.99% certainty claimed very far from realistic.

Star-crossed lovers date back to Ovid and before. The names Romeo and Juliet first appear under an Italian byline. Other Italian writers take on the theme, a French story and a Spanish story follow after that. Jumping forward, West Side Story is the most modern retelling I know of though I’m sure there are many adaptations of which I am unaware. Of course West Side Story had a unique angle and was far from plagiarism. The same is true for many of the retellings of the classic story.

In 1562, someone in England published or caused to be published the story of Romeo and Juliet as a poem. It is strikingly similar to the Shakespeare play with not just the basic plot and the names of the lovers but identical metaphors appearing again and again. The 1562 version written by someone called “Ar. Br.” and thought perhaps to be Arthur Brooke even though Brooke was not known as a poet is considered the primary “source” for Shakespeare’s play. I put the word source in quotes because the similarities are such that the two Romeos can be regarded as two versions of the same work. That is, one can argue that Shakespeare either stole the work of Ar. Br. or wrote both versions himeself.

Here is one example of the identical metaphor being used in both versions, a metaphor which to my knowledge appears in none of the Romeos that preceded them.

In both the poem of “Ar. Br.” and the play by Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet fall instantly and hopelessly in love. The fall is narrated with a complex metaphor involving fishing and poison in which love is seen as something dangerous and irrestible dangled before us by an unknown and unknowable power. The moment the soon-to-be lovers gaze into one another’s eyes, all hope is lost as if our eyes, conduits to our deepest selves, make us unbearably vulnerable. Here is Shakespeare and his “source” in a random order.

In one version, Romeo’s eyes lead to his soul:
Through them he swalloweth down love’s sweet empoison’d bait. 

In another version Romeo’s eyes capture Juliet:
And she steal love’s sweet bait from fearful hooks. 

Does it matter which line is the later version and which the earlier? No one on either side of the Shakespeare divide believes the great author did not have the early version at his side when he wrote the more mature version. Some use euphemisms for plagiarism to tell what happened; others say it is Shakespeare rewriting his own work. I hope soon to create an appendix with a long list of Romeo and Juliet mirror images in which Shakespeare and his “source” can be compared.

In the 1570’s, a number of plays with suggestive titles are performed before the Queen. The History of Error was a popular one but was never published under that title. This play may or may not have been an early version of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors not published in any form until the First Folio came along and saved the day. A 1570’s play titled after the main characters in Two Gentlemen of Verona might have been an early version of this play. Maybe.

A number of early plays fall into the “might have been first shown with a different title” category. A good illustration of the trouble with titles is All’s Well That Ends Well. This is a play that showed up in the First Folio never having been mentioned as a published play or as a performance. But it is theorized that this play actually was mentioned as Love’s Labors Won which, unless it was renamed All’s Well That Ends Well is a lost play.

The history gets much more interesting in the 1580’s. Early versions of King JohnKing Lear, Richard III, Henry V, and The Taming of the Shrew were performed by the Queen’s Men and published in the following decade and so we have plays with almost identical titles that Shakespeare either wrote in the 1580’s or earlier or plagiarized in the 1590’s. These plays share plot, structure, word usage, made-up words, characters, innovations, and lines with the mature plays that later appear in the First Folio.

The mature versions are much better plays: for example, the forgettable “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!” becomes the classic “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Richard III. As is the case with the King John plays, the two Richard III plays are effectively the same play. All of these plays delighted the Queen who set aside a large sum of national security money to create the Queen’s Men in the early 1580’s. She loved plays in general, had no problem pitting her courtiers one against the other and so didn’t mind if many of them were lampooned in the plays, had a thick skin and so could handle it even if she herself was teased, and as noted above undoubtedly appreciated the value of plays pushing patriotism.

The writer of the plays was remarkably well informed. Whoever wrote Shakespeare either had direct access to the Queen’s court or had great connections in the gossip mill. Seen in this light, the popularity of Shakespeare at the time with the general public is not at all surprsing.

By the mid-1580’s the Queen was paying the literary earl the gigantic sum mentioned above and he was placing himself at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene. He supported Enland’s leading writers and hired as literary secretaries two who were especially close to Shakespeare — John Lyly whose works are said to mirror Shakespeare’s and Anthony Munday whose play Sir Thomas More is thought to contain at least one scene written by Shakespeare. Book after book was dedicated to the literary earl praising not only his generosity but also his writing ability, literary knowledge, and general erudition.

As 1590 rolls around, the name “Shakespeare” finally appears and it is immediately mixed up in politics. So far there’s been a lot of hinting but nothing firm. One person in 1589 spoke of Hamlet and told of a playwright he called “English Seneca” after the Roman philosopher-dramatist. This modern Seneca had written Hamlet and, if you “entreat him fair on a frosty morning” you might be lucky enough to be treated to a barrage of “tragical speeches.”

But 1589 is too early for Hamlet, Shakespeare’s career-peak masterpiece, to already be famous so, as is the case with King John, it is commonly assumed that “English Seneca” was someone other than Shakespeare — the commentator was talking about someone else’s play with tragical speeches also called Hamlet.

By 1592, a Stratford businessman named Shakespeare is documented as being in London. He is loaning someone money. Also this year there is a cryptic reference to Shakespeare written by a dying writer who is angry at someone who may have been Shakespeare. The dying writer is impoverished and blames someone who thinks he is “the only Shake-scene in a country.” He quotes Shakespeare as he paints this person as cruel to the point of being heartless — he has a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.” This line is from Henry VI part 3 though there has been no publication or record of performance of this play in 1592 and in fact there is no record of it ever being performed in Elizabethan times though it was published anonymously in 1595.

So a dying writer is quoting Shakespeare and complaining about an actor (a player) he calls “Shake-scene” who has a lot of money which he uses to take advantage of “rare wits” whom he imitates like an “ape.” This rich “rude groom” who can’t write his way out of a paper bag “beautifies” himself with writers’ feathers just like Aesop’s crow. This “Shake-scene” is an “upstart crow” whom all writers should avoid lest they be mistreated: “seek you better masters,” says the dying writer.

The dying writer is not known to have interacted with the Stratford businessman named Shakespeare though he did have a contentious relationship with the richest actor of the day who was known to put on Shakespeare plays. So the “upstart crow” could have been the Stratford businessman or it could have been the rich actor. Both people fit reasonably well with the agrieved commentary of the dying writer.

Finally, in 1593 and 1594 two epic poems are beautifully published and the name “Shakespeare” now appears on a printed work. The epic poems don’t have a byline but they do have extraordinarily florid dedication letters written to the Earl of Southampton making the young earl out to be the greatest of the greats. The letters are signed (a printed signature) “William Shakespeare.” The epic poems are instant smash hits. The plays have been famous for a while now and now the name is famous too.

Even though “Shakespeare” is now well known as the epic poems sell out again and again in edition after edition, the name does not appear on any of the plays which finally do come into print starting in 1594. These printings are anonymous and they are all bootlegs, obviously printed without guidance from the author either using a script that got leaked or copied by people sitting in a theater or some such. Shakespeare is the only Elizabethan playwright whose play pubilications were exclusively bootlegs.

Little is said directly at that time or as the years went by about the anonymous Shakespeare plays suddenly apppearing though there are various hints one can interpret any way one wants. One observer tells of a writer who “hides behind another’s name.” Someone else speaks of a thieving “poet-ape who would be thought our chief” and who “makes each man’s wit his own.” Someone else writes of a writer in “purple robes” (nobility) who is controversial — no name is given of course. Others note openly that there are high-born writers whose names cannot be made public.

These could be references to Shakespeare or not: the interpretation of all of this commentary depends a lot upon one’s preconceptions; it is not clear to me that objectivity is possible when the commentary is purposely opaque. Pseudonyms and hidden authors were as common as dirt in Elizabethan England. This was a society outrageously sensitive to anything political. One wrong word and you could easily have your ears chopped off along with the tip of your nose. Ben Jonson famously got into such trouble. One of the times he was jailed, he was threatened with mutilation and hatched a plan for a family member to give him poison should his sentence be carried out. He was spared in the end and released and was able to become the second-most-famous writer in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

So we’ve got epic poems published with dedications to a great earl (Southampton) and anonymous bootlegged plays coming out more or less randomly. This is where the politics come in. The Queen, the Moon goddess of England, reigned safely now with the Spanish armada defeated, but she was far from immortal and would in fact be dead within ten years at which time Shakespeare would write in a sonnet, “the mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured.” But one did not discuss the question of succession: it was illegal to utter a word about it. And yet the question was on everyone’s mind. With no heir to the throne, a bloody civil war loomed as a distinct possibility.

Of course, discussions of the succession did take place, quietly. Two factions emerged: the Southampton-Essex faction and what we might call the Cecilian faction. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was the Queen’s closest advisor and the most powerful man in England. His son would inherit the role along with Burghley’s network of spies. Burghley would ultimately control the succession — the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Essex, though popular, were no match for the Cecil family and their spies.

Whoever Shakespeare was, he managed to get himself neck deep in Elizabethan politics. The history plays or their precursors had apparently been used for political purposes through the 1580’s and a number of the characters in later plays served to lampoon courtly personalities. Burghley himself was accurately and mercilessly parodied in Hamlet. Burghley’s family motto was Cor Unum Son Una (One Heart One Way): this was used against him in the first publication of Hamlet in which the monarch’s close advisor was called “Corambis” which means “two-hearted” to those schooled in Latin. Later versions of Hamlet had the name of the Burghley character changed to the less obvious “Polonius.”

So Shakespeare was dedicating work to Southampton who wanted to control the succession and lampooning the great Burghley who was a lot more likely to actually control the succession. But factions don’t have to remain factions. Burghley, ever thoughtful about power and family, had an idea: Southampton would marry his grand-daughter Elizabeth. This would create a marriage alliance between the families and effectively combine the two factions. And now young Southampton had a choice to make (the young Elizabeth of course would do as she was told; she was no Elizabeth Bennett; Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t be written for centuries yet) and was under a great deal of pressure to accept Burghley’s offer or pay the price of stubborn disobedience.

Shakespeare at this time was not just dedicating work to Southampton, he was writing sonnet after sonnet using beautiful language that perhaps would flow not so well from any other pen in history to tell the young earl to marry and produce an heir. “From fairest creatures we desire increase, that thereby beauty’s Rose might never die,” open probably the most famous sonnet sequence in the English language. No one knows why Rose was capitalized and italicized in the original version — maybe the publisher just felt like printing it that way.

In the sonnets, Shakespeare calls the young nobleman, who is the subject of the first hundred-plus sonnets, his “lovely boy.” The sonnets are written in the first-person so they sound like autobiography though this doesn’t mean they are autobiography. Southampton is not named overtly though he is commonly assumed to have been the “lovely boy” or the “fair youth” as he is termed by scholars today. Toward the end of the 1590’s, the existence of the sonnets was commented upon but the commentator said the beautiful sonnets circulated only amongst the author’s “private friends” whoever they were: it was not clear if the commentator had seen any sonnets himself.

In any case, Shakespeare tells a nobleman who is apparently Southampton, “Make thee another self for love of me” as part of repeated eloquent entreaties to do what his best for his family and his name and so forth.

The sonnets and the rest of the pressure campaign failed to get Southampton to go along with Burghley’s plan. Southampton refused a literal sweetheart deal and put his faith and support behind the Earl of Essex — an earl whose head would soon roll. In the interim, Shakespeare continued to write sonnets to the lovely boy and was evidently heartbroken when Southampton and Essex stupidly tried to control the royal succession in 1601 and wound up as convicted traitors sentenced to death. Essex added his name to a short list of other earls who had run afoul of the Queen and whom she had ordered killed at various points of her reign — the Queen was capable of forgiveness but would also be ruthless when she thought it necessary. Three knights who had participated in the attempted coup were tortured to death.

Southampton languished in the Tower waiting for a death that did not come. His sentence was commuted. We don’t know why he didn’t die with the others but we do know that whoever wrote the sonnets expressed great joy at this outcome.

When the Queen died in 1603 and James took the throne averting civil war, Southampton was immediately released with his earldom restored to him. Shakespeare celebrates this in the ebullient Sonnet 107. The great author speaks of the “mortal moon” and her “eclipse,” he tells of a “peace” of “endless age,” and he appears to exult over the release of Southampton who was “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom” but is now safe and healthy. Technically one can interpret any sonnet any way one wants but the interpretation of this sonnet and the assumption that the “lovely boy” is the Earl of Southampton is commonly accepted and has been for centuries.

Obviously the sonnets have attracted much interest and commentary as they are the only first-person writings we have of the great author.

One biographer assumes the Stratford businessman was Shakespeare and must therefore have been commissioned to write the sonnets by Southampton’s family since he obviously could not be telling an earl how to live his life. If this biographer is right, if the sonnets really were a commissined work of art, it means some of the most heartfelt poetry in the English language was written by Shakespeare from the point of view of someone else.

Other more cautious biographers simply say the sonnets are beautiful and mysterious but don’t tell us much about Shakespeare himself. Sure, they are written in the first person but they are poems not letters and we don’t have the context and poems can be imaginative and artful and could mean anything. These biographers say it is a mistake to act as if the poems are letters to Southampton or anyone else and they make fun of people who read the sonnets that way and they sometimes come up with well-crafted zingers aimed at would-be sonnet interpreters such as this perfect one delivered by one of the top ivy league professors in the field regarding the sonnets and people who regard them as personally revealing: “Who could resist such voyeuristic pleasures!”

Radicals scoff at what they regard as the mainstream’s nonsensical fear of the sonnets many of which they say are quite easily interpreted. They point out that the literary earl was married to Burghley’s daughter, had a back-and-forth contentious relationship with Burghley himself, and was the father of young Elizabeth whom Southampton was supposed to marry. For the radicals, “Make thee another self for love of me” is a line that doesn’t require interpretation that makes no sense at all coming from the Stratford businessman.

The radicals admit they don’t know everything about the relationship between Southampton and the literary earl so they can’t offer a definitive explanation for sonnets offering love, guidance, and unconditional support over a ten year period, but the fact that every word isn’t crystal clear is irrelevant. The radicals claim the sonnets disqualify the Stratford businessman as a possible author and regard the idea that he was writing them in someone else’s voice as grasping at straws. Similarly, the idea that the sonnets are not what they appear to be — private correspondence — simply because they are poems rather than prose sounds to them like fear talking as opposed to reason.

An amusing coda to this part of the story is the fact that Lord Burghley’s descendant, the 18th Baron Burghley, Michael William Cecil, today regards the literary earl as the most logical choice for Shakespeare on the grounds that he couldn’t have so accurately pilloried the 1st Baron Burghley as Corambis/Polonius in Hamlet without being an insider at the Queen’s court. Mainstream scholars point out that there was plenty of gossip floating around London and so there were plenty of ways of learning courtly secrets second hand.

Getting back to the story, Southampton refuses the match in the early 1590’s setting himself up to almost lose his head several years later, Shakespeare continues to write sonnets to his lovely boy earl, Shakespeare plays — all bootlegs — are being published without the Shakespeare byline even though the name has become famous, and, just at this moment in history, a Stratford businessman whose name is actually Shakespeare has appeared in London and is loaning money and is perhaps being attacked as the heartless “upstart crow.”

This Shakespeare soon becomes a shareholder in London’s leading acting company whose members will later identify him as the great author when the great compilation of plays is brought to the world. Toward the end of the 1590’s, the Shakespeare name finally begins to appear sporadically on plays with no particular pattern. The Shakespeare name would seem to be valuable at this point but continued to be treated by publishers as optional. These publishers can’t tell us much about Shakespeare as a person but there are references to the actor/acting company shareholder Shakespeare that say something about the man but none of these references settles anything though all are interesting.

In a play put on in London by students, one of the student actors plays a famous actor from London’s leading acting company. So it’s a play where actors are portraying actors. Anyway, the famous actor is portrayed by the student actor as a bumbling fool who loves his fellow actor Shakespeare. The bumbling fool praises Shakespeare by saying he is nothing like Ovid. Of course the audience knows Shakespeare as an Ovidian poet and so it is immediately clear that Shakespeare’s colleague knows nothing. The fool says Shakespeare doesn’t “smell too much” of Ovid and is in fact superior to “that writer Ovid.” Then he says Shakespeare is superior to “that writer Metamorphosis.” Of course The Metamorphoses are a series of epic poems by Ovid. Ha-ha, the bumbling fool doesn’t know the difference between a writer and a poem.

You can imagine how the two “sides” choose to interpret this play (it’s more like a skit). The student play/skit might be implying that Shakespeare’s fellow actors are too stupid to know that the man they are working with is the greatest writer in England. Or maybe the play/skit is meant to imply that only an idiot would think the actor named Shakespeare was a great writer.

Another “it means whatever you want it to mean” contemporary reference to Shakespeare-the-acting-company-member is a cryptic epigram by a guy named Davies. The epigram says something about Shakespeare being an actor “playing kingly parts in sport” thus identifying Shakespeare as an actor. The title of the epigram is the interesting part: it addresses Shakespeare as “our English Terence.” Terence was a Roman writer thought by Cicero to have acted as a front man for two Roman aristocrats. Roger Ascham, one of Queen Elizabeth’s tutors, Montaigne, and other scholars of the times including, presumably, Davies, were aware of this.

So maybe Davies was telling us Shakespeare was acting as a front-man for an aristocrat or maybe he just thought Shakespeare’s work and Terence’s work had some similarities. The two “sides” make the obvious interpretations that fit their preconceived notions. It is not clear to me how helpful these references are as they are something of a Rorshack test.

Biographers cannot resolve these interpretation questions with evidence from Shakespeare’s lifetime. Plenty of people knew the Stratford businessman. His neighbors in Stratford wrote to each other and those letters mention their rich townsman. But they knew him as “shrewd in practical affairs” as one biographer puts it and make no mention of his being the greatest writer in England. In London, writers dedicated work to each other all the time, but no one dedicated any work to Shakespeare.

This is part of what bothered Mark Twain about the Shakespeare story. He didn’t think a “vague file of chipmunk tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village” was sufficient evidence to make someone named Shakespeare actually be Shakespeare. Indeed, the mismatch between Shakespeare’s life and works makes even his most ardent biographers scratch their heads. “Shakespeare seems to have fluorished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself,” one biographer tells us before switching gears and talking about the London theater of Shakespeare’s time or something else for which there are records.

Biographers of the other famous Elizabethan writer, Ben Jonson, have it much better. For example, a friend of Ben Jonson’s was in the great writer’s house and borrowed a book. This friend then wrote his own book and at the start of the book 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 a famous writer who only loans precious books to special people he trusts . . . and so on. He was name dropping just as I would if Ben Jonson loaned me a book.

A couple of hundred books from Jonson’s library survive to the present day which is great but what of Shakespeare?

A doctor visited Shakespeare’s daughter one day long after Shakespeare was dead and shortly after his son-in-law had left his daughter widowed. The doctor found that the widow whose birth name was the same as that of a famous author was selling manuscripts. She wasn’t literate and so had no use for him and the doctor had money. Would you like to have been in Shakespeare’s house with his daughter anxious to sell written material? Sure you would. Too bad though, the doctor wasn’t big on literature. He did buy the medical journal handwritten by Shakespeare’s doctor son-in-law.

The medical journal is now in a museum but that’s all we get from Shakespeare’s house either because of bad luck or because none of the half dozen or so William Shakespeare’s living in or near London at the time was a great writer.

And so it goes. Even if we lower the bar quite a ways and forget about books, letters, and manuscripts and look just for a signature, we come up empty. There are five documents with “signatures” in five different handwritings. But these aren’t distinctive signatures which all literate Elizabethans had. One “side” says this is hard evidence of illiteracy and they point out that we have signatures for every other Elizabethan author. The other “side” says Shakespeare may simply have not had the time or the inclination to sign the documents himself or perhaps all the signatures look different because of Shakespeare’s “teeming imagination.”

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. There is nothing definitive.

In 1609, the sonnets were 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. One “side” says the publisher knew the author was dead; the other “side” says it might sound like a eulogy but obviously isn’t.

In the sonnets, the author bragged about how great the writing was and says that they will allow his subject, Southampton, to be immortal. But the author himself would not be:

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

Radicals say he could not have been clearer if he had said, “I am using a pseudonym.” The mainstream says the sonnets are just poems and should not be overinterpreted.

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 who would get a bit of cash or a sword or some such. 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 no matter who the dying person was. All we can say is that it would have stopped a lot of controversy if Shakespeare had listed a writer or publisher amongst the businessmen who were his acquantances and colleagues. Still, he did mention three members of London’s leading acting company.

Suddenly, in 1623 all the plays show up and we get some marketing copy written in what many scholars agree is Ben Jonson’s style. The marketing copy says buy these great plays by our colleague Shakespeare and you won’t be sorry because all the other published plays have been stolen copies. The “buy the plays” letters in the preface appear above the printed names of two of the Stratford businessman’s fellow shareholders also mentioned in his will.

That’s almost the end of the reasonable part of the discussion. After the First Folio was came out, 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 a 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, at all. 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 blah, blah).

According to the radicals, the fact that one of the earls behind the First Folio was a member of the literary earl’s family is yet another smoking gun. When the family of someone known as the leading court playwright who never published a play suddenly publishes an author’s complete works and Ben Jonson ghostwrites a letter saying the acting company had been holding the plays (something for which there is no precedent) why on earth would you believe it when the person they are claiming as the author doesn’t even appear to have been literate, never met Southampton, wasn’t dead in 1609, never traveled in Europe, was nowhere near London in the 1580’s, and couldn’t have ever had all the information about the Queen’s court contained in the plays? Genius is one thing. Magical thinking is another.

According to the mainstream, the fact that the supposed hoax left behind no direct evidence even though many people would have known the truth and therefore became what all agree would be the most successful literary hoax and perhaps the most successful hoax of any kind in history is a good argument against believing it. And on top of everything else, Shakespeare’s gravesite has a stone with a rather silly poem on it but also has a monument that says “all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit” which is hard to understand but says he was a writer and would also have had to have been falsified along with the First Folio preface and isn’t this getting a little unbelievable at this point because just how much falsification do you think the First Folio publishers are capable of?

Radicals counter that the silly poem on the gravestone doesn’t fit Shakespeare at all (Mark Twain thought it laughable that this poem would be on Shakespeare’s gravestone). Radicals say the obscure writing on the monument also sounds a lot like Ben Jonson just like the First Folio preface and members of the nobility had tons of power in those days and could easily keep anything they want under wraps including babies birthed by the Queen so let’s not pretend there was some kind of freedom of the press in Elizabethan England. And if you didn’t cook up half a dozen conspiracies in those days before breakfast you just weren’t trying and this little keep-it-quiet-who-Shakespeare-was thing would be nothing for them to pull off.

The mainstream then labels the radicals “conspiracy theorists” who can’t explain exactly what was happening and why people would want to keep the name hidden. Radicals, including credentialed experts, sometimes get compared to holocaust deniers and Moonshot deniers and are called snobs because they can’t believe the great writer could possibly have been a genius commoner.

Then the two sides start throwing things.

The unreasonable part of the discussion is in some ways the most interesting. I am personally swayed in one direction by the “too successful to be a real hoax” argument of the mainstream. On the other hand, claiming that someone else wrote early Shakespeare and the sonnets are written in someone else’s voice and the inside information about the Queen’s court was derived from someone else and that someone else signed important documents is a few too many “someone else’s” for my taste.

As usual, the comments of a mainstream overstating their case are most illuminating. It is one thing to say the radicals have no proof but quite another thing to claim the traditional theory is certainly true. So let’s dig into some of the nonsense a bit via a fictional-but-nevertheless-real dialogue.

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