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Listen to the Engineers

April 23, 2022


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And even if it somehow wasn’t off, as long as I was careful to only touch the wooden part of the handle, then even if there was a giant “backflow” spark as thousands of volts were instantly reduced to zero (nature in general is not big on sudden changes and usually bites back ferociously when you test her on that score), I probably wouldn’t die and besides that I knew my magnets were off and I knew the key system was foolproof and therefore 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 ideal voltage is zero and the ideal magnet is the one you are absolutely sure you turned off.

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 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. Well, 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 eerie even given where I was.

I looked around wondering if perhaps I had done something wrong. Eventually, I saw an annoyed-looking person in the distance. He was as tired as I was and he was slowing walking toward me. “Would you mind putting that switch back the way it was?” He was actually very nice about it and I complied and then reversed the other magnet behind that gate which was the one I needed reversed for my experiment.

I had crashed the main proton beam and stopped everyone’s experiments. Apparently there was some sort of “just-in-case” safety relay on that particular magnet proving yet again that it’s better to be lucky than smart. The relay prevented me from being electrocuted and here I am telling the tale. 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. They all need to be labeled right. I hope no one has to die before they listen to me.” So much for feeling better.

We’re human. We so often create certainty when there is none to be had. Sometimes people die as a result, one person, several people, a multitude. Is this okay with us? Is wishful thinking the right way to make life and death decisions? That’s a rhetorical question; obviously the answer is No. How about this question? Should we set up systems where wishful thinking automatically gets built in to the decision-making process?

A related phenomenon occurs in research fields. Big new discoveries get ignored because scientists, scholars, professors, researchers, and experts galore are absolutely certain. Boy are they good at being sure of themselves. An old theory — often with a tiny bit of evidence dressed up with a lot of creative guesswork — “must be” correct and any and all new ideas should be blocked.

Oh yes, we love new ideas but some new ideas are less acceptable than others and many of those others really do need to mind their manners and not present themselves so forcefully and new is really fine but an idea should be “too new” if you know what I mean . . .

The proponents of “too new” ideas — often credentialed professionals — had better have perfect evidence because they are going to have to prove their idea if the country club scientists are going to set aside an old standby which they consider as good as proven simply because it’s been around so long and we do have a dress code here at the club . . .

This phenomenon is a lot like wishful thinking. I call it “scholarly hubris.” The pair are afflictions like a flu and a virus. Wishful thinking, one might say, produces certainty while scholarly hubris defends it. They are kind of like parents; certainty is their child, their possessed child. I don’t know if these are good metaphors. I’ll have to re-watch “Rosemary’s Baby” to be sure.

One way or another new ideas have to land their ship on rocky shores in a storm whipped up by angry hierarchies. Sometimes the new idea eventually makes landfall and sometimes the ship is lost at sea with all hands.

On the other hand, sometimes the certainty of authorities (or just regular people) is justified. For example, I’m pretty sure I am justified as a regular person in being certain that we went to Moon. I seems pretty clear to me that people who claim we never went to the Moon don’t actually believe their own stories. I sometimes imagine a “God of truth” that no one denies. This God offers to tell us if we really went to the Moon. So you take a Moonshot denier aside and show them a suitcase containing ten million dollars and tell them they get the money if they get the right answer about the Moon.

We know what would happen. The Moonshot denier laughs, says “Of course we went to the Moon,” and picks up the suitcase and walks out without waiting for the word of God because the Moonshot denier knows better than anyone that we did go to the Moon.

So yes, there are conspiracy. No, the Moon landing wasn’t one of them. And I wouldn’t have a problem with it if my life depended on my being right about going to the Moon.

I am also an expert in some things and sometimes feel that I am justified in make expert pronouncements. For example, some physicists working at an accelerator recently reported that they were seeing neutrinos going faster than the speed of light. I scoffed.

I’m not saying it is forever impossible to go faster than light. Far in the future, “people” (they won’t look like us by then) might be able to alter the laws of physics and turn off the gravity of the sun and fold space and jump around the universe instantly and so forth. Maybe. But we aren’t going to make neutrinos or anything else go superluminal. Rules is rules.

I scoffed and said, “It’s probably a loose wire.” And it was. The physicists retracted their claim when they fixed their little problem. I had once been reduced to tears when a loose wire amidst a million strands of electrical spaghetti threatened my experiment.

I was far from the only expert to scoff and, as is usually the case, the experts were right. We’ve had a hundred years of theoretical work and thousands of experiments done by generations of physicists so we had reason to be nearly certain about the neutrinos.

When are the experts justified in their certainty? When is it scholarly hubris and wishful thinking and overdone authority and allergies to new ideas and fear of creativity and all that crap that our system seems to create like an emergent property from many smart, thoughtful people? How do we know when the experts are so worried about status or so afraid of someone else’s creativity or so sick with groupthink that they are practically foaming at the mouth? This essay attempts to answer these questions.

I claim that scholarly hubris and wishful thinking and the rest can be recognized fairly easily. I claim scholarly hubris and wishful thinking can be “smelled” with a relatively small amount of background information. The details are often quite interesting but are NOT needed to indentify a possessed brainchild of a mindless hierarch and, in fact, details can be used to obscure the basic question — do the scholars have what they need to claim certainty or near-certainty.

A central claim of this essay is that an overconfident mainstream can be identified as easily as a whiskey coinnoiseur can identify bootleg hootch. If one studies cases in which what can only be called insanity rules in a field and one applies the results of that study to any area, including an area in which you are NOT an expert, then one sniff is all you need.

If you wish, you can dig into the details, essentially drinking several shots of the basement-made hootch, and you’ll learn a lot about what I’m calling scholarly insanity (and I don’t mean to use the word lightly) when you wake up with a take-no-prisoners hangover.

I’m pretty sure I can identify hootch when I sniff it and I believe anyone who reads this essay will be able to do it as well as I. We’ll examine a number of examples of both scholarly hubris and wishful thinking from a variety of fields. Before we leave the preface, there’s a great case of scholarly hubris from my field of physics to get us started. It’s a good example because it’s extreme, clear, insane, and nicely resolved with what I define as a happy ending.

Once upon a time (pretty recently actually) a number of independent credentialed professional physicists had the same idea. They thought maybe the speed of light at the beginning of the universe might have been different (much faster) than the speed of light now. A faster speed of light at the time of the big bang, they said, might explain the uniformity we see in the universe as it exists today. They called their variable (over astronomical time periods) speed of light theory VSL.

The physicists who wanted to pursue this new idea had a frustrating ten-year conversation with their illustrious colleagues who preferred to refine and improve the old ideas. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his famous book, this process of refinement is a sort of safe haven that defines the careers of researchers in many fields, including physics. Kuhn regarded the resistance to new ideas as a natural and even necessary part of the scientific process.

But there is a darker side to this resistance. The VSL physicists encountered and overcame classic Kuhnian resistance and it “only” took ten years. But let’s look at what the new idea people had to contend with and let’s keep in mind that there was no guarantee of a happy ending.

I put the responses of the “new ideas are bad” physicists into four categories that I call the “four horsemen.” Of course we will meet the “four horsemen” repeatedly in this essay that attempts to pick up where Kuhn left off and expose the darker side of “Kuhnian resistance.”

First, the VSL physicists were told that the speed of light is a physical constant. Now constant means unchanging and unchanging means forever and that goes all the way back to the big bang and what part of “physical CONSTANT” don’t you understand?

Second, the uniformity of the universe is all explained just fine by a plausible theory called “inflation” in which an extremely rapid expansion occured right after the big bang began our universe and this theory is good and we like it and it’s been around for a while and who do you think you are challenging it?

Third, we’d really like to see some proof that you are correct because proof is nice and yes it sometimes takes time to get proof but we’d really like it upfront — you don’t mind do you?

Fourth, while you are proving VSL to us please keep in mind that we expect perfection in every aspect of the theory right out of the box and don’t think you can leave any question unanswered or anything undotted or uncrossed because you wouldn’t want your reputation damaged by imperfection, right?

The VSL physicists were blocked at every turn but one of them wouldn’t give up. Eventually mainstream scientists who derided VSL as “very silly” (get it?) had to admit that we don’t actually know anything about how or when physical constants got to be their present values. They also had to admit that the rapid expansion theory was never more than a good guess.

But that was just the beginning. Many physicists applied a ridiculous standard of proof to the new theory even though plausibility was enough for the old theory and this standard of proof would effectively block any new theory. Finally, even after they were grudginly willing to consider publishing the first article, the journal editors were so worried about the “very silly” moniker that they almost nitpicked VSL to death acting as if all the refinements to the theory that might be applied over a period of years could be done all at once.

Fortunately, the new idea people got their work known to their colleagues and, with the stamp of approval of a publication, many physicists dropped their caution and got excited about a new and sophisticated way to understand the early universe. VSL is now a vibrant subfield in cosmology. Inflation theory is also still a vibrant subfield. There is no certainty and no one is claiming certainty. For me, that’s a happy ending.

Someday, if the VSL people make enough progress, we may actually be able to talk about how and why and when the physical constants that make our universe act the way it does got set to where they are now. It’s a hard question and it may take a long time and cosmological VSL may or may not be the road to the solution. Still, with our system working the way it does, knowing why the speed of light is as fast as it is may come sooner than seeing credentialed experts with new ideas welcomed with open arms by other credentialed experts.

The problems that blocked VSL for so long are deeply entrenched and not just in physics.

The physicist who pushed the hardest to get VSL accepted as one possibility wrote a book called “Faster Than the Speed of Light” in which he descrbes the physics with clear prose and the sociology with well-placed profanity. The book describes double standard which we will see in this essay again and again: the old idea is true by circular reasoning (or even utter nonsense) while any new idea must be proven; the old idea can be supported by plausible guesses (or even loud shouting) but the new idea requires hard evidence.

For physicists, VSL seemed radical. A changing speed of light “sounds funny” but that’s meaningless — all interesting ideas “sound funny” at first. There’s no theory or experiment that tells us the speed of light can’t change over astronomical time so actually VSL isn’t silly, VSL isn’t silly at all (sorry).

Einstein’s theory of relativity “sounded funny” to the editor of the journal he sent it to. That editor later said he was pretty sure Einstein’s theory was wrong (it sounded crazy to him) but he published it anyway because the theory was laid out carefully and physicists had not at the time pierced the mystery of Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations so why not let Einstein speak his “crazy” because what if he’s right?

Einstein said Maxwell’s equations were telling us that the speed of light is a hard limit. Of course it “sounds funny” and, in fact, if particle accelerators had been invented before Einstein, the speed limit and the (really magical as far as I’m concerned) conversion of energy into matter and all the rest would have been a huge shock and would have had the physics community (and the whole world) reeling with the implications. Instead, because of a fearless journal editor, Einstein predicted all of it decades before the first accelerators were built and all he did (in hindsight) is take Maxwell’s equations seriously.

However, Maxwell’s equations say nothing about the speed of light thirteen billion years ago. Now, because of one particularly stubborn physicist, we have VSL to explore that question. The problem I have is that the “four horsemen” almost thrust a sword through the heart of a new idea. We were very fortunate VSL survived.

Kuhn concluded his famous “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” with the idea that the resistance to new ideas was natural and normal. It is certainly normal in that it is commonly practiced but I will claim here that it is NOT natural. The idea that the authoritative version of reality is the one and only correct version is, I claim, taught to us by a strict hierarchy that we have come to accept as natural. But the “reality by authority” that almost stopped the VSL cosmologists in their tracks (actually it did stop them for at least ten years) is ultimately irrational, even dangerously irrational.

A word of warning: in the next few examples, people die.

The Touchstone of Rationality

The engineers said don’t launch. It wasn’t complicated. There were five engineers involved who knew the space shuttle’s systems better than anyone. Usually, the engineers found themselves explaining to their bosses and to NASA administrators why an apparent problem wasn’t actually a safety concern. Safety was everything. Space flight was dangerous and no one wanted the space shuttle to explode or fall to pieces on re-entry or anything like that.

So the engineers would check everything ten times and document like crazy. That way, when everything was ready for launch, they (the engineers) would be ready to address any concerns their bosses or NASA administrators might have.

But everything turned upside down on a cold day in January 1986. The cold was historic and the engineers on the “O-ring Task Force” knew a delay was necessary: the shuttle can’t safely launch below freezing. The shuttle wasn’t cleared for operation at any temperature below forty degrees fahrenheit. And the o-rings might be a problem at temperatures below fifty degrees. Since it was going to be in the twenties on launch day, the launch would have to be delayed a couple of days until the weather warmed up.

But a preconceived notion had grabbed hold of a NASA administrator. He didn’t want the launch delayed. There had been many delays on other shuttle launches. This particular administrator had no problem with delays and was actually quite adept and making absolutely sure the engineers had covered every detail of launch safety — when in doubt put safety first and don’t launch was his motto.

No one knows exactly why this one NASA administrator changed his tune on that day. Apparently pressure was coming from somewhere but no one ever found out where. The president was giving the state of the union address that night and had a shuttle mention in his speech but there’s no evidence anyone from the white house was pushing for a launch under any and all circumstances. So the NASA administrator’s motivation remains a mystery.

One way or another the preconceived idea that the launch had to happen had him by the throat like a Bengal tiger grabbing a child from behind. He said he wanted the launch to happen and nothing the engineers said could dissuade him. We will lay out the details below just to see how a person in the grip of a preconceived notion uses the “four horsemen” to sound rational. But, in fact, this NASA administrator was a lot closer to insanity than he was to rationality.

He wasn’t really insane though, he just got stuck on a preconceived notion. It would have been okay but the four management people at the rocket engine company whose okay was necessary for the launch to proceed got caught up in the insanity. Responding to pressure from the NASA guy, all four of them overruled the five horrified engineers and decided to go ahead and launch even though all five unanimously said don’t even think about launching are you insane?

The engineers didn’t actually state it that strongly and they didn’t throw things and they didn’t threaten to call the newspapers or the president or anything like that. They were very clear on not launching, said it repeatedly, even drew pictures, and went so far as to mutter dark things about impending disaster. But they didn’t yell or threaten or get violent. For the rest of their lives, they felt intense guilt at not having done enough to save the astronauts who knew nothing of the discussions between NASA and the rocket company.

Had the shuttle crew been privvy to the discussions there would have been no launch. That’s a hypothetical but would you fly in a space shuttle if all of the engineers involved in the decision process said launching in twenty-degree weather was too dangerous to even consider? Would you say okay if the launch was cancelled and then uncancelled because a NASA administrator reversed his usual stance about safety and said he wanted to launch no matter what over the objections of the engineers?

What happened was truly insane and yet, I claim, this kind of thing goes on all the time. Preconceived notions really are like Bengal tigers. As you know from the preface, I’ve fallen victim to wishful thinking. You may have too. Christa McAuliffe and the six other astronauts died from it: the shuttle exploded after launching and the cockpit arced into the ocean crushing the crew instantly as McAuliffe’s high school students watched on live television.

The “dialog” below is a fictionalized discussion between the engineers and the administrator/managers (called “Bosses” here) that we can imagine took place before the launch. The statements I use are culled from actual statements made before and after the launch.

Everything came out during the hearings of the presidential commission in which Sally Ride, Richard Feynman, and others questioned everyone involved. My dialog is not real of course but is meant to capture the reality which is laid out in detail in a book called “Truth, Lies, and O-rings” written by one of the engineers who tried to stop the launch.

Engineers: We can’t launch today. The o-rings won’t seal in this kind of cold. They get hard and bricklike and they won’t work. If the primary and secondary o-rings both fail, gases will mix and the shuttle will explode. We all agree and so we are cancelling the launch.

Bosses: What do you mean you’re cancelling the launch? On what basis?

Engineers: Temperature.

Bosses: But there’s never been a temperature issue before.

Engineers: It’s never been this cold before.

Bosses: Why should cold make the shuttle unsafe?

Engineers: The o-rings that keep the engine from exploding are made of rubber. They don’t work in the cold.

Bosses: Can you prove that?

Engineers: No, we can’t prove it. We know the material becomes less resilient so we expect that it won’t work as well as the temperature goes down.

Bosses: But that’s not a quantitative statement. That’s just a general comment. We need this quantified.

Engineers: We can’t quantify it. All we know is the rubber will get hard at low temperatures. And the o-rings have never worked properly, even at much warmer temperatures.

Bosses: What do mean the o-rings don’t work? They work fine.

Engineers. No, they don’t. The coldest launch so far was at 53 degrees and one of the o-rings failed completely. If the one next to it had also failed, we would have lost the shuttle. We didn’t have any other complete failures but even at the warmest launch we’ve had so far at 75 degrees, there was a close call with an o-ring.

Bosses: Aha! So you had a failure in the cold and then no failure when it was slightly warmer and then a partial failure when it was very warm.

Engineers: Yes, the o-rings don’t work well even under good conditions. We shouldn’t launch under 53 degrees.

Bosses: But your temperature data is inconclusive. When it gets warmer than 53 degrees, the o-rings work and then at 75 there’s a close call so you haven’t proven that temperature is the deciding factor here.

Engineers: No, we haven’t proven it but why should we launch below freezing when the o-rings don’t work perfectly even when it’s warm?

Bosses: To cancel the launch we need quantititive statements backed by conclusive evidence. You’ve given us neither. You haven’t proven your case.

Engineers: But even if you forget about the o-rings, the official engine specifications only go as low as 40 degrees so if the o-rings don’t stop the launch the 40-degree limit should.

Bosses: But now you’re being inconsistent. First you say we shouldn’t launch below 53 degrees and then you throw in the 40-degree number. We can’t use temperature as a guide if you don’t provide us with consistent information. Logically therefore, we should ignore both temperature limits. (This argument was actually made again during the televised hearings.)

Engineers: Logically you should ignore . . . what are you even saying?

Bosses: We need conclusive, consistent, quantitative analysis. And besides, the secondary o-ring has always held just fine hasn’t it?

Engineers: Yes, so far.

Bosses: So it’s quite possible that even if the primary o-ring fails in the cold, the secondary o-ring will hold, right?

Engineers: Yes, it’s possible.

Bosses: So it’s safe to launch then. Nothing to worry about.

Engineers: Look, here’s a picture of the o-ring system. If the two o-rings fail simultaneously, the gases will mix here and the shuttle goes boom.

Bosses: We’ve decided not to worry and it’s no longer your responsibility.

Engineers: But you’re reversing the usual standard of proof for shuttle missions. Concerns don’t have to be proven. Safety does. If there’s a concern we always delay. We’ve done it many times. Why are we reversing everything now.

Bosses: We just are.

Engineers: But what will you say to an investigating committee if the shuttle blow up?

Bosses: We’ll just accuse them being “Monday morning quarterbacks.” (One of the managers actually did this.)

Engineers: But that wouldn’t do anything for the seven astronauts or their families.

Bosses: And we can also always lie about why the launch was uncancelled. We can say it was because one of you engineers thought the secondary o-ring might hold. (They tried this one too but Dr. Ride saw right through it.) Now we’ll need a signature to launch.

Engineers: You’ve never needed a signature before.

Bosses: Well now we need one since we’re launching when we know we shouldn’t (he didn’t openly say this but no previous launch had required a signature so it was pretty obvious the NASA guy was trying to protect himself just in case).

Engineers: You won’t get one from any of us. We think you’re insane (the engineers refused to sign anything but did not use the word “insane” though they wished afterward that they had been more forceful).

Bosses: No problem, one of us will sign and fax it over to NASA.

As you can see, all four “horsemen” were present for this disaster: we don’t need proof but you do and our evidence can be a maybe, possibly, could be but your evidence has to be perfect.

The crazy part is the shuttle actually might very well have launched safely even with temperatures in the twenties. Most of the o-rings held even at that low temperature. The one that failed dooming the shuttle had been exposed to cold gases venting from the liquid oxygen in the shuttle’s external tank. The failed o-ring was actually at about ten degrees. Had there been more wind before launch, the cold gases might have cleared and the shuttle might have survived.

Had that happened the bosses would have said, “I told you so.” But, of course, getting lucky is not the same as being rational. The o-rings were at the edge of their ability to function so there was no room for an unexpected problem. The cold gases coupled with the wishful thinking of the bosses killed the astronauts.

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 decided to overdo it and they directed the engineers to test the new system under absurdly bad conditions that would never happen in a real launch. The engineers now objected that the bosses were overcompensating for their previous mistake and expecting too much from the o-ring system. But the bosses insisted and the system was tested with almost every part purposely damaged.

It still worked. So they had really created a bulletproof o-ring system. Meanwhile, back at NASA, engineers and bosses were becoming even more separated than they were before. By 2003 it was difficult for engineers to get heard at all. When a piece of insulation broke off from the external tank and struck the shuttle wing during launch, the engineers on the “Debris Assessment Team” worried that the shuttle, safely in orbit, would not be able to withstand re-entry and that the wing would break off and the shuttle would fall apart and burn up.

The engineers knew what to do: satellites needed to be redirected to take pictures of the wing to assess the damage and the astronauts needed to do a spacewalk to get a hands-on look. Then, with a clear idea about the damage, a plan could be worked out for either repairing the wing if needed or rescuing the astronauts if the wing was broken beyond repair (which it was).

The engineers got the ball rolling on their plan but were blocked by an adminsitrator who decided everything was fine without even consulting with the engineers all of whom knew that everything was NOT fine. The shuttle disintegrated when it re-entered the atmosphere with a damaged wing and the crew of the Columbia could now be added to the crew of the Challenger as casualties of our penchant for wishful thinking.

Fifteen years before, after the first shuttle was destroyed, Feynman, as a member of the investigating committee warned that the culture at NASA had denial of reality built in and needed changing. “Nature cannot be fooled,” he wrote. But nothing changed.

It’s a little painful for me. Richard Feynman, the great Nobel Laureate, one of the most amazing physicists of all time tried to champion rationality and failed. What hope to I have? But I persist. What else can we do but make the effort? All of these efforts, whether it’s Kuhn, or Feynman, or little old me, might add up to something, someday.

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

In the late 1570’s, a series of courtly diversions began coming out of Queen Elizabeth’s court. The Queen loved the plays as did Londoners in general. They were great fun partly because the anonymous author had a way with words and partly because the author, alone among Elizabethan playwrights, could openly make delicious fun of high-born courtiers. The plays were loaded with insider quips. Even the Queen herself was not immune though she was treated with kid gloves as opposed to the bare knuckles used on Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Burleigh, and others.

It’s not surprising, under the circumstances, that the word “popular” doesn’t quite capture the way the plays landed with the public. Take the Harry Potter series four hundred years later for example. J. K. Rowling’s stories were as popular as any one series can be in modern times but they were nothing compared to the Shakespeare plays, a series of works whose sheer dominance amongst Londoners had never been seen before and has never been matched since.

The Queen, never one to shy away from pitting courtiers one against the other, went “all in” as we would say today in her support for Shakespeare. Not least among her reasons was the fact that the history plays in particular celebrated loyalty to the divine monarch in a way that was most useful at a time when England faced many enemies. Centuries later, when London was being bombed from the air using technology that Queen Elizabeth the First could have scarcely imagined, Henry V was shown on film to awaken patriotism and stiffen the sinew of war-weary Londoners.

Records from the Elizabethan period are spotty so we don’t have firm dates for any of the plays. Many weren’t even mentioned until decades later when the entire thirty-six-play canon suddenly appeared all at once. But it seems that Hamlet was popular by the late 1580’s because satirist Thomas Nashe threw off a quip about being beseiged by whole Hamlets of tragical speeches. No plays called Hamlet or works of any kind by that name are mentioned anywhere else before Nashe’s quip. But that’s typical. The plays at this time were anonymous, the name “Shakespeare” hadn’t yet appeared at all, and none of the plays were published — they were put on again and again but records are few and far between.

The plays drew not only on knowledge of Queen Elizabeth’s court but also on a wide range of classical literature from many countries in many languages. The playwright often made use of work that had yet to be translated. Many of the plays use reworked plotlines from classical literature, a respectful homage to the past as far as Elizabethans were concerned. The playwright was well versed in legal matters, foreign lands, falconry, botany, medicine, astronony, music, and many other areas. Whoever wrote the plays was among the most erudite writers who ever lived.

One of the plays showed up in a novel by Robert Greene in the mid 1580’s. Greene was a bit of a hack — he was accused of plagiarism — and his novel had plot, characters, and lines from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. There’s not record of the play being put on until more than twenty years later and it wasn’t published as a Shakespeare play until all thirty-six appeared en masse almost forty years later.

Going back to 1577, there was a play called A History of Error that was quite popular and often just called Errors. There’s no definite first performance for Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors which appeared in print, again, decades later when the whole canon showed up just like that. A Comedy of Errors is often thought of as Shakespeare’s first play. Certainly it is an early play and it may indeed date back to 1577 when it was called A History of Error. 

Five other plays form the core of early Shakespeare and the evidence for these plays is far better because the scripts found their way into the bootleggers’ stables and from there into print sometimes with an anonymous author and sometimes with the Shakespeare byline. Early versions King Lear, King John, Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew, and Richard III were all probably performed sometime in the 1580’s and published by bootleggers in the following decades. The early versions differ substantially from later versions some of which were also published by bootleggers and some of which didn’t appear until the big reveal much later.

In the early version of Richard III, there’s a line that says, “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!” In the later version, the line was revised to the famous and memorable, “A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!” In general, the early and late versions of these five plays have the same plots, characters, and lines as the early versions with much improvement and expansion in the later versions. All of the versions have Shakespeare’s trademark made-up words (he is the undisputed champion of made-up words many of which became part of the English language because of him) and other Shakespeare “fingerprints.”

So we don’t know precisely how much of the canon existed by 1590 but certainly there was enough to get the Queen interested. She wanted the plays performed in her name, so she ordered her top national security man to poach the best actors from London’s top acting companies and create the Queen’s Men, the largest acting company ever created in England up to that point. This was the middle 1580’s. Also at this time, the Queen’s national security guy set up England’s leading court playwright with an unprecedented yearly stipend which made him the highest paid participant in Elizabeth’s government.

England’s literary earl was famous at the time as a playwright though he never published a play with his name on it. His genius in childhood had been noted by his tutors. His uncle, Arthur Golding, was also a literary type though more puritanical than his wild genius of a nephew. Golding translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which later became Shakespeare’s most important source) and also invented the fourteen-line abab cdcd efef gg sonnet form now known as a Shakespearean sonnet. Golding praised his nephew’s ability and dedicated work to him.

The literary earl, though highly praised for his writing ability, was wild and irresponsible. He often asked the Queen for positions of responsibility and was always turned down. But he was touted at the time and even a few decades after his death as a literary god and as the best of the court playwrights and even sometimes as the best Elizabethan playwright period. But there were no bylines. By the time he had been dead half a century, he had been forgotten. Historians have only recently rediscovered his prominence while he lived though it is still, technically, unknown what plays he wrote. All we know for sure is that the Queen was paying him an amount of money that was more than a salary for a top government official but less than what she spent to prop up a foreign ally — so an unusually large amount by any standard but, unfortunately, nowhere is it documented what the money was for. Maybe the Queen appreciated his pretty eyes, we don’t know.

The literary earl was wildly generous and very good at spending money in general. One of the things he did with his money was hire two literary secretaries: Anthony Munday and John Lyly. Munday wrote a play called Sir Thomas More but he clearly had some help: one of the scenes is universally regarded as pure Shakespeare. Of all Elizabethan authors, John Lyly was closest to Shakespeare in style indicating to scholars a close collaboration. Of course the literary earl was at the center of the Elizabethan literary so he knew everyone, but the fact that he hired the two writers whose close connections to Shakespeare were established long before the Queen’s playwright was rediscovered by historians is an interesting coincidence to say the least. So far, it looks a bit like the literary earl might have been Shakespeare.

But in the 1590’s, the name Shakespeare finally appears on a published work and, at about the same time, a man named Shakespeare appears on the London. This is where the story gets interesting.

In 1593 and 1594, two epic Ovidian poems were beautifully published. They included dedicatory letters to the Earl of Southampton with the name “William Shakespeare” printed beneath. Finally, the author of Hamlet, King Lear, King John, Taming of the Shrew, Richard III, and many other plays put on for the stage but unpublished had a name.

But the epic poems didn’t just introduce the name “William Shakespeare” to the world: they are the first and last Shakespeare works to be published with the help of the author. No other Shakespeare has an author’s dedication. The plays which began to come out in print soon after the epic poems not only lacked dedications, they were a mess with missing lines and mixed up or even missing scenes — sometimes half the play would be missing. All of these publications are universally acknowledged to be bootlegs. Publishers would get their hands on bits and pieces of a play and patch it together as best they could without any contact with the author. This is not controversial as bootleg literature is as identifiable as bootleg whiskey: one whiff is sufficient.

Also in the 1590’s the author is writing sonnets. They are known to exist and known to be circulating privately amongst the author’s’ “private friends” but the now-famous Sonnets are not bootlegged until much later. The Sonnets apparently address Shakespeare’s dedicatee, the Earl of Southampton. The young earl isn’t named directly but most scholars regard Southampton as the leading (or even the obvious) candidate for the person often called the “fair youth” of the Sonnets by scholars. The author called his subject “O thou my lovely boy . . .” and gave him a lot of advice and encouragement.

The first bunch of Sonnets urge the lovely boy to get married and produce an heir: “make thee another self for love of me.” At this time (the early 1590’s) Southampton had been ordered by the great Lord Burleigh, the Queen’s closest advisor and the most powerful man in England, to marry Burleigh’s grand-daughter. It was an order but also a pretty good offer given the power of Burleigh’s family. We know our friend Burleigh was already thinking about the royal succession as the Queen had no legitimate children (if she had any children while Queen, they were unacknowledged) and so there was no heir to the throne. So setting up a powerful young earl with the Burleigh family was HUGE deal that even impact the royal succession itself.

Southampton wasn’t sure he wanted to join the family of the puritanical Burleigh. Everyone was on tenterhooks for years about what Southampton would do.

Ultimately, the somewhat rash Southampton refused the match. He eventually tried to control the royal succession backed by his own pathetic little band. But here’s a rule of Elizabethan politics that we can state unequivocally in hindsight: don’t mess with the Burleigh clan. Southampton was outwitted by Burleigh’s son who had spies everywhere just like his father. The somewhat stupid earl ended up in the Tower under a death sentence for treason. There he sat watching his co-conspirators executed one by one.

But somehow the Queen couldn’t bring herself to let Southampton die (she had killed a number of earls in her day, maybe she couldn’t stomach another one). Southampton’s sentence was commuted though he remained in the Tower, confined but with his head still attached to his body. A couple of years later, the Queen died and Southampton was released. No one knows why Southampton survived or what was so special about him. When he was released, the new King James I rewarded him with a nice promotion but also kept him under tight leash, coddling but not trusting the now-free earl who had been convicted of treason.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets continued to offer unconditional love, support, and guidance to the earl through the marriage drama, during his imprisonment, after his release, and all the time in between. The Sonnets tell the earl he is special and that the Sonnets are his monument that will last forever. The ebullient Sonnet 107 celebrates the release of Southampton who was “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom” and notes death of the Queen (often called the Moon) by saying “the mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured” and exults at the peaceful transfer of power to the new King James by saying “incertainties now crown themselves assured and peace proclaims olives of endless age.” To Southampton he says, “And though in this shalt find thy monument when tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.”

Again, Southampton’s status in Elizabethan politics is a bit of a mystery. Obviously, there’s no video or recordings or photographs and there are limited documents. But we do know something interesting. The literary earl, the guy with the gigantic stipend and the connection to Munday and Lyly was also connected to Southampton. In some sense of course all earls were connected with one another, but in this case the Queen’s playwright just happened to be the father of the bride: Burleigh’s grand-daughter who was also the literary earl’s eldest daughter. Other than that, we don’t know much about Southampton’s connection to the literary earl. If they exchanged letters, they’ve been lost.

So now we’ve got the literary earl connected to Munday, Lyly, AND Southampton, the three most important people in the story of Shakespeare. But this is circumstantial evidence and the guy actually named Shakespeare is about to show up in the story.

After the second epic poem was published, plays started to get published, finally. They didn’t have a byline yet but the bootleggers started to print whatever scripts they could get their hands on. Some bootlegging of course was part of the game for any Elizabethan playwright and they typically took steps to protect themselves against the practice. Centuries later, scholars like Harold Bloom wondered why Shakespeare, alone among Elizbethan playwrights, eschewed relationships with publishers. Other playwrights were bootlegged but not like Shakespeare.

Between 1594 and 1598, Shakespeare plays were bootlegged but with no byline — all were still anonymous. Finally, in 1598, some of the bootlegs began to sport the byline though the name “Shakespeare” would appear sporadically on plays from then on.

While all this was going on, in the mid 1590’s, a man named William Shakespeare, a real estate mogul from Stratford, appeared in London. One way or another, he became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. He had the money to simply buy his way in. Or he may have been made a shareholder in exchange for producing work that the acting company could then put on in its theaters. We don’t really know because the documents identifying the businessman from Stratford as a shareholder don’t say anything about writing plays.

This William Shakespeare — there were half a dozen other William Shakespeares near London as it was a common name in those days — appears to be about twenty years too late to be THE Shakespeare.

But if he is THE Shakespeare, it means he was not only the greatest Elizabethan playwright, he would also have to be the most egregious Elizabethan plagiarist. He would have to have stolen Richard III from whoever wrote it and altered “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!” to the more memorable line while keeping the plot and characters more or less intact. The same goes for the rest or for much of the rest of 1580’s Shakespeare — King Lear, King John, Henry V, and Taming of the Shrew. The Hamlet with its “tragical speeches” quipped about by Nashe would seem to be some other Hamlet written by someone else. Mainstream scholars trying to fit the businessman from Stratford into the Shakespeare timeline usually refer to this other Hamlet as the “ur-Hamlet” with “ur” meaning “original.” The idea is that since Hamlet is a mature work, it’s not expected to have been famous in 1580’s London. Finally, the novel written by Robert Greene containing much of The Winter’s Tale including word-for-word passages would have to be original to Greene, the minor plagiarist, and plagiarized much later by Shakespeare, the super-plagiarist.

In the case of Hamlet and the “ur-Hamlet” we don’t know if he stole and improved tragical speeches or if he only took the title from whoever wrote 1580’s Shakespeare. The stolen works are sometimes called “sources” by biographers and they do tend to avoid the term “plagiarist” though scholars are not shy about noting that the Stratford businessman copied word-for-word in some cases. One biographer uses the term “accomplished parasite” to describe the erudite businessman who evidently knew some good works when he saw them.

Having the Stratford businessman write Lear, John, Richard, Henry, Shrew, Winter’s, and Hamlet in the 1580’s and thereby avoiding the plagiarism (or the “source”) issue isn’t typically done. In theory, he could have snuck up to London earlier than anyone currently believes but he was just a bit young. In 1580, the future real estate mogul/great author was a teenager learning the trade from his father who was never quite the wheeler dealer that his son became. A sixteen year-old Stratford teenager showing up in London, cultivating court insiders, and blowing everyone away starting in 1580 just doesn’t work for biographers and so we have the mystery of who wrote the 1580’s versions of five plays and the mystery of why the greatest writer in England would copy a hack like Robert Greene.

Biographers also have to face up to the Sonnets, heartfelt poetry apparently written to a great earl (Southampton) telling him how to live his life. They realize that “Make the another self for love of me” is strong language. One biographer thinks the real estate mogul with a way with words and a talent for plagiarism must have been hired by Southampton’s family to write to the young earl from their point of view. Other biographers set aside the Sonnets as “mostly not personal” and deride anyone who regards them as personal writings as “voyeurs” (yes, really). Other biographers postulate a relationship between the commoner from Stratford and the young earl which has the virtue of possibly explaining how the Stratford businessman knew so much about Queen Elizabeth’s court.

I don’t think anyone would make fun of mainstream Shakespeare biographers (they call themselves “Shakespearians” to distinguish themselves from people who think the Queen’s playwright may have been Shakespeare; yes, really) if any of the real estate mogul’s neighbors in Stratford had ever referred to him as a writer. Biographers note that these people knew him as a shrewd businessman ONLY and even specifically note that they never refer to him as the greatest writer in England or as any kind of writer at all. If Shakespeare had left behind a library or manuscripts or letters, biographers would have an easier time. But, according to the record, he owned more houses (five) than books (zero). Meanwhile, his business activities, business connections, business-related court appearances, business failures, and business successes have all been exceptionally well documented.

Another pressing issue for biographers is that the greatest writer in history appears to have been unable to write his own name. Signatures from Elizabethan times exist in large numbers; there are five signatures on the pile of legal documents that cover the life of the wealthy Stratford businessman named Shakespeare. Unfortunately, mainstream scholars note, the five signatures exhibit five different handwritings in a world, mainstream biographers remind us,  where a hallmark of literacy was person’s distinctive signature.

One mainstream biographer suggests that the five different signatures could be evidence of Shakespeare’s “teeming imagination.” Another mainstream biographer suggest logistics as a possible explanation — maybe Shakespeare had others sign legal documents for him because he couldn’t be present or perhaps wasn’t able to write for a physical reason such as illness or injury. But there are hundreds of extant signatures for Elizabethan writers. Except for the real estate guy, every signature of every Elizabethan writer qualifies as a signature in the conventional sense of the term — a personalized enscription that identifies the person wielding the pen.

I’m not happy about any of this not so much because it bothers me that Shakespeare biographers use their imagination when the feel the need to. It seems they use their imagination a little bit more often than I would like though. I took a classic Shakespeare biography and a classic Ben Jonson biography and picked a series of random numbers and then went to those pages in the two biographies. In the Jonson biography I found out about incribed books Jonson gave as gifts, letters he wrote, commissions he got for writing, patrons he lived with for a time, Jonson’s stay at a college, a poem he composed for a friend who died, and what people said about him and his writing when he died.

The result of the experiment with the Shakespeare biography was actually predictable: I learned about catholicism in England, the importance of virginity at marriage, plays put on in Stratford, the Tower of London, guesses about Shakespeare’s physical appearance, the idea the Sonnets are unsolvable riddles, a will that just mentions business things.

The truth is, even with all the documents that exist about Shakespeare’s life, it isn’t possible to write a biography of the writer Shakespeare the way it is possible to write a Jonson biography. This doesn’t mean the Stratford guy isn’t Shakespeare but what gets me is that the mainstream, even though they know everything I’ve written here, still says they are SURE they are right about who wrote the plays. They use their imagination A LOT but imagination in this case just seems like an attempt to force the evidence to fit a pre-conceived notion.

I’m all in favor of imagination, but it’s like a hot cast-iron pan, you have to be careful with it. One could imagine the space shuttle’s o-rings holding in the cold. But that doesn’t mean you launch.

It’s beginning to look like the mainstream may finally have to drop the pretense that the real estate guy can be shoe-horned into Shakespeare. This is because we now know that in the early 1600’s, The Tempest was played in Germany. So a composition date of about 1602 or even earlier is likely for this play. And The Tempest may well have been Shakespeare’s last play as many, many mainstream scholars have long assumed.

If Shakespeare was done writing in 1602 and began in the 1590’s, he is hard-pressed to write thirty-six plays. There’s just not enough time, not even for Shakespeare. Mainstream dating used to put The Tempest at 1610 and much of 1580’s Shakespeare on someone else’s pen. That way they get 1590-1610 as the core of the author’s productive years which is barely enough time especially given the businessman’s other job as a businessman.

But if the true dates are closer to 1580-1600, that doesn’t fit the Stratford wheeler-dealer’s life very well at all.

By the way, calling the Stratford Shakespeare a “wheeler-dealer” is not meant to impugn his morals. He was a good investor and an asset to his community. For example he gave money to local farmers in Stratford so that they would have the capital they needed to get their farms going and then as the harvests came in over the years he got a return on his investment. Everyone did well as a result. It’s not bad to be an investor. It’s just a question of whether he was just an investor or was he ALSO the greatest writer in England.

In the long run, the debate about the date of The Tempest may turn out to be quite important. We will have occasion to come back to this question (briefly). For now, we can just say that the certainty of scholars regarding Shakespeare has been grossly overstated. It’s a good thing no lives are at stake this time.

Let us keep moving forward chronologically because even though the usual theory of who wrote the plays (i.e., the real estate guy from Stratford) seems just a bit ridiculous at this point in the story, there actually is a reason the businessman is thought to have also been the great author and that reason comes up just a couple of decades down the road so hang on, you may have occasion to change your mind if you are finding yourself leaning toward the Queen’s playwright.

In 1604, the literary earl died. In 1609, the Sonnets were finally published. In the prefatory material of the Sonnets, the publisher calls Shakespeare “our ever-living poet.” This phrase is taken from a eulogy in one of Shakespeare’s plays so it seem rather appropriate in the publication of the Sonnets but only if the author is dead. The real estate guy was still alive, however.

The Sonnets themselves, one might say, explain everything. They are Shakespeare’s only first-person writing that has survived. In the Sonnets we’ve already seen that Shakespeare had a high opinion of his own writing ability — his words would outlast solid objects. “Such virtue hath my pen,” he tells us.

Two lines in the Sonnets seem to make everything clear about what the name “Shakespeare” signifies especially if one is already leaning toward the literary earl as the most likely Shakespeare. The Sonnets celebrate Southampton and the works (epic poems, plays, and sonnets) were attributed to “William Shakespeare” — the name was quite famous. The Sonnets will last forever. But their author will be forgotten. Shakespeare’s put it like this in Sonnet 81.

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

It seems like the “ever-living poet” was dead by 1609 and it seems like he died assuming that he would not be remembered even though he would live on through his writing.

It seems pretty clear if you have reason to believe the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare. On the other hand, if you have reason to believe the real estate guy was Shakespeare, you can argue that this is all a misinterpretation. Maybe “our ever-living poet” wasn’t a eulogy at all and maybe the author of Sonnet 81 wasn’t saying he was using a pseudonym, maybe he meant something else. The mainstream doesn’t say much about the Sonnets except that they are unsolvable riddles. Mainstreamers counsel us to refrain from assuming the Sonnets are in any way autobiographical — “voyeuristic pleasures” might feel good but might lead us astray.

Fear not! We’re almost to the point where the mainstream theories start to make sense, just a few more years to go.

In 1616 the real estate mogul named Shakespeare died quietly in Stratford. He left behind a three-page will describing his land, barns, stables, five houses, and a lot of cash that would go to his daughters and their progeny. He also mentioned a number of business associates including three members of the London acting company in which he at one point held shares. The shares themselves aren’t mentioned in the will so he may have disposed of them previously. But his fellow acting company members are listed by name in the will.

The will, you will not be surprised to hear, did not mention publishers or Southampton or other writers or manuscripts or books or art or maps or musical instruments but it was written by legal types and was pretty dry just like many wills of the period including the wills of literate people. It would have been nice if a publisher had been mentioned as in Samuel Daniels’s will but we weren’t so lucky.

And now we arrive at the First Folio. In 1623, the Earl of Montgomery suddenly came up with all the Shakespeare plays about half of which had not been published in any form, including bootlegs. Macbeth and Julius Caesar for example would have been lost to us if not for the Earl of Montgomery and even the plays that had been bootlegged wouldn’t be quite the same without the First Folio. This is the great compilation of Shakespeare plays that gave us the Shakespeare we know and love.

In the First Folio, the preface tells us directly and unequivocally who wrote Shakespeare. And it doesn’t say anything about the literary earl.

The First Folio directly says Shakespeare of Stratford, the William Shakespeare who showed up in London maybe a bit late to the party but who became a shareholder in the acting company, was the author. It says the acting company had held onto all the plays and the acting company shareholders were now giving the plays to the Earl of Montgomery free and clear with, they emphasized, no thought of profit for themselves but just so that their old pal Shakespeare (who, we recall, mentioned his acting company buddies in his will and left them a bit of cash) would be remembered by posterity. They note that all that terrible bootlegging is now at an end and this is the real Shakespeare.

The First Folio is the reason most professors think the real estate mogul named Shakespeare who showed up in London in the 1590’s and became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company was Shakespeare the writer. There’s nothing that needs to be interpreted. The commentary in the preface reads like marketing copy (these are great, the real thing, not that stolen stuff you’ve been subjected to, we do love our Shakespeare and we knew him well, we don’t care about profit, whatever you do buy, etc., etc.,) but there is nothing unclear about it: it says the businessman was the author.

It’s been almost four hundred years since the First Folio was published. Most scholars still believe the prefatory material identifies the author. But about thirty years ago, a student came to the professors at the University of Masschusetts at Amherst and said he thought it was obvious that the First Folio attribution can’t be taken seriously and perhaps was never meant to be taken seriously and that it was also obvious that the literary earl who was lost to history for a while but who has now been rediscovered and who was the Queen’s playwright and who was in the right place at the right time was the only person who could have been Shakespeare.

The graduate student at UMass wanted to write his dissertation showing in detail how the literary earl, and in particular a bible owned by the literary earl, was connected to the works of Shakespeare. This would be a Ph.D. thesis in comparative literature at a highly regarded institution. It’s an important question, the student argued, because if the literary earl was Shakespeare, it completely changes our view of the plays. For example, if the literary earl wrote Hamlet, then Shakespeare’s most famous play is actually a stunning work of heartfelt autobiography.

The professors said it was fine with them for the student to write his Ph.D. thesis about the connection between the literary earl and the plays effectively putting their stamp of approval on the idea that it was a legitimate question to ask who wrote the plays. This student is now a professor at a little college somewhere or other and is still doing research. Recently he published work basically proving that The Tempest, Shakespeare’s probable last play, was written in the early 1600’s, not 1610 as previously thought. As noted above, this does a lot of damage to the Stratford timeline because it doesn’t leave the real estate guy enough time to write thirty-six plays.

The work on The Tempest that some say is the final nail in the coffin of the Stratford businessman was praised by no less than Oxford University Press, an institution in possession of full understanding of the stakes involved. So I’m going to claim here that it’s official: it is no longer clear who wrote the plays and that’s not just my little opinion.

In fact, I think that big old thing that the mainstream claims they are absolutely sure about — the guy who appears to have owned five houses and zero books wrote the plays and the Queen’s playwright didn’t — is not only not certain but is also at best a terrible bet. Knowing what you know now, what odds would you give the mainstream’s Shakespeare of being THE Shakespeare? An illiterate guy from Stratford who shows up twenty years too late and who couldn’t possibly know enough to write the plays is Shakespeare? Really? Could mainstream biographers really be absolutely sure of THAT?

I admit I wouldn’t want my life to depend on Shakespeare being a pseudonym. But as far as odds go, if you want me to put my hard-earned cash on the “Hi, I’m from Stratford and I have this great name but I hurt my hand so would you mind signing for me?” guy, you’re going to have to give me odds. I’ll need a hundred to one which is a far cry from the mainstream’s 99.99% certainty that the old theory is right to the point where they shun their own colleagues if they dare to disagree!!! (Sorry, not allowed, goddammit.)

The mainstream is absolutely sure their guy was THE Shakespeare for two reasons: (1) it says so in the First Folio and (2) he was a shareholder in the acting company. But, they say, he didn’t write 1580’s Shakespeare, instead, he plagiarized the work of other Elizabethan writers. But 1580’s Shakespeare really does look all an awful lot like Shakespeare down to the made-up words. For me, having “someone else” write 1580’s Shakespeare, and having the Sonnets written from the point of view of “someone else” and having “someone else” sign Shakespeare’s legal documents and having “someone else” get all the dirt on Queen Elizabeth’s court, all of which is routine mainstream theorizing, is just too much. If you’re going to fill a Shakespeare biography with “someone elses” maybe you should at least be willing to entertain the possibility that SOMEONE ELSE wrote the plays.

It’s one thing to say we should consider the possibility that the real esate guy is Shakespeare. Of course we should. It says he did in the First Folio. Maybe he did. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that mainstream “scholars” insist that the traditional theory (which as this point is held together with duct tape and glue) is the ONLY theory that can be considered. Even credentialed experts who express any doubts are blocked at every turn. If you point out to a mainstream scholar that the Earl of Montgomery just happened to be married to the daughter of the Queen’s playwright, you will be dismissed as a crackpot.

But UMass Amherst and Oxford University Press have broken ranks. This happened after decades of effort by a lot of people who may not have incontrovertible proof but who have made some very good points and have been studiously ignored by professors and by journals as credentialed crackpots. But it’s really the mainstream professors who are crackpots. The people like the grad student mentioned above are the engineers.

Book after book by mainstream “scholars” basically argue that since it’s possible the real estate guy was Shakespeare, since they can make up a scenario where he was Shakespeare, that means he definitely was. Well, UMass Amherst and Oxford University Press beg to differ and honestly, if an ivy league professor is going to say he KNOWS he is right with the evidence as it stands, there is no point having a discussion because the ivy league professor has deluded himself. The books deriding the idea that there is even a question are a mish-mash of low blows, circular reasoning, and utter nonsense. Now and then such books offer a salient point but they never offer a real discussion (as I hope I have done here).

The reasonable points made by the mainstream propagandists can be easily summarized and are actually much more convincing without the desperate nonsense that makes up the bulk of a mainstream approach. So let’s have a look at the perfectly valid concerns about the literary earl writing Shakespeare. The last thing we want to do is make the same mistake as the mainstream and start wielding false certainty as if it is some sort of weapon. Of course we don’t know for a fact that the literary earl wrote the plays. He probably did, but maybe he didn’t.

There’s no direct evidence tying the literary earl to Shakespeare specifically. Munday, Lyly, and Southampton are compelling connections but a literary earl who was not Shakespeare could have known all three of them. Thus, we know the literary earl wrote something but we don’t technically know what. There are also no letters or diary entries or scrawls in the margins of books in which someone says “well we all know so-and-so wrote Hamlet.” A Shakespeare manuscript in the earl’s handwriting would obviously count as direct evidence (and would have the added bonus of making its owner rich beyond the dreams of avarice) but we have nothing like this. Even a single person questioning in writing the attribution made in the First Folio would be enough to make the case for the literary earl but we don’t have this either. There is not a single handwritten note or bit of commentary identifying the literary earl as Shakespeare while the real estate guy has the First Folio preface as a direct identification.

So there’s no smoking gun unless you count “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die” as a direct statement that the author is using a pseudonym. It sort of is but it’s a poem and it can therefore be interpreted in many ways. So the case for the literary earl is, strictly speaking, circumstantial while the First Folio says directly and simply and unequivocally that the Stratford Shakespeare is THE Shakespeare. You can argue that the First Folio preface is marketing copy written by the people who published it and it does sound like marketing copy but it says what it says and you have to count it as real testimony even if you are suspicious of it.

You now have full overview of the case. You can read up on details and it is a fun thing to do but you won’t get certainty no matter how deep into the weeds you get. The details are great if you want to show off lots of knowledge in a debate or something. But I think debate is pointless.

The liteary earl seems to be the most likely candidate and you could argue about the appropriate odds if you were taking bets on whether the Queen’s playwright or the Stratford wheeler-dealer is the author. Is it 99-1 or 90-10 or 50-50? Take your pick. It doesn’t matter. But I can say I’ve never seen an agrument worth repeating that the Stratford guy is a better bet. Mainstreamers regard the Queen’s playwright vs Stratford businessman as 0.01% to 99.99% and my claim here is that they are insane (dangerously insane if they are overseeing space shuttles).

A favorite author of mine, Michael Hart, wrote a little book about influential people in history and included Shakespeare. In his first edition, he wrote the traditional story of Shakespeare-the-businessman-poet. Someone wrote him a letter recommending that he look into it and he did. In his second edition, he wrote the story of the literary earl in the Shakespeare chapter. He doesn’t regard it as a close call and neither do I.

The whole case hinges on this question: Could an author attribution that started basically as an insider joke among the London literati really have persisted for centuries without any direct evidence that it was nonsense? It’s a fair point. I don’t know the answer. It seems like the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare and it seems like the First Folio pointed to the Stratford businessman as a joke and it seems like that became the official TRUTH and once it did, it was hard to question it and it seems like we just got stuck with a four-hundred-year-old joke that was never really meant to fool anyone. But did we really?

It was an awfully successful joke if that’s what it was.

The “could it have really happened that way” arguments to try to turn a guy without even a signature into the greatest writer in England are not especially compelling to me. I like hard evidence like a literary earl who was famous but who was the only Elizabethan author who didn’t publish anything together with the fact that Shakespeare was the only Elizabethan author who didn’t publish his work. These are inarguable facts and these facts, along with the money directly from the Queen are pretty compelling for me.

Ben Jonson left behind manuscripts, letters, and books and was repeatedly called a writer by people who knew him. Shakespeare of Stratford left behind ample evidence of his many business activities and was repeatedly called a businessman by people who knew him. One manuscript, one letter, one book, one comment from a neighbor about Shakespeare the writer, or even a mention of a publisher or a writer in his will is what I need. The First Folio preface and buying shares in an acting company in the mid-1590’s are important fact but they just don’t cut it for me.

One person analyzing the historical record has noted that for Elizabethan writers, about half of surviving documents from their lifetime identify them as writers. For Shakespeare of Stratford there are about seventy documents and many identify him as a businessman and investor in many different things but ZERO identify him as a writer. Zero. You can’t actually flip seventy tails in a row. From a probabilistic perspective, the Shakespeare of Stratford story is pretty much impossible. Even if you flipped coins for a billion years, you would have almost no chance of getting seventy tails in a row.

For the record, traditional scholars get mad when the “from their lifetime” phrase is used because it excludes the First Folio but there’s a good argument that posthumous evidence shouldn’t be treated the same way as contemporary evidence. In other words, for biographers, documents produced during a person’s lifetime are in a different category from documents produced after the person has died. This is a big bone of contention if one is debating. I don’t personally care about winning a debate though. If the First Folio is on the up and up — as it may well be! — then the real estate guy was the author and my best guess is wrong and if more evidence is turned up someday and I am proven wrong then that’s great. Being wrong means you learn. I love being wrong.

But I’m still going with the Queen’s playwright if I’m betting. There are a few small things from the liteary earl’s life that don’t prove anything but, in a scenario where the truth was going to be revealed and if you had money on the Queen’s playwright, these small things would make you feel better about your chances of raking in the pot as it were.

First, the literary earl published some poetry in his youth which isn’t “smoking gun Shakespearean” but does have some really interesting falconry metaphors in it. The young literary earl uses falconry to represent difficult love affairs in just the way a certain mature author did years later in his plays. Even a search in a fancy literary database (done by the guy who got his Ph.D. questioning the conventional wisdom) turns up exactly two poets from the period who use falconry in this way — the literary earl as a youth and the mature Shakespeare and NO ONE else. So the falconry thing is kind of a fingerprint. And the Stratford people have to explain how their guy learned so much about falconry that he could casually toss off all those metaphors (many of which we now use without even knowing we are quoting Shakespeare).

Here’s another small thing that is kind of fun. When the literary earl was all grown up and a bit wild, he slept with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting (big no-no) and she got pregnant and gave birth and it was a huge scandal and the Queen locked the lovers up for a few weeks (not together). They were released but their families battled it out with swords on the streets of London just like in Romeo and Juliet which may have been written soon after this incident. The mainstream says the play was written many years later. If so, the real estate guy could have heard about the melee between the two families and used it or maybe a sword fight between lovers’ families is just a good literary device. We don’t know but I really like that the sword fights actually show up in the life of the Queen’s playwright.

By the way, mainstreamers would object to my calling him the “Queen’s playwright” on the basis of the stipend. One mainstreamer (a professor) says the unprecedented stipend was a bribe to get him to behave. Another mainstreamer (also a professor) says the unprecedented stipend was charity to keep him solvent because the Queen didn’t want any of her earls to go bankrupt. (The professors are talking about a Queen who regularly killed earls who displeased her.) These are the sorts of arguments I find quite convincing (though not in the way the professors would like).

Finally, there’s one more tidbit from the literary earl’s life that I can’t resist. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the famous pair of couriers whom Hamlet has murdered, happen to appear by name in the literary earl’s life. His brother-in-law went to Denmark as an ambassador and wrote up a document (only available to the nobility) that contains basically the setting for Hamlet and that also has the two names in it (they are common Danish names). Of course, if we assume the real estate mogul from Stratford could read, then he could have read about Danish customs and he could have read the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a book about Denmark and then if we assume he could also write, he could have written Hamlet.

One last thing. I haven’t mentioned the name of the literary earl — who definitely could read and write — because his name is as irrelevant as the name Samuel Clemens. We all know who wrote Mark Twain. It was of course Mark Twain who wrote the great works with that byline. So of course Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. That goes without saying. But who was Shakespeare? Was he an apparently illiterate merchant from Stratford with lots of money and many business contacts? Or was he the leading court playwright at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene whose family published the First Folio?

Is the identification in the First Folio the most misleading joke ever put into print or was it the most important identification of any author ever?

Mark Twain, by the way, thought the fact that Shakespeare wasn’t identified as a writer until after he was dead disqualified him as a candidate. So he just rejected the First Folio attribution out of hand on the grounds that an author of Shakespeare’s stature would surely have left behind a biographical trail in his lifetime. In fact, Shakespeare the businessman did leave behind a substantial biographical trail in his lifetime. His business activities are so well documented that even some mainstream biographers wonder how, with all of the business activity, he could have found the time to write plays. They figure he was such a genius he could be a full time businessman and write on the side. For me, if this is how people who think he wrote the plays are talking, I’m just not buying it.

I can see why Mark Twain scoffed at mainstream “reasoning.” He was quite cynical about it. He figured it would be the 23rd century before the mainstream accepted reality.

But it seems like it’s starting to shift already. We’ve had UMass Amherst and Oxford University Press weighing in in the 21st century. Suppose it does shift and everyone realizes that the real estate guy didn’t write the plays even though a zillion professors say the very idea that they could be wrong about this is silly.

If the shift happens, will it influence people to have more open minds in general? After all, if Shakespeare of Stratford didn’t write Shakespeare then anything is possible. Could it be that this will help people in many different fields actually listen to their credentialed colleagues when they question the conventional wisdom?

I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me. I’m dreaming.


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