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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. 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 track the results of the collisions, collect billions of pieces of data, and eventually turn all that data into a handful of numbers. If successful, I would 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 four in the morning and the polarized target needed to be “flipped.” Giant electromagnets supercooled with liquid helium were making my target polarized in one direction. 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 my target would be polarized the other way and I could collect more billions of data points.

Even amazing geniuses can be electrocuted, so it was important to shut down all the magnets before approaching the big wooden-handled switch that would break the circuit. All I had to do is pull the handle, break the circuit, continue pulling, switch to pushing, and reconnect the circuit with the handle pointing down. Then turn the power back on. It’s easy and safe as long as the coils aren’t full of current when you flip the switch — nature in general is not big on sudden changes.

So of course before I went to that one magnet I shut down every magnet in the experiment just to be sure. I then double-checked that they all read zero. But it was 4 am so I checked once more because I was bleary-eyed and I had the definite notion running around in my head that 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 nasty surprise — take the spark you get if you unplug a toasting toaster and multiply by a thousand.

The key was key so to speak. It meant I couldn’t access a magnet not in my experiment and mess with it and get fried by someone else’s powered=up electromagnet.

So the amazing genius was doing great BUT when he opened the safety gate with the special safety key 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 was which and the amazing genius only recognized one of the labels.

But it was no big deal because there were people around who knew which switch was which. Obviously the amazing genius needed to take a little walk and find a technician who could tell him which magnet was the correct one to flip; the other switch, whatever the hell it was, wouldn’t be touched. But it was late and time was of the essence. Collecting the most data in the shortest time is the fastest route to getting those three letters — P-h-D — after your name before you are too old to enjoy them.

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-exactly-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 be 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, it would be fine.

The magnet “must be” off. I was certain of it and how could I, the amazing genius, 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, I probably wouldn’t die and besides . . . I knew my magnets were off and I knew the key system was foolproof and THEREFORE, for all those good reasons, it wasn’t necessary to go to the trouble of spending a few minutes to find 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 electromagnets. You don’t grab a handle no matter what it’s made of unless you know exactly what you are grabbing and what it is connected to and how much voltage is on it. The safe voltage is zero volts and the safe switch is the one that is labeled properly and the safe electromagnet is the one you know for a fact is powered down.

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

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

I guessed which magnet was the one I wanted to reverse and pulled the wooden handle. Nothing happened. Aha! I was right. The magnet was off. Next, I pushed the handle down and reconnected the magnet with the current reversed. Again, nothing happened . . . sort of.

Nothing happened to the amazing genius but something was wrong with the accelerator. Lights that had been on a moment before were off and lights that were off were now on. The guts of a particle accelerator — filled with room-sized concrete blocks slowly disintegraing from the radiation they are absorbing — is never a pretty sight but now it looked kind of eerie because there had been a sudden change whose details I could not quite put my finger on.

Something was wrong with the lights.

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

I had crashed the main proton beam and stopped everyone’s experiments cold. Apparently there was some sort of “just-in-case” safety relay on that particular magnet which prevented me from finding out what ten-thousand-volts-to-zero looks like up close.

I had heard the aphorism “It’s better to be lucky than smart” and now I knew what it meant. I was amazingly lucky; only my ego got 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.”

It was nice to hear that it wasn’t completely my fault. He continued.

“Not all the relays are low-voltage you know. They need to be labeled properly and they need to be gated properly. Even though you shut down the proton beam in the middle of the night, I don’t think that will get anyone to change anything. Nothing ever happens around here until someone dies.”

So much for feeling better.

I had convinced myself that I was analyzing the situation rationally but really I was just a very smart person fooling himself. I held fast to a preconceived notion — the system with the gates and the keys is foolproof. I thought I was thinking carefully when really I wasn’t thinking at all.

Voila! It took nothing, not a penny of investment, not a joule of energy, not a kiss on the cheek. Just like the pions appearing out of thin air, my preconceived notion magically turned into what I will call in this essay a false paradigm — an idea that is little more than a guess the correctness of which is nevertheless regarded by this or that amazing genius or by large groups of amazing geniuses as so close to absolutely certain as to be beyond question despite the fact that the amazing geniuses are dream-skiing on an imaginary mountain of evidence.

The fact that I didn’t die does not mean the false paradigm wasn’t false: a lucky fool is still a fool.

The term paradigm as applied to rational thought I am taking from Thomas Kuhn’s famous essay in which he explained that scientists — when they are practicing a healthy version of science — must embrace paradigms, which I call “Kuhnian paradigms” in order to make progress. Kuhnian paradigms, as opposed to false paradigms which Kuhn did not discuss, are, simply stated, useful ways of looking at the world. A Kuhnian paradigm offers understanding that, Kuhn explains, is clearly limited and yet extraordinarily useful.

Kuhn, as part of his exploration of the limitiations of useful paradigms, considered a process he called a paradigm shift which may be simply defined as a sudden advance in our understanding of the universe that makes a once-upon-a-time-useful paradigm seem quaint and outdated. A Kuhnian paradigm is a little like a phone without voicemail — after it is superceded it is impossible to go back to the old way of doing things and hard to imagine how anyone could possibly have managed when things were not the way they are now.

In a paradigm shift, a Kuhnian paradigm, once useful, is replaced by a new paradigm and the new paradigm rewires the way we think about the world. The old, now-quaint, paradigm is destined for a museum exhibit. All paradigms, no matter how powerful, no matter how useful, are, Kuhn suggests, candidates for a paradigm shift, something that becomes more likely the farther into the future you look.

Probably the central paradigm of physical science today is the “molecular paradigm.” Will it last a millenium? No one knows. For now. if you have six hundred sextillion molecules of pure water at room temperature, this water will have the same properties as any other six hundred sextillion molecules of pure water at room temperature. An idea, sometimes called “water memory,” challenges the molecular paradigm. Water memory might possibly lead to a paradigm shift or apparent water memory as it impacts human health might be a byproduct of the difficulty in controlling for the placebo effect. We can’t ever be absolutely certain.

One might say a Kuhnian paradigm is true but not with a capital “T.” A Kuhnian paradigm is the best we can do right now. It may be quaint one day but it will never be embarrassing or regarded as a dead end we should have avoided. Limiting and limited but powerful and productive — that’s a Kuhnian paradigm. It’s the bright side of the “paradigm coin.”

The old paradigm of four elements — earth, air, fire, and water — has now been superceded but even it counts as a “bright side” because it made sense at the time. Without particle accelerators, the ancients had to start somewhere. Even today, we often think about the world in terms of solid, gas, plasma, and liquid so we shouldn’t feel so superior to the ancients because, after all, we aren’t superior even if our knowledge of some things runs a little deeper. The four elements were limited in what they could do and they limited the way the ancients thought, but this kind of limitation is like a speed limit — it might be frustrating but it’s not such a bad thing.

On the other side of the paradigm coin are the false paradigms. They are limiting also — in the way a blow to the head is limiting.

Suppose a large group of experts embraces a theory. This particular theory has experts running headlong into a brick wall, getting up again, dusting themselves off, tending to their wounds, convincing themselves the brick wall isn’t really there, then running headlong into the brick wall again and again and again until the brick wall, undented, is covered with blood and bits of skin and hair.

The “dusting themselves off” process is a metaphor for adjusting the theory to fit reality. Since this is often necessary even in the case a useful theory, it is easy enough for experts to convince themselves that the “brick wall” of reality contradicting their theory isn’t really there. The adjustment process can become comical and even embarrassing like an emperor walking around in his underwear.

Do experts en masse fall hook line and sinker for false paradigms with surprising frequency? Is the general public frequently fooled as deeply as the experts themselves? The answer to both questions, according to this essay, is, unfortunately, Yes.

When a small group of experts challenges an idea that has from its inception been useless and when the small group is stonewalled by their own colleagues who, like a mob of nude emperors covered in oil, baldly drop the whole idea of evidence-based reasoning and simply go to war to blockade their colleagues, that’s a false paradigm in action.

A Kuhnian paradigm is like a game we used to play as children: we learned from playing it but we’ve outgrown it. A false paradigm is more like a dangerous addictive drug: if we recover we do not recall it fondly. False paradigms don’t usually get the “museum treatment.” Instead, false paradigms are more likely to be taken out with the trash. Our thinking has not been rewired; we’ve been relieved of a crushing burden.

The pithiest statement I’ve been able to come up with for distinguishing between Kuhnian paradigms and false paradigms is this: a Kuhnian paradigm guides mainstream thought; a false paradigm substitutes for mainstream thought.

But how can we recognize a false paradigm in any given specific case where there is some kind of argument going on. At first glance the debate might look like an ordinary controversy. An odd-sounding claim may really be a fantasy-based conspiracy theory even if it has garnered some professional support. Or maybe the question is just an insoluble mystery. How do we know when we are looking at a false paradigm? This is the central question we will treat in this essay.

There may be false paradigms that have fooled all of the experts in a given field, but we will not attempt to create a structure for identifying those. It’s not that this is impossible to do, but, for our first attempt to elucidate false paradigms, it seems prudent to pick the low-hanging fruit as it were. If a minority of independent credentialed experts are challenging conventional wisdom with carefully constructed arguments, it is far easier for non-experts to examine the situation.

So, having made life somewhat easy for ourselves we next ask how we can avoid studying cases in which the rebellious experts are pushing for a Kuhnian paradigm shift as opposed to getting rid of a false paradigm. That’s actually pretty easy. Kuhnian paradigm shifts are completely new theories but these new theories always pick up where the old theory left off — they don’t throw the old theory out with the trash (though they may modify it into an approximation).

Okay fine, but how do we know if the rebels have a leg to stand on? Every field has mavericks with wild ideas and we don’t want to assume that every wild idea any expert puts forward should automatically replace what all the other experts are doing. The key here is a matter of focus: of course rebels who are passionate about any theory can put together a convincing case if they are experts, but here’s the rub: how do their colleagues respond?

Mainstream false paradigm warriors regularly give themselves away.

When the mainstream is defending a false paradigm against their own colleagues who are citing evidence — often evidence collected by the mainstream itself — the key mainstream tactic is to steer the conversation clear of evidence. So if the rebels have, say, three powerful points in their favor, a mainstream warrior will write a book attacking the rebels in every way possible but carefully avoiding any mention of the three main points made by the rebels. The mainstream’s unwillingness to discuss the core issues exposes their actual motivations: maintain the status quo; uphold the preconceived notion: reality is secondary or even irrelevant.

So Galileo says, “Just look through my telescope and you’ll see what I mean.” What do his enemies say? “We’re not looking.”

This brings up a side issue: a false paradigm as defined here carries with it the implication that its defenders have deluded themselves, that they really believe their own arguments even if those arguments are nonsensical. To the extent that this is not the case, if the defenders of the disproven theory actually know the idea they are defending is nonsense, then it is more a case of corruption than a case of a false paradigm at least by the definition used here.

The difficulty is as follows: the line between corruption and delusion can’t always be drawn precisely. Occasionally an argument delivered by an individual with a high IQ is so ridiculous that one will inevitably wonder whether such a person really believes what they are saying. But we can’t know. Short of an infallible lie-detector test, these kinds of questions are for the time being largely unanswerable. Fortunately, this limitation will not trouble us too much as we develop the ability to identify false paradigms via their commonalities.

It is possible that deep down, defenders of false paradigms are conscious of what they are doing. However, if they make a good show of it, we will assume they actually believe what they say, that the false paradigm has soaked into their bone marrow — a lifelong affliction no matter how much contrary evidence we try to treat them with.

False paradigms afflict individuals and sometimes whole fields in stages. An expert has or a group of experts have a hunch or a guess or an aesthetic sense of what is correct or maybe they have a prejudice or a hope or maybe they’ve come to a conclusion based on limited evidence because that’s the best they can do but one way or another they make a firm statement of belief. So far it’s okay. Someone has stated an opinion.

When other experts decide they agree with this opinion, they will naturally focus preferentially on the evidence that supports the opinion with which they agree. The evidence may be limited or non-existent and the argument may be quite weak, but as more and more people come to accept the idea, just the fact that a lot of people agree becomes a powerful reason for even normally skeptical scientists and scholars to also accept the idea, to regard weak arguments as strong or even overwhelming.

Even for hard-nosed researchers, popularity can be a slippery slope.

So a perfectly reasonable opinion has now become a not-so-reasonable preconceived notion. Time passes. Anyone who argues another side is ignored or ridiculed or actually physically prevented from making their argument. Scholarly journals may reject submissions from credentialed experts that do not conform. The preconceived notion has become a false paradigm. The truth of what may have started life as nothing more than a guess is now inarguable: evidence is not only beside the point, the false paradigm itself is considered evidence.

In this essay, we will study in some detail ten false paradigms, ten instances of a majority of experts being absolutely certain while their own colleagues patiently explain that the evidence indicates that the claim or the theory or the idea that has the experts confidently infatuated is a coin toss at best and dangerous nonsense at worse.

Six cases are historical: everyone now accepts that at the time it was already clear that the theory or idea or assumption was wrong or idiotic or disproven but somehow it was clung to for dear life by experts. The six cases involved a lot of unnecessary deaths. Four cases are current: modern experts are claiming certainty when they have nothing even in the ballpark of certainty. Fortunately, no one is going to die unless rebellious experts trying to talk sense into their colleagues die of frustration.

To unite the ten examples, we need a structure for discussing false paradigms. So let us examine two “cartoon” false paradigms — made up examples — and one quite real “meta” false paradigm in which a scientific achievement was rejected for ten year just because scientists felt like rejecting it.

Imagine standing with someone on a 50-foot irregular cliff above water of unknown depth. The person you are with claims you can jump off the cliff and that you will miss the outcroppings on the way down. Your friend says, “Just jump forward the slightest bit and you’ll be fine.”  He sees you looking suspiciously at the water below and intones with great authority, “It’s only shallow right at the edge and on the left so jump forward and to the right and you’ll be fine.”

Cliff jumping is safe: that’s the false paradigm you are dealing with. Here’s a little dialog in which what I call the “four horsemen of the false paradigm” appear:

YOU: It looks like a coin toss at best. I’m not risking my life on a coin toss.
FRIEND: I always thought you were a coward. Now I’m sure.
YOU: There’s no need for insults.
FRIEND: Cliff jumping is statistically infinitely safer than driving to the grocery store.
YOU: That’s nonsense.
FRIEND: It’s true. And look, I recorded my other friend jumping; she was fine. Here’s the video. This proves it’s safe.

(You look at the video.)

YOU: You haven’t proved anything; possibly safe doesn’t mean certainly safe or even likely safe.
FRIEND: What do you mean? My friend was totally fine.
YOU: You showed that it might be safe for someone who jumps in just the right way. On your video it looks like your friend just missed an outcropping halfway down.
FRIEND: Whatever. Look, you say it isn’t safe but where’s your data? Do you know of anyone who has died on this cliff? I don’t think you do, do you?
YOU: I’m not claiming certainty. You are. Of course I don’t have perfect data.
FRIEND: You don’t have evidence to validate your concerns and I do have proof that it is definitely safe. I don’t see what the problem is.

The four horsemen of the false paradigm are as follows:

  • Insults, childish and stupid but shamelessly repeated.
  • Nonsense and gibberish, often transparent but shamelessly repeated.

That’s the first act to soften you up. Next comes the meat of the false paradigm “argument.”

  • Plausibility presented as certainty, meaning the old theory is innocent until proven guilty.
  • Demand for perfection, meaning nothing but absolute proof will be accepted.

Let’s do one more cartoon. Imagine yourself a mathematician a long time ago. You’ve discovered a proof that there is no “last” prime number. Prime numbers can’t be factored: the first eight primes are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, and 19. Suppose you say you can prove that there is always another prime number and suppose your mindless colleagues want to blockade you.

YOU: I can prove there is always another prime number.
COLLEAGUES: Before you present your proof, I think you should first admit that your mother is a prostitute.
YOU: Suppose you multiply 2, 3, 5, and 7 and add 1 to get 211. If 211 can be factored, all factors will be larger than 7. It happens to be prime.
COLLEAGUES: Such a cute example — are you going to provide an infinite number of examples to prove your point? Come on, you can do it. We’ll be patient, yuck-yuck.
YOU: If, in another example, you multiply 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13 and add 1 you get a five-digit number with two prime factors. Of course both prime factors are larger than 13.
COLLEAGUES: Very nice, but the primes spread out as the numbers increase. They spread more and more. There’s no formula for the spread between primes. When the next prime comes is unpredictable. Since we can’t predict the spread we can’t prove it will never be infinity.
YOU: You can always multiply the primes and add one no matter how long your list is.
COLLEAGUES: You don’t have a formula for determining prime numbers. Until you have a formula that can produce any prime of any size, even one with a million digits, we aren’t going to believe you.

In history, the proof that there are an infinite number of primes was accepted immediately by mathematicians. They had trouble accepting the zero and there was some resistance to complex numbers when they were introduced but I don’t know of any good examples of full-on false paradigms holding back mathematics — the discipline seems to enforce a certain amount of rationality although there is a story in which, ironically, the first person to discover irrational numbers was drowned by irrational mathematicians who didn’t want word to get out that numbers weren’t perfect, but I don’t think the story can be verified.

There is a false paradigm in mathematics education that says speeded exams are a good way to figure out who should be encouraged to become a mathematician. Eugenia Cheng’s book X + Y discusses this and other false paradigms in math education. Cheng is taking on an almost impossible task — transform education. I don’t have her strength of will so I’m just going for easy stuff — try to get credentialed experts to let colleagues with challenging theories publish their ideas. But even that seems like a lot to expect.

I think of a false paradigm as a house of cards built on a table inside a house in front of a window that has been glued shut by a whole field of experts who use the four horsemen to guard the glued-shut window against their own colleagues. When the window is eventually opened, the false paradigm/house of card collapses with the first breeze and a bunch of suddenly naked experts rush to cover themselves.

This begs a question: is the study of false paradigms nothing more than expert-bashing? The answer is I hope not. Experts are often quite careful about the claims they make and many theories underlying expert analyses are Kuhnian paradigms of proven power that won’t be superceded in the foreseeable future. I don’t know many people who would want to criticize the very idea of expertise. After all, I’m an expert in my field. I’m not going to bash myself — just the opposite.

Suppose I apply relativity to a physics experiment and I say I’m pretty sure of my prediction. It’s not the best idea to bet against me.

Sure, someday my expertise will be meaningless. Someday, when we have given up silly idea of having only two hands, the tentacled creatures we will have evolved ourselves into will fold space and leap around the universe and do things that I currently can’t imagine unless I ignore the laws of physics. But no one is breaking any laws today.

Once upon a time, not too long ago in this we-can’t-fold-space-yet world, a few scientists, each with two arms, two legs, and one head, said they were seeing neutrinos in their particle accelerator traveling faster than the speed of light. My wife read me the article and I was mean (not to her).

“Ha!” I said. I was scoffing and sniffing and stomping around like the expert I am.

The universe has a speed limit and it is the speed of light and, no matter how strange it seems to us, that’s just the way it is. Physicists aren’t going superluminal any more than they are turning off gravity and lifting their Teslas with one tentacle. Someday maybe, but not today.

“It’s probably a loose wire,” I said. I recalled the tears that flowed when my own accelerator experiment was spewing nonsense and I couldn’t find the loose wire amidst the hundreds of strands of copper spaghetti processing my precious data with the clock ticking and my allotted time on the accelerator dribbling away. I almost cried again.

I offered my wife a silly bet. If the neutrinos are superluminal, I do all the dishes every night for a year. If the laws of physics hold, she does all the dishes for one night. She knew better than to take any such bet.

Of course, the embarrassed physicists eventually retracted their claim and explained the problem: a loose wire.

Relativity might have the status of a Kuhnian paradigm or it might just be a plain old theory — it depends how you look at it. Either way, Kuhn would say it will someday be superceded, probably by a way of seeing the universe that is even more shocking that relativity. So yes of course relativity is limited. But it isn’t a false paradigm and won’t be thought of that way even after it is superceded.

Much of what experts do is based on useful but limited Kuhnian paradigms. It is, I conjecture, the reliance on Kuhnian paradigms (a good and useful thing) that leads experts into trouble, that makes them so susceptible to false paradigms. Kuhn pointed out in his famous essay, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that scientists and, by extension, experts in all fields are very good at limiting themselves with what he called “rigid” paradigms which pay for the rigidity they insist upon by allowing researchers to operate in an amazingly efficient manner.

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

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

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

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

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

The limitations imposed when experts commit to what Kuhn calls a rigid paradigm are a drawback, but there is a huge bright side: the paradigm, for all its rigidity, is a model of efficiency and leads to startling success.

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

Scientists, Kuhn says, typically spend all their time making the current paradigms stronger and more useful:

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

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

When the “four horsemen” appear we know we have gone beyond Kuhnian rigidity; we know we are dealing with a false paradigm. Rebels, often armed with evidence collected by the mainstream, find the mainstream doing three things: adjust, avoid, and attack.

Endless adjustments keep a failing theory afloat even as it makes one wrong prediction after another. If the theory can’t be adjusted, experts just avoid talking about its failings. Finally, if credentialed experts put forward a new theory, the mainstream uses the four horsemen to attack. At that point, the false paradigm is exposed. Here are the four horsemen laid out again:

  • Insults: Challengers to false paradigms encounter, often from day one, accusations, zingers, and the ubiquitous contemptuous sniff beloved of authority.
  • Gibberish and Nonsense: A false paradigm, presented as absolutely certain based on no evidence, inevitably leads to stupidity regardless of the IQ of the spouting authority.
  • Possible=Certain: For the authorities desperately upholding a false paradigm, a possibility, even a distant possibility, is treated like hard evidence.
  • Imperfect=Wrong: A false paradigm, no matter how silly, can remain dominant for a long time because any new theory, even if obviously correct, can be branded as imperfect by the defensive authority.

Big bang cosmology offers an absurdly simple real example of the four horsemen in action. It’s so simple it isn’t really an example of a full-blown false paradigm: it is better termed an example of a “meta” or parent false paradigm, in this case, “anything new is bad.”

A number of cosmologists who independently came up with something new found themselves facing the four horsemen even though their ideas did not threaten any established theory. The scientists who tried to blockade the new ideas were defending what they regarded as an established theory even though there was no such theory to defend. So a false paradigm that didn’t even exist was made up simply to stop credentialed professionals from publishing a new idea.

It’s a bizarre case and a good “zeroth” example of false paradigms.

The speed of light is both “fast” and “slow.” It is fast because even small objects require huge amounts of energy to approach the speed of light. It is slow because the universe is so large that if what currently looks like the red giant star Betelgeuse exploded six hundred years ago, we will look up in the sky tomorrow and see it exploding even during the day.

A different speed limit would have dramatic effects on the universe. If it were slower, you might get on an airplane for a trip that takes all night as measured by observers fixed on earth but that takes only one hour by your time-altered watch; you’ll arrive in London from New York and it will be the next day but you will hardly be tired because only an hour has passed for you.

If the speed of light were faster, the universe would be a much smaller place and you wouldn’t have to wait centuries after a star explodes to find out about it.

The speed of light is what it is for whatever reason and no one has any idea why it is what it is or how it came to be where it is or whether it can evolve or even whether it is the same everywhere in the universe right now.

What if the speed of light was faster in the early universe at the time of the big bang? That might explain some observations cosmologists make today about the uniformity in the background radiation that seems to be a remnant of the birth of the universe. I had this idea myself — it’s obvious if you have any training at all in physics — when I first learned about the big bang. But turning this simple idea into a coherent theory is very hard. I didn’t even try.

But some physicists with expertise in cosmology did create a theory of the big bang in a universe with an evolving speed of light! It was a fantastic achievement. Other physicists, you will not be surprised to learn, acted as if the constancy of the speed of light since the big bang was a theory even though there is no such theory. These physicists recruited the four horsemen and they blocked their fellow physicists from publishing their new idea even though this idea did not contradict any established theory.

To be clear here, the majority of physicists got together and blocked the theory because of a false paradigm that was so false it didn’t even exist!

The first person to create a VSL (variable speed of light) theory was well and truly trampled by the four horsemen unleashed by the mass of cosmologists who all actually believed in a nonexistent false paradigm: this physicist, a credentialed expert who stepped a millimeter outside the box, couldn’t publish in a major journal.

Ten years later, a couple of other people independently developed their own version of the theory, gave it the name it has today — VSL — and tried to publish in the same system that stopped the first guy. They ran into the same blockade.

But VSL in this new incarnation arrived with a weapon that had nothing to do with brilliant physics or expertise or experience or a publication history or education or anything like that. The weapon was pure stubbornness, stubbornness distilled under the blue skies of Portugal and nourished, I like to imagine, by fine vintage port which is a truly magical drink.

The story of VSL vs the four horsemen is documented in Faster Than the Speed of Light written by a Portuguese physicist who may or may not like port and who didn’t use the “four horsemen” metaphor but whose stubbornness ought to be the stuff of legend and whose efforts led to VSL’s birth as a vibrant subfield of cosmology. Instead of a delay of a century or more, VSL was only held back for ten or twenty years. The author, employing profanity where appropriate, explains the physics and shares the agony he went through for having the audacity to have an original thought.

He defeated the four horsemen:

  • Insults: A physicist, upon hearing about the idea, dubbed VSL “very silly” (get it?). Ha-ha. This was the first of many insults delivered by many physicists.
  • Gibberish and Nonsense: A journal editor who was otherwise reasonable was concerned that the numerical value of the speed of light depends on the units you use and he needed proof that the speed of light has real meaning. Technically this issue qualifies as “near-nonsense” as opposed to out-and-out nonsense.
  • Possible=Certain: Journal editors and referees couldn’t understand why a new theory was needed when a guess called “inflation” had long since been accepted as the leading theory.
  • Imperfect=Wrong: The first VSL paper was rejected by a major journal because, the editor explained in print, the authors didn’t have absolute proof.

The co-inventor of VSL explains in his book the near-nonsense brought up by the reasonable journal editor. The extreme caution was annoying but the VSL theorist was willing to be patient: the speed of light (of course) must be viewed in relation to other laws of physics; the speed of light can easily (for a physicist) be understood as “fast” or “slow” in an absolute sense without choosing units like meters and seconds.

The extreme caution of the journal editor led to a longer published paper which isn’t such a terrible thing. But there was also full-on “gibberish” (the author himself used this word) hurled against VSL by other physicists supposedly acting as impartial referees. Some of these “referees” reading the proposed journal article “behaved as if they had been bitten by a rabid dog.”

The “rabid dog” accusation was not supported with details by the author, Dr. Stubbon, the hero of VSL, who didn’t elaborate probably because strings of words that don’t say anything are hard to remember and are often not worth repeating even if one does remember what an anything-new-is-bad worshipper said when he wasn’t foaming at the mouth.

So Dr. Stubborn defeated the four horsemen and did not require rabies treatment. Once published in a major journal, VSL drew the immediate interest of scientists, many of whom had, like myself, thought for years something like this might be worth considering. More papers followed and they didn’t have to be miniature books; physicists could now publish ideas about VSL relatively easily.

It is unknown if the VSL episode has cured cosmologists of their hubris. Probably it has not. Maybe the JWST (the fancy telescope hovering a million miles from earth) which is now showing us that many of the guesses made by big bang cosmologists are wrong will help with the hubris problem. A little doubt a la Lev Landau might have saved the cosmologists some embarrassment. But hubris is a hard thing for humans to avoid.

This essay will explore the idea that a “culture of hubris” has existed and continues to exist in many fields. Cosmologists, though apparently caught by JWST with their pants down, are hardly the worst offenders. False paradigms, staunchly defended for decades or even centuries, exist right now in many fields, blocking all progress wherever they raise their heads.

As we examine false paradigms of history and current false paradigms and as we see that even an unresolved false paradigm can easily be identified as such, we will be led to wonder if hubris and the nonsense that hubris makes possible can one day be blown away like a puff of smoke in a stiff wind. Imagine the progress we might make if we could see a thousand experts standing at a brick wall on a dead end street bashing their heads into the wall bleeding all over the place and if we could gently redirect them to more useful pursuits.

Imagine if we did this in every field.

Suppose we lived in a world where a handful of credentialed professionals doing careful work could always challenge conventional wisdom. Many of these challenges might ultimately go nowhere, but what is lost? A little time, nothing more. In this hypothetical world that may someday exist, in this world of managed, as opposed to rampant, hubris, false paradigms would not last so long as they do today.

This essay hopes to persuade the reader that any time lost by listening to credentialed professionals who are in the minority and who may possibly be wrong is time well spent. And, further, if we get good at identifying cases where the minority is likely on the right track, the ability to make progress grows even more.

And so now we come to our case studies, the ten false paradigms, six resolved and four ongoing. In the six resolved false paradigms, we view cases where the rebels not only had a theory that might possibly be correct (as in the case of VSL) but in which the rebels were blockaded by a mainstream misusing its authority long after it was clear to any objective observer that the rebels were right and the mainstream was — in these six cases catastrophically — wrong.

To put it bluntly, these six false paradigms killed people. These people, I think most readers will agree, should not have died. There’s no excuse for driving a car into a tree on purpose. If you had a passenger in the front seat and your passenger dies, you are a murderer. I know that is a blunt statement, but the six deadly false paradigms really are that bad, I claim, and this is the case, I claim, not just in hindsight.

Unless we regard our human tendency to senselessly bow to authority as something we cannot change, I think we are forced to see these six deadly false paradigms as indicators of a problem that needs a solution that may not be possible today, but that someday, decades or centuries hence, should be undertaken if we wish to improve our odds of surviving as a species.

The four unresolved false paradigms treated here do not involve life and death, but they are equally egregious inasmuch as there is really no excuse for avoiding all evidence that doesn’t fit an old theory, adjusting the theory almost daily to fit a reality that stubbornly refutes it, and finally bringing out the four horsemen to attack colleagues as if the search for understanding and knowledge is some kind of power struggle.

In two of the four unresolved cases, the rebels make a solid argument that the conventional wisdom became entrenched long ago when a thin sliver of evidence led scientists and scholars in the wrong direction. The scientists and scholars dug in so deep and created a superstructure of silliness so powerful that even an avalanche of contrary evidence has not been able to dislodge the old theory.

In these two cases, it is truly bizarre to see mainstream researchers profess absolute certainty about a theory that is not only in doubt but that has practically been proven wrong. In both of these cases it is still possible that the old theory will one day be something more than a fantasy, but this gets more unlikely almost by the day as evidence continues to accumulate. And yet the mainstream in these two cases clings so desperately to the old theory that their own arguments favor the rebels more convincingly than anything the rebels themselves say.

The head-scratching absurdity that attends these two false paradigms may have been exacerbated by the fact that they do NOT involve esoteric technical areas but rather concern commonly known “facts” that are considered by almost everyone on earth to be inarguable. So the embarrassment of the mainstream, when the old theories are finally abandoned, will be very public.

In the other two cases, the rebels don’t have sufficient evidence to claim they are close to proving their cases. In these two cases, the rebels merely have the best available theory while the mainstream professes absolute certainty that these alternative and probably-correct theories should not even be considered.

One of these two false paradigms involves an event in 2017 that may be unparalleled in human history. The rebels, who again are credentialed experts, say this event might really be exactly what it looks like while the mainstream says we must first definitively rule out every other possible explanation (no matter how outlandish) before even considering the possibility that what seems to have happened really did happen because what seems to have happened is a pretty big deal and we, the mainstream, are terrified of even saying a big thing might have happened when it may not have.

In the 2017 case, the mainstream’s caution is understandable but misplaced. We saw what we saw. Why pretend we didn’t see it? That’s the question being asked by a minority of credentialed experts and there is clearly no answer to it other than scientists’ terror of being seen as being wrong about something big. But none of the scientists pushing for an honest assessment are claiming certainty: all they want is for their colleagues to say, “Yes, we might have just seen something really amazing but we don’t know for sure.” But the “meta” false paradigm — always assume it’s nothing unless you have absolute proof — won’t allow even a conservative statement.

In the other case where the rebels don’t have proof, they have a theory that explains a mystery that almost every human being has thought about in one way or another. The mystery is not resolved but the rebels have the best theory, essentially the only viable theory. So far the rebel theory has made a number of correct predictions while the mainstream has flailed about trying out idea after idea while studiously ignoring the most obvious answer. In some ways, this “meta” false paradigm — theories should be accepted based on what is fashionable — is the hardest to understand: when there’s no theory that could even be called halfway decent, why ignore a perfectly good idea?

In this case of the best, but unproven, theory being ignored, one philosopher of science at a top university spent his career going all over the world to conferences asking mainstream professionals why they rejected this particular theory but were willing to consider far less compelling theories. He said he spent decades asking this question and in all the years at all the conferences talking to all the scientists and all the experts and all the researchers, he never got an answer that there was any point in writing down. Apparently, all he got was gibberish and nonsense from expert after expert after expert.

In this essay, after we discuss the six resloved false paradigms, we will first discuss the event of 2017 and scientists’ strong desire to find another explanation. This one comes first because it is fairly simple. Next we will discuss the mystery that may have been solved by a theory that has been soundly rejected for apparently no reason at all other than what might be called a “fashion sense” about as rational as “that’s so last year.”

Finally, we will discuss the two commonly known “facts” both of which are based on theories that go back centuries and have become entrenched despite a conspicuous lack of evidence.

But first, to prepare for our journey into the unresolved false paradigms, we must dig into six resolved false paradigms that left behind a trail of blood and horror, killing innocent people who should not have died. Have you seen The Shining? It’s so scary I can’t really recommend it but there’s a scene where we discover that a writer has been typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” onto reams of paper and doing nothing else. He is dangerously insane. We’re going to find out that truth is stranger than fiction.

The Touchstone of Rationality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENGINEERS: Look, it’s not complicated. The coldest previous launch was fifty-three degrees and the primary O-ring failed completely. We should probably redesign the O-ring system entirely because it has never worked as designed. If we can’t mothball the shuttle for two years and do a redesign that’s fine, but we can’t launch below 53 degrees since that’s clearly the edge given the design flaw and our experience so far.

NASA: But you don’t know for certain that temperature is even the problem! Launches at sixty degrees had no problems and then there was a launch in the seventies that had a problem so we think maybe it might not be temperature at all that is messing with the O-rings. You don’t have conclusive evidence and your comment about the O-rings being bricklike is not quantitative. “Inconclusive” and “non-quantitative” isn’t good enough.

ENGINEERS: Look, we don’t have proof but we know the O-rings become less resilient at low temperatures and we know the primary O-ring can fail at any temperature, even warm temperatures, because of the design flaw and we know the worst failure we’ve seen so far was at the lowest launch temperature so far. And that was a really scary failure with a lot of soot found on the wrong side of the O-ring after we recovered the solid rocket booster post-launch. On top of that, we ALSO know the engine as whole isn’t rated for launches below forty degrees anyway so why are we even talking about launching below freezing?

NASA: Aha! You said forty degrees. But just before you said fifty-three degrees. Which is it? Oh, I guess you don’t know do you? First you do non-quantitative statements. Then you do inconclusive data. Now you are “inconsistent.” All of this is “illogical.” “Logic” dictates that if you think fifty-three degrees is the edge and if you also say the engines aren’t rated below forty degrees, that means we don’t have a clear temperature guideline. That’s logic.

ENGINEERS: Look, if the shuttle explodes, do you really want to talk to an investigating commission about non-quantitative, inconclusive, and inconsistent? Are you really going to tell them you launched at twenty degrees because the rating was forty and we said fifty-three and you found that illogical. You’ll be laughed at and it will feel a lot more personal on national TV than in this private conversation.

NASA: You should have just picked one temperature and stuck with that. You made a blunder. Your argument is obviously flawed and I’m taking advantage of that just like a chess player.

ENGINEERS: But this isn’t a chess game. Lives are at stake. If we launch at twenty degrees we are basically guaranteeing failure of the primary O-ring and so we will have to rely on the secondary O-ring exclusively and that’s a bad idea.

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

ENGINEERS: It’s not okay to launch. Don’t you see? We’re putting all our eggs in one uncertain basket. There is no guarantee the secondary O-ring will hold when the primary O-ring fails and there is especially no guarantee at twenty degrees. Ideally neither O-ring would ever fail. In this case, they could easily both fail.

NASA: Well, if it does go that way, we’ll just say you told us the secondary O-ring was a safe backup.

ENGINEERS: Dr. Sally Ride is sure to be on any investigating commission. Dr. Ride is a safety expert and understands these systems extremely well. She’s also a sharp judge of human nature. You won’t be able to fool her.

NASA: Even so, no one will know for sure that Dr. Ride is right. All we have to do is keep a straight face when we say what we say.

ENGINEERS: How can you be so callous?

NASA: It’s easy. I’m under a lot of pressure and my humanity has been squeezed out of me so I’m going to do and say things I never thought I would do or say.

ENGINEERS: Have you thought about getting another job?

NASA: I like being a big-shot. It’s been nice talking turkey with all you engineers but we need BOSS approval if we are going to uncancel this launch. I know you BOSSES want to make me happy because I get to decide where billions of dollars of government money gets spent. Not that I would ever say that out loud but you can read between the lines I’m sure.

ENGINEERS: You’ve never done anything like that before. Usually, you challenge us on every little safety issue. For every other launch, you insist that we convince you that it is absolutely safe. Today, you want to launch no matter what. What gives?

NASA: I’m not going to say anything. But if you would care to look at the political situation you would find that the president is giving a speech tonight and he wants to say hello to the shuttle astronauts. Also, I look better if there are more launches. Beyond that it’s going just have to be a mystery. Hopefully, the president won’t have to eulogize the astronauts in his speech. I’m pretty sure it will be okay and none of my relatives are on the shuttle — not that I’d ever say that out loud.

ENGINEERS: Didn’t we explain that the O-rings have never worked the way there were supposed to? Don’t you understand that the shuttle may not be safe to launch at any temperature? How can you even consider launching below freezing?

NASA: Yeah, yeah. Whatever. So what do you BOSSES have to say? Are we good to go or what?

BOSSES: Well, we all have to “take off our engineering hats and put on our management hats” now, don’t we? When we started our careers we were all engineers but now we are managers. So let’s change hats and change our minds. Hopefully, this hat-changing business won’t ever be made public or put in a book or get preserved on video.

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

BOSSES: That’s nice, but you haven’t PROVEN anything. If you can’t PROVE the shuttle will explode we are within our rights to go ahead and launch.

ENGINEERS: But you are reversing the usual burden of proof used for decades in space flight situations: the people who want to launch have to prove it is safe to do so.

BOSSES: Well these reversals can happen sometimes. If there is a commission hearing, we’ll admit that we reversed the burden of proof and express remorse but we’ll also just say they are being “Monday morning quarterbacks.”

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

BOSSES: Yes, well, if there is an unfortunate accident we will have to cover up the fact that the launch was cancelled at first. We’ll hire lawyers to help us if it comes to that. Lawyers are good at telling people how to obscure the truth without actually lying and we will ask everyone to follow the instructions of the lawyers and if they don’t we’ll threaten their jobs.

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

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

ENGINEERS: Fine, but know this: if those seven people die, we are not going to lie for you; we will say the launch was cancelled and then uncancelled and we’ll tell the investigators all about this conversation and we won’t listen to the company lawyers.

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

ENGINEERS: We won’t knuckle under.

BOSSES: Yes, you will.

ENGINEERS: No, we won’t. Try us.

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

ENGINEERS: But you’ve never needed this type of documentation before! We never have to sign anything! You never ask for any such thing! Doesn’t that tell you something?

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

ENGINEERS: It was your idea to over-rule us. Now you’re going to cover your ass.

NASA: Well, I consulted with the experts in Utah and eventually got an answer I like from those in authority. Soon I’ll have the “signature” to prove it. I am comfortable with this process.

ENGINEERS: But we’re the experts and we’re saying don’t launch and none of us are comfortable with this process even though we’ve all given up at this point and even though we’ve decided not to throw things or make threats.

NASA: Well, you are the experts but you are not the authorities so don’t worry, it’s out of your hands. The BOSSES say it is okay with THEM to launch and as long as one of them signs a document attesting to the safety of the launch recommendation, we’re okay that none of the engineers are willing to sign and we are good to go here at NASA. We just need the “signature.”

ENGINEERS: Well, none of us are signing any such document. Those seven people are human beings in case you’ve forgotten.

BOSSES: We haven’t forgotten. We really do think “it will be okay.” We aren’t monsters. Of course one of us will sign and take full responsibility so you engineers can stop worrying. And in the unlikely event of a gigantic explosion on takeoff we’ve got our “Monday morning quarterback” argument and a bunch of lawyers ready to go but I really don’t think we’ll need all of that.

The engines ignited and the shuttle lifted off. A minute later, it was high in the sky and moving fast. Christa McAuliffe’s students were proud of their teacher, the first civilian in space. The engineers, fearful of an explosion upon liftoff, breathed a sigh of relief. But the time between O-ring failure and engine explosion was not a known quantity.

On the right side of the solid rocket booster, the primary and secondary O-rings, frozen but somehow holding for the first minute, now failed. The engines exploded but the cockpit, with the teacher and six professional astronauts still alive was intact. It arced into the Atlantic Ocean at 200 mph crushing McAuliffe and the others.

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

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

The engineer who guided the redesign was also one of the people who tried to stop the launch of the Challenger. He was proud of his work and said he was so confident in the new O-ring system that he himself would be willing to fly in the space shuttle though he noted that he would, under any circumstances, allow a family member anywhere near the space shuttle. He understood the risks of space flight. Safe enough for him and safe enough for a member of his family were two different things in his mind and space flight and a commercial airliner, for example, were still two completely different things.

But the reality was worse than that. The culture at NASA was still the culture at NASA: the dangerous hubris, the over-emphasis on authority, the lack of communication, the primacy of egos, and the rest of it, that wasn’t such an easy fix. Humans aren’t O-rings.

There are probably an infinite number of versions of any given false paradigm. Here’s a partial list we can apply to the Challenger disaster. Version 1: “The shuttle is safe no matter what.” That one is pretty simple. Here’s a more general statement. Version 2: “Engineers are overly cautious so we can decide under what circumstances take off our engineering hats and put on our management hats.”

Version 1 is basically what a child might say. Version 2 is a little more sophisticated, it’s more like what an adult, overtaken by hubris, says. The second version is arguably scarier than the first. Here’s the scariest version I know of the Challenger false paradigm. Version 3: “Authority trumps reality.”

Version 3 borders on psychosis but is arguably not an overstatement. Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate physicist who had been part of the presidential commission investigating understood as well as anyone can the dangerous mix of ego, authority, and public relations pressure causing NASA to adopt unrealistic flight schedules, unrealistic to the point of insanity.

Feynman wrote Appendix F in the commission’s report. For our purposes, this excerpt tells us what we need to know.

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

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

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

Fantasy. That was Feynman’s word. Indeed, putting aside reality itself is how psychosis is often defined. An individual may have episodic psychosis and so may a group or organization or even a very large group that spans multiple organizations.

Feynman’s Appendix F was stronger language than the other commission members wanted to use. One can understand the commission members’ desire to be circumspect but direct in their language and to avoid strong words like “fantasy” and “incredible” and “reality” and “fooled.” But the commission made a mistake. In fact, one can even say that Feynman’s Appendix F didn’t use strong enough language.

It’s hard to imagine a stupider, more preventable disaster than the Challenger. But NASA found a way.

We Have a Lot to Learn Including How to Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irrational Doctors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUTHORITY: Get out of town!

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

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

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

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

It happened again a century later.

That’s Some Stunt You Pulled

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

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

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

COLLEAGUES: We know what causes ulcers. Acid.

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

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

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

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

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

Lethal Injection by False Paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monty Python in Real Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, the negative controls — something done routinely by lab techs with each sample — showed the contamination and the police lab didn’t want to admit that they had entered into evidence a triple-negative kitchen knife too big to be the murder weapon that only tested positive on a PCR machine that also returned positive results with blank, sterile, negative control sample. Had a proper investigation been done solid evidence of criminality on the part of Italian authorities could probably have been found.

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

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

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

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

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

With Knox back in the U.S. and the rational part of the world able to see the case for what it was, Diane Sawyer had a serious question for the beautiful yoga afficionado, “Did you kill Meredith Kercher?” Knox answered the “serious question” seriously. But should she have? What does one do when faced with irrationality?

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

Suppose Knox had not had self-restraint. Suppose she simply spoke the truth. The engineers trying to keep the Challenger launch cancelled had self-restraint. Look where it got them. What might Knox have said when asked if she killed Meredith Kercher.

“No, I did not kill Meredith. Are you a witch, Ms. Sawyer? Did you cast a spell that caused a young man to tear out a hunk of Meredith’s hair, slash her throat, and then remove her clothing and press his hands into her vagina while she bled to death? Oh, does that bother you? Maybe you are laboring under a false impression. Did you think the story you are covering is about how nice my breasts look in a tabloid photo?”

Maybe then Sawyer would have been too embarrassed to move on to the selective DNA removal.

Sawyer, ironically from the viewpoint of this essay, made the mistake of not being certain enough. Usually, with false paradigms, the problem is experts become overly sure of themselves. In the Knox false paradigm, which is a social false paradigm — we assume western police and courts in the 21st century would never act like deranged children — nonsense was foisted upon the Italian, British, and American public and we did not call it nonsense because we assumed “it can’t be that bad.”

One of the importants points I hope to get across in this essay is that sometimes it is that bad. Sometimes you are sitting in the cockpit of the space shuttle and a guy at NASA is pushing hard to ignore five engineers.

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

The Story of the Terrified Astronomers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASTRO: Five.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Show So Far

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

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

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

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

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

Future Nobel Prize Winner: I discovered what causes ulcers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Evolution and Faux Scientists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Big Kahuna

In 1990, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst approached his professors with an unusual request. He wanted to write his doctoral thesis in comparative literature assuming that the greatest playwright of Elizabethan times was a literary earl, a well-known playwright receiving direct support from the Queen who eventually used the name “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym.

According to the student, the literary earl aka Shakespeare wrote courtly plays like The History of Error, Agamemnon and Ulysses, The Famous Victories of Henry V, The Troublesome Reign of King John, Hamlet and more than thirty other plays that entertained Elizabeth I and her court in the 1570’s, 1580’s, and 1590’s.

For many years, no one said a word about who was writing these plays. Someone was taking well-aimed potshots at courtiers; scholars today comment on the writer’s inside knowledge and on his sheer audacity. The histories celebrated the Tudor Rose dynasty, of which Elizabeth was the last ruler. Patriotic spirit too was undoubtedly appreciated by a monarch facing multiple threats throughout her reign.

Whoever was writing the plays was a brilliant wordsmith and also someone of stunning erudition with knowledge spanning many different fields, a reading list a mile long, reading ability in multiple languages, political savvy, first-hand knowledge of Italy, an “in” at court, and lots of time.

Centuries later, as bombs fell on London, Shakespeare was still not only popular and revered but also still a powerful expressor of English resilience in the face of enemies. The Queen and her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, would have been surprised to see airplanes in the London sky and the stirring words of Henry V on film stiffening the sinew of Londoners in bomb shelters, but the brilliant pair of Elizabethan strategists would have understood completely the value of the theater. From 1583 on, with the creating of “The Queen’s Men” company of players, the government of England was “all in” on theater.

The plays, as popular as they were with the Queen and the general public, weren’t published until 1594 when readers were finally offered a small taste. The early publications were anonymous bootlegs with haphazard quality and no author’s name. Then, in 1598, an observer named Meres listed a dozen plays as “Shakespeare” plays. Thus far, the name had appeared only on two epic poems published in the early part of the decade. After the 1598 breakthrough, Shakespeare plays were often published with the byline though sometimes without. Still, many plays weren’t published at all.

In 1623, years after anyone who might have written the plays was dead, the canon more than doubled in size as thirty-six plays including classics like Macbeth were published all at once in a stunning and unprecedented posthumous collection of much of the author’s lifework.

The UMass student told his professors that he believed it was obvious that the literary earl — the ultimate insider — was Shakespeare. A genius child who impressed the finest tutors in England, he grew up to become the one and only Elizabethan playwright well known as a playwright but with no plays to his name. By the 1580’s, the literary earl was holding court at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene. Lyly, Munday, Greene, Nashe, Watson, Harvey, Spenser — they all knew the literary earl and often visited. Dozens of works were dedicated to an earl praised for his acumen more than his financial support.

But still, no one ever mentioned any of his works though he was remembered even after his death as a great playwright.

One writer called his home a literary shrine. Two worked for him as literary secretaries. He was said to be a muse of muses. One of his accolytes wrote a book of poetry, dedicated it to the earl, and thanked him for reading it over in manuscript. Commentary about each of the poems, included with the printed work, indicate a mastery of classical literature impressive even for the time. Offhand commentary supported by quotes from obscure writers and philosophers look like the products of a photographic memory.

But even these comments weren’t signed by or explicitly ascribed to the earl.

The Queen’s support of her playwright, however, was official and explicit besides being lavish and unprecedented. It was more than unprecedented, actually; it was unheard-of, almost unimaginable. She handed out 4000 pounds yearly to King James of Scotland to strengthen an ally. She had a budget of 2000 pounds for paying spies and informants. That’s the kind of money that got spent on foreign policy matters.

Closer to home, a skilled worker in London might make five pounds a year. A high official in Elizabeth’s government might fifty pounds a year. Hundreds of pounds year meant you were part of the inner circle. The literary earl was granted a thousand pounds a year for life in 1586. Nowhere was it written down what the payments were for.

England’s finances were especially pressured at this time as the threat from Spain grew. Yet the literary earl was worth what amounted to a Nobel Prize every year for life though even that analogy doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of the grant. Delivered to the literary earl’s home four times a year packed on horses and protected by guards would be gold and other coinage worth two hundred and fifty pounds. After the Queen died, King James continued the stipend.

Kings and Queens have historically supported intellectuals and maybe the fact that this one was an earl already had something to do with the size of the payments. But there’s never been anything like it before or since.

The literary earl was good for one thing — writing plays. Unless, that is, you count his penchant for making trouble. He had a “fickle head,” one person wrote. He was widely regarded as unpredictable, mercurial, and irresponsible. He spent money like the proverbial drunken sailor. He had an affair with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting: when she delivered his child, the Queen tossed all three of them in the Tower for a while (don’t worry, they were treated with kid gloves even in the Tower and the baby was fine).

When the Queen cooled off, she released them all. The beautiful woman the earl had bedded ran off with someone else; the bastard child eventually became a lieutenant. But first, the scandal led to street battles in which the literary earl was wounded; at least one person died. The literary earl, aside from his infidelity, made his wife, the daughter of Lord Burghley himself, miserable with his jealousy and temperamental behavior to say nothing of his infidelity.

The Queen was not pleased with any of this and banished him from court for a time.

But, a few years later, with her acting company, the Queen’s Men, ascendant and well funded, she had forgiven the earl and set him up with this gigantic lifetime award. For the UMass student, the stipend is a big reason to regard the literary earl as Shakespeare.

But some mainstream scholars, don’t see it this way. They don’t think much of the playwright with no plays. In fact, they attribute the avalanche of gold to his bad behavior rather than to his writing. These are experts in the field with Ph.D.’s.

No one at the time said the literary earl was Shakespeare. He was a great writer at the level of Chaucer and Spenser. Sometimes he was listed right along with them and with Shakespeare. Sometimes Shakespeare did NOT appear on a list that DID have the literary earl. This is interesting of course but doesn’t necessarily prove anything.

Also of interest is one person writing in Latin who didn’t mention the literary earl but didn’t quite mention Shakespeare either. Instead, the great writer was referred to in Latin as “the celebrated poet whose name comes from shaking and spear” — celebrem poetam qui a quassatione et hasta nomen habet. Two other writers had their names Latinized in the more traditional way: Ioannem Davisium (John Davies) and Ioannem Vicarsium (John Vicars).

To create “from shaking and spear” in Latin, the verb quassare, to shake, becomes the noun quassatio, the act of shaking, which becomes in the “ablative” case quassatione which case implies an origin for which in English we would use a preposition like “from.” No one knows why the great author was referred to in this roundabout way.

More significant to rebels like our UMass student is the Queen’s financial support for the literary earl, discovered a hundred years ago by someone sifting through once-sensitive documents from Elizabeth’s reign. It is close to being a smoking gun for anyone who harbors any doubt at all about the traditional story of who wrote the courtly histories, tragedies, and comedies we call Shakespeare plays. And yet this traditional story is a coherent, if troubled, narrative.

A real person named William Shakespeare arrived in London from Stratford at just the time the name William Shakespeare became famous and this real person was not only in London with the right name, he became a shareholder of record in London’s leading acting company in 1595.

The man from Stratford — a few days’ journey from London — was a real estate mogul. He owned houses, land, orchards, barns, and stables, made investments in agriculture, dealt in grain and malt, loaned money, etc., etc. He may have acquired the shares in the acting company by putting cash on the barrelhead or he may have been writing plays for the company: no documents detail what arrangement he had with the acting company.

In his will, the Stratford businessman leaves his estate to his daughters and provides small bequests to a number of business associates including fellow shareholders in the acting company. His eldest daughter and her husband, a literate doctor, moved into his house after he died. Except for the doctor’s medical journal which is now in a museum, no books are known to have been in the house. No manuscripts or letters have been found either.

There’s nothing in Stratford Shakespeare’s handwriting at all: five legal signatures survive but they are written in five different hands. One of them, a painful-looking scrawl on his will, might belong to the businessman who biographers conjecture may have been sick when he wrote it. Rebels like the student who think the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare believe the Stratford businessman may not even have been literate.

In any case, biographers admit they don’t know how this Shakespeare, if he was the author, had time to write plays as his business activities which are well documented appear to be a full-time job. It is assumed that his genius allowed him to do a lot of things at once. As far as the signatures go, traditional biographers don’t claim to know why he didn’t sign important documents with his own hand. Speculations include “he was too busy to be present to sign papers and therefore used a proxy” and “had a teeming imagination causing him to vary his handwriting with each signature.”

All of this has puzzled and frustrated scholars for centuries though, as we’ll see below, though the biography is not what one would expect, there is one very good reason for thinking “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” as mainstreamers sometimes say as part of their argument. The “very good reason” happened in 1623 when the strange publication history of Shakespeare’s plays reached its dramatic conclusion.

The publication history — provided below for all thirty-six plays — is the biggest puzzle of all to biographers. Whoever wrote the plays seemed to want nothing to do with their publication. Bootlegging and unauthorized publications seemed to be the rule rather than the exception for Shakespeare. Only the epic poems, published to great acclaim in 1593 and 1594 with the “William Shakespeare” name in print for the first time, show evidence of an author-publisher collaboration.

The first bootleg, as you know, was published in 1594 with no byline. A few plays began to trickle out. Publishers were getting their hands on actors’ playscripts or people were writing down the lines while sitting in theaters. The name didn’t get put onto any of these early publications but people apparently knew they were Shakespeare plays anyway.

In 1598, Meres made what may have been common knowledge official. Meres named in print as works of Shakespeare six of the ten plays that had been published anonymously. Meres named three plays that had yet to be published and these soon came out with bylines. Meres named two plays that wouldn’t be published for another quarter century. One play on the Meres list has an unfamiliar title: it was either lost or had its title changed — no one knows.

Five Shakespeare plays were published in “immature” versions — apparent first drafts indicating a young playwright. The mature and immature versions appear to be by the same writer with similar vocabulary and style employing comedic innovations characteristic of Shakespeare. The mature versions show years or possibly decades of increasing skill. One play, Troilus and Cressida, seems to be a melding of immature and mature with some amateurish scenes and some polished scenes.

The five immature plays, one with the Shakespeare byline and four anonymous, were not reproduced in the famous 1623 compilation. But scholars enjoy poring over them and arguing about whether Shakespeare wrote them himself or wrote the five “mature” plays by plagiarizing the work of lesser Elizabethan playwrights.

The plagiarism assumption is helpful for traditionalists because the immature plays with similar titles and the same characters and scenes and innovations as the mature plays likely date from the 1580’s or before and the businessman appears not to have been in London until the 1590’s. Rebels regard the plagiarism charge as unwarranted and desperate; they say immature Shakespeare is obviously Shakespeare.

In any case, the compilation hugely expanded the canon: 17 plays had never been published in any form; 2 had been published only as immature versions; 4 had been published in partial or abridged versions; 3 were published with new updates and significant changes; only 10 plays were published in more or less the same form as previously.

Performance records are largely nonexistent. Even though Shakespeare plays in general were known to be extremely popular, records of specific plays performed at specific times in specific places are rare.

The plays have many sources that span hundreds of books including classic stories and stories by foreign authors which were sometimes adapted and reworked with their plotlines more or less intact (Romeo and Juliet is the classic example of an old narrative story turned into a Shakespeare play). Sources of the settings and offhand quips and metaphors in the plays include technical tomes on botany, medicine, music, astronomy, and so forth but these are not listed here. However, some thematic inspiration and sources of plot are listed below.

History and Philosophy:

  • Chronicle of England (the real title is too long to write) is a history text written by Edward Hall and published in 1548.
  • The Chronicles of England (again, the real title is too long) is a history text written by Raphael Holinshed the first volume of which was published in 1577.
  • Parallel Lives is a series of biographies by the Greek writer Plutarch from the 1st century AD translated by Thomas North and often called Plutarch’s Lives. Published in England in 1579.
  • Il Cortgiano (The Book of the Courtier) is a philosophical treatise by Castiglione published in Italy around 1530.

Italian Stories and Collections:

  • Il Pecorone  (The Simpleton) is a collection of 14th century short stories unreliably attributed to “Fiorentino.”
  • Decameron (Ten Days) is a collection of 14th century stories and adapations reliably attributed to Boccaccio.
  • Gli Ecatommiti is a story collection by 16th century author Giovani Battista Giraldi aka Cinthio.
  • Un Capitano Moro (A Moorish Captain) is a Cinthio story.
  • Epitia (proper name) is a Cinthio story.
  • Orlando Furioso is an epic poem by Ariosto published in 1532.
  • I Suppositi is a play by Ariosto published in 1524 but acted in 1509.
  • Giulietta e Romeo (Romeo and Juliet) was published by Bandello but adapted from Da Porto’s 1531 version of the old story.
  • Novelle (Stories) by Matteo Bandello is a collection of over two hundred stories, some original and some adapted, published in Italy around 1570.
  • Gl’inganatti (The Deceived Ones) was part of Bandello’s collection but not original to him.

Other European Authors:

  • Vita Amlethi (The Life of Amleth) is a Danish folktale by Saxo written in Latin in the 13th century.
  • The Tale of Gamelyn is a story fo unknown origin found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (14th century).
  • The Boke Named the Governour is a book by the English author Elyot published in 1531.
  • Los Siete Libros de la Diana (The Seven Books of the Diana) is a story by Montemayor published in Spain in 1559.
  • Des Cannibales is an essay by Montaigne published in France around 1580.

Classical Roman and Greek Works:

  • The Manaechmi (The Brothers Manaechmus) is a comic play written by the Roman author Plautus in the 3rd century BC.
  • The Amphitruo (proper name) comic play by Plautus
  • Thyestes is a play by the Roman author Seneca from the 1st century AD.
  • The Metamorphoses is a twelve thousand line narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid from the 1st century AD.
  • Timon the Misanthrope is a story by the Greek writer Lucian from the 2nd century AD.

For sources at the end of each entry, titles are noted where Shakespeare reworked a plotline from a classical or foreign author while the name of the author only indicates an allusion as opposed to an adaptation.

Published for the first time in any form in 1623 (except Othello first published 1622):

  • Macbeth: one possible performance record; no other records; Hall and/or Holinshed.
  • The Tempest: some performance records; Ovid, Montaigne.
  • Julius Caesar: one performance record (diary entry); Plutarch.
  • As You Like It: no performance records; one mention, legal context; Chaucer, The Tale of Gamelyn.
  • The Comedy of Errors: part of Meres’s list released in 1598; some performance records; Two Plays by Plautus, The Manaechmi and The Amphitruo
  • The Two Gentleman of Verona: Meres 1598; no records at all ex-Meres; Montemayor, Elyot.
  • All’s Well That Ends Well: no records at all unless “Love’s Labors Won” in Meres was retitled; BoccaccioGiletta di Narbona aka Decameron (III, 9). 
  • Othello: this version has 100+ lines not in 1622 publication; some performance records; Cinthio, Il Capitano Moro.
  • Henry VIII: one performance record (letter mentioning play); Hall/Holinshed.
  • 1 Henry VI: one performance record; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Winter’s Tale: one performance record (diary entry); Ovid and possibly plagiarized from Greene’s novel Pandosto (1588)
  • Twelfth Night: one performance record (diary entry); Bandello, Gl’inganatti.
  • Measure for Measure: one performance record; Cinthio, Epitia.
  • Timon of Athens: no records at all; Lucian.
  • Cymbeline: one record (diary entry); Hall/Holinshed, Boccaccio, Ovid.
  • Coriolanus: no records at all; Plutarch.
  • Antony and Cleopatra: no performance records; title reg anon 1608; no other records; Plutarch.

Published for the first time as a mature version in 1623:

  • King John: scene-by-scene rewrite of immature published version; no perfomance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Taming of the Shrew: complete rewrite of immature published version with new richly detailed Italian setting; no performance records; Ariosto and traditional folktales.

Published for the first time in complete form (~twice the size of previous versions) in 1623:

  • Henry V: orig pub anon 1600, 1602; orig possibly shortened for stage; some performance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor: orig pub byline 1602; orig possibly pub based on actor’s memory; one performance record; no clear sources.
  • 2 Henry VI: orig pub anon 1594, 1600; orig title is different; orig play much shorter; no records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • 3 Henry VI: orig pub anon 1595, 1600; orig title is different; orig play much shorter; no records; Hall/Holinshed.

Published with major changes in 1623:

  • Richard III: orig pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub byline 1598, 1602; no performance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Hamlet: orig pub byline 1603 half of play missing; pub byline 1604; one performance record; Saxo Life of Amleth, Castiglione.
  • King Lear: orig pub byline 1608; one performance record; oft-repeated English legend, Hall/Holinshed.

Published with relatively minor changes in 1623:

  • Titus Andronicus: orig pub anon 1594; Meres 1598; pub byline 1600, 1611; some performance records; Ovid, Seneca.
  • Romeo and Juliet: orig pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub anon 1599, 1609; no records; Da Porto and Bandello two versions of Giulietta e Romeo.
  • Richard II: orig pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub byline 1598, 1608; one record; Hall/Holinshed
  • 1 Henry IV: orig pub anon 1598; Meres 1598; pub byline 1599, 1604; possible records w/ different titles; Hall, Holinshed.
  • Love’s Labors Lost: orig pub byline 1598; Meres 1598; first play with byline; accounts of diplomatic visit to France in 1578 somehow obtained by the author.
  • The Merchant of Venice: orig pub byline 1600; Meres 1598; Fiorentino, Il Pecorone Giornata Quarta Novella Prima (IIII, 1). 
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: orig pub byline 1600; Meres 1598; one record; Ovid.
  • Much Ado About Nothing: orig pub byline 1600; some records; Bandello, Ariosto.
  • 2 Henry IV: orig pub byline 1600; possible records w/different titles; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Troilus and Cressida: title reg anon 1603; orig pub byline 1609; no records; Chaucer, Boccaccio.

Early versions of plays probably by a young/inexperienced author published or registered in the 1590’s but NOT published in 1623:

  • Early King John: pub anon 1591; Meres 1598; pub byline 1603; the only early version to have the Shakespeare byline; no records.
  • Early The Taming of the Shrew: pub anon 1594, 1596, 1607; set in Athens; one record.
  • Early Richard III: pub anon 1594; in this version the famous line reads “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!”; no records.
  • Early Henry V: pub anon 1598; amateurish but contains Shakespearean innovations; no records.
  • Early King Lear: title reg anon 1594; pub anon 1605; no performance records.

The posthumous publication, Shakespeare as we know Shakespeare, was called the First Folio.

We don’t know how or why the First Folio came to be. The literary earl’s family was involved: one of the dedicatees of the First Folio, one of the “incomparable pair of brethen” who evidently were overseeing and bankrolling the publication, was married to the literary earl’s youngest daughter.

This would seem to decide the issue of who wrote the plays (unless it doesn’t).

The Queen was apparently handing all that gold the greatest writer of her realm, her playwright, the literary earl who used the pseudonym William Shakespeare and whose family eventually published thirty-six plays, most of which had not been seen in anything like their final form if at all.

Apparently, the inside information in the plays went straight from the Queen’s court to the earl’s quill. The Stratford businessman went to London after “his” name became famous and opportunistically bought shares in the acting company, a fact which at the time and later in what one contemporary presciently called the “after-time” (i.e., now) caused all manner of confusion about authorship.

It’s not so surprising given that Shakespeare was a common name back then and several “William Shakespeares” lived in and around London including one rich wheeler dealer. But the First Folio had a preface and the preface is the thing, one might say.

In this case, the preface to the First Folio is the thing that says “Shakespeare” was NOT a pseudonym after all.

The preface to the First Folio contains two letters full of classical allusions scholars tie to Ben Jonson who was was openly involved with the publication process. There is little question that Jonson wrote the letters — he quoted from a work of Pliny he was in the midst of translating — so the ghostwriting assumption, endorsed by E. K. Chambers himself, is not especially controversial. What matters is what the letters say.

The letters, one of which is addressed to the brother earls and one of which is addressed to readers, ostensibly speak for two shareholders in London’s leading acting company, two men who were mentioned in the will of the Stratford businessman.

The letters say the shareholders of the acting company have been the “guardians” of Shakespeare’s “orphans.” They managed to “procure” the plays but don’t say precisely how the did this: “We have but collected them and done an office to the dead.” That’s all they tell us.

The shareholders say they are involved because the author, being dead, cannot be the “executor to his own writings.” It would have been better, if the author would have lived to exercise his “right” to have “overseen his own writings,” but this is unfortunately not the case.

The shareholders explain in their letters that since the two earls were so fond of the author and his works, “the volume asked to be yours.” The shareholders have no interest in “profit or fame.” They wish only to “keep the memory of so worthy a friend” — Shakespeare — alive. These plays are the “true original copies” completely unlike the “stolen” and “surreptitious” versions that, “maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors,” have heretofore “abused” readers.

In short, the shareholders somehow got the complete set of plays from their rightful owner, the author, and they are gifting the lot to the two earls.

Ben Jonson also has some fun in the second letter addressed “to the great variety of readers.” Prospective buyers of the fancy compilation have the “privilege” to “read and censure” if they so desire. But buyers are better “weighed” and are hopefully willing to part with some of their wealth to buy the book which wasn’t exactly cheap: one pound for a bound version was a few month’s wages for a skilled worker. Opinions about the book, freely offered, whether complimentary or not will surely be respected. “But,” Jonson says, “whatever you do, Buy.”

Therefore, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Mainstream scholars note that no surviving document directly contradicts the posthumous identification of the Stratford Shakespeare as the author Shakespeare. They regard the title pages of the previously published works as confirmation of or at least support for the Stratford businessman’s authorship. And they regard the fact that the Stratford businessman was a shareholder in London’s leading acting company as reason to accept the claim that the acting company had the plays in 1623 to hand over to the two earls.

In short, mainstream scholars regard the First Folio preface as a definitive identification of the author. They claim not to understand why anyone would question it.

Yet many people have questioned the whole story over the years to the chagrin of mainstream scholars who have historically been unwilling to open the can of worms that would characterize a search for an alternative author amongst essentially infinite possibilities. They regard as nonsense all amateur theories peddled in the past, some of which involved obscure cryptographic theorizing. Mainstream scholars, understandably, would rather take the First Folio preface at its word than entertain theories not much better thought out than “Martians wrote Shakespeare.”

But now, a number of credentialed experts, using evidence that the mainstream itself has discovered, have begun to focus on the possibility that scholars have been operating under a false premise for centuries and that actually the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare and the plays were not written starting in 1590 but had actually in many cases been around by then for a decade or more.

The would-be overturners of a heavily laden cart begin with the First Folio preface itself. They say its story just doesn’t fit with reality.

The Stratford businessman named Shakespeare was in London and involved with the theater. He cut as high a profile as was possible to cut and yet when it came to publishing the plays, there was no author in sight. Bootlegging followed. Rebels say the author was effectively invisible, keeping his distance.

Mainstream biographers, who themselves have frequently commented on Shakespeare’s invisibility when it came to publishing, solve the problem by assuming the statements made in the preface about how the shareholders came to be the “guardians” of the plays were a polite or poetic way of saying the acting company owned the plays. In this scenario, the acting company didn’t want the plays published but couldn’t stop the bootleggers. Years later, the acting company decided it was time to publish the works and allowed the “incomparable pair of brethren” to double the size of the canon.

Rebels say the First Folio preface and the mainstream assumptions tell an unlikely story in which the plays of the greatest writer in England were held for decades by an acting company rather than by the writer and his family. The story, prima facie, is not convincing according to rebels.

And the First Folio preface cannot, in any case be considered a statement of reality simply because it conflicts with the historical record. The record says the Stratford businessman was a pure businessman, probably not even literate and not in London in the 1580’s when the plays were becoming popular. Hamlet, for example, was mentioned in 1589.

Mainstream scholars take pains to explain how what might look like 1580’s Shakespeare reallly isn’t — it was someone else’s Hamlet and so on. Rebels wryly note that they think Shakespeare wrote not only Hamlet but also the rest of 1580’s Shakespeare. Turning the tables, they claim the mainstream is arguing that Shakepeare didn’t write Shakespeare.

According to the rebels, there is good evidence that Stratford Shakespeare arrived way too late to the party to be the writer Shakespeare and, even if he did manage to get to London in the 1580’s, he was in no position to write plays making fun of Elizabeth’s courtiers. Accurately lampooning the Queen’s closest advisor, Lord Burghley, as CORAMBIS would have been beyond his abilities for example.

The Burghley family motto — cor unum via una — “one heart one way” is a perfect declaration of steadfast dedication to the RIGHT WAY of doing things and a perfect target for a fearless playwright. The Burghley character in Hamlet was, in the first published version, called CORAMBIS or “two-hearted.” In the play, the unbearably officious and tedious CORAMBIS spies on his own children and spies on Hamlet who catches him in the act and gleefully stabs him to death.

In real life, Burghley’s son went to Paris and misbehaved and Burghley spied on him; in the play, CORAMBIS’s son did the same and got the same treatment. Burghley was the real Queen’s closest advisor; CORAMBIS was the fictional King’s closest advisor. Burghley’s daughter was married to the literary earl; CORAMBIS’s daughter was married to Prince Hamlet.

The Burghley-Corambis parallel has been commented on for well over a century. Calling the character CORAMBIS is quite obvious. In the second printing of Hamlet, CORAMBIS had been changed to POLONIUS.

It is possible the Stratford businessman could have somehow lampooned Burghley and others without consequence. Maybe he had really good connections at court. Maybe he was in London in the 1580’s or maybe he plagiarized 1580’s Shakespeare. Anything is possible. But let’s review.

We’ve got a businessman who appears to have been unable to write his name set against a known playwright being paid by the Queen. We have bootlegs, an invisible author who writes like a court insider, and a pile of unpublished plays winding up in the hands of a family member of the Queen’s playwright.

But that’s all circumstantial says the mainstream who are so certain of the identification in the First Folio preface that when Hamlet gets mentioned in 1589, it is tagged as someone else’s Hamlet. Rebels, who are not allowed to publish their idea in mainstream journals, see the mainstream as already treading on some pretty thin ice. The sonnets, they say, act like a boulder tossed onto a thawing lake.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets were written in the first person and were kept private for about twenty years before finally being published in 1609. Shakespeare’s sole dedicatee, the young Earl of Southampton, is the obvious subject. In the first dozen-plus sonnets, known as the “marriage sonnets,” Southampton is told that it is in his best interest and in the best interest of posterity and in the best interest of his family if he would marry and produce an heir.

“Make thee another self for love of me,” Shakespeare writes.

Southampton was indeed under a lot of pressure circa 1590 to agree to a politically consequential marriage to Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter. Shakespeare writes as if he had a stake in Southampton’s decision and even admonishes the boy: “be not self-willed.” You, my boy, must have an heir. Southampton said NO to the Burghley alliance.

The sonnets in general, well over a hundred of them written to Southampton out of just over a hundred and fifty total, offer guidance, some finger-wagging, and plenty of unconditional love and support to the young earl. These sonnets cover approximately a ten year period of Southampton’s eventful life from his alliance rejection to his attempt to control the succession to his imprisonment in the Tower under a death sentence to his miraculous reprieve after watching his friends die to his release with his earldom miraculously restored after James ascended the throne.

The sonnets tell us that whoever Shakespeare was, he was someone who regarded Southampton as his “lovely boy,” someone who wanted this “fairest creature” to procreate so that, in his words, “thereby beauty’s Rose might never die.” No one knows of course why “rose” was capitalized and italized in the first sonnet. We obviously can’t know everything about the relationship between Shakespeare and Southampton. All we know is that Shakespeare closely followed the wild swings in Southampton’s life.

No one thinks the Stratford businessman could have spoken to Southampton this way. Often the sonnets are simply ignored as an “insoluble mystery.” One mainstream theory says the businessman must have written the sonnets on commission from Southampton’s family and so, according to this guess, the sonnets were NOT written in Shakespeare’s voice but are written from someone else’s viewpoint entirely.

Rebels note that if one is going to base a theory on dubious marketing copy, one is going to have to dance a furious jig to keep said theory intact, the dance in this case being “the sonnets must have been written on commission.” This is of course a perfectly good idea though it has no evidence to back it up except for the fact that there’s no other way to explain how a businessman from Stratford could come to tell a young earl how to live his life.

Someone told the boy, “Be not self-willed for thou art much too fair to be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.” Maybe it was the Stratford businessman writing on behalf of the earl’s family. Or not.

Rebels say there’s no reason to go to come up with wonderful “save the businessman” theories. We know the businessman didn’t write the plays because Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in 1609 and the author was referred to in the publisher’s dedication as “our ever-living poet” and that, rebels say, ends the discussion. This is a eulogy and on top of that it is a Shakespearean eulogy. The Stratford businessman (d. 1616) never met Southampton, was not the older peer writing the sonnets to the young earl, could not even write his own name, and was still wheeling and dealing in 1609.

Of course in theory “our ever-living poet” could mean something else and this “it means something else” theory is precisely what mainstream scholars are forced to embrace but it seems to rebels more sensible to reject the First Folio preface and assume the publisher of the sonnets in 1609 believed the author to be dead.

Rebels say the literary earl wrote The Tempest in the early 1600’s as an envoi, a coda, a farewell, a goodbye, a finis, an epilogue as the play is often understood. The literary earl died in 1604 and is for this reason alone a better candidate for “our ever-living poet” than someone who was still alive. If the personal nature of the sonnets written to Southampton together with the 1609 publisher’s dedication don’t make the situation sufficiently clear, one simple fact about the young woman Southampton was supposed to marry to unite two powerful Elizabethan families should, finally, end the discussion.

She was Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter but she was also the literary earl’s eldest daughter.

If that doesn’t wrap things up what would? ask the rebels. Why come up with speculative theories whose justification is necessarily circular as a means to explain away “make thee another self for love of me” and explain away “our ever-living poet” when a simple explanation has been handed to us on a silver platter? Of course the writer of the explosive courtly plays who did not want to reveal himself and who also wrote the marriage sonnets to Southampton was the father of the prospective bride, the Queen’s playwright, a man who was indeed an older peer of Southampton precisely as presented in the sonnets.

Rebels are incredulous about this. Getting Shakespeare wrong because of the First Folio preface given the evidence pointing to the literary earl is, rebels say, like a wide awake adult expert swimmer in good health surrounded by other people drowning in the shallow end of a pool. What gives?

The answer from the mainstream may sometimes sound complex but it always boils down to one fact: the First Folio preface says what it says and what it says is the businessman from Stratford named William Shakespeare who had a name matching the one that appeared on many title pages and who had a documented relationship with London’s leading acting company two of whose members were named in the First Folio preface was — and this is clearly stated in the preface — the great author Shakespeare.

Rebels acknowledge this and reiterate their position that ghostwritten marketing copy should be treated as such:

“Shareholders in the most successful acting company in London say their fellow shareholder Shakespeare was also the Shakespeare the greatest English writer since Chaucer. They say, improbably, that his author gave his lifework to the company for safekeeping. They claim possession of the works only, NOT ownership. They allege that they are giving the plays to two earls as a service to a deceased author. Absurdly, these representatives of a for-profit enterprise, say they are not interested in profit.

“As marketing copy, the letters perfectly acceptable. As testimony they are suspect. The legal phrase, one the actual author who knew Latin and who had obviously received legal training might have used is this: falsus in uno falsus in omnibus.

The mainstream are not prepared to let go of the testimony in the First Folio preface without solid evidence of falsification:

“Show us any crystal clear contemporary evidence proving that anyone at the time questioned the crystal clear attribution in the First Folio preface and we will step aside.

“The fact that it appears to be ghostwritten marketing copy is not relevant. A reasonable person publishing the First Folio at great financial risk would naturally make every effort to entice buyers. The need to sell books does not obviate direct statements regarding authorship. And, we need hardly note, those direct statements are as you well know supported by title pages and legal documents.

“Thus, the Latin phrase meaning false in one false in all doesn’t apply. The genius Stratford businessman-playwright, who did indeed give himself a top-notch classical education and who apparently had some legal training as well, might have appreciated your phrase but would surely have rejected your argument.”

Take your pick of Shakespeares. Pick whoever you like. Of course there’s more to the story as is always the case. But even with just a broad overview, it is arguably the case that your guess is as good as anyone’s. Expert analyses amidst an avalanche of detail can be illuminating, but sometimes less is more. I claim this is one of those times.

Those who are not experts and who don’t know every detail may well be able to see more clearly at this point than either someone such as the present author who has immersed himself in the controversy or some ivy league professor who is paid to be sure of himself.

So assuming one of the two “Shakespeares” wrote the plays, what percentage odds would you give for the Queen’s playwright and for the Stratford businessman? Is it, in your opinion, 50-50 or 90-10 or 10-90 or perhaps something more lopsided?

The mainstream claims, effectively, that the appropriate odds are 0.01% for any other author and 99.99% for the businessman. Since I am calling the traditional Shakespeare story a false paradigm, I obviously disagree with these odds, and, in fact, I claim it is obvious to anyone, even a mainstream academic, that the case in favor of the businessman has been overstated.

The trap that the mainstream fell into is a classic false paradigm trap — over-reliance on a single piece of evidence.

Yes, the First Folio preface says the businessman was Shakespeare. But it behooves anyone who wishes to discern what is real and what is not to imagine a world without any one piece of evidence in order to avoid this classic trap.

Without the First Folio preface, how many scholars would identify the Stratford businessman as the author based on his name and his acting company affiliation? How many would look at Hamlet — already famous in the 1580’s — and the rest of the evidence and wonder if perhaps the businessman traveled to London and purchased shares in London’s leading acting company simply because the name “William Shakespeare” had become famous?

There is direct evidence offered by people alive at the time that this “late arrival” followed by “opportunistic posturing” is exactly what happened, but, as in the case of the “our ever-living poet” phrase in the Sonnets’ dedication and virtually every other piece of evidence, the commentary made by Londoners is subject to interpretation.

Ben Jonson wrote a sonnet in the Shakespearean form about a “poet-ape who would be thought our chief.” Jonson went on to say this phony wasn’t fooling anyone right now but might fool future generations — “after-times may judge it to be his as well as ours.” He didn’t name the perpetrator.

Students performing a skit joked about the acting company member named Shakespeare. The joke was that Shakespeare’s ignorant fellow shareholders think their pal Shakespeare is nothing like Ovid. The audience knows Shakespeare as an Ovidian poet. The idiot shareholders are happy their man is superior to “that writer Ovid” and to “that writer Metamorphosis.” The audience knows The Metamophoses is a poem by Ovid.

A dying Elizabethan writer in 1592 wrote a diatribe that quotes an unpublished Shakespeare play and talks about someone whom he calls a “Shake-scene.” This person is a phony who, like Aesop’s crow, “beautifies himself” with the feathers of others. The diatribe is a warning to other writers to stay away from this “rude groom” who takes advantage of people. If the writer was talking about Shakespeare, all we can say for sure is the dying writer wasn’t a fan.

“Jealousy and rivalry and madcap humor” are the most common mainstream interpretations. Rebels say if it weren’t for the First Folio preface, Londoners would be taken at face value: anyone who knew anything knew the Stratford businessman was no more a writer than an ape or a poem by Ovid or a strutting crow. There are two additional references commonly cited by both sides reproduced in the appendices, but they, like the examples above, are Rorshack tests — that is, their interpretation is to some extent in the eye of the beholder.

Rebels who have dismissed the First Folio preface claim poetry written by the Queen’s playwright as a teenager prefigures the mature Shakespeare. The argument that two and only two Elizabethan writers were virtuosos with falconry metaphors is either compelling or inconclusive depending which way you are already leaning.

A “haggard” is an untamed hawk or, if you are either the literary earl or Shakespeare or both, a faithless lover:

. . . mark the choice they make and how they change,
How oft from Phoebus they do flee to Pan;
Unsettled still like haggards wild they range,
These gentle birds that fly from man to man.
Who would not scorn and shake them from the fist,
And let them fly, fair fools, which way they list? [The literary earl as a teenager]

If I do prove her haggard,
though her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind
to prey at fortune. [Shakespeare, the mature author of Othello]

Only the Queen’s playwright as a teenager and the mature Shakespeare wrote of haggard hawks as wayward lovers as far as anyone knows. All we really know is that Shakespeare loved to use falconry terms in his plays — many of them, like hoodwinked, are part of the language now. More parallels appear in the appendices.

Finally, there’s a scene in As You Like It that seems; there is broad agreement that it serves obvious no purpose. The play with the scene deleted flows just fine, better actually without the interruption.

And yet the scene has hot emotion that edges close to violence. “Writers” are mentioned in this scene just once. The word “writers” appears six times in the canon, always referring to specific writers or their specific writings; this is the only instance of “writers” in a general sense in any Shakespeare play.

On the other hand, if the Stratford businessman was really strutting around pretending to be Shakespeare, the scene is devastating.

The authorial character — Shakespeare often used characters that, like a Greek chorus, offered commentary and the author’s viewpoint  — TOUCHSTONE confronts a know-nothing fool, WILLIAM, who wanders into the play just for this scene.

WILLIAM does nothing and says almost nothing. He listens to the angry TOUCHSTONE make fun of his lack of education, erudition, and knowledge. He listens to a lecture TOUCHSTONE gives about a classical metaphor in which widsom can be imagined as a liquid: a liquid, Plato says, can be poured from one vessel into another emptying the first vessel and filling the other; wisdom cannot be treated so.

Then comes the scary and completely meaningless Latin lesson about intensive pronouns.

The Latin “intensive pronoun” ipse tells us who the big guy is and can be translated as “he himself” or “the one and only.” We use intensive pronouns all the time: Walt Disney himself cut the ribbon when Disneyland opened; Matt Damon himself appeared at a screening of Good Will Hunting.

TOUCHSTONE, angry enough to kill, rhetorically grabs the intellectually defenseless WILLIAM by the shirt. If acting this scene, the TOUCHSTONE actor would speak inches from WILLIAM’s face.

TOUCHSTONE tells WILLIAM EXACTLY what ipse means in the bitter rivalry that is evidently their relationship. The “writers” who appear here appear nowhere else in the play:

“. . . all your writers do consent that ipse is he.
Now you are not ipse for I am he . . .”

TOUCHSTONE then unleashes an overdone barrage of every possible threat including a promise to KILL WILLIAM in “a hundred and fifty ways.” That’s the end of WILLIAM’s role in the play. He exits and the play returns to the original plotline.

The First Folio preface, on the other hand, says in no uncertain terms it was the businessman from Stratford, the shareholder in London’s leading acting company, who was Shakespeare himself.

If the preface is telling it as it was, it means Shakespeare had a double life as both “a man shrewd in practical affairs” in Stratford and, simultaneously as “the admired poet of love’s languishment” in London. That’s how classic biographer Samuel Schoenbaum put it. In theory, the scene in As You Like It could be interpreted as an illustration of Shakespeare’s two personas dueling with one another but good luck trying to find a mainstream scholar willing to dig himself into that hole!

The scene in As You Like It is much more likely to be ignored by scholars who assume the First Folio preface accurately identified the author. For them, a dolt named WILLIAM being told who is who in a gratuitous scene tells us nothing — we  simply don’t know why the author put it in. Without the preface of course, the scene might well raise more than a few scholarly eyebrows. In fact, without the First Folio preface, it seems unlikely the businessman would be regarded by anyone as the author.

And yet mainstream observers regularly claim that the case for the businessman as author does NOT rely on the First Folio preface!

We can only guess of course whether or not sans preface a mainstreamer might see much of the Shakespeare story — Hamlet from the 1580’s, “our ever-living poet” in 1609, Jonson’s “poet-ape” who fooled no one, haggard hawks as wayward lovers, “you are not ipse for I am he” — by the rebels’ lights.

I believe if there were no preface, the Queen’s playwright would be regarded as the obvious author and someone digging up the fact that someone named “William Shakespeare” owned shares in an acting company and claiming he was the real author would be laughed at — “How could an illiterate businessman have written the plays?”

But we do have the preface and there is no direct contradiction to it in any letter or diary entry. No one scratched out William Shakespeare on their copy of the First Folio and wrote in the name of the literary earl. So the mainstream can continue to hold to the traditional idea that the businessman was also the greatest writer in England, and can continue to argue that “you are not ipse for I am he” is being overinterpreted by partisans of the Queen’s playwright.

The question for us is not so much a matter of “Are the rebels right or wrong?” Rather, the question is, “Is the mainstream claiming certainty when there is none to be had?”

The answer to this second question is unequivocally yes. The reliance on a single piece of evidence is, by itself, sufficient cause for doubt. If the whole theory evaporates without the First Folio preface, that doesn’t mean the theory is wrong but it does mean the theory cannot be considered a certainty or a near-certainty.

If indeed the preface is nonsense that would put “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” right up there with “the Pope doesn’t have sexual partners” as nonsense touted in the sixteenth century that had no connection whatsoever with reality.

Rebels admit a hoax of such magnitude is a big deal but, they claim, such a hoax would have been far from impossible to pull off in Elizabethan England and really would be par the course in a time when wild conspiracies, real ones, were a dime a dozen. Even today with photography and television and an independent press, front-men can be used and the truth about a writer’s identity hid from the public for a long time.

Ian McLellan Hunter won an Oscar for writing Roman Holiday and collected the beautiful statue and gave a nice “thank you” speech. Many years later, Hunter was dead and his son had the statue, but he preferred not to relinquish what had become a family heirloom though he knew his father hadn’t written Roman Holiday. The resolution was simple enough: another statue was created for the actual author, Dalton Trumbo, who had long since died uncredited. Trumbo had written the brilliant and beautiful Roman Holiday and had employed Hunter as a front-man after Mr. Trumbo was blacklisted by ordinary people in a society whose culture had been upended by a handful of paranoid McCarthyites who, in the end, were exposed — too late for Dalton Trumbo — as pure game-players as opposed to people who actually believed what they were saying.

Decades passed as did the writer himself before a statue found its way into the hands of the right family.

If the businessman-author is a hoax like Hunter-Trumbo, the strange scene in As You Like It is historical narrative; Hamlet becomes nakedly autobiographical; the complaint in Sonnet 66 about “art made tongue-tied by authority” drips with real-life bitterness; and Sonnet 81, ringing with the confidence of a genius who writes for the ages who says he knows his words are immortal but laments, “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die,” is telling us outright that “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym.

Even a microscopic doubt about the First Folio preface held by a mainstream literature professor reading Sonnet 81 might cause said professor to reconsider his or her certainty. Ivy league professors such as James Shapior at Columbia, seemingly desperate to stave off the specter of doubt, routinely — and with a straight face — say Shakespeare’s sonnets are “not personal” and profess to be absolutely sure the businessman-author theory is the one true theory. Ipse dixit. 

Ipse dixit means “he himself speaketh.” Centuries ago this phrase was used in a positive sense when referring to an authority to end a discussion. Now it is used ironically to criticize authorities who make strong claims on weak evidence or to question a claim made solely on the basis of authority. If people like Shapiro are eventually tagged with ipse dixit, it will be worse for them than showing up to a lecture hall naked. Given the stakes, their concern about this issue is not surprising.

The sonnets, the plays, perhaps every scene in every play, the lives of the characters, their clever quips, their bitter complaints, the vicious stabbing of CORAMBIS by HAMLET in Hamlet — it all acquires dramatic new meaning if the rebels are right. If Shakespeare was really the Queen’s playwright, the man and the works would no longer be separate. Every analysis, every guess about when the plays were written, every presumption about topical elements in the plays, the whole freaking academic thing — it would all have to be redone.

Comparative literature doesn’t see higher stakes than this.

The UMass Amherst faculty approved the student’s proposal (much to the dismay of a certain ivy league professor), the student wrote his dissertation, got his Ph.D., and continues, as a professor himself, to do research. His definitive dating of the The Tempest to the early 1600’s or before was recently praised as valuable work by that hotbed of radical thinking, that academic bastion of hell-raising, that boiling cauldron of heretical thinking called Oxford University Press.

The Tempest dated confidently (and incorrectly) to 1610 was probably the most important single assumption keeping the Queen’s playwright out of the picture. If, someday, the Queen’s playwright comes to be regarded as Shakespeare, the re-dating of The Tempest will probably be seen as the turning point.

We’re not there yet. For now, many first-rate experts begin and end the discussion by saying that the Queen’s playwright was not the Queen’s playwright — he was a bad boy who was so bad he got paid for it. I know it’s hard to believe anyone would really say that, especially an academic with credentials, but I promise in the “four horsemen” section I will provide exact quotes and references.

First we need to flesh out the rebel argument set against the sane part of the mainstream argument and this I hope to accomplish below with my imagined dialog between a STUDENT and an open-minded-but-cautious PROFESSOR. These kinds of discussions for all intents and purposes never happen in academia but presumably something like this conversation actually took place thirty years ago at UMass Amherst.

Speaking of institutions, my friend the aphorist, a vertitable Vermont institution himself, got mad when he heard about all this. He never thought there was any question about Shakespeare. At length, he became incredulous. The mainstream’s loyalty to the real estate mogul made no sense to him.

Institutional support for heresy rose to three there and then. And from thence this came:

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

It is your privilege to read and be mad. Or to read and censure. But, whatever you do, Send aphorisms.

STUDENT: Thanks for being willing to talk to me.

PROFESSOR: Well, I have a soft spot for radicals even though I’m not one myself.

STUDENT: I claim it is anything but radical to assume Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. 

PROFESSOR: We all know he did.

STUDENT: I don’t think so. Thomas Nashe told us about a great writer who had written a great play with tragical speeches called Hamlet. He alluded to Shakespeare’s sonnets some of which he had evidently seen in manuscript. He called the writer “English Seneca” aka Shakespeare.

PROFESSOR: Well, that was in 1589 and most scholars assume it had to have been someone else’s Hamlet.

STUDENT: I think it was Shakespeare’s Hamlet just as I think Shakespeare wrote King John. 

PROFESSOR: Well, he did, but I assume you’re talking about the King John published in 1591 that most scholars assume has to have been written by . . .

STUDENT: . . . someone else. Yes, I know the drill. Because such an immature version of the play would have to date back many years taking us well into the early 1580’s so Shakespeare had to have plagiarized this phantom writer who wasn’t as good but who also like to make up words.

PROFESSOR: Yes, many of Shakepeare’s signature neologisms appear in King John. You have a valid point. But people don’t say he plagiarized exactly. They call him a “reviser of genius.”

STUDENT: It amounts to the same thing. But Shakespeare adapted old stories like Romeo and Juliet just like other Elizabethan writers. Rewriting a play scene for scene is totally different. I don’t buy the plagiarism argument and the evidence supports me.

PROFESSOR: I assume you are referring to the byline.

STUDENT: Of course. The immature version of King John was published after 1600 with Shakespeare’s name on it because he wrote it.

Hamlet was already famous by the late 1580’s. Thomas Nashe, a rather opinionated Elizabethan writer, spoke of someone who, unlike most of the hacks putting out plays these days, was actually really good. This best-in-class author had written a play called Hamlet. Nashe evidently knew the author personally and noted that this great writer would be happy to regale you with “tragical speeches” if you would just ask him nicely. Nashe called this wonder of wonders “English Seneca” after the famous Roman writer and left it at that.

PROFESSOR: It is commonly assumed that this Hamlet is not Shakespeare’s Hamlet because the businessman from Stratford named William Shakespeare had not yet visited London as far as anyone knows, so he couldn’t have befriended Thomas Nashe and he couldn’t have written the play we know as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

STUDENT: Exactly. If the businessman is really the author, Nashe would have to be praising some other great writer who also wrote a play called Hamlet that also had tragical speeches. The idea that the Stratford businessman was Shakespeare forces the issue: there must be “someone else” who wrote the Hamlet Nashe is talking about. The more you look into it, the more this mysterious “someone else” gets piled onto his shoulders.

PROFESSOR: All theories are supported by some assumptions.

STUDENT: Some, yes. But suppose you end up with more assumption than theory. What then? There’s no text for 1580’s Hamlet so the people theorizing about “someone else” writing it can rest easy. But there is text for five other early versions of Shakespeare plays: King John, Henry V, Richard III, Taming of the Shrew, and King Lear. And I know what you’re going to say next.

PROFESSOR: I’m sure you do, but I’ll say it anyway. It is commonly assumed that Shakespeare didn’t write those early versions, that, um, someone else did and that Shakespeare appropriated the texts in the 1590’s after arriving in London. It is assumed that he used someone else’s work to  create the greatly improved versions of these plays that we commonly regard as Shakespeare plays.

STUDENT: And it isn’t surprising that it is commonly assumed that this is the case because the early version of Henry V was performed in the 1580’s by the Queen’s Men, the acting company created by in 1583 when the Queen went all-in on highly topical plays and politically useful theater that pushed patriotism and celebrated her dynasty and so forth. Nashe called this the “Policy of Plays.”

PROFESSOR: Yes, as an aside, I’ve always thought it quite amazing that Henry V, more than four hundred years later, was still used to play patriotic chords when London was under seige in the second world war.

STUDENT: Yes, plays had become incredibly important. Even so, for most performances of most plays at this time there is no record. All’s Well That Ends Well, to take one example, was written at some point and probably performed for the Queen at some point but we never heard a word about it until it appeared posthumously along with a lot of other plays for which the records are sparse or nonextistent but which we now worship.

PROFESSOR: Nineteen of Shakespeare’s plays were posthumous.

STUDENT: But for five Shakespeare plays, we are fortunate enough have two versions, not just with the same title but with full text that we can compare. And so we end up with another assumption. All five early versions could easily date to the 1580’s or earlier, so they “must not” be Shakespeare no matter how it looks. “Someone else” wrote them just lke 1580’s Hamlet. But there’s text for these five plays and the assumption that they aren’t Shakespeare quickly goes off the rails.

PROFESSOR: I assume you are referring to the fact that the similarities between these plays and Shakespeare’s plays is so strong it seems that if Shakespeare appropriated them for himself, he was pushing the bounds of what was acceptable. Elizabethans commonly used foreign or classical works as sources and adapted them to create new works. The plays you mentioned were are different story. As a result, scholars have called Shakespeare “an accomplished parasite” and “a reviser of genius” and so forth.

STUDENT: Let’s face it, they are calling Shakespeare a plagiarist which he most certainly would be if “someone else” really did write the five plays we’re talking about. But all five have Shakespeare’s fingerprints all over them. His trademark made-up words are just one example — no writer used neologisms anywhere near as often as Shakespeare did and these plays have dozens of them. The five plays are not only obvious first drafts of the later versions, they are similar to each other and to the entire Shakespeare canon in vocabulary, innovations, humor, stucture, philosophy, and in the knowledge base required to write them.

PROFESSOR: So, in your opinion, Shakespeare wrote the early versions of all five plays.

STUDENT: In the case of King John, it’s not a mere opinion. There’s hard evidence. Many Shakespeare plays published both before and after 1598 had no byline. But two editions of King John were published after bylines appeared, that is after 1598, and both of these editions of the early King John had Shakespeare’s name on them. So the first draft of King John doesn’t just look like early Shakespeare, it officially was. And I know what you’re going to say next.

PROFESSOR: It is commonly assumed the King John bylines are not correct.

STUDENT: That’s a nice assumption but the publishers of both editions of early King John had spotless thirty-year records. A dozen or so of the roughly fifty Shakespeare publications after 1598 didn’t bother with the byline. Maybe the byline sold plays and maybe it didn’t. Of course the first King John is Shakespeare. Why wouldn’t it be?

PROFESSOR: Well, it would be a problem for the businessman-wrote-Shakespeare theory.

STUDENT: Just like Hamlet mentioned in 1589.

PROFESSOR: Yes, it’s the same issue.

STUDENT: Maybe it would be easier to just drop the businessman theory.

PROFESSOR: You have to remember, the businessman didn’t just have the right name, he also became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company by the middle 1590’s.

STUDENT: He did have a famous name and he did own shares when you say he did. The question is what does that mean? A name quite similar to the name he was born with — William Shakspere — became famous before he showed up in London as William Shakespeare and added the acting company to his long list of investments. It is possible of course that he wrote plays and was eventually rewarded with shares. But it is also possible Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and King John in the 1508’s and that the businessman saw his name become famous and showed in London after the fact, late to the party as it were.

PROFESSOR: So you regard the shares in the acting company as an investment like his investments in real estate and agriculture back in Stratford though the theater investment may have been motivated by a coincidence: he happened to have a name that matched a famous pseudonym. You have to admit that is an assumption too.

STUDENT: Of course it is, but which assumption fits the evidence better? I don’t have to pretend Shakespeare didn’t write 1580’s Shakespeare. But strictly sticking to the facts, we can say we don’t know what brought the Stratford businessman to London. We can also say that his arrival in London came after Hamlet and at least some of the history plays were already well known. In addition we know the businessman’s membership in the acting company happened after the name “William Shakespeare” first appeared on the epic poem Venus and Adonis in 1593 which was an overnight success.

PROFESSOR: You are correct in saying that we don’t know whether he got the shares in the acting company by putting cash on the barrelhead or if he received shares because he was writing plays and handing them over. None of the documents spell out the arrangement, if any, he had with the acting company in which he held shares. So we just don’t know. It could be either way, could it not?

STUDENT: I don’t think so. I believe Nashe’s mention of Hamlet, the early version of King John with Shakespeare’s name on the title page, and the early versions of Richard III, Henry V, King Lear, and Taming of the Shrew present nearly insurmountable problems for anyone, no matter how creative, championing the idea that a Stratford businessman arriving in London in the early 1590’s was Shakespeare.

PROFESSOR: You’ve already alluded to what you call “insumountable problems” but can you state simply what these are?

STUDENT: Yes. We’re looking at two assumptions all aimed at keeping the 1580’s safe for a businessman who, as far as we know, had not yet left Stratford. First, Shakespeare, the greatest English writer of the Elizabethan period and one of the great literary geniuses of all time, was an egregious plagiarist. Second, “someone else” so mysterious that the question of who it was “of so dark a nature” that no answer can be sought wrote King John and four other highly topical plays that arguably took 1580’s London by storm and that look exactly like early Shakespeare. I believe both of these assumptions collapse under their own weight

PROFESSOR: What about Hamlet?

STUDENT: Without actual text of 1580’s Hamlet one cannot make a strong case that there couldn’t have been a play with the same title written by a different Elizabethan author. However, even this early mention, all by itself, should be enough to engender at least a glimmer of doubt, but it is essentially ignored and buried beneath a simple (or simplistic) unsupported assumption.

PROFESSOR: I agree the mainstream should be careful about circular reasoning. Still, we must remember that the businesman was identified posthumously as the author by an extremely reliable source and we are allowed to draw some conclusions from this fact.

STUDENT: I haven’t forgotten. I agree, the posthumous evidence is significant. All I’m saying is the idea that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare is significant as well.

PROFESSOR: Fair enoug. Before we talk about the posthumous evidence itself, I want to know who do you think did wrote the plays? Someone who was active in the 1580’s or before, obviously. But who?

STUDENT: I think Shakespeare was a playwright not a businessman. Is that crazy?

PROFESSOR: It’s not a bad start. But many playwrights have been suggested as possible Shakespeare’s and these ideas all fall flat because the work they did put their real names on isn’t Shakespearean at all.

STUDENT: That’s a valid point. In this case, however, the leading court playwright in Elizabethan times was recognized as a great genius all the way back to childhood. As a teenager he was impressing some of the finest tutors and scholars in England. As an adult, he was at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene having frequent contact with essentially every writer in London. In 1586, the Queen granted him a stunning lifetime annual award essentially equivalent to giving him a Nobel Prize every year for the rest of his life. It was unprecedented then and its like has not been seen since. The literary earl who I believe was Shakespeare, never put his real name on any play: the literary earl became a famous playwright but one with no plays to his name.

PROFESSOR: I assumed this would be your choice. Historians, realizing the literary earl was heavily involved with Elizabethan literature, called him “interesting” but not much more was said about him until about a hundred years ago when he became the one person suggested as a possible Shakespeare that attracted the attention of credentialed experts.

STUDENT: He’s the perfect person to have written plays we know were full of inside baseball from the Queen’s court. The plays began as unpublished anonymous courtly diversions. Then they were published as anonymous bootlegs. Bylines didn’t appear until 1598 and then haphazardly. But no “Shakespeare” author ever appeared for publishers to work with making “Shakespeare” the only Elizabethan playwright with no authorized plays published in his lifetime.

PROFESSOR: It’s true that the publication history of Shakespeare’s plays in unique for Elizabethan times and maybe for all time. So I think this is fertile ground for you since it is generally agreed upon and tends to support the idea that something unusual was happening.

STUDENT: “Unusual” would be an understatement. There were no other plays that could lampoon the Queen’s court seemingly from within. The Stratford businessman, to write the plays, would have to have had remarkable courtly connections or perhaps an amazingly good ear for gossip. But I don’t think Shakespeare got his information from the magical “someone else.” I think he got it directly.

PROFESSOR: Shakespeare does appear to have had an insider’s view. It is indeed usually assumed he got his information from an insider, from “someone else” as you would say. But, other than his position as a member of the nobility, why is the literary earl in particular the “perfect person” to be Shakespeare?

STUDENT: Would you agree that John Lyly and Anthony Munday were close to the whoever wrote Shakespeare?

PROFESSOR: Oh yes, of course. Lyly is very often cited as either alluding to Shakespeare or being alluded to by Shakespeare. Their styles are as closely related as any two Elizabethan authors. Lyly’s biographers often make a point of this. And one of Munday’s plays has a scene in it that is not Munday’s style at all. The play has Munday’s name on it but that one scene clearly isn’t his and is generally agreed to be Shakespeare from beginning to end. So Munday appears to have been working with Shakespeare closely enough for the great playwright to contribute a scene to at least one of this plays. And Lyly and Shakespeare clearly were strongly influenced by one another and may have been working together as well.

STUDENT: Were you aware that the liteary earl, the man I think was Shakespeare, hired Lyly and Munday as literary secretaries?

PROFESSOR: Oh, yes, that’s right. He did didn’t he? Well that’s a good connection, a bit better that just saying he was a court playwright. But what about Shakespeare’s dedicatee, the Earl of Southampton? Ideally, you should find a connection there as well. Shakespeare dedicated the two epic poems to Southampton and put the name “William Shakespeare” into print for the first time as you know. Of course, he never dedicated anything to anyone else and never had any work dedicated to him. The sonnets appear to be written to Southampton as well. So Southampton is pretty central here.

STUDENT: “Central” is another undertatement I think. There was something special about Southampton. He wasn’t just Shakespeare’s only dedicatee and the apparent “lovely boy” of the sonnets as you say. He figured heavily in Elizabethan politics. Lord Burghley himself wanted to create a family alliance by having his grand-daughter marry Southampton. It would have solidified the Burghley faction as the only real power in England outside of the Queen herself.

PROFESSOR: Yes, Lord Burghley was the Queen’s closest advisor and given an aging unmarried Queen and no legal heir in the early 1590’s a marriage alliance at that level could easily affect the succession itself. Very good. But what’s the connection with your court playwright?

STUDENT: Surely you know about the marriage sonnets?

PROFESSOR: Of course. A young nobleman, usually assumed to be Southampton, is being told in no uncertain terms to marry and create an heir for his own good and the good of his family. The first dozen-plus sonnets a written to push, cajole, insist, instruct, and admonish the young earl to marry. It is sometimes assumed that the sonnets must have been commissioned by Southampton’s family because no commoner would have spoken to an earl that way. The sonnets were written in the first person and kept private until they were finally published in 1609. But you know all about the sonnets.

STUDENT: Of course I do. I even know about the “sonnets were commissioned” theory. I like that theory. It fits very well with all the other mainstream theorizing. If the sonnets were commissioned that means they weren’t written in Shakespeare’s voice. If the sonnets were commissioned they must have been written in the voice of . . . can you guess?

PROFESSOR: Very good, yes, yes. If the sonnets were commissioned they were written in the voice of SOMEONE ELSE. I’m starting to see how your argument is coming together.

STUDENT: Do you know who Southampton was supposed to marry?

PROFESSOR: The grand-daughter of Lord Burghley.

STUDENT: But do you know who was the father of the bride?

PROFESSOR: Again, I see your point. The father of the bride was the literary earl was it not? That might mean something.

STUDENT: Indeed it might very well mean an awful lot of something. The literary earl hired Lyly and Munday AND it was the eldest daughter of the literary earl who was supposed to marry the subject of Shakespeare’s marriage sonnets in the most important marriage alliance of Elizabethan times. So we have a courtly playwright supported by the Queen writing courtly plays who is connected to all of the people Shakespeare had to have been connected to and he was actually active in the 1580’s but has zeo plays attributed to him even though he was praised to the skies as a playwright and handed an ungodly sum of money year after year.

PROFESSOR: That’s your argument in a nutshell. But don’t you think you are overstating your case if you say the proposed marriage of Southampton into the Burghley family was THE most important marriage alliance of Elizabethan times? Certainly, it was ONE of the most important.

STUDENT: That’s a fair point but I’m not sure I am overstating here. Southampton, as you know, refused the match and joined the Essex faction which tried to control the succession ten years later and failed. Essex and Southampton were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Essex was beheaded a week later, but Southampton’s sentence was commuted and he was released from the Tower after James took the throne. No one knows why Southampton wasn’t also executed.

PROFESSOR: You are suggesting there was something special about Southampton.

STUDENT: Yes, but there’s not enough evidence to determine exactly what was going on. All we know is that everyone, including Shakespeare, made a big fuss about Southampton throughout his life.

PROFESSOR: Okay. I’ve followed you so far. Give me a quick summary of your position based on what you’ve said so far.

STUDENT: I think the plays had been performed regularly since the 1570’s, became so popular in the 1580’s that the Queen created an acting company and set her playwright up for life, and then in the early 1590’s the name “William Shakespeare” finally appeared in print. That’s when the guy from Stratford who was one of half a dozen people with that name in and around London, decided to show up in London, twenty years after the fact, and buy his way into the acting company and prance around with his fortuitous name.

PROFESSOR: That’s all pretty speculative, you must admit.

STUDENT. It is speculation. But if you assume the businessman was Shakespeare, you have to turn him into some sort of absurdly well-connected genius plagiarist commoner who wrote sonnets to a young earl in someone else’s voice and stole work from someone who could have been a younger version of himself but who had turned his back for a moment.

PROFESSOR: It is the case that many commentators have imagined that the writer of the plays ought to be one of the “wolfish earls” as opposed to a commoner just because of the viewpoint in the plays. But that is a subjective judgment. Your plagiarism comment is a good point — there’s no point using euphemisms, if the Stratford theory requires plagiarism then so be it. And I agree that the connection between the literary earl and Southampton is compelling.

STUDENT: And let’s face it, even Shakespeare’s biographers who assume he was the businessman openly wonder how he even had time to write plays given all the business he was transacting. They openly wonder why his business activities are so well documented while his writing activities aren’t documented at all. They express surprise that none of his family members or friends or neighbors ever said a word about him being the greatest writer in England until he was long dead and his fellow shareholders in the acting company finally said, “Oh yes, he was the great Shakespeare, the guy who wrote the plays, and here they all are, you should really buy them.”

PROFESSOR: I see you’ve read Honigmann and Schoenbaum. You seem to find their biographies to be convincing demonstrations that the subject of their biographies was NOT the playwright. If you can make the case that even mainstream biographers have some doubt or at least some incredulity about their subject being Shakespeare the great writer and a businessman, that would certainly strengthen your case.

STUDENT: Yes, I think all the work that has been done so far, including the work of mainstream biographers, indicates that we need a member of the nobility who was active in the 1580’s, who knew Southampton and had an interest in his marriage, and who knew Lyly, Munday, and other writers. That person is not the Stratford businessman, it’s someone else and I think the someone else was the Queen’s playwright. I don’t think the Queen handed him the equivalent of a Nobel Prize every year for his whole life because he was pretty good.

PROFESSOR: Okay, but the literary earl who you call the Queen’s playwright died in the early 1600’s. Are you prepared to discuss the dating of the plays?

STUDENT: More than prepared. I think I can prove that The Tempest, arguably Shakespeare’s last play, was written in the early 1600’s just before the literary earl died. A play being performed in Germany at the time was too similar to The Tempest to be anything but an adaptation and the people putting it on were known to frequently adapt English plays.

PROFESSOR: Well, that’s a big question which you might want to come back to after you’ve earned your doctorate. But you haven’t talked about the First Folio. You’ll have to have an extensive discussion since that is really the source of the focus on the Stratford businessman.

STUDENT: I know. Suddenly in the early 1620’s, the size of the canon more than doubles. Nineteen plays never before published including Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, As You Like It, and All’s Well That Ends Well appear out of nowhere and a massive thirty-six play compilation is published in 1623 with the Earl of Montgomery thanked on the dedication page. I know the First Folio is the main evidence favoring the Stratford businessman but I think just the fact that half the plays hadn’t yet been published and that fact that they all show up at the same time and the fact that the Earl of Montgomery was involved makes the First Folio good evidence in favor of the literary earl.

PROFESSOR: What’s so important about Montgomery?

STUDENT: He was married to the literary earl’s youngest daughter. He and his brother were the dedicatees of the First Folio. They were nobility. They obviously bankrolled the project and they got all the plays together. The fact that the literary earl’s immediate family member — his daughter — was that close to the First Folio is almost a smoking gun in my view.

PROFESSOR: But the preface to the First Folio was quite clear about who the author was and it didn’t say anything about any literary earl.

STUDENT: Ah yes, the First Folio preface — the source of all the problems.

PROFESSOR: Or one might say the primary piece of evidence supporting the Stratford businessman because it clearly identifies him as the author.

STUDENT. You’re right. It does say the businesman wrote the plays. Two letters in the preface above the printed signatures of two members of London’s leading acting company make everything very clear. First, you should buy the book. Second, the acting company had the plays all this time — a period of decades. They had Shakespeare’s life’s work of plays. Third, they were handing them over, with no thought of profit, to Montgomery and his brother for the sole purpose of having their beloved fellow shareholder, Shakespeare, remembered. Fourth, these plays were the real thing, not those nasty bootlegs that got published before.

PROFESSOR: But you don’t believe the First Folio preface. You think it was falsified.

STUDENT: Acting companies didn’t collect the lifework of authors, hold it for decades, and then publish everything all at once. And they existed to make a profit. The letters read like tongue-in-cheek marketing copy. Who holds the lifework of a great author? His family, of course. The First Folio preface simply isn’t believeable because it defies both precedent and common sense.

PROFESSOR: It is assumed that once written the plays became the property of the acting company and it is further assumed that the acting company didn’t want the plays published and it is further assumed that they didn’t take steps to prevent the publication of the plays that did get published and finally that fits in with the acting company’s gift to Montgomery and his brother.

STUDENT: That’s a lot of assuming without a shred of evidence that that acting company or any acting company ever did anything like that.

PROFESSOR: The people who support the traditional theory do have to make a lot of assumptions if they are unwilling to declare the First Folio falsified. But you must admit your case that it is falsified is circumstantial. That’s not to say it is weak. But you have to face the fact that the First Folio preface, even if you don’t think much of it, is a direct statement, not at all circumstantial.

STUDENT: True enough. But there is hard evidence indicating that the businessman was not a writer. His will lists a large number of people who were in his life including acting company members. But no writers or publishers are listed. Also he died in 1616, but in 1609 the sonnets were published and the author was referred to as “our ever-living poet” on the dedication page and this happens to be a Shakespearean eulogy from one of his plays. Finally, five signatures exist, all written by different people. No other Elizabethan writer lacks a signature. And, unlike the case for other Elizabethan writers, no letters or manuscripts or even books were part of his household when he died so it isn’t even clear that he was literate. All we know is that he had other people sign for him on important documents and the record shows he owned more houses (five) than books (zero).

PROFESSOR: But why would Montgomery want to hide the true author if it was his family member?

STUDENT: That would be a matter for speculation. But we don’t need to speculate. The statements in the First Folio preface about the businessman are contradicted by multiple pieces of evidence from the fifty-two year lifespan of the subject. The author of Shakespeare’s plays was dead by 1609, knew many other writers, and could write his name. The Stratford businessman has to have all three of these characteristics but has not even one of them. Thus, the First Folio preface was falsified. An attempt to discover the motive would be an interesting exercise but is not necessary to show that the information in the First Folio doesn’t comport with reality. The letters in the First Folio preface sound like jokes because they are jokes.

PROFESSOR: It’s true that I’ve never seen a good explanation for the signatures in particular. Schoenbaum suggests he just didn’t have time to be present to sign the documents himself. McCrea suggests he signed differently each time on purpose. But the signatures are the signatures and without books, letters, or manuscripts, you’re right that his literacy is in doubt unless we use circular reasoning. We can assume he was Shakespeare because the First Folio says he was and then claim literacy on that basis but that’s circular: there’s no direct evidence of literacy and no indirect evidence unless a third party who knew him personally said he was literate.

STUDENT: People did make comments about Shakespeare or appear to make comments. But I don’t think any of the commentary calls him a writer. Ben Jonson wrote a Shakespearean sonnet speaking of a “poet-ape” who “would be thought our chief” but who really was “so bold a thief.” Jonson said no one was fooled. If the “chief” he was talking about was Shakespeare the writer, then it sounds an awful lot like he was complaining about an imposter. You can interpret Jonson’s sonnet as jealousy or teasing or something but the fact is there are no clear statements from anyone, no letters, no dedications, and no poems that say anything about knowing the great writer Shakespeare. Every personal comment you can find basically says Shakespeare was a phony.

PROFESSOR: So you claim there are no references to Shakespeare as a writer by someone who claimed to know him personally. What about Davies?

STUDENT: Davies actually referred to Shakespeare by name so we know who he was talking about and Davies said he was part of an acting company so we know he was talking about the man named Shakespeare (as opposed to an author he may never have met) but Davies called Shakespeare “Our English Terence” which is a reference to the Roman writer Terence known to Davies and other Elizabethans as being a front-man for Roman aristocrats who didn’t want their names on plays. That’s a disaster for mainsteam theorists unless they can credibly claim Davies was talking about Terence as writer and not as a front-man. Terence is the only Roman writer thought by Cicero and others to have acted as a front-man and there are many, many other writers Davies could have used to title his rather cryptic epigram addressed to Shakespeare so this is really, really bad for the mainstream.

PROFESSOR: Have you found other references to Shakespeare the acting company member?

STUDENT: Just one. A character in a madcap skit says Ovid is terrible and says Shakespeare is nothing like Ovid. The joke is that Shakespeare is known as an Ovidian poet so the speaker in the skit is being protrayed as an idiot. The idiot speaker then praises his “fellow” Shakespeare as being better than “that writer Ovid” and better than “that writer Metamorphosis.” The Metamorphoses of course are Ovidian epic poems and Ovid is a wrtier, but one whom Shakespeare admired and emulated.

PROFESSOR: This is the “Return from Parnassus” skit put on by students at the time and later published.

STUDENT: Yes, the idiot character is one of Shakespeare’s fellow shareholders in the acting company and he is presented as not knowing the difference between a poet and poem. You can interpret that any way you want but if I’m really a writer, I don’t want my co-shareholder to say I’m better than “that writer Moby Dick” even as a character in a madcap skit. It doesn’t seem like a compliment. In fact, it seems to imply that I’m not a writer at all. But, again, it can be interpreted.

PROFESSOR: The interpretations are as follows: Jonson was jealous; the fact that Terence put his name on a few plays by aristocrats isn’t what Davies was getting at; Shakespeare was a writer but some of his fellows in the acting company were too stupid to know what kind of writer he was.

STUDENT: To me all of that sounds like saying the Hamlet from the 1580’s was someone else’s Hamlet. Shakespeare was a front-man thief who could write as well as an inanimate object. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder as you say.

PROFESSOR: It’s not possible to be completely objective. Everything is a bit of a rorshack test.

STUDENT: I agree. The commentary is not convincing compared to facts and circumstances that are beyond interpretation: the signatureless extremely busy Stratford businessman could not physically have written a series of courtly plays dating back to the 1580’s and before. Once you eliminate the businessman, the Queen’s playwright becomes the only possible author.

PROFESSOR: Do you have a list of the plays that, according to the preface in the First Folio, had been held by the acting company as “orphans” for all those decades?

STUDENT: Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentleman of Verona, the mature version of The Taming of the Shrew, the mature version of King John, Henry VI part 1, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Henry VIII. Diary entries occasionally mention some of these plays as having been performed though three have no mention at all prior to the First Folio. These and seventeen previously published plays, some with alterations never before seen, were published all at once in the First Folio in 1623.

PROFESSOR: You’ve sketched out a case saying that it may have been the literary earl’s family retaining the manuscripts as opposed to the acting company. Do you have any other thoughts? Any putative smoking guns?

STUDENT: A couple. First, the businessman’s two daughters were known to be illiterate. We are being asked to believe that the man who wrote Beatrice, Cordellia, Rosalind, and Portia, four truly great heroines even by modern standards, didn’t see to it that his daughters could read his works.

PROFESSOR: It’s usually assumed — there’s that word again — that he didn’t have time to teach them or that he didn’t bother because they were country girls and didn’t need to read.

STUDENT: All we really know is that his daughters were illiterate and he didn’t sign important documents himself. Everything else is speculation.

PROFESSOR: Those are indeed the bare facts.

STUDENT: The second smoking gun is Sonnet 81 two lines of which read, “Your name from hence immortal life shall have, though I (once gone) to all the world must die.”

PROFESSOR: I can see where this is going.

STUDENT: The sonnets would outlast brass and stone and so forth and be eternal. The works with the Shakespeare byline were the most famous in England. But what happened? The author complained in the sonnets about “art made tongue-tied by authority” and hinted that “every word doth almost tell my name” and then (once gone) he died to all the world just as Sonnet 81 said. I see only two ways to interpret the author’s only first-person writing: either the author was constrained by politics to use a pseudonym or the sonnets are so uninterpretable that they are gibberish.

PROFESSOR: And you vote for the former.

STUDENT: As did a number of people alive four hundred years ago. After the First Folio was published, with Shakespeare still considered the greatest writer ever and with no plays attributed to the literary earl, some commentators published lists of late great authors including Chaucer, Spenser, Daniel, and the literary earl but they didn’t bother with “Shakespeare.” The canon had just doubled in size but “Shakespeare” might as well have been alphabet salad. The literary earl had no bylines and these early dabblers in comparative literature eventually died without spelling out their opinions about who wrote what so we don’t have anyone saying in any direct way, “the literary earl was Shakespeare.”

PROFESSOR: Even one comment to the effect “the author of Hamlet was the literary earl” would probably bring the Stratford theory crashing down. But no such direct comment exists. Traditional theorists claim that if the literary earl had written Shakespeare, a direct comment would have been made at some point.

STUDENT: I would counter that with the fact that although a lot of people praised the Queen’s playwright — one writer called his home a literary “shrine” — they always carefully avoided anything that would tie him to a specific play. If he were named as the author of even one non-Shakespeare play, that would change my view. But that is not the case. He was, to his contemporaries, a playwright who must not be linked to any play. I think it is obvious that the only Elizabethan playwright to have no plays attributed to him and the only Elizabethan playwright to have no authorized plays published in his lifetime are the same person.

PROFESSOR: Well, even if many people would say your conclusion is not “obvious,” I think it is at least defensible. If you put together a detailed proposal, I will endorse it and I think the rest of the faculty will be willing to accept it even if it is, in some circles, considered controversial to even discuss the question of who wrote the plays.

The mainstream does NOT say we should consider the possibility that the signatures, the attribution of the early King John to Shakespeare, and the dedication in the sonnets should be disregarded. The mainstream says they are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that this evidence is meaningless and, they say, credentialed experts who wish to consider this evidence and other evidence indicating that Shakespeare was the Queen’s playwright MUST be blocked from publishing their ideas in mainstream journals.

And they do it. The blockade is up and holding for now. The certainty that the businessman was Shakespeare in the face of contrary evidence cited by credentialed experts makes the businessman-was-Shakespeare idea a classic false paradigm.

Below, I quote mainstream scholars Samuel Schoenbaum, Jane Cox, Scott McCrea, Park Honan, Harold Bloom, and E.A.J. Honigmann discoursing on various aspects of the utter strangeness of the Shakespeare story.

The “obvious at a glance” quote below is from a classic biography in which Schoenbaum refers to the analysis of handwriting expert Jane Cox.

These “discourses” all say the same thing in my estimation and so I have left out attributions. In my view, these comments represent the entire mainstream very well. They may disagree on this or that detail, but no mainstream scholar is unaware of the difficulties inherent in imagining a businessman-author documented only as a businessman.

On his lack of connection to other writers:

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

On the avalanche of business documents:

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

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

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

On his being the only Elizabethan playwright to ignore publishers and allow bootleg after bootleg:

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

“Apparently he died neither knowing, nor caring, about the ultimate fate of works that posterity would value beyond all other accomplishments of the literary imagination. . . Towards the quartos [plays] printed while he lived he maintained a public aloofness . . . The man keeps his mask always firmly in place; apart from the works themselves there is only silence.”

On Shakespeare’s literary invisibility:

“. . . it is as though the creator [Shakespeare] of scores of major characters and hundreds of frequently vivid minor figures wasted no imaginative energy in inventing a persona for himself. At the very center of the [Western] Canon is the least self-conscious and least aggressive of all the major writers we have known.

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

“Shakespeare seems to have fluorished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself.”

On legal documents bearing Shakespeare’s handwritten name:

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

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

“. . . [Shakespeare] was possibly not even in London to sign the mortgage deed and the deed of purchase form the Blackfriars Gate-house [because he didn’t sign the documents himself] . . . a skeptical inquirer has made necessary a re-examination of comfortable assumptions. Miss Cox has deigned to milk a sacred cow.”

I did an experiment after reading Schoenbaum’s biography of the great writer Shakespeare which assumes he was the Stratford businessman and which therefore was obviously a challenging three hundred pages to write though it was interesting to read — it’s basically a book about Elizabethan life with occasional mentions of Shakespeare. Schoenbaum wrote his classic work and then complained about the “vertiginous expanse,” so the results of my little experiment wouldn’t have surprised him.

I opened a biography of Ben Jonson to a random page eight times. Eight out of eight randomly selected pages contained information about Ben Jonson’s writing career that if found for Shakespeare would be front-page news. Jonson’s library, commissions, manuscripts, letters, dedications to fellow writers, gifts to patrons, gifts from patrons, time spent in patron’s houses, post teaching at a university, time attending university, favorite teacher, books still extant — all of this and more are scattered through the pages of the biography by Rosalind Miles to such an extent that every page I looked at had “front-page news” on it.

Schoenbaum’s book, using the same page numbers, had a return as well: catholicism in England, the importance of virginity to Elizabethans, touring play companies that got around a bit, a nice description of the Tower of London, a biographer’s frustration over the three-page will that mentions only business associates and family members. That’s all I found and that’s all there is. Schoenbaum later said it was “impossible” to write a literary biography of Shakespeare.

But we do have something connecting Shakespeare to a person who is not a business associate and who is not a family member. The epic poems and the sonnets connect him to the Earl of Southampton. So we have something real, something important, to hang our biographical hats on.

But there’s one problem (and Schoenbaum new all about this problem). The sonnets are written from the point of view of an older peer. The sonnets tell the young earl what to do:  accept the proposed Burghley marriage alliance. The sonnets call Shakespeare “our ever-living poet” in 1609. The sonnets declare themselves immortal while the author reveals, “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.”

The sonnets are a problem. The sonnets are a problem because the ONE thing we have from the author’s lifetime connecting him to a specific person, the ONE thing, shatters the whole premise of Schoenbaum’s work all by itself. So when Schoenbaum gets to the sonnets, he immediately gives up because he has no other choice.

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

Drop the businessman theory and pick up the Queen’s playwright theory and suddenly the sonnets are simple, child’s play one might say. The Queen’s playwright himself had married into Burghley’s family. For all Burghley’s puritanical faults, only a fool would deny that the Queen’s closest councilor was the most powerful man in England; he and his family would undoubtedly control the succession given that the Queen had no heir.

We know Southampton was supposed to marry the literary earl’s daughter. If the literary earl wrote the sonnets, he was advising Southampton to marry into a powerful family.

The marriage sonnets now make sense as do the sonnets comparing the ages of the young and old earl: “That time of year thou may’st in me behold . . .” and “When forty winters shall beseige thy brow . . .” and the author’s other eloquent depictions of the age difference are no longer riddles. The author’s deep identification with Southampton is evident as well: “My glass shall not persuade me I am old, So long as youth and thou are of one date.”

A “glass” (i.e., a mirror) “persuading” someone of something is poetic, but clear enough. We don’t know much about the relationship between the young earl and the older earl except that the young earl was supposed to marry the older earl’s daughter so there is some mystery. But we are not so bereft of understanding that we have “punt on first down” and give up before we begin!

We know from history that Southampton was special in some way. Whoever wrote the sonnets also apparently knew about this. He wrote of Southampton’s “worth” often: “your worth, wide as the ocean is . . .” Southampton himself was at one time not aware of this “worth” that will remain something of mystery for us: “thy own worth then not knowing.” We don’t have  full knowledge and yet we are not completely in the dark.

Southampton, after rejecting Burghley’s alliance offer, threw his hat in with the Earl of Essex. Ten years later they tried to wrest control of the succession from Burghley (hint: bad idea) and the two of them and their friends wound up in the Tower with death sentences. Essex was dead in a week. One by one, the other conspirators died, in some cases horribly.

Southampton waited . . . and waited. The Queen commuted his sentence. Historians don’t know why. But Shakespeare, Southampton, Lord Burghley, and Elizabeth Tudor all knew and Shakespeare hinted at it in the sonnets: “the charter of thy worth gives thee releasing.”

We can choose at this stage to speculate further or to leave it there (I prefer the latter choice) but we need not run away screaming!

It is an irony that biographers like Schoenbaum are unable to use the only first-person writing we have for Shakespeare to talk about Shakespeare! They fill hundreds of pages of biography with wonderful descriptions of Elizabethan life that have so little to do with Shakespeare that if you don’t look at the cover and you open to a random page, you might have to read for several pages before realizing that the author is trying to write a Shakespeare biography!

I don’t know the right word for this state of affairs. I called it “irony” above. Is that right? Maybe “comedy” is a better word. Or one could call it “armchair torture.” I am open to suggestions.

How about “curious” as a description? It is “curious” that some people who never thought there was any question about who wrote Shakespeare answer the “Why do you now think the authorship is uncertain?” question with a laconic, “I read Schoenbaum.” Or maybe it’s disrepectful. I think Schoenbaum may have rolled over in his grave a few times. He characterized (not without right) many theories about who else may have written the plays as “nutty.”

One wonders if “authorship terrors” caused some literary critics (whom Campbell derides) to say that Shakespeare “does not seem to call for explanations beyond those which a whole heart and a free mind abundantly supply.” Campbell, who digs deep into the political details that she says run through all of the history plays, regards the “whole heart and a free mind” commentary as a comforting delusion, drivel if one reads between the lines. She then writes a book detailing the political events that Shakespeare wove into his plays while altering the historical narrative “in order to make the mirroring of the contemporary situation more effective” and then went on to “set forth the great political problems involved” all as part of his explication of “a definite, fundamental conception of universal law.”

She analyzes Henry V and Richard III in the same way, as political plays. Henry V provided a mirror “in which the Elizabethans could see their own national problems being acted out on the stage before them, and in which they could witness the eternal justice of God in the body politic.” She again mentions the close connection of the later to play to the early version supposedly written by someone else and then digs deep into 1580’s events mirrored in the plays without worrying about what this might mean.

Richard III, Campbell tells us reflects Machiavellian scheming amongst members of the Queen’s court with many parallels to an especially infamous schemer and possible murderer who was reviled at court and in public and died in the the 1580’s without gaining the power a lot of people thought he was seeking. Campbell’s point, in the Richard III chapter is the same the point made thoughout her book: the play is topical, poltical, and is the product of a well-informed writer. She assume the Stratford businessman wrote it but she’s analyzing the works, not attempting to understand how a Stratford businessman could have known what he needed to know to write the plays: Campbell implicitly assumes that he was in London, reading, and talking to lots of people and thereby learned enough to write the plays.

Campbell studied the works themselves and their place in Elizabethan politics without worrying about the writer. If the writer was the Stratford businessman, Campbell’s approach makes perfect sense: nothing is known about his connections to the Queen’s court so weaving biographical material into a work such as Campbell’s would be silly because there’s nothing to weave.

On the other hand, if the writer was the Queen’s playwright, suddenly Campbell’s ideas become a lot more interesting. With a playwright with known political connections, Campbell could have discussed the politics of the plays and the politics of the playwright in her book. She wisely avoided such controversy — it was a big enough deal for her to say that the plays were political at all — but I wonder if the Queen’s playwright had been an acceptable alternative author when Campbell was writing, if she might have been able to dig even deeper.

Campbell’s book, as it stands, raises doubts because she shows that the author had to be politically astute. Other mainstream researchers have dug into the author’s legal acumen displayed in play after play. These researchers, unlike Campbell, sometimes explicitly raise the question of where he got his legal training and in some cases speculate that he must have worked for a lawyer at some point and so forth. They might have been better off eschewing the question as Campbell did.

Mark Twain wrote a book in which he argued the point that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays without having been immersed in the law at a professional level. Mr. Clemens regarded the idea that “Shakespeare” was not a pseudonym as proof that humans as a group are incapable of reason. In 1909, he estimated three centuries at least before humanity corrected this particular blunder.

Also along the lines of “how did he know that?” are the Italian plays with their lovingly detailed settings. It is clear that Shakespeare visited Italy and learned about the waterways connecting sixteenth century Italian city states that at first confused modern scholars until they did some research and discovered the author knew whereof he wrote. He knew a lot about Italian art and artists that was not common knowledge in England at the time. Even today, with the advantages of photography and video and google earth and so forth, scholars have to physically travel to Italy to catch up to Shakespeare. As of the beginning of the 21st century the Duke’s Oak (capitalized) in a Shakespeare play was mysterious to countless editors who sometimes removed the capitalization. This remained the case until a researcher visited Italy and stumbled upon the no-longer-mysteriously-capitalized Duke’s Oak.

Scholars dealing with the Italy “issue” face a stark choice: note that it is possible the businessman went to Italy at some point OR embarrass themselves by claiming that it was possible for someone to write the Italian plays without ever actually going to Italy. If you are a betting person I offer you a good way to make money: find a mainstream researcher, it doesn’t matter how big an expert they are, who says Shakespeare was wrong about this or that Italian detail and bet on Shakespeare. Making such bets with researchers who have in the past questioned an Italian detail in a Shakespeare play would been extremely lucrative. But who knows, maybe someday someone will find an inaccurate Italian detail in Shakespeare play. It hasn’t happened yet to my knowledge but there’s always a first time.

The Stratford businessman may indeed have traveled to Italy and may have read a lot about legal proceedings and may have been politically astute and even politically connected. It would mean a lot if he could write his name and if researchers could find a way for him to write 1580’s Shakespeare (he was sixteen and living in Stratford in 1580). Then maybe I could ignore the fact that he was eulogized while still alive.

Whoever wrote Shakespeare had a number of the following characteristics (most likely he had all of them): he could write his name, he spoke multiple languages, he knew details of the Queen’s court, he had first-hand knowledge of Italy, he had legal training, he was an avid falconer, he was close to Southampton, and he was writing in the 1580’s.

It is possible the businessman from Stratford possessed all of these characteristics. If the First Folio preface is accurate then he must have. Mainstream scholars, faced with the possibility that their entire field has been barking up the wrong tree for centuries, can’t face that reality and so they say ridiculous things which will be noted below. They say the five different signatures are actually consistent and can be used to do a handwriting analysis and identify a piece of writing from a play by Anthony Munday as Shakespeare’s. They say he read plays in Italian translated into English but there is no trace of the translations. They say CORAMBIS wasn’t Burghley. They say he need not have been to Italy to write the Italian plays. They say he need not have had legal training to write the plays. They say he could have learned falconry from books. They say the sonnets were not written to Southampton and were not personal. They say he plagiarized 1580’s Shakespeare.

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