Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Fake For Fake's Sake

The subject of fakes, forgeries, and hoaxes is a fascinating one, and if you have any kind of anti-authoritarian streak it does have a certain appeal, but it also has a depressing side.  It is one thing to forge a million pounds-worth of perfect banknotes or to knock out fake Vermeers, but to carefully insinuate works by minor (or fictional) artists into the art market, backed up by false documentation, or to seed academic journals with false data to prop up an otherwise unsupportable case is quite a sad sort of enterprise.  Rather than boldly challenging the greed of the market (and making large sums of real money in the process), that second sort of activity simply undermines confidence in accepted processes of verification.  Its psychology is not so much criminal as adolescent:  See, so-called expert? You thought you were so clever, but you're not!

I read the TLS most weeks, so it's no surprise to me that it publishes readable articles by experts on subjects of significance and interest.  But one of the articles in last week's issue (10th April 2013) has attracted an unusual amount of attention on the Web, and has come as close as a piece in a scholarly weekly is ever likely to come to "going viral".

Rather than repeat or summarise a complex and entertainingly-written piece, I invite you to read it yourself.  You'll be away for some time, so I will now go and make a cup of tea.  Meanwhile, here's a (genuine) picture.

Welcome back.  A curious case, no?  You do encounter such people if you work in a university.  I'd say barely a week goes by without the unsolicited gift of a work of "independent scholarship" arriving in the library, or an emailed invitation to purchase some self-proclaimed (and self-published) work of overlooked genius.  Nearly all of these, of course, are perfectly genuine, although many are clearly the product of an unquiet mind with a weakness for conspiracies. But it got me thinking about some other some unresolved cases of, uh, enigmatic origins that keep the private scholars and alternative theorists busy.

One such is the Voynich Manuscript.  If you have never come across this intriguing object before, and have a taste for cryptographic mysteries or truly weird pictures, then this may be of interest.  Again, rather than rehearse a story that others have told better, here is a link to a recent article that may or may not shed some light on this curious case.  Time for another pictorial interlude.

Welcome back again.  I think the most telling paragraph in that article is this:
Kircher was not up to the task, and neither was Friedman, who never published anything on the Voynich save a footnote to a paper on Chaucer that he and his wife wrote for Philological Quarterly. The footnote was anagrammed (in the tradition of Galileo’s repudiation of Ptolemy), with its solution provided in a sealed envelope for later disclosure, when Friedman believed he would have solved the cypher. The anagram, which reaches the limit of Friedman’s sense of humor, reads, “I put no trust in anagrammatic acrostic cyphers, for they are of little real value—a waste—and may prove nothing.—Finis.” Readers wrote in possible solutions, some delightfully reprinted in an editor’s note (“To arrive at a solution of the Voynich Manuscript, try these general tactics: a song, a punt, a prayer. William F. Friedman.” Or “This is a trap, not a trot. Actually I can see no apt way of unraveling the rare Voynich Manuscript. For me, defeat is grim.”) Friedman never managed to solve the Voynich, and after his death, the editor of Philological Quarterly opened the envelope bearing the solution to the anagram: “The Voynich Manuscript was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the A-Priori type.—Friedman.” A synthetic language, rather than a cryptogram, was his best guess.

What I find telling is how brilliantly apposite the attempts to solve the anagram are.  Yet completely wrong.  Even in a case where there is a known cipher, addressing a known problem, in a known language, you simply step into a bewildering hall of mirrors with no exit.  That way, surely, madness lies.

Talking of Hamlet, all this clue-hunting and code-breaking reminds me of the eternal hunt for secret messages concealed in Shakespeare, clues to the "real" identity of the author of the plays.  One of the best demonstrations of the futility of such quests is the astonishing fact that the words "To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" are -- outrageously -- an anagram of "in one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero Hamlet queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten ..."

As the man says, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Especially if that idiot has been faking the evidence all along.


Unknown said...

My favourites are technological. Things like the Antikythera mechanism, the Bagdad batteries, or - on topic - the viking aspheric lenses. It's easiest to dismiss them as fakes, or projections of modern understanding back into the past, but the romantic in me wants them to be real.

I knew several people who wanted to copy Henry Root's commercial success. Some more who substituted book covers with subversive blurbs. Like limericks and Simon Says, such things are good when done well, but always best in small doses.

I have no sympathy for fooled editors. It goes with the job, and the occasional lapse just proves them human. No goalie has a hundred percent record. I also don't quite get the 'Oh My!' outrage over 'desecration'. Academic publication is hardly holy writ, especially these days when even Nature works hard to expand the franchise. There are too many ways to game the system.

Unknown said...

Oh, that was me, F.W. Peevish what wrote that.

Unknown said...

Mike, I think you should know that F.W.Peevish is actually a pseudonym. He - or she - has left a number of well-informed comments on my blog, but I felt it necessary to delete them because of a lack of thorough analysis.

I have subsequently received a number of supporting emails from various individuals claiming to be Peevish's friends and collegues. These include a Catherine Fanshaw, a Prof. Dieter Retske from the Technical University of Obergurgl, George Mulldew, Richard Noggins and E.P.D. Swinnerton-Doggett. They all post from the same IP number.

I have not yet tracked down Peevish's real identity. I don't think he is malicious. My theory is that he is simply pissed off at how when he chooses a Google ID as his identity when commenting there is no way to give himself a name.

Yours with solidarity

Astut Idelmann

Mike C. said...

Excellent, Unknown Peevish.

The Antikythera thing is sort of an anagram with cogs, isn't it?


Unknown said...

More spelling test than anagram. Further proof, if needed, is that it seems to be an orrery.


Mike C. said...

I saw a TV programme about it that suggested it had been built in yer actual Archimedes' workshop in Syracuse, and seemed mainly to predict when the next Olympics would be held.

It is an amazing thing. Like so many of these anomalous enigmas, though, you have to wonder "Where is its context? Why aren't there at least bits of other ones lying around?" So much skill with the maths and mechanics of cogs, yet so few (any?) surviving cog-driven mechanisms from antiquity...


Zouk Delors said...

There is also an interesting section on the Voynich ms in William Poundstone's Labyrinths of Reasoning (as well as many other topics of "Paradox, puzzles and the frailty of knowledge").

On the subject of fakery generally, one could do worse than view Orson Welles' F for Fake, a shortish film with a sting in the tail.

PS Wasn't Swinnerton-Doggett at school with us?

Mike C. said...


Not familiar with either of those, I'll check them out.

No, you're confusing him with P.D.F. Dinnerton-Swoggett, who was mercilessly bullied for being too posh by half.


zythophile said...

I ran into a faker in the early years of this century while researching early modern beer styles: guy calling himself 'Adam Larsen", claimed to live in the Faeroes, had these "friends" who had rare and unobtainable books with old beer recipes in them, which all sounded authentic. The whole hoax fell apart because of the details which failed to stand up: book titles that could not be found anywhere, supposedly historical figures such as 19th century Church of England clergymen who had supposedly reprinted books by their ancestors, but who themselves had left no trace at all in the records. The internet, as the TLS article said, makes that stuff a lot easier to check. In the end, as I pushed for more details, the hoaxer eventually simply failed to reply any more.

The psychology of someone willing to do that is very strange: since "Adam larsen" wasn't his real name, it wasn't as if he was even attracting kudos as himself (I'm assuming "Adam" was really a "he", as this seems a behaviour most likely to be male rather than female.) In addition his audience - other enthusiasts for early modern and medieval beer and ale brewing - was tiny, at best, and very far from prestigious ...

Martyn Cornell

Mike C. said...


That is fascinating -- as you suggest, what on earth is the payoff in cases like this? Reminds of Henry Kissinger's (?) comment that academic disputes are so bitter because the stakes are so small...


Kent Wiley said...

A great story, the TLS hunt. Repeated here in a recent NY Times story. At least this one appears to have some motivation and reward behind it.

Mike C. said...


They're all at it! Trust no-one...

Nice portrait in that NYT piece, btw.