The next European Skeptics Conference starts in Budapest in a few days’ time (17th-19th September 2010), and features Klaus Schmeh giving a talk on the Voynich Manuscript.

Though Klaus has invested a lot of effort into building up a hardline skeptical position on VMs theories (basically, that more or less everything written on it is either pseudoscience or pseudohistory), I personally don’t think this is particularly fair. Compared to the frankly fantasmagorical literature on the Phaistos Disk or even the wistfully nationalistic fancies floating around the Rohoncz Codex, I’d actually say that the majority of VMs theories do tend to rest on a far less rumpled bed of historical evidence and tortuous historical reasoning (if you put the alien Nazi Atlantean end-times theories to one side).

Yet it is also true that VMs theories also often share the same historical methodological flaw (some people would call it an “antipattern”). What I call the “Big Man” fallacy is the conviction that the only way of constructing a convincing explanation for the VMs would be to weave it into the narrative of a well-known historical (but occult- or cryptography-tinged) personality. As examples of this, you could quickly point to theories name-checking Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Trithemius,  John Dee, Edward Kelley, Francis Bacon and perhaps even (I’ll say it so that Klaus doesn’t have to) Antonio Averlino.

Of course, the awkward truth about the Renaissance is that for every one half-decent such historical candidate, there were probably a hundred better qualified ones long lost in the fog of time: so the odds are always strongly against anyone succeeding in taking on the Voynich in the absence of proper scientific / codicological data to build upon.

Perhaps this marks the line between cynicism and skepticism I mentioned a few weeks ago: whereas a cynic dismisses any such speculative exercise as a unsupportable waste of effort, a skeptic realizes that the challenge of acquiring proper, revealing historical information is always going to be significant, and so struggles to retain a core of optimism. Is getting to such an extraordinary end line worth precariously balancing optimism and pessimism for? I think so, but… opinions differ! 🙂

4 thoughts on “The 14th European Skeptics Conference – does it really exist?

  1. Thanks for mentioning my talk on Saturday! However, I don’t subscribe to all of your remarks.

    >a hardline skeptical position on VMs theories (basically, that more or less everything written on it is either pseudoscience or pseudohistory)
    I don’t say that EVERYTHING is pseudo, but I say that MUCH is. This is easy to prove. There are at least 15 different “solutions” of the VM, so at least 14 have to be wrong. Most of the proposed Voynich authors (da Vinvi, Bacon, …) can be ruled out, if the recent Radiocarbon analysis is correct (Antonio Averlino is one of the few that lived in the right time). None of the proposed purposes of the VM sounds plausible to me (except the purpose that it was made to sell it as a mystery). It is no excuse that there are worse theories about other objects. Of course, there are also very interesting things that have been published on the VM.
    Being a skeptic doesn’t mean that I necessarily believe that the VM is a hoax. I can also imagine that there is a solution. However, the hoax theory at the moment is the most plausible one to me. This is a (hopefully educated) guess, I don’t say it is a fact.
    In my view we need more research on the question, how the VM text could have been created. Which methods could a 15th century author have used to produce random? Which encryption methods could he have used? In which non-standard way could he have used ordinary language? In each case we need to ask, if the outcome has a statistical similary with the VM text. If we, for instance, find an encryption method that produces similar statistical results as the VM text, I will change my mind and favour the encryption theory.

  2. Klaus: saying that 14 of any given 15 suggestions is wrong is good logic, but lousy history (because historians very often have multiple competing explanations to evaluate), so a better question to be asking is which of those 15 we can directly eliminate. The issue there is that, in the absence of a proper writeup for the radiocarbon dating, this is something we’re still struggling to do definitively. 🙁

    I suspect that talking about random numbers and the 15th century would be a mistake: I don’t think there was any substantive or workable conception of randomness (or even probability) until later in the 16th century. And be particularly careful here, because Voynichese is neither random nor even “random-like”: in many ways, in fact, it is completely the opposite of random (i.e. highly ordered). It is only Gordon Rugg who needs a “random daemon” to drive his hoaxing theory, and pretty much nobody else sees randomness in the VMs at all (I think).

  3. I’d say that of fifteen posited explanations, more than half would be ‘good in parts’. Historical studies advance like a ship in a fog: with constant course-corrections, regular trumpeting, and all due caution.

  4. Diane: not everyone has a trumpet. Or caution. Or a ship, for that matter. 🙂

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