Beyond the ivory-towered coterie of the late twentieth century academic world, few people cared to try to understand postmodernism, let alone wield it: even now, few mourn its death.

Attempts to define what postmodernism actually was tend to come across almost as effete and self-referential as the worst postmodernist works themselves: all that can comfortably be summarised is that it was a diffuse movement that asserted (a) that there is no capital-T Truth, only socially constructed small-t truths; and (b) that there are no Grand Narratives, just (yes, you guessed it) socially constructed local narratives that serve a narrator’s purpose.

Yet given that plenty of non-postmodernist writers and philosophers had put forward countless variations on the same point of view, what was there about postmodernism that was unique? Or, dare I say it, even remotely interesting?


“It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism”, Al Gore once said (New York Observer, Nov. 2002): but in my opinion, even this is not strong enough. Postmodernism was an artefact of an academic milieu in which both the postmodernists themselves and everyone else were assumed to be narcissists all at the same time. The line between “the truth is what I want you to think it is” (narcissism) and “truth is socially constructed” (postmodernism) is only a matter of degree or scale: for it is only in a society where everyone just happens to be a narcissist that the former is able to scale up to the latter.

The real toxin of postmodernism, then, is not its nihilism but instead its implicit scaled-up narcissism: it could not distinguish itself from other ways of thinking, but only ever replace them en masse, by imposing its own narcissistic worldview on others. It always secretly saw itself as a thinking meta-hack, a clever-arse way to explain away all the difficulties of Truth and External Stuff In General.

Pro-History or Anti-History?

The overriding practical problem with postmodernist thought was that it could not account for historical truth. The central (and, I think, only genuine) starting point for historical epistemology is that of trying to answer the question “What Happened?” When all evidence is formed by the quest not for causality but for actuality, postmodernists cannot ‘do’ History, because they cannot accept that any single account could have primacy over all others.

As a result, postmodernism positioned itself quite contrary to History: for even though there are plenty of historians who happily do their thing without any Grand Narrative (or indeed Grand Old White Males) as support, few could do their job if there were no historical evidence to work with. As a result, I cannot see how postmodernism can be anything apart from fundamentally Anti-History.

Postmodernism = Caesar

Yes, postmodernism is dead, and more seem to want to lead their dogs to piss on its grave than to celebrate it. And it should also be no surprise that here “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them;. The good is oft interred with their bones.

For me, it seems that the most enduring legacy of postmodernism is a general weakening of thinking, even among people who don’t really know what postmodernism was. And the reason for this was that people became too strongly conditioned by (what for a long time was) the dominant anti-Truth totemic trope of postmodernist culture.

At the heart of this broken programme lies what I think is a linguistic confusion given to us by language. Even though we use the same word ‘truth’ for both historical truth (a statement about what happened can be false or partially true, never 100% true) and mathematical truth (a logical property of a statement within a system, all of which can be painfully close to tautology), the postmodernists took it instead as if it related to political truth (of which there is no such thing). As a result, I think one of the central conceits of the postmodernist parade was founded on a misunderstanding of what Truth is: for the ‘Truth’ they railed against was simply their political straw man, propped up solely to be ripped down. And it was always the wrong kind of Truth.

It Lives!

All of which would be no more than a sidenote, were it not for the fact (in my opinion, at least) that there remains a widespread distrust of Truth – that it is actually Patriarchal Truth (or at least Grand Old White Male Truth), subtly lodged in our minds by the unwilling pawns of the dominant cultural hegemony like a false memory.

Yet when we examine objects from the past – whether a building, a document, a dress, or an unsolved ciphertext – There Is A Single Truth about what happened, and the ineluctable combination of prolonged careful observation and clear focused thought can almost always bring us closer to it.

At the same time, there are plenty of bad questions that people attempt to pass off as historical inquiry: “Why did that happen?”, “What was X thinking?”, “What was X’s ultimate intention?”, “Is it the illustrated diary of a teenage space alien?” (I kid you not). In each case, these almost always have broadly the kind of Grand Narrative derided by postmodernists as their jelly skeleton: the only real historical inquiry is about that which happened, everything else is just pretension and Hollywood.

So perhaps we can forgive the postmodernists for one thing: even if they did misunderstand Truth completely, there are still plenty of ludicrous Grand Narratives out there being passed off as Grand Facts which we should learn how to resist. 🙂


If you don’t take my word for it that postmodernism has weakened people’s thinking, here’s a (black) mirror to hold up to the world. The (just now arriving) Season 11 of the X-Files (discussed on The Verge here) has Dr They talking to our old friend Fox M:

“Your time has passed,” They tells Mulder. “We’re now living in a post-coverup, post-conspiracy age. The public no longer knows what’s meant by the truth. No one can tell the difference anymore between what’s real and what’s fake.”

“There’s still an objective truth,” Mulder insists.

And (of course) Mulder is shown to be correct… though probably not in a way that he and Scully can prove to anyone. The Truth is indeed still out there, though – as always – proof remains hard.

A linguist, an epigrapher, and an ethnologist are in a bar, waiting to be served. The linguist says, “Did you know that Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby is the most popular song featuring indigenous American language?”

The epigrapher sucks through his teeth: “sorry, but I can think of at least two far more popular songs that prominently feature indigenous Americans: (1) Olmec Donald had a farm, and (2) MicMac paddywhack, give a dog a bone, This old man came rolling home.”

The ethnologist also shakes his head. “And it’s not even the best-selling recorded song prominently featuring indigenous American language. That would have to be Buddy Holly’s:

Nahuatl be the day, when you say goodbye
Nahuatl be the day, when you make me cry
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie
Nahuatl be the day-hay-hay-hay when I die”

Here, the barman leans over and says “Oh, and Mele Kalikimaka isn’t actually Hawaiian, it’s a transcription of ‘Merry Christmas’ into Hawaiian.”

At which the barmaid stage-whispers: “Yeah, an’ anyway, it’s a Polynesian language, not American, innit? Ponce.”

Rene Zandbergen today very kindly passed me a link to a curious-looking document in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana that goes by the name of MSS P.I.O.6.

PIO6’s Greek writing is apparently interleaved with lines of a text neither I nor Rene recognize (though his suggestion that it might be some kind of Renaissance Morse code is exactly as light-hearted as it sounds), though it does resemble the stroke-like nature of Greek tachygraphy.

But… you then notice that after the sensible-looking first paragraph, the lines of (apparently) Greek letters look malformed and odd. And then you start wondering what kind of thing we are looking at that runs for 500-odd pages of this stuff.

Is there any literature on this weird and wonderful object at all? Is there even a BAV catalogue entry on it? As Klaus likes to do with enciphered postcards, I throw this one open to you all. What do you make of it?

I thought I’d share this online article on a curious 17th century cabinet book. Though it contains no cipher, its secret contents would definitely have been a surprise:

The (almost all poisonous) substances its eleven hidden drawers contain include:
* henbane
* opium poppy
* monkshood (wolf’s bane)
* Cicuta Virosa
* Byronia Alba
* the Devil’s snare (jimsonweed)
* valerian
* February daphne (spurge laurel)
* castor oil plant (Ricinus communis)
* Autumn crocus
* belladonna (deadly nightshade)

The appearance of Nicholas Gibbs’ Voynich theory in the current Times Literary Supplement “Autumn Fiction Special” issue (and what deliciously outrageous irony that placement is) has caused all manner of mayhem behind the scenes here at Cipher Mysteries mansion.

Not only has my (frankly rather tired and uninterested) blog response to it been unexpectedly heavily Tweeted, his theory has also “inspired” a number of Wikipedia editors to enthusiastically bodge references to Gibbs into the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript page. Which is, as just about everyone here would be happy to point out, close to a crime against common sense.

But it’s not really their fault: it turns out that there’s a much bigger problem at play here.


As a responsible (though far from regular) Wikipedia editor, I thought I ought to try to offer some kind of balance to the worst excesses of this sudden wave of pro-Gibbs enthusiasm: for example, by removing a reference to Gibbs that had been added to the very first paragraph. *sigh*

But then yet more Wikieditors kept popping up, not unlike Gremlinized versions of Whack-a-Moles or Lernaean Hydra heads, continually inserting yet more references to Gibbs from Smart-Ars Technica or whichever other secondary media source they happened to have just surfed their way to.

Annoying as that is, they’re just the surface symptoms of something that cuts far deeper. The issue here is that in very many ways they are absolutely right to add it in: the piece in the TLS does indeed – by Wikipedia’s very exact standards – make Gibbs’ theory notable. And this causes it to transcend from the mundane world of self-published “OR” (Original Research) into published (and hence notable) work. And anything notable is fair game for inclusion in Wikipedia: indeed, if it is relevant and “notable”, there is arguably a stronger case for inclusion than exclusion.

So it turns out that these Whack-a-Mole editors are indeed actually doing their best to pursue the whole Wikipedia ‘Project’ precisely as it was intended. Can you therefore blame them for doing something that seems quite nonsensical to researchers? Well… no, not really, mad as it seems.

The First Problem With Wikipedia

Perhaps the above should make it clear one of the things that is going wrong here: that the entire Wikipedia project is nothing more than a parasitic encyclopaedia, relying on the world’s knowledge being recycled into it via fact-checked external media, such as (in this case) the Times Literary Supplement. Without the fact-checking stage being done by the media, Wikipedia would be worse than useless: this is because it has no intrinsic quality control, only enforcing measures of notability which themselves depend completely on someone else (normally in the media) paying for the fact-checking stage. Wikipedia does not check facts, it checks published sources: its editors (largely) do not know things, they know how to verify the notability of sources.

So: what happens – as seems to have happened here – when a story goes to press without even the faintest semblance of fact checking? As should be obvious, the Wikipedia editors turn the page content into a credulous extension of the idiot media that put the story out in the first place. It’s “notable” and publicly visible, so what is their alternative?

Hence one big problem with Wikipedia is that where the media omits to do fact checking, Wikipedia can quickly end up looking really, really stupid. But have you not noticed that media fact checking is these days going the way of phrenology and phlogistons?

The wider-angle picture here is that the future of the media – increasingly under pressure from online newsfeeds – is only going to get dumber and ‘dumberer’: its dequality ratchet leads only in a downwards direction. And so the less fact-checking that happens, the worse Wikipedia will get. The case of Nicholas Gibbs’ theory should make this completely clear, albeit in an edge-case kind of way.

The Second Problem With Wikipedia

Arguably, though, the second problem with Wikipedia is much worse: which is that Wikipedia is only successful when it tries to map the known. In cases such as the Voynich Manuscript where the majority of the topic is to do with the unknown, there is no sensible way Wikieditors can decide what should be included or what should be left out. And without any way of deciding the topic boundaries, a kind of thermodynamic page decay sets in: the page just accumulates stuff indefinitely. Honestly, what kind of sad sack would read the current Wikipedia Voynich page from start to finish, as anything apart from a cautionary tale of how not to structure information?

In case you’re wondering, deep domain experts are rarely welcome as Wikipedia editors: and this cuts to the core of what’s going on here. As currently defined and steered, Wikipedia cannot offer a useful guide to the unknown. It is not about original research, or really about any research at all: it’s about mapping the cultural inflow of knowledge mediated via the shabby and slow mirror of media reporting.

If all of that strikes you as a horrible, (small-c) conservative, and superficial epistemology to be building such a large knowledge-based enterprise on, I can assure you that you’re really not alone.

The Third Problem With Wikipedia

Finally: in the case of subjects where there are an almost unimaginably large number of parallel (and only vaguely overlapping) theories, Wikipedia’s neutral point of view pretty much demands that all them should be visible. I’ve suggested numerous times that everything speculative or theory-based about the Voynich Manuscript should be broken out into one or more completely separate page(s), but this too kind of defeats the Wikipedia mindset, which is more about balance-through-primary-inclusivity than trying to evaluate or manage out rubbish theories. It turns out that even forcing a division between theory and non-theory is too fundamentally judgmental for the Wikipedia project to countenance.

And so the issue here is that where you are dealing with uncertain topics, theory inclusivity almost inevitably devolves into theory shopping lists, where the most glib and flippant YouTube theory can end up being listed alongside the most comprehensive and in-depth historical hypothesis. Wikipedia editors aren’t there to judge, they’re there to avoid having to judge: and the more theories that get proposed, the bigger the hole that not-judging digs those pages into.

And yes, there are now hundreds of Voynich theories.

What’s the “Birth” bit, Nick?

People sometimes conclude that I’m cross with Wikipedia, but that’s not really true at all. Rather, I’m cross with myself and the entire research community for not offering an alternative to Wikipedia. The work we do and the communities we form are served badly (if at all) by Wikipedia, because the two worldviews are almost entirely complementary – researchers try to create knowledge out of uncertainty, while Wikipedia recycles knowledge that the media try to pass off as certainty.

The last few days have made me so angry at my own inaction that I now want to go away and do something really drastic: to build something that empowers people working with the vast worlds of uncertain knowledge that Wikipedia has no business trying to deal with.

And so this is where I am. I don’t want to blog as a primary activity (though I may well, and I’m not planning to get rid of Cipher Mysteries any time soon): rather, I want to build something better than Wikipedia – something that helps people map and deal with difficult and emerging knowledge, rather than forcing them to pretend that neutral-sounding montages of crappy media accounts are good enough beyond a sketchy first approximation.

I want to build a whole way of thinking about and mapping difficult knowledge that doesn’t pretend that real knowledge is easy or certain: it is disingenuous and fake to think that it is.

I want to build knowledge-creating communities that can work together in richer, more interesting ways than antagonistic forums that treat theories as spinning Beyblades in toytown arenas.

I want to help people find ways to tease out difficult knowledge in all manner of subjects and topics, not just historical mysteries: I want to provide a place where a research worldview isn’t alien, but a key to a giant door of opportunity.

I want to treat research as the intellectual, cultural and economic powerhouse it exactly is, and to support it in ways that make what we currently do look like cavemen banging rocks together.

I want to build things that will make every kid on the planet want to be a researcher, to grasp that what we don’t know infinitely exceeds what we do know, and that knowledge doesn’t have to be passive, recycled, sham knowledge – basically, that the future is waiting for us to do better.

Right now, geekiness is cool but research is uncool: I think our culture has this arrangment back to front. Really, research is something everyone should do: research should be how we habitually deal with uncertain and difficult topics in our lives, not just in academia.

More than anything, I wish I could be in a situation where I can write down the above – all of which I consider to be a fundamental set of values – without it sounding like a manifesto. Because as of today, it really feels like I’m the only person who thinks the above in anything like a joined-up way: and more than anything I want that to change.

For a long time, the accepted answer has been that “bloggers do things [and document what they do] so that you don’t have to“. In this worldview, bloggers are net-savvy individuals cursed by a craving for foolish adventure, but somehow redeemed (partially, at least) by their sense of openness.

But as a blogger, I get to see a lot of blogs: and I have to say that many (if not most) of the blogs I have seen emerging over the last 2-3 years are cut from a quite different cloth. Almost entirely gone is the sense of adventure (whether physical or cerebral): that entire urge seems to have lurched sideways into the “bucket list” fake world of Facebook. Also gone is the sense of vicarious and arbitrary participation, a kind of living-by-doing (and then documenting) ethic: this too seems to have been reduced in the Internet’s metaphorical sauté pan down to the rather mindless level of sharing pictures of restaurant lunches on Instagram.

The things that seem to have replaced both of these are instead shallower and rather less intense: barely-informed opinions, defensive snarkishness, an absence of any obvious critical thought, and jaw-juttingly defiant I-am-right-ness. You might disagree, but it seems to me that blogging has in general become a platform for the angrily unengaged: an opinionated echo chamber of prodigiously tiny dimensions, with no sign of any humility or experimentality.

In short, the blogger world circa mid-2017 seems to have lost its collective mojo: the pinnacle of the art has instead become a focus on Google Ads and paid-for reviews. Yeah, yeah, I know, you might think that I think that “it was all green fields here when I started blogging a decade ago“, but that’s honestly not the point I’m trying to make. Rather, it seems to me that in recent years society’s implicit contract with bloggers has changed: the more ambitious have moved on to propagandic vlogging (e.g. Stampy, Dan TDM, Zoella, PewDiePie, etc) or satirical tweeting (e.g. the ever-amusing Wor Cheryl), and it’s only the Adamsian B Ark left, sorry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I too am thinking of moving on from blogging: I’m at heart a very positive, creative and generative person, and I’m not currently finding blogging as supportive a platform for the positive, creative and generative things I want to do as I would like. As some will remember, I tried to step sideways into crowdfunded television a little while back: though that didn’t prove successful on that occasion, it’s perhaps still broadly the kind of direction that would perhaps make more sense in the current context than what I’m currently doing.

Incidentally, what I intensely dislike about the television historical documentary genre is its brutal formality, its almost koan-like edited rhythm of talking heads and nicely-shot places of faded beauty. Me, I want to make the road to history visible, not just a soft-focus glamorized version of the destination: personally, I’m fascinated not at all by the sofa-like comfort of that-which-has-been-found-and-understood-and-softened-into-a-societal-lullaby, but instead by the struggle of making history.

For anyone who wants to see the kind of documentary I’d like to make, I’d strongly recommend Icarus on Netflix. This is a completely awesome piece of film, like a forensic surgeon’s keyhole endoscope peering inside the rotting carcass of Sport – dead from the neck down, though its head seems blissfully unaware.

There are now many people who would happily classify themselves as ‘online researchers’. You don’t usually have to peer too far beyond the end of your mouse to see their forum comments, web pages, blog posts, YouTube videos, and occasionally even self-published meisterwerke.

Even though most of these people probably consider that they are engaged in serious research, is that actually the case? What is the difference between serious research and non-serious research? Is there even a difference at all? And (as I heard proposed recently) if there is a difference, surely it’s nothing more than a matter of intelligence, persistence, and luck?

Well… I have to say that that’s a position I can’t agree with at all.

Pay Per Click

Someone clicking on thousands of web pages or running a load of statistical tests can certainly be said to be searching, but this is really not the same thing as researching.

Think about this: how would your behaviour change if every click were to cost you five pounds? Yet in many ways, each click probably does: in terms of the computers you use, the mice you burn up, the broadband you rent, and (arguably the costliest of all) the portion of your life it consumes without returning anything to you. You don’t have to be a full-blown Marxist economist to see that the main thing being eaten away by this kind of activity is you.

The first main difference between searching and researching, then, is that a researcher needs to have an aim to guide his or her actions: every click needs to earn its keep. And the two basic planning tools that help researchers achieve this are research questions and research programmes.

Research Questions

Luckily there is no shortage of web pages that define and discuss research questions, because research questions often have to be included in requests for academic funding. But in many ways, though, given that researching may (being brutally realistic) come to absorb so much of your spare time / life, perhaps you should think of forming a research question as part of making a funding request to your (rational) self. No funding body would ever back someone whose research plan was just to read / try a load of stuff, so why should you back yourself to do the same?

As this web page puts it:

You may have found your topic, but within that topic you must find a question, which identifies what you hope to learn. Finding a question sounds serendipitous, but research questions need to be shaped and crafted.

As a rule, making your research question too general, too wide-ranging or too ‘loose’ is almost always unhelpful, because it means that you will struggle to ever reach an answer for it: too tight and it can come close to being tautologous. There’s a further balance to be had between the availability of evidence and the ‘speculativeness’ of the question: though it has to be said that once you’ve put together your first research question, forming others becomes a lot easier.

Even if your chosen topic is a very evidence-sparse and/or epistemologically uncertain field, you can still form practical research questions (though admittedly doing so can be a little bit less straightforward than in other, more mainstream fields). For example, in the field of Voynich Manuscript research, a partial list of the research questions I personally have pursued over the past 15+ years could contain:

* Using best-in-class Art History dating techniques, when was the Voynich Manuscript made?
* What was the original order of the Voynich Manuscript’s bifolios?
* What did the Voynich Manuscript look like in its ‘alpha’ (original) state?
* Were any parts of the original Voynich text laid down in separate codicological passes?
* Is there a direct mapping relationship between Currier A text structures and Currier B text structures?
* Is there a relationship between the Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac section and the Volkskalender B family of manuscripts?
* What was the nature of fifteenth century cryptography?
* Might Antonio Averlino have been the author of the Voynich Manuscript?
* What happened between the vellum’s first being written on and the Voynich Manuscript’s reappearance in Prague?
* What did the f116v marginalia originally look like?
* Where did the f116v marginalia handwriting come from?
* Might there have been a relationship between the Voynich Manuscript and the Rosicrucian manifestos?

Note that none of the above is a ‘why’ question: all were specific enough – I hoped when I formed them – for an answer to be reached, though most have still proved to be slower to bring to a fully satisfactory conclusion than I would have chosen. 😐

Note also that a number of the above (though not all) are constructed around hypotheses: while some people are comfortable with hypotheses, others are less so. Regardless, I think it’s important to point out that a good research question need not explicitly include or rely on a hypothesis.

(I’ll leave it as an open question how many other Voynich Manuscript researchers have genuinely formed explicit research questions and research programmes: doubtless you will have your own view on this.)

Research Programmes

Following the logic through, it should be obvious that constructing a research question is only the first half of the planning stage. What you then need to do is to construct a research programme around that research question, to try to help you turn it into a focused series of practical actions you can work your way through in order to reach a worthwhile answer.

Here’s a useful list of questions to help you build this up:

* What literature should you review? (What kind of idiot would not build up a picture of the literature first?)
* What evidence can you rely on in your research?
* What similar research questions have been posed before?
* What answers did those researchers reach? (And what did approach did they follow to reach them?)
* Are there related or parallel fields where similarly-structured research questions have been posed?
* How much time and money do you want to invest in to answer this question?
* What process can you follow to move you closer to an answer?
* Are there others you can usefully collaborate with?
* Are there open source tools or data you can work with (or help develop) that would help?
* If your question is based on an hypothesis, what steps can you take to avoid presuming it is true along the way?
* How can you make sure the answer you reach will be based on causality and not merely on statistical correlation?

Trying to answer these questions (and others like it) should help you work out how you plan to reach a reliable, useful answer to your research question.

Note that “research projects” are the short term subsections you would typically decompose a medium term research programme into so as to make it achievable: project is to programme as chapter is to book.

Planning vs Action

At the end of this whole planning stage, you should have not only a research question that you’re trying to answer, but also a practical plan – i.e. some research means to help you try to reach an answer to your chosen research question.

And so it should be clear that the final difference between searching and researching is that researching requires both a pre-planning phase and some kind of systematic action.

Without conscious pre-planning and some kind of systematic research programme to guide you, you’re searching rather than researching, blindly casting your rod out into a vast evidential ocean. You might occasionally catch a fish, sure: but don’t be surprised if you go home hungry more often than not. :-/

Australian writer David Dufty’s just-released (2017) “The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau” attempts to be two things at once: a hard-nosed revisionist cryptologic history of the Second World War in the Pacific, and a disarmingly charming series of Australian vignettes glimpsing behind the Ultra curtain.

Central Bureau

Central Bureau was the (deliberately anonymous-sounding) name given to a large part of Australia’s WW2 code-breaking apparatus: yet as the war dragged on, the politicking and turf wars caused an enormous amount of fragmentation.

Dufty tries to treat this deftly, but the networks of internal intrigue and alliances read too much like subtly broken org charts to make sense as mere words on a page. (Some diagrams would be a helpful addition for the paperback release, in my opinion.)

Japanese Navy codes, Army codes, Water Transport codes, ground-to-air codes, sea-to-air codes: all of these were tackled and defeated. Yet even though the theoretical structure and nature of some were worked out early on (e.g. JN-25 by John Tiltman), the codes themselves and the additive tables used to scramble them were subject to change. So the practical cryptologic work never ended, right up to the end of the War.

What is clear throughout Dufty’s book is that historians (OK, mostly American historians) have to date failed to present a balanced picture including Australian cryptological contributions to the war in the Pacific. Sadly, this imbalance was further hindered by the hostile attitude of many Australians (particularly politicians) to non-operational veterans in the post-war period.

I’m pleased to say that Dufty’s historical research and grasp of the realpolitik going on (particularly between the USA and Australia) rings much truer than other accounts I have read: the tricky balance between being aware of Ultra information and acting upon that same information is a leitmotif that runs through his narrative.

Star Rating

As an historical account of practical code-breaking under fire, then, the book gets a 4-star Cipher Mysteries rating: had it not got caught in the shifting sands of the multiple code-breaking organizations and agendas in the first half of the book, it might even have got to 4.5 stars.

But if your interests aren’t as, well, “code-breakery” as mine, and you’re happy to skim the chapters where the narrative gets a little bogged down in the details, there’s a lot of human interest – and yes, even cryptological love-stories in the margins of TypeX messages – to be had.

In short, it’s also a pretty good summer read (in Kindle format, because the hardback is too pricey for most budgets, and there is no softback edition as yet), though perhaps only for those who already know their substitution from their transposition. :-/

What I have long tried to do with this blog is to genuinely advance our collective knowledge about unbroken historical ciphers, not by speculating loosely or wildly (as seems to be the norm these days) but instead by trying to reason under conditions of uncertainty. That is: I try to use each post as an opportunity to think logically about multiple types of historical evidence that often coincide or overlap yet are individually hard to work with – ciphers, cryptograms, drawings, treasure maps, stories, legends, claims, beliefs, mysteries.

The world of cipher mysteries, then, is a world both of uncertain evidence and also of uncertain history built on top of that uncertain evidence – perpetually thin ice to be skating on, to be sure.

A skills void?

It is entirely true that all historical evidence is inherently uncertain: people lie, groups have agendas, listeners misunderstand, language misleads, copyists misread, propagandists appropriate, historians overselect, forgers fake, etc. All the same, seeing past/through the textual uncertainties these kinds of behaviours can leave embedded in evidence is the bread and butter of modern historians, who are now trained to be adept both in close reading and critical thinking.

However, what I am arguing here is that though History-as-text – i.e. history viewed as primarily an exercise in textual literature analysis – managed to win the historical high ground, it did so at the cost of supplanting almost all non-textual historical disciplines. To my eyes, the slow grinding deaths of codicology, palaeography and even dear old iconography (now more visible in Dan Brown film adaptations than in bibliographies) along with what I think is the increasing marginalization of Art History far from the historical mainstream have collectively left a huge gap at the heart of the subject.

This isn’t merely a focus void, it’s also centrally a skills void – the main missing skill being the ability to reason under conditions where the evidence’s textual dimension is missing or sharply limited.

In short, I would argue that because historians are now trained to deal primarily with textual uncertainties, the ability to reason effectively with other less compliant types of evidence is a skill few now seem to have to any significant degree. In my opinion, this aspect of text-centrism is a key structural weakness of history as now taught.

In my experience, almost nothing exposes this weakness more than the writing done on the subject of historical cipher mysteries. There it is absolutely the norm to see otherwise clever people make fools of themselves, and moreover in thousands of different ways: surely in few other subject domains has so much ink have been spilled to so little effect. In Rene Zandbergen’s opinion, probably the most difficult thing about Voynich research is avoiding big mistakes: sadly, few seem able to achieve this.

“The Journal of Uncertain History”

Yet a key problem I face is that when it comes to presenting or publishing, the kind of fascinating historical mysteries I research are plainly a bad fit for the current academic landscape. This is because what I’m trying to develop and exercise there is a kind of multi-disciplinary / cross-disciplinary analytical historical skill (specifically: historical reasoning under uncertainty) that has quite different aims and success criteria from mainstream historical reasoning.

On the one hand, this “Uncertain History” is very much like Intellectual History, in that it is a meta-historical approach that freely crosses domain boundaries while relying heavily on the careful application of logic in order to make progress. And yet I would argue that Intellectual History as currently practised is heavily reliant on the universality of text and classical logic to build its chains of reasoning. In that sense, Intellectual History is a close cousin to the text-walled world of MBA courses, where all statements in case studies are deemed to be both true and given in good faith.

By way of contrast, Uncertain History turns its face primarily to those historical conundrums and mysteries where text falls short, where good faith can very often be lacking, and where strict Aristotelian logic can prove more of a hindrance than a help (here I’m thinking specifically about the Law of the Excluded Middle).

And so I propose launching a new open-source historical journal (Creative Commons BY-NC Licence), with the provisional name of “The Journal of Uncertain History“, and with the aim of providing a home for Uncertain History research of all types.

To be considered for the JoUH, papers should (also provisionally) be tackling research areas where:

* the historical evidence itself is problematic and/or uncertain;
* there is a problematic interplay between the types of evidence;
* to make genuine progress, non-trivial reasoning is required, not just for thinking but also for explanation;
* historical speculations made within the paper are both proposed and tested; and
* future tests (preferably empirical) and/or research leads are proposed.

I welcome all your comments, thoughts, and suggestions for possible submissions, authors, collaborators and/or editors; and especially reasons why existing journals X, Y and Z would all be better homes for this kind of research than the JoUH. 🙂

Though originally published in 1998 and 2003, and most recently published in three volumes in 2013-2014, “Maps, Mystery and Interpretation” is in reality a single (very large) book, the fruits of Geoff Bath’s vast sustained effort to till Oak Island’s unproductive historical soil.

The overall title broadly suggests its three constituent sections, in that Part 1 covers (possibly pirate) treasure maps (“Maps”); Part 2 examines the evidential haze surrounding the Oak Island “Money Pit” mystery (“Mystery”); while Part 3 attempts to put the myriad of pieces together to make sense of them all (“Interpretation”). Simples.

If only the Oak Island mystery itself were as straightforward…

Part 1: Maps

Here, Geoff presents all the “Kidd” maps that Hubert Palmer ended up with, and compares Howlett’s account of them with Wilkins’ account, as well as – and this is the good bit – lots of letters written and received by both Wilkins and Palmer.

I can’t be the only reader to find himself or herself surprised by Bath’s conclusion – that Wilkins essentially got it all just about right, while Howlett got a great deal of it wrong.

All the same, as far as reconstructing the modern history of the Palmer-Kidd maps goes, Geoff’s reasoning here seems very much on the money. I’d say his account gets far closer to what happened than even George Edmunds’ account (stripping both authors’ conclusions out of the picture first).

However, Bath gets himself in something of a tangle trying to make sense of the various maps Wilkins originated (both in Part 1 and in Part 3). Was Wilkins adapting maps or documents otherwise unseen, using them as templates for his own creations, or trolling his readers to help him identify mysterious islands? Too often Bath seems content to speculate in a way that paints Wilkins in an almost Svengali-like way, a kind of Andy Warhol of treasure maps.

In reality, I’m far from sure that Wilkins was any closer to historical clarity than we are now. Given that I can’t read more than a handful of pages of his “A Modern Treasure Hunter” without feeling nauseous (the fumes! the bad accents! the ghosts!), I just can’t see Wilkins as anything like a consistently reliable source, even about himself.

Yet one of the most specifically insightful things that emerges from Part One is Bath’s observation that it isn’t necessary for these maps to actually be Kidd’s for them to be independently genuine. That is, the set of maps’ whole association with Kidd might be something that was overlaid onto a (non-Kidd) set of maps: the supposed Kidd link might easily have been added to the mix as a way of “bigging up” someone else’s maps. If this is true (and you don’t have to believe that these are Oak Island maps for it to be so), many of the difficulties that arise when you try to link them to Kidd (e.g. dating, language, etc) disappear.

It’s still hellishly difficult to make sense of these maps, for sure, but Geoff is right to point out that Kidd may well turn out to be part of the problem here, rather than part of the solution or explanation. Something to think about, for certain.

Part 2: Mystery

In my opinion, Oak Island is a wretched, wretched subject, filled with all the slugs and snails of cipher mysteries and not the vaguest flicker of any of the good stuff. It’s a bleak, barren evidential landscape, filled with unconfirmed micro-features briefly noted by a long series of individual investigators, before being quickly razed from the face of the earth by gung-ho treasure hunters. There seems little genuine hope that any faint trace of anything historical or sensible still remains.

Putting the speculative sacred geometry and shapes picked on maps to one side, there are some (though not many) good things in Part Two I didn’t previously know about. Specifically, the idea that tunnels and features might have been dug aligned with the local magnetic compass at that time is quite cool, though obviously something that has been much discussed over the decades.

So I’m terribly sad to have to say that even a perceptive and diligent researcher such as Geoff Bath can make no real difference to this long-standing disaster area. His Part 2 is therefore little more than a Ozymandian monument to the effort and greed sunk in the pursuit of the Money Pit (not that a brass farthing or even so much as a period button has come of it to date).

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Part 3: Interpretation

Having struggled through the unpromising desert of the previous part, my expectations as to what Part 3 might bring were fairly low. But as Bath works his way through his interpretation section (repeatedly railing against the pox of untestable hypotheses), something actually rather odd happens.

All of a sudden, he mentions the Venatores (a early 20th century treasure hunting group) and the Particulars (a set of treasure hunting documents collected together by the Venatores). As this enters the picture, it’s as if a curious wave ripples through the whole research fabric: that, contrary to what you might have thought from the two previous books, it’s all not about whether Wilkins was credible or incredible, or whether Hill Cutler was stone cold serious or laughing all the way to the Terminus Road Lloyds Bank in Eastbourne, but instead that there might actually be something behind it all.

That is to say, what emerges – though all too briefly – is a frisson of that wonderfully engaging secret history paranoia where you can just sense stuff going on behind the scenes but which you know you probably won’t ever gain access to.

In the end, Bath’s well-researched and well-written books didn’t manage to persuade me of the existence of a link between the various treasure maps and the Oak Island mystery (and that, indeed, is a hypothesis that would seem to be politically untestable) nor of any kind of geometric cartography plan driving it all. However, it did manage to convince me that the whole Money Pit enterprise might possibly be built not on a vast hole, but instead on a history whose fragmentary parts have been scattered on the winds, and yet which might possibly be reassembled in the future.

It probably won’t happen but… who can say?