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Why it’s so easy to invent conspiracy theories Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? Did Molière write Molière? The world is full of more coincidences than we might think

Was Shakespeare a plagiarist? David Mitchell plays the bard for laughs in Upstart Crow.

Was Shakespeare a plagiarist? David Mitchell plays the bard for laughs in Upstart Crow.

December 3, 2019   5 mins

I sort of fell for a conspiracy theory, not that long ago. Not really. Not very badly. But still; I ended up tweeting a thing which kind of said that I could, maybe, bring myself to believe that Shakespeare was not the author of Shakespeare’s plays, but that they were written by a woman called Emilia Bassano.

Sure, I can give mitigating factors — the piece arguing it was in the Atlantic! Steven Pinker had tweeted it apparently approvingly! I included a lot of verbiage about how it might still be “utter garbage” and how I thought it was very unlikely to be true! But, still, I found it convincing enough to tweet it out, publicly and positively.

The thing was, there were some interesting hints. There is, apparently, a strange shortage of surviving manuscripts in Shakespeare’s own hand, unlike other playwrights of the time. And in the same year of Shakespeare’s first public work, an Elizabethan literary critic wrote cryptically about an anonymous “Gentlewoman” who had written sonnets and a comedy, “in her tongue & pen a divine Rhetoric … [a] beautiful and allective style, as ingenious as elegant”. 

A rival playwright wrote, again cryptically, of an “upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers”, who considers himself the “onely Shake-scene in a countrey”. The Atlantic piece says that in classical literature the crow was a thieving bird who stole other birds’ feathers, and that for “anti-Stratfordians”, ie Shakespeare truthers, it was a coded accusation that Shakespeare was a plagiarist. Ben Jonson wrote a satirical poem which was widely believed to be about Shakespeare, and in which he accused the subject of “[making] each man’s wit his own”.

The piece also asked: how come a man who had never apparently had much education or left England knew so much about northern Italy, or astronomy, or foreign languages? Bassano, apparently an exiled Venetian noblewoman, would fit better. The author of the Atlantic piece was also much baffled by how Shakespeare could write women so well and so sympathetically.

Anyway, it turned out to be complete toss. The piece ended up needing significant corrections; the author had ignored scholars who had given her info she didn’t like; it cited material from someone who also believed that ley-lines were landing markers for alien spaceships. The Atlantic ran five ‘responses’ to it from Shakespeare scholars, most of them utterly panning it (the one that didn’t was by Mark Rylance, who is an excellent actor but not a historian).

I’m reminded of this because I came across a study in the journal Science Advances, which provides (it says) evidence against the cross-channel version of this conspiracy theory, that Molière’s plays were in fact written by someone else, probably a rival playwright called Pierre Corneille.

I had never heard of this conspiracy theory, but it seems to have the same sort of structure: he wasn’t acknowledged as a writer in his own time, he lacked education necessary to write the material he purportedly wrote,  there aren’t many surviving original manuscripts, etc. I don’t have the necessary expertise to critique the study, but it essentially looked at the entire body of written work by Molière along with that of several contemporary French playwrights, including Corneille, and found no similarity of the kind you would expect if any of it was written by the same man.

As I said: I don’t know whether the study really does nail the coffin shut on Molière truthing. But my bet, nonetheless, is that the Molière truthers are wrong, simply because it is much easier to come up with conspiracy theories than it is to debunk them.

For instance: did you know that the latitude of the Great Pyramid of Giza is the same as the speed of light in a vacuum, to nine significant figures? Seriously. The Great Pyramid’s latitude: 29.9792458°N. The speed of light in a vacuum, in metres per second: 299,792,458. Check it out. Ancient Egyptians did not know the speed of light in a vacuum. How do you explain a coincidence like that –  a one-in-a-billion coincidence! – without admitting that aliens built it?

Well, you do it by pointing out that it’s less of a coincidence than you think. Scott Alexander does a wonderful job of it, but here are a few basics. For one thing, the precision is spurious. If you only did it to seven significant figures, your coordinates would be slightly closer to the very centre of the pyramid. So it’s really only a one-in-10-million coincidence.

For another, the longitude of the Great Pyramid appears to be cosmically meaningless. Also, all the latitudes 2.99792°N, 2.99792°S, and 29.9792°S would also match the speed of light to the same precision, but there’s nothing super interesting anywhere along those lines of latitude that I’m aware of. Likewise for longitudes with those numbers. And – there’s not just the speed of light to look at. How about the Planck length or the Hubble constant? Or – why did you use the Great Pyramid and not the Sphinx? You’ve got several more tickets to the lottery, and none of the others win anything. (It’s also a bit weird that ancient aliens are using the metre, a measure invented in revolutionary France.)

More generally, you just have to ask: why pick the Pyramids? Why not Stonehenge or Machu Picchu or the Nazca lines, or the Lascaux caves, or – whatever? Why pick a landmark at all, or latitude and longitude – why not a code written in the Bible, or in the DNA of fish? The world is full of billions of things; if you want to find a billions-to-one coincidence, you’ll find it, and you’ll be able to add all sorts of corroborative detail, as well. 

You don’t need to go all the way to aliens building the pyramids to find this sort of thing going on. In much more prosaic forms it goes on all the time — it’s the basis for the replication crisis in science, in that you can see interesting-looking patterns in noisy data that let you find all sorts of spurious things, like literal psychic powers, if you don’t constrain what you’re looking for in advance. It lets you find frightening social trends which probably aren’t real, if you’re allowed to pick when your data series starts and ends and which subset of the data you look at. But you can also do it to let you find that Atlantis was real, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that we never went to the Moon.

The trouble is, sometimes there is a conspiracy. Lt Col Oliver North really did sell weapons to Iran and illegally use the proceeds to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The CIA really did run a fake vaccination programme (in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden). How do we know when the coincidences aren’t coincidences and there’s really something there? God knows – sometimes it’s just really hard.

In science, things like preregistering your hypotheses before gathering your data can avoid the “degrees of freedom” that let you find spurious patterns in noise. Maybe with conspiratorial thinking, you need to be aware of the possible coincidences that didn’t happen: all the people who didn’t leave the North Tower just before it fell, all the photos of the lunar landscape that don’t look like a Hollywood film set.

But I don’t know if that would have helped me with my Shakespeare conspiracy problem. What would I be looking for — all the Elizabethan authors who didn’t write cryptic notes about how some Shakespeare-like character might or might not be a plagiarist? All the things that Shakespeare wrote about that he could plausibly have written about?

Maybe the answer is simply that, if someone presents you with some complex but plausible-sounding explanation for why almost everyone is wrong about something, your first instinct should be to distrust it. But then I’d be telling you to disbelieve a lot of the things I write. Maybe all you can really take away from this is that Shakespeare probably wrote Shakespeare, Molière probably wrote Molière, we almost certainly did go to the Moon, and generally, the most boring explanation is probably the most likely.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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3 years ago

Unfortunately, we have been seeing this kind of science in medicine for a long time. There is a tendency to run large groups of data through a computer and sees what falls out at the end, and publish the results whether it is relevant or not. Several years ago, NEJM publish a widely sited study that women, 35-55, who were more than 10 pounds overweight, died at twice the rate for those who were not. This caused many with tendency to bulimia to frantically loose weight and get sick. This group of patients is actually the healthiest with a mortality rate of like 2/100,000. Doubling this number was irrelevant. Publish or parrish.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

Fun article, Tom, but your longitude point doesn’t quite work.

Longitude is arbitrary – it’s east / west basis some reference point, which can be anywhere you choose. The French were still bitching that the 0 degrees meridian ought to go through Paris rather than London until the 20th century.

Latitude in contrast is absolute. It’s degrees above or below the plane of the equator. You can assign any point on Mars a latitude because it’s got an equator, but for a longitude you’d need to pick a feature and designate that as 0 degrees E, 0 degrees W.

Hamish McDougal
Hamish McDougal
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

But the degree is also arbitrary. For example, just try measuring latitude in radians.