Dear email correspondents #2 – Method

Among the recent crop of emails, a few have expressed sentiments along the lines, “I don’t know why you quoted Feynman about scientific method. It’s exactly what I/we always do.”

In case you haven’t seen the short video in the right hand column, Feynman says that when a physicist is looking for a new scientific law, the first stage is the ‘Guess’, then an extrapolation from that guess, and finally testing both guess and extrapolation against ‘observation’ or ‘experience’ or ‘experiment’. He ends by saying that no matter how clever a guess might seem, if it is contradicted by physical reality (in the third stage), the theory is wrong.

It is true, in a way, that most Voynich writers have begun with a ‘guess’ and then hunted for material as extrapolation from that guess, and then hunted more material in the name of ‘experiment’.

The difference is that in scientific method, the guess is about solid, verifiable data and the conclusion is also subject to verification.

As example of why ‘Voynich method’ today is not really comparable to scientific method – here’s a wholly imaginary example.

The newbie is flicking through the manuscript, feeling utterly bewildered (as all newcomers are still aware of being), and a little chagrined because used to thinking of himself* as pretty smart.

*statistically, the typical ‘Voynichero’ is male, is aged between 24-60, is of European descent, and works/worked in a technical job – computers, engineering, linguistics… that sort of thing.

His job is in IT and his other interests are Scottish history, Scottish folk-lore, legends, battle re-creation and the history of Scottish costume. These are what you might call the bounds of his intellectual comfort zone.

Suddenly, on reaching folio 80r, he is struck as if by a bolt of inspiration. His imagination-as-memory just produced ‘match’ for one detail.

His eyes light up. His jaw drops. “That fellow’s wearing a kilt”! And then… “And the woman’s wearing a Scots’ style of bonnet, pretty much”.

From nothing but this, mixed with various untested ‘Voynich doctrines’, he forms his initial ‘Guess’ – a ‘Scottish Voynich’ theory.

Not that he feels it’s just a ‘guess’. He experiences it as gut-certainty and ‘knows’ that he alone has obtained a glimpse of *the secret* hitherto hidden from lesser minds.

At that moment, his attention shifts from an ambition to understand the manuscript to an ambition to have as many other people as possible believe in his ‘theory’.

And that’s another major difference between scientific method and what has become the traditionalists’ ‘Voynich method’.

If you think I’m creating a caricature, I’d remind readers that the most prevalent, persistent and influential Voynich ‘theories’ were of similar sort. Wilfrid’s Voynich’s whole storyline does not explain a single thing about the manuscript – not its materials, form, script or images.

Hugh O’Neill’s ‘New World’ notion is nothing but his poor interpretation of just one image; the ‘Germanic’ theory has only a line of marginalia to support it … and so on, and so on.

For our ‘Scottish Voynichero’ the second stage, which in scientific method would be the stage of extrapolation, becomes instead a hunt for support, and a hunt only within the limits defined by his own ‘guess’ and his comfort zone.

He’ll say something along the lines of, ‘Since this manuscript is about things Scottish, looking through Scottish manuscripts will surely turn up ‘matches’ for other details in the manuscript’.

Adopting the usual (but erroneous) description of the month-folios as ‘a zodiac’ … he hunts through nothing but medieval Scottish manuscripts and … behold! … zodiacs!

In what should be the third or ‘experimental’ stage, where a scientific theory is tested by reality and solid data, the Voynichero simply extends his matching, asking for example, ‘How about the many other ladies in the water-works drawings?

Immediately, he notices on the facing page (folio 79v) a detail that makes his hair stand on end. Right… right… (he’s thinking). “The captive and bonneted female is obviously a Selkie, and here’s another one in the act of dropping her seal-skin. Wow. Selkies.

Later, noticing that the captive woman’s feet are oddly formed, and seeing another which has ‘forked feet’, he is sure beyond doubt that this section of the manuscript is about Scottish stories about the Selkie.

More experiment? Sure. How about the plant-pictures?

Go no further than folio 2r. “It’s obviously a Scottish thistle”, he says and when he asks five mates if they agree with him all five do. How much more proof do you need? Object that it’s not purple? No problem there.

Many Voynicheros give no details at all about the date, region or source from which they have their ‘matches.

So if you have a man in a kilt, and numerous Selkies, then ‘obviously’ the manuscript’s ‘plant pictures’ will be about the plants needed for tartan cloth. So he finds ‘matches’ between those plants and various Voynich plant-pictures.

His aim is no longer to understand the intention of the manuscript’s maker/s but only to collect local colour which might persuade others to believe in, and adopt, his ‘guess’.

In case you feel like making a game of my fake ‘Scottish Voynich’ theory,…

Here are Scotland’s dye- plants.

And here some lichens.

The most perfect model of what has become classic traditionalist Voynich method is, in my opinion, provided by Jules Janick and Talbot O. Tucker’s book Unravelling the Voynich Codex (2018).

It’s worth having a copy because it is, in fact, a classic ‘European-Voynich’ theory, developed using the classic traditionalist ‘method’ but re-located to the Americas.

If you ask of that book ‘…. what was your question?’ you’ll find the answer is ‘No question at all’.

In the end, the authors have not added a jot to our understanding of the manuscript’s form, materials, hands, language or the stylistic questions aimed at elucidating images. Its argument works only within the self-created environment of that ‘guess’ and when tested against the verifiable historical and scientific data, the theory just evaporates. As Voynich theories of the picture-book-history type usually do.

Postscript (6th Nov.)

Such theories survive and prosper not least because neither the initial proponent, nor those adopting the narrative, nor even editors approving publication ask for external evaluation – the ‘experiment’ stage. This is why, for example, the book by Janick and Tucker appeared in print without anyone’s having pointed out that there was nothing about the manuscript’s form, materials or binding to justify a date so late as that they posited, nor that the authors’ argument about the text being in Nahuatl was untenable. When the last point – the Nahuatl question – was finally addressed by a specialist, it was not because the authors, adherents, or publishers had sought any objective, external, assessment but because the specialist (Magnus Pharao Hansen) provided it voluntarily.

In Voynich arenas today, it is considered ‘poor form’ to point out errors in a popular storyline, just as to request information about sources, or precedents.

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