Outbacks of Sanity

Should I ever write a book not on the VM itself but one the research which is done on it (and the people doing it), I’ll call it In the Outbacks of Sanity.

I’m not sure: Either only people with a peculiar mindset are attracted to the VM, or the VM corrupts otherwise sane minds into something which “isn’t really mad, but definitely bipolar on weekends”.

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30 thoughts on “Outbacks of Sanity

  1. “To a certain extent, not truth but sanity is subject to a majority vote.”

    …and geography and time will change the outcome of the vote, so I agree. Sanity is subjective, even when the vote is unanimous. Rich.

  2. It’s a sad thing.

    Years ago, I thought the problem with the VMS was that people couldn’t collaborate to solve it. Yet I now think the actual problem is that people can barely collaborate with themselves to solve it.

    That is, to be able to work effectively with the VMs, you need to be able to handle multiple types of uncertain knowledge – statistical, historical, forensic, scientific, social, cultural – all simultaneously. “Internal multidisciplinary collaboration”, if you like.

    Perhaps we moderns have become too innately specialised to do this (it’s A Thousand Cultures now, never mind Two Cultures): perhaps it is only in moments of insanity we briefly believe we can bring all the pieces together, as erstwhile Renaissance Men (and Women, of course) are supposed to have done.

  3. I remember that, years ago, someone threatened in
    the Voynich mailing list that he was going to write
    just such an article. He was going to change the
    names of the people involved.

    Does anyone of you remember this, and, more
    interestingly, has this project ever seen the light
    of day?

    As regards the question of this post, I think that
    the manuscript does two things:
    – it attracts a certain type of people
    – it affects these people’s sense of reason

  4. Wasn’t that Ronald Lorenzo’s “Among the Cyberthugs: A Participant-Observation Study of an Online Medieval Manuscript Group”, SSSA Conference 2006?

    “In my analysis, I came to the conclusion that
    while a good number of members were open to
    unconventional and new approaches to studying the VMS, the majority of the members were die-hard positivist, modernists intent on repeating the same approaches that thus far have failed at constructing meaning of the VMS. The VMS mailing list, while claiming a civil and scholarly approach, actually spends a good deal of time disparaging qualitative and historically based
    approaches and suggestions.”

    In retrospect, he seems to have caught the list at its turn, as it slid from collaboration into nonsensical pseudo-historical bickering.

  5. Wow!

    “…the majority of the members were die-hard positivist, modernists intent on repeating the same approaches that thus far have failed at constructing meaning of the VMS. The VMS mailing list, while claiming a civil and scholarly approach, actually spends a good deal of time disparaging qualitative and historically based approaches and suggestions.”

    I’m going to mail that Mr. Lorenzo a beer. Rich.

  6. Reading this makes me wish that I had begun studying the VMS earlier. I have, of course, been reading through a lot of the mailing list archives, but I can’t help but feel envious that I never myself got the chance to be a part of the whole ordeal.

  7. Hei Chris, it’s not like VM research is over and done with. And you can still be a part of the list *and* create an impetus on it to give it a turn for the better…

    “Es gibt nichts Gutes, außer man tut es… ” ;-)

  8. I know we’re not at the end of our run, but I know that at least one of our golden ages have passed, entirely unnoticed by me until after it was too late, and that saddens me a great deal.

    Someone, tell me what to do: I feel productive today.

  9. Hi Christopher,

    Perhaps we’re actually at the start of a new golden age (AKA “Voynich Research 2.0”)?

    Even a small amount of substantive forensic data from our chums in Austria should be enough to separate the wheat from the clouds of insane chaff billowing around us.

    Fingers crossed! :-)

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

    PS: perhaps the list has become the problem, not the answer? Just something to think about…

  10. I like the idea of us being on the literal threshold of a new golden age of Voynich research (though arguably, it may not be the second or even the third or fourth).

    I also like the idea of the Austrian carbon dating results finally settling the date of origin.

    Actually, I quite like where we’re going.

  11. Hi, Nick:

    “Even a small amount of substantive forensic data from our chums in Austria should be enough to separate the wheat from the clouds of insane chaff billowing around us.”

    Should I take this to mean that you will accept the dating, when released? If, for instance, the date comes up circa 1750 (to pick an arbitrary date beyond most theories), will you accept that? Or will a dating outside of your current beliefs be an indication, to you, that there has been a mistake in the testing, or that the VMs is a later copy of an earlier document, etc.?

    I ask, because if the dating is, say, 1450, I would accept that as a good indication that my theory is incorrect, and have said so. I would be curious as to your position on this, less than two weeks before we know. Thanks, Rich.

  12. Hi Rich,

    (Actually, I’m hopeful that the forensic tests carried out for the documentary will yield a whole heap of new evidence, not just a date range.)

    My two core VMs methodologies has always been that of intellectual history: that is, (a) to see how ideas flowed into and out of the object, and (b) to work out how the numerous apparently irreconcilable strands of evidence might actually all be part of the same thing.

    So… yes, my default position will always be to use the best quality forensic evidence available as the starting point to reconstruct the VMs’ lost history.

    Oh, unless there’s some blindingly obvious error, such as “they dated the cover, d’oh!”. ;-D

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  13. Nick: That’s excellent. I worry that today’s preconceptions might be the driving force to the level of test acceptance for some. That is, if the results do not match one’s own ideas, then the tests must be wrong in some way. It is reassuring that both you and I do not, and will not, succumb to that pitfall.

    But as you point out, and I agree, it is going to be a good “starting point” when we have the tests. A “new” starting point (1750 or 1900?), perhaps, or supporting one of the existing ones. Rich.

  14. The interesting thing will always be how the evidence that emerges does or doesn’t square with all the existing evidence we have.

    In my view (and getting back to Elmar’s post), it is the process of trying to reconcile emotion with evidence that pushes people into madness.

    It may well be that all that stronger evidence does is help bring even more extreme forms of insanity to the fore, who knows?

  15. “It may well be that all that stronger evidence does is help bring even more extreme forms of insanity to the fore, who knows?”

    But then they cease to be insanity, no?

  16. Oh I see what you mean… for those who are outside the tested time frame, their insanity may be brought “to the fore”. I misunderstood… I thought you meant those who’s theories turn out to be within the time frame of the testing would become more “insane”.

    Yes I agree, for some, “…the stronger the reality, the stronger the unreality emotion calls forth to deny it.” Beside what the testing tells us about the VMs, it will also shine a light on one’s level of emotional attachment to any ideas outside of the determined time frame.

  17. On a relevant note, does anyone here know how accurate Carbon-14 tests usually are when used on (presumably) centuries-old vellum?
    My point is, can we expect the results to be with an error margin of half a century, a decade or a few months?

  18. My guess is that we’ll have an error margin of +/- 50 yrs at best.

    Carbon dating relies on the fact that all organisms consume carbon, including the radioactive isotope C14, while they live. After their death, the C14 in their bodies (or their skin, aka vellum) will decay at a known rate. Hence, by measuring the C14 left, you can calculate the date of death for the creature.

    IIRC, halftime for C14 is somewhere around 6000 years, so for any medieval artefact there should still be plenty of C14 left to measure.

    But matters are a bit more complicated than this. For one thing, you need to know the initial C14 level, which will depend mostly on solar irradiation at the time and location of the dying creature. But we don’t know the location, so this introduces some uncertainties.

    Furthermore, any later exposure of the vellum may falsify the results. (The C14 dating of the Turin shroud was challenged, because it was thought that soot from a fire may have contaminated the samples since the shroud was made.) I’m not sure what effects tanning, ink and paint may have.

    And, last but not least, C14 dating only determines the time of death of the creature. It’s still conceivable that the vellum was stored some place for decades before it actually was used.

    So, I’m still concerned that the results will not be as precise as we wish them to be, and that they will rather leave a lot of leeway for a number of theories — all of which can claim to be “proven” by the C14 dating…

    Elmar, who took a course on the topic some 20yrs ago

  19. As I understand it, a central part of the testing methodology involves assessing not just the date but also the margin for error by calibrating the result against known calibration curves.

    Here’s a page that discusses the Vinland Map’s dating (all of which may sound spookily familiar in a week’s time):-

    “The scientists traveled to Yale, where they were allowed to trim a 3-inch-long sliver off the bottom edge of the parchment for analysis. Using the National Science Foundation-University of Arizona’s Accelerator Mass Spectrometer, the scientists determined a precision date of 1434 A.D. plus or minus 11 years. The unusually high precision of the date was possible because the parchment’s date fell in a very favorable region of the carbon-14 dating calibration curve.”

    http://www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/pubaf/pr/2002/bnlpr072902a.htm

  20. Thank you both very much.
    I have also been reading this document: http://www.osti.gov/energycitations/servlets/purl/5608585-aD1rNc/5608585.pdf

    The document appears to agree with Elmar’s suggestion of ±50 years at best. I now even think that 50 years sounds improbable – we will more likely end up with ±70 years instead, or something in that area.

    Let us hope that the VMS also turns out to fall “in a very favorable region of the carbon-14 dating calibration curve”.

  21. You have to remember that what emerges is a curve: the “one-sigma” mentioned in the Vinland link relates to the degree of confidence in dating – i.e. “one sigma” = “one standard deviation”.

    That is, one sigma = 68.3% confident, two sigma = 95.4% confident, and three sigma = 99.7% confident. It never reaches 100%, but there you go. :-)

    Hence, the more confidence you want to have in the accuracy of a date, the wider the date-range you have to accept. This, essentially, is the statistical “confidence curve” associated with any given radiocarbon date.

    Thus, any suggested date-range should always be associated with a confidence (or sigma) value. Hence, “±50 years” or “±70 years” is only meaningful when stating the level of confidence (i.e. is that a two-sigma or a three-sigma date range?)

  22. Linking all the bits together, Figure 1 (on the penultimate page) of the PDF Christopher linked to has the Stuiver historical curve: you can see the flat portion between about 1375 and 1450, just before Renaissance industrialists’ began burning huge amounts of coal and wood. :-)

    The confidence levels for that period are also high – you can tell because the two lines on the graph are close together.

    All in all, I’m not as pessimistic as Elmar: I don’t see any evidence of burning or smokiness in the VMs, and it seems to have spent most of its life either in a Jesuit trunk, a New York bank vault, or a climate controlled rare book library. Also, the vellum appears to be from young animals killed specifically for the purpose, so most of the normal confounding factors for radiocarbon dating don’t seem to be in place.

    I’m also optimistic that an expert should also be able to help us tweak the final figures for latitude: i.e “1450 ± 42 years @ 2-sigma if Southern Europe, or 1460 ± 38 years @ 2-sigma if Northern Europe” (say). :-)

    We’ll have to wait and see…

  23. I’m glad the PDF was useful.

    “I’m also optimistic that an expert should also be able to help us tweak the final figures for latitude: i.e “1450 ± 42 years @ 2-sigma if Southern Europe, or 1460 ± 38 years @ 2-sigma if Northern Europe” (say). :-)”

    I was thinking about the exact same thing earlier. If there are known variations in C-14 levels based on location, then an expert should be able to calculate date ranges based on assumed locations of origin.

    I think it’s good that we’re doing all this speculating now instead of wasting time discussing it once the results are released.

  24. Like Rich, I also want to comment on Nick’s statement:
    “Even a small amount of substantive forensic data from our chums in Austria should be enough to separate the wheat from the clouds of insane chaff billowing around us.”

    We shall have to wait and see!

    I like Elmar’s suggestion that ‘sanity’ may be in the eye of the beholder. Who will decide what is sane and what isn’t?
    To take up on Rich’s example: what if the C-14 dating says: between 1725 and 1775 with 95% probability? Would it be insane to suggest that the sample was contaminated, and that our best guess is still 1450-1550?
    There is a lot of ‘grey area’ here.

    Fortunately, none of us have a ‘conspiracy theorist’ attitude to the Voynich MS :) These people are known to handle evidence in a quite peculiar way :D

    Note that the result of a C-14 dating is in principle not gaussian. The curve in Christopher’s PDF clearly shows this. For a given C-14 percentage one could even have a distribution with two maxima.

  25. The problem with “evidence to the contrary” is that it doesn’t make most theorists giving up their theory, but extending it ever further into the realms of whackiness to accomodate the finds.

    I remember having read about a 19th century study which went out to prove that Caucasians had a larger brain volume (and hence higher intelligence) than other human races. When they came across some central Asian, but still Caucasian people with smaller brains, they ad hoc decided that these were not real Caucasians…

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