Top Ten Bad Signs that your theory is likely wrong

We are all hatching our beliefs and theories about the origin and the encryption of the VM, with varying degrees of zest and conviction. Utlimately, none of those theories has as yet managed to convince anyone but the inventors of the idea themselves.*) But in my personal little Voynich world, the various theories have a different “half-life”, with which their plausibility decays. On this pages, I’ve set up a list of symptoms which indicate to me that any proposed VM decipherment idea is flawed.

You can check your own hypothesis against this and see how you fare: If you score three out of ten or more, my take is the idea is doomed. (In all fairness, the Stroke theory currently rates 2/10.)

Now, here is my Top Ten of Bad Signs. As you will notice, many of them follow the “mortar and pestle”-pattern, where the algorithm fragments the VM text into a structureless pulp and allows one to more or less arbitrarily reconstruct a surmised “plaintext”. Of course, such a procedure will always render some plaintext, regardless of a) the original plaintext contents and b) the originally used enciphering method.

  1. Anagramming. Anagramming is the devil’s (at least if we’re talking about lossy anagramming, where there is no rule how to reconstruct the original plaintext, as opposed to regular reordering, as in reversing a letter sequence.) The number of possible words derived through anagramming is immense, and so we shouldn’t be surprised if it’s easy to reconstruct existing vocabulary from any sequence of letters, the more so, if the frequency distribution has been matched to the frequencies in our presumed plaintext language.

    But not only is this always possible (to a certain extent), the big problem is that the ambiguities introduced this way (since any one letter sequence can be anagrammed in a number of valid words) would not only hamper the code breaker, but the intended audience as well: How are they supposed to know which alternative of the possible solutions to take? (The answer commonly given is that he would know from “context”, which boils down to saying that the text can only be deciphered if the plaintext is known…)

  2. MIMO. “Multiple in, multiple out”, which means that the proposed algorithm maps several plaintext letters onto one ciphertext letter or vice cersa or both — in other words, qo may sometimes mean “x”, and sometimes “u”. To myself, I call this “arbitrary bottleneck ambiguities”.

    If you follow the reasoning of the VM code breakers closely, you will see that MIMO schemes are invented, because the fairly rigid and schematic word structure of VM ciphertext words doesn’t match the (relatively) liberal structure of plaintext words. Hence, this amount of flexibility is built into the theory to disolve the dichotomy.

    But, as Sherlock Holmes has already told us a century ago, it’s a mistake to adapt the facts to fit the theory.

  3. Dropped letters (esp vowels). This falls somewhere between Anagrams and MIMO. For the minute, assume you have a four-letter ciphertext word and allow that one plaintext letter has been dropped anywhere in the course of the enciphering. With five different possible locations and a plaintext alphabet of, say, 25 letters, that alone gives you 125 different possible plaintext words. For every word of the ciphertext.

    How is one to read such a text with any degree of fluency?

  4. Exotic language, undiscovered dialect, words not used in period… Probably the most notorious example of this is Leo Levitov’s “polyglot oral tongue” (with which I reckon he meant to say, “hitherto only orally tradited dialect as a mixture of several languages”).

    While strictly speaking this can’t be ruled out, it adds a factor of implausibility to one’s theory. After all, everything we know about the VM points to a central European origin in the late Middle Ages or Renaissance. So, while the idea of the VM being from the Far East has some merits based on linguistic aspects, any theory involving “exotic language” must not only decipher the text but at the same time also explain the origin or the “polyglot oral tongue.”

  5. Text does not fit the pictures. Simple, but often wrongly rated as of minor importance. We have plenty of herbs, we have astronomical/astrological imagery, and we have girlies galore in a trashcan.

    Any decipherment must explain why they are here, or — if they are supposed to be a red herring to throw a decipherer off track — why somebody would have gone to lengths to include this weird and unique images which are bound to attract everybody’s attention, rather than make the VM look innocuous.

  6. Reliance on micrography. Plenty of solution attempts focus on minute distinctions between various letter shapes and stroke lengths and orientations and what not. Of course, this introduces degrees of freedom into the solution and makes it easier to arrive at legible text.

    But. With the 600dpi images currently available which look so neat and huge on the monitor, people tend to forget that the VM is actually a fairly small book. If you print two VM pages on one shee of letter or A4 paper, you arrive at roughly the original size. Now take a look at how tiny these letters are, and consider you had to write that text with a fickly quill running out of ink every other word on uneven vellum, and supposedly at a decent speed so you’ll finish the thing before the Renaissance runs out.

    How much detail can you preserve in your writing? It’s a very instructive and quick experiment which I highly recommend.

  7. More than three steps in the enciphering process. Again, the VM is a pretty extensive text comparable to a short novel in volume. It’s not reasonable to assume that the author piled enciphering step after enciphering step on one another, else he would never have accomplished anything. Mind you that in his time (if we stick with a 15th century provenance) the simple expedient of using an invented alphabet was considered safe even for highly sensitive diplomatic correspondence.

    How many more steps is the VM author likely to have built on top of this?

  8. The algorithm does not explain the statistical features of the VM. About the only reasonable clue for decipherment the VM has yielded is the statistics. What we know about the enciphering, we know through counting words and letters. Fortunately (but up to now fairly uselessly), some of these features are sticking out like sore thumbs, as the notorious letters and letter sequences which occur only word-initial, word-terminal or in connection with some other letters. Any theory which is unable to explain these features at a basic level (ie as a consequence of the algorithm proposed) is useless.

    A common example is the suggestion that the VM is written as a sequence of abbreviations, which is clearly at odds with the observation that statistically the ciphertext appears to be “bloated”, rather than compressed.

  9. Exceptions and deceptions. As a last resort, when theories don’t fit the facts, exceptions begin to crop up in the plan. Why they should be there, how the encipherment should benefit from them or such considerations usually don’t enter the equation. But they allow one to adapt the facts to the theory (again…): “Hey, previously I said qo is “x”, but for my translation to work here I need a “u” in this spot. Well, obviously that was an exception the VM author introcuded!”

    A similar technique is the invention of deceptions. Namely, the assumption is that some feature which doesn’t line up with the proposed algorithm is declared a “deception” on the part of the author to throw the sleuths off track. This could be the extraneous writings or parts of the ciphertext. Of course, it’s always possible to discard disagreeable aspects of the VM this way, and to me this has a remarkable similarity to Creationist attempts to put a literal reading of the bible on a “scientific” footing.

  10. Solution makes no sense. If everything is said and done, and the final translation reads something like Left left oh fleeting left foot for fodder flitter flatter all that’s left is left, maybe then it’s time for the meticulous researcher to reconsider.

*) Hence a cynic might argue that the topmost sign that your theory is likely wrong is that it is trying to decipher the VM, ha ha.

35 thoughts on “Top Ten Bad Signs that your theory is likely wrong

  1. Excellent! This post is getting linked to my site… great thoughts all around. Your points as posted here would save many investigators much precious time, if they could take it to heart. That being said, I know every one of us… me included… will tend to see these things in others, and not in themselves. But the best we can do is try to be introspective, and see where we are going wrong, and why. And then trying to see if we are really investigating, or simply inventing, and then rationalizing our inventions.

    I might add:

    11) History rewrite: If one has to add to known history, or ignore known history, for it to work. Known history should reasonably fit the theory. This is used conversely by some to detract from other theories, i.e., by rewriting known history to obviate an opposing theory.

    12) Rationalizing features as having been added: For instance, if a feature is too new for one’s theory, to assume it must have been added to the VMs at a later date, by someone else; and if it is the right age for one’s theory, then it must be contemporary to it.

    13) Focusing: If the theory fits a small percentage of the Voynich, but not the Voynich as a whole, how can it be correct? One must look at every fiber and ink of the entire work, and it must fit all of it. A true plus a false equals a false.

    14) Out of character: If one’s suspect, or circle of suspects and influences, needed to suddenly and radically deviate from their normal behavior and output to create the Voynich, then maybe they simply did not create the Voynich.

    Great list, thanks… Rich.

  2. Hi Elmar,

    I know what you’re saying with #9 (invention of deceptions), but what on earth do you make of the Voynichese in the top margin on f17r, directly after the (apparently Occitan) lettering?

    There’s something hugely fishy about that, which I didn’t (I have to admit) do a particularly good job of explaining in my book. Even though I still think I was basically right. :-)

    What do _you_ think is going on there? Is this by the original author, or not?

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. Frankly, Nick —

    I don’t see any Voynichese characters there, so I’m not really in a position to comment. I’ve had a look again at the illustrations in your book and in the SIDs, and I have to take your word for it that they are there.

    My best guess to justify the existance of Voynichese alongside latin characters (as is undeniably the case in f116v, even if we doubt f17r ;-) is that the marginalia are notes by the VM author by which he examined whether his cipher was two-way (“sanity check”), perhaps after having modified his algorithm underway.

    But that’s just because I can’t come up with anything more convincing. It’s a guess, and not even an educated one, unless we can read at least the latin *or* the Voynichese there…



  4. As I said on Curse p.30, under the black UV lamp, “oteeeol aim” lights up as clear as anything – and anything you or I propose about the VMs really has to bear that in mind.

  5. And as I said a few hours ago, unless I see the pictures, it’s difficult to assess what that really means.

    Call me spoiled through Beinecke’s SIDs, but without a representation of this Voynichese, I’m reluctant to give a judgement in any way. Never forget, the Michitonese on f17r is again only half the size of the regular Voynichese script (which is already tiny); I tried to copy the writing with a sharpened pencil in the same size — it’s tough. So, even if it looks like “oteeeol aim”, who knows what the author had in mind?

    My guess is still that it was a preliminary “test” of the encipherment, and the author tried to decipher parts of what he had written to see if the method worked both ways. Perhaps he had to leave parts of the ciphertext in his translation attempt, because here he had blundered when he enciphered the text?

    Wild guesses, I wouldn’t bet a penny on it. Not even a Euro cent. ;-)

  6. It’s such a nuisance that history isn’t logical. I mean that as the history of human activity it really has no linear logic. And so while I agree that it’s logical to feel that vowelless scripts are preposterous, the fact is that a considerable number of early written languages omitted the vowels. Hebrew is just one example. People managed. Another illogical fact is the existence of polyglot oral languages (or patois, or pidgins, or just vocabularies.. as you like). They were ubiquitous, and some even made it to the status of a language which was then ennobled by being written down. Swahili is another example. A recent author makes the point that before the existence of grammars and dictionaries it is questionable whether most Europeans actually recognised the difference between e.g. French and Spanish as anything more than dialectical or regional variants of the same basically Latin language, and often used them interchangeably. He gives Columbus’ records as example. And since most people were illiterate in Europe, an oral polyglot – though illogical – is an ok theory, historically speaking.

    Of course the classic polyglot – of which we have some written record at least – is Hisperica famina, which was only recently ‘deciphered’ and translated.

  7. on informal polyglots: One which might interest you I call (for want of an existing term) Italo-Coptic-Mamluk.

    Documents made by long-term foreign residents of the region between Damascus and Egypt (as attested in the 14th-15th C) developed as one might expect a mixed language, in which any words or phrases which are regularly used, but which are without any exact equivalent in Italy etc. are taken up, rarely exactly, and incorporated. This particular patois initially gave the modern translator of some Venetian correspondance a turn.

    I’ve experienced the same phenomenon among mixed enclaves of foreign students. Onto the local base language (e.g. English) each national language contributes words and phrases which the rest adopt as the only exact term for this-or-that. A newcomer, knowing only English will hear the result as a ‘text’ filled with what are to them often long, but quite meaningless, units.

      • A lady with a child in her lap ( looks like mother Mary). How can i show that to you. Please tell me the procedure to post image here, or how to send the image to you.
        India, Telecom Engineer

  8. I think, i am taken as wrong. But believe me what i am saying is not completely baseless. Even, I have the picture( which i guess is of the author of the VM). Ironically, no body seems to be interested.

    • Manoj, you can use Jason Davies’ image extractor ( to navigate to any part of the VM’s pages and zoom in. Simply post the link to the resulting image extract, and we can see exactly what you mean.
      It would also be better if you didn’t just post a comment to an arbitrary page dealing with the VM, but eg posted to the VM mailing list. (You will find the link.)
      In the meantime, Mt. Rushmore is a little far-fetched…

  9. Manoj
    The cover is vellum, but the manuscript seems to have been re-bound at different times. Is this picture that you think is the author in the manuscript? If so, what folio number, please?

  10. Pl ignore the last few comments as the links were not getting posted. Here is the link for the image of author( I guess). You can see the face of man in the picture. What i think is that logic and theory is not going to help in case of VM.
    Anyhow, just look the picture. The link is below:

    • Even after 100 years if they could find nothing, probably its the time to look from other ways. I could give a picture of ( probably a code written in English) but i think it will again be seen from the specs of science.

  11. Manoj
    I think I see what you mean when you say “logic and theory is not going to help in case of VM” – because logic is only as good as its premises and when the premises are no more than notions or possibilities, you can end up with a perfectly logical explanation of how many angels dance on a pin, or why the earth must be flat.

    I think the problem, too, is that once people develop an idea and then extrapolate it, and hunt for supporting evidence, and come to be known for their own idea, to then agree with someone else’s different view is very difficult. That’s what happened with Galileo – people really liked Kircher, and he was the one people turned to for opinions, so when he said that Galileo mustn’t be allowed to make a name for himself, the others bowed to his eminence and so Galileo was hounded and ignored while Kircher – whose views were nothing but logic-upon-theories – were widely admired.

    I always feel a bit sad when I see that a new researcher begins with a theory. But that’s how it goes.

  12. Diane, intuition, cannot be defined by logic yet the word exits.

    Moreover, man is to learn from experiences, when we fail we try again but with different approach.

    I feel that the key to decode lies in the VM itself.

    I would like to know from you , Elmar and Nick:

    1. Is the carbon dating of ink has been done?

    If yes, whether or not the ink on pages and the page numbers is found to be same.

    2. What is the view of handwriting expert on the handwriting used in pages, drawing and page numbers.

    3. you said the book was rebind,

    are the carbon dating results of cover and pages of VM found to be different?

    I hope all these are logical questions.


  13. Hi Manoj,

    1.) The ink wasn’t carbon dated because there is no carbon in it. ;-) But the report stated somewhat ambiguously that the ink was “compatible” with being applied at around the same time as the vellum creation, in other words, either it was written in the 15th century, or it is a good (modern) fake.

    2.) The general opinion is that there were at least two different hands included in writing the corpus of the VM, and that the marginalia and page numbering are in a third, different hand(s). But “experts” (as far as they devote time to the VM) don’t all agree.

    3.) AFAIK at least the corpus of the VM has been dated based on several different sheets, and all datings agree pretty well with each other. But already from the sequence of pages it is pretty clear that the original page order must have been different. Nick Pelling and Glen Claston (?) argued long and in detail about the exact original folio order.

  14. Elmar, the ink was described as an iron-gall ink, and there was another which was high carbon. Theoretically either could be carbon-dated since both contain carbon. (Iron-gall ink contains iron salts and tannic acid (molecular formula C76H52O46 – sorry I can’t do subscript..) The real problem is the techniques used for C-14 dating, which were destructive. To submit the ink to the same test, you’d need to damage part of the written text. There are other, less invasive methods, but the t.v. station seemed to be more interested in some imaginary connection to the Americas – to judge from their comparison against mopa-mopa.
    On the general topic of medieval inks and their chemistry, there’s a nice first-level site here

  15. To my mind, all you say is right, i discovered November 29th, 2012 that it may be a graphic code. This explain why there are so much repetitions. And the clue is very often on the other side of the page. This explains that it can’t be directly in any natural language. VM put together codes for decoration’s draws of probably a family of masters in this art. Then there are no words but graphics symbols.
    Pictures are internationnal happynessly for all.
    With all my regards.
    Eric CHAPUZOT.

  16. Hi,

    As a complete novice I’d really appreciate some feedback on the following points.

    One of the first things that struck me on studying the manuscript is how careful the writer has been to avoid writing in the vicinity of various flaws in the parchment. It’s clear that the flaws were already there when the text and drawings were added. It strikes me as odd that a medieval writer would have been prepared to use seriously defective parchment for such an important and expensive project.

    The second point concerns the supposed 1665/6 letter from Marci to Kircher. These men have known each other for years, yet Marci fails to notice that his friend’s name has been misspelled (‘tibi amicissime Athanisi’, instead of ‘Athanasi’)! It’s like writing to someone named Thomas, and calling him Thomis. Also, the apparent correction to the year of the letter strikes me as suspicious. It isn’t the sort of mistake that people tend to make in August. In January or February, yes… but in August?

    Any thoughts would be welcome!


  17. The circumstances in which the manuscript was written are not known, so any number of reasons could be suggested for use of that parchment. Necessity sums them up, I think. I see other signs of haste throughout, although Nick Pelling disagrees on the point. The early fifteenth century was a difficult time and Rudolf’s paying so much to the messenger doesn’t necessarily argue that the maker of the fifteenth-century manuscript knew it would end up owned by an emperor. Important enough to be copied, but we don’t know by whom.

  18. Pingback: Dans le VM, un blanc n’est ni le début, ni la fin d’un mot… | echapfr

  19. + Kryptos is an encrypted sculpture by American artist Jim Sanborn located on the grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia. Since its dedication on November 3, 1990, there has been much speculation about the meaning of the encrypted messages it bears. Of the four messages, three have been solved, with the fourth remaining one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world.

    But I have a solution to the fourth message. The sculptor has given an important clue

    + iF Letters 64-69 “NYPVTT” = “BERLIN” then 4 message can be:


    — By Ronald Reagan, address at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987.

    Because if K4 is a real text (like K3), then i should find key phrases/quotes related to Berlin (place). I look for the most important and beautiful texts (Kennedy & Reagan speeches)

    And here I found this fragment:

    This is a very nice solution but I have not a mathematical explanation.

    it’s a shame.

    Bye from Spain.

  20. Pingback: New words in Voynichese | Acanthus Leaves

  21. Pingback: In defence of mystery: the Voynich manuscript, history, and the status of knowledge | University of St Andrews History Society

  22. there will be a long time before my discovery of the 29th November 2012 will be consider a big bit of the solution… but it’s the really the way of solution.

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