There is a tendency among a number of seasoned Voynich researchers to write more about their colleagues than about the manuscript itself. Of course everybody is free to write what’s on their mind, but I generally think this is a shame; it would benefit our understanding of the manuscript if people were to focus on it – the facts – rather than on each other.
Maybe it’s just me, after all I’m relatively new to this field of study. I’m still in the honeymoon phase, which apparently lasts an average two years, six months and twenty-five days. I’d much rather read about the object of my interest and others’ insights about it, than about the antics of its suitors.
That said, however, at some point it can be helpful to take a step back and look at things on a higher level. How is the study going, and what can we improve? What causes the century-long standstill we are still in? Why are we unable to agree about even the basics? Even I must admit that Voynich studies and its protagonists are worth a study of their own.
The desire to write this post came upon me, as such things happen, when by chance I ended up on the Wikipedia page about the confirmation bias. We people, with our limited information processing capacity, are all susceptible to a large number of cognitive biases. Flaws in our reasoning which lead to illogical judgement and general irrationality.
The confirmation bias is one of the most prominent ones affecting our opinions. It basically means that we (all of us) construct our image of the world by paying more attention to examples that support our beliefs, and ignoring things that support what we don’t believe. The following applies to a great extent to arguments in Voynich studies:
This is the bias that makes arguing with people really annoying. Why? Because most people think they know what they are talking about. The problem is you also think you know what you are talking about.
So what usually happens when you encounter this dilemma? Naturally, the next logical step is assuming that they are unfair/stupid/biased/illogical […] How can they not see the clear, impeccable logic of my argument and see that I am clearly correct?!
It is believed that this bias exists because we are unable to adequately process the vast amount of information bombarding our brain as soon as we wake up in the morning. We need to construct beliefs and frames of reference in order to function as human beings. We need mechanisms to cope with conflicting information, allowing us to make swift decisions whenever this is necessary.
Now let’s focus on the situation of Voynich studies. MS Beinecke 408 is an exceptional manuscript, no matter what some people may claim. It is unusual in many more ways than I could name in this post. Yet, it is judged by rather usual standards, those that would apply to any early 15th century manuscript that turned up in Europe. This while the fact that the manuscript is still largely an enigma is in itself a reasonable incentive to tear down the walls of such an initially suitable frame of reference.
I agree with Diane O’Donovan that many seasoned Voynich researchers suffer from a Eurocentric confirmation bias. Their belief that the manuscript was invented by an eccentric medieval author is the secret judge of all their decisions. It is the invisible scale on which they measure all possible evidence. This is why presumed German words in the marginalia have been given disproportionate weight, as well as those “late” parts of the manuscript which can be best understood from a medieval point of view.
Also, speaking personally from the heart, at times I have felt that the “medieval author” confirmation bias has caused some of my discoveries about pre-medieval material in the manuscript to be given less importance than they would have been given otherwise. Just one example which I’ve posted earlier: that fact that certain parts of quire 13b bear resemblance to necklace designs that were still popular in Greco-Roman Egypt. And not completely incompatible with Diane’s views on this section either.
This is not just an empty observation. If this section really contains somewhat later, perhaps “provincial” forms of Egyptian motifs, we might start to understand what they are about. The scenes on these menat necklaces are often about Horus hiding in the safety of the marshes. And see, in the Voynich “pool”, the nymphs are lying low in shallow water, totally enclosed. And above them the parallel lines might be an echo of the papyrus reeds.
The problem is not that ancient motifs cannot end up in 15th century works. Several secular medieval traditions, like the Aratea, can be traced back to images that were made long before the start of the Current Era. In some cases we must even look beyond the Hellenistic period to fully understand their origin and appreciate their peculiarities. Then why the general hesitation towards these kinds of observations? I can only attribute this phenomenon to a (understandable) confirmation bias.
Let one thing be clear: I do not intend this post to blame specific people or only those who believe in a medieval author. For example, Diane O’Donovan, whose work I often rely on and cite, also suffers from this bias like everybody else. As a specific example; I think she attributes too much weight to certain parallels for nymph body structure, while I argue that we have not yet found imagery that combines all of the nymphs’ properties. And on the other hand, that a subset of nymph qualities can be found in many places and times, both early and late.
I tried to classify these examples somewhat objectively in a series of posts (Comparing Voynich Nymphs to other Sources) and keep finding additional examples regularly.
Above, a Neo-Assyrian ivory handle, 900BC-700BC, found at the Burnt Palace in Nimrud, North Iraq. Differences with Voynich nymphs are clear, for example the stylized eyes and large ears so typical for this early period. But there are some remarkable similarities as well: protruding belly, compressed torso, large head, similar hairstyle (side curls). Nude except for headgear. We know for sure that the manuscript was fashioned by 15th century hands. We also know that the figures don’t look typically medieval. But how can we know which exemplars were at the basis of what we see now in the manuscript? And how do we eliminate confirmation bias?
An expected response is that at one point, after plenty of careful study, one knows enough to be able to form a reasonable frame of reference by which to weigh all evidence. In this case, the Neo-Assyrian example is too early for our frames of reference, including my own. So do we chuck it out? I’m not sure. Can anyone claim to understand the manuscript to such an extent and in such detail that their frame of reference is superior to that of others? I doubt it. And even if this were the case, to judge evidence based on what one expects, based on what should be, is not appropriate yet in this stage of our shared understanding of this artifact.
So how do we avoid confirmation bias, in a field so emotionally charged as Voynich studies? By staying open to literally all possibilities? That seems ridiculous, because some possibilities are clearly stupid (Aliens), and our possibilities are limited. One problem with the confirmation bias is that it reinforces itself. The stronger the bias, the more evidence one sees supporting one’s beliefs, the stronger those beliefs become and the more ridiculous arguments to the contrary appear.
And finally, how biased am I, myself? I wouldn’t know… I’m biased, after all. One thing I know is that I always remain prepared to change my mind about anything, which seems like a good place to start.
I haven’t spent much time on actual blog posts recently because I’m working together with Sam G on a little project. More about that later.