William Shakespeare and the Moon Landings

Cosmology and history have a few major things in common: they each have to deal with evidence that is somewhat patchy and not amenable to direct experimental treatment. Obviously, the nature of the evidence and methodology are different in the two fields, but I still have a lot of sympathy for historians as they try to patch together a coherent view of the past.

Since I’m not an historian, I hesitate to make too many pronouncements like I do on scientific matters. I wouldn’t be a professor (much less a liberal arts professor!) if I wasn’t willing to occasionally talk about things that aren’t in my area of study, though, and upon reading Contested Will by James Shapiro, I found myself thinking as I often do about false skepticism — the idea that received wisdom on a particular topic is false, despite lack of evidence for the contrary view.

A prime example of false skepticism is the “Moon landing conspiracy”, the belief that the Apollo missions didn’t actually land on the Moon and that the video footage was faked in a NASA soundstage. The evidence is very strong that the Moon landings did happen in the way the astronauts and NASA scientists describe — independent corroboration exists for most if not all of the standard narrative (and there’s even an excellent Mythbusters episode about it). The false skeptics who doubt the evidence have to do a lot of scrambling to explain away all of it, usually through imputing conspiracy.

Contested Will is a history and analysis of the view that William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or poetry that carry his name. Things aren’t quite so clear-cut as with the Moon landings — Shakespeare’s private life is largely undocumented. As Shapiro lays out in the book, the evidence is strong that Shakespeare did write his plays and poetry due to contemporary accounts giving him credit, but groups of false skeptics would rather attribute his work to another. Although there have been a number of candidates, Shapiro focuses his attention on two that stand in for the others: Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, Lord of Oxford. The gist of the argument against Shakespeare is that he didn’t have much of a formal education and likely never traveled abroad — therefore he didn’t have the personal experience necessary to write what he did.

I won’t go into the literary side of it — Shapiro’s book is easy to read by non-historians and non-experts in literature, even if (like me) you haven’t seen or read a Shakespeare play in many years. The place where pseudohistory intersects with the false skepticism of the Moon-landing deniers is the sheer amount of additional motive and conspiracy necessary to make both ideas work. NASA with all its scientists and astronauts must be in on the conspiracy if the Moon landings were faked; Shakespeare and the entire literary establishment of Elizabethan and Jacobean England had to be in on the conspiracy if someone else wrote Hamlet. (As a matter of fact, the Shakespeare conspiracy often goes deeper, sometimes involving the royal family itself.)

Here is where skepticism crosses into pseudoscience or pseudohistory: when real evidence is rejected in the name of skepticism, and the alternative explanation becomes more elaborate than the standard version. Sometimes received wisdom is false, so the act of questioning isn’t where the false skeptics fail — it’s holding onto the questions after they’ve been answered. It is imperative that authority is questioned: if the authority lacks a basis in evidence then it will fall. If it is grounded in evidence then we can trust it, not because it’s an authority but rather that it stands on something that allows it to be judged independently.


5 Responses to “William Shakespeare and the Moon Landings”

  1. 1 EricJ October 23, 2011 at 16:39

    Very interesting, thoughtful analogy. I think you have made an excellent choice in comparing the Shakespeare skeptics to the moon landing skeptics. I can understand the deep-seated motivation of some skeptics, such as those who doubt evolution or the causes of global warming. However, I cannot discern the motivation behind those who doubt the moon landing or the authorship of Shakespeare. What do you gain from such skepticism? A feeling of smug superiority?

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis October 23, 2011 at 16:50

      The book I review asks that very question (in the context of Shakespeare of course), and gives some plausible explanations. One thing the author notes is that Shakespeare conspiracy theories have changed in time, altering with the social mood. In the Romantic era, it was in vogue to think that an author had to experience that which they wrote; since nobody can demonstrate that Shakespeare ever left England, someone else must have written his plays. And so forth.

      For both Shakespeare and Moon-landing denialism, I suspect a commonality in the conspiracy theory: by unearthing the conspiracy, you’re one of the elites. You’re Sherlock Holmes-meets-Da Vinci code, showing yourself to be much smarter than the deluded masses.

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