Wanting to believe

Sometimes, the extent to which people see what they wish to see seems truly remarkable. However, we shouldn’t be surprised that this very human affliction affects even those with a training or long practice in observation and logic. An article in the Observer this Sunday discussed one of the more famous cases of a forgery convincing those who wanted to be convinced. This was the 1912 archaeological hoax known as Piltdown Man, which seems to have been accepted as genuine by a number of experts largely because they really wanted to be able to put both British archaeology and early British inhabitants on the map. A remarkable, unique find that suggested that early British man had a larger brain than the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals currently being found to international acclaim on the Continent was, perhaps, too good a story to resist.

Piltdown Man was accepted as a genuine specimen for 40 years, despite the fact that when the finds were first published one individual suggested that it looked rather like a modern human skull with a chimpanzee jawbone. When it was reviewed again in the 1950s it looked like a pretty cheap and obvious forgery. It seems that a lack of relevant expertise in Britain at the time, perhaps together with an unarticulated desire not to ask too many questions and, possibly, even some conspiracy amongst museum curators led to this collective turning of blind eyes. The Natural History Museum and Southampton University will now carrying out research to find out more about the creation of the hoax, just in time for its centenary.

File:Michel Chasles.jpg

At least the hoaxed were in it together on this occasion. Some time back I wrote about a history of science forgery that fooled only one individual: an eminent man who perhaps should have known better but who wanted to believe, then wanted to believe that he had not been taken advantage of, then finally had to reveal that he had spent large sums of money and staked his reputation on an elaborate, but surely unconvincing series of forged documents. This was Michel Chasles, professor of geometry at the Sorbonne and early expert in the history of mathematics (and, judging by this picture, alarming-looking individual), who collected old mathematical texts and manuscripts but, with one rogue dealer, got out of his depth.

Chasles brought the first of his astonishing finds to the Académie française, and they were published in the institution’s journal, Comptes rendus. They were a number of notes and letters addressed to Robert Boyle and signed ‘Pascal’. They immediately provoked intense criticism but were, for two years, staunchly defended by Chasles, who produced more and more letters to back up an unlikely story. An increasingly complex alternative reality in the history of science was being developed, in which Pascal had discovered gravity, having previously been in communication with Galileo, who had only feigned blindness to get better treatment from the Inquisition. It was a French nationalist illusion then ended up including letters purportedly from a bewildering variety of individuals. At home, it turned out, Chasles had letters from not only the whole history of science, but also French royalty, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc.

It can all be read about in Henri Leonard Bordier and Emile Mabille, Une Fabrique de Faux Autographes, Paris, 1870 (published in English as The Prince of Forgers), who explained that Chasles was “naturally imbued with the desire to prove a thesis, [and] saw only that which agreed with his argument”. The forger, Vrain-Denis Lucas, who was sentenced to two years in prison with the words “You have abused in the most brazen manner the passion of an old man, of a scholar, his passion as a collector and his love for his country, in order to deceive him shamefully”. Lucas should have top marks for effort, a B+ for locating sources, and a C- for palaeography: this image compares a Lucas ‘Pascal’ document with a genuine manuscript.

The episode is particularly fascinating when we look at how scholars tried to prove Chasles wrong. Like palaeontology in the early 20th century, in the 19th century the serious study of historical documents, especially scientific manuscripts, was still in relative infancy. The scientific minds of the Académie tried ink testing, but the results actually turned out to back Chasles. Others considered handwriting, but this was tricky in a period when access to original material for comparison was difficult, and there were few photographs or facsimiles. This, therefore, left the content, but this required a sophisticated knowledge of the genuine source material. It was a challenge to the relatively few individuals who, at this period, might be considered historians of science.

A pretty unambiguous approach was taken by the Glasgow professor of astronomy, and author of History of the Physical Sciences, Robert Grant, who showed that the dataset in the spurious letter post-dated the real Pascal. David Brewster, biographer of Newton, focused on rescuing his hero’s reputation, working from his detailed knowledge of the archive. Thomas Archer Hirst spotted passages copied directly from later publications. Augustus De Morgan, as was his wont, had fun spotting a range of entertaining and obscure historical errors. These, together with the challenges put forward in Paris from Prosper Faugère and Urbain Le Verrier, and the facsimiles created by Bordier and Mabille, were conclusive, and lessons were learned in the scholarly and bibliographic world – we hope.

The story is not quite complete, though: a final, interesting twist has just come to my notice. Back in 2004, Ken Alder published “History’s Greatest Forger: Science, Fiction, and Fraud along the Seine” in the journal Critical Inquiry. In this he writes: “Last year, while on academic leave in France, I discovered a letter in a Paris archive…”. This was a letter from the forger Lucas, explaining his motivation, translated by Alder. Today, I noticed that the Wikipedia articles for Lucas and Chasles both refer to this “recently uncovered” letter.

At the time that this article appeared, Alder had begun researching his book The Lie Detectors (2007). Read the Lucas letter, and have a think for yourself, noting that it ends with a quotation from Oscar Wilde:

After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once.


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