Is it at all possible that conformation bias can be at work in the authorship question?
One of the great paradoxes in fringe theory acceptance is that conformation bias always affects only the 99.9999% of scholars, academics, scientists, educational professionals, handwriting analysts etc, who disagree with the fringe theory in question. Like the mother watching her son on parade, contrarians claim that little Johnnie is in step, it's everyone else who's marching to the wrong drum. In their mind's eye, everyone else is out of step because they are all suffering from confirmation bias which, like the Catholic sacrament, confirms the faithful their mistaken beliefs. Only sceptics are immune to confirmation bias, they say. Ros says.
Barber won't state this openly. Instead she carefully implies it, with illustrations from UL's psychology department. What if she is wrong? What if confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance only affect the contrarians?
This MOOC drowns participants in bias of every kind as it attempts to colour the historical record, displacing the facts of Shakespeare's authorship, unmooring centuries of scholarship as it attempts to place evidence into two categories.
- Mistaken precepts reinforced by confirmation bias
- Misleading hard evidence which appears to say one thing but actually means another.
Both are logical fallacies in themselves. Evidence is what it is. Suggestive argument, daring inference and outright guesswork are what they are. As participants go through the modules, (if they are determined) they can check which category the evidence for doubt falls into. If they want to go as far as analysing the contrarian logic in whatever argument being made, there should be an appropriate category on the Cognitive Bias Codex which proves a good fit for whatever is being argued by Barber and her accomplices. What we have here, from Goldsmiths, wearing the academic rosettes of The University of London, is a Shakespeare MOOC constructed entirely out of Cognitive Malfunction.
In the 1990s, a group of mathematicians made a small fortune (they were caught early) by betting on the odds of a Hole in One in major golf tournaments. Unwary bookmakers would offer 500:1 or even 1000:1 when the actual odds were close to evens. A hole in one seemed much more unlikely than it actually was from thousands of tees shots played by hundreds of the best golfers in the world.
The authorship question is, on the whole—as you can see from certain responses on the discussion forum—derided by mainstream opinion. It is not generally accepted as a valid question in academia. Academic journals and conferences explicitly bar papers and articles intended to address it.
This is a question Stratfordians seem to prefer avoiding. They are more comfortable taking the folio at face value and getting into silly arguments about what kind of evidence it should be classified as. This is to engage in conceptual idolatry based on intrinsically ambiguous terminology.
...Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia expresses his opinion on many writers of the time, through comparisons to ancient writers...Dr. Stritmatter imagines that his complex analysis of Meres's work is evidence related to the SAQ. But his work is exhibit A for confirmation bias and pareidolia.
Fans of the Authorship question try the same trick. Over and over and over. Only without the solid mathematical support. Each time a new tidbit appears—Weever's epigram, Sogliardo's identity, New Place malt stocks, Hampton Court as Avon, the Droueshout sleeves, suggestive numerology, the apparent solution of abstruse codes— articles are written about the “discovery” and websites are filled with comment, support and argument.
Yet amongst all the encyclopaedias of hopeful assertion, there is still no hard evidence supporting any alternative candidate.
If there were, it would certainly have appeared in a four week attempt to legitimise doubt over Shakespeare's authorship—but check back. There is none.
What we have instead is a long series of suggestive ideas that are polished to look as plausible as their proponents can make them. Yet each is individually insignificant. Many collapse immediately when subjected to detailed scrutiny, such as the malt-broking arguments which fail in both significance and relevance. Like many contentions, they are simple ad hominem manipulations designed to make Shakespeare look like a different individual to the playwright. That's the purpose of the whole course, to create separate existences for the Bankside poet and the Bankside theatre professional. Yet outside inference, supposition and guesswork, there is no support for any such idea.
After four weeks Dr Barber is leading her learners through an examination of the stitching on a four hundred year-old engraving in the hope that it contains a hidden message. Yet she fails to address the crucial question of why The British Library has recently fully authenticated Hand D as Shakespeare's completing a chain of evidence which kills off the whole debate. To her credit, she is the first doubter to give any serious consideration to the implications of Hand D, yet her assessment of the case falls woefully short when it comes to addressing the scholarship that now supports that attribution.
Almost all of the course modules should be assessed not as authorship scholarship but as tests of anti-Shakespearean techniques in the overstatement of probabilities based porous or false assumptions. There is no point in assessing the strength of the case for Shakespeare based on these materials. Dr Barber did not invite anyone to make Shakespeare's own claim to his work and she could not have delivered a more feeble effort to make it herself. Items of evidence for Shakespeare are either challenged by the presentation of suggestive minutiae (rather than examined in their context) or waved away as part of conspiracy to confuse and conceal the truth from everyone not possessed of the true eye for suggestive detail. Improbably, this includes almost everyone who studies and writes about Shakespeare (or ever has). Confirmation bias at work is the implication.
Biased search for information (Wikipedia)
Experiments have found repeatedly that people tend to test hypotheses in a one-sided way, by searching for evidence consistent with their current hypothesis. Rather than searching through all the relevant evidence, they phrase questions to receive an affirmative answer that supports their theory. They look for the consequences that they would expect if their hypothesis were true, rather than what would happen if they were false. For example, someone using yes/no questions to find a number he or she suspects to be the number 3 might ask, "Is it an odd number?" People prefer this type of question, called a "positive test", even when a negative test such as "Is it an even number?" would yield exactly the same information. However, this does not mean that people seek tests that guarantee a positive answer. In studies where subjects could select either such pseudo-tests or genuinely diagnostic ones, they favoured the genuinely diagnostic.
So as you look at the claims on Barber's MOOC, and the materials she offers in support, try to favour the genuinely diagnostic approach. Ask not "if this or that reference suits Dekker or Marston better than Shakespeare", ask instead "would it make the slightest difference to the case for Stratford Will if Barber, or Waugh, or Leahy (or Stritmatter, Anderson, Ogburn) were accurate in this claim?" Then, before giving their claims serious consideration, check out the weight—the real weight—of the evidence they are trying to overturn. If you start with Hand D, or the Folio editions (the second and third have more evidence), or the trail we have followed from the monument, all of which lead directly to William Shakespeare (and nowhere else), you won't need to trouble yourself with the self-evidently nonsensical claim that Swan of Avon is a reference to Hampton Court. Though pounded to dust by scholars, in this very MOOC this ludicrous claim is made by Waugh then artfully reinforced by Barber. They're not exposing doubt. They are trying to create doubt where it does not exist, out of nothing, then justify it with sophistry.
They are playing games. They are selling snake oil. And the pair of them, to their discredit, know exactly what they are up to.