The Future of History

Monday, 28 March 2016

Confirmation Bias

It's a fair point.

A journalist has put it to me that "it was not in the interests of [the Channel 4/Arrow Media] documentary makers to debunk the Beoley skull.  It would have been a much better story for them if they had found a skull that could be Shakespeare's."

I wholeheartedly agree.  It would have been a much better programme if proper consideration had been given to the Beoley skull.

Here's why I think that didn't happen.

Stage 1: Cognitive Dissonance

We all have our own sets of prejudices and firmly held ideas about the world, based on what we've been taught and told, our cultural background, political and religious beliefs, and so on.  When someone comes along with evidence that challenges one or other of those firmly held ideas, some if not all of us can react pretty strongly, as if we were under physical attack.  The fight-or-flight instinct kicks in.  The person goes into a state of denial.  They cannot accept this new evidence because it clashes with what they already believe, and to engage with it might throw their entire world-view into crisis.

Example: when I met with the documentary director, she surprised me somewhat by saying, "You don't believe the skull is Shakespeare's."  I told her that I was uncomfortable with the concept of belief, in these circumstances, but that I was roundabout 98.9% convinced that it is.

Why did she assume that I didn't believe that the skull might be Shakespeare's?  Hadn't she been briefed on who I was, what I'd written and published, how I'd been involved in the process so far?

When I showed her some of the evidence, including the graphic illustrations in my Who Killed William Shakespeare? book highlighting the specific comparisons between the Beoley skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, she said "I can't see it."

Small wonder, then, that having told me they'd want to film me going down into the vault ("How do you think you'll feel, seeing the skull for the first time?") and giving a potted account of Langston's story, they later decided to dispense with my services and film somebody else going down into the vault and describing Langston's story ... someone who doesn't think that the skull is Shakespeare's.

Because as far as the director was concerned, the skull couldn't be Shakespeare's.  The idea was too radical.  It challenged her firmly-held set of beliefs about life, the universe and everything.

Stage 2: Confirmation Bias

Having decided that the Beoley skull couldn't be - mustn't be - Shakespeare's, the documentary was prepped along those very lines.

Let's say you've heard or read something which challenges your deeply-held convictions, triggering cognitive dissonance.  You want to fight back, to reassure yourself, to put your previous ideas back together and be comfortable with them again.  So you go hunting for evidence.

Not any old evidence, of course.  You look for the evidence that supports your point-of-view.  Any other evidence, especially anything that confirms the thing you didn't like hearing, has to be ignored, denied, mocked or destroyed.  What you want - what you need to overcome that uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance - is anything that agrees with what you want to believe.

Anything else has to go.

So, in comes the reassuring Shakespeare expert who told the church court hearing into the application to remove the skull for analysis that the Rev C.J. Langston's account of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found was nothing but "Gothic fiction".

Out goes the guy who provided you with evidence that the story was written by someone who knew what he was on about.

The original plan, to have an actor present the programme, is ditched.  An actor might ask awkward questions.  Instead, a historian is hired - one less likely to challenge the consensus - so as to give the show an air of irreproachable authority.

A facial reconstruction expert who had previously commented on the photos of the skull - and then denied ever having seen them - is approached with a laser scan of the Beoley skull.  Though she is briefly glimpsed superimposing the scan of the skull over the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare from the First Folio of 1623, this will not be discussed or commented upon in the show.

(Before the crypt was opened and the scan was made, and before Dr Caroline Wilkinson had seen it, the director tried to convince me that Beoley and the skull would not form a significant part of the programme, that they weren't expecting any results, and when - shock horror! - I mentioned Dr Wilkinson, that she wouldn't be doing any facial reconstruction or anything else with the skull, for that matter.  Would I mind signing a form and promising not to mention her name?)

The expert offers a tentative opinion based on insufficient evidence, and that is pounced on.  PROOF, ladies and gentlemen!  The proof we've all been waiting for!  Everything we previously believed was true!  The Beoley skull story was just a myth!

(Except that, having scanned Shakespeare's grave in Stratford, Kevin Colls, archaeologist, began to suspect that the first half of Langston's story might, in fact, be true.  He has vowed to keep looking for the missing skull.  And good luck to him.  He could spend the rest of his life doing that, now that the Beoley skull business has been kicked into the long grass.  So, nothing to worry our pretty little heads about there, then.)

I have very little doubt that, within a week or two of the director being appointed to oversee the making of the documentary, any hope that the skull would be properly examined had gone right out of the window.  From that point on, the programme was essentially biased in one particular direction.  The Beoley skull theory must be disproved, even if it means surrounding ourselves with people who don't believe it, discarding all the available evidence and any uncontrollable witnesses, asking one expert for their opinion, and then misrepresenting what that expert actually said.

Of course, it would have made a better programme if the skull had not been so summarily debunked, and on the basis of hardly any evidence whatsoever.

It would have made a much better programme.  And it would have paved the way for a more intensive and detailed examination of the skull.

But that wouldn't have helped get rid of that nasty sense of cognitive dissonance, would it?  So it didn't happen.


  1. I spent the entire day during the filming at Beoley in the Sheldon Crypt, to ensure that the Skull was not moved or touched by the film team, as per the Chancellor's instructions. I was also present during the entire scanning of the skull, which sat just inside the entrance to the ossuary leaning against the right hand wall as you looked in. While the team did their best to scan the skull, climbing into the ossuary at one point, it was impossible to fully scan the skull, particularly the left side leaning against the wall and the underside. It was difficult to scan the left eye socket and the left side of the forehead. I saw on the computer the scan that they took away with them and it was certainly far from complete, but the scanner said they could 'work with it and it was the best they were going to get.'

    I have acquired from Arrow Media a transcript of the section of the programme where the scan results are revealed and this is it:-
    Voice Over - 'For over a 100 years this skull has been rumoured to belong to William Shakespeare. Now it can be analysed by forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson. As an expert in craniofacial reconstruction Caroline works with the police to help identify murder victims. She can determine whether its age and sex make it a potential match for Shakespeare.''
    Wilkinson:- 'The skull gives a lot of information about the individual so we can tell male or female, age died, broad ancestry category and in detail it can give you features of their face and facial appearance. We've got a pretty good 3D shape. So the first thing is from a broad ancestry point of view this is consistent with a white European.'
    Castor:- 'Shakespeare, white European, so far so good.'
    Wilkinson:- 'Then the next thing we would do is an assessment of how old the person was when they died. What we tend to look at within anthropology are the teeth because wear of the teeth will be directly related to the age of the individual.'
    Voice Over:- 'Kevin also had photos taken by a crime scene photographer so that Caroline could examine the teeth in detail.'
    Wilkinson:- 'On this individual the bone has resorbed especially around the front where the incisors were and there's no indication that there sockets there.'
    Castor:- 'So these were teeth that were lost in life'.
    Wilkinson:-'Yes. From this skull I would expect them to be in their seventies because we don't have any indication of teeth in the upper jaw.'
    Voice Over:-'It's unlikely that Shakespeare had lost all his teeth by the age of 52 when he died.'
    Wilkinson:- 'The next thing to look at is the brow. And there's more that doesn't quite match. In male skulls you tend to see a bulge just where the eyebrows sit. And you can see on this skull we don't have a bulge of bone. We've got quite a smooth and upright forehead.'
    Voice Over:- 'The shape of the eye orbits also looks suspiciously female.'
    Castor:- 'The suggestion of age, the suggestion of femaleness, it's pretty clear on the balance of probability.'
    Wilkinson:- 'It is. I would be somewhat cautious.'
    Castor:- 'but the balance of probabilities.'
    Wilkinson:- 'I'd be going for no.'
    Voice Over:- 'Caroline's reconstructed the face of the mystery skull. Which apparently belongs to an unknown women in her seventies...'
    Castor: 'As far as we know, William Shakespeare wasn't female was he?'
    Colls:- 'No that would be a turn up for the books.'

  2. CORRECTION - The skull was leaning against the left hand wall as you looked into the ossuary.

  3. Thank you very much, Paul - that's very interesting. I did wonder whether they had managed to scan the entire skull, given the constraints of the space and the Chancellor's ruling that they were not to touch or disturb the skull in any way. The remarks you overheard the scanner saying are rather telling. Also, as I recall, it was the left side of the forehead as you look at it(i.e. the skull's right side) that was pointed to by Dr Wilkinson when she made her pronouncement about the probable/possible gender of the skull. Given what you've told us, it sounds as if that was the side of the skull that was most difficult to scan.

    The plot thickens ... ! Please do keep in touch.