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.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

History Repeats Itself

At the start of Who Killed William Shakespeare? (the contract for which I signed four years ago today) I tried to explain how, in the second half of the 18th century, a metropolitan elite - or what we might now call "The Establishment" - seized control of Shakespeare's memory, rudely dismissing what the locals knew and creating their own version of events.

Significantly, they achieved this partly by losing as much evidence as possible and ignoring or misrepresenting the rest.

Well, old habits die hard, and the net result of last night's Channel 4 documentary seems to have been as damaging, hopeless and borderline-farcical as David Garrick's infamous Shakespeare "Jubilee" of 1769.  Back then, hordes of educated sophisticates descended on Stratford-upon-Avon, much to the alarm and consternation of the natives, who were abused and mocked by the visitors.  Then Garrick went home and produced his own show, which made out that only he and his supporters really knew or cared about Shakespeare, and the locals up in Warwickshire were rustic clowns with no idea about Stratford's most famous son.

Shakespeare's Tomb spent an awful lot of its time showing us pretty pictures of Stratford.  For some reason, a man who had conspired to try to prevent the documentary team from investigating the Beoley skull was given a prominent part in the programme as the authority on all things Shakespearean.

The programme stuck to the party line about the story published by the Rev C.J. Langston in 1879 and 1884 concerning the theft of Shakespeare's skull and its discovery at Beoley.  Even though the programme makers had been given abundant evidence that the Vicar of Beoley had identified himself as the author of the story, and that a surprising number of details in the story are verifiable, that was all ignored.

The skull at Beoley was scanned and then Dr Helen Castor and Kevin Colls sat with Dr Caroline Wilkinson, who showed them the scan on her screen.  The conversation went something like this:

Wilkinson: "This little bit here suggests that it might be dark greyish."

Castor: "So you're saying it's black?"

Wilkinson: "Well, we have to be cautious ..."

Castor: "No - you're saying it's black!"

Cue press release: "Skull is black."

I've altered the wording slightly.  But when an osteoarchaeologist/biological anthropologist tweets: "I'm intrigued #ShakespearesTomb - how did you come to the conclusion it was a 70yr old woman?! Magic new ageing techniques?!" you do have to ask how conclusive the results really were.

And the answer appears to be, not conclusive at all.  But right there, on screen, the expert was cornered and forced to make a definitive statement which, as she had tried to point out, couldn't really be made.  This instantly became a Truth Universally Acknowledged.

Of course, if the programme-makers had bothered to explore the existing research into the similarities between the skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, as well as Rev C.J. Langston and his skull story, we'd have got something more nuanced.  But they didn't want that.  They didn't even want any suggestions from the one and only witness called.  They wanted an Unequivocal Statement indicating that the skull is of no interest whatsoever, so we can all move on.

In the meantime, the folks at Beoley seem to be up in arms over the way they've been treated (see comment under previous blog post).  A geologist informs me that anyone who started a university paper claiming that Shakespeare's skull was stolen from the grave, based on the evidence shown in the programme, would be in very big trouble.  And now I hear from somebody else who helped out with the documentary, but who went unpaid and uncredited.

So what happened - apart from two years wasted (in my case)?

The best I can suggest is that, for a good long while, as the documentary project was being developed, it was all in the hands of an intelligent and amicable person who worked hard to bring all the relevant parties together and to lay the foundations for a genuinely interesting, and potentially startling, investigative programme.

Then a director was hired, along with a couple of producers.  The development producer stepped aside.  From that point on, things quickly began to unravel.

It was as if the "metropolitan elite" had come to town, determined to put the locals back in their place.  Yes, use them for as long as they're useful.  Then dump them.  They're not important.  Their local knowledge and their research are irrelevant.  They might as well be on zero-hours contracts.  We don't need to worry about them.

But the POSH people, the ones who've been on TV before, THEY'RE important.  Better still, they can (by and large) be trusted not to stray from the script.

Remember, we're not here to rock any boats, folks.  Langston's story is anonymous - got it?  The skull at Beoley?  Pah!  Who cares?  Skull, no skull, what's the difference?  Let's have some nice shots of Stratford, talk to some nice people, then back to London as quick as we can.

And if an expert isn't being quite as emphatic as we'd like in denying a very promising lead, we can force her - Inquisition-like - to say what we want her to say, and we can do it on camera, just in case anybody else feels like being properly scientific about all this.  No one will notice.  The press release will already have told everybody what we want them to think.  Now, where's my BAFTA?

It's shocking to realise how much hard work and good will was completely and utterly trashed in such a short space of time, by people who were new to the project, and what an unashamedly wasted opportunity the programme turned out to be.  Our knowledge of Shakespeare and the fate of his skull wasn't advanced one iota.  If anything, we've gone backwards.  And the programme-makers are surely patting themselves on the back for stirring up much ado about nothing and making a very pretty looking documentary that avoided upsetting their sophisticated metropolitan friends.

Meanwhile, the rest of us continue the ongoing work of trying to find out and publicise what really happened to Shakespeare and his skull.

By the way - that subsidence in the chancel at Holy Trinity Church, under Shakespeare's gravestone?  That's Will Shakespeare turning in his grave.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

I've Seen That Face Before

It is with great anticipation that we await the screening of the Channel 4 documentary Shakespeare's Tomb on Saturday evening.  Apparently, said documentary has determined that the Beoley skull is that of an "unknown woman in her seventies" and not William Shakespeare after all.

Obviously, it would be wrong of me to prejudge the documentary without having seen it.  And, for now, we can pass over the multiple similarities between the Beoley skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, which I have published and blogged about ad nauseam.

Instead, allow me to outline one area of concern I have regarding the identification of the skull.

Back in 2012, I was working on the manuscript for my book Who Killed William Shakespeare? in which there was a fair amount of discussion and analysis concerning Shakespeare portraiture, the Beoley skull and the supposed death mask of Shakespeare in Darmstadt.  As well as spending a lot of time studying these images, I also went through the prolonged and costly process of acquiring permissions to reproduce some of those images in my book.

One image I had seen which intrigued me was a computer reconstruction of the face of the subject of the Darmstadt death mask.  This reconstruction had been carried out by Dr Caroline Wilkinson of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee.  Dr Wilkinson is the media's go-to person for facial reconstruction from human remains.

I wrote to Dr Wilkinson on 20 August 2012, explaining that I was working on my book about Shakespeare and enquiring about the copyright status of the image she had previously created for a History Channel documentary - the reconstruction of the face from the death mask.  In my letter I mentioned the photographs of the Beoley skull, which I had been studying, and offered to forward them to her.  I also explained that I aimed to follow up the publication of my book with a documentary analysing the skull, the death mask and the portraiture, and rather hoped to be able to call upon her services for any such documentary.

I received no reply.

Who Killed William Shakespeare? was published about a year later.  I had succeeded in negotiating the rights to the death mask reconstruction image through an agency - which made it the most expensive image in my book, by far.  Very quickly, Lion Television, a documentary production company, expressed interest in following up the results of my research into the skull.  However, they would need a little more hard evidence before approaching a broadcaster (the rule of thumb being that documentaries don't tend to film these things until they're pretty sure of what they're going to find).

The producer at Lion TV contacted Dr Wilkinson to ask if it were possible for a 3-D reconstruction of the Beoley skull to be made using 2-D photographic images, and if that could then be compared with the 3-D laser scan image she already had of the Darmstadt death mask.  Dr Wilkinson confirmed that this was theoretically possible, and so she was invited to go ahead with the comparisons and Richard Peach's high-quality photos of the Beoley skull were sent up to Dundee.

We had a bit of a wait after that.  The initial findings were positive - Caroline Wilkinson concluded that there were "superficial similarities" between the skull and the death mask.  However, when she and/or her research students measured the orbits of the eye sockets of the death mask and the skull, they determined that there was no obvious match.

A bit of a blow, that, because it meant that the project with Lion TV ground to a halt.  However, I soon made contact, through a research student in biological anthropology, with a research fellow who showed immediate interest in the skull and the comparisons with the Shakespeare portraiture.

At the same time, I discovered that documentary makers from Arrow Media had very recently visited Beoley church in connection with a documentary on Shakespeare that they were developing.  This is the documentary which is due out this Saturday.

I worked fairly closely with Arrow Media over a period of about a year and a half, although bizarrely I was not invited to present evidence at the church court held to determine whether or not the Beoley skull should be "exhumed" for laboratory analysis - although I had been called in to help them prepare for the hearing.  The programme makers subsequently told me that Dr Caroline Wilkinson would be brought in to carry out a facial reconstruction of the skull based on a laser scan which would be made in the vault at Beoley.

When the development producer for the programme explained that they would want to bring in experts who had no previous connection with the material, and no way of knowing that we were investigating the possibility that the skull was Shakespeare's, to examine the relevant evidence, I felt it necessary to point out that Dr Wilkinson had already seen the photos of the skull in 2013-14, and would recognise them as part of a Shakespeare-related investigation.  The producer thanked me for letting them know and suggested that they might look instead for an expert in the United States who would be in no way prejudiced about the case.

A short while later, the producer assured me that Caroline Wilkinson had not seen the photos.  She had denied all knowledge of them.

Which struck me as odd.  It meant that, either her earlier statement regarding the skull/death mask mismatch was questionable, because she hadn't actually seen the photos of the skull ... or that she was not being entirely frank with the Arrow Media documentary team.

There's a coda to all this: when I finally discovered that I was no longer to play a part in the Shakespeare's Tomb documentary, the recently-appointed director tried to assure me that Beoley and the skull would not be playing a large part in the documentary, that they weren't spending much time on it, and they didn't expect to be able to reveal any results about it.  I raised the question of what Dr Caroline Wilkinson would be doing then, given that it's a long way to travel, all the way to Dundee (correction: Dr Wilkinson is now at Liverpool John Moores University), just to feature a facial reconstruction expert not doing any facial reconstruction.

The line went rather quiet, and then a bit of stammering happened.  Caroline Wilkinson, I was told, wasn't really going to be doing very much at all in the documentary.  Certainly nothing in the nature of a facial reconstruction.

And then the director rang back.  If I wanted to pop over to Beoley, go down into the vault and see the skull (for the first time) during a break in the filming, I would have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.  Was I prepared to do that?  And if I did, of course, I would not be allowed to mention Caroline Wilkinson to anybody (those were the director's words).

In the end, I did not sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.  I felt that I had been elbowed out of my own story, after I had spent many hours helping the documentary along, and was now being bribed into silence with the offer of a chance to see the skull - the skull which I had spent more than four years studying.

I raise these matters here because I believe they are germane to the issue of the skull and the (provisional?) identification of the skull as that of an "unknown woman in her seventies".  Presumably, that is based on the opinion of an expert who had already seen and passed judgement on the photos of the skull, and whom I was asked not to talk about.

No other evidence was considered - including the rather extensive body of evidence which I have marshalled over the past four years, and which I have published and talked about in illustrated lectures.

Is it just me, or does something seem not-quite-right about all this?

(PS: viewers of the programme would have seen Dr Wilkinson offer opinions about possible age and gender of skull, only to have those magically transformed ON SCREEN into incontrovertible statements of fact by a historian.  That's not how science works - or history, for that matter.  Worse, a genuine investigation with abundant research already on its side has now been set back by an irresponsible and woefully inaccurate documentary, though hopefully not irremediably.  Ed.)

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Shakespeare's Tomb

Well, the wait is nearly over.  Channel 4 TV started showing a trailer, this evening, for the forthcoming documentary, Shakespeare's Tomb.  You can view the trailer here.

So a tense few days lie ahead.  What do we know?  Well, judging by the trailer, the team from Arrow Media and the University of Staffordshire spent quite a bit of time in the vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley, and then working with Caroline Wilkinson (University of Dundee) on some sort of analysis of the laser scan that was made of the skull when the team were in the vault.

(Incidentally, the documentary producer tried to convince me that they really weren't devoting much time or attention to the Beoley skull, and I was asked to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement to stop me mentioning that Caroline Wilkinson was involved in the programme.)

Elsewhere, the Telegraph recently revealed that Shakespeare's grave is to be subjected to a high-tech laser scan - apparently, a follow-up to the scan performed last year, the results of which will be revealed in the Channel 4 documentary (one instantly wonders what the "initial" scan failed to reveal).  So something's afoot.

Anyway, the Shakespeare's Tomb documentary will be aired in the UK this Saturday - 26 March 2016 - at 8.00pm.  Regular readers of this blog will recognise the skull in the vault at Beoley, and will probably have some idea of the background to the documentary.  More background to the story is currently being researched - and some interesting things have already been found. 

But for those who don't know much about the background, and why the only researcher ever to have studied the skull and published his findings was excluded from the Channel 4 documentary, allow me to include this link to an interview I did with Julia Robb in Texas, which lifts the lid on some rather shifty behaviour.

Watch this space ...

(PS: just in case link to the trailer does not work, here's another one.)

Monday, 14 March 2016

Historical Honey is Back!

Those wonderful honeys have relaunched their Historical Honey website. 

First up, a piece by yours truly, flagging up a rather interesting development concerning a certain disarticulated human skull, an archaeologist from the University of Staffordshire, and a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary.

Read all about it here.