Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Voynich Manuscript redux

This past May, I did a post on the history of the mysterious and beautiful Voynich Manuscript, which you can read here.  My conclusion was that based on the fact that the world's best cryptographers (and cryptographic software) had failed to crack the code, and the presence of various rather un-language-like features in the character strings contained in the manuscript, the whole thing was likely to be a hoax.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a headline yesterday, "Mysterious Manuscript's Code Has Been Cracked."

Whatever else you can say about me, I'm never one to shirk my responsibility in admitting when I'm wrong, so I eagerly clicked the link.  The article starts out describing Finnish businessman Veikko Latvala's success at cracking the cipher.  "The book is a life work and scientific publication of medicine that would be still useful today," Latvala's associate, Ari Ketola, told FoxNews reporters.  "The writer was a scientist of plants, pharmacy, astrology and astronomy.  It contains ... prophecy for some decades and hundreds of years ahead from the time it was created."

He then goes on to give a sample of the fruits of his labor:
The name of the flower is Heart of Fire.
It makes the skin beautiful when made as an ointment.
The oil is pressed from the buds.
This ointment is used for the wrinkles.
Is suitable for the kidneys and the head,
as the flower prevents inflammations, is antibiotic.
Plant is ten centimeters by its height.
It grows on hot and dry slants.
The plant is bright green by its color.

My first thought was "That's it?  It's a medieval Golden Guide to Medicinal Plants?"  Then I thought, well, okay, the medievals were pretty concerned with the mystical properties of plants, and after all, the Voynich Manuscript is loaded with drawings of flowers.  So I kept reading, wondering, "How did Latvala do it, when it stumped some of the best cryptographers in the world?"

And that's when I got to the punchline: Latvala didn't actually use any kind of cryptographic method to decipher the code; he had the correct translation piped in directly from god.

"Mr. Latvala said that no one 'normal human' can decode it, because there is no code or method to read this text, it's a channel language of prophecy," Ketola told FoxNews reporters.  "This type of persons are most rare to exist, yet they have always been on face of the Earth through millenniums up to today ... and Mr. Veikko Latvala has had this gift of mercy last twenty years."

So, after a little digging, I found that Mr. Latvala calls himself "a prophet authorized by god," and for a while had a Twitter account where he'd post his prophecies.  (I tried to follow his Tweets, but sadly, the account appears to have been taken down -- maybe god told him that social media were evil, or something.)

And I'm thinking: this is news?  Some wingnut in Finland announces that he's channeled a translation of the Voynich Manuscript, and does a press conference to release this bombshell -- and people don't guffaw directly into his face?  No, it becomes a headline in one of the world's major news outlets.  What, weren't there any pressing stories about Lady Gaga and the Kardashians to report on?

The reluctance that reporters have to calling irrational nonsense "irrational nonsense" is partly to blame for why so few members of the general public seem to have the ability to recognize it.  The coverage that self-styled psychics get is a good case in point.  The healthy dose of skepticism that I was taught to bring toward everything I see, hear, or read never seems to come into play; when a famous psychic comes to town, it becomes front-page news, instead of editors saying, "Why should I give free publicity to someone who is almost certainly a fraud?"

I'm not foolish enough that I don't realize what the motive is, of course.  Irrational nonsense, whatever else you can say about it, is damned lucrative.  People eat up stuff like the story of Veikko Latvala outwitting trained cryptographers because he has an open chat line with god.  But the dulling of the public's intellectual facilities -- the subtext that if it made it into the news, it must be true, to hell with critical thinking -- is a mighty big price to pay.


  1. Your conclusions about the consequences of this growing gullibility are a thrill to read in their clarity and almost prophetic accuracy.
    and I check for progress on the Voynich almost every morning after coffee, have for years.
    (My latest spoof palindrome headline on my site had two intentional misspellings, and I wrote "Where's the copy editor, out sleeping in A TOYOTA?"
    The point is that there appears to be NO research adviser at these major press organizations. And then the writers, unchained, spew what they will, between sit-ups under Toyotas, as you love to say.

  2. A fair bit of serious research has been done on what has been proven to be, at least, a genuine 15thC production. If it were a typiit included a normal European herbal, we should probably be able to identify the plants (with or without written text). But the cost in materials and labour, plus the lack of type-matches in other medieval works, does suggest it is not a hoax, but a unique example of its style.. and therefore probably of its script. Whether or not itis encoded, I couldn't say. Most of the cryptographers apparently think so. It seems to me that people tend to excuse what they cannot understand by blaming the book, calling it an alien gift, or a hoax, or a 'mystery'. But I rather think it's simply derived from a foreign original.