Finding the right references, part 1

By Gordon Rugg

The best questions are often short.

In a comment on a recent article here, Mosaic of Minds asked which authors I’d recommend for further reading about Likert scales. It’s a fair, sensible question, which lifts the lid on a whole boxful of issues about academic references. Many of those issues are important, but not as widely known as they should be.

This article is the first in an informal series about academic references, online search, and the ways that evidence is used in research. In this article, I’ll be looking at two concepts that provide some useful structure for understanding this general area, namely craft skills versus formalised knowledge, and back versions versus front versions. I’ll start with an overview of these concepts, and then look at the insights they give into different sources of information, including academic references.

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The Torsten Timm Voynich article

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a new article about the Voynich Manuscript. It’s by Torsten Timm, and it’s on arXiv:

It’s 70 pages long; the abstract claims that: “As main result, the text generation method used will be disclosed”.

That’s a big claim.

In brief, the mechanism proposed in this article looks fairly sensible at first sight – it basically consists of a way of generating new words from a particular word, using a set of rules about what can be substituted for what. It’s low tech and simple, and it can produce something that looks like Voynichese.

However, as usual, the devil is in the detail, and I’m not convinced that this method provides a good explanation for the odd statistical details of the Voynich Manuscript. For instance, it doesn’t provide a compelling argument for why words in the first half of a line tend to be different in length from words in the second half of a line. I was also unconvinced by the explanation on page 18 for the “dialects” and the handwriting differences in the Voynich Manuscript: ‘The difference between both “languages” may only be that the scribe changed his preferences while writing the manuscript.’

This article also sits awkwardly on the fence with regard to whether the Voynich Manuscript contains only meaningless gibberish, or whether it contains meaningful material. That’s a significant issue with regard to how the text of the manuscript was actually generated, and this doesn’t fit comfortably with the claim that the article shows how the text was generated.

There’s no mention of significant previous work by previous researchers relating to the idea that the Manuscript might contain coded material concealed among gibberish padding text. In addition to my own discussion of this idea (and the problems with it) in Cryptologia, this has also been discussed and investigated in some depth by other Voynich Manuscript researchers who aren’t mentioned in Timms’ article.

So, in summary, it’s an interesting idea, and there are some sensible, interesting suggestions, but there are some major gaps in its references to previous work, and I don’t think it provides a compelling explanation for the statistical oddities that are a key feature of the Voynich Manuscript.


Hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript, part 7: Producing the text

By Gordon Rugg

The six previous articles in this series looked at the component parts of a hoax. This article shows how those components can be put together, to produce  the text for a large document consisting of meaningless gibberish. This process is much the same regardless of which script you use for that gibberish, and regardless of which illustrations you use. The script and illustration issues are discussed in article 8, which I’ve already published

There are a few key points about this hoaxing process that are absolutely central to understanding why it gives new insights into Voynich Manuscript research. These points are:

  • This process  isn’t random.
  • This process isn’t deterministic – there isn’t an algorithm that would let a future researcher reproduce the text within a given page using the same table and grille.
  • This process produces numerous complex statistical regularities in the output text as completely unintended side-effects of a very simple production process.

This method is fast and easy to use. You can generate meaningless gibberish text as fast as you can write it down. I’ve produced quasi-copies of various pages from the Voynich Manuscript, where I’ve copied the original illustration, and generated the appropriate amount of meaningless gibberish text to match the amount of text in the original page. It consistently took about an hour and a half per page. More time spent on text within a page was balanced by less time spent on illustration and vice-versa, so each page took about the same time regardless of whether it was mainly text, mainly picture or a mixture.

At that rate, one person working alone could produce a document as long as the Voynich Manuscript (about 240 pages) in under ten weeks.

Here’s how the method works.

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Hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript, part 8: The illustrations and script

By Gordon Rugg

In this series of articles, we’re imagining that you’ve gone back in time, and that you want to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax to make money. We’re looking at the problems and decisions you’d face, and at the implications of various possible solutions.

This article is about how issues involved in producing illustrations and a script for the hoax.

When you produce images and a script with the intention of hoaxing, you have three human weaknesses working strongly in your favour. Two of them are fairly well known, but the third isn’t, and it shows up over and again in research carried out by people who think that the Voynich Manuscript is actually a simple problem. Those things are:

  • Pareidolia
  • Confirmation bias
  • The birthday problem

All of these problems are on show in a recent paper by Tucker & Talbert that featured in New Scientist and elsewhere this month. I’ll discuss it in brief within this article.

voynich collage

(Images courtesy of the Beinecke Library)

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The Voynich Manuscript and the Unexplained Files

By Gordon Rugg

I’ve just watched the feature about the Voynich Manuscript on “The Unexplained Files”.


If you’ve just encountered the Voynich Manuscript for the first time via that feature, here’s a quick overview of how most Voynich researchers actuallly view the evidence.

Between 1912 and around 2004 the general consensus was that the text of the manuscript was too bizarre to be a language, and too complex to be a hoax, leaving a code as the only remaining plausible explanation. However, ninety years of work by the world’s best cryptographers found no sign of a code.

I showed that in fact it was possible to produce a meaningless hoax as complex as the text in the manuscript, and showing many of the same statistical properties as accidental side-effects, using very simple technology – basically a card with three holes cut in it, and a big table of gibberish syllables. This made a hoax a simple, feasible explanation; there was no need to look for a super-code so sophisticated that the world’s greatest codebreakers had failed to find it, let alone crack it. Many Voynich researchers still think that there’s a code in there somewhere, and are continuing to look for it. I think that a code is by no means impossible, but not very likely; I think that a hoax is a simpler and more probable explanation.

The documentary mentioned the carbon dates, but those are not terribly helpful; it’s perfectly feasible that a hoaxer would use already-old vellum to make a hoax look more plausible, and old vellum was available in antiquity. (It’s also logically possible that the manuscript contains older text re-copied onto vellum made around 1420, but I don’t think anyone seriously believes that.)

The story has also been complicated by a recent paper by Montemurro & Zanette, which contains numerous unfortunate and serious errors and misunderstandings, which I’ve discussed at length in other articles on this site. I’ve included links to reviews by professionals in other relevant fields, who have been scathing.

So, the documentary didn’t exactly give a clear insight into current research, but its suggestion of an alien code was … interesting…. and it featured some nice photography.



Hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript, part 6: Planning the word structure

By Gordon Rugg

In this series of articles, we’re imagining that you’ve gone back in time, and that you want to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax to make money. We’re looking at the problems and decisions you’d face, and at the implications of various possible solutions.

The first article looked at why a mysterious manuscript would be a good choice of item to hoax. The second article looked at some of the problems involved in hoaxing a text that looked like an unknown language, from the linguistic viewpoint. The third examined the same subject in more depth, and the fourth discussed the choice of materials, going into some detail about the choice between using freshly-made or already-old vellum. The fifth was about the layout, structure and contents of the book.

This article is about how to create a plausible-looking structure for the individual words in the text that you’re going to produce. We’ll look at the choice of script, and how to combine the words, in later articles.

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