When Absence of Evidence Thunders in the Margins

Posted By on January 21, 2014

Peter Sturrock's New Authorship Book Rocks.

I am rereading Peter Sturrock’s recent authorship book AKA Shakespeare, which seeks to involve readers in evaluating evidence through the use of Bayesian statistical methods.

The book comes with its own interactive website to help readers draw their own conclusions using Bayesian methods.

Sturrock is an Oxfordian, but more than that he is a Professor Emeritus of Applied Physics and Astrophysics at Stanford, with more than a passing knowledge of the use of statistics to solve various applied problems.

Sturrock’s book has sometimes been criticized on the grounds that he asks readers to apply numbers to essentially non-quantitative data, and also that he’s not a professional novelist, so the characters come across as uni-dimensional and uniformly too “Carmel.”

I think these objections are valid (few writers have Lynne Kositsky’s flair for utterly authentic dialogue). Nevertheless, I’m finding the book an even better read this time around than the first, for several reasons, not the least of which is that even Sturrock’s  somewhat stilted characters still make for a much more entertaining read than your average statistics textbook.

Another, more important reason, is this: regardless of whether the methodology Sturrock invites his readers to apply is ultimately sound from a scientific point of view (applied literally that is),  the Bayesian procedures he walks the reader through are at the very least a powerful heuristic for assessing the cumulative weight of the circumstantial evidence for Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespearean canon. As J.T. Looney wrote nearly a hundred years ago:

[Circumstantial evidence is taken] mistakenly by some to be evidence of an inferior order, but in practice the most reliable proof we have. […] The predominating element in what we call circumstantial evidence is that of coincidences. A few coincidences we may treat as simply interesting; a number of coincidences we regard as remarkable; a vast accumulation of extraordinary coincidences we accept as conclusive proof. And when the case has reached this stage we look upon the matter as finally settled, until, as may happen, something of a most unusual character appears to upset all our reasoning. If nothing of this kind ever appears, whilst every newly discovered fact adds but confirmation to the conclusion, that conclusion is accepted as a permanently established truth.                                                                        (Looney 80)

Thus, the usual and predictable modus operandi of the Stratfordian apologist is to attack one particular isolated element of evidence and then proceed to cast doubt on the entire fact pattern by a process of innuendo.

Anyone who goes through Sturrock’s book will soon learn that this approach is ideological nonsense.  It may service the tourist industry at Stratford, but it does not advance the pursuit of common truth about the Shakespearean question.

Moreover, the lucky reader of Sturrock’s book gets an extremely valuable review of various other obstacles to clear thinking about the authorship question. These idols include 1)  Looking for a single conclusive argument on either side; 2) Relying on the authority of “experts” who may have failed to ask the right questions and had this failure reinforced through “groupthink”; 3) Assuming that a casual inspection of the 1623 first folio and the Stratford monument is sufficient ground to remove the basis for rational doubt; 4) Engaging in circular arguments, aka “shoehorn arguments,” often indicated by the frequent use of such weasel phrases as “may have,” “could have,” probably did” or — my personal favorite —  “it is tempting, even logical, to guess” etc.; 5) mixing up observational data and theory.

Sturrock covers all these points and many more within the first forty pages of his book, and that makes the volume a good investment in critical thinking even if there is a methodological leap of faith involved in assigning numbers to how likely it is on a priori probability that both the Earl of Oxford and the author of the sonnets seem to have been lame (etc.)

Perhaps an illustration from the de Vere Geneva Bible study will help to make this point more tangible to the reader. Below is a reproduction of Matt. 7.3-5 from the Folger’s online Luna data base (Figure One).

Figure One: Matt. 7.3-5 from the de Vere Geneva Bible. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

In my 2001 University of Massachusetts PhD dissertation these  verses are identified (along with Luke 6.42, which expresses the same thought in slightly different language) as Shakespeare Diagnostic 48 (290), “take the mote out of your own eye.”

As the dissertation observes, drawing on the work of Carter, Milward, and Shaheen — this Biblical proverb constitutes one of Shakespeare’s most prominent and characteristic Biblical idioms, being cited with variation four times in  previous studies (ASLI 3.2.280-81; Hamlet 1.11.12; K. John 4.1.90-91; LLL 4.3.162). In my dissertation I was able to add a fifth allusion to this Bible passage which, strangely, had gone unnoticed even by Shaheen:

Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience  (Henry 5 4.1.77-80).

As the reader can plainly see, however, this popular Bible verse is not marked in the de Vere Geneva Bible. So, no matter how hard the Oxfordians try,  this would seem to be a good example of the grandsire proverb that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  There just isn’t any evidence here, is there?


It is one of the truisms of self-reflective method that the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  When you ask the wrong question, you will get only absence.

The evidence may not be in Oxford’s 1570 Geneva Bible, but it is in his letters, more specifically in his September 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day letter to Principle Secretary William Cecil. The context is Oxford’s anxiety, widely shared at the time, that the Parisian violence would spread to England in the form of counter-reformation:

I speak because I am not ignorant what practices have been made against your person  lately by Mather and later, as I understand, by foreign practices, if it be true.   And think, if the Admiral in France was an eyesore or beam in the eyes of the papists, that the Lord Treasurer of England is a block and a cross-bar in their way, whose remove they will never stick to attempt, seeing they have prevailed so well in others.

This is an unmistakable reference to the same Bible verse cited in the five above-named plays.

Now, before Tom Reedy says this is a coincidence, let me say for him, in his own best interest, to save him a labor lost, “Yes, it could be.”

However, as Looney would I’m sure be quick to observe, it is one among hundreds — actually, thousands — of coincidences linking Oxford to the genesis of the Shakespearean works.

The world is fortunate to have Peter Sturrock’s new contribution to the authorship question. The book serves to remind us of the importance of always consulting the largest possible data set, following a principled course of investigation, and learning to ignore the bark of the senile dog who refuses to get out of the car (to recycle an entertaining phrase of Alexander Waugh’s), even when the vehicle is broken down with a bad battery in the middle of arctic storm, and all you are trying to do is to save the dear old thing’s life.

And, to avoid any potential misconception, and with a shout out to one of the wisest people I have ever known, Donna “Spirit” Bradley, the dog is all of us — just maybe some, from time to time, more than others.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


5 Responses to “When Absence of Evidence Thunders in the Margins”

  1. Mark says:

    When I read your post I went right out and bought it. I’m glad scientist/statisticians have now gone where previously lawyers, jurists, geographers, writers, and actors have gone — and I appreciate his effort to demonstrate why, statistically, the Oxfordian case is much more compelling than Stratfordians would have people believe. But I did find the dialogue too cute and unreal (kind of like that in “Gödel Escher Bach” but without the undeniable advantage of well explaining Gödel’s proof), and the token Stratfordian was far too easily convinced — unlike a real one, who would have stuck her fingers in her ears and fled, yelling “La-la-la-la-la . . .” 🙂 Nevertheless, still one more intellectual victory for our side.


  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Hi Mark,

    Glad you found the book useful. Ironically, I am in the process of enlarging and updating this review for the next Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship newsletter, and in the longer version I am commenting of reasonableness of Beatrice, which is indeed refreshing in contrast to your average garden variety true believer in Stratford. I’m also not very keen on some of the evidence used towards the end of the book, such as the Cardano Grille business, and of course the material on the Tempest could have been much stronger if Sturrock had been aware of the book Lynne Kositsky and I (http://www.shakespearestempest.com) have written — he has subsequently read it! But despite these flaws it is a wonderful book full of sage advice about methodology and materials to ponder over, not to mention an excellent primer on the subject of Bayesian analysis.

    Thanks for the comment! Stay in touch.

  3. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Just to give MarkW a little free advert, check out his website! — http://www.xylophonefragments.com/

    Looks very cool.

  4. Mark says:

    I look forward to your enlarged review. I too am wary of the Cardano grill business only because the creation of five separate messages in five different grills from the same original is a feat of encipherment (or reverse engineering, if you will) that seems almost super-human — even for Oxford. I would wonder what Will Shortz would make of it. 🙂
    Thanks also for the advert.

    I intend eventually to get to your and Lynn’s book, but I have to budget for it. Keep up the good work.

    cheers —

  5. Roger Stritmatter says:

    It is not that difficult to create an encipherment that contains an aesthetically elegant solution, and so far the Cardano Grill solutions, although allegedly impossible from a probability point of view, are hardly models of elegance.

    The Tempest book is available on kindle already, but also if you wait a few months I assume the prices on the hardcopies will come down. Meanwhile you could also ask your public library to order a copy…..: )

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