Monty Python, Shakespeare and Climate Science

Eric Idle of Monty Python fame has a brilliant piece in the New Yorker lampooning the theory, trotted out in Roland Emmerich’s latest movie “Anonymous”, that Shakespeare’s plays were actually not written by Shakespeare but the earl of Oxford. This theory has no support whatsoever among real experts but nevertheless a considerable following. Idle is not among them, though.

While it is perfectly obvious to everyone that Ben Jonson wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is less known that Ben Jonson’s plays were written by a teen-age girl in Sunderland, who mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace of her existence, which is clear proof that she wrote them. The plays of Marlowe were actually written by a chambermaid named Marlene, who faked her own orgasm, and then her own death in a Deptford tavern brawl.

Do read the whole piece, it is hilarious. But what does this have to do with climate science?

Idle’s article concludes:

Mere lack of evidence, of course, is no reason to denounce a theory. Look at intelligent design. The fact that it is bollocks hasn’t stopped a good many people from believing in it. Darwinism itself is only supported by tons of evidence, which is a clear indication that Darwin didn’t write his books himself. They were most likely written by Jack the Ripper, who was probably King Edward VII, since all evidence concerning this has been destroyed.

Paranoia? Of course not. It’s alternative scholarship. What’s wrong with teaching alternative theories in our schools? What are liberals so afraid of? Can’t children make up their own minds about things like killing and carrying automatic weapons on the playground? Bush was right: no child left unarmed. Why this dictatorial approach to learning, anyway? What gives teachers the right to say what things are? Who’s to say that flat-earthers are wrong? Or that the Church wasn’t right to silence Galileo, with his absurd theory (actually written by his proctologist) that the earth moves around the sun. Citing “evidence” is so snobbish and élitist. I think we all know what lawyers can do with evidence. Look at Shakespeare. Poor bloke. Wrote thirty-seven plays, none of them his.

And most likely this piece attributed to Eric Idle was actually written by his co-Python Michael Palin.

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Marche, Joe Romm and others have pointed out that this “Shakespeare controversy” is very similar to the “controversy” about whether climate change is real and man-made – there’s an overwhelming consensus among experts but still the deniers keep denying. This is from Marche’s article in the New York Times magazine:

Thanks to “Anonymous,” undergraduates will be confidently asserting that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare for the next 10 years at least, and profs will have to waste countless hours explaining the obvious. “Anonymous” subscribes to the Oxfordian theory of authorship, the contention that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Among Shakespeare scholars, the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts. (…)

In the movies, a few mistakes don’t matter, but the liberties with facts in “Anonymous” become serious when they enter our conception of real history. In scholarship, chronology does matter. And the fatal weakness of the Oxfordian theory is chronological, a weakness that “Anonymous” never addresses: the brute fact that Edward de Vere died in 1604, while Shakespeare continued to write, several times with partners, until 1613. (…)

no argument could ever possibly sway the Oxfordian crowd. They are the prophets of truthiness. “It couldn’t have been Shakespeare,” they say. “How could a semiliterate country boy have composed works of such power?” Their snobbery is the surest sign of their ignorance. Many of the greatest English writers emerged from the middle or lower classes. Dickens worked in a shoe-polish factory as a child. Keats was attacked for belonging to the “cockney school.” Snobbery mingles with paranoia, particularly about the supposedly nefarious intrigues of Shakespeare professors to keep the identity secret. Let me assure everybody that Shakespeare professors are absolutely incapable of operating a conspiracy of any size whatsoever. They can’t agree on who gets which parking spot. That’s what they spend most of their time intriguing about.

The original Oxfordian, the aptly named J. Thomas Looney, who proposed the theory in 1920, believed that Shakespeare’s true identity remained a secret because, he said, “it has been left mainly in the hands of literary men.” In his rejection of expertise, at least, Looney was far ahead of his time. This same antielitism is haunting every large intellectual question today. We hear politicians opine on their theories about climate change and evolution as a way of displaying how little they know. When Rick Perry compared climate-change skeptics like himself to Galileo in a Republican debate, I dearly wished that the next question had been “Can you explain Galileo’s theory of falling bodies?” Of all the candidates with their various rejections of the scientific establishment, how many could name the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that students learn in high school? Healthy skepticism about elites has devolved into an absence of basic literacy.

The Shakespeare controversy, which emerged in the 19th century (at that time, theorists proposed that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare), was one of the origins of the willful ignorance and insidious false balance that is now rotting away our capacity to have meaningful discussions. The wider public, which has no reason to be familiar with questions of either Renaissance chronology or climate science, assumes that if there are arguments, there must be reasons for those arguments. Along with a right-wing antielitism, an unthinking left-wing open-mindedness and relativism have also given lunatic ideas soil to grow in. Our politeness has actually led us to believe that everybody deserves a say.

The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded. There are many questions in this world over which rational people can have sensible confrontations: whether lower taxes stimulate or stagnate growth; whether abortion is immoral; whether the ’60s were an achievement or a disaster; whether the universe is motivated by a force for benevolence; whether the Fonz jumping on water skis over a shark was cool or lame. Whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is not one of these questions.

Unfortunately, the nonquestion of Shakespeare’s identity is now being asked on billboards all over the world. It will raise debate where none should be. It will sow confusion where there is none. Somebody here is a fraud, but it isn’t Shakespeare.

Joe Romm added in his blog post:

And climate scientists are even less capable of operating a conspiracy than Shakespeare scholars.  After all, they’d need to enlist all the major science journals and every major science organization and every member government of the IPCC…

In fact, all IPCC reports need the approval of its member governments to be published. Which includes left-wing climate ideologues like Saudi Arabia who surely would go to any length to make sure that emissions are reduced as strongly as possible.

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