Sunday, September 19, 2004
  Epistemology of a forgery

There was some poor witless girl nattering on about the 'epistemology' of the forged memos (she was linked to in Jonathan Last's Weekly Standard article; looking up the link was almost more than I could bear). Dear little thing trotted out the meme that MS Word was designed to mimic 1970's typewriters. To anyone who has more than a nanogram of clue in their whole body, that fails the laugh test (why would you hobble an incredibly powerful piece of software with constraints like that? It's like saying an F-15 was designed to mimic a Sopwith Camel). Furthermore, that whole argument is totally bass-ackwards. The bone of contention is not whether 1970's documents can be created with twenty-first century technology. It's not whether twenty-first century documents can be created, in 2004, with 1970's technology. It's whether twenty-first century documents can be created in the seventies. The hapless waif is making the same mistake that creationists make. They conflate logical possibility with epistemological possibility. Is it totally out of the question that these documents are 1970's-vintage? No. Is the probability that the documents are genuine a number sufficiently close to zero as to render it ludicrous? Yes. The truth of the statement 'in the limit as n goes to infinity, (1 + 1/n)n is e, the base of natural logarithms' is in a different class of statements than 'there does not exist a teapot in orbit about Pluto'. We 'know' both these statements to be true, but we 'know' them in a different way. Epistemology is the study of 'knowing how we know what we know'. It's not amenable, in most instances, to logical proof. If someone calls upon the argument 'well, it could happen', you know the foundations of his case are shaky.

In the interim, the debate has moved forward. Now that all but an irrelevant remnant of observers has concluded that these documents are inept forgeries (even the author of the piece of cod-epistemology that I link to above has partially resiled from her original position), the real meat of the story is: whodunit?


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