Friday, July 07, 2006

Cottingley Fairies

John Lynch of "Stranger Fruit" fame has written the introduction to a new edition of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Coming of the Fairies, on the Cottingley fairies case, one of the most famous cases of fake photographs in history. The introduction looks like it will be a good one, so I thought that I'd provide a link. You can read Doyle's book in an earlier edition online.

People looking back often have difficulty seeing how Doyle could be taken in by photographs like the one above, given that the fairies look so fake, but there's actually very little mystery.

1. As Lynch notes, part of it was due to Doyle's spiritualism, which as it were primed him to things of the sort (although he did not automatically jump on the photograph bandwagon). It's not surprising that he was inclined to believe something that fit so well with his worldview; it's a common human failing.

2. Somewhat less important, but still significant, is that the photographs we usually see, like the one above, are not the original photographs. They are enhanced in order to make the image sharper. The original photographs looked like un-retouched photographs of the time would often have looked -- much fuzzier and lighter than the one that appears above. Of course, when enhanced the fairies look more fake, but this isn't an adequate argument without additional arguments to rule out the possibility that the apparent fakeness is an artifact of the enhancement process -- a somewhat complicated argument no one (as far as I can recall) ever made.

3. Contrary to claims by some uncritical would-be skeptics, the photographic fakery, while not even across all the photographs, was actually fairly good -- the girls had come upon a way to make hoax photographs that was more effective (given the technology of the day) than the common methods at the time. (This is perhaps not surprising; not only was Elsie, at age 16, an excellent artist, she had for her age a considerable amount of experience with the art of photography.) People have a tendency to be anachronistic about technology, forgetting (for example) that it takes much more sophistication to make a plausible fake today than it would have using the photographic technology of the early twentieth century. The photographs of the Cottingley fairies, given the technology of the day, were good enough to puzzle several photographic experts at the time: neither the camera nor the film showed any signs of tampering, the fairies in the picture exhibited features that showed that they were in motion, etc. In other words, the fake photographs are not, strictly speaking, fake photographs, but good (for the most part) photographs of fakes. Simply judging from the photograph there was very little suggest fakery, particularly given that most of the experts were looking only at (probably sharpened) prints of the photograph.

4. Perhaps more interestingly, if you look at the contrary position, the side that at the time thought the photographs an obvious fake, you'll find that the arguments they provide are a very mixed bag; sometimes they are good and sometimes they are very, very poor. Doyle was definitely on the wrong side, but he was by no means the most unreasonable or uncritical person in the argument. Given how poorly reasoned and repetitive some of the naysayers were, its perhaps a bit less surprising that Doyle thought there was little serious argument to be had against the Cottingley fairies. One of the reasons I find this episode in the history of thought so interesting is that it is a crystal clear case of the basic truth that being right and being reasonable are not the same, that merely having the right conclusion doesn't guarantee having a good argument for it. This is a salutary lesson for anyone interested in truth; it's not enough to be right, you have to support being right by good reasoning. Bad reasoning for the right conclusion is as likely to confirm people in the wrong conclusion as anything else; and this is a lesson we should all take away, particularly given how common pseudoscience and falsehood can be.

An interesting project, by the way, would be to look at the debate over Hume's essay on miracles in light of the Cottingley fairies, as a sort of test case for the various positions that have arisen in that debate.

Note on the picture above. The Cottingley fairy pictures are in the public domain in the United States; copyright laws elsewhere are different. Check the copyright laws of your country before saving or hosting any such pictures.

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