July 10 (Bloomberg) — Edwin Durning-Lawrence was a writer and a member of the U.K. Parliament who devoted much of his life to an obsessive, and slightly crazy, effort to demonstrate that Francis Bacon wrote the works usually attributed to William Shakespeare. Durning-Lawrence published his defining book, Bacon is Shakespeare, in 1910. (My real topic is 21st-century politics, but bear with me for a moment.)
Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, was an influential philosopher who also served as a member of Parliament. Durning-Lawrence greatly admired Bacon, but he didn’t much like Shakespeare, whom he described as an illiterate and, more specifically, as “the mean, drunken, ignorant, and absolutely unlettered, rustic of Stratford who never in his life wrote so much as his own name and in all probability was totally unable to read one single line of print.”
In Bacon Is Shakespeare, Durning-Lawrence labored to show that all available evidence supports the thesis of the book’s title. A famous engraving of Shakespeare actually provides clues that Shakespeare wasn’t an author at all; Shakespeare’s alleged signatures are actually forgeries. All proof of Shakespeare’s authorship turns out to establish exactly the opposite, Durning-Lawrence wrote.
In his closing chapters, Durning-Lawrence gets pretty wound up. Chapter 9 ends: “The hour has come when it is desirable and necessary to state with the utmost distinctness that BACON IS SHAKESPEARE.” The conclusion of Chapter 10: “It is not possible that any doubt can any longer be entertained respecting the manifest fact that BACON IS SHAKESPEARE.”
Chapter 11’s final words, on two volumes by Bacon and Shakespeare respectively: “These two title pages were prepared with consummate skill in order to reveal to the world, when the time was ripe, that BACON IS SHAKESPEARE.”
Durning-Lawrence’s appendix collects the names of famous people who appeared to agree with his thesis. Enlisting the rhetorical strategy now known as “social proof,” Durning-Lawrence concludes: “The names that we have mentioned are amply sufficient to prove to the reader that he will be in excellent company when he himself realizes the truth that BACON IS SHAKESPEARE.”
Despite his obsessiveness, Durning-Lawrence was an intelligent and accomplished person. His inadvertently hilarious book is an extreme case of a far more general (and much less hilarious) phenomenon through which people don’t evaluate evidence on its merits, but instead enlist it opportunistically in support of their preordained conclusions. Social scientists describe the phenomenon as “confirmation bias.”
This brings us to contemporary politics. Last week, the Obama administration announced that it would postpone until 2015 enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s so-called employer mandate, which will require employers with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance or face significant financial penalties.
Emphasizing that the underlying reporting requirements are unusually complicated, the administration said that a one-year delay would allow the government to try to simplify those requirements while creating more flexibility for the private sector.