Codes in War and Peace - a reply to Doron Witztum

Brendan McKay, Australian National University


Witztum, Rips and Rosenberg (WRR) claimed to prove the existence of a hidden code in the Bible by an experiment that involved the names and appellations of famous rabbis, together with their dates of birth or death. In our reply, we showed that a different compilation of the data, of quality just as good as WRR's data, shows the same phenomenon in the Hebrew translation of War and Peace. This proved WRR's evidence to be probably the result of biased data selection. An attempted rebuttal by Witztum was demolished by a 83-page analysis. Witztum has apparently decided he cannot reply to it, as his "complete refutation" does not attempt to answer a single point. Instead it is just an incoherent rant (see the following section). In this short note, we make a few final comments on the issue.

Witztum's argument

The essence of Witztum's argument is accurately reflected by the following quotations.

[Witztum:] ... their philosophy to mislead and distort ... falsehoods and deceptions ... worthless parody ... a double deception ... incorrect and misleading ... unscientific ... designed to facilitate deceit ... the false data they rely on ... lies and ignorance ... a lie, calculated to mislead the public ... selective quote misleadingly conceals ... absurd mistakes ... deliberate deception ... obvious deception ... lies and deceptions ... perversity ... false data ... mistakes and deceptions ... fabricated confirmation ... feigned innocence and gross falsehood ... laden with deceit and feigned innocence ... repeat this lie while rewriting history ... one lie leads to another ... a tangle of lies ... propaganda ... lies ... deceptive figures ... foolish deceptions ... transparent deceptions ...

Some miscellaneous comments

Comment #1: Witztum claims to have identifed the author of our list of appellations for War and Peace. In fact, the person he names was not the primary author of either published edition of that list.

Comment #2: Witztum claims to have offered in good faith to cooperate with his critics in an experiment using an independent expert. In fact, there is no chance he would ever agree to such a thing. Reading carefully, we find that he wants to present the expert with a document written 9-10 years after WRR's data appeared. Even a casual reading of the document reveals that it was written for the purpose of defending the data in the face of criticism. Much of WRR's data is explicitly mentioned, and some of the "rules" spelt out in the document only apply to single words in WRR's data. Witztum's "challenge" involves presenting this document to an expert in order to bias the expert towards WRR's data regardless of the expert's professional opinions. Obviously this is a farce. As if Witztum doesn't know.

Read our paper to see what happened when we contracted an expert to prepare the data without interference.

Comment #3: One of Witztum's favourite lines is that we have accused Professor Shlomo Havlin of deliberately perpetrating a fraud. Starting about 6 years after WRR's data was first made public, Professor Havlin has been creditted by Witztum (and later by Havlin himself) with preparing all of WRR's data. However, we have never alleged that Havlin is responsible for the apparent strong bias in the data, for the simple reason that we prefer to believe what Witztum himself originally wrote about Havlin's role. Read it for yourself. Also see our analysis of other evidence about Havlin's role, and see our report on how Witztum himself demonstrated a plausible mechanism by which Havlin could have innocently (but mistakenly) believed that WRR's data was compiled according to his advice.

Some final remarks on appellations

The data used in WRR's experiment is the result of a large amount of arbitrary choice. There are a great many internal inconsistencies, as well as explicit violations of WRR's own rules. Even the extra "rules" that Havlin wrote down years later to defend the data against attack are repeatedly violated.

These facts are proven beyond any doubt in the 83-page paper written for us by an anonymous expert. It is noteworthy that Witztum, while mentioning that paper, can only manage to blubber about "lies and deceptions". He doesn't manage to answer a single point.

In these circumstances we could rest our case, but we will give one last example. To show the strength of our case, we will choose an example that Witztum himself is fond of emphasising: the family name of Rabbi Moshe Zacut.

The family name of Rabbi Moshe Zacut is sometimes written in its Portugese form "Zacuto" or in the variant "Zacuta". WRR used all three spellings, but our alternate list for War and Peace used only the form "Zacut" which Rabbi Zacut himself preferred. (There are many proofs of this last claim. For example, the signature "Zacut" appears almost 40 times in the same source in which Witztum found two examples of "Zacuto". Another book that contains examples of Rabbi Zacut's signatures, The Remez Responsa, contains more than 30 examples of "Zacut" and none of the other forms. We also present a poem which shows Rabbi Zacut making a careful choice of spelling. The letters drawn large at the starts of the lines read "Moshe Zacut". The letters immediately left or below the last letter of "Zacut" are just what is needed to make "Zacuto", but Rabbi Zacut has chosen to not draw them bold.)

Witztum claims it is an error to not use all three forms. He would have a good point if his data consistently included variant spellings, but it doesn't. In our expert's analysis, dozens of common variant spellings are mentioned which do not appear in WRR's data (pages 8-11, 14-15, etc, and especially Assertion 19). Some of them are even compulsory under WRR's rules, but still they do not appear. From this we can see that it is perfectly consistent for us to omit the variant spellings of "Zacut".

To demonstrate the true worth of Witztum's "Zacut" argument, and hence of his entire case, let us show two particularly interesting examples where his data omits common variant spellings.

All of those learned articles were written by none other than Witztum's authority Professor Shlomo Havlin. (Click here for the citations.) There are very many examples of the same spellings being used by other writers as well.

Note that we are not claiming that each inconsistency in WRR's lists is designed to work in their favour. Some (like using three spellings of "Zacut") are strongly to their advantage, others (like omitting "Benbenesti" and "Abulafia") are neutral, and some are to their disadvantage. The success of their experiment results from the general overall but inconsistent bias of the data in the direction of success.

(Incidentally, check out Dr Bar-Natan's humorous observation related to the spellings of "Abulafia".)

Postscript (July 5, 2001)

Soon after we published the article above, Witztum published a reply. As expected, there is nothing new in it except silliness and irrelevancies, but we'll make the following comments.

1. McKay certainly does deny that the person Witztum names "prepared the lists" for the War and Peace demonstration. That person deserves our gratitude for his important early insights into the nature of "codes", and also for being the first to find meaningful ELSs in War and Peace. However, he was not the person primarily responsible for preparing the first published version of the War and Peace appellations, and he played hardly any role at all for the final version.

2. Our anonymous expert has written a reply to Witztum's claims about spellings, about the opinion of Dr. Emanuel, and other matters. As he shows repeatedly, everything Witztum says is either irrelevant or wrong.

3. On the issue of Rabbi Zacut, note that our case is not that "Zacuto" and "Zacuta" are wrong. Our case is that WRR did not consistently use such variants themselves. Nevertheless, Witztum's "proof" that Rabbi Zacut usually wrote "Zacuto" only demonstrates (again) Witztum's poor understanding of primary sources. See our report on this issue, where we show that even Witztum's original examples of "Zacuto" are mistaken.

4. A number of people have asked why we don't reveal the identity of our anonymous expert. The details specific to him will remain confidential, but every insider in the "codes" business knows the general reasons. As soon as Witztum learns which member of the religious community is assisting us, a campaign of harassment and ostracism against that person will begin. The "collaborator" (as he will be branded) will find that his wife (if he has one) and the head of his yeshiva (if he belongs to one) will be pressured into trying to silence him. Deliberate lies claiming to prove his ignorance will be disseminated. If he tries to publish on the codes, the editor will be threatened, and if he tries to speak on the codes, Witztum will try to ensure that there is no venue available.

To those who doubt these words, let us note that we have merely listed events already happened to religious persons who dared to oppose Witztum and his codes.

Post-postscript (August 21, 2001)

Witztum posted yet another reply on August 7. We note the following.

A. Witztum confirms again that he does not have any expert opinion, nor even a case prepared by himself, that addresses the detailed analysis we made of the appellations for the famous rabbis. The only exception comes in the case of Rabbi Zacut, about which his silence now is understandable (see point 3 above for the reason).

B. Witztum writes that Professor Cohen "admitted that he never examined whether McKay et al's War and Peace list complies with Havlin's rules to the same extent as Havlin's list". We invite the reader to compare Witztum's claim with Cohen's own words.

C. Witztum confirmed his previously stated account of how the birth and death dates were prepared for his published experiment. He says that he himself was responsible for checking and correcting the dates given by Margaliot, and that Havlin was not. By Witztum's account, "Havlin's job was to prepare lists of names and appellations and nothing else" (our emphasis).

In reply, we present two letters written by Havlin.

The first letter, dated 27 June 1997, says:

[Havlin:] I examined the lists which I had received to ascertain the exact form in which they are customarily written, the various appellations of these people, and the dates of their births and deaths, as far as is known. Aside from me, no one else introduced any corrections or changes to the lists which had been set.
(our emphasis)

The second letter, dated 29 June 1997, says:

[Havlin:] I dealt with the data I had been given in advance, the list of people which I mentioned in my earlier letter, as they appeared in the title lines of Dr. Mordechai Margalioth's Encyclopedia of Great Men in Israel. This was the only data I had when I began my work. All the rest, finding the appellations, choosing the appellations ... different ways of writing the names and/or appellations, and checking the authenticity of the data in that encyclopedia ... including the relevant dates, was done only by me, based on my searches in the relevant literature...and what seemed to me the accepted and common usage.
(our emphasis)

It is clear that the testimonies of Witztum and Havlin contradict each other. Interprettation is left to the reader.


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