I would like to bring to your attention an essay by Timothy Garton Ash, who argues that although witnesses and memory are unreliable and objectivity is impossible, it is still important to respect “the frontier between the literature of fact and the literature of fiction” and to refuse to embellish reporting with telling details that didn’t actually happen. He makes the point that this respect, this determination to stick to what one knows to be real, makes itself felt in the prose itself; he contrasts Paul Theroux’s unconvincing claim that every word in The Great Railway Bazaar was written down at the time exactly as it happened with George Orwell’s more modest, and therefore more believable, insistence in Homage to Catalonia that the reader “beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.” He also contrasts two books published as Holocaust memoirs:

Take a now notorious example: the book published in 1995 as Bruchstücke (in English, Fragments) by Binjamin Wilkomirski, which purported to be the memories of a man who survived the Nazi death camps as a Polish Jewish child. It is now established beyond reasonable doubt that the author was a Swiss musician of troubled past and disturbed mind, originally called Bruno Grosjean, who had never been near a Nazi death camp—but had imagined himself into that past, that other self. Reading Fragments now, one is amazed that it could ever have been hailed as it was. The wooden irony (“Majdanek is no playground”), the hackneyed images[…], the crude, hectoring melodrama […]. Material which, once you know it is fraudulent, is truly obscene. But even before one knew that, all the aesthetic alarms should have sounded. For every page has the authentic ring of falsehood.

Compare this with the great books of true witness. Of course there are large variations in tone and style between these works. Many nonetheless have a certain voice in common: one of pained, sober, yet often ironical or even sarcastic veracity, which speaks from the very first line. Take, for example, and contrast with Wilkomirski, the first line of Levi’s If This Is a Man: “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.” How could we not believe this?

I have to admit that the impulse to make a Languagehat entry of the essay arose from an utterly trivial source, the irritation I experienced as a result of the following passage:

“You who harmed an ordinary man . . .” writes Czeslaw Milosz, in one of his most famous poems, “do not feel safe. The poet remembers./You may kill him—another will be born./Deeds and words shall be recorded.” The poet remembers: Poeta pami, eta !

I was happy to see a bit of what I presumed was the original Polish quoted, but what was that “eta”? Some kind of Polish exclamation parallel to Greek opa? I don’t know the language, so it took a while before I realized that it was not a separate word at all but part of the verb pamieta ‘remembers’—except that the e should have an ogonek (like a right-pointing cedilla) underneath (making it nasal, so that the word is pronounced “pamyenta”), and there appears to be no way to achieve this either in HTML or in the online Guardian. I don’t know how it wound up as a comma followed by an e, but surely someone at the paper might have noticed; of course, what they could have done about it is another question. It is presumably beyond the ambit of a Guardian copyeditor to know the details of Polish orthography and to realize that it would make more sense to print a simple e. I blame Ash, who’s been in the business a long time and should know that asking a newspaper to reproduce a Polish nasal vowel is a losing proposition. [Via You Got Style.]

Incidentally, there is an interesting parallel to Ash’s comparison of Wilkomirski and Levy in Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the new movie The Pianist, which he compares favorably to both Schindler’s List and (especially) Max; he says:

While the director crafts some moments of nearly unbearable suspense and dares to see the humor in Szpilman’s plight, there’s nothing cheap, hustling or fashionable about this movie. It’s done in a rigorously classical style that inattentive Polanski fans might mistakenly deem “conventional.” They shouldn’t. Polanski is a Polish Jew and longtime U.S. exile whose mother was killed at Auschwitz and whose wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family. The Pianist’s precise, even meticulous approach suggests a deep respect for the brutalizing power of violence that can only have come from personal experience.


  1. Ilya Vinarsky says

    Hat, since you know Russian and are a linguist, you might enjoy this poem:

  2. Thanks — that’s delightful!

  3. an experiment: ę = ę

  4. Yes, now we can achieve ogoneks. Civilization marches onwards and upwards into the gleaming heights of the future!

  5. Probably whoever typed “pamięta” assumed that “,e” would be automatically transformed into an e-ogonek. Alas, it was not.
    Indeed, the biggest obstacle to the wider use of Unicode is the difficulty in entering characters. Ten years on, almost everyone can display a large subset of the Unicode characters, and adding widely available fonts will provide more. But entering them is still as painful and environment-dependent (often program-dependent) as ever.

  6. Here’s the latest version (version C) of my U.S. Moby Latin keyboard for Windows, now with almost 900 characters available including most Latin characters, enough IPA to do English, lots of useful symbols and punctuation marks, and even accentless Greek (which I only use for math, not for typing actual Greek words). In particular, ę is AltGr+comma followed by e, easy-peasy. Free to all.

    I’m planning to make a U.K. version of this keyboard too.

  7. established beyond reasonable doubt

    I’ve been bumping into the term ‘reasonable doubt‘ rather much recently. I think because of the legal cases I’m trying to follow in the U.S. Can I pick the brains of the Hattery’s legal team.

    I hadn’t realised there’s a religious origin: only God can judge another soul/can condemn them to death or incarcerate them. The grounds of ‘reasonable doubt’ arose in jurisprudence because God-fearing (Brit) Medieval jurors resiled from presuming as to God’s judgment.

    But the term is nowadays deprecated in UK (and Canadian) jurisprudence; it remains a cornerstone in U.S. The UK view seems to be that it’s become such a term of art as to lose its natural language sense, and ended up being defined circularly. So rather, juries are directed they “must be sure that the defendant is guilty”. (I can see that formulation will suffer the same fate in due course.)

    wp has some blather about “quantify how accurate an[y] evidence had to be before they could consider it …”. Quantifying ” at least 90% or 95% accurate.” adds no helpful explanation for me.

    In these days of total gibberish getting peddled on the intertubes, and seemingly vast numbers of the population just swallowing it, is it that what’s ‘reasonable’ depends much more on where you heard it than critically examining the content/seeking corroboration?

    What is an _unreasonable_ doubt? That a defence might raise but juries should ignore.

    To try to give a non-religious and non-political example: did humans ever walk on the moon? If a soul was going to be incarcerated consequent upon my judging that, I’d have to say I’m not sure enough they ever did. Reasonable doubts I might raise (are they reasonable?): why has no human visited the moon since 1972 — especially since technology has advanced hugely; TV images from then were very grainy, could easily have been faked; could any organisation other than NASA have distinguished a capsule containing humans landing on the moon and returning vs a craft in orbit around the moon dropping an unmanned capsule; can anybody now see the footprints or the golf club or the flags or the abandoned lunar rover?; …

    Oh, re the moon rocks (allegedly) brought back: at the time my aunt was an academic geologist in a European University. Her department received a sample. It was tiny such that if they carried out any meaningful experiments, they’d have destroyed it all; whereas the University wanted to put it proudly on display. So from what they did try, she said they were unable to distinguish it from something dug up from a desert on earth.

    I’m prepared to say on the balance of probability humans walked on the moon. Just in case you think I’m a total fruitcake.


    (And I thoroughly agree with the praise for The Pianist. Haunting images. BTW OP’s link to Max seems to be problematic. I did find the trailer on IMDb.)

  8. Aww I suppose I should add something that conspiracy theorists seem to struggle with: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. (Where ‘absence of evidence’ might be merely insufficiency.) I’m not claiming that the doubts amount to convincing me the whole moon landings were faked. And it doesn’t affect me enough to actually care.

  9. David Marjanović says

    I’ve met someone who has worked on moon rocks. Yes, destructively.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    I think “reasonable doubt” also allows for incorporation of expert witness testimony. Conspiracy theorists tend to reject the experts, cherrypick the testimony, or ask questions like: “is A possible?” instead of “under what conditions if any has A been reliably observed?” or “do we have a lower bound (based on modelling or experiment) for the relative probability of A compared to B?”

  11. Yes, there is no “reasonable doubt” about the moon landing unless you reject everything you haven’t personally experienced, in which case you’re ripe for every form of lunacy.

  12. Wikipedia

    Many commentators suggest that Blackstone’s ratio determines the confidence interval of the burden of proof; for example Jack B. Weinstein wrote:[23]

    Blackstone would have put the probability standard for proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” at somewhat more than 90%, for he declared: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”

    Pi et al. advocate formalizing this in jury instructions.[24] However, Daniel Epps argues that this is too simplistic, ignoring such factors as jury behaviour, plea bargains, appeals procedures, and “the percentage of innocent persons among the pool of charged defendants”.

    If the overall certainty for conviction needs to be, say, 90%, then any single juror can be less than 90% certain. How much less is hard to quantify

  13. How do you even measure reliably whether someone is “90% certain”? Yes, people may even say that, when prompted to rate their conviction on a percentage scale, but does that even mean something objective? This is a good example of the pervasive tendency to make everything numerical so that it can be input into models, but it looks very much like useless fake exactitude to me.

  14. To me as well.

  15. (Hmm, my post seems to have disappeared.Here’s a shorter version.)

    There is in fact current evidence for a human presence on the Moon: three laser retroreflectors were placed at various landing sites by the crew. Anyone can shine a laser beam on one of them and see the reflection with a reasonable sized telescope, though not a backyard one because of legal limits on how strong a laser you can have in your back yard. By this method alone we can measure the lunar distance to within millimeters. Some other retroreflectors were planted without human hands, though none as early as 1970: landing things safely on the Moon without on-the-spot human intervention is not a simple matter, as the Apollo 11 crew found out.

    So go ahead and lock her (or him) up, speaking of non-political conclusions.

    So while seeing footprints is possible and so is the flag (but not the Apollo 11 flag, which was blown over by takeoff), you only know those bright spots are what we think they are because they match our expectations. But retroreflectors aren’t in that class: they are unmistakably artificial, particularly as they don’t appear in pre-1969 earth-based photographs.

  16. when prompted to rate their conviction on a percentage scale

    I remember an episode of ‘who wants to be a millionaire’ where the contestant asked their phone-a-friend how certain they were their answer was the correct one [of two] “Fairly sure. Like 50%”.

  17. David Marjanović says

    “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”

    Isn’t that at least ten times as old as some Blackstone?

    Pi et al. advocate formalizing this in jury instructions.

    That’s unbelievably unreasonable.

    why has no human visited the moon since 1972 — especially since technology has advanced hugely

    There was no more need for this kind of expensive prestige project, so Congress returned to financing the military instead.

    TV images from then were very grainy, could easily have been faked

    Nowhere near as easily as today.

  18. How do you even measure reliably whether someone is “90% certain”?

    Check how often their 90% forecasts come true. I think (95% sure), it was shown that ordinary people are wildly wrong about such probabilities. And if someone gives you 50:50 odds for a binary outcome where you cannot find some extraneous information, it is useless, but 90% certainty is quite meaningful. I am pretty sure (80%) though that such estimates is not what is happening in the jury room.

  19. at best, the “reasonable doubt” standard is just another way of articulating the unanimity standard for jury verdicts – “at least one person in the jury room can’t be persuaded to buy the prosecution’s account” – while leaving an out for judges and higher courts to overrule juries, lest ordinary people actually get to make decisions their betters disagree with.

    but my experience of jury service leads me to believe that the main things persuading jurors to convict (or acquit – basically, to go along with the first straw poll’s majority as quickly as possible) have nothing to do to with what prosecutors argue. possibly most important among them: no state compensates more than $50/day for lost pay, none (as far as i know) provide childcare, and the 7 states that say your boss has to give you paid time off are also located in a country where you have to be able to pay for a lawyer to get reluctant bosses to comply with basic health and safety regulations, let alone wage and hour laws.

  20. Thanks all for the feedback re the calculus of certainty. I agree that seems just fakery.

    There is in fact current evidence for a human presence on the Moon: three laser retroreflectors were placed at various landing sites by the crew.

    Thanks @JC. To be clear, I’m not doubting there is human-made stuff on the moon. (Indeed NASA sent up some unmanned probes before the landings.) Partly why I chose this example is seeing the number of (unmanned) missions recently that have crashed or tumbled. Technology seems to have gone _backwards_ — or (more plausibly reasonably doubtful to me) the technology was never good enough 50/60 years ago.

    So could the retroreflectors only have been placed there and aligned by humans? Can anybody see close enough whether what’s there now corresponds to what the humans (allegedly) set up? Or could there be some sort of self-steering gizmo so they could align themselves unaided? Again, is it unreasonable to doubt humans put them there?

    @Hat unless you reject everything you haven’t personally experienced,

    In a court of law I at least get to stare the witnesses in the face. I’ve never met anybody who claims to have landed on the moon; nor anybody who’s met anybody … I’ve seen TV interviews, which have been more adulatory than inquisitional. Buzz Aldrin once punched someone in the face who was raising an annoying series of questions. That ain’t evidence either way round.

    So yes I take on trust a huge amount of stuff I haven’t personally experienced. But again I wouldn’t be sure enough of it to condemn someone to incarceration. Reminder: since this is Language Hat, I’m enquiring specifically about the term ‘reasonable doubt’, not general epistemological anxiety.

  21. Partly why I chose this example is seeing the number of (unmanned) missions recently that have crashed or tumbled. Technology seems to have gone _backwards_ — or (more plausibly reasonably doubtful to me) the technology was never good enough 50/60 years ago.

    That’s definitely not the case. Technology has improved, but the cost-effectiveness curve has shifted. In the 1970s, success was really important, both because humans were involved and for reasons of national prestige. So three Apollo missions were able to safely place[*] six retroreflectors, and concurrently two unmanned Lunokhod missions were able to place two more. (If there were Soviet failures, nobody else heard about them.)

    Since 1991, all retroreflector missions have been unmanned: one success, three crashes, two that never reached the Moon (and one planned to launch this month). This really isn’t bad for unmanned experimental missions. Spending more money would jack up the success rate, but would probably have meant more canceled missions, thus lowering the effective success rate. The Apollo and Lunokhod missions were (for good reasons) over-engineered.

    [*] Retroreflectors, unlike simple mirrors, don’t have to be aligned, just placed on the mounting surface (in this case, the ground), since they reflect incoming light directly back to the source. Bicycle taillights and cat’s eyes are common examples. Almost all of them are passive, so they just have to survive landing. The are the optical analogue of caltrops, which land pointy-bit-up no matter how they reach the ground.

    I was, however, misleading about how much light you you get back from the reflector. Because of beam spreading, a 50-joule pulse returns only 1-5 photons, which are detectable because they are monochromatic. So you do need a hefty telescope array to detect (“see” is very misleading) the return pulse.

  22. Technology seems to have gone _backwards_

    Besides the points that JC made, the people who got those astronauts safely landed have all retired or died in the intervening decades, so there’s a tremendous amount of hands-on knowledge that is no longer available. It could of course be recreated, but (as JC said) there isn’t the incentive.

  23. David Marjanović says

    (If there were Soviet failures, nobody else heard about them.)

    And indeed I once read that Gagarin was only the first to make it back alive, the end of a systematic approach to the problem of getting someone into orbit and back alive as one of trial and error. I don’t know if any of that was independently confirmed, though, and the Russian archives are once again not reliably accessible.

  24. sez myth

    The novel First Cosmic Velocity is an amusing riff on this.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Ah, thanks.

    The talk page does lead to this article in the English edition of Pravda (2001), which says three test pilots died in suborbital (parabolic) flights.

    Also, truth at least as strange as fiction.

  26. There was no more need for this kind of expensive prestige project,

    I’ve hypothesised they at least put humans into orbit round the moon, and dropped stuff on to the surface. (On the grounds the Soviets could probably detect if they were faking that.) That alone would be ruinously expensive; so isn’t evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. (Also I’m quite sure NASA would be capable of spending any amount of money Congress sent their way. [***])

    the people who got those astronauts safely landed have all retired or died in the intervening decades, so there’s a tremendous amount of hands-on knowledge that is no longer available.

    If there’s one thing NASA/the aerospace industry in general does well it’s record everything “in excruciating detail”/”you can’t even bring a wrench through that door without paperwork”. (Those are both quotes.)

    *Except* you can’t record a pilot’s ‘muscle memory’ to spy a good landing site and bring the lander to a controlled soft touchdown. And this is where recent unmanned landers seem to have failed [**].

    concurrently two unmanned Lunokhod missions were able to place two more [retroreflectors].

    Thank you again JC, this is the sort of excruciating detail I was hoping to evince. But you seem to be undermining your own claim. Luna 17 1970 carried an unmanned rover to the moon, touched down softly enough, and deployed a retroflector. Don’t need no humans to do that then.

    [**] Both have reached generally soft, level sites. One just caught the lip of a crater then landed so far off vertical it tipped over. One failed to control its horizontal momentum so landed and in effect tripped over its own bootlaces.

    So again less technologically competent than the Soviets 1970.

    [***] I’ve heard the claim today’s projects are running on a shoestring compared to Apollo. (Whatever ‘shoestring’ means in this context.) There’s nothing so bad for your budget as a) launching all that technology then getting it fall back to earth in a fireball; or b) getting a lander as far as the lunar surface then having it go arse-over-tit. Spend more on QA!

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