Monday, September 13, 2004

Forged Documents?

There's been a huge kerfuffle over recently released memos relating to George Bush's National Guard service. A lot of blogging time, and even national media attention, was quickly devoted to claims that these memos were modern-day forgeries (good summary here). Interestingly, it looks like a lot of the forgery speculation was just that, as it appears that the documents may well be genuine (see here for a good recap). But, of course, that news isn't getting front page attention.

This has been a good example of the power networked people have to bring an issue to light (both pro- and con- forgery). It's also a good example of the necessity to not rely solely on back-of-the-envelope analyses done by non-experts. Based on rudimentary analyses it certainly seemed like the documents could be forgeries, but the analyses that were performed had significant flaws. Many of the claims made in posts and articles that stated the memos were a forgery have since been shown to be completely false, and it seems like a little background research on the part of the authors could have quickly cleared up most of the points pre-publishing.

This is why peer-reviewed publishing is such a critical part of science. If a forgery-claim article had been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication, reviewers who were already knowledgeable in typography would have had time to look over the claims. They probably would have immediately known that much of what was said about typewriters of the time was false, and even if they didn't have all the background information necessary to check the claims at their disposal, they would have been able to quickly find what was needed. This actually happened with these memos, as this example shows:
"Bouffard, the Ohio document specialist, said that he had dismissed the Bush documents in an interview with The New York Times because the letters and formatting of the Bush memos did not match any of the 4,000 samples in his database. But Bouffard yesterday said that he had not considered one of the machines whose type is not logged in his database: the IBM Selectric Composer. Once he compared the Bush memos to Selectric Composer samples obtained from Interpol, the international police agency, Bouffard said his view shifted." (from The Boston Globe)
This is an expert doing what an expert should do - forming an initial hypothesis using data that are available, but then fully researching the issue before coming to a final conclusion. The problem is that coming to that final conclusion, even if you're an expert, takes time.

And, as a final note, I've now learned more about the abilities of high-end typewriters of the 1970's than I ever thought I would. (via Blogger news)

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