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The Perils of Expertise

reviewed by edward tenner

edward tenner, a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University, is currently a Visitor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Published September 22, 2020


Tenner Edward Expert Veritas Sabar Ariel Cover

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

by Ariel Sabar

Doubleday, 2020

The proliferation of conspiracy theories and dangerous “cures” for Covid-19 on social media has called attention to an alleged loss of trust in experts, one that’s led to tragic losses, including over 800 deaths from drinking highly concentrated alcohol and untold numbers of serious injuries. 

Experts rarely fall for dangerous quack cures. But they sometimes unwittingly take disastrous reputational risks, and a new book illustrates how easily elites can allow themselves to be deceived. Veritas, by the journalist Ariel Sabar, revisits a controversy that captivated the media almost a decade ago: the alleged discovery of a fragment of text on papyrus suggesting that at least some early Christians in Egypt believed Jesus had been married. If authentic, it would have been the only reference to Jesus’ marital status in late antiquity, with profound implications for women’s role in early Christianity. 

This would have supported the previous conclusion of Karen King, the holder of the 300-year-old Hollis chair at the Harvard Divinity School. Based on her study of a long-suppressed but rediscovered “Gospel of Mary,” she posited the depiction of Mary Magdalen as a repentant prostitute was a stratagem of patriarchal prelates. The new fragment suggested this slander had been invented to discredit an older tradition of Mary not just as a founder of the Church but also as Jesus’ wife. (Despite popular media uproar, King never claimed there had been such a union.) 

No wonder King was so excited. If genuine, the fragment would have vindicated her work spectacularly. After some initial positive peer reviews, closer study revealed that the papyrus was a forgery, deficient in calligraphy, grammar and type of ink (though written on a genuine ancient papyrus fragment that apparently is readily available on the web). The promoter of the forgery, as revealed by Sabar, was an Egyptology dropout turned pornographer with a transatlantic trail of disappointed teachers and business associates who had become a legend in the Florida swinger scene. 

To unravel the tangled relationships of the principals: Ariel Sabar managed a scholarly triathlon of interviews in Europe as well as the U.S., along with archival research and web searches. The result is a masterpiece of academic sleuthing and true crime, with a cast of characters screaming for an auction of the film rights. 

Some readers may see the affair as only a window into the arcana of ancient textual scholarship, quoting the old line about academic politics being so bitter because so little is at stake. But such condescension is out of place. The deception and self-deception in Veritas have disturbing parallels in the behavior of people who consider themselves practical and hardheaded because cash rather than peer reputation is their currency of choice.

True Believers

It is true that academics are capable of astounding credulity. The English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, renowned for his intellect and wit, achieved infamy by authenticating the alleged diaries of Adolf Hitler in 1983. The diaries were quickly pronounced forgeries — much to the delight of colleagues stung by his poison pen and envious of his exalted title as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. 

Nor have natural scientists been immune. Michel Chasles, an esteemed 19th-century French mathematician, spent a fortune on letters purportedly written by great scientists and mathematicians. They were all forged by Denis Vrain-Lucas, an uneducated but resourceful fraud who assured him they were part of a trove held by an anonymous noble family — just as the Harvard papyrus was said to be owned by a mysterious collector. And just as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife supported a feminist agenda, Vrain-Lucas’s fabrications appealed to French patriotism by “proving” that Newton had plagiarized Pascal. 

Chasles, a historian as well as a mathematician, was never able to look critically at evidence of what he wanted to believe. He ultimately bought more letters — from Cleopatra to Caesar, from Judas to Mary Magdalene — all written in French!

Contemplating others’ gullibility, historic or contemporary, can create an illusion that modern sophisticates like ourselves would never fall for such deceptions. And we are right in this; we would probably have seen through these specific claims. But that misses the point. We would not have been deceived by those forgeries, but might accept other frauds appealing to our own vanity, self-concept or fear in a credible way. 

Bernie Madoff’s sinister genius was creating a con for affluent, seemingly shrewd investors generally averse to something-for-nothing schemes. His private fund paid “interest” relatively modestly but steadily, unlike most previously exposed Ponzi rackets that promised to double your money over the weekend. And he relied on a network of reputable friends, including noted philanthropists and financial advisors. Stephen Greenspan, a Colorado professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado and published expert on gullibility, invested with Madoff through an intermediary company that never mentioned the actual manager — and Greenspan evidently never asked. 

The history of the con highlights a common danger in the sciences, the humanities and business alike — the passionate desire for something to be true, a desire that defeats normal defenses.

The history of the con highlights a common danger in the sciences, the humanities and business alike — the passionate desire for something to be true, a desire that defeats normal defenses. Consider fabrications by journalists including Stephen Glass at The New Republic, Jayson Blair at The New York Times, and Janet Cooke at the Washington Post. Cooke’s narrative of a young heroin addict even won a Pulitzer Prize, after her nomination by assistant managing editor Bob Woodward.

All were talented people working for august publications. What they had in common was the ability to tell stories that their editors and readers wanted to believe in, just as a French academician resented the sway of Newton and a progressive theologian was eager to challenge ancient sexism. Right-wing conspiracy theories, exploited for profit on social media, can be seen as con games in their own right, appealing to a different set of values with assertions too tempting to check.

The Art of the Con

The most fascinating con artists of all are the imposters, those who deceive by fabricating their identity, creating personae that hypnotically override habits of skepticism. A 31-year-old petty thief named James Hogue was savvy enough to the tastes of Ivy League admissions officers that his tale of growing up as an orphan on an isolated Utah ranch snagged a full scholarship from Princeton — and not long afterward a bid from one of its snootiest “eating clubs.”

His character, Alexi Indris-Santana, with a Latino surname, Anglo looks, and a love of philosophy, was catnip for admissions officers at an elite Eastern university yearning for the right mix of egalitarianism and sagebrush exoticism. Even after his fraud was exposed and he was forced to return scholarship money that could have gone to the deserving, he retained a surprising number of fans on campus.

By the same token, David Hampton, a young man from Buffalo who inspired the play and film Six Degrees of Separation, was genuinely charming and entertaining to at least some of his victims — so much so that nobody cared to verify his claim to be the actor Sidney Poitier’s son. (As newspaper editors love to explain, you coulda looked it up: it turns out that Poitier has only daughters.)

Far more accomplished was a German named Christian Gerhartsreiter, who had defrauded and even murdered under other aliases but triumphed for a time as “Clark Rockefeller.” Walter Kirn, a New Yorker writer he befriended and deceived, explained his own gullibility:

As an English major at Princeton, I’d learned the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” but with Clark you contributed belief, wiring it from your personal account into the joint account that you held with him. He showed you a hollow tree; you added the bees.

Gerhartsreiter’s claim was bold since the Rockefeller dynasty’s genealogy is, like Poitier’s, public record. Moreover, in the Episcopalian churches and exclusive clubs that Gerhartsreiter cleverly infiltrated there must have been some friends and relations of real members of the clan. But Kirn and others really, really wanted to know a Rockefeller. 

Gerhartsreiter was credible enough in that role to marry a $2-million-a-year McKinsey & Co. executive — a specialist in risk, too! Like Kirn, she found “Rockefeller” too good a moniker to check. In fact, under previous and nearly equally pretentious but checkable aliases, Gerhartsreiter had held responsible well-paid positions at a number of respected Wall Street firms. (Another con artist, Arthur Samuels Wolff, immortalized in his son Geoffrey’s memoir, The Duke of Deception, not only impersonated a Yale alumnus who had been asked to join the Skull and Bones secret society of Bush family fame, but also managed to get responsible positions as an aeronautical engineer and a technical manager). 

The elite of the con trade are typically brainy. Gerhartsreiter, for his part, passed difficult qualifying tests demanded by finance regulators on his first try. By the time impostors are no longer able to fake competence convincingly, they have generally moved on.

The lesson of great frauds for business, scholarship and medicine is that it is not enough to recognize the scammer who persuades the victim. The con artist induces the marks to convince themselves. Sabar cites the case of Mark Hofmann, the forger of Mormon documents (and convicted murderer!) who feigned doubt about the authenticity of his sensational “discoveries” to potential buyers. 

For experts — and the rest of us — to avoid humiliation or worse, it is necessary to fight the deceiver within.   

main topic: Economics Profession
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