In discussing Erdnase candidates, sometimes someone objects that this or that guy simply cannot be the man because he doesn’t match in terms of age, looks or body height with the book’s illustrator Marshall D. Smith‘s recollections of meeting the author some 40+ years earlier.
This simplistic view seems rather daring to me, as there are at least six points to consider:
1. In general, people are lousy observers and make horrible witnesses (even though they usually believe otherwise). You can ask any police officer, criminologist or judge about this. Also think of fascinating phenomena such as inattentional blindness and change blindness, which both reveal and debunk our allegedly “super observation powers.”
2. More than one hundred years of research into memory, mind and brain have also detected major flaws and tricky secret mechanisms running in our head. There is recent research that suggests that we are constantly and inadvertently creating false memories over time, and we fully believe them. For a memory bit is not a fixed, tangible asset that is safely stored away on a shelf somewhere in the back of our head and can easily pulled forth once we remember it; on the contrary, it is probably more like a tangled web of loose bits and ends scattered somewhere on our neuronal memory hard disk drive, and as we try to retrieve a file and pass it on (e.g., tell it to someone else), there is a good chance that we are actually rewriting and reediting our own “memory” in that very moment. But we swear that “it happened exactly that way, because we remember it so vividly!” (For a fascinating read on these and other brain-related topics, you may want to check out The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.)
3. Try to remember any single, insignificant event in your life 40+ years ago in detail, and describe the look, height, manner, speech etc. of any person you have met only once or twice back then… Good luck! Except for some major events (like „…and then that shabby magician at the country fair smacked me several times with a big yellow stuffed rabbit!“) you are very likely to fail or misremember. And even if you think you do remember in detail, you may have fallen victim to the mechanism described above in #2.
4. Smith was not under rigorous professional interrogation, but likely prodded and influenced by an enthusiastic and biased Martin Gardner, who may inadvertently have forced many „facts“ on Smith, seeking affirmation.
5. Besides, it’s not that Smith had displayed super memory powers, right? He seemed to remember some details clearly, but he failed miserably, for example, to remember other vital details as to the man’s name (how he introduced himself), even how often he met him and how many drawings he had actually made, and from which bank the check he received was issued. Duh!
6. The fact that M. D. Smith’s name as the book’s illustrator was given away on the frontispiece is somewhat peculiar. If Erdnase desperately wanted to remain anonymous, he must have known that Smith was a risk to that goal. So why mention his name at all? In this case, it also seems unlikely to me that any anagram or wordplay shifting “S.W. Erdnase” around would directly reveal the author’s true name.
On the other hand, Erdnase might have been so proud of his work that he wanted his (magic) peers to find out and just put some minor obstacles in their way, like in a merry treasure hunt. In this case, publishing M.D. Smith’s name could have been used as one possible key to finding the author. Using “Erdnase” as a simple anagram of the author’s real name (be it Andrews, Sanders, Anders, …) might have been another key then.
(to be continued in my next post)