A shared delusion

Everybody likes a good story. Well, once again, the Corey Starliper story, which is over a year old, is enjoying another new round of attention:

The evidence is quite clear that anyone could use Corey’s decryption technique to invent their own creepy hidden messages and claim that they, too, have uncovered something left for them by the Zodiac killer among the mysterious symbols. Unfortunately, this little detail doesn’t inflict the same rush of excitement as believing the story at face value. The allure of unsolved mysteries is too great to overcome popular, unskeptical thinking.

Francis Bacon understood this weakness about us, almost 400 years ago:

The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called ‘sciences as one would’. For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.
– Francis Bacon, Novum Organon (1620)

And numberless are the ways phantoms appear, deliberately and otherwise, within the strange cipher symbols, leading many to a ruinous path of conviction. Here is a more recent example:


Once again, someone who has found a handful of interesting words and phrases in the plain text has reached the conclusion that their decryption attempt is correct. Unfortunately, anyone can produce decryptions of the 340 cipher with a handful of interesting words and phrases. I’ve seen very many such solutions over the years. They all have some readable text, scattered in large swaths of gibberish. These solutions are easy to produce because if you allow a solution to contain a lot of gibberish, you can plug whatever you want into other parts of the cipher. From the thousands of such decryptions, how do you figure out which one is right?

Corey Starliper went a step beyond this, and decided to eliminate the constraints of the cipher text altogether, freeing him to squeeze in his invented plain text.

A frequent objection to this kind of analysis goes something like this: We can’t assume that Zodiac was a rational person, who would use a methodical encryption technique that could be easily understood or accepted. Wouldn’t he use some kind of crazy codemaking scheme that doesn’t make sense?

This is an acceptable objection. Yes, he very well could have done something insane to produce the sequence of symbols we see in the 340 cipher. But you still have to figure out which insane method is the correct one, because there are millions of them to select from!

Just because the Zodiac killer may have abandoned reason, doesn’t mean we should.