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The Tichborne Imposture

Extract

It is a pity that some one possessed of the requisite knowledge and of suitable analytical power has not undertaken a study of the notorious Tichborne trial from a psychological point of view. No richer mine of erroneous observation and fallacious inference will easily be found. The sublime audacity of the Claimant has served to put in a strong and vivid light the truth, which is illustrated every day in a less striking way, that it is impossible to go too far in speculating upon the stupidity of mankind. And it may fairly be questioned whether those who, having for some time firmly believed that the Claimant was Sir Roger Tichborne, are now convinced that he was a vulgar impostor, deserve any more credit for their present disbelief than they did for their former belief in him. Neither the one nor the other has been founded upon a rational exercise of their mental faculties. They believed in him because their minds were much impressed with the knowledge which he displayed of certain circumstances that occurred to Sir Roger, and which he had the means of easily learning, entirely overlooking all those facts of which he knew nothing, but which, had he been what he represented himself, he could not, having the memory which he had, possibly have forgotten. They were like those who testified to his identity with Sir Roger, and who, being struck with certain resemblances which they imagined they perceived, ignored altogether gross and palpable differences. This is one of the commonest fallacies in observation, and one which everyone who is accustomed to observe carefully knows well that he must guard against; it requires a better observer to take notice of differences than of resemblances; and hence it is that the testimony of most persons concerning identity based upon vague resemblances of features is valueless. The strong tendency to erroneous generalisation, which is thus manifested in perception, is manifested also in the formation of crude and hasty inferences from observation. A few instances of a like kind which seem to warrant the generalisation engage all the attention, while the opposing instances which entirely contradict it are overlooked; the mind, as Bacon remarked, being more moved by affirmative than by negative instances, although the latter are of more weight in philosophy. “What would have become of the authority of weather prophets and of omens, of the saying that dreams come true, and of the opposite equally well founded saying that dreams go by contraries, of the proverb—”Talk of the devil and he's sure to appear,” and of the belief in the special answers vouchsafed to prayers, were it not for this inherent tendency in the human mind to take note of coincidences and to neglect opposing instances. “And therefore it was a good answer,” says Bacon, “that was made by one, who when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped from shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods, ‘Ay,’ asks he again, ‘but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?“”

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
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The Tichborne Imposture

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