Tuesday, 2 February 2021

How we fool ourselves - from forgeries to COVID-19 denial

How is it that top art experts or millions of voters can fail to spot outright fakes? Consider the power of wishful thing.
By Tim Harford, Published The Straits Times, 1 Feb 2021

They called Abraham Bredius "The Pope", a nickname that poked fun at his self-importance while acknowledging his authority. Dr Bredius was the world's leading scholar of Dutch painters and, particularly, of the mysterious Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

When Dr Bredius was younger, he'd made his name by spotting works wrongly attributed to Vermeer. In 1937, at the age of 82, he had just published a highly respected book and was enjoying a retirement swan song in Monaco, when former Dutch MP Gerard Boon paid a visit to his villa.

Mr Boon, an outspoken anti-fascist, came to Dr Bredius on behalf of dissidents in Mussolini's Italy. They needed to raise money to fund their escape to the United States, he said. And they had something which might be of value.

He unpacked the crate he had brought out of Italy. Inside it was a large canvas, still on its 17th-century wooden stretcher. The picture depicted Christ at Emmaus, when he appeared to some of his disciples after his resurrection, and in the top left-hand corner was the magical signature: IV Meer.

Johannes Vermeer himself! Was it genuine? Only Dr Bredius had the expertise to judge.

The old man was spellbound. He delivered his verdict: Christ At Emmaus was not only a Vermeer, it was also the Dutch master's finest work. He penned an article for The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs announcing the discovery: "We have here - I am inclined to say - the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft. Quite different from all his other paintings and yet every inch a Vermeer."


He added: "When this masterpiece was shown to me, I had difficulty controlling my emotions."

That was precisely the problem.

Christ At Emmaus was a rotten fraud, of course. But although the trickery was crude, Dr Bredius wasn't the only one to be fooled. Mr Boon had been lied to as well: he was the unwitting accomplice of a master forger. Soon enough, the entire Dutch art world was sucked into the con. Christ At Emmaus sold to the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam, which was desperate to establish itself on the world stage. Dr Bredius urged the museum on and even contributed. The total cost was 520,000 guilders - compared to the wages of the time, well over US$10 million (S$13.3 million) today.

Emmaus drew admiring crowds and rave reviews. Several other paintings in a similar style soon emerged. Once the first forgery had been accepted, it was easier to pass off these other fakes. They didn't fool everyone but, like Emmaus, they fooled the people who mattered. Critics certified the forgeries; museums exhibited them; collectors paid vast sums for them - a total of more than US$100 million in today's money. In financial terms alone, this was a monumental fraud.

It is also a puzzle. Vermeer is revered as one of the greatest painters who ever lived. He painted mostly in the 1660s, and no more than 40 of his paintings were thought to have survived. The discovery of half a dozen new Vermeers in just a few years should have strained credulity. But it did not. Why?

The paintings themselves provide no answer. If you compare a genuine Vermeer with the first forgery, it is hard to understand how anyone was fooled, let alone anyone as discerning as Dr Bredius.

Emmaus is a drab, static image. The yellow-sleeved arm of a disciple seems more attached to a table than to his body, like a prank prosthetic. Christ's eyelids are droopy and strange - distinctive markers of the forger's style. And yet this picture fooled the world.

Why were people so gullible? And, as we gaze back through time at an entire community falling for an obvious con, is there a lesson we should learn today?


Those questions are why I find the Emmaus forgery so fascinating. In recent years, I have seen people believe that former US president Donald Trump is the perfect person to clean up corruption in politics; that the British government "holds all the cards" in Brexit negotiations with the European Union; that Covid-19 is no worse than flu and that if we only lifted lockdowns, it would fade away.

There are certain things that large numbers of people believe, despite the most straightforward evidence to the contrary. I wanted to understand why we work so hard to fool ourselves.

In 2011, then behavioural economist Guy Mayraz at the University of Oxford conducted a test of wishful thinking. He showed his experimental subjects a graph of the price of wheat rising and falling over time. He asked each person to make a forecast of where the price would move next and offered them a small cash reward if their forecasts came true.

Dr Mayraz had divided his experimental participants into two categories. Half were told they were "farmers" who would be paid extra if wheat prices were high. The rest were "bakers" who would earn a bonus if wheat was cheap.

The subjects could earn two separate payments, then: the first for making an accurate forecast; the second, a random windfall if the price of wheat happened to move in their direction. Yet Dr Mayraz found that people tended to forecast what they hoped would happen. The farmers hoped that the price of wheat would rise and they also predicted that the price of wheat would rise. The bakers both hoped and predicted the opposite. This is wishful thinking in its purest form: letting our reasoning be swayed by our dreams.


It's one of many studies demonstrating what psychologists call "motivated reasoning". Motivated reasoning is thinking through a topic with the aim of reaching a particular conclusion. Sometimes it's a conscious process, as with a lawyer in the courtroom or a candidate in a political debate. Often it is as instinctive as the sports fan's limitless capacity to blame the bias of the referee.

I could see wishful thinking in operation over and over again during the pandemic last year. To pick just one example, there was a moment in the summer when people started to realise that sometimes tests for Covid-19 had a false positive rate: they would flag the disease even when it wasn't there. From that dangerous little piece of knowledge came a comforting theory: as the first wave passed in Europe, perhaps the virus was gone completely. A few commentators loudly declared that there would never be a second wave. When infections ticked up again, they claimed these were just false positives.

This story never really made much sense. False positives exist but why would they increase? And then hospitalisations rose too. Then deaths. A few people kept shouting about false positives. The rest of us could see the sad truth. It seems tragic and ridiculous in hindsight. But let's not feel too smug.

If the truth is painful enough, we are all capable of clutching at comforting falsehoods. Political diehards find ways to ignore the painful experience of electoral defeat, from Mr Jeremy Corbyn's much-mocked claim after badly losing the 2019 general election in the United Kingdom that on many issues "we have won the arguments", to Mr Trump's far more malevolent assertion that the US presidential election was rigged. Tens of millions agree.

Wishful thinking isn't the only form of motivated reasoning, but it is a common one. A "farmer" wants to be accurate in his forecast of wheat prices but he also wants to make money; a political activist wants the politicians she supports to be smart and witty and incorruptible. She'll ignore or dismiss evidence to the contrary. And an art critic who loves Vermeer is motivated to conclude that the painting in front of him is not a forgery but a masterpiece. It wasn't Emmaus that fooled the world. It was wishful thinking. And we might continue to be fooled to this day had the forger not been caught out by a combination of recklessness and bad luck.


The unravelling began with a knock on the door of 321 Keizersgracht, one of Amsterdam's most exclusive addresses. It was the evening of May 29, 1945. The war in Europe was at an end.

Outside stood two soldiers from the Allied Art Commission. The door swung open to reveal an artist and art dealer named Han van Meegeren. The Dutch had just endured the near starvation of what they called the "hunger winter" but the visiting soldiers could see that at 321 Keizersgracht, there was plenty of everything.

And Van Meegeren owned more than 50 other properties scattered across the city. At 738 Keizersgracht, a 15-minute stroll away, he hosted regular orgies at which prostitutes were offered the chance to grab a fistful of jewels in the hallway as they left. Where had the money come from for all this?

The soldiers thought they knew. A masterpiece by Johannes Vermeer, The Woman Taken In Adultery, had been found in the possession of Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's right-hand man. The paper trail led back to Van Meegeren, as did several other transactions involving other Vermeer paintings. Where had he obtained these Dutch treasures?

Van Meegeren was in serious trouble: treason could carry the death penalty. After days of furious denials, he cracked.

"Idiots! You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering? But it's not a Vermeer. I painted it myself."

He claimed the others, too - including Emmaus. Many biographies have been written about Van Meegeren - including authoritative accounts by Edward Dolnick and by Jonathan Lopez, on which I have relied in retelling the story. But the more I studied the story, the more I found my gaze drawn instead to Dr Bredius, the art critic who first fell for the fraud. Van Meegeren is fascinating because he seems unique. But Dr Bredius is compelling for the opposite reason: his mistake is all too typical.

Dr Bredius' stumble is much more than a footnote in the history of art. It can teach us why we buy things we don't need or become infatuated with the wrong kind of romantic partner. It explains why we vote for politicians who betray our trust, fall for implausible theories about the coronavirus and repeat statistical claims that even a moment's thought would tell us cannot be true.

Dr Bredius knew more about his chosen subject than most of us will ever know about anything - and yet he was fooled.

Recall that he wrote: "I had difficulty controlling my emotions." That was a truer statement than he knew. When we are trying to interpret the world around us, we need to realise that our expertise can be drowned by our feelings.


Wishful thinking enabled Dr Bredius' seduction, but there was more to his error than the mere hope of finding one more Vermeer. He had published a number of conjectures about a mysterious gap in Vermeer's painting career. Might Vermeer have been working on biblical paintings, perhaps? Dr Bredius fondly speculated about a link with the Italian master Caravaggio. Van Meegeren was a forger who understood his victim all too well. He created Emmaus to confirm all Dr Bredius' theories. When Dr Bredius saw the picture, he didn't just see a painting. He saw proof that he had been right all along.

The French satirist Molière once wrote that "a learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one". Modern social science suggests that Molière was right.

In 2006, the political scientists Charles Taber and Milton Lodge looked at motivated reasoning about gun control and affirmative action. They asked people to evaluate various arguments for and against each position - and they found, as you might expect, that their subjects' political beliefs interfered with their ability to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments in front of them.

More surprising was that the process of reading the arguments pushed people further towards political extremes. This was because they grabbed on to arguments they liked and quickly dismissed the rest. Even more striking was that this polarising effect was stronger for people who already knew a lot about civics and politics. These well-informed people were better at cherry-picking the information they wanted. More information and more expertise produced more strongly motivated reasoning.

This effect is most apparent in views on climate change in the US: not only is there a huge gap between Democratic and Republican supporters over how concerned they are about climate change but the gap also grows wider among Republicans and Democrats with higher levels of education and scientific literacy. Greater knowledge does not guarantee convergence on the truth; when coupled with motivated reasoning, it can simply provide fuel for polarisation.


The authorities responsible for bringing Van Meegeren to justice unwittingly helped make his story world-famous. Forensic chemists quickly verified that, as Van Meegeren claimed, the paintings were hardened with Bakelite and aged with India ink. But prosecutors also challenged Van Meegeren to prove that he was the forger by painting a picture in the style of Emmaus. And of course he did, taking the opportunity to charm some journalists along the way. One breathless headline reported: "He Paints for His Life".

Newspapers in the Netherlands and around the world couldn't tear their gaze away from the great showman. By the time the trial came, in 1947, the charge was forgery, not treason. When Van Meegeren himself took the stand, he explained that he had only forged the art to prove his worth as an artist and to unmask the art experts as fools.

"You sold these fakes for high prices," admonished the judge.

"Had I sold them for low prices," quipped Van Meegeren, "it would have been obvious they were fake".

Peals of laughter rang out. Van Meegeren claimed that he hadn't done it for the money, which had brought him nothing but trouble. It is a bold statement from a man who hosted wild sex parties while Amsterdam starved. But the newspapers and the public were just as spellbound as Dr Bredius had been.

Found guilty of forgery, Van Meegeren was cheered as he left the courtroom. A Dutch opinion poll found that he was one of the most popular men in the country.

And that was the end of Van Meegeren's adventure. A few days after being sentenced, he was admitted to hospital with heart trouble. He died shortly after. For a while, there was even talk of putting up a statue.


Any of us is capable of falling for a lie. There is no guaranteed method of keeping ourselves safe - except to believe nothing at all, a corrosive cynicism which is even worse than gullibility.

But I can offer a simple habit of mind that I have found helpful. When you are asked to believe something - a newspaper headline, a statistic, a claim on social media - stop for a moment and notice your own feelings. Are you feeling defensive, vindicated, angry, smug? Whatever the emotional reaction, take note of it. Having done so, you may be thinking more clearly already.

So what is your emotional reaction to the story of the clever forger who fooled the experts and scammed the Nazis? Van Meegeren's early biographers fell in love with him. More recently, we have learnt the truth.

Jonathan Lopez's book, The Man Who Made Vermeers, is one of few to focus on the demonstrable fact that this likeable rogue was a Nazi. The circumstantial evidence is suggestive enough. Van Meegeren had prospered mightily under Nazi occupation. You don't get to act like that in German-occupied territory unless you've made friends with a few Nazis. But it is the documentary evidence that is really telling. The most vivid is Teekeningen 1, a grotesque anti-Semitic book illustrated and published by Van Meegeren. A copy was hand-delivered to Adolf Hitler, with a handwritten dedication in artist's charcoal: "To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute - Han van Meegeren."

It was found in Hitler's library.

What would have happened if this shocking discovery had emerged before Van Meegeren's trial?

The discomfiting truth is that it did. A Dutch resistance newspaper published the news and Van Meegeren waved it away, claiming that he had signed hundreds of copies of the book and the dedication must have been added by someone else. It's a ludicrous excuse. But people wanted to believe it. Wishful thinking is a powerful thing.

Caught in a scandal, a modern-day Van Meegeren would say "That's not my voice on the tape", or call the story "fake news". And their supporters would agree. It seems that if you show people a trickster with a sense of humour, a penchant for mocking experts and the capacity to land a few blows on a hated enemy, they will forgive a lot. What they cannot forgive they will find ways to ignore. Recent experience has only reinforced that lesson.

The facts about Van Meegeren seemed obvious enough. But facts are not the only thing that shape our thinking. Abraham Bredius was right all along when he wrote, "I had difficulty controlling my emotions."

So do we all.

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