Yesterday I read The Monster of Florence: A True Story, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. When I say I read it yesterday, I mean I consumed the entire 328 page book in one day, staying up well into the night to finish it.
It's a real page turner that recounts a series of baffling murders in Florence, Italy, and the remarkably inept police investigations that ensued. In the course of these investigations several completely innocent people ended up in prison, each accused of being the serial killer, only to be released when the real killer struck again. The book makes clear that there was little or no evidence convicting any of these people and that prosecutors simply saw the high profile case as a good way to advance their own careers. The faster they could convict somebody – anybody – of the crime, the faster they would move up the ranks. They do not appear to have been overly scrupulous about the methods used.
Besides career opportunism, there was another motive driving the prosecutors and police. Once they came up with a theory, no matter how far-fetched, they would stick to it to the bitter end. They were utterly unwilling to change their minds, and they regarded any criticism of their position as evidence that the critic himself was covering up for the murderer. In the culture of Italy, to lose face is unthinkable, and an authority figure who had to admit he was wrong would suffer a severe loss of face. Any alternative, including putting innocent people in jail for life, was preferable. And no amount of evidence could possibly persuade a person whose "face" was on the line to back down.
Preston and Spezi provide a good example of this attitude. Authorities concocted the theory that a doctor who had drowned in a local lake was actually part of a secret society that organized the killings in order to harvest body parts for occult rituals. Needless to say, there was absolutely no evidence supporting the existence of such a society or such rituals. Of course, the absence of evidence simply meant that the society was exceptionally good at covering its tracks!
The trouble was that the official medical examination had ruled accidental drowning as the cause of death. To get around this obstacle, authorities conjectured that someone else's body had been substituted for that of the murdered man. Incredibly, they were able to get permission to exhume the corpse, at which point they discovered that it was indeed the body of the doctor and not a substitute. Did they abandon their theory? Not at all. They simply deduced that the secret society had made a second substitution – digging up the corpse and putting the doctor's remains into the coffin before the remains could be officially exhumed.
In other words, the discovery of the doctor's body in the coffin was taken as evidence that the secret society was even more powerful and wily than originally believed. And this pattern was repeated throughout the investigations. Evidence contrary to the official line of reasoning was either ignored or explained away as having been manufactured by the conspirators to throw the investigators off track. The more exonerating evidence was uncovered, the larger and more nefarious the conspiracy was proven to be! And anyone who questioned these methods was immediately suspected of being part of the conspiracy himself.
Incidentally, the same judge who ordered the exhumation of the drowned man's body also directed the investigation into the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, which resulted in the imprisonment of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito without a scintilla of evidence against either of them. As before, the judge had come up with an elaborate and totally unsupported theory involving a Satanic ritual to explain the murder, even though the facts of the case pointed to a much simpler story – a break-in gone wrong.
Corruption and fear of losing face are two of the big issues here, but why do the Italian people stand for it and even cheer on the prosecutors who make such transparently ridiculous allegations? Douglas Preston got an answer to this question from an Italian friend after his co-author, Mario Spezi, was himself arrested and jailed on charges of being the Monster (or perhaps aiding and abetting the Monster – the actual charges were never quite clear). Spezi had irritated the authorities by writing articles and participating in TV programs that debunked their cherished theory of the case. The authorities struck back by cobbling together the preposterous story that the veteran journalist must be in on it and intentionally covering for the real killer, and that he may have committed the crimes himself. Worldwide condemnation resulted in Spezi's eventual release, but only after months of incarceration, including one five-day period when he was not even permitted to talk to a lawyer.
Preston fought vigorously for his friend's release, but in the process learned something important about the Italian mindset:
[The Italians] viewed my outrage as naïve and a bit gauche. To be outraged is to be earnest, to be sincere – and to be a dupe. Some Italians were quick to strike the pose of the world-weary cynic who takes nothing at face value and who is far too clever to be taken in by Spezi's and my protestations of innocence.
"Ah!" said Count Niccolo in one of our frequent conversations. "Of course Spezi and you were up to no good at that villa! Dietrologia insisted it be so. Only a naïf would believe that you two journalists went to the villa 'just to have a look.' The police wouldn't have arrested Spezi for no reason! You see, Douglas, an Italian must always appear to be furbo. You don't have an English equivalent for that marvelous word. It means a person who is wily and cunning, who knows which way the wind is blowing, who can fool you but never be fooled himself. Everyone in Italy wants to believe the worst of others so they don't end up looking gullible. Above all, they want to be seen as furbo."
Elsewhere, the count explained the term dietrologia as
"the idea that the obvious thing cannot be the truth. There is always something hidden behind, dietro. It isn't quite what you Americans call conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory implies theory, something uncertain, a possibility. The dietrologist deals only in fact. This is how it really is. Aside from football, dietrologia is the national sport in Italy. Everyone is an expert at what's really going on, even … how do you Americans say it? … even if they don't know jack shit."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it gives them a feeling of importance! This importance may only be confined to a small circle of idiotic friends, but at least they are in the know. Potere, power, is that I know what you do not know. Dietrologia is tied to the Italian mentality of power. You must appear to be in the know about all things."
"How does this apply to the Monster investigation?"
"My dear Douglas, it is the very heart of the matter! At all costs, they have to find something behind the apparent reality. There cannot not be something. Why? Because it is not possible that the thing you see is the truth. Nothing is simple, nothing is as it seems. Does it look like a suicide? Yes? Well then it must be murder. Somebody went out for coffee? Aha! He went out for coffee … But what was he really doing?"
Although the count contrasted dietrologia with conspiracy theories, I don't think there is really much difference between them. Most proponents of conspiracy theories do not treat their speculations as "mere theory," but as self-evident fact. Their motivation seems to be just the same as that ascribed to the dietrologists - a desire to be in the know, to feel smarter than everybody else, and above all, not to be a dupe.
This potent cocktail of furbo, face-saving, and opportunism explains a lot about the Italian justice system. But I think it also provides an explanation for the behavior of at least some militant debunkers of the paranormal. Many of them give the unmistakable impression that their greatest fear is to be fooled, and their greatest pride is that they can see through any deception. They are not taken in by surface appearances; they always dig up the real story, no matter how convoluted and far-fetched. And they cannot be persuaded to change their minds; if evidence is produced that casts doubt on their position, they either ignore it or explain it away. Finally, like the dietrologists, they are deeply cynical about human nature and seem to regard earnestness as a sign of naïveté, an indication that one has been duped. Smart people, they appear to feel, are always in on the con, and are never more than wryly amused by it.
To be clear, I'm not talking about all skeptics, or even all of the militant ones. But I do think this kind of attitude is pretty widespread in the skeptical community and would be on open display at any skeptical gathering. The methods used by many professional skeptics - sarcasm, ridicule, authoritative-sounding pronouncements unanchored to any facts - are in line with these skeptics' self-image as more clever, more worldly, and more knowledgeable than the rubes and yokels who are readily taken in by sleight of hand, slippery language, and assorted con games.
It's hard to overestimate the amount of damage this mentality can cause. The damage is obvious in miscarriages of justice (as in the Florence and Perugia cases), and less obvious in other areas, such as controversies over the paranormal and other out-of-the-mainstream subjects. I suppose it all boils down to insecurity, which would explain the desperate desire to save face, the need to appear more knowledgeable than other people, and the thirst for power, which is often sought as a way to compensate for personal inadequacies.
Overall, it's a sorry picture of the human race - and by no means limited to Italy. Furbo is everywhere ... and it is not our friend.