Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth: “Report to the I.I.A.S.”

"Letters from the Earth"

One of the articles in Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth is the “Report to the I.I.A.S.” or Indianapolis Institute of Applied Science, written in 1909. In this letter, the secretary of the Institute must decide upon the truth of a report that an explorer has reached the North Pole.
He consults a professor of Comparative Science and Theology:

Professor Bledso asked leave to consider the question for a few minutes. Then he said, “The answer, yes or no, depends entirely upon the answer to this question: Is it claimed that Dr. Cook’s achievement is a Fact, or is it a Miracle?”

“Why so?”

“Because if it is a Miracle, any sort of evidence will answer, but if it is a Fact, proof is necessary…. A very pertinent remark has been quoted from the Westminster Gazette, which points out that ‘the golfer, when he puts in a record round, has to have his card signed, and that there is nobody to sign Dr. Cook’s card; there are two Eskimos to vouch for his feat, but they were his caddies, and at golf their evidence would not be accepted.’ There you have the whole case. If Dr. Cook’s feat is put forward as a Fact, the evidence of his two caddies is inadequate; if it is put forward as a Miracle, one caddy is plenty.”

“Is there really all that difference between Fact and Miracle?”

“Yes, there is history for it—ages of history. There has never been a Miracle that noticeably resembled a Fact. Take an illustration. Mr. Janvier quotes this item from Henry Hudson’s log—Hudson wrote it fourteen months before his discovery of the River:

‘This morning one of our companie looking overboard saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up and by that time shee was come close to the ships side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after a sea came and overturned her. From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a woman, but her body as big as one of us. Her skin was very white, and long hair hanging downe behinde of colour blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porpoise, and speckled like a macrell. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner.’

“Observe, to Hudson that was not a Fact, it was a Miracle. How do I know this? Because he believes, on the mere say-so of a couple of sailors. He knows they saw the mermaid, for he doesn’t say he thought they saw, he says with convinced positiveness, they saw. Very well. As a Miracle, the sailors’ say-so is quite sufficient—indeed, more than sufficient; there isn’t a better-grounded Miracle in history. But to Dr. Asher, a recent commentator, who considered that Hudson was registering the incident as a Fact, the evidence was but caddy evidence and quite inadequate. He remarks, ‘Probably a seal.'”

“Then the difference—”

“Quite so. The difference between a Miracle and a Fact is exactly the difference between a mermaid and a seal.

Mark Twain has given us a new term for biased evidence from interested parties: “caddy evidence.”

A manatee swimming beside a mermaid

Whence came mermaids?

See also:
Letters from the Earth: Noah, his Ark, and the dinosaurs
Letters from the Earth: An unjust war

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