This is the 3rd post reviewing By the Hand of Mormon, by Terryl Givens. I’ve taken a bit on an interest in wordprint studies. Givens explains wordprint studies on page 156.
Computational stylistics is based on the premise that all authors exhibit subtle, quantifiable stylistic traits that are equivalent to a literary fingerprint, or wordprint. The method has been used to investigate other instances of disputed authorship, from Plato to Shakespeare to the Federalist papers. Analyzing blocks of words from 24 of the Book of Mormon’s ostensible authors, along with nine nineteenth-century writers including Joseph Smith, three statisticians used three statistical techniques (multivariate analysis of variance, cluster analysis, and discriminant analysis) to establish the probability that the various parts of the Book of Mormon were composed by the range of authors suggested by the narrative itself. They found that all of the sample word blocks exhibit their own “discernible authorship styles (wordprints),” even though these blocks are not clearly demarcated in the text, but are “shuffled and intermixed” throughout the Book of Mormon’s editorially complex narrative structure (wherein alleged authorship shifts some 2.000 times). Emphasizing the demonstrated resistance of these methods to even deliberate stylistic imitation, they further conclude that “it does not seem possible that Joseph Smith or any other writer could have fabricated a work with 24 or more discernible authorship styles.” The evidence, they write, is “overwhelming” that the Book of Mormon was not written by Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries or alleged collaborators they tested for (including Sidney Rigdon and Solomon Spaulding).4 A subsequent, even more sophisticated analysis by a Berkeley group concluded that it is “statistically indefensible to propose Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery or Solomon Spaulding as the author of 30,000 words…attributed to Nephi and Alma…The Book of Mormon measures multiauthored, with authorship consistent with its own internal claims. These results are obtained even though the writings of Nephi and Alma were ‘translated’ by Joseph Smith.”5
Ok, let me talk about multivariate analysis of variance, cluster analysis, and discriminant analysis. These are very advanced graduate level statistical techniques. Ronald Fisher is a famous English statistician (ok, only famous to statisticians) who pioneered many of these techniques. Danish Professor Anders Hald said Fisher “almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science.” Fisher died in 1962. These techniques are really new, are frankly aren’t discussed in any bachelor’s level statistics courses.
Givens book was published in 2002. From reading this paragraph, one would think wordprint studies are solidly in favor of Mormons. However, in Dec 2008, Oxford Journals published a new study called “Reassessing authorship of the Book of Mormon using delta and nearest shrunken centroid classification.” I have a master’s degree in statistics, and until I saw this article, I had never heard of a shrunken centroid classification. I must say I have always been impressed with Wikipedia when it comes to math articles, but Wikipedia doesn’t even have an article on this shrunken centroid classification. I found this Stanford University article that describes the technique. Apparently it is used in cancer gene analysis. The authors of this Book of Mormon authorship article are three Stanford University professors: Matthew L. Jockers (English), Daniela M. Witten (Statistics), Craig S. Criddle (Civil and Environmental Engineering). They claim that “Our findings support the hypothesis that Rigdon was the main architect of the Book of Mormon and are consistent with historical evidence suggesting that he fabricated the book by adding theology to the unpublished writings of Spalding (then deceased).”
(The abstract is found here, but you have to pay $28 to actually view the article.) FAIR has criticized the methodology of the study, because they didn’t include Joseph Smith as a possible author. Why isn’t he as likely as Spalding to have written it? It appears the Stanford professors decided that the true author of the Book of Mormon was one of only seven possible authors: Oliver Cowdery, Parley P Pratt, Sidney Rigdon, Solomon Spalding, Isaiah/Malachi, Joel Barlow, and Henry Longfellow. Barlow and Longfellow are poets thrown in as control, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they didn’t match. Since the Book of Mormon includes writings of Isaiah and Malachi, these portions should easily match, and the Jockers study concludes these portions match.
I guess my biggest problem with Jockers is this. Quoting from the corrected abstract, “With the corrected data, NSC ranked Rigdon at 0.4626 and Spalding at 0.46525.” If I am understanding this correctly, these numbers are probabilities. So the probability that Sidney Rigdon is the real author if the Book of Mormon is less 50%–not exactly a ringing endorsement, I’d say.
Now, to be fair, I don’t have probabilities that Givens is referencing–perhaps they are suspect as well. But I expect that Isaiah and Malachi have much higher probabilities than 0.4626 for Jockers study. So, what do you think of wordprint studies?