Thursday, June 12, 2014

Literary Detection: a Book of Mormon-centric Review

“If the odds for or against some event are prodigious, particularly if they support some conclusions uncongenial to us, then they will only appear to be ludicrous. So there are really two problems and not one. The first is what odds are required to settle the dispute? And the other is what odds will convince the scholar that it has been settled? Rather surprisingly it appears that the first odds may be larger than the second.” A. Q. Morton. Literary Detection: How to prove authorship and fraud in literature and documents. A. Q. Morton. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1978, p. 154.
In trying to understand stylometry, I followed the footnotes back to an early book on the subject. A. Q. Morton wrote a mid-sized book that is an introduction to and a review of stylometry up to the 1970s. He takes time to not only explain stylometry, but to help the reader sort through the statistical methods employed. It's a little less than a thorough explanation of the statistics, and a lot more than a discussion aimed at experts only. While I found many things in the first 2/3 of the book useful, it is the last 1/3 where he explores specific applications of stylometry which really grabbed my attention.

Near the beginning of the section on applications, Morton wrote the sentences I quoted above. He was bemoaning the same fact that so many encounter when the become 'scientifically enlightened' on a subject. Statistics can show something to be true with 95, or 99, or 99.9999999% certainty, and people will still refuse to believe it if "some conclusions are uncongenial to us". 95% certainty, with all the proper controls performed and all variables accounted for, is enough to convince most experts that the dispute is settled, but 99.9999999% certainty may be insufficient to end the dispute if strong sentiment is attached to related conclusions. This discrepancy comes up most strongly in Morton's discussion of authorship of the Pauline Epistles.

Pauline Epistles 

In many ways the Pauline Epistles are good candidates for stylometry. They are composed of ~50,000 words, and they can be compared with epistles on similar topics by other Greek authors of the same time period. As Morton puts it:
“There are numbers of letters from the same period, from earlier and later periods too. The mode of composition and of reproduction is unremarkable. Any claim that the letters might have been based on other sources is stoutly contested.” 
Stylometry studies using these resources conclude that only four (or five) of the epistles share the same stylometric signature. To explain the varieties of style some biblical scholars have followed this tack:
“a special case was made that Paul had used an amanuensis to write down what he wished to say and that this was the cause of the differences. This argument has two fatal defects. The first is the question--If an amanuensis gives us something quite unlike Paul, what right has anyone to call it Paul’s? The second objection is that though amanuenses were commonly employed, only in this case has it to be argued that the use made any difference to the text.” p. 166
The last observation is not quite true, today. As we saw from his 2013 study, Jockers has made the claim that scribal influence on Joseph Smith's writings have made it impossible to identify a uniform style for Joseph, but that the writings are still meaningfully from the Prophet. Of course, if Jockers were correct Biblical scholars would be in a bit of a bind. We would have historical evidence of religious documents all coming from the same author but having multiple distinct styles. Those would continued to claim multiple authorship for Pauline epistles would have lost their objective, statistical evidence for it and would be stuck with their more methodologically driven evidence. Fortunately for them, Jockers's conclusions are contradicted by the results of Holmes, Schaalje, and the other two groups that have measured Joseph Smith's style, and he does have a consistent enough style in his dictated writings to separate it from many authors. But back to Morton and Paul:
“The Pauline letters are Greek prose and every feature of them can be paralleled in Greek prose writing. There is no reason why they should not be treated as a particular example of a general problem, the authorship of Greek prose. Yet this is just what many scholars cannot bring themselves to accept. Their resentment is clear, but it is seldom clear which object it is directed against; it may be that mere human agency and intelligence presumes to measure the word of God, or that the results of such enquiries do not support their own published views. . . . Whatever the source of the animus, the consequences are the same; hypotheses are ridiculed rather than tested, the normal imperfections of publication, printer’s errors and omissions, are blamed on the author, challenges are thrown down but refused when the gauntlet is picked up. In 1965 the Bishop of London wrote a letter to The Times saying he would believe this kind of science only when it was shown that Henry James had stable habits in his range of writings. Evidence of this having been available for more than two years, the Bishop has not been heard from.” p. 166
I'm proud to view the efforts of LDS scholars in this regard. The stylometric gauntlet has been thrown down several times and they have taken it up each time by publishing more and more rigorously controlled analyses of our own historical texts. As to the interesting conclusions of Morton regarding the Pauline epistles, he concludes that stylometry supports the view that four epistles (Romans, I and II Corinthians, and Galatians) are by a single author. Philemon is too short to say anything about. Other epistles appear to be stylistically different necessitating other explanations of their origins than purely Pauline. Referring not only to the stylometric evidence, but to a larger sum of evidence:
“The weight of evidence accumulated about the authorship of the Pauline epistles is impressive. So far, attempts to counter it have involved special pleading, but each piece of such pleading further complicates the simplicity which alone would commend the traditional position. If you assume all fourteen letters are by Paul and any difference must have an explanation which shows that special circumstances applied to modify the pure Paul, then you are really in the same position as the Ptolemaic astronomers who argued that all the planets followed the sun round the earth. Every discrepancy needed another complication to be added to the theory, until it collapsed under its own weight and it was at last conceded that the sun was the centre of the system and not the earth. . . . The most salutary experience for the advocates of such refinements is to look at the historical records and see what has been attributed to Paul and why. They might well begin with the museum in Tarsus which showed the boots in which Paul walked the Mediterranean world or the Italian village which had on display both skulls of the Apostle, one as a man and the other as a boy. Many traditions last a long time for reasons other than verity.” p 183
So biblical authorship is a complicated mess. Clear origins are lost to history, and available evidence makes clear that they are more complicated than the traditional story. While I enjoy Morton's poke at the superstition and stupidity that can accompany religious belief, I don't find these observations so simple to apply to Book of Mormon origins, and such belittling tends to polarize emotions more than is useful. For example, one set of arguments points out apparent 19th century influences on the Book of Mormon, emphasizes the supernatural elements of Joseph Smith's story, and eventually implies that we historical believers are superstitious fools who haven't faced the hard evidence (even if they refrain from saying as much). I, on the other hand, see apparent ancient elements in the Book of Mormon and take Joseph Smith's story seriously as it applies directly to the text. I thus eliminate the seemingly supernatural from the equation, since no one can test if Joseph Smith saw an angel, and no one can go back and see what Joseph Smith was seeing with his head in a hat as he dictated. What we can examine is his claims that the Book of Mormon is a translation, that it was written by multiple authors, and that it plausibly captures views of ancient life rather than Joseph Smith's (or his supposed 19th century sources) imaginations stemming from 19th century life and understandings.

Another Book of Mormon Challenge

Stylometry has answered the second of these questions. Every study has shown multiple authorship, including the critical ones that weren't trying to. They didn't calculate the probabilities of different numbers of authors because they were committed from the outset to limiting authorship to Joseph Smith or to a few of his contemporaries, but they supported multiple authorship nonetheless. An insufficiently controlled, informal stylometry study has shown that large numbers of unusual, 19th century, pseudo-biblical phrases are in the Book of Mormon. This observation is superficially easily explained by claiming Joseph Smith plagiarized large portions from early 19th century sources. It is also easily explained by viewing the Book of Mormon as a translation into 19th century, pseudo-biblical language. I suppose it's my turn to throw down the gauntlet for stylometrists who are critical of Joseph's story--statistically show the plagiarism, please. You don't have any historical evidence to show that Joseph copied any book (not even the Bible, and that's clearly in the Book of Mormon). No passage in the Book of Mormon is a direct copy of any of the proposed sources, but rather an intricate, coherent pastiche of at least a dozen unrelated and incoherent sources. Since Joseph didn't copy either the exact words (other than short, disjointed phrases) or exact stories (other than short groupings of significantly modified but sequentially similar events), and he used a single scribe for most of it, and all the scribes wrote his dictation word for word, and we have most of the original manuscript, please explain statistically why there are multiple, distinct authorship styles? Whose styles was Joseph copying? Why was he changing it up? We have statistical and objective evidence that he did. Objectively incorporate it into your story. At least show us other documents where these things have been done, in whole or in part. If it weren't tied up in religious feeling, like the Pauline epistles, I suspect that the question of multiple authorship for the Book of Mormon would be long since resolved. Joseph didn't write it, and no single person did. It is a translation of something into 19th century, pseudo-biblical English. That is what stylometry shows, and it is only the religious (or anti-religious) fervor that keeps most people from accepting it. We are unable or unwilling on all sides of the debate to separate these objective observations from manifold ideological conclusions.

Next time . . .
When I continue the review, we will examine Morton's evidence for the difficulty of stylometric fraud in authorship and see how it differs from the later, adversarial authorship studies previously discussed.

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