Some Thoughts on WordPrint

Just a quick post on the current kerfuffle over wordprint studies. Wordprint studies are a type of stylometry that look at certain connective words that aren’t main words in a sentence. The claim is that they can determine the authorship of a text. Now I’ve always been skeptical of this, even back in its heyday in the 90’s.

The main problem is of course that depending upon how you slice up the text you get very different answers. More significantly with the text from Mosiah through Mormon the author is primarily Mormon. It’s basically impossible to tell, even if a figure is speaking first hand, what is Mormon summarizing in his own words versus what the original speaker said. I’ve also always have in the back of my mind the worry you see in econometrics. There sometimes the data is sliced and resliced until a desired result appears with an appropriate p value. Of course this isn’t quite the same, but in the back of my mind that’s long been my worry. There’s a lot of subjectivity to most of these studies of the Book of Mormon.

I’ve thus been a strong skeptic of wordprint studies back when they were so popular among apologists. Every few years a critic does a wordprint study and I remain critical for the same reasons.

The problems go well beyond the problem who who wrote what. There are good reasons to assume that the underlying text is highly compressed and possibly consists of ideograms. Joseph Smith and others at the time thought this was true of Egyptian but Egyptian was actually primarily phoenetic. That doesn’t mean whatever mysterious cipher Nephi and Mormon are writing with isn’t more ideographic in nature. Indeed Joseph appears to think they are. The descriptions in the text of the Book of Mormon at minimum suggest a high degree of textual compression and plausibly ideograms. The other huge problem is that more and more are coming around to Brant Gardner’s model of a very loose translation of the underlying text.[1] There are good reasons for this such as apparently using KJV and other phrases to translate a similar idea on the underlying plate. However that mean that if we have quotations used frequently to translate that the connective words would be highly biased from the KJV and other phrases.

The biggest problem is that problem of ideograms though. I don’t see how it is solvable. Admittedly that the underlying text is made of ideograms of some sort (including mnemonic shortands) is a speculative theory. But it seems a theory not easily dismissed. The problem is that with such a text there are no connective words for wordprint to operate on. They would be added in according to the aesthetics and methodology of whatever process is doing the actual translation.

There’s an easy test for all this of course. Test the methodology with texts based upon ideograms and see what survives translation using wordprint analysis. It’s telling that neither apologists nor critics have made this obvious test. Compare two translations of say the Tao Te Ching. Or better yet the Analytics comparing passages that scholars have concluded have different authors.[2] Getting translations of the Analytics along with authorship lists should be easy. I’ll go out on a limb and say the wordprint methods won’t work. If they won’t work there then I think we should dismiss them relative to the Book of Mormon.[3]

 

  1. To be clear, since people confuse this all the time, the translation can be loose while the control Joseph uses with the Urim & Thummim or seer stone can be tight. They are orthogonal claims.
  2. To clarify Chinese is not a pure ideogram system. So it almost certainly contains more information than I suspect the Book of Mormon does. My point is just when you haven’t even done those cases it’s hard to take claims towards the Book of Mormon seriously.
  3. Want to argue about Shakespearean authorship? Go for it. There are least there some ground for the methods. I’m still extremely skeptical but at least there’s a level of plausibility. That said I’d have far more confidence if we had more scientific testing. The claim is that wordprints are like fingerprints. However again I’m pretty skeptical. I should note that identify or rejecting 19th century authors might be doable. As I said I’m skeptical but my main target is authors within the text.

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