Book of Mormon Authors Unknown

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Editor’s Note: This is the seventeenth in a series of posts on Book of Mormon stylometry. For other entries in this series, see the links below.

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Summary

  • Open-set nearest shrunken centroid methods show that the Book of Mormon was not written by any of the proposed 19th century authors–at least not without some unexplained (and likely unprecedented) amount of disguising or modification of style.
  • Schaalje and Fields extended the numbers of stylometric features by including not only 74 of the noncontextual words used by Jockers et al. (removing common contextual words retained by Jockers et al.), but also two of the vocabulary richness features used by Holmes, and a number of noncontextual word pairings used by Hilton and coworkers. As we learned from the adversarial authorship studies [link], increasing the number of features studied improves our chances of identifying the correct author.
  • Just like the Holmes and Jockers et al. studies, the data of Schaalje and Fields clearly support multiple authorship for the Book of Mormon.

In the last post we saw how, if a text is written by an unknown author, the stylometric features usually don’t line up with the candidate authors in a study. Schaalje and Fields looked at the Book of Mormon texts several different ways to see if they could make the Book of Mormon texts match up with 19th-century authors.

  • They cut the Book of Mormon text into 2000 word chunks.
  • They divided it like by chapter, just like Jockers et al.
  • They compared it with the writings of Rigdon, Cowdery, Spalding, Pratt, and Smith.
  • They pretended that 2 of these 5 authors were unknown and tested those 2 authors and the Book of Mormon texts against the 3 remaining authors.

Every single time, the Book of Mormon came up as different from the test authors. Here is a summary figure for the comparison with 2000 word chunks of text:

BoMv19thCentury2000word

The Book of Mormon just doesn’t match the 19th-century authors very closely.

Apparently Jockers et al. had the data to figure out they were mostly measuring false positives right in front of them. Besides using the NSC method, they also used a method called Delta. One of the originators of this method determined empirically that Delta values between 0 and -1.9 were most likely false positives. Schaalje and Fields reproduced the Delta calculations of Jockers et al. and produced this graph:

fig9 BOM extended

You will notice that only 16 of the 239 chapters are higher than 1.9 (the graph made everything positive), and 10 of those are quotes from Isaiah and Malachi. That’s over 93% likely false positives. Oops. The fact that Delta agreed significantly with their closed-set NSC results did tell them something–just not that they had found the real authors.

The most interesting of the Schaalje and Fields figures for us Book of Mormon aficionados is this one:

BoMv19thCenturyChapters
You can see that Isaiah/Malachi significantly overlaps a small portion of the Book of Mormon chapters. Late Sidney Rigdon overlaps a few. You can also see that almost all of the Book of Mormon chapters are different in style from any of the candidate authors–and that’s only looking at the first two principal components. Adding additional principal components would only emphasize differences further. In addition, this plot gives another representation of how much each individual author’s style varies. When you draw boundaries around each author’s samples, you get areas that are roughly comparable in size. Some are bigger, some are smaller. None of them are close to the size of variation we see in the Book of Mormon samples. If the Book of Mormon were written only by authors whose styles had zero overlap, these data would indicate at least 4 or 5 different authors, even allowing for style to change with age of the author (i.e. draw circles as big as early and late Rigdon combined). If we allow for overlap like what is seen for the five 19th-century authors, the Book of Mormon could easily have been written by 20 authors. Schaalje and Fields don’t make that claim in either of these peer reviewed papers; it’s not what the method was looking for, but we don’t have to be geniuses to see it ourselves.

Recap

It has come time for us to summarize what we have learned from our detailed examination of Book of Mormon stylometry and our brief dive into stylometric methods more generally.

  • We’ve looked at studies from three different research groups on Book of Mormon authorship.
  • Two groups were critical of LDS claims of Book of Mormon authorship. One group was pro-LDS authorship claims.
  • The results of all three groups support multiple authorship for the Book of Mormon (with four authors being a very conservative lower bound from all three groups’ results).
  • None of the groups support claiming Joseph Smith as a primary author of the Book of Mormon (although vocabulary richness gives limited overlap between the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants).
  • Vocabulary richness tentatively distinguishes specific styles for Nephi, Lehi, Abraham, and Alma/Mormon, and maybe others based on the first 3 principal components.

That’s a pretty clear picture forming, whatever the rhetoric put forward in the background and conclusions sections of the various papers. It looks like two possibilities remain for rational critics of Joseph Smith’s authorship hypothesis, namely, multiple non-19th century authors. The first we examined in the adversarial authorship studies. Is it possible for some authors to change and disguise their styles according to a wide variety of measures? If critics could show historical evidence of Joseph Smith having attempted to do this that dates to close to 1830, that would be telling. It would be best if they could show that he was trying to imitate specific authors. Maybe comparing styles in the Book of Mormon with styles of specific books in the King James Bible would be good test, or with some of the books that various people have claimed comprise source material for the Book of Mormon. Authors did best at disguising their style if they were imitating someone else, so if different voices in the Book of Mormon matched different, non-candidate voices from the 19th century, that would be telling. If they could show another author who has successfully created a book with such a wide variety of statistical authorship styles as is found in the Book of Mormon, that would be telling, too, even if it weren’t proof–but we’ve only seen something like that (revealed by LDS researchers) in the writings of Faulkner, and only with numerous caveats in drawing the comparison. If critics could even write a book of similar length with as wide a variety of styles as the Book of Mormon, with none of the styles being their own, that would be something. If they could find a single authored book with this variety of styles, then at least the Book of Mormon wouldn’t be unique. Based on the data so far, single authorship and 19th-century candidate authorship are really extraordinary claims in need of evidence. With no similar examples among single authored works, Joseph’s claim of translating a multi-authored record is not only a simpler explanation, but one that more thoroughly and consistently explains the objective data.

The second alternative, although somewhat tenuous, was put forth by Jockers et al. Maybe the text is collaborative from the 19th century. Unfortunately for critics (please remember not to include Jockers among them–he really doesn’t care), they need to provide solid control data for what collaboration does to style. Then they need to show that collaboration can shift style so that it is unrecognizable as belonging to either of the collaborators, and that it can spread the styles out to look like at least four or five completely distinct authors by all the stylometric measures employed to judge the Book of Mormon. Collaboration is still a possible explanation, as is disguised and varied styles created by Joseph Smith. It seems, however, that examples of single or dual author texts with stylometric features like the Book of Mormon are as rare as angels and gold plates–maybe more.

Next Time

Thought we were done? Not yet. We still have to examine the earliest two Book of Mormon stylometry papers, and take a quick look at some internet-famous, non-professional works many of you might be wondering about before we can call it quits.

 

The Book of Mormon by jon collier licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

4 Comments

  1. W's Gravatar W
    July 28, 2015    

    Not an expert on the methods, but to this lay reader it seems to be a good case for multiple authorship.

    One thought, though:

    “Open-set nearest shrunken centroid methods show that the Book of Mormon was not written by any of the proposed 19th century authors–at least not without some unexplained (and likely unprecedented) amount of disguising or modification of style.”

    How much of this could potentially be explained by a deep attempt to generate a text using KJV language? It seems to me that there might not be a lot of texts showing up in the 19th century that did this, so perhaps that could be driving the “unprecedented” part.

    Seems like the thing to do would be to see if you could find any known 19th Century KJV imitating texts and see if the analysis ends up similar or different.

    • Jonathan Cannon's Gravatar Jonathan Cannon
      July 29, 2015    

      The unprecedented part is the wide spread of stylometric features. From the studies on fraud, we know that imitating another author’s style can change certain classes of features. To get the spread that is found in the Book of Mormon, Joseph would have had to attempt to imitate at least 4 different styles (probably more). From other studies there are indications that he would have had to do so consistently for different parts of the text (not randomly throughout), and he would have had to do it in ways that modified features that are difficult for even skilled authors to modify (pairs of function words). There is a total lack of examples of this type AND degree of variability from a single author.

      Your idea to examine KJV imitating texts could be a good one. I’d been thinking about exactly that, and your suggestion gives another question that may be more clearly answerable by stylometry. There are actually numerous texts from the time period that imitated the KJV to varying degrees, so it may be very possible.

  2. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    July 31, 2015    

    Which version of the BOM did you use? In the printers version, which should be the same as the original manuscript, there were phrases with clear Appalachian roots, which have since been changed.

    • Jonathan Cannon's Gravatar Jonathan Cannon
      August 4, 2015    

      I didn’t do these studies. The authors of various studies have used different versions, but typically use early published versions, not the earliest autograph manuscripts. Since the focus of the majority of stylometric studies focuses on function words, words with Appalachian roots would not influence the results. Only the vocabulary richness study of Holmes would have been influenced significantly by contextual words, and then only by their numbers, not their origins. If my memory serves, using more recent editions of the Book of Mormon still resulted in multiple authorship signatures by a couple of methods, so even the extensive minor editing doesn’t cloud things sufficiently to eliminate stylometric variation.

      The text very clearly uses 19th century language accessible to Joseph Smith. I believe we make a false assumption when we expect anything else, and that assumption is at the root of many asserted problems with acceptance of the Book of Mormon as at core an ancient text. I recently discovered that it is an assumption already introduced by the earliest (3rd hand) account of how Joseph translated, written down in the early 1830s, so people come by it honestly. But as best I can tell, word for word divine dictation free of mediation by the prophet isn’t how any revelation works–even if the prophet experiences it that way (I don’t think Joseph did or claimed that he did).

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