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FAIR: Wordprint analysis and the Book of Mormon

Published: Monday, Aug. 8 2011 11:16 a.m. MDT

SANDY — A persistent but many times refuted theory meant to debunk the divine origin of the Book of Mormon was itself disputed yet again in a presentation at Friday's concluding session of the FAIR apologetics conference.

FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetics Information and Research, holds the conference annually to answer criticisms against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though it is not formally affiliated with the church.

The Spaulding-Rigdon theory, first proposed in 1834 by E. D. Howe, holds that Sidney Rigdon concocted the Book of Mormon by plagiarizing a novel written by one Solomon Spaulding, then used Joseph Smith, an uneducated farm boy to pass it off to the world as scripture.

At the FAIR Conference, statistical analyst Paul Fields presented an assessment of one of the latest attempts to validate the Spaulding-Rigdon theory, a stylometric, or "wordprint," analysis of the Book of Mormon.

Fields' study scrutinizes a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Literary and Linguistic Computing, written by Matthew Jockers, Craig Criddle and Daniela Witten of Stanford University that identified Rigdon as the Book of Mormon author.

Criddle is a civil engineer and a contributor to an Internet message board for ex-Mormons. According to a Dec. 12, 2008, website post, he recruited his Stanford colleagues, Jockers, a professor of English, and Witten, a graduate student in statistics, to help prepare the paper, titled "Reassessing Authorship of the Book of Mormon Using Delta and Nearest Shrunken Centroid Classification," with Jockers being the lead author.

The authors observed from the Book of Mormon the frequency in use of 110 non-contextual words (such as a, an, but, however, then, to, with, without) and applied to that observation innovative statistical techniques assuming Solomon Spaulding, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and Parley P. Pratt as the candidate authors for the Book of Mormon.

In a response article published in the same journal in January of this year — and in his FAIR conference address — Fields criticized the paper by Jockers, Criddle and Witten on a number of points. Speaking to the FAIR conference audience, he characterized their work as "opinion masquerading as research."

Most surprising, Fields said, is that the authors failed to include Joseph Smith as a candidate author. "If anyone would have been the author, it must have been Joseph Smith, one would think, being otherwise uninformed," he said.

"They also confused the concept of things being closest with being close," Fields said.

To illustrate, he posed the question of which city is closest to Los Angeles out of New York, Chicago and Salt Lake City. While Salt Lake City is the closest, most people would not consider it anywhere near Los Angeles. Similarly, while Rigdon might have the closest probability out of the four candidates to being the Book of Mormon author, even that probability is not very close.

Moreover, Fields said, Jockers and colleagues retained their control cases in the final analysis: Isaiah and Malachi as authors whose words are known to reside in the text, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Joel Barlow, whose words do not. "Control cases are useful in validating the reliability of one's technique but aren't useful in calculating the closeness of the candidates in the final analysis," he explained.

Fields displayed a scatter plot graph showing the candidate authors' words being close to one another, and those of one of the authors being closest to the Book of Mormon text, but showing a substantial gap between the candidates as a group and the Book of Mormon text.

"They have built a fatal flaw into their analysis, because they contend that only these four individuals could have written the Book of Mormon," Fields said. "From the very start, they have cooked the books."

To illustrate the flaw in analysis, Fields said that, using the Stanford researchers' methodology, it can be shown that Sidney Rigdon wrote 34 of the 85 Federalist Papers (even though he wasn't yet born) and that Rigdon wrote 30 percent of the chapters in the Bible.

"But how about their own paper? " Fields asked. "If we say the author of their paper had to be one of these four candidates and could not have been anyone else, the winner is Oliver Cowdery. Although he died in 1870, he wrote their paper that was published in 2008. If they want to stand by the findings in their paper, they must acknowledge Oliver Cowdery, at least as a co-author."

Email: rscott@desnews.com

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