At the recent Oz Club convention in Fayetteville, New York, there was a discussion of whether stylometry (I remembered the word with the help of my PDA) could identify certain anonymous newspaper articles as the writing of L. Frank Baum.
Stylometry is the systematic analysis of writing style, based on the notion that we all have unique and unconscious quirks, preferences, and patterns in our prose. Though people have been using various stylometric techniques for centuries, the field has really taken off with computers.
Don Foster is probably the best-known stylometrist now, as he was glad to explain in his book Author Unknown (2000). But other practitioners have their own methods, based on other stylistic details and differences.
Stylometry has even been applied to Baum's writing already. In 2003, José Binongo used software to analyze The Royal Book of Oz, which was published under Baum's name but for the last fifty years been identified as Ruth Plumly Thompson's work. To no one's surprise, the book's prose turned out to have much more in common with Thompson's other novels than with Baum's. (I suspect this paper was really meant to validate that stylometric method rather than to solve the "mystery.")
On Sunday the Times of London reported on a Republican attempt to use stylometry to affect tomorrow's US election:
Dr Peter Millican, a philosophy don at Hertford College, Oxford, has devised a computer software program that can detect when works are by the same author by comparing favourite words and phrases.Which, of course, it would have been.
He was contacted last weekend and offered $10,000 (£6,200) to assess alleged similarities between [Barack] Obama’s bestseller, Dreams from My Father, and Fugitive Days, a memoir by William Ayers. . . .
The offer to Millican to prove that Ayers wrote Obama’s book was made by Robert Fox, a California businessman and brother-in-law of Chris Cannon, a Republican congressman from Utah. He hoped to corroborate a theory advanced by Jack Cashill, an American writer.
Fox and Cannon each suggested to The Sunday Times that the other had taken the initiative.
Cannon said that he merely recommended computer testing of the books. He doubted whether Obama wrote his autobiography, adding: “If Ayers was the author, that would be interesting.”
Fox said he had hoped that Cannon would raise the $10,000 to run a computer test. “It was Congressman Cannon who initially pointed me in that direction and, from our conversation, I thought he might be able to find someone [to raise the $10,000].”
He believed that if “proof” of Ayers’s involvement was provided by an Oxford academic it would be political dynamite.
Fox contacted Millican, who said: “He was entirely upfront about this. He offered me $10,000 and sent me electronic versions of the text from both books.”
Millican took a preliminary look and found the charges “very implausible”. A deal was agreed for more detailed research but when Millican said the results had to be made public, even if no link to Ayers was proved, interest waned.
Millican said: “I thought it was extremely unlikely that we would get a positive result. It is the sort of thing where people make claims after seeing a few crude similarities and go overboard on them.” He said Fox gave him the impression that Cannon had got “cold feet about it being seen to be funded by the Republicans”.
Millican also described the experience on his website, and explained how Cashill used his Signature software crudely to produce a false positive result. Anyone can download the program for educational purposes, and no doubt use it for better purposes.
Cashill is a right-wing writer known until last year for his TWA 800 and Clinton conspiracy theories. As for Rep. Cannon, he lost his Republican primary this summer and will leave Congress shortly.
Why would those two men and Fox believe that Sen. Obama couldn't have written his own autobiography? He has been, after all, a law review editor, a law school professor, and a politician known for his speeches even before he could afford speechwriters. What about Obama could make those men doubt that he could write? I wonder.