Another Fun Statistical Squabble Over Book of Mormon Origins

Hot dog! An intriguing statistical squabble is underway in Mormondom. You can dig into the details in Benjamin L. McGuire’s excellent article, “The Late War Against the Book of Mormon” over at one of the leading sources for LDS scholarship and Mormon studies, The Mormon Interpreter.

There’s nothing like a battle of statistics to kick off the holiday season, with Thanksgiving and Christmas in the air. Santa Claus displays, Christmas trees, ornaments, and all sorts of Christmas paraphernalia are now on sale now in Shanghai, here in the atheist nation that isn’t ashamed to keep the word “Christ” in Christmas, and where you can enjoy actual religious hymns being played in drug stores and elevators.

McGuire takes on yet another attempt by critics to explain away the Book of Mormon as some sort of plagiarism from modern sources. For some background on this theme, see my LDSFAQ page on plagiarism and the Book of Mormon. In this newest attack, a highly questionable method has been used to look for “influence” between texts based on four-word strings that they have in common. An allegedly strong influence for the Book of Mormon is found in a text published in 1816: The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain. As is fairly typical for the many books alleged to have influenced the imagined bookworm Joseph Smith or to have been sources for material in the Book of Mormon, there is no evidence that he actually ever saw this book, much less relied on it whenever he needed, say, a four-word phrase such as, say, “entitled an act supplementary.” Oh, my mistake (and that of the critics): that was one of the 75 matches out of 479 total between the two texts that come from the widespread boilerplate of the copyright statement at the beginning of the books. There are quite a few other problems with the attack that McGuire skewers nicely.

However, I’d like to add a couple of my comments. Books like The Late War, by virtue of being deliberately written in scriptural style, would seem to be much more likely to use different words and grammar patterns than others in normal prose. Even after direct matches from the Bible are subtracted, the higher incidence of words like “unto” instead of “to” and “verily” and so forth have got to make it more likely for this kind of statistical analysis to highlight similarities when there may be zero actual influence.

The Tanners have pointed out a number of three and four-word parallels in the Book of Mormon with other texts, alleging plagiarism. I had some fun with the weakness of their argument by showing much more impressive Book of Mormon parallels with another text, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. OK, there is the slight problem that the Book of Mormon was written first, but the evidence for Joseph’s plagiarism is still far more impressive than with any other alleged modern source I’ve seen, which only proves the weakness of using occasional parallels in phrasing as evidence to explain away the Book of Mormon. My apologies to those whose faith was shaken by my little spoof.

Benjamin, if you read this, could you also apply statistical tools to compare Whitman’s work with the Book of Mormon and see how it fares relative to The Late War? I’m curious.

Also, for those needing a little more math, see the follow-up article, “A Bayesian Cease-Fire in the Late War on the Book of Mormon” by G. Bruce Schaalje. Bayesian statistics–now that’s something to bring in the holiday spirit! On average, that is, and after the fact.

Update, Nov. 8, 2013: You can read the text of the Late Great War at Brace yourself, fellow Mormons. There are some interesting, non-trivial parallels such as the phrase “curious workmanship” and arguable parallels in some of the military conflicts. Maybe not as interesting as the parallels in The Leaves of Grass, but that’s for you to decide.

Meanwhile, over at BYU Studies, you can also scan the list of books that were in the Manchester library, potentially available to Joseph Smith during preparation of the Book of Mormon, and see that The Late Great War was not there. Is there any evidence that he or anyone close to him was familiar with it?

Author: Jeff Lindsay

11 thoughts on “Another Fun Statistical Squabble Over Book of Mormon Origins

  1. Reminds me of the quote, "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts – for support rather than illumination."

    If you devise a novel method of using statistics to reach a conclusion you have to first prove that your method works before you can use it to test a theory. You can't combine the test of a novel method with an unproven theory and then draw any conclusions from that. Doing so fundamentally undermines the scientific process.

    From what I have read they also did an analysis of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin and managed to find influences that no literary scholar had ever found before. If that is the case then this is the biggest break through in literary history. They should rush and publish before they get scooped (stated sarcastically). Or perhaps that proves that their method doesn't work.

  2. How can you celebrate Christmas without hearing "Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart" at least 10 times a day like we do in the USA?

  3. I've seen the discussions on other boards about this, and while it doesn't affect my own testimony, I can see how for some it will cause them to stumble. There are enough seemingly uncanny similarities to cause one who has not yet built a testimony to question.

    That being said…I LOVED the Walt Whitman piece, had me smiling the while time as so much of the language you wrote mirrored the "nail in the coffin" approach I'd seen on the discussion boards. Really great satire, and a good examp,e of just how difficult it can be to measure influence in the manner they are suggesting.

  4. It may be fun to squabble over the statistical methods used to identify the book, but the fact is, when you read the thing, it is uncanny sometimes in its similarity to the Book of Mormon.

  5. Is there any evidence, other than the similarities with the BoM, that Walt Whitman read the Book of Mormon before writing Leaves of Grass?

  6. On 'curious workmanship', there's also this quote from Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis:

    "And therefore hath she bribed the Destinies
    To cross the curious workmanship of nature"

    Mark Steele

  7. 1898 a book called "Wreck of the Titan" was published about an ocean liner hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and sank. Fourteen years later the RMS Titantic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. Hhmmmm……Titan/Titantic, both in North Atlantic ocean, both hit an iceberg, both sank. So did the Captain of the RMS Titantic hit an iceberg on purpose? Parallels do not prove anything.

  8. Jeff, That text that you link to is full of OCR (scanning) errors, making it hard to read. It was not manually corrected after the scan/OCR.

    If one clicks on "See other formats", they can then view actual scans or PDF files that are graphics, i.e., pictures of the pages, instead of error-riddled OCR'ed text.

  9. I enjoyed the post.

    I recently read, "Book of Mormon Authorship," and particularly enjoyed "Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? An Analysis of Wordprints" by Larsen and Rencher. Was their work ever published in a non-LDS journal?

    I have often wondered how to scientifically measure the probability of correctly guessing a workable route for Lehi's or the use of chiasmus. Has anyone looked at 19th century books about the Middle East to see if the authors knew something they shouldn't?

  10. Changed the link to the general page at which has links to the PDF version, online reader (nice!), and the bad text version. Also Kindle.

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