On Parallels and Plagiarism: Shouldn’t Plagiarism Make Life Easier for the Plagiarist?

A favorite tactic for attacking the Book of Mormon today is to find parallels in other modern texts from Joseph Smith’s day or before, and then argue that they are evidence for plagiarism or at least “influence” enough to rule out the Book of Mormon as an ancient text translated with the power of God. My two previous posts deal with this topic and draw in part upon Benjamin McGuire’s response at Mormon Interpreter to a recent statistical effort pointing to an alleged “smoking gun” for alleged fabrication of the Book of Mormon.

With statistical analysis, it is possible to find numerous brief parallels scattered throughout any two texts. Finding chunks of four words at a time can be interesting, but what does it tell us about authorship? When we apply what critics are finding in this recent case or in any case of alleged plagiarism or influence, what we tend to get implicitly is a process in which Joseph Smith’s “plagiarism” did something that plagiarists usually try to avoid: making life harder rather than easier for the fabricator/author. These smoking guns don’t offer nice, polished sections of plagiarized text and detailed stories that Joseph could lift and use to simplify his life. Rather, it looks like the process of composing his text was one of incredible tedium, pausing every few words to snatch three, four, or five words from a text somewhere, or turning to another text for a tiny idea that could be momentarily adapted. Occasionally a bit of imagination was used to complete the plagiarism. For example, in describing the scene of Lehi finding the Liahona, one of the impressive parallels I discuss in my previous post would imply that Joseph turned to The Late War and found a passage about ships being sunk by torpedoes, and in the description of a torpedo, found and applied the word “ball.” This resulting curious workmanship of the portable and non-explosive Liahona in the final text is certainly better than having Lehi find a mystic torpedo outside his tent, but turning to a naval scene in The Late War at that point for guidance on what Lehi would find in the desert just seems like an easy way to make life unnecessarily difficult for a young plagiarizer. 

But if all these parallels are the result of mere exposure to various sources that were digested and used almost subconsciously by Joseph, rather than being directly applied in overt plagiarism as some have suggested, then where do the many snatches of four-word phrases come from, if not from chance and natural overlap when similar style is used and related topics are discussed? Read these other works, then look at the real content of the Book of Mormon, and explain how they account for anything. The latest smoking gun gives us very faint smoke indeed.

Update, Nov. 14, 2013:  Wait a second. If we Mormons are now discounting parallels, aren’t we discounting much of the evidence for the Book of Mormon as an ancient book since a good portion of that is based on parallels as well? Parallels, like experimental data in scientific research (e.g., individual positive or negative results in a pharmaceutical trial), can be meaningful and give insight, when the right test is conducted, when the right questions are asked, and when the right analysis is done. To argue against the irrelevance of bad data (“big” or otherwise) based on flawed work and errant assumptions is not to discount all research and data per se. When loose parallels with another text and some similar phrases might theoretically account for, say, far less than 1% of a text, the work of explaining the origins of that text is hardly done. There is much more to say on the proper applications of parallels and data to Book of Mormon studies that I will address later.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

9 thoughts on “On Parallels and Plagiarism: Shouldn’t Plagiarism Make Life Easier for the Plagiarist?

  1. I wonder what sort of dessert it was in which Lehi found the Liahona – or perhaps you meant to write "desert".

  2. "then where do the many snatches of four-word phrases come from, if not from chance and natural overlap when similar style is used and related topics are discussed? "

    I'm not sure what you mean by this. If I were to use the culture around me to write/translate a text with an amazing gift I had, then I can certainly see using phrases that are familiar to me, especially out of a handful of my favorite books.

  3. The cognitive dissonance in evidence here is phenomenal, Jeff. When one the blinders come off and one accepts that Joseph Smith was a conman–albeit a charismatic, and intelligent one–and the Book of Mormon a fabrication, there suddenly becomes much less to talk about. Good luck, though.

  4. Care to provide some analysis and logic behind your statement, BD? Are you saying that the statistical analysis of 4-word matches between the two texts proves plagiarism of some kind? If so, of what kind? A plausible mechanism has not been offered that could explain how plagiarism from this alleged "best source" ever found could even begin to account for the Book of Mormon. The matches make sense if taken as the result of chance when using the same style and writing about related subject matter. They don't make sense if they are simply regurgitated subconsciously after exposure to the book directly or indirectly years earlier, nor do they make sense if interpreted as evidence of direct plagiarism, writing the Book of Mormon with The Late War in hand, snatching obscure 3 and 4 word phrases without gaining any of the benefit that plagiarizers try to gain when actually plagiarizing. What was the mechanism? How did this book help?

    We're looking at chance, similar to though often not nearly as impressive as what we get from another 19th century source, Leaves of Grass, that could not possibly have influenced Joseph and that wasn't even written in the same style of language. Had it been, it might well have beat The Late War as a leading candidate for plagiarism, but that, of course, would still explain nothing about the Book of Mormon.

    I'm trying to engage the facts and the data rather than just relying on name calling, which can often be a tool for those paralyzed with cognitive dissonance. Hey, CD can cut both ways.

  5. There is a poetry form called a "cento" which is a poem composed by putting together the lines of various other poems to make the cento poem. This is not easy to do with any skill (unless you are just composing nonsense). It takes quite a far-ranging knowledge of other poems as your source — you are not using your own words. Try it and you will see how difficult it is to confine yourself to stringing together the words of others rather than just making it up yourself using your own words.

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