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Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 | ISSN 1556-5696

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Mystery Photo
Mystery Photo

This week’s Mystery Photo…
Identify the building: what is it and where? [No extra credit for identifying the person!] (click to enlarge )

Last Week’s Mystery Photo is of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, playing chess with his sister Frances, shortly after his return from his collecting expedition to the Amazon rain forest in 1852, six years before he discovered natural selection in his second big expedition to the Malay Archipelago (in 1858). Michael Shermer documents his discoveries and evolutionary theorizing in his full-length biography, In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace, originally his Ph.D. thesis and published by Oxford University Press. It is sub-sub titled A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History, and presents a rather different perspective on how biography can be written (although my narrative is written in a fairly straight forward biographical style).

We will reveal the answer to this week’s Mystery Photo in next week’s eSkeptic.


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Stephen L. Macknik

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Sleights of Mind

In order to accomplish amazing illusions and magic tricks, performers of prestidigitation must be well versed in the art of deception; thus, it is not surprising that many of the world’s most renowned skeptics are also world-class magicians.

This week on Skepticality, Swoopy talks with Dr. Stephen L. Macknik and Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde, co-authors of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions (with Sandra Blakeslee). Both are laboratory directors at the Barrow Neurological Institute and columnists at ScientificAmerican.com — experience they bring to their multi-year, world-wide exploration of magic (with a team of advisors including Jamy Ian Swiss, the late Jerry Andrus, and James “The Amazing” Randi). Can ancient principles of the conjurer’s trade be explained using the latest discoveries of cognitive neuroscience? Find out in this episode!

MonsterTalk

Dr. Anthony Russell
Ethnobiology: A Lizard’s Tale

In this episode, the MonsterTalk crew interviews Dr. Tony Russell, a professor at the University of Calgary who studies evolutionary and functional morphology in geckos. Dr. Russell’s work includes ethnobiology — the utilization of folklore to guide his research. He discuss the uses and limitations of this mode of research, as well as the remarkable features of the lizards that he studies.


A Blind Taste Test for Literature?
(a note from the Editor about this week’s feature article)

In this week’s eSkeptic, we are publishing an article entitled “Scientific Evaluation of Charles Dickens” by Mikhail Simkin, who received a Ph.D. in physics from Brown University and currently works as a research engineer at UCLA. Mikhail submitted this paper to me many months ago for publication consideration in Skeptic. I liked the article, edited it, and told him that we would publish it. I liked his approach of trying to quantify the assessment of literature blind — that is, without knowing the author. In this case, he compares paragraphs taken from the works of Charles Dickens to paragraphs taken from the works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is apparently considered a very bad writer. I actually rather enjoyed the puncturing of a literary tradition of ranking writers (it initially reminded me of the skeptical debunking of postmodernism and deconstructionism of the 1990s), but then I don’t know anything about literature and have been frequently accused of practicing scientism — the excessive over-application of science to areas where it probably doesn’t belong. After my editors and several board of advisor members read the article, however, I was strongly urged not to publish this piece, not because it might be considered controversial, but because there is no controversy at all. As one explained it to me, a modern reader could no more be expected to tell the difference between a paragraph of Dickens from a paragraph of Bulwer-Lytton and assess the author’s overall value than a modern listener should be expected to hear the difference between a brief snippet of Mozart and a brief snippet of Salieri and assess the composer’s overall value (the film Amadeus notwithstanding). I asked a professor of literature who specializes in 19th century literature to read Mikhail’s article. He responded thusly:

Dickens is considered a powerful novelist of social protest (consider the implications of his novel, Hard Times), and a creator of brilliant characters. But his prose is fairly common to the period. That is, it is still suffering from the 18th century propensity to equate good prose with Latinate prose. Latinate prose is as simple as the use of multi-syllabic words in English, which are generally of Latinate origin. Using Latinate prose tends to make English more abstract and wordy. For instance: One could say in Latinate prose, “I resume my journey to my domicile,” or in the more Anglo-Saxon, “I’m going home.” (From Wikipedia: Latinate prose in English is the use of words derived from Latin rather than those originating in Old English, e.g. suspend rather than hang. A Latinate style may also be marked by prominent syntactic inversion, especially the delaying of the main verb: while the normal English word-order is subject-verb-object, Milton frequently uses the Latin order object-subject-verb in his poem Paradise Lost (1667), as in the line, “His far more pleasant garden God ordained.”

It would not surprise me that sampling Dickens’ prose as this fellow has done would produce no visible difference from other prose of the same period. Also, I don’t think anyone in my field would set out to prove or disprove Dickens was a genius because the term is recognized as subjective and therefore unprovable.

The study also assumes that if Dickens is a “genius,” every line of his prose should be “genius.” It’s a false analogy to presume that genius is like a pie; i.e., if a pie is a pumpkin pie, every bite will taste like pumpkin pie. Genius is nothing like pie. If you’ve ever read the first half of A Tale of Two Cities, which is confusing and desperately in need of revision, you’ll know better.

I’m afraid I think his premise is rather silly, and the study is irrelevant.

Interestingly, on the day I penned this editorial note, I listened to a lecture in a Teaching Company course on “Thinking Like an Economist” in which Professor Randall Bartlett of Smith College made the point that Dickens differed from Hemingway in one very basic economic sense: Dickens was paid by the word and serialized most of his works into multi-part stories that appeared in multiple magazines and therefore tended to drag out his prose, whereas Hemingway was paid by the story or manuscript and was therefore motivated to get to the point and be more economical with his prose.

I ultimately decided not to publish this article in Skeptic magazine, and Mikhail was understandably upset about my decision. So I thought it might be instructive to publish it in eSkeptic with a feedback system in place whereby you, the reader, can judge for yourself whether or not you think that Mikhail Simkin’s scientific approach to literature in evaluating its quality and worth is a valid one. So, in addition to the usual comment forum at the end of (the online version) of eSkeptic, we have also set up a quick polling system whereby you can register your vote on whether or not you agree with Mikhail’s scientific approach to assessing the value of literature.

After reading this week’s feature article below, be sure and PARTICIPATE IN THE POLL, and feel free to share this week’s eSkeptic with your literary friends and colleagues using the share buttons below!

Michael Shermer, Editor in Chief

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Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Scientific Evaluation
of Charles Dickens

by Mikhail Simkin

Abstract: I report the results of the test, where the takers had to tell the prose of Charles Dickens from that of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is considered by many to be the worst writer in history of letters. The average score is about 50%, which is on the level of random guessing. This suggests that the quality of Dickens’s prose is the same as of that of Bulwer-Lytton.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” On this Ernest Hemingway commented, “Yes, they have more money.”

Are the very famous writers different from the obscure ones?

The question may seem shocking to some people, but recent scientific research makes it quite reasonable. The study of misprints in scientific citations had lead to the conclusion that about 80% of citations are copied from the lists of references used in other papers1. Thus, in a majority of cases, a citation is not a result of an independent evaluation of the qualities of the cited paper but merely an imitation of another citer’s behavior. This way a paper that already was cited is likely to be cited again, and after it is cited again it is even more likely to be cited in the future. Thus some papers can become much more cited than others even when identical in merit. Mathematical modeling of the process of citation copying demonstrated that major features of the citation distribution could be explained even under assumption that all papers are created equal2. One can suspect that, similar to highly cited scientists, highly popular writers can become such as a result of the ordinary law of chances. One way to check that is to see if people can appreciate the prose of a famous writer when his name is detached from it.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in history of letters. An annual wretched writing contest3 was established in his honor. In contrast, Charles Dickens is one of the best writers ever. Can one tell the difference between their prose? To check this I wrote the “Great prose or not?” quiz4. It consists of a dozen of representative literary passages, written either by Bulwer-Lytton or by Dickens. The takers are to choose the author of each quote. They face a formidable task and are often surprised to learn the correct answers. “What mindless boob would write such tripe? Dickens, one would know now.” – wrote me one of respondents. The distribution of the scores received by over nine thousands quiz-takersA is shown in Figure 1. The average score is 5.78 or 48.2% correct.

figure 1

Figure 1. The histogram of the scores earned by 9,461 people on the “Great prose or not?” quiz. The average score is 5.78 or 48% correct. The standard error of this average is 0.022 or 0.19%.
(click image to
download PDF version
)

There are two possible answers to each test question. If one is completely clueless and resorts to random guessing, he will on average get 50% of the questions right. With the average score of 48% our quiz-takers lost to a monkey. On average, a quote from Bulwer-Lytton was selected as Dickens (or great prose) by 52% of quiz-takers, while a quote from Dickens was selected as Dickens by only 48%. Does this mean that Bulwer-Lytton is a better writer than Dickens? Probably not. Table 1 shows for every quote the fraction of people who attributed it to Dickens. This fraction varies between the quotes with the lowest being 36% (No. 9) and the highest 74% (No. 12). This suggests that a different selection of quotes could lead to a different average score. For example, if we remove the most Dickensian Bulwer (No. 12) and the most Bulwerian Dickens (No. 10), and recalculate the scores based on 10 remaining questions, the average score becomes 51%.

Question number The real author, and the book the excerpt is taken from Selected as Dickens Selected as Bulwer-Lytton
1 Charles Dickens,
Great Expectations
42.5% 57.5%
2 Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
Eugene Aram
50.5% 49.5%
3 Charles Dickens,
Great Expectations
54.6% 45.4%
4 Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
Eugene Aram
49.9% 50.1%
5 Charles Dickens,
David Copperfield
50.7% 49.3%
6 Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
Eugene Aram
50.1% 49.9%
7 Charles Dickens,
Great Expectations
59.9% 40.1%
8 Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
Paul Clifford
49.6% 50.4%
9 Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
Eugene Aram
36.5% 63.5%
10 Charles Dickens,
Great Expectations
40.6% 59.4%
11 Charles Dickens,
David Copperfield
40.8% 59.2%
12 Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
Paul Clifford
74.3% 25.7%

Table 1. Fraction of people who attributed each quote to Dickens and to Bulwer-Lytton, along with the true author.

An interesting thing is that out of 9,461 people, 38 got every question wrong and 37 got everything right. The approximate equality of these numbers is consistent with random guessing, but their magnitude is not. It is more than fifteen times bigger than what random guessing would give. The explanation is that some of quiz takers can sniff stylistic similarities between certain literary passages and attribute them to the same writer. This would help them to get a higher score, if they can determine which writer is good and which is bad, otherwise they are equally likely to get a very high or a very low score.

figure 1

Figure 2. The histogram of the test scores earned by 602 people, coming from American, British, Australian, and New Zealandian universities. The average score is 5.76 or 48.0% correct. The standard error of this average is 0.095 or 0.8%.
(click image to
download PDF version
)

The performance of our quiz-takers is bad. But could this be because they don’t know English? The feedback demonstrates, however, that even educated people can’t tell Dickens from Bulwer. One of quiz-takers wrote me “I got a 50%. My cat could do that well. The wine experts say a peek at the label is worth a thousand sips, and that seems to hold here. As a classicist I’m frequently called on to teach stuff I think is wretched, just because it’s old.” Some experts do not even dare to take the quiz. Prof. Scott Rice, the founder of the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest, wrote to me “I haven’t really taken it yet myself. Perhaps I am afraid to.” We can address the education issue in a scientific way. Fortunately, the quizzing script records taker’s IP address. From it, one can infer where their computers were located. I selected a subset of scores, which were received by people coming from English-speaking (American, British, Australian, and New Zealandian) universitiesB. The histogram of the scores received by 602 such people is shown in Figure 2. The average score is 5.76 or 48.0% correct. The standard error of this average is 0.095 or 0.8%. Educated English-speaking folks lost to the general public, whose average score is 48.2%. The difference between the scores is, however, statistically insignificant, because it is less than the standard error.

Elite School number of respondents minimum score maximum score average score
Brown University 2 3 6 4.50
Columbia University 13 2 9 5.08
Cornell University 3 4 7 6.00
Harvard University 14 1 7 5.71
Princeton University 2 3 9 6.13
University of Cambridge 16 2 9 6.13
University of Oxford 10 3 10 6.3
University of Pennsylvania 7 2 11 7.71
Yale University 9 3 11 6.56
Total 76 1 11 6.00

Table 2. Statistics of the elite (Ivy League and Oxbridge) scores on “Dickens or Bulwer-Lytton?” quiz. The average elite score is 6 or 50% correct. The standard error of this average is 0.3 or 2.6%.

But, perhaps, just knowing English is not enough? May be the beauty of Dickens’ prose is so far beyond the apprehensions of the vulgar that only the most cultured people can appreciate it? To check this I selected a subset of scores, earned by people coming from elite universities (Ivy League and Oxbridge). Table 2 contains the statistics of scores received by 76 of the chosen. The average score is 6 or 50% correct. The elite won over crowd by the whole 2%. The difference between the elite and general scores is, however, statistically insignificant. Due to the small size of the elite sample the standard error of the average elite score is 2.6%.

I began this paper with the question: Are famous writers different from their obscure colleagues? The answer is: Yes, they have more readers.

Recently I reported similar results for the case of Modern Art 5.

References
  1. M.V. Simkin, V.P. Roychowdhury “Read before you cite!” Complex Systems. 14 (2003) 269–274. Also available at http://arxiv.org/abs/cond-mat/0212043
  2. M.V. Simkin, V.P. Roychowdhury “A mathematical theory of citing” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58 (2007) 1661–1673. Also available at http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0504094
  3. Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest, http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/
  4. M.V. Simkin, “Great prose, or not?” http://reverent.org/bulwer-dickens.html (Published on September 16, 2004)
  5. M.V. Simkin, “My statistician could have painted that! A statistical inquiry into modern art” Significance, l 4 (2007) 93–96. Available online at: http://www.significancemagazine.org/details/magazine/868985/My-statistician-could-have-painted-that-A-statistical-inquiry-into-modern-art-.html. Also available at arXiv.org: http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0703091
Endnotes
  1. When I looked at the quiz results I noticed hundreds of cases when two or more scores came from the same IP address within few minutes. In many of such cases the later score was 100%. This suggests that many people took several shots at the quiz. To eliminate this cheating I cleaned the data by selecting only the first score from each IP address. Afterwards I cleaned the data from the results, where one or more questions were skipped.
  2. I identified American, British, Australian, and New Zealandian universities by Internet domains: edu, ac.uk, edu.au, and ac.nz.

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70 Comments »

70 Comments

  1. Don Ingram says:

    I suspect Michael was standing in front of the Andorran Parliament when the mystery photo was taken.

  2. Graham Cobb says:

    Simkin’s paper does not prove what he seems to claim: that there is no difference between good and bad writers except luck. However it is very interesting (as a non-expert in literature) to discover that “good writing” is not something that can be evaluated based on short extracts.

    My suspicion is that “great writing” comes in many forms: some writers are great because they have great one-liners; others have generally better prosody; others use essentially the same prose style as their contemporaries but their story-telling is better; others have great plots; etc.

    This is similar to other areas: some great speakers and debaters are wonderfully charismatic and can make a shopping list sound inspiring; others perform surgical analysis and rebuttal of their opponent’s position; etc.

    I encourage Simkin to do research on the different factors that we use to assess a “great writer”, instead of just dismissing the whole concept as invalid.

  3. Beth Lawton says:

    The poll question is rather vague – is his study “valid” on what criteria? Yes, his study seemed to be carried out in a scientific manner, but I agree with the writer above that he does not prove that becoming a great writer is a matter of luck. As in many questions, scientific or otherwise, there are too many variables to reduce the issue to a yes/no survey.

  4. Jim Randolph says:

    I’m one of the few skeptics I know with a degree in British and American Literature. Oh, and I LOVED the debunking of the postmodernists you mention.

    That being said, I think this study is valid as entertainment and not far off the mark from some of the things undergraduates attempt. Simkin’s study IS silly and irrelevant, as the professor said, but it sure is fun. It reminds me of that scene in Dead Poets Society when the teacher (Robin Williams) has the boys read the introduction to their texbook about graphing what makes a good and bad poem, then proceeds to have them rip the pages of the introduction right out of the book!

    Thanks,
    Jim

    • Miguel Piedras says:

      Totally agree – not science but silly fun

      • Mikhail Simkin says:

        “Some medical beast had revived tar-water in those days as a fine medicine, and Mrs. Joe always kept a supply of it in the cupboard; having a belief in its virtues correspondent to its nastiness.” –Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

        Similarly, some folks beleive that the true science must be boring.

        • James Carlson says:

          Unfortunately, those who find within themselves an abiding and personal fascination with true science sufficient for a well-conducted analysis of its properties are all too often very poor judges of great literature.

  5. Jon Glass says:

    Mystery photo – gotta be Michael in front of the Romanian Palace of Parliament.

    cheers

  6. Brian McKinstray says:

    I like the impudence of Simkin’s study but, sadly, it focusses purely on style – not on content. For that, you have to read the whole work, not just random paragraphs. He is not measuring “genius” or “Quality” but, as the Prof. Lit. said, stylistic similarity. What does startle me is how few people in the study actually RECOGNISED the excerpts from Dickens. Reminds me of something from the novel “Nice Work” where the Literature lecturers had a drunken competition to see how many “classics” you could claim to have never read – a kind of inverse snobbery…

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      Yes, Prof. Lit. wrote that the use of Latinate prose obscures the differences between the two writers. Interestingly, Latinate prose can even be used as a criterion to tell them apart. The two authors wrote in different styles. Just both styles are equally bad.

  7. RoseAnne Mussar says:

    Poor Edward Bulwer-Lytton – remembered only for “It was a dark and stormy etc.”, and the eponymous bad-writing contest. Few know that, in his day, he was a very popular writer. Eddie coined such famous phrases as “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the almighty dollar”, and “the great unwashed”. His prose style is considered somewhat flowery and overwrought, but so was pretty much everyone else writing at the time. The view that he is considered “one of the worst writers of all times” may be popular today, but hardly reflects reality.

    • James Carlson says:

      Thank you. The whole “Bulwer-Lytton is a tramp” thing has always bothered me a bit, too.

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      I wonder: how such a skeptic, like yourself, can beleive that Bulwer really pioneered those proverbs you attribute to him? Do you really think that they could be of such recent origing? Alas, Lytton is left with great unwashed.

    • Chris Rippel says:

      Since Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a bunch of bestselling novels, several of which have been turned into operas and a movie, I doubt Bulwer-Lytton deserves to be called the “worst writer…” or an obscure writer.

      • Chris Rippel says:

        If, instead of Bulwer-Lytton, the research had actually chosen the world’s worst writer, even a Victorian writer, then, I think it very likely that people, comparing the writing of that writer and Dickens, would have been able, probably, to possibly determined the difference between Dickens and that writer, i.e., which paragraphs were written by Dickens and which paragraphs had been written by that other writer, i.e., the worst writer in the world. ;-)

      • Mikhail Simkin says:

        How such sophisticated skeptic, like yourself does not understand irony?

  8. Daniel says:

    Simkin’s study has one major flaw – by taking passages out of context, his subjects aren’t exposed to those elements of storytelling that require more than a paragraph or two. After taking his quiz, Simkin’s respondents have no idea who does a better job at developing a plot and tying in subplots (something Dickens was a master at doing). They will have very little sense of character arc, motivation, etc. So much more goes into great literature than just the words that have been strung together.

  9. John Galt says:

    Simkin reminds me of the stodgy professor in “The Dead Poets Society”, who robs poetry of all its emotional impact and nuance by statistically breaking it down into its mechanical components to test its “quality”. It’s a bit like dissecting a humanitarian’s body and a serial killer’s body and observing that there is little or no discernible difference between them.

    Good writing is more than just the author’s choice of words or sentence structure, and good storytelling is more than the sum of its parts. Stephen King can also be accused of “flowery prose” (one writer friend of mine is fond of saying that King suffers from “verbal diarrhea”). But that does not change the fact that he is a skilled storyteller with legions of fans. So too it is with Dickens.

  10. Brian Stuy says:

    I would be interested in knowing how the test samples were chosen. Were the samples chosen randomly by a computer? Were the samples one sentence long or longer? If they were manually chosen it is very possible that bias was introduced into the selection.

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      I selected representative samples from both writers. I did not pick bad Dickens and good Bulwer.

      The answer to your question about samples’ length you could find by looking at the quiz. There is a link in the article. Similar to scientists, who don’t read the articles they cite, the members of this forum do not read the articles they comment on.

  11. Fatboy says:

    I left a similar comment in the comments section of the poll, but this seems a more relevant place, so I’ll leave a copy here as well.

    Many commenters have already beat me to the punch on content vs. style, so I’ll move on to how much better or worse popular writers are than not so popular writers. I’m reminded of a study done a few years ago*. To quote part of the abstract, “We investigated this paradox experimentally, by creating an artificial “music market” in which 14,341 participants downloaded previously unknown songs either with or without knowledge of previous participants’ choices. Increasing the strength of social influence increased both inequality and unpredictability of success. Success was also only partly determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.”

    So, success is a combination of quality and chance.

    *For anyone wanting to look up the study on their own, it was titled, “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market”, and was authored by Matthew J. Salganik, Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts.
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/311/5762/854.abstract

  12. John Forester says:

    The literary value of a work of fiction consists of a variety of characteristics, only one of which is diction. Attempting to measure literary value by only diction is as bad as using average word length or something similar.

    It is wonderful when a great scientist can also write flowing prose, but the value of his work is in the content, not the diction. Same goes for fiction.

    Besides which, the concept of literary value is not constant. Different times evaluate literary works in different orders, although the really great do have rather consistent rankings.

    Paradise Lost may have great diction, but to one who ignores the religious instruction as absurd the diction hardly makes up for being bored. As for other works by Milton, only the specialists read them today.

    Same goes for modern novelists. D. H. Lawrence is thought to be highly ranked, but to one who recognizes his assertion of superstitions as social facts his work becomes absurd.

  13. oldebabe says:

    This is a fun idea, and was fun to read about, but by someone, IMO, who had `a lot of time on their hands’. Or perhaps it just might be a spoof?

    Opinion of any artistic endeavor, no matter the number of persons whose opinions are gathered, or their supposed merit (or not) vis a vis an esoteric question about that art, remains opinion, it seems to me.

  14. Stephen L. Black says:

    It’s unfortunate that we weren’t given the opportunity to test our literary skill on Bulwer-Lytton and Darwin ourselves (at least, I couldn’t find it). On the Simkin study itself, it rests on the premise that Bulwer-Lytton was truly one of the worst writers of all time. As RoseAnne Mussar notes in her comment, this is not necessarily the case, and Simkin presents no documentation in support. It seems to me it is based solely on the judgement of cartoonist Charles Shulz and his ridicule of “It was a dark and stormy night” in “Peanuts” starting in 1965.

    As most of us have never read Bulwer-Lytton, we have no idea. Thomas Morgan (http://freepages.pavilion.net/tartarus/lytton.html) has, and his judgement is less harsh. He quotes the noted horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s comment that one of Bulwer-Lytton’s stories is “one of the best short haunted-house tales ever written’.” So Simkin’s study is a dark and stormy one, and it demonstrates no more than both he and Darwin had similar writing styles at a time when such a style was common.

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      There is a link to the test in the article, as it is easy to read and to check. It is also very easy to find the test by searching the web for “Bulwer-Lytton Dickens” . Apparently you did not find it because you wrote Darwin instead of Dickens, just like in your comment.

  15. Christos Ntanos says:

    How come the editors of Skeptic don’t consider an introductory article about how ‘bad’ the article to follow is, a fairly obvious bias for the poll’s results?

    “You are now going to read something bad and then tell us if you think it’s bad”. On the other hand, whether you agree or not with his position, Mr. Simkin at least didn’t try to have a bias in place for his statistics. His analysis seems flawed in terms of his causality propositions, but Mr. Shermer’s position is based on the opinion of an unnamed professor of literature and his own (that is understandably of low value in analysing literature, as is mine).

    Scientism or not, despite the fact that I too tend to disagree (without having actual proof) with the conclusions Mr. Simkin draws from his data, his position stands on more solid ground than Mr. Shermer’s, the anonymous professor’s opinion and the biased poll.

    I’m sorry, but in this case, you blew it.

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      A good point. Once, researchers invited an actor to read a lecture in place of a scientist. They introduced him as a great luminary, and he went on to spout nonsense. After the lecture, the attendees (MDs and PhDs) filled in a satisfaction questionnaire and the lecturer got flying grades.

      http://ecclesiastes911.net/doctor_fox.html

      I also noticed that at this moment 257 people had voted in the poll. However only 50 people took the test since this article was posted. This means that less than 20% of those who did vote actually took the quiz.

      • Christos Ntanos says:

        I’ve seen that case with the particular lecturer in the past and it has a point.

        Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not saying that the results you draw are valid, but simply that the case against them is as flawed, if not more. This looks more like a fight of the Michaels, rather than a scientific discussion.

        What I’m trying to say is that first of all, the poll is a bad idea. Since when skeptics use open polls to prove a scientific point and go even further as to have them biased?

        My second point is that Mr.Shermer should have stuck to a criticism of your methodology. Instead, he went wide and only effectively provided an alternative explanation of your results with an invalid reference.

        The case remains. There is nothing wrong with the data you collected, nor is there something wrong with your analysis. The problem is with your conclusions and the generalisations you make. Your data shows that people taking your test could not distinguish between Dickens’ and Lytton’s prose in short spans of it, irrespective of their educational level, which is a valid and interesting point! The problem is the generalisation that you make that this means that the only reason Dickens is more acclaimed than Lytton is that Dickens has more readers.

        Well, let me propose a more realistic test scenario. Take well educated readers that have never read any book from either of the two writers, give them two books, one of each, without the name of the author, let them read them and then ask them which one they preferred. If you draw the same conclusion as with your short test, then you’re really on to something.

        I have to admit that I too flirt with your ideas from time to time, based on my dislike for example, of works of writers like Paulo Coelho and I do understand your case with abstract art and perhaps atonal music and noise (if you also care to do a test for that too), but your tests are simply too short for you to be able to bash entire works or careers in art. You need to compare between complete works of art in order to do so. Maybe your visual tests could have been a better candidate for a more complete analysis, but as far as I can tell, I scored pretty high on them without being an art major, so maybe not… Just don’t be tempted to change your tests until you get the results you want to see.

        Christos

        • Mikhail Simkin says:

          Of course, I got you right. You completely disagree with my conclusions but, like Chomsky, are ready to die defending my right to express my wrong opinion.

          You upbraid Dr. Shermer for his fighting spirit, but I have nothing against a good fight. The problem is that he does not tell the whole story. Apart from referee’s report, which he quotes in his introduction, he received an email from his friend Pat who wrote:

          “All the Shermer wanna-bes could write a sentence or paragraph that would be indistingiushable from yours but they probably couldn’t keep it up to produce your body of work.”

          That’s what had swayed him. In such circumstances, publishing the article would lead to a disaster.

          He also does not say that he asked me to write one more article (on art quiz) for Skeptic magazine. He took back that offer. And the art quiz does not have the flaw of Dickens quiz since it shows complete paintings.

          The experiment you suggest had already been done by British journalists, who submitted Booker prize winning novels to publishers. I added a couple sentences describing it in proof corrections and also in the final version of the article for eSceptic. However, Dr. Shermer removed it. Here is the reference:

          http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article784051.ece

          • James Carlson says:

            If the art quiz didn’t have the flaws you apparently noted in the Dickens/Bulwer-Lytton quiz, maybe you should have submitted that one instead.

  16. Robin Collins says:

    My dad was fascinated by text analysis and used to employ a series of software programs and obscure tricks of his own to see if he could find coherence in different brief sections of groups of paragraphs written by different writers. I always thought his assumptions were wrong-headed, but I admired his commitment to trying to find differences and similarities through objective analysis. That’s one thing, but Simkin’s approach is worse. To begin with, it is subjective to suggest that Bulwer-Lytton (it was a dark and stormy night) was the worst writer, ever. One might argue that spelling Hemingway’s name wrong or writing “lead” instead of “led” makes one the worst writer “ever”: Who’s to say? What are the criteria? And if (as noted above), both Bulwer-Lytton and Dickens were of a similar style and era, it is not surprising that at some levels, their texts are indistinguishable. Great works are determined by a full reading of the piece of interest (novel, short story, poem, etc.) and the conclusions are certainly subjective (as is the distinction between literary and popular fiction.) Some people like Victorian literature, some don’t because they find it too “wordy”. Some love Shakespeare, who invented hundreds of words; some can’t figure him out at all. Some like science fiction, mystery, romance and other “genre” fiction; others turn their noses up at these and stick to the “classics”. Some think novels are superior to short stories; others think short stories require unique, disciplined skills and are not to be compared.

    Text analysis is fun and linguistically interesting, but not the subject of determining literary-ness. Surely (Shirley).

    R.

  17. Frizbane Manley says:

    C’mon … this is a “journal” of the Skeptics Society. If the readers can’t see the obvious flaws in Simkin’s experimental design and his gross misuse of mathematical modeling and statistical analysis, it’s time to back up and revise the entrance requirements.

    One of Simkin’s several clever tricks is moving back and forth between two different themes whenever it suits his purpose; to wit, (1) does the literature of A actually stand apart from the literature of B based upon some unnamed quality criteria? and (2) is the literature of A obviously superior to the literature of B, but the randomly selected reader is just too unsophisticated to tell the difference? … or perhaps good literature is like “great art;” it’s all in the eye of the beholder and the questions above are two sides of yet another research objective.

    I detest “proof by analogy,” but consider this …

    Suppose I have two “proofs” of Arrow’s Possibility Theorem, one that is consistent with all of the tenets of set theory (http://www.tulane.edu/~dnelson/COURSES/IntroPE/arrow.pdf) and another that that has three or four wonderfully disguised but fatal errors.

    Of course Arrows Theorem – and should I mention the Prisoner’s Dilemma? – is at the heart of what political scientists “know” and love, so I’ll take a random sample of 9,461 political science Ph.D.s and advanced graduate students, ask them to review the two proofs (I’ll give them 30 minutes for each), and choose the one they prefer.

    When I discover there is little difference between their preferences (close to 50% for each “proof”), it tells me nothing about the quality of the proofs, because I know full well one is not a proof at all (it’s erroneous). On the other hand, it tells me the audience (as a single entity) is not sufficiently well versed in set theory to tell the difference between a proof and nonsense.

    So, is Simkin’s analysis about the quality of the literature or about the literary sophistication of the individuals who read little snippets of it?

    All of this aside, I thought his little essay was clever and lots of fun. I think it would be a wonderful candidate for submission to The Journal of Irreproducible Results.

    P.S. There should be a law about the right of physicists to use statistics.

  18. Mike says:

    One thing that popped into my mind reading the literature prof’s take in preface/disclaimer: humans are great at creating “reasons” for something when none exists. See Dan Gilbert’s discussion of this “filling-in trick” in _Stumbling on Happiness_.

    I’m not saying professor is right or wrong; I’m just saying that the counter-reasoning is backformed and thus suspect (it would be a very different thing if it was made as a hypothesis with the data yet to be revealed, than as an explanation, which human minds can manufacture at a whim.)

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      Exactly. There is even a book “Social Sciences as Sorcery”.

      Professor’s major argument is that the differences between the two authors is obscured by Latinate prose. If you actually look at the test you will see that the use of Latinate prose can be used as a criteria to tell the authors apart.

  19. John Chalmers says:

    I’d like to see the results of a Simkin study on the various genres of modern music.

    Citation analysis is tricky because journals count the length of the citations in the page limits so there is a tendency to simply cite the best known research papers or review articles to save space.

  20. Richard Babyak says:

    The silliness of the exercise is perhaps best illustrated by transposing it to a different medium. Imagine comparing artists by examining a few square inches of canvas. Imagine comparing composers by listening to a few bars of music. The absurdity of the approach is readily apparent.

    On another note, the thesis of Professor Bartlett contained in the Editor’s note is also suspect, namely, that the stylistic difference between Dickens and Hemingway are largely due to economic reasons. In fact, the differences are more likely due to the influence of journalistic writing on fiction writing in the 20th century. Many novelists, including Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and others, began their writing careers as journalists.

    Bartlett’s error is conceptually similar to Simkin’s error: the improper application of tools to tasks for which they are not suited.

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      The silliness of Richard Babyak’s comment is best illustrated by the fact that I do have six painting quizzes on my website ( http://reverent.org/quizzes.html ) and only in one of them I used fragments of paintings. This was in “Pollock or birds?” quiz. Simply because birds did not cover large enough area with their art.

      • Eric Winesett says:

        The visual art quizzes have their own problems. The most egregious error, which IMHO completely invalidates the results, is that the so-called “masterpieces” of abstract art are not paintings at all; they are photographs of paintings–tiny, compressed photographs. To paraphrase a famous modern painting, “Ceci n’est pas une peinture.” Using a photograph of a painting removes all aspects of scale, surface quality, paint transparency, dimensionality, and detail that would be apparent to someone actually looking at a masterpiece of abstract art. The image is only a fraction of what makes a good painting–*especially* an abstract painting.

  21. R.A.C. says:

    Quotes (or short excerpts) are like statistics, taken out of context they can be used for good or bad (writing).

  22. cgHipp says:

    I think exercises such as this one are fun to talk about and to ponder, but they can’t be taken seriously from either a scientific or a literary perspective. For one, how can you base a study on the declaration that “Edward Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in history of letters… In contrast, Charles Dickens is one of the best writers ever.” You can’t even prove that E B-L is the worst writer ever – and I think a cursory glance at a current bestseller list would indicate that he has stiff competition for that title. (People don’t generally mind bad writing, it seems.)

    Further, good writing is not about constructing a series of good sentences. The value of a sentence is in large part determined by the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters before and after. Taken on its own, one sentence doesn’t create a plot, fully develop a character, or impart a theme. I don’t think you can separate the skill of a writer from the weight of the ideas and emotion the writer is able to express through a complete work.

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      “The worst writer in history of letters” was an ironic definition justified by the fact that Bulwer has a wretched writing contest named after him ( http://bulwer-lytton.com/ ). The quotation from Bulwer which appears on the top of contest’s webpage is about as long as literary passages used in the quiz. The results of the test demonstrate that the wretched writing contest could well be named after Dickens.

      Of course, it would have been better to use longer literary passages. However, I could not use the whole chapters since nobody would take such a test. As a result, the test has limitations. It only evaluates prose style of a writer, not his storyteller ability. But do you really have doubts that a similar test with whole chapters instead of short paragraphs (provided you manage to force the takers to read them) would lead to a different result?

      • James Carlson says:

        “The results of the test demonstrate that the wretched writing contest could well be named after Dickens”? Are you serious? The results of the test do no such thing — you are reaching a conclusion based on a test that you admit has a few problems, so your conclusions are flawed. It’s a silly test, and you should have known better than to value its worth as sufficient reason to conduct it. “Wretched writing” is the result of much more than just paragraph-based, stylistic qualities, so naturally those qualities alone aren’t sufficient to judge the abilities, creativity, or genius of any novelist on the entire planet. And linking your conclusions to a “wretched writing contest” that is itself a poor method for either acquiring valid examples of or determining the actual value of a novelist’s work has about as much purpose as a crutch would have for a victim of full body paralysis. Perhaps you should have limited your analysis to shorter works from the very beginning. May I suggest limericks? It would allow you a test subject that is not only complete in and of itself, and can therefore give your conclusions the scope that they currently lack (that you seem to believe they currently possess, for some odd reason), but would also give your analysis the entertainment value that it also lacks.

        Your defense of your work is admirable, but the conclusions you’ve reached cannot be defended. They have enabled you to make a judgment that is wrong; the only mystery is why you believe this test is sufficient to reach any conclusions whatsoever. You don’t have enough data to make any value judgments at all regarding novelists. The fact that you recognize that, and yet nonetheless went through the entire exercise says more about you than it does about Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, or even Darwin. You went through the whole process in order to reach a conclusion that most people recognize almost immediately as being invalid, but cute. Well, if you’ve enjoyed yourself, than it’s justified, but you seem a bit “miffed” at the general reception, and that usually indicates some measure of dissatisfaction. Don’t get “miffed”; just don’t get mislead next time by your desire to say a lot on the basis of a little.

  23. John T says:

    Is Simkins’ test really scientific?

    Perhaps I missed it in reading, but how did he “select” the texts which were used. And is the sample of texts – however selected – large enough to be meaningful?

    I suggest that the thesis is neither proven nor disproven.

  24. Erich S says:

    I think the article is fun, and interesting. But I’m not surprised that most people cannot distinguish the authorship of short samples. I’m sure that I would have failed the test. In comparing Dickens (1812-1870) and Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1876) you are just going to get a great deal of similarity stemming from their similar education, upbringing, and audience.

  25. T. Earley says:

    There are many folks who would constitute Victorian literature as to be so wordy that it takes too much time to figure it out and is not worth the trouble to read. The comparision between Mozart and Saliere is sound. Who but a literature major could recognize Dickens from Lytton from Eliot(1819-1880) from James(1843-1916)? Even the great Henry James, an American, attempted to write like an Englishman. Some said he was more “English” than the English! A large porportion of the reading population has never even read enough of these authors works to recognize their innate differences.
    However,I think the article interesting. I have a degree in English Language Literature but I doubt if I’d done a whole lot better in the test without a considerable amount of time to analyse the texts presented.

  26. David Bussey says:

    A note to encourage reconsideration of some assumptions made by critics of the study (but not to encourage publication of its results – I voted “no” in response to the poll question “Is Mikhail Simkin’s scientific approach to assessing the quality of literature valid?”)

    I don’t have a citation handy, but I believe it is generally accepted biographical fact that prior to publication of “The Raven,” Poe excitedly announced to a friend that he had discovered a formula for writing critically and popularly praised poetry, and that he had applied the formula to create his new work. Poe was certain of its success. However, I haven’t seen that the formula itself was ever made public.

    I don’t think we have here evidence that such a formula can’t be discovered. We merely have adequate reason to believe that Simkin has failed to find one.

  27. Bill Fuller says:

    Time, not chance or blind luck, has had its reckoning with Edward Bulwer-Lytton. My take on these two time-tested authors, as well as Mikhail Simkin’s, is irrelevant.
    I venture that Dickens survives because his works, in their totality, capture the interest of many. Word gets around.

  28. Mike Palij says:

    A Methodological point: I have no doubt that many consider Dickens to be a better writer than Bulwer-Lytton but note that the framing used in the quiz is similar to the “poisoning the well” fallacy (i.e., Dickens is “great”, Bulwer-Lytton is terrible). I don’t know what effect this might have on the participants but a better procedure would be to avoid saying this and to hide the identities of the authors. The real problem, however, is that the assumption that “great writing” can be easily discriminated from “terrible writing”; it appears that this is wrong, at least with the texts used here. This result is unlikely to change with a change of framing.

    I would suggest that instead of the response options being Dickens or Bulwer-Lytton, use “great writing” and “terrible writing”. Presumably if discriminating great writing from terrible writing is a perceptually easy task to do, then one wouldn’t need to know who the author is. I’d wager that not only will people not give “great writing” more often to Dickens but, if allowed, will give most if not all of the samples “terrible writing”, in part because the style is so different from what we are now used to (English majors may disagree). It may turn out that this “quiz” is less about the objective properties of good/terrible writing than personal preferences for certain types of writing. This is, as they say, an empirical question.

  29. Edward Hackett says:

    I do not think that taking a few lines of writing from any book or article will tell you whether or not it is great writing. I feel that the work must be judged in its entirety and not just some of its lines. To me great writing has more to do with the ideas and concepts that are presented, than just the grammar or sentence structure.

  30. Bob Pease says:

    The study shows quite conclusiveky that the population
    tested was not able to distinguish grammar and usage styles of these two authors.

    It may be that the population did notunderstand enough about the writhing of the period to have any basis whatever for judgment, style or content.
    BTW it WAS a dark and stormy night, ( for the relevance and scientific or literary value of the study)

  31. Marc Blackburn says:

    When I saw the title of the article I immediately assumed the author would be Shermer. Only he would be so naive as to think that literature can be assessed by bar charts and graphs. It seems I was partially correct, without Shermer, no one would have taken the article seriously.

    The article fails on so many levels. The idea that plain ordinary writing can’t be the best vehicle to tell a story is nonsense. The idea that emotion is best conveyed with flowery writing or any specific attribute at all is nonsense. The idea that the message is of no consequence simply ignores what writing is all about.

    That the article frustrates me should be evident, but as if to add insult to injury, Shermer tacks on a poll worded in such a way as to imply the article has scientific merit. Let us first evaluate whether Simkin’s approach can be called scientific before asking whether his scientific approach to evaluating literature is valid.

  32. Johannes Faustus says:

    I had the good fortune to take Mikhail Simkin’s Victorian-novelist quiz before I knew of this article in the Skeptic and the “Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”-quality debate here in the comments section. I passed the quiz, though without distinction (two errors in the twelve questions), and found its premise and execution amusing. I also enjoyed the brief paper analyzing the performance of the larger test-taking population, without feeling outrage at its weaknesses in, say, subject selection or question framing. This lackadaisical attitude may disqualify me from addressing the major methodological or analytic controversies raised above, so I will focus instead on the test-taking experience itself.

    To the extent that I was conscious of using a “method” to distinguish Dickens from Bulwer-Lytton, I was looking for an admittedly insubstantial quality in the subject paragraphs – a quality of authorial seriousness or consciousness of significance in the subject (rather than anything to do with prose style, because I could not distinguish any consistent differences in style). I believed that Dickens, the reputedly insightful social critic, would have more of it than poor Bulwer-Lytton. To the extent that I successfully applied that method, I submit that I was not quite aligned with the test-maker’s intent.

    For example:

    (Question 1) It was a dark night, though the full moon rose as I left the enclosed lands, and passed out upon the marshes. Beyond their dark line there was a ribbon of clear sky, hardly broad enough to hold the red large moon. In a few minutes she had ascended out of that clear field, in among the piled mountains of cloud. There was a melancholy wind, and the marshes were very dismal. A stranger would have found them insupportable, and even to me they were so oppressive that I hesitated, half inclined to go back. But, I knew them well, and could have found my way on a far darker night, and had no excuse for returning, being there. So, having come there against my inclination, I went on against it.

    (Dickens)

    I selected “Dickens” as author for this sample because the paragraph’s closing sentence seemed insightful about the character of the narrator. It was also a neat, apt epigram, which I would expect, perhaps not exclusively, but certainly more often from a great writer than a lesser.

    In contrast:

    (Question 2) It was one of those nights, half dim, half glorious, which mark the early decline of the year. Nature seemed restless and instinct with change; there were those signs in the atmosphere which leave the most experienced in doubt, whether the morning may rise in storm or sunshine. And in this particular period, the skiey influences seem to tincture the animal life with their own mysterious and wayward spirit of change. The birds desert their summer haunts; an unaccountable inquietude pervades the brute creation; even men in this unsettled season have considered themselves, more (than at others) stirred by the motion and whisperings of their genius. And every creature that flows upon the tide of the Universal Life of Things, feels upon the ruffled surface, the mighty and solemn change, which is at work within its depths.

    (Bulwer-Lytton)

    This one was tough. The opening sentences are skillful (except for the odious “skiey”) and the sentiment seems to be serious and well-presented. The paragraph’s closing sentence, however, had a slightly mawkish and sentimental implication, which reminded me of something Edgar Rice Burroughs might write. The writer was stretching for significance, but not quite grasping it. It left a bad taste and suggested I should attribute it to EBL.

    I used similar judgments for all my choices, and was wrong for questions 4 and 5. In question 4, whose author was Dickens, I disliked the passage “a handsome well-formed young man dressed with a tasteful easy negligence which I have reason to remember very well”. The character’s negligence of dress and the narrator’s reason to remember seemed jejune, which made me consider it a likely EBW quote.

    In question 5 (authored by EBW), I thought that “it is the sanctuary, as it were, of a story which appears to me of a singular and fearful interest; but the scene itself is one which requires no legend to arrest the traveller’s attention” seemed insightful, and something a professional story-teller like Dickens might use to catch a reader’s initial attention – not a strong sentiment, but at least a just one. I was tempted to answer “EBW” to both 4 and 5, which would have improved my score, but I had earlier determined that there would be an equal number of quotes from the two authors and chose to go for the gold rather than cowardly covering the spread.

    Of course, now that I have reviewed the answer sheet, I can see much more of Dickens than EBW in question 4, and every sentence of question 5 shrieks “talentless hack”. If only this perceptiveness had informed my first answers!

    I fear that many of the respondents above appear to be taking Simkin’s paper, and Schermer’s question, too seriously. Simkin’s work often illuminates weak points in the wall protecting academic prestige. I particularly enjoyed his paper on fraudulent, or at least over-eager, citations (http://arxiv.org/abs/cond-mat/0212043), but also lost part of an afternoon to the quizzes on his site (http://reverent.org/quizzes.html). I hope our responses here do not become data for a future Simkin paper.

    There seems to be little evidence that he expects these amusing quizzes, or his paper on the Victorian-novelist results, to be mistaken for serious science. His choice of language like “the worst writer in the history of letters”, which hyperbole some may apply more to us than to EBW, suggests he is deliberately framing a paper not intended to rank with “Nanoscale organic transistors based on self-assembled monolayers” or “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect”. Perhaps we can treat Simkin’s offerings in that light, and smile.

  33. Peter Purvey says:

    Dear Sir, I have not read the whole article but ask the question ‘Does it really matter?’ Both authors were writing in the vernacular common at the time, possibly one was more successful than the other was down to content.Dickens was writing for a whole (lower) class of readers who were newly, barely literate, but nevertheless bacame the backbone of readers.

  34. stuart battle says:

    Amusing, but hardly scientifically rigorous. I detect a “tongue in cheek” essence to Simkin’s musings. You were absolutely correct to not include this in the Magazine in that it certainly does not provoke controversy.To his credit, many times clever spoofs require more thought and are more thought provoking than truly analytical studies.I must confess that I enjoyed it very much.

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      Of course, it must be a joke. How could it be otherwise? All the clever people have the same opinion, which they were taught in Ivy League schools. All who dissagree with this educated opinion are of the sort of those claiming abduction by the aliens and it is against such bizzare opinions the true skepticism should be aimed at.

      No controversy? How about the fact that the reference to my art article (ref no. 5 in the article that appears above) is misteriously missing in proofs

      http://reverent.org/ufo_skeptic/skeptic_proof.pdf

      In case of Dickens one can still hide behind short passages, how about the art quiZ, where the takers were shown complete paintings?

      • James Carlson says:

        Sorry — I was under the impression that we were discussing your irrelevant dissection of Bulwer-Lytton’s and Dicken’s writing, not your “art quiZ, where the takers were shown complete paintings”. Perhaps you should have tried to publish that instead.

        • Mikhail Simkin says:

          But I did publish an article on art quiz in a journal of Royal Statistical Society. I cited it in the Dickens article. Dr. Shermer requested an article on art quiz for Skeptic magazine and even added the sentense to Dickens article which said that my article on the art quiz will appear in Skeptic.

          More details here:
          http://reverent.org/ufo_skeptic/

          So you should ask Dr. Shermer why did he cancell the art article since all the expressed here criticism of Dickens quiz does not apply to the art quiz.

  35. Don says:

    This article reminds me of the three blind men who described an elephant from three different locations. Comparing excerpts is not a valid method for rating writers, on any level.

    Good writers are measured by more than just writing style. Plot, character development, subject matter, etc. There are many factors that make authors popular and/or acclaimed by critics. So much is subjective that science isn’t really the proper way to judge.

    What’s Simkin’s next project? Deciding which Paris fashion designers are “the best?”

    “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” – T.S. Eliot

    • Mikhail Simkin says:

      It is an elementary thing that apart from style a peace of writing is also characterized by the content. Last spring I took a Scuba course and had to read a Scuba manual. It was not written in great style but had useful content which I had to know to get the license. Your comment is both in bad style and useless.

      Frenchwise there was a legendary experiment known as Judgment of Paris, where French wines lost to California wines.

      • James Carlson says:

        It is also an elementary thing that apart from style a “peace” of writing is also characterized by the author’s intent. Last spring I watched an episode of “Green Acres” on television that I thought was a complete waste of my time, but since the author of the show did not intend to impart any useful information whatsoever, only to write an amusing bit of fluff sufficient to keep me watching the televison for thirty minutes so I would be in a position to watch as well the commercials that ultimately paid his salary, the result was an effective bit of writing. It was not written in great style and it had no useful content, but it succeeded in accomplishing what it was intended to accomplish. Since your writing very obviously failed to elicit the response you intended, I would say that it is your work that is useless.

      • Don says:

        Your reply demonstrates that you missed the point of my comment, but that is not surprising given that you shouldn’t have conducted this “study” in the first place on such an arbitrary and misguided premise.

        I will grant that “apart from style a peace (sic) of writing is also characterized by the content.” But even that is just a PIECE, and you admittedly only chose one, ignoring all the others. Without all the other PIECES, your analysis is completely useless.

        I look forward to your analysis of French fashions, in the hopes that it is at least as entertaining (and as useless, scientifically) as this “study” was.

        • Mikhail Simkin says:

          As Mao Tse Tung have said, it is very difficult to get a flimsy point in a muddled discourse, especially in the case when the discourse is pointless.

  36. MIchael says:

    The whole problem I had from the get-go with the approach used in this study is that in literature, context is king. A sentence which is, in one story, complete tripe, a more competent writer could make deeply moving with proper setup. I have in mind a particular example: The Scarlet Letter, which evaluated on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis is incredibly dull (I cannot read it without falling asleep); and yet taken as a whole, this is one of my favorite novels.

    • James Carlson says:

      I feel the same way about “Wuthering Heights”. What the author accomplishes with point-of-view cannot be measured in a paragraph to paragraph comparison with other works. But it is nonetheless a wonderful and classic bit of writing that must be encompassed by the reader, not merely digested. Judging any novelist on the basis of his or her construction of a paragraph is a wasted effort, and I think most of the people who have responded to Simkin’s work are very well aware of that, something he seems to have ignored to a great extent; had he not done so, he would likely not have completed such a task, since his conlusions cannot be used to say anything at all useful, either in regard to the works or the authors examined, or in regard to the methods currently and commonly in use to determine the value of such works.

  37. Roger Seamon says:

    What ever happened to the test of time? Lots of us in English literature had to read lots of plays other than Shakespeare’s and a few epics other than Paradise Lost, and none came out better. Well, we were conditioned. But who conditioned the conditioners? Well, let’s go back to Milton’s day and find out. Readers. Bulwer-Lytton was popular, but declined, so it was some later readers who conditioned later readers. That won’t work.
    The test of time by those who read (or listen or look) a lot is how this is done, and it has long been known that there are no explicable grounds for the choices. De gustibus, etc. That the quality of Dickens’ prose is, for these people under these conditions,the same as Bulwer-Lytton’s shows, as some of the comments have implied, that a test like this does nor replicate the conditions which lead to our calling someone a genius, i.e., the work has to last for some time for those who care.
    I think the experiment is intended to justify the frustration some feel about there being no objective test for value in the arts. I doubt it will work even for them.

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