My latest Science Progress column just went up–it’s a reaction to this intriguing proposal, by scholar Jonathan Gottschall, to remake the ailing field of literary studies with a scientific foundation. An excerpt:
Writing in the Boston Globe ideas section, Gottschall describes in detail what his science of literature would look like, something he can do because he and his colleagues have already performed some early experiments. They’ve crunched data comparing Western and non-Western literatures to determine if one is more sexist than the other (in the sense of constantly describing whether female characters are attractive). Result: There’s no difference. They’ve used statistical methods to determine whether reader reactions to the personages described in great texts, like the works of Jane Austen, are completely variable or confined within a fairly small set of responses. Result: The latter.
And then there’s one of the most impressive literary scientific techniques–“stylometrics,” which uses computers to pore over massive texts, compare their phraseology, and thereby determine whether or not they had the same author. We all have ticks in our prose, favorite phrases and flourishes, “stylistic fingerprints” that give us away and make it possible to put literary sleuthing on a firm empirical determination, so as to really determine the authorship of contested texts.
You can read the full column here.