Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Father of Stylometry

“Frederick Mosteller, who founded Harvard University's statistics department and used mathematical theories to explain everyday concerns, from health care to the World Series, died July 23 at Powhatan Nursing Home in Falls Church, Va. He had sepsis. He was 89.

In 1962, Mosteller found himself in the news when one of his studies addressed the foundations of U.S. history. Mosteller and a colleague from the University of Chicago, David Wallace, proposed a solution to a lingering mystery of political science: Who had written 12 of the 85 Federalist papers? Those essays appeared in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788, most under the pen name Publius, to urge the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Although James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay were known to be "Publius," it was unclear which of the three had written a dozen of the pieces. Madison and Hamilton were assumed by many to be the authors; Jay, who became the first chief justice of the United States, had never been a likely candidate.

Mosteller and Wallace spent three years on the project, applying Bayes' theorem, a method of interpreting probability of one event based on previous experience of other connected events. They had at their disposal a high-speed IBM computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which they fed the known Federalist writings of Madison and Hamilton. Among other things, they looked at sentence length (34.59 vs. 34.55 words, respectively, for Madison and Hamilton) and the frequency of such telltale words as "upon" and "whilst" in Madison and Hamilton's prose. But in the end, they used such noncontextual words as "by" and "from" to show that Madison had written the 12 disputed essays. Their analysis, published in their 1964 book "Inference and Disputed Authorship," spurred consensus among historians over their findings and was an early and persuasive demonstration of what has come to be called ‘stylometry.’”

This article was copied from the lengthy Washington Post obituary. My only contribution to this article is the title.

Copyrighted 2006


Post a Comment

<< Home