In July 2010 I submitted an article to Skeptic magazine. It contained a scientific analysis of the results of my "Great prose, or not?" quiz.
In two month I received the following message from the editor:
Subject: From Michael Shermer
Date: Tue, 14 Sep 2010 08:20:55 -0700
Congratulations! I would like to publish your article in the next issue of Skeptic magazine. I have attached an edited version FYI, but you don't need to do anything with this as you will receive a galley proof to review before publication. As you will see I made a reference at the end to your other study along these lines and so I would be interested in an article
from you for a future issue about that.
Although the other study was already published, I agreed to write another article for Skeptic magazine. However, I received from Dr. Shermer the following reply (text in red emphasized by me):
Subject: Re: From Michael Shermer
I had added the requested paragraph, edited some of Shermer's additions and sent back the
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2010 16:28:32 -0700
Let's hold off for the moment on the art article. I'm getting a little resistance to the idea from my partner here, about
the limitations of your research on capturing what it is that makes a great writer great. Here is what Pat writes. I think
she has a point that we should probably make in your present article, indicating that we are conscious of the fact that
there are many elements that go into writing not captured by a comparison test such as the one you constructed. Here is her
email to me today:
I got a kick out of that literary anayisis of Dickens v. the supposedly bad writer.
I can construct a paragraph to this effect to add to your article, unless you would like to.
But Dickens is not known for his descriptive prose. He is famous for character development, plot construction, and most of
all, use of Victorian sentiment in the service of social critique. The test seemed to me to be based on a
nerd misconception of what makes art great...(or perpetually popular--Dickens is a Spielberg, not a Bergman). Its not
the little bits and pieces that are golden, its the effect of the whole cloth. 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.
We don't want to look like the dorks that write skeptical articles about how si-fi movies are
unrealistic, or the older gereration that tends to declaire the music of the younger one pure junk.
On November 1st I received the page proof from the Artskeptic Pat Linse (apparently the same Pat quoted by Dr. Shermer in his email). The reference to the paper where I reported similar results for the case of modern art had dissappeared. I sent to the Artskeptic the proof corrections where I requested to restore the reference to the art article.
Finally I got the following message from Dr. Shermer:
Subject: From Michael Shermer
Date: Sun, 2 Jan 2011 15:50:41 -0800
I've run into a two-fold problem with your article: 1. We have had to reduce the length of Skeptic magazine effective the
next issue because of the rising costs of paper and printing (coupled to the recession and our reduced budget), so I'm
having to cut several articles from the next issue, plus, 2. All of my editors have objected to the thesis of your article-
-not that they disagree with your data or conclusions, but with the overall premise. Thus, pending your approval, I've
decided that we will publish your article on eSkeptic and Skeptic.com instead of Skeptic magazine. The circulation is
roughly the same (about 55,000) for each of the online and print editions, but I would like to see what sort of response we
get to it, especially from literary scholars. For example, one Professor of English Literature, whom I sent the article to
review, writes (and this is typical of everyone who has read it):
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
Let me know if you would like to still see it published in eSkeptic and Skeptic.com
It would not surprise me that sampling his 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." Its a false analogy to
presume that genius is like a pie, ie, 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.
* 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.”
A true skeptic is accustomed to rash criticism. However, Dr. Shermer got used to be skeptical about things like UFOs in which only a tiny fraction of educated people does believe anyway. Being not a real skeptic, but a UFO skeptic, he cannot resist any pressure from anyone who is plastered with a number of academic certificates. Finally, Dr. Shermer ended up publishing in eSkeptic this. He prefaced the article with his statement that it is wrong and quoted the opinion of the English professor, but failed to quote the email he got from Artpat:
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.
I think this is what really swayed him.
Let us now turn to the comments of the professor. Some of them are irrelevant. None of the two Dickens novels he mentions was even used in the quiz. The Latinate prose does not obscure the differences between the two authors but can help to distinguish between them. His only relevant comment is trivial. Of course, the quality of a novel depends not only on the style it is written in but also on the story it tells. This point is so obvious that one may wunder how Dr. Shermer could possibly miss it and needed the help of an English professor to get it. I could not possibly include the whole books into the quiz, since no one would take it. Note, however, that the Bulwer-Lytton quotation, used as an epigraph for the wretched
writing contest is just as long as those used in the quiz. At the very least results of the quiz show that the contest could well be named after Dickens.
I do not object to the criticism that my method has a flaw. I do object the attitude that the quiz is a trick and if the test takers will read the whole books, everything will get all right. No, it will not. In a related experiment, publishers had
rejected Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors. The publishers
got the whole chapters of the books, not just paragraphs, but still failed to spot great prose.
Next, the art quiz does not suffer from the deficiency of the "Great prose, or not?" quiz, as it uses complete paintings. Why Dr. Shermer took back his offer to publish my article on art quiz? Why even the reference to this study was absent from galley proof?
Finally, the professor admits that he can't proof that Dickens was a genius. Why then people are forced to read his books in high school? This time he shoould prove something but, as he himself admits, he can't.
January 17, 2011, edited February 25, 2013
Quiz: Dickens or
of Charles Dickens
into modern art
Opium for Scholars