Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A new era in textual criticism — Presidential linguistics

But, with a caveat

Having taken a graduate school class in textual criticism — heck, having started a petition drive to get my divinity school to offer it — I find stories like this just fascinating.

However, reading on further, I find it somewhat questionable as well, in one specific area — see at the bottom.

It’s about James W. Pennebaker and some of his groundbreaking work with modern textual criticism of both oral and written content. For example, he analyzed the communications of Osama bin Laden vs. his putative No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, and finds shifts in vocabulary by Zawahiri indicating he might be trying to reposition his relationship with bin Laden, research supported by social psychologists.

Now, his blog, Pennebaker examines linguistics and the current presidential race.

That said, scientifically, those ruminations have to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Because this isn’t even a single-blinded study of two unknown orators, but the known speeches and statements of McCain and Obama, whatever political bias Pennebaker has is theoretically being infused into his blog observations.

And, I make that statement without seeing what political leanings he might have.

Now, this isn’t quite in the realm of bad science. But, to the degree that Pennebaker may project his findings as having some sort of scientific sheen, it IS shoddy science.

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