Science may help solve opinion columnist mystery
Washington – Language detectives say the key clues to who wrote the anonymous New York Times opinion piece slamming President Donald Trump may not be the odd and glimmering “lodestar,” but the itty-bitty words that people usually read right over: “I,” “of” and “but.”
And lodestar? That could be a red herring meant to throw sleuths off track, some experts say.
Experts use a combination of language use, statistics and computer science to help figure out who wrote documents that are anonymous or possibly plagiarized. They’ve even solved crimes and historical mysteries that way. Some call the field forensic linguistics, others call it stylometry or simply doing “author attribution.”
The field is suddenly at center stage after an unidentified “senior administration official” wrote in the Times that he or she was part of a “resistance” movement working from within the administration to curb Trump’s most dangerous impulses.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook with requests to do that analysis and I just don’t have the time,” says Duquesne University computer and language scientist Patrick Juola.
Robert Leonard, a Hofstra University linguistics professor who has helped solve murders by examining language, says if experts could get the right number of writing samples from officials whose identities are known, “an analysis could certainly be done.”
One political scientist figures there are about 50 people in the Trump administration who fit the Times’ description as a senior administration official and could be the author. The key would be to look at how they write, the words they use, what words they put next to each other, spelling, punctuation and even tenses, experts say.
“Language is a set of choices. What to say, how to say and when to say it,” Juola says. “And there’s a lot of different options.”
One of the favorite techniques of Juola and other experts is to look at what’s called “function words.” These are words people use all the time but that are hard to define because they more provide function than meaning. Some examples are “of,” “with,” “the,” “a,” “over” and “and.”
“We all use them but we don’t use them in the same way,” Juola says. “We don’t use them in the same frequency.”
For example, do you say “different from” or “different than?” asks computer science and data expert Shlomo Argamon of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Women tend to use first- and second-person pronouns more – “I,” “me” and “you” – and more present tense, Argamon says.
Men use “the,” “of,” “this” and “that” more often, he says.
There’s even a website that is based on Argamon’s research that tries to determine whether a writer is male or female: http://hackerfactor.com/ GenderGuesser.php . Argamon calls it just a toy and the site says isn’t perfect.
“You look for clues and you try to assess the usefulness of those clues,” Argamon says. But he is less optimistic that the Trump opinion piece case will be cracked for various reasons, including the New York Times’ editing for style and possible efforts to fool language detectives with words that someone else likes to use such as “lodestar.”
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