Scientific inquiry into poetry

Written by Mikhail Simkin on . Posted in History of Stats & Science

Nadejda Mountbatten
In a recent article I reported the results of the internet-test, where the takers had to tell the prose of Charles Dickens from the prose of the little known Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The test-takers failed the task. The article met a flood of rash criticism most of which I had already refuted. However, one objection still stands: I used small excerpts rather than complete novels. From reading an excerpt, one can evaluate an author’s prose style. Thus my opponents concluded that Dickens was famous not for his prose but for his plots and characters. To evaluate such things one has to read the whole novel. It is technically impossible to include whole novels in the test. Fortunately, in the case of poetry it is possible to use complete literary works.
According to Britannica, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) “has often been considered his country’s greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.” In contrast, his contemporary, Nikolay Yazykov, is not even mentioned in the British Encyclopedia. I wrote a test1 where the takers are to tell between their verses. Actually, I suspect that in spite of having an entry in Britannica Pushkin is not familiar to most of the readers. To help the British public fully comprehend the importance of the discovery I am about to convey, I will give some additional information: Pushkin’s great granddaughter Nadejda Mountbatten is an aunt of Prince Phillip.
Alas, in his competition with Yazykov Pushkin showed a less than royal result. The average score of over twenty two thousand people is 55.5% correct. This is little better than random guessing, which would give 50% correct. The 35 people from leading Russian universities got an average score of 55.8%. Those familiar with the Russian language can read a more detailed report of this study2.


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