By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

“Metrics?” It was suddenly all I could do to get that word in edgewise.

“Indeed.” My companion took a quick gulp of Coke, then launched into a lecture. That was okay—I was here to learn. “One can quantify language usage in a number of very precise ways. Average sentence length and variability of length. Average paragraph size, in both word and sentence count, and variability of same. Range of vocabulary and frequency with which synonyms are employed. Then there is sentence structure: preference for active or passive voice, degree of use of dependent clauses, rate of pronoun-for-noun substitutions.” Flourishing his fork in grand emphasis; Nigel was entirely transformed from the gloomy fellow I’d met minutes earlier. “There are many other patterns: recourse to foreign expressions, application of various figures of speech, and so forth.”

After a long while, the torrent of words slowed. I’d long since given up trying to follow the details, instead taking comfort in the one assessment I had been qualified to perform. Not only was Nigel widely published, but his papers were frequently cited in what appeared to be the mainstream publications of his esoteric field. Sensitized by the immersion in lexical analysis, I now couldn’t help but notice my flowing-water metaphors.

“I asked,” said Nigel irritably, “about your target.”

“My what?”

Nothing remained in the Brit’s glass but ice. He stirred the cubes with his straw. “Sudden interest in lexical analysis always means one thing: the desire to prove, or disprove, common authorship of some materials. So what axe are you grinding?”

“Pure academic research, I assure you.”

Nigel arched an eyebrow skeptically.

After muttered practice for the whole drive over here, I was as prepared as I could be for this moment. In my study of Internet chat rooms, I explained, I’d sensed similarities in purportedly independent comments. “So” I wrapped up, “I’ve come to suspect there are people using multiple screen names. It’s pretty sad to think anyone would try to bolster his arguments by hiding behind several personae. If I’m right, there would probably be a paper there—but not a paper for me. My field is sociology, not psychology … I have no intention of producing an article about a handful of UFO skeptics with too much time on their hands.”

We haggled over the price of a quick scan of a few chat rooms, settling on a banana cream pie to go. I took the check, Nigel took a list of chat rooms and screen names from me, and we went our separate ways.

* * * *

“My results,” Nigel had insisted, “merit a steak dinner.” He would say no more about those findings over the phone. The good news was I could buy our steaks at the grocery—he had a raft of hardcopies he wanted to show me, paperwork strewn across his apartment.

He shoved my bag unexamined straight into his refrigerator, extracting, while he was there, a beer. That cold bottle was for me; he took a warm one from the pantry for himself. Then he led the way to his study, whose decorating scheme was dead trees and pastel highlighter.

“What’s up?”

Nigel waved me into the den’s only chair. “You wondered if there were fewer skeptics than screen names.” He fairly bounced on his toes.

“And were there?”

“Most definitely.” My original list of aliases was pinned to a wall, a check mark beside every entry. He rapped it for emphasis. “A lot fewer.”

As he walked me through a collection of printouts, replete with highlighting, underlinings, circled phrases, and marginal scribbles, I struggled to understand. “You’re saying one person is inventing all these chat rooms-worth of dialogues? Why would someone do that?”

“That’s not what I’m saying. The exchanges are quite real. In your terminology, there are many true believers, many debunkers.” There was tapping and rustling as Nigel aligned his papers into a neat sheaf. “But of calm, dispassionately reasoning participants, those you call the skeptics, in several of these chat rooms more than half of relevant screen names map to a single person.”

The statement was so astonishing, that I set it aside for later analysis. “Anything else?”

“For one, your friend isn’t a native English speaker.” I must have started at the phrase your friend, because he clarified, “Your quarry. Fascinating.” From a file cabinet emerged more papers, replete with other annotations. The more excited Nigel became, the more enigmatic grew his elucidations.

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Categories: Edward Lerner