The Montemurro and Zanette Voynich paper: summary and update

By Gordon Rugg

Researchers in various relevant disciplines have started writing about the M&Z paper. The responses I’ve seen so far vary from sceptical to scathing, as described below.

I’m planning to hand over to the specialists from other fields, since I’ve already covered my concerns about this study in previous blog posts, and to return to the usual subjects of this blog.

There’s a scathing review of the Montemurro and Zanette paper here:

http://glossographia.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/is-the-voynich-manuscript-structured-like-written-language/

Some key quotes from that review:

Now, I am not a specialist in information theory, and I’m not truly a specialist on the Voynich Manuscript (although I have played one on TV), but I am a linguist and I do research on writing systems and allied representation systems like written numerals.      And several things bother me about this paper. 

[snip]

Again, without taking a position on any of these controversies, it strikes me as irresponsible literature-searching that the Montemurro and Zanette study is so fundamentally unaware of similar efforts in major publications such as Science and the Proceedings of the Royal Society.    If you’re going to use physics to study written language, even if you’re going to ignore every single linguist who’s written on these subjects, maybe you should at least be aware of high-impact articles written in the last ten years by physicists using very similar methods to your own.

[snip]

In short, I’m afraid what we have here is another case of non-specialists applying the methods of one field inappropriately to some actually complex linguistics problems to evaluate a text whose decipherers (a group riddled with charlatans and cranks) have offered us everything except an actual decipherment.

There are similar criticisms in Der Spiegel, which quotes Klaus Schmeh, a German expert on cryptography. (Translation via Google Translate.)

http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/mysterioeses-buch-voynich-manuskript-koennte-botschaft-enthalten-a-907556.html

There were already about 25 linguistic studies of the manuscript. “About 20 come to the conclusion that it is something that needs to act like a natural language,” he said in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The Spiegel article also refers to the conclusions of Austrian physicist Andreas Schinner, whose article on statistical analysis of the Voynich Manuscript was published in Cryptologia in 2007:

In 2007 he had analyzed the text of a so-called random walk method. Schinner discovered in the text of long-range correlations, which do not exist in natural texts according to his statement. For him, a clear indication that it is a nonsense text.

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7 thoughts on “The Montemurro and Zanette Voynich paper: summary and update

  1. Thanks for the kind words. Obviously if they had really wanted to refute your hypothesis they could have created some Voynichese using a table and grille and tested it for its information structure. Their choice to use only yeast DNA as a non-linguistic information system in their comparison means that they can’t possibly refute any other hypothesis, including your own, but also including many others. Unfortunately these sorts of things seem to attract a lot of attention because in the minds of many, physics is ‘real science’ and linguistics is something decidedly inferior.

    • There’s a similar phenomenon within computer science, where a lot of programmers believe that anything involving programming is more difficult than anything involving humans, so topics such as human factors are viewed as easy options for less able students. Sigh.

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