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Hear, All Ye People; Hearken, O Earth (parts I and II) “–are we more inclined to believe that gold has an atomic number of 79 if we read it in Georgia, the typeface of The New York Times online, rather than in Helvetica?” 1. THE QUIZ [1] The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes… — Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” NOTE: This is a follow-up to my quiz that ran in The Times, “Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?” I would like you to read my essay and then take the quiz. It doesn’t matter whether you have taken it before. If you haven’t taken it before, please take it. If you have taken it before, please take it again. Here is my confession. My quiz wasn’t really a test of the optimism or pessimism of the reader. There was a hidden agenda. It was a test of the effect of typefaces on truth. Or to be precise, the effect on credulity. [2] Are there certain typefaces that compel a belief that the sentences they are written in are true?

I picked a passage from David Deutsch’s second book, “The Beginning of Infinity” — a passage about “unprecedented safety” — and embedded it in my quiz for The Times, “Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?”

How confident are you in your conclusion? ( ) Slightly confident ( ) Moderately confident ( ) Very confident

If a one-kilometer asteroid had approached the Earth on a collision course at any time in human history before the early twenty-first century, it would have killed at least a substantial proportion of all humans. In that respect, as in many others, we live in an era of unprecedented safety: the twentyfirst century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves from such impacts, which occur once every 250,000 years or so. Do you think Deutsch’s claim is true? Is it true that “we live in an era of unprecedented safety”? ( ) Yes: The claim is true ( ) No: The claim is false

I do not mean to dismiss the possibility of global catastrophe from asteroids or global warming or a host of other possible calamities — bioengineered viruses spreading out of control, Malthusian nightmares of overpopulation choking off life on the planet, etc. I wouldn’t want to dismiss even the most outrageous of millenarian fantasies, including Mayan predictions of the end of the world. [3] [4] But for the moment, I was interested in something somewhat less apocalyptic. We all know that we are influenced in many, many ways — many of which


we remain blissfully unaware of. Could typefaces be one of them? Could the mere selection of a typeface influence us to believe one thing rather than another? Could typefaces work some unseen magic? Or malefaction? Don’t get me wrong. The underlying truth of the sentence “Gold has an atomic number of 79” is not dependent on the typeface in which it is written. The sentence is true regardless of whether it is displayed in Helvetica, Georgia or even the much-maligned Comic Sans. But are we more inclined to believe that gold has an atomic number of 79 if we read it in Georgia, the typeface of The New York Times online, rather than in Helvetica?

At first, I’m just relieved to be doing so well. Still, ever the skeptic, I start to wonder: what exactly am I doing differently now to be getting all these A-range paper grades all of the sudden?

So, be mindful of your target audience when you’re marking up a document, whether it’s a university essay or a commercial website. You never know just how loudly a font speaks.

I haven’t drastically changed the amount of effort I’m putting into my writing. I’m probably even spending less time with them now than I did earlier in my studies, and while I guess you could argue that I’m probably just being a great example of practice making perfect, I’ve got my doubts; I even used to take courses concentrating on writing better essays, and in the time surrounding that, my grades were pretty low.

But Renaud’s results are anecdotal. I wondered: is there an experiment that could decide this once and for all? Or barring that, at least throw some empirical light on the situation? Could the effect of typography on the perception of truth be assessed objectively?

Then it hits me: the only thing I’ve really changed since I’ve been getting these grades is… my essay font.

Then it hits me: the only thing I’ve really changed since I’ve been getting these grades is… my essay font. Renaud had written 52 essays in total. Eleven were set in Times New Roman, 18 in Trebuchet MS, and the remaining 23 in Georgia. The Times New Roman papers earned an average grade of A-, but the Trebuchet papers could only muster a B-. I asked a friend, the psychologist Marc Hauser, about experimental results on typefaces. He recommended a blog post, “The Secret Life of Fonts,” written by Phil Renaud, self-described as “a Canadian blog design and web design enthusiast, with a particular admiration for web standards and CSS innovation. Ruby on Rails, xhtml/css, ajax, and a whole lotta love.” [5] I’m nearing the end of my sixth semester of university, and things are going pretty well: I’m clearing a decent grade point average, enjoying my major, and just having wrapped up my semester’s “essay alley,” wherein all my courses require a term paper or two, and getting my results back telling me that I’m doing much better than usual.

Benjamin Berman (who designed the Multics emulation for my Times article “Did My Brother Invent Email with Tom Van Vleck?”) created a program that changes the typeface of the David Deutsch passage. Each Times participant read the passage in one of six randomly assigned typefaces — Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. The questions, ostensibly about optimism or pessimism, provided data about the influence of typefaces on our beliefs. The test consisted of comparing the responses and determining whether typeface choice influenced our perception of the truth of the passage.

And the Georgia essays? A solid A. Well, would you believe it? My essays written in Georgia did the best overall. This got me thinking as to why that might be: maybe fonts speak a lot louder than we think they do. Especially to a professor who has to wade through a collection of them; Times seems to be the norm, so it really doesn’t set off any subconscious triggers. Georgia is enough like Times to retain its academic feel, and is different enough to be something of a relief for the grader. Trebuchet seems to set off a negative trigger, maybe just based on the fact that it’s not as easy to read in print, maybe on the fact that it looks like something off a blog rather than an academic journal. Who knows…

More than 100,000 people clicked on the page, and approximately 45,000 people took the quiz. I gave the results to David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, who helped design the questions and the overall character of the quiz. [6] Here are the results. 39 percent of the testtakers were pessimists and found fault with Deutsch; 61 percent were optimists and agreed with him. I don’t know whether such a test was done 10 or 20 years ago, and whether the outcome would be at all different, but from the 45,000 responses, it seems that a clear majority now believes that science and technology can save us from


a natural catastrophe — at least, from a nasty encounter with an asteroid. (Of course, it is unclear whether there is a majority that believe that science and technology can save us from ourselves.) The quiz received more than 250 comments — many of them really funny and interesting — but almost no one caught on to the fact that people were reading the passage in different typefaces. No one except for Michael McGahan from Denver, Colo. In a reply, he wrote,

processors in the 1980s), few people write by hand anymore, and we now have a vast array of typefaces available to us. It is an easy matter to change an entire document from Bembo to Garamond to Caslon to Palatino. We forget that written manuscripts, letters and journals were once unique objects often containing clues about the writer and the context of when and how they were written.

Major Dick-son + Capt. Foster [of the] 62nd Many I know and respect very much it is said the loss has been in the Divisions about 500 killed and wounded — besides many in the Light Division. Lord Raglan went toward the hospitals this evening visiting the wounded. There is a general order eulogizing the troops though it is whispered they did not do so well. Little I fear has been gained for a great loss —

Can we separate the form of the writing from its content? Usually, it’s difficult if not impossible, but let me give you an extraordinary example of a page from a journal written during the Crimean War by Captain Mark Walker.

Saturday 9th. Still blowing very hard + dusty. The bateries [sic] are firing away. Yesterday the ships in harbor threw shells all day at the Mamelon, the Redan, and the Malakoff. [The Russians] fired very little. I fancy they are preserving their ammunition in case of an assault — a generous one I should think — hill down to the plains.

“–almost no one caught on to the fact that people were reading the passage in different typefaces.”

If the “surprise” in the results has anything to do with Deutsch’s claim being presented in Comic Sans, consider me unsurprised. Specifically, something tells me that this is an A/B comparison experiment in which some people are presented the passage in a “formal” font, and others are presented the passage in an “informal” font, and the “optimism” results will be compared based on the presentation condition — otherwise, what is Comic Sans doing in the New York Times, which should know better? I look forward to the results! July 12, 2012 at 8:05 p.m.

And then the serious firing began. The page from June 9-10, 1855, is notable because the handwriting changes suddenly, halfway down the page. On first inspection it appears to be written by two different people or perhaps someone with multiple personality disorder. The writing on the top half of the page is elegant but unreadable, the writing on the bottom half, awkward but entirely legible. The reason for the abrupt change becomes clear only through reading the journal. (You can also read the accompanying transcription.)

2. GREAT KINDNESS I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous. — Old Proverb Until about 150 years ago most people wrote out documents by hand. Since the advent of typewriters (from John J. Pratt’s pterotype in the 1860s to word

[Transcription of the upper-half of the journal page, dated June 9, 1855.] …wounded Major Armstrong + Capt. Le Marchant 49 wounded + Lt Stone’s 55th killed. Today it is blowing very hard and the dust is abominable — have just heard of 4 officers [of the] 88th having been killed and Col. Sherman

[Transcription of the lower-half of the journal page, dated June 10, 1855.] Sunday 10th. Last night I went on with the reserves. Just as I got into the rear approach which joins the trench on the right heavy firing commenced at the Mamelon. While I was in the act of hurrying the men up a howitzer shell dropped beside me and exploded. A piece struck me on the right elbow and smashed it. I immediately tied a large handkerchief above the fracture and walked to the rear until I met some of the 55th who put me on a stretcher and carried me to Camp. I received great kindness from my new brother officers. After some time I was carried to a hut at the General Hospital where I now am. I was put under choloroform [sic] and on coming to consciousness I found my arm taken off above the elbow during the night and today I suffered a good deal


of pain. The loss I have experienced is very great but I am very thankful that my life has been spared. The hut has been filled with sympathizing visitors particularly my [old comrades of the 30th…]

— W.B. Yeats, “Among School Children” Michael McGahan, the author of the reply from the first part of this essay, noticed the use of Comic Sans. To him, that alone suggested that something was up. And then when I commented on the quiz on my Twitter account, Marin Balaic of Osijek, Croatia, provided the comment, “Maybe because the claim and questions are set in Comic Sans? It does have a reputation for rendering things ineffectual.” Balaic was aware that typefaces were in some way involved. But he didn’t go further than that. [8]

“—I found my arm taken off above the elbow during the night—”

Compare the typed text with Captain Walker’s handwritten journal. The information is the same, but clearly, the emotional resonance of the words in the written journal is different. We feel the howitzer shell, the shattered elbow, the ripped tendons — ultimately the loss of the arm. And the writing, in a new unfamiliar hand, suggests an odd sangfroid, an equanimity in the face of horrifying adversity. [7]

I have often wondered about the visual element in text. Yes, we read the word “horse,” but we also see the letters, the typefaces, the shape of the word on the page. Is this not part of the meaning? It seems evident that we respond to different typefaces in different ways, but how many experiments have been done to determine the effect of typefaces on our perception of truth? Do we more readily accept (as true) sentences written in one typeface rather than another? Let’s look at the test results. 3.THE RESULTS O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Balaic, like so many others, was firmly convinced — call it a feeling of typographic rectitude — that Comic Sans was “rendering things ineffectual,” or, to be fair to his argument, was at least reputed to have that effect. And Comic Sans had been recently in the news. On July 4, CERN announced its evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson — the particle predicted some 36 years earlier — in Comic Sans. Of the thousands of typefaces widely available, why Comic Sans? Nadine Chahine in Design Week wrote, Of the thousands of fonts available to convey such a critical milestone, the scientists plumped for the Marmite of typography — Comic Sans. Within minutes of the news’ breaking ‘Comic

Sans’ was trending on Twitter, with the majority of tweeters expressing their disgust at such an important announcement being conveyed in such a way. And Patrick Kingsley in The Guardian wrote, I opened Twitter this morning to find two things trending: “Comic Sans,” and “Higgs Boson” — the former a much-hated font, and the latter something to do with science. As unlikely as it sounds, the two things were linked… “Dear @ CERN,” wrote one science buff with a taste for typography. “Every time you use Comic Sans on a powerpoint, God kills Schrödinger’s cat. Please think of the cat.” Another groaned: “They used Comic Sans on the Higgs boson powerpoint presentation … Nope there is no hope for mankind.” Fortunately, I was able to get an answer. Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist, kindly e-mailed Fabiola Gianotti on my behalf. Gianotti, the coordinator of the CERN program to find the Higgs boson, provided a compelling rationale for why she had used Comic Sans. When asked, she said, “Because I like it.” The conscious awareness of Comic Sans promotes — at least among some people — contempt and summary dismissal. But is there a typeface that promotes, engenders a belief that a sentence is true? Or at least nudges us in that direction? And indeed there is. It is Baskerville.


Believe it or not, the results of this test even show a disparity between Baskerville and Georgia — two apparently similar serif typefaces. My first thought was that it must have been a sampling error. A false positive — a result with no meaning. But it is not. It may be one of the true graven facts, like the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle — fixed, immutable, necessary. (Well, maybe not. It’s a probabilistic result, after all.)

call it a 1.5% advantage, in that that’s how much higher agreement is with it relative to the average of the other fonts. That advantage may seem small, but if that was a bump up in sales figures, many online companies would kill for it. The fact that font matters at all is a wonderment.

“Baskerville is different from the rest.”

Benjamin Berman collected the data, did an initial analysis, and created bar graphs to illustrate the responses to the Deutsch passage. The total number of participants used for this analysis is 45,524. These graphs provide numerical totals for each category by typeface and level of confidence. Baskerville is the second tallest bar (just below Helvetica) in terms of agreement, but it has the most people who strongly agree. Baskerville also is the second shortest (just below Computer Modern) in disagreement, but it has the fewest people who strongly disagree. Berman then forwarded the data to David Dunning at Cornell. Here is Professor Dunning’s reply: Baskerville is different from the rest. I’d

Dunning coded the responses, assigning weighted values to each of the six levels of confidence. strongly agree = 5 moderately agree = 3 slightly agree = 1 slightly disagree = -1 moderately disagree = -3 strongly disagree = -5. This second pair of graphs provide weighted totals. (Take the numerical totals for Baskerville. Multiply the figure for strongly agree by 5, the figure for moderately agree by 3, the figure for slightly agree by 1, etc., and then add them together. [9] ) Suddenly, Baskerville leaps off the page. It has both the highest rate of agreement and the lowest rate of disagreement.

an assessment of the likelihood that the particular effect we are looking at (e.g., the effect produced by Baskerville) is a result of a meaningless coincidence. [10] The p-value for Baskerville is 0.0068. Dunning explained, “We never completely rule out random chance as a possible cause of any result we see. But sometimes the result is so strong that chance is just very, very unlikely. What’s strong enough? If the p-value is 0.05 or less, we typically dismiss chance as an explanation by ‘industry agreement.’ That is, we tolerate a 5 percent chance on any one comparison that what we are looking at is merely random variation.” But Dunning went even further. Since we are testing six typefaces, he noted that there “are 6, not 1, opportunities for me to be just looking at random chance. The conservative approach is to divide 5 percent by the number of tests. Thus, the p-value to dismiss chance falls to 0.0083.” Under 1 percent. I called Professor Dunning.

And it turns out that Marin Balaic was right. Comic Sans has the lowest rate of agreement, and one of the highest rates of disagreement.

DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.

Are the results the product of chance? To address this question, Dunning calculated the p-value for each typeface. Grossly simplified, the p-value is

ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that


has the imprimatur of, I don’t know, truth — truthiness.

ERROL MORRIS: How surprised are you by this?

ERROL MORRIS: And what did you learn from this data?

DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal — Comic Sans, obviously — and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.

DAVID DUNNING: I’m surprised that the damn thing worked at all — because you are conducting an experiment in an uncontrolled environment. Who knows what’s going on at the other end of a computer screen? Their kids could be screaming in the background for all we know. It could be two a.m. It could be two p.m. They’ve had their coffee. They haven’t had their coffee… The font is on their desktops. There is just a ton of stuff out there that could obscure any results whatsoever. That’s why I made sure to have those six levels of confidence —

DAVID DUNNING: That people either agree or they disagree. They are not hovering around the middle at all. They choose a decisive yes or no. But I thought that some fonts would be rejected rather than that one font was going to be the winner.

ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness? DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don’t really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?

ERROL MORRIS: Because — DAVID DUNNING: Because, basically, there are two different types of questions you can ask in a survey. You can ask yes/no. Do you agree with X? And that is a rather crude question, because if a person says yes, you don’t know if they are saying, “Yes, God damn it,” or if they are saying, “Ye-es.” [in a meek voice]. They both qualify as yes. However, if you ask about gradations of the “yes” (or gradations of agreeing), then if there is a more subtle phenomenon going on you have a better chance of catching it. You catch people going from “Ye-es” to “Yeah.”

ERROL MORRIS: For example, Comic Sans would be a loser. DAVID DUNNING: Exactly. ERROL MORRIS: The loser font. DAVID DUNNING: The inappropriate font. What is this font doing here? [laughter] But no. That doesn’t seem to have been the case. And that’s why you do the studies. Sometimes you get exactly what you expect. O.K., great. You publish them. The fun happens when you do a study that comes out in a way that no one would ever have expected. Now you’ve got to sit back and say, how do I explain that? Can I explain that? To be continued… [1] An illustration of the Torino Scale from “0” where the likelihood of an asteroid collision with the Earth is so low as to be effectively zero to “10”


where a collision is certain, capable of causing global climatic catastrophe that may threaten the future of civilization as we know it, whether affecting land or ocean. Such events occur on average once every 100,000 years, more or less. It reminds me of a trip to Glen Canyon Dam. You can stand on the top and feel the weight, the immense power of the water trapped behind the dam. There have been constant leaks, but the engineer in charge told me not to worry, that the dam was designed to last 100 years. [2] The geneticist Eric Lander suggested the word “credulity,” which comes closer to describing what I was looking for. [3] I interviewed (in The Times) the leading authority on that issue, and he assured me that the current calculations are off and we have at least another 60 years left. [4] Robert Trembley in a comment on my quiz provided his own list. * Over 9K NEOs recently Discovered; last large one hit a century ago. We ARE due — it’s a matter of WHEN, not IF. Smaller ones plow into the earth’s atmosphere DAILY. * Haven’t had a global pandemic in a century (remember SARS, the swine flu, and bird flu — we really dodged a bullet with those.) * Terrorists flying planes into buildings. * Continual State of War for a decade. * Nukes that fit into a briefcase. * No major super-volcano eruptions in hundreds of thousands of years (we’re due). * Entertainment Business creating rootkit viruses. * Horrible light pollution. * Climate change. * Anthrax in a letter. * Awful parenting. * 799 Superfund sites. * Several recent Tsunamis. * Bride burning. * Nobody going to jail for causing the crash of 2008. … We aren’t as “safe” as Mr. Deutsch would like to believe; the human race RE-ALLY has not been seriously challenged in several hundred years. I’m usually NOT that much of a pessimist (really!), but remarks like Mr. Deutsch’s seem a bit ignorant of both history, AND recent events. [5] “The Secret Life of Fonts”

[6] I interviewed Dunning for another essay for The Times, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong But You’ll Never Know What It Is.”

versus significant. This post has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: August 13, 2012

[7] The campaign journal is part of the collection of the National Army Museum. It appears in the exhibition catalogue “A Most Desperate Undertaking: The British Army in the Crimea (1854-6),” edited by Alastair Massie. Massie told me that later in the journal Walker’s crabbed writing be-gan to change back into something like the unreadable cursive he wrote with his right hand. [8] Balaic is a designer and commercial filmmaker. [9] These figures may seem arbitrary, but their purpose is to give statistical weight to the differences between “strongly,” “moderately” and “slightly.” Dunning also assigned the values, 3, 2, 1, -1, -2, -3. It doesn’t change the results. [10] I will provide an appendix on the statistical results that presents David Dunning’s findings, When speaking about p-values I hesitate to use the c-word, “cause.” David Hume would object. Better to speak about random

An earlier version of this article used the word “font” imprecisely. “Font” designates the physical embodiment of a collection of characters and symbols — including both style and size. “Typeface” is the broader term encompassing any set of characters that share common design features. Baskervilles” NOTE: This is a follow-up to my quiz that ran in The Times, “Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?” 4.THE BASKERVILLE CURSE If innocents are the favourites of Heaven, And God but little asks where little’s given, My great Creator has for me in store Eternal joys; what wise man can have more? — Gravestone inscription attributed to Baskerville; it was supposedly for “an idiot.”


Fabulously successful in the japanning trade — the application of lacquer to buttons, snuff-boxes, candlesticks, etc. — John Baskerville, the creator of the Baskerville typeface, was able to purchase eight acres about a half-mile from Birmingham. He named it “Easy Hill,” and built a mansion on the land at a cost of what would be millions of dollars today. It was his little Eden. An anonymous writer in the Birmingham Daily Mail described the estate: “The pasture was luxuriant, great elm trees shaded the park-like expanse of verdure, an ample fish-pond stretched away westward, and a picturesque disused windmill standing upon a slight elevation was ready to be converted into the most captivating of summer-houses.” Baskerville himself was a dandy with “clothes of the most gorgeous description, and may be said to have smothered himself in gold lace on all possible occasions. As often as not he was to be seen arrayed in a green coat and a scarlet waistcoat.” [11] Sarah Eaves came to live with him as a housekeeper shortly after the purchase of Easy Hill, and for all intents and purposes, as a wife. They married in 1764, after her estranged husband, a convicted forger, died. Long before Baskerville made his fortune in japanning, he had shown an interest in calligraphy and typography — on tombstones and memorials. There is a beautiful slate with the inscription, “Grave Stones cut in any of the Hands

by John Baskervill.” It is plausible that the thin lines of Baskerville’s typeface came from the exigencies of lettering on stone. But it was his financial success at japanning that made it possible for Baskerville to continue his obsession with books, type and printing. He bought presses, designed typefaces, and after years of laborious work, produced in 1757 a complete edition of the works of Virgil. It was followed by the works of John Milton in 1758. And then, the Bible in 1763, produced at great personal expense. In the preface to his edition of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Baskerville wrote about his passion for typography: Amongst the several mechanic Arts that have engaged my attention, there is no one I have pursued with so much steadiness and pleasure as that of LetterFounding. Having been an early admirer of the beauty of Letters, I became insensibly desirous of contributing to the perfection of them. I formed to my self Ideas of greater accuracy than had yet appeared, and have endeavoured to produce a Sett of Types according to what I conceived to be their true proportion. Baskerville’s early enthusiasm for letterfounding and typesetting was dampened by the tremendous cost of his work. Japanning had been remunerative; books were a financial black hole. And the public was unappreciative.

Whether it was because of the arrangement with Sarah Eaves or because of his republican politics or because of his marked antipathy to religion, he was written about harshly by his contemporaries. And it continued after his death. Baskerville stands accused of most everything: priggishness, arrogance, immorality, even illiteracy. It is almost impossible to read any of the various Baskerville biographies without plodding through one calumniation or another. Mark Noble, in his continuation of “A Biographical History of England,” called him “a most profane wretch.” I have seen many of his letters, which, like his will, were not written grammatically; nor could he even spell well. In person he was a shriveled old coxcomb. His favourite dress was green, edged with narrow gold lace; a scarlet waistcoat, with a very broad gold lace; and a small round hat, likewise edged with gold lace. His wife was… originally a servant. Such a pair are rarely met with. He had wit; but it was always at the expence of religion and decency, particularly if in company with the clergy. I have often thought there was much similarity in his person to Voltaire, whose sentiments he was ever retailing. [12] And here’s a tidbit from the European Magazine (from December, 1785) — could it have been the People magazine of the 18th century? “It is true he was very ingenious in mechanics, but it is also well known he was extremely illiterate, and his jokes and sarcasms on


the Bible, with which his conversation abounded, shewed the most contemptible ignorance of eastern history and manners, and indeed of every thing.” [13] By 1766, Baskerville was trying in earnest to unload his printing business, punches, presses, etc. He enlisted friends abroad to broker a sale, but there were no takers. And so, Baskerville retreated to his property, building several additional windmills on the grounds of Easy Hill. He even asked to be buried vertically in “a Conical Building on my own premises, Heretofore used as a mill which I have Raised Higher and painted and in a vault which I have prepared for It.” His will — dated Jan. 6, 1773 — goes into considerably further detail before veering into a general denunciation of religion. I have a Hearty Contempt of all Superstition the Farce of a Consecrated Ground the Irish Barbarism of Sure and Certain Hopes &c. I also consider Revelation as It is call’d Exclusive of the Scraps of Morality casually Intermixt with It to be the most Impudent Abuse of Common Sense which Ever was Invented to Befool Mankind. I Expect some srewd [sic] Remark will be made on this my Declaration by the Ignorant & Bigoted who cannot Distinguish between Religion & Superstition and are Taught to Believe that morality (by which I understand all the Duties a man ows [sic] to God and his fellow Creatures) is not Sufficient to entitle him to Divine favour with professing to believe as they Call It Certain Absurd Doctrines & mysteries of which they have no more Conception than a Horse. It concludes with his desired epitaph. Stranger— Beneath this Cone in unconscrated Ground A Friend to the Liberties of mankind Directed his Body to be Inhum’d May the Example Contribute to Emancipate thy mind From the Idle Fears of Superstition

And the wicked arts of Priesthood. [14] Baskerville died about two years later, in January of 1775. R.I.P.? No. Not really. Neither the house, nor the estate, nor Baskerville’s body “inhum’d” in his personal cone of silence. Sarah Eaves Baskerville inherited the house and the business. She died on March 21, 1788, 80 years old, and Easy Hill was sold in 1789. The new owner, John Ryland, left the cone-shaped mausoleum and the printer’s vertical body undisturbed, but there was terrible trouble brewing. It was the year of the French Revolution. And there were growing divisions in Britain. During the Priestley Riots of 1791 — on the occasion of a dinner to celebrate the second anniversary of the French Revolution — Baskerville House, as the mansion had come to be called, was sacked, gutted and burned to the ground. Several of the rioters, attracted by Baskerville’s extensive wine cellars, abandoned themselves to a wild debauch, and on the morning of Friday, July 15, 1791, seven blackened corpses were found beneath the ruins of the mansion. Three days later, an eighth person crawled out and fell dead — a smoldering corpse sprawled on the lawn. As Straus and Dent ruefully comment, “So ended Baskerville House as a place of human abode.” [15] The riots were the result of growing anti-republican sentiments against freethinkers, anti-religionists, opponents of the Church of England and proponents of the revolutions in the France and the United States. In a triumph of alliteration, one dissenter described the Birmingham rioters as the “bunting, beggarly, brass-making, brazen-faced, brazen-hearted, blackguard, bustling, booby Birmingham mob.” [16] Easy Hill was gone, Ryland abandoned the property, a canal was dug, and the land was taken for canal wharfs and

buildings. According to John Alfred Langford, the author of “A Century of Birmingham Life,” the canal required repeated excavations. After one period of extensive digging, Baskerville’s body was found by workmen beneath a pile of gravel. [It was] in a singular state of preservation, considering that it had been under ground about 46 years. It was wrapt in a linen shroud, which was very perfect and white, and on the breast lay a branch of laurel, faded, but entire, and firm in texture. There were also leaves, and sprigs of bay and laurel in other parts of the coffin and on the body. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but the eyebrows, eyelashes, lips, and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with that of the face. An exceedingly offensive and oppressive effluvia, strongly resembling decayed cheese, arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin in a short time, and it has since been consigned to his surviving connexions for the purpose of re-interment. It was first supposed, by those who examined the body, that some artificial means had been employed to protect it from putrefaction, but, on enquiry, it was not ascertained that this was the case. The putrefactive process must have been arrested by the leaden coffin having


Baskerville and his typeface in contempt, including one self-styled “connoisseur,” who criticized Caslon’s (ubiquitous) typeface, thinking it was Baskerville. The letter tells a number of stories. First, the condemnation of the type as “being too thin and narrow.” To John Baskerville Dear Sir, Craven-Street, London. Let me give you a pleasant Instance of the Prejudice some have entertained against your Work. Soon after I returned, discoursing with a Gentleman concerning the Artists of Birmingham, he said you would be a Means of blinding all the Readers in the Nation, for the Strokes of your Letters being too thin and narrow, hurt the Eye, and he could never read a Line of them without Pain. I thought, said I, you were going to complain of the Gloss on the Paper, some object to: No, no, says he, I have heard that mentioned, but it is not that; ’tis in the Form and Cut of the Letters themselves; they have not that natural and easy Proportion between the Height and Thickness of the Stroke, which makes the common Printing so much more comfortable to the Eye. — Then, Franklin’s vain attempts to defend the typeface.

been sealed hermetically, and thus the access of air, which modern discoveries have ascertained is essential to putrefaction, was prevented. [17] Thomas Gibson, the canal builder, kept the coffin in his warehouse for close to 10 years, exhibiting the body for sixpence a head. It was moved again, to a shop owned by John Marston, a plumber and glazier. And then sketched by Thomas Underwood on Aug. 15, 1829. Underwood describes how a Dr. Male and his daughter viewed the remains and were overcome by “the effluvium.” And how “a surgeon in Newhall Street also went, who tore a piece from the shroud, which he incautiously put into his coat pocket and died in a few days. The only ill effect on

myself, who was there upwards of an hour, was a distaste for food for several days.” And in a news item in the Birmingham Daily Mail, “Baskerville, who did not believe in eternal life, said, when dying, that if there were any truth in the resurrection, he would revisit the earth again in fifty years.” He was remarkably prescient. Sort of. Forty-six years after his inhumation at Easy Hill, his remains were exhumed and put on display. Baskerville is gone but fragments of his correspondence remain, including a sympathetic note from his friend and champion Benjamin Franklin. The letter is both a defense of Baskerville’s art and an indictment of the many who held

You see this Gentleman was a Connoisseur. In vain I endeavoured to support your Character against the Charge; he knew what he felt, he could see the Reason of it, and several other Gentlemen among his Friends had made the same Observation, &c. — And then, the a-ha moment. Yesterday he called to visit me, when, mischievously bent to try his Judgment, I stept into my Closet, tore off the Top of Mr. Caslon’s Specimen, and produced it to him as yours brought with me from Birmingham, saying, I had been examining it since he spoke to me, and could not for my Life perceive the Disproportion he mentioned, desiring him to point it out to me. He readily undertook it, and went over the several Founts, shewing me everywhere what he


Although he had succeeded in publishing a 70-volume edition of the complete works of Voltaire, with the Revolution the appetite for fine printing and literature came to an end. Of the 15,000 printed copies, only 2,000 were purchased, and according to Reed, “all the benefit Beaumarchais received was a mountain of waste-paper.” The Voltaire venture was a financial failure, but Beaumarchais hoped to keep the press going: I am indeed anxious about the fate of these chests, of which the value to me is 200,000 livres; and which contain typographic riches of so precious a kind and of such unique beauty that I am most apprehensive… For steel punches are not books, nor even characters to print books, but are only what are used to found and cast the most beautiful printing types known, a kind of property which is nobody’s concern, the destruction of which would be not only an enormous loss to me, but an irreparable harm to the splendid art of printing.

thought Instances of that Disproportion; and declared, that he could not then read the Specimen without feeling very strongly the Pain he had mentioned to me. I spared him that Time the Confusion of being told, that these were the Types he had been reading all his Life with so much Ease to his Eyes; the Types his adored Newton is printed with, on which he has pored not a little; nay, the very Types his own Book is printed with, for he is himself an Author; and yet never discovered this painful Disproportion in them, till he thought they were yours.

supporter, in the end it was up to the French to save Baskerville’s fonts. Despite the success of his printed editions of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and of The Bible, no one in England was willing to purchase his type and presses. [19] It was only after his death that Sarah Baskerville was finally able to sell them to the French dramatist PierreAugustin Caron de Beaumarchais, best known for his play “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Ben Franklin [18]

Beaumarchais was in the process of building an enormous mansion that was to include a type foundry. He had purchased two acres across the street from the Bastille. It could be argued that it was not an auspicious choice of real estate. When the prison was stormed on July 14, 1789, Beaumarchais watched from the scaffolding.

But the Baskerville Curse doesn’t end here.

It is fitting that Voltaire and Baskerville, two infamous atheists of the 18th century, were posthumously connected in this ill-fated publishing venture. Voltaire, when asked on his deathbed by a priest to renounce Satan, famously replied, “Now is not the time to be making new enemies.” And when a friend tried to convince Baskerville that the plague of flies inflicted on Egypt was proof of the existence of God, Baskerville argued that all that it proved was a shortage of spiders. The punches themselves were lost, and were rediscovered only by accident close to 100 years later. 5.

It’s one of my favorite themes: believing is seeing, or if you prefer, disbelieving is seeing. The connoisseur was convinced — not by the look of the typed page before him, but by the beliefs he had about Baskerville and his work. Although Franklin remained a loyal

WHAT NOW? Servant of God, well done, well hast thou fought The better fight who single hast maintaind Against revolted multitudes the Cause Of Truth, in word mightier then they in Armes. — John Milton, “Paradise Lost,” Book VI


We have entered a new, unexpected landscape. Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true. Could it swing an election? Induce us to buy a new dinette set? Change some of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs? Indeed, we may be at the mercy of typefaces in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize. An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutably there. (“Mommy, Mommy, the typeface made me do it.”) For every thousand respondents to the Times quiz, nearly five more people agreed with Deutsch’s statement when written in Baskerville’s typeface than they did when they read it in Helvetica. A typeface that nudges (to use the vernacular of experimental psychology) us to uncritical belief ? Did Baskerville, despite his opposition to the irrationalities of religion, create a typeface that has a religious pull? Perhaps, yes. Does it go beyond us and our typography? Is it in our DNA? Could it go back to the primordial soup? Would a trilobite swimming in the mid-Cambrian ooze — even if it couldn’t decipher it as language, even if it remained hardly different in form from the waving crinoids in its midst — have responded with enthusiasm to a sign written in Baskerville? In his “Holy Bible,” in “Micah,” Baskerville had recorded the prophetic words of the Lord,

Hear, all ye people; hearken, O earth, and all that therein is. He was a typographer, after all, and perhaps these printed exhortations from on high were nothing more than a wake-up call to pay closer attention to fonts. APPENDIX DUNNING’S ANALYSIS For those interested in the statistical analysis of the data, I have included a note from David Dunning. I had wondered whether the “Baskerville Effect” was so small as to be insignificant. A 1.5 percent advantage. Dunning assured me otherwise. He wrote to me, “In the 1990s, the federal government stopped a big trial testing whether taking aspirin prevented heart attacks. The aspirin worked, and it was considered unethical to prevent the control group from starting to take the drug. Size of the advantage to aspirin? It was 0.8%.” Dunning’s e-mail: I have done three analyses, to see if they converge on the same conclusion. Two of them do; the third does not but involves a cruder and less sensitive measure, and so I am not too disappointed. Scenario #1: The first analysis is to take the coding scheme you used to weight confidence (+3, +2, +1, -1, -2, -3) and

ask this question. I redid the “omnibus” ANOVA that Ben carried out and got practically the same result, F (5, 45518) = 2.90, p = .013, any slight difference from Ben’s numbers are probably due to rounding error. What this result suggests is that the averages of the six font groups differ more from one another than one would expect by chance. Something somewhere is going on. To get more specific, I next looked at each font in turn, to ask whether it produces responses that differ from the average of the other 5? When I do that analysis, these are the results I get: The F-statistic is conventionally significant only for Baskerville and “marginally” significant for Comic Sans and Computer Modern. Basically, each test asks the likelihood that the average response to this font differs from the av-erage of all the others due only to chance factors. For Baskerville, you see the likelihood that only chance is producing its difference is a mere 0.68%. That’s the p-value. For Comic Sans, the chance is 5.31%. The note ns means not significant. Now, here are two catches. We never completely rule out random chance as a possible cause of any result we see. But, sometimes the result is so strong that chance is just very, very unlikely. What’s strong enough? If the p-value is .05 or less, we typically dismiss chance as an explanation, by “industry agreement”.


That is, we tolerate a 5% chance on any one comparison that what we are looking at is merely random variation.

The omnibus ANOVA calculation is significant, F(5, 45518) = 2.88, p = .013. Something’s going on.

But here’s the second catch. I am doing 6 tests here, not 1 — and so there are 6, not 1, opportunities for me to be just looking at random chance. So I have to be more conservative in any call to dismiss chance as an issue. There are many ways to do this. For now, let me be just simple, blunt, and very conservative. I’m doing 6 tests and I want to give myself no more than a 5% chance of making an error, then let me simply divide .05 by the number of tests I’m doing. That means that the p-value needed for me to dismiss chance falls to .0083 (Or .83%). By this, Baskerville is still different from the average of the others.

Then I redid the analysis from comparing each font against the average of the others.

If people prefer to ask instead to about differences between individual groups, I can confidently say people are responding to Baskerville more favorably than they are to Comic Sans (Tukey’s honest significant difference, q = 4.24). Given so many other group to group comparisons, it be-comes difficult to rule out chance for any other individual comparison. Scenario #2: The coding scheme you used is reasonable, but it does have an unusual feature and there are alternatives. Specifically, there’s a gap right in the middle of your scheme between ‐1 and +1, and some might question whether having that gap is reasonable. That is, is moving from ‐1 (slightly disagree) to +1 (slightly agree) really twice as different as moving from +1 (slightly agree) to +2 (moderately agree)? Interesting question, so I redid the analysis with a different coding scheme that removes this gap problem by stacking the responses up and placing the same interval in between them: -5(strongly disagree), -3(mod disagree), -1(slight disagree), +1(slight agree), +3(mod agree), +5(strong agree). Normally I would “weight” the confidence scores in my own research, so I’m comfortable with it.

iPhone, laptop or desktop), are their kids breaking furniture in the background, etc. So to see any difference is impressive. Many online marketers would kill for a 2% advantage either in more clicks or more clicks leading to sales. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

And, as you can see, this re-weighting scheme changes little. People are responding to Baskerville differently than they are the average of the other tests, even after correcting for the fact that I’m doing multiple tests. Any results for Comic Sans and Computer Modern weaken a touch; maybe, if generous, one could say that Georgia is “marginal,” but before correcting for chance. For individual group-to-group comparisons, the only one outstripping chance is the Baskerville to Comic Sans comparison (Tukey HSD q = 4.11). Now, you may ask which of these coding schemes is the superior one. My answer is I don’t care. They are both reasonable. What is important is that they both lead roughly to the same conclusion. Scenario #3: Let’s just look at the data the most crude way possible, just counting up the percentage of times people agreed with Deutsch’s statement: I switch from an F­test to a z­test because the data are binary (i.e., agree, disagree) rather than more smoothly continuous. Here, no differences in fonts survive the chance correction put in place. Essentially, what this is telling me is that throwing away the fine-grained information contained in the confidence ratings obscures the precision of the test. But this analysis gives us a way to quantify the advantage to Baskerville. It’s small, but it’s about a 1% to 2% difference — 1.5% to be exact, which may seem small but to me is rather large. You are collecting these data in an uncontrolled environment (who knows, for example just how each person’s computer is rendering each font, how large the font is, is it on an iPad or

As always, this essay could not have been written without my research and editing staff—–Ann Petrone, James Maxwell Larkin, Julie Fischer, Josh Kearney, Zach Arnold and Benjamin Berman, who helped design the quiz and analyze the data. I would also like to thank Dr. Alastair Massie and Dr. Caroline Archer for their indispensable assistance. I had this idea of testing fonts, truth and credulity for a long time, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. One day it occurred to me that The New York Times could provide a perfect opportunity to conduct the test. The electronic version of the newspaper is read by over a million people — a statistical sample many times greater than what you would find in most psychology experiments. We got over 45,000 people to respond. Thanks to each and every one of them. BIBLIOGRAPHY On Baskerville. Bennett, William, “John Baskerville, the Birmingham printer: his press, relations and friends,” 2 vols. (Birmingham, Birmingham School of Printing, 1937). Benton, Josiah Henry, “John Baskerville: type-founder and printer 1706-1775″ (New York, Printed for the Typophiles, 1944) Cave, Thomas, “John Baskerville: the printer, 1706-1775, his ancestry” (Birmingham, Birmingham School of Printing, 1936). Cole, Laura, “John Baskerville: an analysis of the aims, motives and achievements of a Midlands man” (1984). Pardoe, F. E., “John Baskerville of Birmingham: Letter-Founder & Printer”


(London, Frederick Muller Ltd., 1975). Strauss, Ralph and Dent, Robert K., “John Baskerville: A Memoir,” (London, Chatto & Windus, 1907). Pye, Charles, “A Description of Modern Birmingham: Whereunto are Annexed, Observations Made During an Excursion Round the Town in the Summer of 1818, Including Warwick and Leamington” (J. Lowe, 1820). http://www.gutenberg.org/ files/11416/11416-h/11416-h.htm Mosley, James, “Baskerville, John (1706-1775)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2009). Wikipedia entry on John Baskerville. Library of Birmingham, “Before the Brass Works – Easy Hill, the home of John Baskerville, printsetter and japanner.” Historical Background. Noble, Mark, and Granger, James, “A biographical history of England, from the revolution to the end of George I’s reign” (W. Richardson, 1806). Priestley, Joseph, “An appeal to the public, on the subject of the riots in Birmingham: To which are added, Strictures on a pamphlet, intitled ‘Thoughts on the late riot at Birmingham,’” (Printed by J. Thompson, 1791). Reed, Talbot Baines, “A history of the Old English letter foundries: with notes, historical and bibliographical, on the rise and progress of English typography” (E. Stock, 1887). Noble, Mark, and Granger, James, “A Biographical History of England” (1806). On Fonts, Typefaces and Influence. Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D.M., and Vaughan, E. “Fortune favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of

disfluency on educational outcomes,” in Cognition (2010).

determined that he was anatomically a male.

Kahneman, Daniel, “Cognitive Ease,” Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011).

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: August 13, 2012

Renaud, Phil, “The Secret Life of Fonts.” Thaler, Richard H. and Sunstein, Cass R., “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” (Yale University Press, 2008). [11] Ralph Straus and Robert Dent, “John Baskerville: A Memoir,” 1907, p. 11 [12] Mark Noble, James Granger, “A Biographical History of England,” Volume 2, 1806, p. 362. [13] As quoted in John Chambers, “Biographical Illustrations of Worcestershire,” 1820, p. 384. [14] This and above as quoted in Ralph Strauss and Robert Dent, “John Baskerville: A Memoir,” 1907, p. 117 [15] Ralph Strauss and Robert Dent, “John Baskerville: A Memoir,” 1907, p. 135. [16] Priestley, the co-discoverer of oxygen along with Lavoisier, fared better than his counterpart in France. Priestley, a republican, merely lost his home and was forced to flee, first to London and then to the United States; Lavoisier, an aristocrat, lost his head to the guillotine. [17] John Alfred Langford, “A Century of Birmingham Life,” Volume 2, pp. 358-359. [18] http://www.historycarper.com/ resources/twobf3/letter2.htm [19] He got several offers from France, including one from the notorious transvestite the Chevalier D’Éon. The Chevalier famously spent 49 years as a man and 33 as a woman. He was thought to be a hermaphrodite, but a council of physicians after his death

An earlier version of this article used the word “font” imprecisely. “Font” designates the physical embodiment of a collection of characters and symbols — including both style and size. “Typeface” is the broader term encompassing any set of characters that share common design features.


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