(Warning: in what follows I will indulge in unseemly, defensive self-promotion. I apologise; I hope that some day I am confident enough that readers have been persuaded by my arguments that I will relax and just let this sort of thing drift past.)
It’s always nice when your theoretical claims are backed up by experimental evidence. Well, maybe not always nice, if for instance you were making theoretical projections about global warming’s inevitable devastating effects — but at least you have the privilege of seeing that your warnings weren’t just unsubstantiated raving. But usually, when you say ‘According to my theory, X’ and then someone comes along and shows X on the basis of repeatable experimental data, you derive satisfaction from the confirmation of your insight.
So that’s wonderful.
There’s a second dimension, though, concerning whether anybody else knows that you made such a theoretical claim, and it’s to that end that I’m leveraging my small readership to call attention to recent casual experimental evidence in support of a claim I’ve been making for years. Specifically, Errol Morris (about whom I’ve enthused other times) has conducted an experiment that shows that the typeface in which people read a written piece affects their sense of the reliability of that writing. His experiment sieved responses to a question about hopefulness, probability, and scientific reliability to see whether the typeface in which the question was set affected responses to the question. The results showed that respondents put least credence in type set in Comic Sans, low confidence in Trebuchet and Helvetica, more confidence in Times Roman, and the most confidence in Baskerville (of the typefaces tested).
That’s welcome and reassuring, since I mentioned the relevance of typography to the soundness of academic writing (in that context, writing about New Testament theology) in Making Sense of New Testament Theology, the published version of my dissertation, page 184, note 35: ‘… it is important to remember that the material aspects of a published work (design, typography, printing and binding) are relevant to that work’s aesthetic impression’. I made that point again, specifically with regard to the extent to which typefaces contribute to persuasiveness, in ‘This Is Not a Bible’, published in New Paradigms for Bible Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium, ed. Robert Fowler et al. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 2004) page 11, where instead of Bembo, it cites Centruy Schoolbook, and instead of only Comic Sans it also cites Cooper Black. I make this point more extensively in my ‘Sensing Hermeneutics’ presentation, first given as ‘Seeing Hermeneutics and Difference’, at the SBL Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section, in November 2003.
So there we are. In a strong version of the claim — which I don’t have time to support here, but which is 100% on my research agenda for the next couple of years — the ‘meaning’ of a claim is not separable from its appearance. In the meantime, you who teach can point out to students that Phil Renaud confirmed this phenomenon in the essays he submitted for marks; his essays in Trebuchet averaged a B-, his essays in Times Roman averaged A-, and his essays in Georgia averaged a full A.