capture-recapture rediscovered

A recent Science paper applies capture-recapture to estimating how much medieval literature has been lost, using ancient lists of works and comparing with the currently know corpus. To deduce at a 91% loss. Which begets the next question of how many ancient lists have been lost! Or how many of the observed ones are sheer copies of the others. First I thought I had no access to the paper so could not comment on the specific data and accounting for the uneven and unrandom sampling behind this modelling… But I still would not share the anti-modelling bias of this Harvard historian, given the superlative record of Anne Chao in capture-recapture methodology!

“The paper seems geared more toward systems theorists and statisticians, says Daniel Smail, a historian at Harvard University who studies medieval social and cultural history, and the authors haven’t done enough to establish why cultural production should follow the same rules as life systems. But for him, the bigger question is: Given that we already have catalogs of ancient texts, and previous estimates were pretty close to the model’s new one, what does the new work add?”

Once at Ca’Foscari, I realised the local network gave me access to the paper. The description of the Chao1 method, as far as I can tell, does not describe how the problematic collection of catalogs where duplicates (recaptures) can be observed is taken into account. For one thing, the collection is far from iid since some catalogs must have built on earlier ones. It is also surprising imho that the authors spend space on discussing unbiasedness when a more crucial issue is the randomness assumption behind the collected data.

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