Saturday, May 26, 2012

Silly Statistics of the Month: “The Dumbing of Congress”

There’s an organization called the Sunlight Foundation that issued a new study last week. Their conclusion? “Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level…”

Tempting as this is for a lot of leftie-leaning websites and Facebook groups to use as evidence of a dumbing-down of Congress with a gaggle of anti-intellectual Tea Partiers, the fact is that this finding proves exactly bupkes. Well, quoth the authors of the survey, the Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level and today’s Congresscritter talks at a 10.6, down from 11.5 in 2005. Horrors!

Seriously, is there a study that means less than this one? In case you were wondering, the formula in question is something called the Flesch-Kincaid score, which is determined by this equation: 0.39 * (Words/Sentences) + 11.8 * (Syllables/Words) - 15.59. In other words, if you use a lot of big words and lengthy sentences, you get a higher score. This makes sense. It shouldn’t. Eloquence is not a function of prolixity, and that is really all that goes into this “ranking.”

At one end of the spectrum, we have the admission that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech checks in at a modest 9.4. (The sentence “I have a dream, today” gets a 0.52.) Similarly, South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney ranks lowest in the current Congress with a score of 7.94. I doubt that I agree politically with Representative Mulvaney on virtually anything, but I can’t fault this: “I was trained to write in a clear and concise fashion, and you didn't use big words if small words would do. Certainly I'm not trying to dumb down the message by any stretch of the imagination.” Thus spake the graduate of Georgetown and of the law school at the University of North Carolina.

At the other end of the spectrum is this rambling quotation from Dan Lungren, the California Republican who gets the highest overall rating, a 20:
This Justice Department, in my judgment, based on the experience I've had here in this Congress, 18 years, my years as the chief legal officer of the state of California and 35 or 40 years as a practicing attorney tells me that this administration has fundamentally failed in its obligation to attempt to faithfully carry out the laws of the United States.
That’s a 62-word, 102-syllable effort. It warrants a Flesch-Kincaid score of better than 28. And it’s all but incoherent.

Please understand: I am not criticizing Representative Lungren. I’ve probably wandered around my point that way a couple of times a day for my entire teaching career, and I’m sure vocal inflexions would help to clarify meaning. But determining a speaker’s linguistic sophistication based purely on Flesch-Kincaid numbers is roughly akin to ranking baseball players exclusively according to batting average, paying no attention at all to power, speed, defensive ability, or any of the host of other considerations that go into an intelligent appraisal of a player’s worth.

For all the foolishness of the exercise, however, I was curious (and bored) enough to analyze five of my own blog posts written during the time-frame of the current Congress. They ranged from a high of 11.8 to a low of 10.4, and, interestingly enough, dropped over time. So there you go. I, too, am regressing in the same way Congress is.

We’ll leave aside the most fundamental point that one generally speaks or writes to be understood—certain academic journals notwithstanding. The words one chooses are different for different occasions; sentences are more complex when scripted, but more compound when uttered impromptu; explaining complex issues often requires lengthy sentences full of subordinate clauses, whereas rhetorical speeches to rally the troops or denigrate the opposition are generally better served by simplicity of language.

There was one element of the report that I found at least reasonably interesting, however. The study, if we can call it that, also analyzed how often the various Congresscritters used the Kaplan 100—the most common SAT words. A handful of those words—“compromise,” “prosperity,” “integrity”—get used a lot; others—“florid,” “sagacity,” “submissive”—not at all. Apparently Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy leads this Congress with 27 of those words. Depending on how you count—do I get credit for “prudent” if I wrote “prudence,” for example?—I’ve written between 40 and 43 of them in this blog over the past 15 months or so. You can add another handful if you go back another few months.

What does that prove? That my vocabulary is better than the average Congresscritter’s? I suspect it is, but this doesn’t prove it. What this shows is that I use words often employed to test the vocabulary levels of high school students at a fairly high rate. Bully for me.

What does this all prove? Well, for one thing, it pretty amply demonstrates that there are some pretty bored statisticians out there if this is how they occupy their time. For another, it reinforces the notion of confirmation bias: the public in general believes—or at least purports to believe—the average politician pretty damned stupid. That is, of course, especially true for the other guys. Thus Fox News wants to tell us that “ Obama's SOTU Written at 8th Grade Level for Third Straight Year” (complete with the same file photo of a kid in a dunce-cap I used to accompany the Curmie awards in January), whereas “The Inquisitr” declares that “Congress Officially Dumber, Study Finds, Republicans in Particular Showing Marked Decline.” Guess what—this stuff means precisely nothing.

Well, maybe it qualifies as a bit of harmless fun, as long as no one is imbecilic enough to take it seriously. Yeah, that’s likely to happen.

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