Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Plato wrote for dummies

I wish people would stick to things they really know something about. Case in point: An editorial by David Broder on the intelligence of Presidential speeches (the “Golden Age” hypothesis is about to rear it’s hoary head). Mr. Broder is quoting a book in which a man with way too much time on his hands used a readability formula (The Flesch formula in this case) to analyze the IQ of speeches from Washington on, with the (natural) conclusion that modern Presidents are dumber than posts, or at least, assume that the electorate is, since they give “dumbed down” (please note the quotes) speeches.
This analysis is badly flawed. Readability formulas (or formulae if you wanna be high-hat) by and large depend on two metrics: Average sentence length and percentage of long words. Long words are those of three syllables or more and are assumed to be harder to read (I mean, look at the struggle you have just to read “hippopotamus.” What? No struggle? There must be something wrong with you).
Using such metrics, it’s no wonder that a speech by George Washington is deemed harder to understand. For one thing, the fashion in those days was for “periods,” or long, involved, balanced sentences. The fashion was also for words of Greek or Latin origin. With all this, it’s no wonder the stuff is hard to wade through. The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is one sentence. And it has that “inalienable” word in there.
But, and here’s the kicker, a higher Flesch score doesn’t mean that any piece of reading is more intelligent. It simply means that, according to the metric of choice, it’s at a higher grade level. By the stand espoused by Broder’s source, Plato, Mark Twain, and Hemmingway wrote for dummies. Shorter sentences, simpler words, don’t mean “dumbed down.” The sentences generated by the great minds of the past are works of beauty, no doubt, but that is not what makes the thoughts great. The thoughts are great because they are great. There’s a scene in the movie National Treasure in which Nickolas Cage quotes something from the Declaration of Independence to his sidekick who says, “That’s beautiful. I’ve no idea what you just said.” Then Cage tells him, in modern terms, what it means. It’s supposed to be a comic moment, but all it really does is to illustrate the differences in the modes of expression, classical and modern.
Quite frankly, I prefer the modern and feel we’ve come a long way, baby.
Which is not to say that the electorate is not dumb. It may well be. But, the junk science here doesn't prove anything.

1 comment:

bekkieann said...

As a technical writer, I couldn't agree with you more. Our goal is not to outwit our readers, after all, it is to communicate. If you run the grammar checker in MS Word, it not only gives you a lot of wrong advice, it also gives you a Flesch grade level score - not worth the pixels it's written on. Anyone can write a long, run-on sentence with plenty of big words. It takes real skill to write good, short, clear declarative sentences.