Is America Getting Dumber?

Dr. J. loves this interactive graph from the UK Guardian. The authors created a graph analyzing the reading level of the State of the Union report (or speech) since our nation’s founding using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. The dots are sized by word count and color coded by President. Below the graph are Presidents are ranked by average reading level of their speeches.

The big take away from the graph is that over the 223 years in which the State of the Union has been reported, the reading level has declined from the high teens and low twenties to scores that are below 10. Dr. J. presumes that the score is using the Grade Level formula.

Flesch Reading Ease Equation:

 206.835 - 1.015 left ( frac{mbox{total words}}{mbox{total sentences}} right ) - 84.6 left ( frac{mbox{total syllables}}{mbox{total words}} right )

Flesch Grade Level Equation:

 0.39 left ( frac{mbox{total words}}{mbox{total sentences}} right ) + 11.8 left ( frac{mbox{total syllables}}{mbox{total words}} right ) - 15.59

h/t wikipedia

Readability tools such as this are very helpful, especially in the medical community because doctors and nurses use a lot of jargon and very often speak with a certain amount of complexity that will often leave their patients confused. Patients are frequently afraid to look at the doctor and say, “In English, doc!?!” Many doctors have a difficult time simplifying medical concepts.

Newspaper articles range from a 5th to 8th grade reading level so as to be broadly universal. Reader’s Digest clocks in at a 6.  Indeed, when we are drafting ‘Informed Consent” documents for clinical research trial, they have to be written on an 8th grade level to pass muster with our institutional review board. We use a tool called SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledeygook) to insure an 8th grade reading level. SMOG is better for healthcare related documents than the Fleisch Kincaid test. You also need an 8th grade math level to understand the tool, but that’s neither here nor there. SMOG has become a verb at New Atlantis Ivory Tower Medical Center. “Hey, did you SMOG that ICF?”

SMOG equation:

 mbox{grade} = 1.0430 sqrt{mbox{number of polysyllables}times{30 over mbox{number of sentences}} } + 3.1291
More wikiplagarism

Now one could read into these scores and mock President Obama for giving speeches that are at a lower grade level than those of President George W. “Bushitlermcchimpyhalliburton” Bush, but the reality is that there are multiple explanations for what appears to be a fairly linear increase in reading ease over time.

First, the English language has evolved over two and a quarter centuries such that older language is skewed. Indeed there is an article dedicated to this very issue, where an 18th century paragraph is found to be at an 11.9 reading level, but when re-written to eliminate a number of tropes, such as passive voice, and the paragraph is brought down to a 5.6 reading level. It is not unreasonable to presume that one could correct for language of the era. Does that mean that folks are less educated, at least with regard to reading and writing, perhaps or perhaps not. The reader can draw their own conclusions as to what to make with regard to the complexities of language.

Second, the State of the Union was routinely a written report rather than a speech. Consequently, the reading level would be higher for those. Clearly, you can see this on the graph as there is a rapid drop off during the years of President Woodrow Wilson’s presidency from which we have yet to recover. President Wilson and his successors were speaking to a different audience with their SOTU, the people As a consequence they’ve had to reach a broader audience, and thus have a higher readability. The exception that proves the rule is President Carter’s 30,000 word final address which was written to Congressmen rather than spoken before a live audience of God-fearin, gun-totin ‘Mericans.

Third, the audience is getting broader with the internet and televisions in virtually every home. We have the richest poor people in the world, after all, so speeches necessarily have to reach the target audience. With the exception of SOTU I and V, President Obama’s speeches clocked in at 8.2-8.8. Bush 43’s first post-reelection speech which brought up social security reform and was summarily panned was also his most complex, and a more challenging read than anything President Obama, Clinton, or Bush (41) gave. The president must be understandable to all Americans or he can’t win hearts and minds (very different things but you must win both for a mandate, ask Jonathan Haidt).

Lastly, with the 24-hour news cycle and social media (are you following us @gormogons?) speeches are broken down into focus group and poll tested sound-bites so as to insure the speaker’s message reaches the targeted audience.

So, are Americans getting dumber? Probably, but also dumb Americans are more and more the principal target audience of the Presidential speeches.

About Dr. J.

Dr. J. was born the son of a New Atlantean sharecropper who cornered the market on notoriously delicious seaweed Himanthalia elongata (popularly known as Thongweed). With his newly minted seaweed fortune, Mr. J. the Elder sent his son to attend the Academy of Sorcery, Alchemy and Surgery where the good doctor apprenticed with the finest sorcerer surgeons in New Atlantis. Dr. J.'s areas of expertise grew to include bleeding, cutting for stone, trephination, medical divination with outstanding spatial and temporal resolution, cybernetic sorcery and medicinal alchemy. When King Orin of Atlantis fell ill with the Ick, Dr. J. stepped in with an elixir he devised from a combination of minerals, herbs and saps. Curing the king, Dr. J. gained significant notoriety which afforded him the luxury of time to devote himself to his side hobbies which include porpoise racing, the study of supply-side economics, cooking and raising his lovely merchildren alongside his lovely bride the archconservative Mrs. Dr. J.