Lend Me Your Eyes

Eric J. Ostermeier — Ph.D., University of Minnesota, Department of Political Science, 2006; J.D., The University of Michigan Law School, 1995; Research Associate at the Humphrey School’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance — would like you to know that Barack Obama is dumbing down:

“My Message is Simple”: Obama’s SOTU Written at 8th Grade Level for Third Straight Year

Obama’s SOTU addresses have the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score of any modern president; Obama owns three of the six lowest-scoring addresses since FDR

For the third consecutive State of the Union Address, Barack Obama spoke in clear, plain terms.

And for the third straight Address, the President’s speech was written at an eighth-grade level.

In Obama’s own words: “My message is simple.”

But was it too simplistic?

A Smart Politics study of the 70 orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since 1934 finds the text of Obama’s 2012 speech to have tallied the third lowest score on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, at an 8.4 grade level.

We thought Flesch-Kincaid was the condition that the Heimlich Maneuver resolves, but let’s set that aside.

Instead, we’d like to ask Dr. Eric a simple question: Have you ever written for radio?

We have. News. And coming from a print background, it was a, um, ear-opener.

The first thing you learn: Listeners can’t re-read your text.

The second thing you learn: Clauses kill.

Radio — like speaking — is a much more direct medium than print. At the time, we called it “leading the listener by the hand”: By the time you’ve reached the sixth sentence, the first sentence is far in the past. If you’re going to be effective — if you’re going to get your point across — you need to be simple and direct. You don’t quite need to speak in bullet points, but you need to be as clear.

Actually, it helps to write that way, too. Unless you’re a novelist.

Instead, Dr. Eric prefers to rate the State of the Union speech against this:

The Flesch-Kincaid test is designed to assess the readability level of written text, with a formula that translates the score to a U.S. grade level. Longer sentences and sentences utilizing words with more syllables produce higher scores. Shorter sentences and sentences incorporating more monosyllabic words yield lower scores.

By that metric, we would say that the Flesch-Kincaid test measures the unnecessary complexity of a piece of writing. It has nothing to do with “grade level”, and everything to do with pomposity.

But even if we grant the point, Dr. Eric is still measuring a speech written to be heard against something written to be read. Which means that despite his Ph.D./J.D./HHH-CSPG, Eric J. Ostermeier doesn’t know shit.

9 comments:

3:25 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

Well this is the same public that voluntarily elected the current gaggle of honking asshole-morans. Why not treat them like total retreads?

3:35 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

I guess he could’ve gone up there and read aloud one of those 37-page articles from The New Yorker… and received exactly the same word-salad response from the Rethuglatards:

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously!”

3:36 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

Whoa — showed up as an also-ran in Memeorandum. I don’t think we’ve shown up in Memeorandum for two years.

And at a towering 36 views, it’s not like it means much…

ADD: Okay, we’ve turned up there a few times in the past month, with some scattered appearances before then.

For the rest of y’all, Memeorandum is roughly like Google News for politics — basically a crib sheet for bloggers. If everybody’s chattering about a topic, it shows up there.

4:18 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

The guy has a Ph.D. in Poli Sci, which means he can’t write anything readable. Trust me, I was a poli sci major, and those people are even worse than economists.

5:17 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

TJ: hey Nojo, does this text from the new Google privacy policy mean that they can store stuff on my iPad, laptop or whatever without me knowing about it?

“We may collect and store information (including personal information) locally on your device using mechanisms such as browser web storage (including HTML 5) and application data caches.”

5:30 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

@Dodgerblue and Nojo: Are we talking a type of LSOish thing, minus the flash?

5:35 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

@Dodgerblue: The geeks are in High Dudgeon about it, but I haven’t had a chance to look into it yet.

But, technically speaking: Like cookies, websites these days can store information in a special database on your gadget — it’s part of the HTML5 specification, which allows for “web apps”. I haven’t played with it, so I don’t know the particulars of how it works.

So, in one respect, Google is just updating its privacy policy to account for new standard browser functionality. But I think the issue is that they’re not providing for an opt-out.

That’s just from skimming headlines while being distracted by debates, SOTU, and hackwork. So don’t quote me.

5:42 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

@Dodgerblue: Well, Google keeps our searches for 18 months anyway…

There will be an anti-Google injection thingy soon. Mashable is high on the Google Hog teat, but Cashman might have an uniformed opinion.

Where did Ackerman end up? Wired?

5:43 pm • Wednesday • January 25, 2012

@JNOV is like, Peace?: Yes, Attackerman’s at Wired. Either the Threat Level or Danger Room blog — I get the two confused.

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