Friday, September 09, 2005

Is The Cognitive Complexity of Public Discourse Increasing?

by Tom Bozzo

Brayden King at Pub Sociology:
Andrew Gelman cites a couple of academics who suggest that tv shows and public statements are becoming increasingly complex. Underlying this observation is the assumption that human intelligence is now more equipped than it was in the past to deal with cognitive complexity. The argument is that the concepts we use to organize our worlds are more sophisticated than in the past.
In a comments exchange with Brayden, I suggested that while it's no doubt true that an increasing stock of knowledge acts as a technology that potentially equips us to better apply such smarts as we have (smarts which may or may not be qualitatively increasing over short periods of time), the case for increasing cognitive complexity of popular culture and public utterances is not convincing.

Here's part of the case, from Gelman's blog:

Seth [Roberts, of the UC Berkeley psychology department] just sent me something interesting along these lines. Seth writes:

I saw this in a NY Times article:
On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Representative Charles A. Eaton, Republican of New Jersey, made his case in the House for why the nation should enter the Second World War.
"Mr. Speaker," his speech began, "yesterday against the roar of Japanese cannon in Hawaii our American people heard a trumpet call; a call to unity; a call to courage; a call to determination once and for all to wipe off of the earth this accursed monster of tyranny and slavery which is casting its black shadow over the hearts and homes of every land."

Last year, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, made the case for war in Iraq this way:

"And if we don't go at Iraq, that our effort in the war on terrorism dwindles down into an intelligence operation," he said. "We go at Iraq and it says to countries that support terrorists, there remain six in the world that are as our definition state sponsors of terrorists, you say to those countries: we are serious about terrorism, we're serious about you not supporting terrorism on your own soil."

The linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter cites these excerpts in his new book, "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care" (Gotham Books). They not only are typical of speeches made in Congress on both occasions, he argues, but also provide a vivid illustration of just how much the language of public discourse has deteriorated.

Notice that what Brownback said is considerably more conceptually complex than what Eaton said, even though the number of words is about the same.

On first glance (and with all due respect to my complete ignorance of the field of linguistics), I agree with Seth on this one: in terms of content, Brownback's statement is much more sophisticated than Eaton's, and I don't see this as "deterioration" at all.
In reaching this conclusion, Gelman doesn't seem to have successfully distinguished sophistication from pseudo-sophistication, or to use the technical term, bullshit.

Using pseudo-sophisticated language in the promotion of bullshit is an enormous problem. Consider "intelligent design" creationism. "Intelligent design" is a pseudoscientific wrapper for one of the oldest ideas around, "God (*) directly created all life on Earth," which happens to have been superseded by a cognitively complex idea from actual science, "evolution." The case for "intelligent design" is made using statistical and information theoretic arguments and polysyllabic jargon like "irreducible complexity" that can, with effort, be shown to be marketing language with no substantive content at all.

This, particularly in retrospect, is also largely true of the Brownback quote. Even its ostensible message, "We're going to kick Saddam's ass to send a message to other tyrants" is not obviously more complex than Eaton's "We were attacked and will make the tyrant who attacked us regret it," let alone the underlying truth of "This is the explanation, with repeated polysyllabic and focus-group tested words, for why we're doing what we want to do."

There's also a fundamental statistical problem, which is that if you want to make the case for increased cultural complexity, it's not necessarily sufficient to show that the maximum complexity has increased. (**) If you want to make a statement that the whole population is being dragged up, the distribution of all utterances is important, not just the positive extremes. I'd expect that without a large cadre of psychologically resilient research assistants to wade through a lot of dreck (***), the prospects for material sample truncation are enormous.

For instance, in the Brownback oeuvre, one might wish to consider this show of cognitive prowess, from a Right Wing News interview:

John Hawkins: If someone came up to you and said, “Sam Brownback, pick any three pieces of legislation you want, anything you want, to get them passed, what would they be?

Sam Brownback: My first would be on the life issue. We’d be getting legislation to protect young human life in the womb and from being researched on.

The second one, given the nature and the time that we’re in right now, would probably be that deficit reduction deal...that I mentioned to you. As to the rest of government we do need to get this budget balanced and get it centered back to where we need to get it.

And then there would probably be the decency legislation that’s pending now, increasing fines toward Hollywood, really trying to send a message into the culture that we need to clean up the culture.

I want to take back that one. I’d probably do a piece of immigration legislation instead of a decency one. I think that’s just a more important area -- the immigration. So it’d be a life, deficit reduction bill, and immigration.

Then there's the master of cognitive complexity, President George W. Bush. Cognitively simple — if often mendacious — messages are the core of Bush's pitch. Accordingly, Bush supplies an almost infinite supply of deteriorating discourse examples. Here, transcribed from a Daily Show segment (go here and click on "Beleaguered Bush;" it's so funny that Ann Althouse would say that it isn't funny), are a couple of post-Katrina talking points:
We gotta solve problems, we're problem solvers. (****)

There'll be ample time for people to figure out what went right and what went wrong.
To establish the increasing complexity of discourse as a stylized fact, it's first necessary to show that simplistic bullshit is not in fact typical of the discourse, which does not seem to have been done in any systematic way. Then move on to ruling out the pseudo-complex bullshit. If there's anything left, I'll reconsider my position.


(*) Or, in alternative ID formulations, the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

(**) If enough of the population has a "Simpson gene," then an appropriate index of cultural complexity should also account for its associated dumbening.

(***) No offense to Drek, from whom I'll accept an application to expand my campaign to rid the world of the term "bozo."

(****) Ed Helms's adaptation of this simply must be seen.
Very interesting post.

I have to hedge my bet on defining complexity down. The problem isn't so much that the concepts expressed are that different from each other. You're right to note that the complexity of Eaton's oratory is the same as Brownbeck's. Both are simple ideas.

The difference is in how awfully delivered Brownbeck's thought is. There's no cadence or flow or rhythm to the sentences. One of them doesn't even parse correctly. But he does manage to get in five mentions of "terrorism" in one short paragraph, which is quite impressive, in an idiotic sort of way. Brownbeck's verbiage covers his idea in one of George Orwell's rhetorical snowstorms.

I'll take Eaton's speech any day, which at least made its argument forcefully, and managed to capture the spirit of the times in a moderately decent piece of rhetoric.
No offense taken, Tom. There may, in fact, be a reason I selected a name associated with worthless crap.

I reckon folks can figure it out all by themselves.
Ben: Yes, artlessness is a hallmark of modern soundbite oratory, though sadly it can be highly effective. Which reinforces a related point: if people have become smarter in recent decades (a qualitatively questionable conclusion that some researchers draw from upward-trending national IQ scores), their bullshit detectors haven't obviously improved accordingly.

Drek: I'd have figured that anyone who got to the "dumbening" footnote might have figured I was playing around.
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