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Scientific measurement of political speeches - Input Junkie
November 21st, 2013
10:39 am


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Scientific measurement of political speeches
From Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature:
let’s have a look at political discourse, which most people believe has been getting dumb and dumber. There’s no such thing as the IQ of a speech, but Tetlock and other political psychologists have identified a variable called integrative complexity that captures a sense of intellectual balance, nuance, and sophistication. A passage that is low in integrative complexity stakes out an opinion and relentlessly hammers it home, without nuance or qualification. Its minimal complexity can be quantified by counting words like absolutely, always, certainly, definitively, entirely, forever, indisputable, irrefutable, undoubtedly, and unquestionably. A passage gets credit for some degree of integrative complexity if it shows a touch of subtlety with words like usually, almost, but, however, and maybe. It is rated higher if it acknowledges two points of view, higher still if it discusses connections, tradeoffs, or compromises between them, and highest of all if it explains these relationships by reference to a higher principle or system. The integrative complexity of a passage is not the same as the intelligence of the person who wrote it, but the two are correlated, especially, according to Simonton, among American presidents.

Integrative complexity is related to violence. People whose language is less integratively complex, on average, are more likely to react to frustration with violence and are more likely to go to war in war games. Working with the psychologist Peter Suedfeld, Tetlock tracked the integrative complexity of the speeches of national leaders in a number of political crises of the 20th century that ended peacefully (such as the Berlin blockade in 1948 and the Cuban Missile Crisis) or in war (such as World War I and the Korean War), and found that when the complexity of the leaders’ speeches declined, war followed. In particular, they found a linkage between rhetorical simple-mindedness and military confrontations in speeches by Arabs and Israelis, and by the Americans and Soviets during the Cold War. We don’t know exactly what the correlations mean: whether mule-headed antagonists cannot think their way to an agreement, or bellicose antagonists simplify their rhetoric to stake out an implacable bargaining position. Reviewing both laboratory and real-world studies, Tetlock suggests that both dynamics are in play.

Aside from intrinsic interest, this reminds me of some bits from Heinlein's fiction where he talked about mathematical analysis of language, not to mention something from Asimov's foundation.

Also, Lessing said something about expecting trouble when politicians start talking about blood. We have the tools to check that!

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Date:November 21st, 2013 07:53 pm (UTC)
This is most interesting, and useful also, from a writing standpoint; thanks!
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Date:November 22nd, 2013 02:34 am (UTC)
The contrast between those two modes of discourse looks to me to be related to the contrast between rhetoric and dialectic in Aristotle and the medieval theories of discourse that he influenced. Dialectic, in this system of categories, is systematic thinking based on induction (generalizing from a comprehensive survey of the evidence) and deduction (applying generalizations to new cases), as applied to matters of opinion or of probability—which means you recognize that there's more than one possible answer and ask, "Well, what if this is true? what if this is not true?" Rhetoric, in contrast, is not aimed at people who think systematically, or at occasions where people are going to think systematically, and often does not come from people who think systematically. It replaces deduction with enthymeme, or arguments in which some of the premises are taken for granted as obviously true and thus not stated; it replaces induction with striking examples.

There's a certain tendency for rhetoric to be associated with conservatives, and dialectic with progressives. The acceptance of things that people generally take for granted is what conservatism is all about; conversely, the explicit exploration of alternative opinions or probabilities fits well with cultural relativism, which is a common point of view among progressives. And the unreflective emotional reactiions of rhetoric are a good fit to in-group/out-group thinking. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of expressions of political opinion online, and many progressives are just as likely to treat conservatives as the out-group of whom no good can be expected as vice versa. The very division into two categories in fact supports this kind of thinking and invites rhetoric.

But also, those categories leave out Aristotle's third category, which is demonstration: systematic reasoning based on things that are definitely known.

There are natural confusions here, because "definitely known" can be equated to "firmly believed by my culture," which makes demonstration sound like rhetoric. And a lot of progressives think everything is opinion and probability, and that any claim to actual knowledge merely shows that you haven't thought about the matter systematically. At least in anything having to do with law or social science (as opposed, say, to belief in the physics of the greenhouse effect). This is kind of like the agnostics who think that atheism is just as dogmatic and faith-based as theism, and even call atheism a religion. But I am an atheist, not an agnostic, and I believe that there are objective truths in social science and objectively right values and laws—which are not simply the values and laws of my culture and sometimes point to the need for radical change in its values and laws. So I see rhetoric and demonstration as distinct.

I was tempted for a while to say that libertarians embodied the demonstrative mode in political thought. But I think that's a bit too self-congratulatory; and in any case, I've seen libertarians who are clearly engaged in rhetoric (a lot of Libertarian Party material) or dialectic (philosophical works like Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia). I think that for a truer example of the demonstrative mode we need to look at public choice theory, as developed by people like Buchanan and Tullock, Demsetz, and Olson, and at the economic analysis of law.

I'm not sure how this would sound in political speeches. But I'm suspicious that the higher valuation of speeches that make dialectical concessions reflects the progressive and cultural relativist assumptions that are so widely accepted in the social sciences.
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