The Boston Globe’s oversimplified analysis of candidate speech

In a front-page article, the Boston Globe sneers at Donald Trump for speaking at a fourth-grade level. They imply that simplicity is equivalent to stupidity. In fact, a bias toward complexity — the same bias inherent in this article — is what has given us a world pervaded by bullshit.

Graphic: The Boston Globe

The Globe ran the candidates’ speeches through the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a simple formula based on length of sentences and the number of syllables in words. But Flesch-Kincaid, a crude measure of the complexity of sentences, says nothing about the sophistication of ideas. Reporter Matt Viser’s choice of words in this article imply that we should look down on simple expression (my snarky comments added in brackets):

But with his own choice of words and his short, simple sentences, Trump’s speech could have been comprehended by a fourth-grader. Yes, a fourth-grader. [You, dear Globe reader, are smarter than a fourth-grader. So I invite you to look down on Trump and laugh at his stupid followers.]

Ben Carson, who has surged and maintained a second-place standing in the polls, communicates with voters at a sixth-grade level — despite a medical degree and career as a brain surgeon. [What, brain surgeons aren’t allowed to talk plainly?]

“At some point enough is enough,’’ [Wesleyan professor Elvin T. Lim] said. “If you continue drawing these lines, you’re going to hit comic strip levels. . . . There are real costs to oversimplification.” [True. But that’s oversimplification of ideas, not words. There are also real costs to puffed-up, overly complex ways of expressing yourself that nobody really understands.]

Think about speeches that have inspired people.

“I have a dream.” — Martin Luther King

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” — Ronald Reagan

“Yes, we can.” — Barack Obama

These are simple words in simple sentences. There is nothing wrong with simplicity in speech.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@jbernoff”]Speaking clearly and simply is a virtue, not a vice. Especially for politicians.[/tweetthis]

The problem with Donald Trump is that he states falsehoods as facts. His simplistic solutions — like building a fence on the Mexican border — are batshit loony. The idea of Trump as president terrifies me.

But the appealing simplicity of the way he speaks is not the problem. The Globe implies that speaking with long words and long sentences makes a politician better. It doesn’t. (Flesch-Kincaid rates the readability of this blog post at a sixth grade level. And I’m fine with that.)

I want a president with a sophisticated, nuanced understanding of the world, one with a nimble mind who is hungry for data and ideas. But I’d also like politician who can express himself and his ideas simply and clearly and sell them to the American public. Donald Trump has mastered that skill. Let’s hope that some of the more sophisticated minds on the campaign trail can master it as well.

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  1. Yes. Simple, understandable speech for the win!

    I’m a speech therapist in the school system. I made a conscious decision, early in my career, that I wouldn’t use any $10-dollar words when I explained therapy and/or testing to parents and other professionals present. It’s even more interesting when I need to convey my ideas to a Spanish-speaking parent through a translator. Those complex, technical terms are absolutely a no-go; if I can’t explain what I do in simple terms, I need to take my own therapy.

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m explaining too simply — but then I read a report about a new student from another system, and the report is so full of jargon that I, a professional in speech therapy, am not sure what the other therapist meant. There’s no excuse for that. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, which confirms that over and over.

    1. This looked familiar to me (not your write up, Josh, but the idea in general). Turns out, I saw it on reddit … 2 months ago. Link here (disclosure: I am not affiliated in any way): https://www.reddit.com/r/dataisbeautiful/comments/3hco1w/trump_to_shakespeare_reading_gradelevels_of_gop/

      I read the Globe’s article, and didn’t see any reference to this (if it was there, maybe I missed it). I guess it’s not required, but it seems like an obvious grift to me.