Sophomoric fog

June 4, 2012

In a recent blog I criticized The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, because it had a fog-index of 28. Theoretically you would need 28 years of schooling to follow its long multi-syllabic sentences. Several readers (presumably with less than 28 years of schooling) emailed back that they did not have any trouble following the quoted excerpt.

One critical reader led me later to a fog-index study reported on NPR. The Sunlight Foundation took the entire Congressional Record dating back to the 1990s and plugged it into an algorithm that computed the grade level of Congressional discourse. They found that it had declined from an 11.5 level in 2005 to 10.6 last year. “In other words,” said NPR, “Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores.”

My critical friend interpreted this study to mean that, “… one measure of the dumbing down of Congress that the arrival of The Tea Party appears to have accelerated.” Aware that I supported some Bell Curve interpretations he added, “The Republicans and their Tea Party allies are dragging the curve way, way down. In this period of increasingly complex and intellectually challenging problems can we afford to have so many in Congress on the ‘left’ side of the Bell Curve?”

My answer—the Republican Tea Partiers would be in good company if their fog indexes were in the 10.6 range. Great writers like William Shakespeare and Mark Twain wrote at grade levels between 8 and 9.

The actual NPR article by Tamara Keith, “Sophomoric? Members Of Congress Talk Like 10th Graders, Analysis Shows” is more balanced and more fun. It quotes the lowest scoring Congressman, South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney (fog of 7.94), “I was trained to write in a clear and concise fashion, and you didn’t get to use big words if small words would do.”

The article points out that Mulvaney graduated with honors from Georgetown University, earned a law degree at the University of North Carolina, and his father was a high school grammar teacher.

Georgia Republican Rob Woodall (fog 8.01) had the second lowest score. Here is a sample of his speech, “What do they say about socialism, Mr. Speaker? It’s a great plan until you run out of other people’s money. Guess what? We’ve run out of other people’s money.” When questioned about his low fog score he said, “My mother will probably be embarrassed to hear this news. But I’m glad to know I’m not obfuscating our challenges with words that are too complicated.”

Concluding the article Keith writes, “Oh, and in case you were wondering, this story was written at an 8.2 level.” Close to Shakespeare and Twain.

The goal of good writing is not to dumb down but to clear up. A low fog index is helpful but not sufficient. You also have to have something significant or clever to say. For that you usually don’t need long sentences or a plethora of multi-syllabic words. Maybe sometimes you do, but usually not.

Far-left and sustainability advocates are often high fog writers. Some think, like Wagner’s music, the results are better than they sound. I’m not so sure. The high fog, more often than not, covers up muddy thought serving to confuse rather than enlighten. Take that passage I quoted before from the UN group …

“The United Nations University’s International Human Dimensions Program (UNU-IHDP) is already working to find these indicators for its “Inclusive Wealth Report” (IWR), which proposes an approach to sustainability based on natural, manufactured, human, and social capital. The UNU-IHDP developed the IWR with support from the United Nations Environment Program, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the different components of wealth by country, their links to economic development and human well-being, and policies that are based on social management of these assets.” (fog 28.1)

Translated it seems to mean, “A UN group wants to find ways to create wealth without hurting the environment—socialism maybe.” (fog 8.6)

Academia is often guilty of high fog obfuscation. My alma mater Antioch is being reborn and describes itself on the new web site, “The mission of Antioch College is to provide a rigorous liberal arts education on the belief that scholarship and life experience are strengthened when linked, that diversity in all its manifestations is a fundamental component of excellence in education, and that authentic social and community engagement is vital for those who strive to win victories for humanity.” (fog 36.1)

I won’t try to translate this one. It could be the exception that proves the rule. Even if so, how many prospective students will read and understand at that level of fog?

Noam Chomsky, the radical Harvard linguist and darling of far-left (especially foreign) intellectuals, writes, “Resistance is feasible even for those who are not heroes by nature, and it is an obligation, I believe, for those who fear the consequences and detest the reality of the attempt to impose American hegemony.” (fog 22.2)

I think he is saying, “Even if you’re not a hero, you should hate America.” (fog 8.0)

I conclude with a story that would have fit in last week’s Memorial Day blog. Jane and I went to our health club that holiday morning to have our usual swim. In the locker room I met a middle-aged gentleman I had seen before but did not know very well. We chatted a bit and I mentioned that Jane and I were both veterans of the Second World War. There was a pause. He looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you.”

He went on to tell me that his uncle had gone ashore on D-Day. I told him that a few years ago Jane and I visited the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

I didn’t go into detail, but I had a lump in my throat remembering my tears as I knelt on the grass reading the names of so many young men of my generation buried there. My locker-room friend sensed my distress and reminded me of a story.

In 1962 French president Charles de Gaulle confronted Secretary of State Dean Rusk and demanded (no doubt in diplomatic fog) that all American armed forces must be taken out of France at once.

Rusk answered, “the dead ones too?” (fog 1.6)

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Trying to practice what I preach, this blog is shorter and less foggy (8.9) than my average (11.1)—freshman talk not junior talk.

P.P.S. I still have free Fog Index posters available on request. billjane@hawkhill.com. There is a useful web site with an algorithm that will compute fog indexes.

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