Is “Simple Speaking” a Sign of a Simple Intellect?


A recent study of the speeches of US Congress members and Senators found that the typical level-of-difficulty in those speeches has dropped by more than a full grade level over the past seven years.  (For the study results, click here.)  The lowest grade levels were among the newer, more conservative members.  Of interest to South Carolina District 5 voters, our new Representative John (Mick) Mulvaney had the lowest average reading level score of all 535 members – an average level of 8th grade (7.95 grade level).  Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the son of Presidential candidate Ron Paul (at 8.04), virtually tied the congressman.

Is Congress getting dumber, or just more plain-spoken?  I immediately recalled the H.L. Menken assertion:

For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple — and wrong.

I want to advance the hypothesis that the more plain-spoken and simple the explanations advanced, the more likely the explanations are wrong.

Reality is complex!  Achieving understanding takes experimentation and course correction.  Simplicity generally results from a long-working propaganda machine that has abstracted from reality a few simple propositions that sound credible, but when actually implemented produce unintended results.

What propositions does Rep. Mulvaney support?  From an alternet article called “The ten dumbest members of Congress” (click here for the full article):

Mulvaney is the co-author of the Cut, Cap and Balance bill that has been at the center of the debate on raising the debt ceiling.  The bill would impose stiff reductions, mostly to programs that fund economic growth and aid to the poor.  It would also cap spending for entitlement programs and call for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.  Mulvaney is one of those extremists who would rather see the U.S. default on its debts and suffer a credit rating downgrade than reform the tax code to be more equitable and stop favoring the wealthy.

A second take on Rep. Mulvaney’s true beliefs – look at who he actually votes with.  The Koch-Brothers-funded Americans For Prosperity (AFP) (click here for the Wikipedia entry on AFP) gave Mulvaney, along with 39 other member of Congress, a 100% approval rating for voting “the right way” for bills AFP favored during the first half of the 112th Congress.  Click here for the text to Meet The 40 Members Of The Congressional Koch Caucus.  The positions AFP liked —  repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, pre-empt the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate greenhouse gases, Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget to end Medicare, ending ethanol subsidies, several Congressional Review Act resolutions to give Congress the power to overturn new Executive Regulations that implement bills Congress has already passed –the latest version of the old Southern trick of nullification (including the REINS Act – for one interpretation click here), and the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bills.

We know that Rep. Mulvaney supplies simple answers to complex questions, and that those answers tend to be those favored by the conservative propaganda machines and conservative business-funded think tanks that give conservatives academic cover.  But are the answers wrong?

A flip response – he tends to support laws favored by the top 1% that lower incomes, government benefits, and environmental health for the other 99%.  But he believes these simple answers to be the only right ones.  He feels justified in taking campaign funds from the Koch Brothers, Howard Rich, and other rich out-of-state folks because he believes their explanations of how the world works.

A contrasting approach is often labeled “scientific” or experimental.    We must continually ask ‘How do you know what you know?’ and ‘Why do you think that?’  We must engage in critical thinking.  We must explore competing answers from varied experts, carefully examine history for relevant examples and test our hypotheses continually.  For an example of teaching critical reasoning, see How Do We Teach Critical Thinking in a Connected World?  As Paul Krugman often observes, “Facts have a liberal bias.”  But do simple answers require such critical examination?  Not so much.

Recent critics claim many Republicans do not understand facts, evidence and science in ways others do.  Congressional scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, titled a recent Washington Post op-ed (here)  —  Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.

Our current crisis is solely the fault of a Republican Party that “has become an insurgent outlier in American politics.  It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Mann and Ornstein recently published a book titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (here for the description).  This book examines the current crisis, claims we have not had as dysfunctional a congress since just before the Civil War, and offers some tentative solutions.

They also point to an op-ed by Chris Mooney (here) Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently.  They think differently.  A key point Mooney makes:

Consider another related trait implicated in our divide over reality:  the “need for cognitive closure.”  This describes discomfort with uncertainty and a desire to resolve it into a firm belief.  Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information.  Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.

A number of studies show that conservatives tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals, which is precisely what you would expect in light of the strong relationship between liberalism and openness.

Mr. Mooney has recently published the book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (here for the description).   Some key quotes:

And at a time of unprecedented polarization in America, we need a more convincing explanation (other than “follow the money”) for the staggering irrationality of our politics. Especially since we’re now split not just over what we ought to do politically but also over what we consider to be true.

When you combine key psychological traits with divergent streams of information from the left and the right, you get a world where there is no truth that we all agree upon. We wield different facts, and hold them close, because we truly experience things differently.

So is Rep. Mulvaney’s plain speaking a sign of dumbness?  Or rather a sign of living in a different reality, such as the Fox News distortion of “reality,” American Enterprise Institute and Cato Institute “studies” that, from the “normal” evidences of “truth” carefully cherry-pick – or even make up – facts that support very simple answers.  If so, he may indeed give simple and clear answers for complex problems that in fact are wrong, and thus produce great harm if his ideals become law.