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At what grade level do presidential candidates debate? (medium.com/theandresfonseca)
53 points by the_afonseca 2 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments

Politicians tend to debate below the skill level of high school county-level competition, and students do also practice both clean and dirty debate, but: students never truly punch with force either.

Students don't know what it means to be attacked as a father for having a son with drug addiction problems. Students don't know what it means to be humiliated for how little taxes or how much debt they have.

Debate is just a game. Also, this article as just about the grade level of the speech the candidates use, not how their performance would map to the game of debate.

Thanks for this comment.

What do you mean by "clean" and "dirty" debate practice?

By dirty I mean debate tactics designed to waste your time, confuse you, distract you, etc.

So Ben Shapiro?

I am sure the games that work on voters but not on debate judges. One is for example avoiding the real question/topic and talking about something else entirely. Like taking about climate change when asked about education policy. Or bringing up the fact that your opponent used her sexual skills to rise up the ladder.

Dirty practices are arguments that take longer to refute than present, even if ridiculous. For example arguing that the other sides arguments aren't topical or because they don't reject hierarchical power structures they lead to nuclear war which outweighs everything.

I expect he means ad hominem attacks instead of just debating the topics at hand.

Actually ad-homs rarely show up in competitive debate. Competitive debate has the norms that an unanswered argument is considered to be true, and that the winner of the round is usually decided by a judge trained in argumentation. (most often a former debater or coach themselves)

For competition dirtier tactics including making 'must answer or you lose' style arguments that take longer to answer than they do to make in order to generate a time advantage.

Simplification of candidate speech is a known phenomenon: https://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2016/march/speechi...

Just as Kennedy-Nixon made makeup for televised debates mandatory, dumbed-down word choice has become necessary to rate more highly.

> The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula is a useful tool for

> estimating the U.S. grade level required to read a given

> text. The formula uses the average number of words per

> sentence and the average number of syllables per word.

That sounds like a potentially flawed measure of grade level - and I'm not really sure it's a great measurement of debate quality. A good debating/speaking tactic would be to speak in such a way that the entire audience understands what you say and there are no other meanings.

The article opens with "at least 93 interruptions in 90 minutes" which they suggest indicates bad quality debate, then asserts that the solution is "don’t talk to us like we’re in middle school". Using more complex language and longer sentences doesn't address interruptions, it doesn't address the answering of questions and it doesn't address the discussion on policy. Using flamboyant language will simply not help here.

Tiny thing, you might consider quoting without those line breaks, except when separating paragraphs. So, the bit you quoted would go:

> The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula is a useful tool for estimating the U.S. grade level required to read a given text. The formula uses the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word.

I find this way easier to read!

A better metric for text difficulty might be mean tf-idf. Essentially the average "rareness" of each word used.

This topic is fun to analyze, but it's not really aligned with the objective of a political debate. Simple words can broadcast competence, and big words can be taken as pretentious.

They want to address those at middle school grade level, too, why wouldn't they?

This is nonsense. Flesch-Kincaid has been applied to presidential debates or speeches before, it was nonsense then and it's nonsense now.

Fleisch-Kincaid is for written documents. It's dubious whether it's really of value even in that limited circumstance, but it makes no sense for transcriptions of written speech, where punctuation is basically up to whoever's transcribing it. The metric is strongly influenced by sentence length, so you can see why it would cause problems.

Language Log has written about this and why it's ridiculous in detail before.


I don't really see how a debate being easier to parse is necessarily a bad thing. While it could suggest that the candidates are less intelligent or that the populace is less intelligent, it could also suggest that the candidates are attempting to reach more people or that the use of words with less syllables has become more common in the english language over time.

Intelligence does not imply superior moral, ethical, or rational judgement.

Incomplexity of speech does not imply lack of intelligence.

Here's the section on Simple English in Simple English Wikipedia: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About#Simple_Eng...

Imagine being reprimanded for use of complex words and statistical terms in an evidence-based policy discussion in a boardroom. Imagine someone applying to be CEO, President, or Chairman of the Board and showing up without a laptop, any charts, or any data.


Perhaps there is a better game for assessing competency to practice evidence-based policy.

This commenter effectively refutes the claim that Fleisch-Kincaid is a useful metric for assessing the grade-level of interpretively-punctuated spoken language: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24807610

Like I said, from "Ask HN: Recommendations for online essay grading systems?" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22921064 :

> Who else remembers using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level metric in Word to evaluate school essays? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flesch%E2%80%93Kincaid_readabi...

> Imagine my surprise when I learned that this metric is not one that was created for authors to maximize: reading ease for the widest audience is not an objective in some deparments, but a requirement.

> What metrics do and should online essay grading systems present? As continuous feedback to authors, or as final judgement?

That being said, disrespectful little b will not be tolerated or venerated by the other half of the curve.

Please edit the title to use 'at' only once.

Fixed. Thanks!

lol oops

And depending on which at you remove you will expose yourself as either a D or R.

Implications of it aside i think this is a wonderful investigation.

I’d guess it’s more about class aspirations than anything else. Probably too narrow of data source to be anything more than a curiosity.

Raising the "Grade level" of debate is a terrible idea. Presidential candidates need to be able to communicate with and persuade not just college and high school graduates, but uneducated people as well.

Uneducated people have 1 vote each, same as educated people. If you can't convince uneducated people that we have to do something about global warming then in democratic countries, you can't make the sacrifices needed to solve global warming. The result is disastrous for the planet.

We need presidential candidates that can really dumb things down to such a level that just about anyone can understand it, no matter their education level.

The politicians have access to much better data than they used to. Given Biden showed a similar drop in grade level, I suspect what this is secretly revealing is that most voters didn't understand what politicians were talking about for most of the USs history.

Without exactly joking, or exactly being serious, democracy isn't about voters understanding the real issues. Just the person capable of figuring out how to get the voters on side is also canny enough to make good decisions when they get to the real issues. Most people neither know nor care. The debates are moving in the direction of that world - theatre to judge how well politicians do theatre, and that is the proxy of their actual ability. It isn't possible to catch up on what matters about someone in 3 political debates.

You might also be forgetting about legal migrants who can actually vote but their English vocabulary is still growing. I dont judge someones intelligence by their words but by their actions and how they react / perceive situations. I have heard some amazing insights from people who do not necessarily know a lot of English. Those people matter too.

this is such a cool point, thank you!

Surely a low Flesch-Kincaid is a __good__ thing in this context? Do people really want to hear incomprehensible buzzwords to decide how to vote, or policies debated in plain language?

(obviously whether what is debated is policies is another matter altogether, but this is not what's being debated here)

Ross Perot, the only non-Democrat non-Republican presidential candidate in a very long time, appears in the author's chart, but without a rating. It's only a single data point, but it would have been interesting to see how an independent compares.

Is the idiom "behind the 8 ball" common in the USA? I'm not sure I'd heard it before Biden used it to refer to the disadvantages black people face when trying to get a loan, etc. I'm not sure billiards/pool is popular enough (especially for young people) for someone to quickly deduce the meaning. I found it to be a strange term and wondered if it was just a dated term. Would anyone in K-12 understand it?

It’s not that common of an idiom in the US, but not unheard of.

I think most could figure out that he was referring to people being disadvantaged from context clues, though.

Yeah, it's easy enough to figure out that it means "bad" -- but that still misses the whole point of it as a metaphor. I think, being unaware of the billiards idiom, my brain first went to 'magic 8-ball' and wondered if he was referring to 'chance'.

Yeah, I'm in my 20s and I regularly use it without any confusion from the people I communicate with. Maybe its popularity varies with region?

I'm a pool player and pretty well versed in the different billiard type games.

In Europe they're almost certainly more likely to say "snookered" instead, as 8 ball is not their main sport.

US players generally understand that reference, but I'm not sure non- players will.

I don't think it's that common, and I don't think I've ever heard it before.


Edit for comparison: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=behind+the+eig...

I wouldn't say it's the most common idiom, but it's definitely something I heard growing up.

It’s common but, I think, fading out with younger generations.

I don't play pool, but I happened to witness a game or two and thus I happened to understand the jist while still needing to look it up...

Search results include definitions such as:

"A term, referring to the game of pool, meaning in an unfavorable or uncomfortable position"

> Is the idiom "behind the 8 ball" common in the USA?

My Dad was born around the same time as Joe Biden (a few years different) and also from Pennsylvania (though I don't think this is particularly associatsd with that region) and used it fairly frequently; I also remember hearing it fairly frequently growing up fron others of his age cohort (and Boomers) and media created by and for them.

I think it's a fading idiom, though.


They asked him why he supported fracking.

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