Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Facts, Ma'am, just the Facts

Much as I enjoy the occasional rhetorical flourish from George Will, he has always struck me as pretty uncommitted to facts. His most recent column caught the attention, unfortunately for him, of Mark Liberman at Langauge Log.

This comparison suggests that George W. Bush, in his early press conferences, used first-person singular pronouns about 60-70% more often than Barack Obama did, while Bill Clinton, in the comparable events, used first-person singular pronouns about 50% more often than Obama did.
This whole exercise, by the way, took me about 45 minutes from conception to posting.
Now, maybe there's some selection of Obama's interactions where his use of the first person singular pronoun is higher than expected for someone in his circumstances. Alternatively, maybe George F. Will is a bullshitter, who doesn't bother even to ask one of his interns to check whether the alleged "facts" in his columns are true or false. We report, you decide.

I think I know which of these options is most consistent with my experience.
Despite this effort, this silly meme spreads to Stanley Fish (not really a surprise) and Mark responds again.

You'd think that Prof. Fish would have done some counts of this sort before displaying his analysis in the pages of the New York Times, especially since he's explicit about the fact that he's inferring the president's attitudes by counting (and analyzing) pronouns rather than by using ESP. Unfortunately, at some point in the past few decades, literary scholars seem to have abandoned the assumption that claims, even quantitative ones, ought to be testable.

The guy is a humanities prof. Quantitative? What's that?
It gets funnier. Professor Fish makes much of Obama using the 'royal we', apparently not understanding what that means; as Mark again points out, many of the 'we' usages are decidedly not royal, but a simple and appropriate collective.
Appallingly, this just keeps coming.
There is much I do not like about the great windbag's rhetoric, but let's not charge him with crimes he does not commit!


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