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Dr. William Gorton, Alma College - The Intelligence of Political Discourse


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. William Gorton of Alma College reveals that while Americans as a group have displayed increasing intelligence over the past century, our political discourse has yet to follow.

Dr. William Gorton is an assistant professor of political science at Alma College where he teaches courses such as Constitutional Law and Ancient Political Thought. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and in 2006 published Karl Popper and the Social Sciences.

About Dr. Gorton

Dr. William Gorton - The Intelligence of Political Discourse

People are getting smarter, but is politic talk? That's the question my colleague Janie Diels and I have explored in our recent research. James Flynn is famous for uncovering that IQs have steadily increased in the developed world since the start of the 20th century. The average person today is some 30 points smarter than the average person of 100 years ago. The cause of the so-called "Flynn effect" is unclear. But Flynn himself has suggested that the IQ gains are attributable to an increasingly conceptually complex social environment.

Recent studies from a variety of fields have uncovered evidence for this trend. Video games have grown more complicated over time, and character networks and plotlines in films and television programs have become more dense and interconnected. Tests given to children today are far more focused on testing stu dents' ability to make connections between abstract concepts than tests from the early 20th century. We wondered if public political discourse would be marked by similar increases in conceptual complexity.

Recently we examined all of the presidential debates of the past 50 years, analyzing them for the degree of complexity and abstractness. We found that the complexity of presidential debates has actually decreased, and the decrease has accelerated in recent decades. This trend is particularly clear when the candidates discuss economics. Candidates are less and less inclined to describe economic phenomenon by invoking abstractions - such as inflation, productivity, consumer demand, and the like - and more and more likely to depict economic phenomenon in terms of its impact on individuals, such as Senator John McCain's rhetorical use of "Joe the Plumber" in the 2008 presidential debates. Political debates, it seems, are growing less complex even as the audience's capacity to understand complexity has increased.

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