Saturday, May 27, 2017

TDS and lingustics

There are so many elite factions struggling so mightily to protect their vested interests in the populist era of Trump, that it is hard to sort the wheat from the chaff in mainstream media reporting. The problem is exacerbated by there being an inordinate proportion of chaff. AKA fake news in the form of speculation, misinterpretation, stories based on anonymous sources, cognitive biases and simple straight-forward self-serving spinning. This disposition to extreme trafficking in partisan rumors has already led to the coinage Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS).

I recently came across an article that seemed to fall into that category, Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change? by Sharon Begley. Begley is trying to give credence to the idea that Trump is suffering some form of cognitive impairment based on the patterns of his speech. Basically it comes down to: "The president is crazy. A few of my friends agree." This is, of course, simply a single element of the larger effort to establish grounds to remove a president elected by the people but hated by the elite.

Of course such politically motivated speculation based on communication patterns is nothing new. Conservatives during the Obama era took delight in highlighting Obama's dependency on teleprompters and the challenges he faced in speaking articulately without one.

Double click to enlarge.

Well, there is one difference. Conservatives generally were seeking to denigrate Obama's intelligence or talent for public speaking, rather than trying to make a case for cognitive incapacity as Begley seems to be doing.

The reporting of Begley's speculation was in such outlets as Huffington Post. I read the headline and nothing more, anticipating that the research or reportage or both would be the product of TDS.

Which is unfortunate as there are a couple of legitimate issues in here.

While Ronald Reagan's presidency was immensely successful in many respects, he was, at that time, our oldest elected presidents and his age was always a partisan talking point and criticism. Reagan, being the communication master that he was, turned the criticism on its head in the October 21, 1984 second presidential debate against Walter Mondale. Henry "Hank" Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun asked:
You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
To which Reagan famously replied:
Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.
And yet, it is a fair question. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's just five years after leaving office. Were there demonstrable symptoms earlier, perhaps in the closing years of his presidency? Did it affect his performance? And how could we know? In a chronic wasting condition of that sort, there is no red line of transition, just increasing shades of grey.

At what point can a chronic condition, mental or physical, be considered disbarring of office? It is ironic that Trewhitt used Kennedy as the counterexample to age, positing him as young and vigorous. While youth and vigor were the Kennedy campaign brand, that was not Kennedy's condition at the time. Would we today consider John F. Kennedy unfit for office owing to his heavy dependence on an "extraordinary variety of medications" for a wide range of serious physical conditions?

While these are all good questions, it is almost impossible to have a discussion of the issues in a political context. The answers are predetermined by one's partisanship, not by query and evidence.

While I did not read Begley's original charge sheet, I did read Donald Trump: Cognitive decline or TDS? by Mark Liberman. Liberman is a professor of linguistics at my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania. Liberman is skeptical of Begley's thesis on methodological grounds. Begley appears to have made her criticism by creating a possible hypothesis rather than working the scientific method to create a plausible argument.

STAT may have reviewed decades of Donald Trump’s on-air interviews, but what’s presented in the article is a scant handful of anecdotes. There’s one example of a verbal flub from an (unidentified) interview in May of 2017; 41 seconds of a Larry King interview from 1987; 13 seconds from another unidentified NBC News interview “earlier this month”; a hundred words of transcript from an unidentified “interview with the Associated Press last month”; and one or two other fragments. Begley asserts that
[L]inguistic decline is also obvious in two interviews with David Letterman, in 1988 and 2013, presumably with much the same kind of audience. In the first, Trump threw around words such as “aesthetically” and “precarious,” and used long, complex sentences. In the second, he used simpler speech patterns, few polysyllabic words, and noticeably more fillers such as “uh” and “I mean.”
This comparison between 1988 and 2013 brought to mind a post from November 6th, 2014, When progress doesn't at first seem like progress. In it I note research indicating "Presidential speeches have been declining in complexity since 1800, with a big drop in complexity circa 1925." In 1800, presidential speeches came in as college level in their structural complexity and vocabulary choice. In recent decades they are at a sixth-grade level.

Under Begley's position, our presidential cognitive capability has declined by more than half since the beginning of Republic. While there is a certain nostalgic attachment to the idea of declinism, I do not think such an indulgence is sustainable when you look at the academic, military, commercial, and political achievements of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, etc. No fools they, regardless of how you might assess their policy or moral conditions.

Conceding those accomplishments highlights a fundamental weakness of Begley's position. As I note in When progress doesn't at first seem like progress, presidential speech complexity did not decline because presidents became cognitively more disabled. The speeches became simpler as the electorate expanded from educated property owners to all citizens. Presidents deliberately simplified their speech patterns.

Occam's Razor suggests that what is true historically might also be true for individuals. In 1988 Donald Trump was a property and casino developer, also involved in event promotions (wrestling and boxing). 1988 was also his first consideration whether to run for the presidency (he did not). It would hardly be surprising that since 1988, his speech patterns and habits would have changed. He became a daily radio talk show host from 2004-2008. He was executive producer and star of a reality show, The Apprentice from 2003 to 2015. He owned and ran the Miss Universe pageant from 1996 till 2015.

One would expect his speech patterns to morph from those acceptable in the boardroom and at the negotiating table to patterns more pertinent to a wide American and global audience. I am making no argument as to whether those patterns should be deemed appropriate or effective, simply that you would expect there to have been change. Begley has to disentangle changes resulting from changed audiences and changed contexts to changes that might be arising from cognitive function (her thesis).

As far as I can tell, she makes no effort to disentangle these confounding variables and therefore her thesis remains possible but not yet plausible.

Liberman reaches the same conclusion but on methodological grounds.
So Begley and her mostly-unnamed “experts in neurolinguistics and cognitive assessment, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists” might be right to wave their hands at “a neurodegenerative disease or the normal cognitive decline that comes with aging”. But the evidence that they offer is anecdotal at best, without even citations or links to let readers check out the context of the anecdotes.
J.W. Brewer, in the comments, makes a point not dissimilar to mine:
I am fascinated to note that three out of the four things “indicative of dementia” according to Fraser et al as summarized in the Neurocritic blog post linked above sound exactly like things a fully cognitively-competent person might deliberately do in order to communicate more effectively to a comparatively unsophisticated audience of oh let’s say swing voters in a swing state.

“Semantic impairment – using overly simple words”
“Acoustic impairment – e.g., speaking more slowly”
“Syntactic impairment – using less complex grammar”

I expect my own idiolect is different in all sorts of ways from Trump’s earlier idiolect as exhibited in the vintage talking-to-Letterman clips, but I certainly suspect that I would not be a particularly effective giver of political stump speeches to an audience of median American registered voters, not least on account of how, left to my own devices, I almost certainly (as judged for optimal rapport with that sort of audience): a) use too many complicated/obscure words; b) talk too fast; and c) use unduly complex or convoluted syntax. If for some improbable reason I wanted to learn to communicate effectively to that sort of audience in that sort of context, I would need a lot of coaching to help me develop all three of those “impairments.”

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