Forrest Gump and the Difference Between Dumb and Simple

'Dumb' and 'simple'. Sometimes these words are interchangeable. For instance, Forrest Gump might be described by either word.

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But other times they have very different meanings.

A couple of years ago the published a fascinating infographic titled 'The state of our union is ... dumber'.


[*Source: The Guardian][1]

This interactive chart (hover over the circles) plots changes in the U.S. President's State of the Union (SOTU) addresses from 1790 to 2014.

Even if you have no interest in politics, State of the Union addresses are useful because they provide over two hundred years of text sample data covering broadly similar subjects and themes. This makes them a great data source for anyone studying changes in the english language over the last 200 years.

Our Guardian SVG shows us two types of information:

  1. The size of each bubble shows the number of words in each speech - i.e. Big bubbles = long speeches
  2. The height of each bubble gives its Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level.

The Flesch-Kincaid test estimates how difficult a passage of text is to understand – the lower the number, the easier the text is to understand.

As the graphic shows, SOTU addresses have been getting steadily easier to understand since about 1810, and generally shorter. In fact, President Obama's recent address could be understood by an eighth-grader.

Modern Life is Rubbish

The weird part is that the Guardian and many others have cited this trend as evidence of a slip in education standards and the general decline of civilization. 'How the linguistic standard of the presidential address has declined' lectures the subheading.

"Obama is only the latest in a long trend of dumbed-down addresses." said Dailycaller.

It might just be me, but this seems crazy.

Whilst I'd hardly sing the praises of modern politics, surely this is evidence of an improving UX?

As design and UX people, we're always searching for the simplest way to accomplish any goal. If user-testing showed a percentage of people didn't understand our UIs, we'd go back to the drawing board.

Anyone who has the ability to make the complex simple is considered a rockstar. We applaud the simple.

If the SOTU address was an app designed to deliver ideas to citizens, we'd be doing everything in our power to ensure it reached the largest possible audience.

However in journalism circles there seems to be an underlying belief that good ideas demand big words and long sentences.

What a strange thing to think.

Here’s the second paragraph from James Madison’s 1815 address.

In the terms stipulated the rights and honor of the United States were particularly consulted by a perpetual relinquishment on the part of the Dey of all pretensions to tribute from them. The impressions which have thus been made, strengthened as they will have been by subsequent transactions with the Regencies of Tunis and of Tripoli by the appearance of the larger force which followed under Commodore Bainbridge, the chief in command of the expedition, and by the judicious precautionary arrangements left by him in that quarter, afford a reasonable prospect of future security for the valuable portion of our commerce which passes within reach of the Barbary cruisers.

Wow. That is two sentences, 109 words and a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 26.34.

Now, I don’t want to make this ‘National Beat Up James Madison Day’ as it’s unfair to read his text out of context and written in the voice of a different era. Nevertheless, I suspect most of us require some serious concentration to understand what he’s saying. I’ve read it 4 times now and I think I have it, but I’m crossing my fingers there won’t be a test later.

It’s undoubtedly an impressive command of the nuts and bolts of language, but is this the kind of writing we should aspire to for future addresses?

Steve Jobs talked about this subject many times over the years.

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."

Here's to the difference between simple and dumb.

Originally published in the SitePoint Design Newsletter.
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The fact that Madison’s paragraph is hard to read says something about our comprehension levels—which accords with the “dumber” tag. (I’m sure hearing it delivered orally would make a difference, though, as there would be gesture, pitch etc. to help convey the meaning.)

But I also suspect that SOTUs of old were delivered to a much smaller crowd of people who were probably tuned in with that language. Presumably, had they been broadcast to millions, there would have been plenty of Monty Python discussions at the foot of the Hill over what that joker up there was on about.

It’s always been the case that, if you want to get a message out to the masses, you need to dumb it down as much as possible. It’s no coincidence that the Ancient Greek word for ‘the common man’—idiot—has come to refer to a stupid person. :stuck_out_tongue:

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I don’t think it’s quite as “simple” as you make out. In order to hold our politicians to account it’s often important to see the detail and the detail can often be complex. Ideas about legislation, foreign policy or economics are often tied up in intricate frameworks and by omiting the impact of these in statements this can leave the public in the dark. By simplifying a statement as important as SOTU it could be possible to be deceitful, to hide important details.

Don’t get me wrong, I do support simplicity wherever appropriate but it shouldn’t be applied at the expense of clarity.


Fair points, @Dave_Wright

I guess I look at the SOTU as the President ‘reporting to the boss’ – the people who voted him in. “This is what my government is working on. These are the challenges. These are things we think we need to focus on in the coming year” That sort of thing.

SOTUs tend to be very broad, covering a dozen or so big topics so I think the detail and accountability you mention is more likely to come out in senate committees and reports.

But if I wanted to mislead my boss, one of the the best way might be to focus on details and language in areas that I know my boss isn’t an expert in.

In our own industry, a coder might explain away project delays by quoting computer science theories that he knows his boss doesn’t understand. So complicated language is used to obscure the truth.

One of the guys I love listening to is Prof. Brian Cox. The man is super-smart and talks about very complex ideas - string theory, quantum theory, black holes, you name it – but his language is always simple.

He doesn’t dumb it down. He just designs the language beautifully.

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@ralphm Good point about the difference in hearing and reading.

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I can see both sides of the argument but i tend to side with the idea that we shouldn’t always be dumbing everything down. Sure it should be understandable but if you take out any word that has more than 2 syllables are we really helping people progress, where does it end. Maybe just keywords so we don’t lose peoples 2 sec attention span before they go back to tweeting what they had for breakfast. As a society in the UK we seem to be heading for the lowest common denominator in everything we do. TV in the UK is appalling most programs are devoid of any level of intelligence. Big Brother for example is a typical show that does nothing to restore my confidence in the UK population. The people who ‘star’ on that show are picked due to their lack of intelligence in the hope they will do something stupid to entertain the stupid people watching it. It wouldn’t be so bad but it shapes other peoples lives and makes them think what they see on the TV is ok to do.

Don’t get me wrong there is a difference between having a low IQ and being stupid. I know an engineer in his 70’s and i’m sure his IQ isn’t that high but he knows more than i could ever learn about engineering and his work is phenomenal. You don’t have to be reading at Oxford but i think people should be wanting to be better/learn/ have some sense of pride in what you do. Wanting to be a tv ‘star’ as a career without any talent or skill seems to be the goal of a lot of people these days.

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I guess both complexity and simplicity can be weaponised in the wrong hands!

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I was thinking about this and some of the great speeches.

We shall go on to the end,
we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our Island,
whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender, and even if,
which I do not for a moment believe,
this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,
then our Empire beyond the seas,
armed and guarded by the British Fleet,
would carry on the struggle, until,
in God’s good time, the New World,
with all its power and might,
steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Churchill uses a genuinely poetic structure and rhythm here, but the language – particularly the first half – is very simple. You can almost clap along with it (though that wouldn’t be respectful).

Brilliant simple writing transmitting bigger ideas.

I think that radio (which is what this speech was aimed at) had a huge influence on how these kinds of things were written.

Yes, it must have been incredibly powerful, having millions huddled around their radios to hear that.

I was once in a Latin class at university, studying a speech by the great Roman orator Cicero, and an old lady in the class—who had been a child listening to Churchill on the radio during the war—said that Cicero’s speech took her right back to that moment. It really brought the class alive!

Mind you, Cicero’s language was pretty complex! I guess it was the vibe that was the same.


It is the vibe!


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