Archive for May, 2011

Readability & Obama’s IQ

Posted in Poli-ticks, Random on 20110525 by Avenging Sword

The subject matter of this post is well outside my usual areas of interest, so I feel somewhat uncomfortable writing it.  Nevertheless, at the risk of making myself look (even more) foolish, I’ll go ahead & proceed anyway.  Feel free to view this post as my attempt at A) statistical analysis, or B) comic relief.

The recent colloquy between Lynn Gazis-Sax & Hyphenated American in the combox of this post (see here, here, here, here, and here) got me wondering about the intelligence of our current chief executive.  I don’t know whether you can reliably guestimate IQ based on standardized test scores (e.g., SAT, LSAT); but even if you could, that approach wouldn’t work for Obama, since his SAT & LSAT scores don’t seem to be publicly available.  However, since Obama is a published author, I found myself wondering if I could guestimate his IQ by analyzing something he wrote.  Since I’m allergic to bookstores’ politics sections, I don’t own any of Obama’s books.  However, I do have access to HeinOnline & Lexis-Nexis.  So I decided to use Obama’s unsigned Harvard Law Review case comment[1] for my analysis.  Basically, my methodology was as follows:

1.       Dump Obama-authored text into an MS Word file.

2.       Use MS Word’s grammar checker to generate Flesch Reading Ease & Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level readability scores for the text in question.

3.       Use scores from #2 to guestimate Obama’s IQ.  To do this, I relied on Table A1[2] in a 2004 medical journal article by A. Harwood & J.E. Harrison.  This table gives the minimum IQ required for comprehend documents with a given range of readability scores; it was derived from a 1996 medical journal article[3] by Laurence Coey.  An excerpt from Table A1 follows:

Step #2 gives an FRE score of 26, and an FKGL of 15.2.  Per the sources cited in Step #3, those scores correspond to a minimum IQ of 126.  Assuming a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 for US IQ scores, a 126 IQ would put Obama in the 96th percentile (at least according to this online calculator).

Of course, the above analysis makes a number of assumptions, including:

1.       That Obama actually wrote the text in question.  AFAIK, he did, but I suppose it’s possible that, even back in 1990, he was sufficiently far-sighted that he decided to a) get some genius to ghostwrite an obscure, unsigned case comment almost twenty years before the 2008 campaign; b) leave records in the Harvard Law Review claiming that he (Obama) wrote the comment; c) somehow manage to keep that ghostwriter quiet for the next two decades; d) say nothing about the comment prior to his campaign; and e) claim authorship only after some independent source brought the comment to the attention of his campaign.  (Apparently, Rush Limbaugh did accuse Obama of “ghost-writing” this case comment; but if neither David Frum (on the right) nor Think Progress (on the left) puts any stock in that charge, I don’t think I will either.)

2.       That the editing process didn’t render his case comment less readable.  I have no way of knowing whether or not this is true, absent access to the draft he submitted.  ISTM, however, that if an editor was going to alter the readability of a piece, he’d try to make it more readable, not less.

3.       That Obama was able to read & understand what he wrote.  I suppose it’s possible that he couldn’t, but I’m not sure how likely that is.

4.       That Obama didn’t “dumb down” his writing.  Even if he did, however, this simply means 126 is a floor for his IQ, but not a ceiling.

5.       That authorial IQ can be reliably derived from the readability scores of that author’s writings.  This, IMHO, is the big one, and the main source of my anxiety.  I’m assuming that Coey, Harwood, & Harrison actually knew what they were doing when they matched minimum IQ scores with various levels of readability.  I’m also assuming that their peer-reviewers approved of this association.  But it’s possible that all of these people were hoodwinked (along with Yours Truly).

You may all giggle/applaud at once….


[1] Case Comment, Tort Law – Prenatal Injuries – Supreme Court of Illinois Refuses to Recognize Cause of Action Brought by Fetus Against its Mother for Unintentional Infliction of Prenatal Injuries, 103 Harv. L. Rev. 823 (1990).

[2] A. Harwood and J. E. Harrison, How readable are orthodontic patient information leaflets?, 31 J. Orthodontics 210, 218 tbl. A1 (2004).

[3] Laurence Coey, Readability of printed educational materials used to inform potential and actual ostomates, 5 J. Clinical Nursing 359, 361 tbl. 2 (1996).