Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Readers in a FOG

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, philosophy of science

Let us briefly discuss the Gunning Fog Index. It measures the level of education one needs to fully comprehend a document. Beginning with a sample of at least 100 words (200-300 is better), one counts three things: the number of words, the number of "hard" words, and the number of sentences. "Hard" words are words of three or more syllables except proper names and words whose third syllable is an inflection such as the "-ly" in "vividly" or "-er" in "reformer".

From the three counts, calculate (1) Number of words per sentence (Sw), and (2) percent of hard words (Hw). For example, we might find 187 words, 19 hard words, and 12 sentences. Sw = 187/12 = 15.6; Hw = 100*19/187 = 10.2. Then calculate 0.4*(Sw+Hw); for the example Fog = 0.4*(15.6+10.2) = 10.3. This means someone who finished the 10th grade ought to have no trouble reading the document...or at least that sample.

Few popular texts have a Fog Index greater than 10. Most "newspaperese" is found to be in the range 7-9, though online technical news such as I read from CNet and Yahoo can range from 12 to 16. Comic book captions (there is little other text) fall in the range 3 to 6 (Just for the record, my first paragraph above has a Fog Index of 8.5; if "vividly" and "reformer" are counted as "hard" words, it is instead 9.5).

What does a number like 16 mean? On the face of it, it means you'd find it hard to read unless you've completed a BA or BS in college. However, an interested amateur with a high school education and several years work or hobby experience will be able to read "tougher" text than just education might indicate.

Now, imagine getting a book in hand, and finding that the Fog Index is more than 30! When I began to (attempt to) read Exceeding Our Grasp: Science History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives by P. Kyle Stanford, I found myself quite in a fog. I checked a few paragraphs in the first couple of chapters. Their Fog Indices ranged from 27 to 39!

Guess what...I ain't reading this book! I have fourteen years of college and graduate school. Peter Gunning would tell me I ought to be able to handle text that "fogs out" at 26. What does it take for text to attain a Fog Index of 39? About 300 words in four sentences (Sw = 75), and almost 25% hard words (that's more than 70 words such as "unrepresentative", "idiosyncrasy", "underdetermination", and "nonskeptical"). I find nearly every sentence to be sufficiently difficult to parse (I can't recall the antecendent when I get to the end of a 90-word sentence) that I simply don't have enough years left in my life to devote to comprehend the text in full. My opinion is that this is the worst-written technical treatise I've ever encountered.

With a little hopping around and puzzling out sections here and there, I can summarize the thesis thus: "Underdetermination of Theories" means that the evidence does not admit of any single, comprehensive theory, of anything. Many philosophers of science posit that, for any accepted theory, such as General Relativity, Quantum Electrodynamics, or Darwinian Natural Selection, another theory could be found that explains all known phenomena and makes the same predictions. They just don't say how hard it will be to find that new theory.

The enormous body work that Einstein, Lorentz, and others did to produce first Special Relativity then General Relativity, to replace Newtonian Mechanics, indicates that "how hard" is often "almost impossible". Regardless, Dr. Stanford is a leader among the anti-Realists in scientific philosophy. He points out that Maxwell's equations were produced based on the Ether model of electromagnetic propagation. He neglects to say that the genius of Maxwell was to produce a theory sufficiently robust that the overturning of Ether didn't invalidate his work. Just to say this at a Fog Index of 1: I don't believe him. Should he reply that I don't understand, I'd reply the onus is on him to write readable text.

I foresee primarily libraries obtaining the book, and few individuals. People who succeed in reading it will be those who are already conversant in the field. The opaque diction will minimize the number of non-philosophers whom he could reach were he a better writer.

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