Pseudo-science and pre-existing distaste

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Tim Marchman & Reuben Fischer-Baum, "Who Is The Most Pompous Sports Pundit? A Scientific Investigation", Deadspin 9/25/2013:

Of all the stupid rhetorical plays columnists use—issuing thundering imperatives, positioning their banal opinions as the exact midpoints between varieties of unyielding madness, championing their cronies' worthless businesses as examples of the disciplinary power of markets, etc. etc.—the funniest are always the ones that reveal they truly do regard themselves as small stars, able to fix planets in orbit around them through the gravitational pull of their self-regard.

"We don't care," Simmons writes at one point of McGrady's unfortunate midcareer decline, "if this happens to the Juwan Howards and Richard Jeffersons of the world," and this is just one of the many opinions he confidently ascribes to you and to me:

we wish they could see what we're seeing … we want to tell them. We always feel relieved … We don't want to remember someone … We don't want to remember him … We want to remember … We want to remember … We want to remember … We want to remember … We want to remember … we've spent the past seven years grading LeBron James on a curve … we cannot allow … we assumed …

Do we know why Simmons—who is just a talking head from the television set, after all, and not an X-Men villain—thinks he can read our minds all the way from his California lair? Do we want to know, really? No, we don't. What we do want to know, to a point of scientific certainty, is whether Simmons—a man who recently wrote 16,000 words premised on the conceit that the the public is interested in his comparison of the NBA off-season to a Charles Grodin movie from 25 years ago—is really the most self-obsessed pundit of all, or just a fraudulent aspirant to the throne.

Wherefore this:

Here's the good part:

A caveat: Use of the first person might indicate many things that are not pomposity. We're not interested in such nuance, though—we're here to use pseudo-science to buttress our pre-existing distaste for certain columnists.

Now, if only George Will, Peggy Noonan, Charles Krauthammer, Stanley Fish, etc., etc., etc., were equally honest. Alas, those worthies generally don't even bother to count, much less cop to the attitudinal underpinnings of their pronoun usage claims.

[Tip of the hat to Don Creach]



  1. Nic Subtirelu said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    Apparently intentionally hilarious interpretations of their data aside, I think it is really interesting to see the degree of variability in the use of pronouns across these writers presumably at comparable levels. Such inter-writer variability is not often brought forward in studies of writing that treat professions as having one particular norm. Kudos to the original authors for counting stuff.

    [(myl) I agree. But: (1) This presumes that their counts are accurate, which I have haven't checked — in earlier cases, I've found that published counts are sometimes oddly at variance with the facts; (2) The sources that they checked may be different in genre or context, ranging from less formal blogs to more formal feature-like pieces.

    Still, it's suggestive and interesting. There are many interesting differences in writing (and speaking) style that are revealed by quite superficial analysis of function-word frequencies.]

  2. Nic Subtirelu said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    I should clarify that by "at comparable levels" I mean professionally. They all presumably have had comparable levels of success in their careers as writers.

  3. JS said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 10:03 am

    For what it's worth, Simmons doesn't even belong in this category; a big chunk of his shtick involves sending up the whole sports commentary genre. The "we"s speaks to his identifying (if now more self-consciously than before) as just another Joe-schmoe fan; half of his "I"s are likely to be in the context of self-deprecations. But… the authors presumably knew all this.

  4. Linda Seebach said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    When I was working as an editorial writer, we (that is, the writers) were not allowed to say "we" except to refer to ourselves or the newspaper whose institutional view we were expressing (and might or might not agree with, individually). The "editorial we" is literally plural.

    The year we (that is, I and my family) lived in Shanghai, we were often asked about what Americans did or thought, and eventually I noticed that if my answer to the question would correctly describe my own actions or beliefs, I'd say "we," meaning Americans generally including me, but if it would be true generally but happened to be incorrect about me in particular, I'd say "they."

  5. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    I avoid the first person plural as much as possible. It almost amounts to a word aversion. Hearing it makes me suspicious, and saying it makes me extremely uncomfortable. It's the only person where you're literally speaking for someone else, and even in the most modest uses there's something presumptuous about it.

    @JS I think claiming to speak for the Joe-schmoe fan is about the most pompous stance it's possible to take, no matter how self-effacing you try to be about it. And surely that's the Deadspin writers' point.

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    Mark didn't quote the final sentence of the post he cited:

    So there you go: We're the most pompous pundits, according to our own pseudo-science. Whatever. We think we think [sic] this is bullshit.

  7. Eorrfu said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

    Is there a cultural or generational issue here? I find that this list succinctly ranks the writers in order of how much I enjoy to actually read these columnists. I find Plaschke a particularly vile person for some reason. I think it was because he ran Paul Depodesta out of LA for whatever reason even though they made the playoffs.

  8. Don Sample said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    Hmm. Of the 247 non-quoted words in those passages, 9 are first person pronouns, making 3.6% of them first person pronouns. This makes Tim Marchman & Reuben Fischer-Baum almost twice as pompous as Simmons, by this pseudo scientific rule.

    I wonder if they did it deliberately?

  9. Steve said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

    We comic book fans find it odd that the notional mind-reading sports commentator is referred to as an X-men "villain", when, as we all know, the most famous mind-readers in the X-men multiverse are both HEROES.

    We don't want to remember Professor Liberman in such an unfortunate way, so we're hoping he'll amend this sad oversight.

    The importance of this literally cannot be underestimated.

  10. Tim L said,

    September 27, 2013 @ 12:58 am

    "Steve" wrote:

    "We comic book fans find it odd that the notional mind-reading sports commentator is referred to as an X-men "villain", when, as we all know, the most famous mind-readers in the X-men multiverse are both HEROES.

    We don't want to remember Professor Liberman in such an unfortunate way, so we're hoping he'll amend this sad oversight."

    Now, it should be pointed out that said unfortunate reference was made by the authors of the original piece, not Prof. Liberman. Thank you for providing a good laugh, nevertheless. "Literally cannot be underestimated" indeed.

  11. Colin Fine said,

    September 27, 2013 @ 6:31 am

    But can it be misunderestimated, literally or otherwise?

  12. Steve said,

    September 27, 2013 @ 10:57 am

    As far as we are concerned, a gross misstatement occurred, and no correction of the error was made. We call this an oversight.

  13. Rod Johnson said,

    September 28, 2013 @ 9:29 am

    I think the use of scientific-sounding rhetoric is a minor comic trope in American culture. For instance, one of the running jokes in my family for years has been, on realizing one has uttered a wildly unjustifiable opinion, to append "scientifically authenticated FACT!!"

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