April 21, 2004

Mais ou sont les flamewars d'antan?

After reading Camille Paglia's much-discussed Arion piece on "cultural dissipation since the 1960s" , I recently spent a small amount of effort looking for any non-anecdotal evidence of generational changes in attention span or verbal facility. Rivka at Respectful of Otters has done a much more thorough job, at least on the attention side, and "after an exhaustive search of psychological and medical research databases" found: "nothing".

It worries me that the discussion of this topic -- whether in the comments on Rivka's earlier post or in the blogosphere at large -- has been so lop-sided. Those who are skeptical of Paglia's views cite studies, quote statistics and suggest models, whereas Paglia's defenders, like Camille herself, don't seem to be able to get past arguments like "People who deny that attention spans have gotten shorter are just whistling past the graveyard" or "The "factual" basis for believing it has become attenuated is simply the fact that it has. I taught college literature for twenty years, and I can testify it has. The facts are in front of my eyes. Anybody who denies this is happening is being willfully obtuse."

I haven't been able to find a single example of a pro-Paglia post or comment that cites a single piece of evidence other than personal conviction. But it wouldn't be terribly hard to make some kind of a case -- there's the decline in verbal SAT scores, there's the change in the difficulty of school texts, there's the decrease in the length of average TV commercials. It's as if the pro-Paglians have decided to prove their point by unilateral disarmament in this battle of wits.

For an example of how to carry out one of these arguments properly, consider the Great Media Bias Flamewar of 2002, surveyed by Edward Boyd here ("Much ado about Nunberg"). Come on, Paglians, remember what it was like to support an argument with actual facts? I bet someone made you do it, back in the days before TV, PCs and video games rotted our collective minds. Borrow a clue from today's kids. Focus! You can do it if you try!

[Update: the redoubtable Semantic Compositions promises to take up the gauntlet. Go to it, SC! Not that you need any help, but here's a suggestion passed on from Mark Seidenberg: apparently Donald Hayes has compared the original and re-issued versions of books such as Nancy Drew, and discovered that the new ones are at a much lower reading level than the old ones, which might be considered evidence of Paglian cultural dissipation (or of a change in the targeted age range, of course). As far as I can tell, this work hasn't been published yet -- I looked -- but there's reason to think that Prof. Hayes would be happy to share the results.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 21, 2004 04:56 PM