April 24, 2015

"New computer-driven research suggests that Supreme Court justices are getting grumpier, according to a new study by scholars at Dartmouth and the University of Virginia."

"This analysis was based on the percentage of positive words versus negative words. In addition, modern justices tend to produce more words and have a lower grade level than their predecessors."

Oh, jeez. Here we go again: If you use more periods and fewer semicolons, the computer will conclude that you are writing at a lower grade level. That's garbage. See how I just wrote a sentence on a dramatically lower grade level than the previous sentence? "Computer-driven" doesn't mean sophisticated. It just means that lots of data was crunched. Things that could be counted and that the researchers wanted to count were counted on a grand scale.
The authors included 107 justices through 2008 and ranked them based on negative words (“two-faced,” “problematic”) and positive words (“adventurous,” “pre-eminent”). The high court’s first chief justice, John Jay, ranked number one with a score of 1.55 percent friendliness rating. Numbers 103 through 106 are current members of the court, including Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito. Antonin Scalia earned the number 98 spot with a score of -0.69 percent friendliness.
Quite aside from whether we should assess a judge's friendliness/grumpiness based on which words he puts in the formal justification of his legal decision that we call an opinion, who determined which words should count as positive and which as negative? Why is "adventurous" considered positive — especially as you look at material that was written over a period of 200+ years? Some of the older meanings of the word are negative: "Full of risk or peril; hazardous, perilous, dangerous... Prone to incur risk; excessively venturesome; rashly daring" (OED). If a justice in 1800 called an argument "adventurous," was he saying something nice?

I suspect that negative words proliferate when justices indulge in writing long dissenting opinions. That doesn't necessarily mean they are grumpy or unfriendly. It might have more to do with feeling free to express oneself in somewhat emotive language, and that may have become more the style as the years wore on. If we feel free to express emotion, we give the language analysts more emotive words to count, and then they can calculate a ratio of positive to negative. But how can we compare that to what was written long ago, when judges may have favored concealed or processed emotion? There will not only be less to count but also a kind of caginess and subtle sarcasm and irony that the computer can't recognize. To take an example from a famous old case, what would a computer do with "the judges of the State courts are, and always will be, of as much learning, integrity, and wisdom as those of the courts of the United States (which we very cheerfully admit)"?  "Cheerfully" is such a positive word, but, in context, it's no, and there's certainly no reason to think that the Justice who wrote it was exuding any sort of friendliness.

But this is the kind of study that gets reported, the kind of is-Scalia-mean stuff the public loves.

22 comments:

I Callahan said...

It's not that the public loves it; it's that the media loves it. Which is why it's being reported in the first place.

rhhardin said...

I'd check for the count of "any"'s. It appears only in non-positive (technically called non-assertive) contexts.

You won't find any any's in positive contexts.

Nonapod said...

This whole "study" seems designed to generate clickbait for news aggregator sites. The whole idea seems a bit specious, looking at individual words out of context and attributing a mood to many different people seems a reach.

The Drill SGT said...

on a scale of 1-107, why is 98 such an outlier compared to Numbers 103 through 106?

and 98, 103-106 adds up to only 5 of 9 Justices. where are the other 2 on the scale?

Where are Ginsburg and Roberts? I assume Kagan and Sotomayer are not there because of the 2008 cut-off.

sloppy writing about sloppy analysis.

Rick said...

"Computer-driven" doesn't mean sophisticated. It just means that lots of data was crunched.

We study elements that are are measurable rather than elements that actually answer the question. We then defend promoting the non-answer by saying this is the best we can do.

Suggested response: why did you bother, is your time worth so little?

Jim in St Louis said...

Do not opinions have extensive quotes from the original trial, or from previous cases, or from amicus briefs, or multiple other sources. How many of the words that were examined are the actual words of the justice?

Mark O said...

When read backward, it means "Paul is dead."

Anthony said...

Writing at a lower grade level also means more accessible to more citizens. Ideally, Supreme Court opinions should be written at a high school level so that the average, or somewhat below average, adult can understand them if they put in the effort to read them. (I think it would be hard to write legal opinions at a lower level and still get all the points that need to be made without being way too wordy.)

But since the Supreme Court is seen as "right-wing", that's not how journalists spin it.

lemondog said...

Are the current Supremes on average older than previous courts? More cranky due to more physical ailments, deteriorating acumen? More women creating more conflict? hehehe...

Anthony said...

I get the impression that Scalia enjoys being seen as a curmudgeon, and would be disappointed to find that Breyer, Alito, and Kennedy are "grumpier" than he is.

tim maguire said...

People love new toys, and when they get new toys, they look for opportunities ot play with them.

I don't think I've ever seen a study of difficult to quantify notions (most livable city, happiest justice) that isn't merely a reflection of the biases of the study authors. The identities of justices 103-106 would seem to bear that out.

tim maguire said...

Rick said..."Computer-driven" doesn't mean sophisticated. It just means that lots of data was crunched.

We study elements that are are measurable rather than elements that actually answer the question. We then defend promoting the non-answer by saying this is the best we can do.

Suggested response: why did you bother, is your time worth so little?


You seem pretty negative there, Rick. I give you a -0.99 score.

YoungHegelian said...

Maybe the text of the decisions would be less grumpy if, before the Justices had to weigh in on a decision, they were all made to go camping, to sit around a campfire making S'Mores, & to finish by singing "Kumbayah" to the accompaniment of a 12-string guitar. That would fix up their grumpy-ass attitudes right then & there.

Or, then again, maybe not.

khematite@aol.com said...

In the early days of the Supreme Court, one of Marshall's primary aims was to put that body on a firmer footing, by enhancing its legitimacy. Dissent undermined that aim and Marshall worked hard and quite successfully to suppress it, especially by replacing the norm of serial opinions by each justice with one Opinion of the Court.

Dissents had been entered in about 20% of SC cases before Marshall became Chief Justice, but in none until several years into Marshall's reign (as Democratic-Republican presidents began adding non-Federalist justices to the Court).

By contrast, I think the more recent chief justices have accepted that there will inevitably be powerful divisions on the Court and have rather given up on trying to persuade the Court to present a united front.

lgv said...

From now on, we will just count the F-bombs and the abbreviation WTF. Times, they are a changing.

Rick said...

"tim maguire said...
You seem pretty negative there, Rick. I give you a -0.99 score."


Only on "social" science. On science and freedom I'm quite optimistic.

Peter said...

Is this an "I've got a hammer (computer), where's the nail (data)" problem, or is it more like the drunk looking for the car keys under the lamp post (where the light, umm data, is most dense)?

Either way, it looks like a solution searching for a question that can be answered by that solution.

eddie willers said...

One reason I read this blog is for the ancillary knowledge I gain.

Case in point: I went to the Martin v. Hunter's Lessee opinion and was stunned at the clarity and sense of the writer. I thought, "Who is this...Marshall?"

Seeing it was written by a J. Story, I did the requite Wikipedia and found out that somehow, in my 63 years, I was unfamiliar with such a magnificent and, dare I say, "storied" jurist.

Thanks, Althouse....I am better for coming here today.

Belial said...

All you need to know about the validity of this study is that it placed Justice James McReynolds, known far and wide as a friend to all and as gentle in his personal life as a Cotswolds vicar, right smack dab in the middle - at #51 of 107.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

khematite,

I thought that one goal of CJ Roberts -- one he followed through on with much success -- was getting consensus decisions, unanimous ones. No?

khematite@aol.com said...

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...
I thought that one goal of CJ Roberts -- one he followed through on with much success -- was getting consensus decisions, unanimous ones. No?

Certainly, Roberts has made it very clear that he seeks more frequent Court unanimity and it's undeniable that there has been a higher percentage of unanimous decisions in the last few terms. So, you may be right.

On the other hand, it's hard to be certain about cause and effect here. There may be other factors beyond who happens to be chief justice at work in producing unanimity (e.g., the kinds of cases being selected for full decisions).

And who knows what's around the corner? There are students of the Court who believe that the dynamics that have characterized the Court's behavior since the days of Marshall can perhaps be suppressed for a time, but will eventually come roaring back sometime in the future.

As Frank Sullivan's Mr. Arbuthnot might say "Time will tell."

RecChief said...

reading all these stories the last weeks makes me think a lot people need to get a hobby that actively engages their brains and bodies so they don't have time to sit around and dream up this shit.