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Semantics and Politics

In the film “Dead Poets Society”, Professor John Keating asks his students to rip out the introduction to their poetry book which describes how to rate the quality of poetry using a Cartesian system of coordinates – the system is a kind of “mathematical” evaluation based on “measurable” criteria. While we can agree that a “mechanical” approach to poetry evaluation is most likely nonsensical, we asked ourselves if this kind of approach (along with the use of an automatic system) could actually be used to examine text which has nothing to do with poetry, such as a political speech.

The political debates currently being held in the UK are the perfect occasion to satisfy our curiosity. The question is, can this situation can be considered sufficiently “scientific”, in that the three candidates all have to respond to the same questions during a live conference with a time limit for each response?

My colleague, Marco Giorgini and I have spent some time creating a small program which uses our semantic software COGITO to analyze the debates and extract the elements which appear to be significant. We had some fun as we examined our results and found out what we could understand about a political campaign if we didn’t bother to look at each candidate, their facial expressions, their tone of voice, or the cadence of the discussions. We just limited ourselves to “chopping up” what was said and evaluating the most abstract essence of the concepts discussed, the use of the lexicon and the grammatical structures.
Obviously, we just played around with the language, but we were also able to make some interesting, if not curious, considerations. This report provides the details as to what we found.

A special thank-you to Marco Giorgini who worked directly on the development of the report as well as the layout of this post.

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