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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The tyranny of the mean(ing).

There are a few things in this world that, for whatever reason, really bug the snot out of me. One of these is the incorrect or imprecise usage of words. Now, please understand what I mean: it isn't spelling per se that I have a hangup about (my own ability in that area is far from exceptional) and it isn't punctuation. It especially is not punctuation as my wife very often is driven to distraction by my seemingly random use of commas. No, my issue is that people very often do not use words correctly given the meaning of those words. You see, to me, a sentence is very much like a mathematical equation. Grammar and punctuation are like the order of operations while the words themselves form the quantities, variables and operators. In a sentence words combine to produce meaning and using words improperly leaves me reading the verbal equivalent of "3+3=12.8". This is a somewhat irritating experience for me since I am left wondering what, exactly, the author actually intended to say. And while I am often capable of inferring their meaning, I am keenly aware that I am making an inference and, thus, my interpretation of their message may he heavily colored by my own prior knowledge.

This source of annoyance carries over, in a slightly attenuated form, to occasions when folks are clearly using words properly, but are not using the underlying concepts correctly. Sometimes this can be a source of considerable amusement but, more often than not, can have some fairly extreme consequences. This is the case with a recent headline I was fortunate enough to see over on Conservapedia. Specifically:

For those too lazy to click the image, it reads:

Most doctors insist that unusual ectopic pregnancies are hopeless and require abortion, because supposedly less than one in a million mothers and infants can survive them. Yet a woman just gave birth to a healthy baby after an ectopic pregnancy.

If you don't know already an ectopic pregnancy is one in which an embryo fails to implant in the uterus (i.e. where it is supposed to) and instead implants somewhere else, including the ovary, the fallopian tubes, the cervix, or the ever non-descript "abdomen." As you might guess, this particular reproductive malfunction is rather dangerous both for the mother and embryo. Roughly half of ectopic pregnancies resolve on their own (i.e. spontaneously abort) and many of the remaining are aborted artifically to avoid the risk of catastropic bleeding from the mother, among other things.

Now, all that in mind, let's return to the Conservapedia headline. The first bit reads as a simple statement of fact:

Most doctors insist that unusual ectopic pregnancies are hopeless and require abortion, because supposedly less than one in a million mothers and infants can survive them.

I can't say what "most doctors" insist, but it does appear that ectopic pregnancies are considered to be a serious health risk. Conservapedia obviously disagrees with this given the weasel words (i.e. "supposedly") but if we take them at their word the probability of a successful ectopic pregnancy is 0.000001 or, in other words, any given ectopic pregnancy should be successful 0.0001% of the time. Based on this I think we can all agree that ectopic pregnancies sound like a serious risk to the mother.

Next, however, we get to the rest of Conservapedia's headline:

Yet a woman just gave birth to a healthy baby after an ectopic pregnancy.

This statement is curious because it is phrased as though it is a refutation of the preceding statement- that's what the "yet" is meant to convey. Appearances aside, however, it is not a refutation. Why? Well, it has to do with the logic of the statement. You see, if I made the statement "A always causes B" and then someone found an instance where A did not produce B then that one instance would disprove the general rule. Thus, if I make the claim that consuming a gallon of cyanide (A) will always result in death (B) then all that needs to happen to show that statement to be incorrect is to find even one case where consuming a gallon of cyanide (A) did NOT result in death (B). Conservapedia's "yet" statement is phrased as though it were preceded by the assertion "Ectopic pregnancy always causes the death of the mother and the child" (i.e. A always causes B). If this were true then the "yet" statement, which is of the form "A did NOT cause B" would be an adequate refutation. Unfortunately, however, the "yet" statement was preceded by something else- an assertion that more or less reads "Ectopic pregnancies very, very frequently- but not always- result in the death of the mother and/or child" (i.e. A very often causes B). As a consequence, Conservapedia's single exception is meaningless because exceptions are, indeed, to be expected since improbable does not equal impossible. Given Conservapedia's own claims, we would expect an ectopic pregnancy to end successfully one time in every million which, all joking aside, is still considerably more often than "never."

And what makes this all the more depressing is that Andrew Schlafly claims, with his characteristic stridency, that a single disconfirmation of a correlation does not invalidate that correlation. In fact, he claims that such a belief is a part of "liberal logic." Seriously:

And, again, for those who don't like the whole clicky-click thing:

belief that a correlation and/or causation (e.g., between atheism and suicide) can be disproved by a counterexample (e.g., one atheist who remained sane)

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide if I am an exception to the above claimed "correlation." Regardless, this is just another classic example of how things work on Conservapedia. And really I don't mind- it's their wiki, they can do what they want.

But, really and truly, could they please stop violating the English language and basic logic? I mean please?!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That "liberal logic" page is terrifying.

My favorite entry has to be the one that references Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Gee, why would we be more interested in McCain than Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy? Oh, wait, it's because only one of those three is currently running for office. One is currently undergoing/recovering from surgery for a brain tumor, and the other is a civilian.

Or looking at it again, maybe the one about Roe vs. Waid. On what planet do we need a 9-0 vote to reach a decision? And when has anyone, on the left or right, ever claimed that we would need one?

Ugh, and now I've wasted 20 minutes reading the rantings of the willfully stupid.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008 1:01:00 PM  

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