Many? Some? Few? Demand Precision

img_0981My cats and I have different interpretations of the words “a lot” and “frequently.” To Harpo, Lolie and Darryl (when referring to how often they would like to be fed wet food) “frequently” likely means three times a day (or more). In my mind, “frequently” is once a day. Likewise, I think “a lot” of catnip is about a half teaspoon sprinkled on a toy–for them, it’s an entire eight ounce container they can romp through.

These different interpretations are definitely linked to an agenda–mine is to not spend all my money on wet cat food while theirs is to eat wet cat food all the time. Likewise, they want to romp in catnip and run around like banshees all night, while I just want them to get a little playful for about 30 minutes.

manyvsmuchPeople have similarly different interpretations of what are called “indefinite numbers”–words like “several,” “many,” “most” “frequently” and “few;” or, even more informal terms like “oodles,” “a smidge,” “tons” or “a lot.” “Several” or “many” might refer to “more than 10” or “or more than 100” or “more than a million’ depending on the context and/or the individual. “Most agree” might mean, to you, that 90% agree, while to me it might mean that 51% or more agree–there is a difference in that perception. Why does this matter?

Skim the news headlines, Facebook newsfeeds or Twitter feeds on any given day and you are likely to encounter the imprecision of at least one of these words. These words are often (what do we mean by “often?”), used by authors and speakers to disguise the fact that they really don’t have concrete information (precise numbers) about a subject. Sometimes the omission of exact numbers is simply because the information is not available–sometimes, it is deliberately left out to serve a particular agenda. That agenda also can be more nefarious than simply getting served an extra can of wet cat food–it can be used to distort or obscure the truth.

Take for example this headline from ABC News in December of 2016:

“Trump has declined many intelligence briefings offered to him according to Senate Aide.”

I would think that someone (source or reporter) may have been able to quantify exactly how many briefings were declined (or at least narrow the range down a bit). That said, maybe the precise number wasn’t enough to cause the alarm the “Senate Aide” desired. Or, maybe the source really didn’t know the precise number; maybe the reporter didn’t have an alternate source that knew the precise number.

Of course, then President-elect Trump’s Chief of Staff, Reince Preibus didn’t clarify matters when he responded that intelligence briefings were “happening quite frequently.” Again, “quite frequently” might mean “once a week” to you or  “everyday” to me. Was Preibus using indefinite numbers because he thought the regularity of briefings might not seem “quite frequent” enough to some people? Or, at the time, did he truly not know how often the briefings were taking place?

We’re lucky the people who use indefinite numbers aren’t writing our paychecks (“This week you’re getting paid many dollars.”) or prescribing our medicine (“Take this pill frequently.”).  But these vague terms are being used by politicians of every party, by traditional and non-traditional media–those with the power to influence and those with the power to act.

When you see the use of indefinite numbers in a news article/report, on Facebook or Twitter or even in conversation, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is more precision needed for you to understand the point?
  2. If yes, do you think it would have been possible for the writer or speaker to have been more precise?
  3. If yes, do you think the writer or speaker was deliberately avoiding that precision for some purpose?
  4. If yes, what was that purpose?

Demand precision when it comes to numbers. Read and listen critically–don’t be manipulated by your leaders, the media or your cats.


~ by kipwkoelsch on January 29, 2017.

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