flak rss random

comparative truthiness

When comparing two things, it’s easy to make a claim relating them. This one is longer. This one is stronger. This one is older. This one is bolder. (This one sounds like Dr. Seuss.)

But are we correct? Do people believe us? Would you believe me if I told you William Shatner is older than John McCain? Maybe that’s just a thing I heard. What happens if you ask me how old they are? If I don’t know, that’s a bad sign. If I know that Shatner was born in 1931 and McCain in 1936, that’s a good sign.

If a claim can be quantified, it should be. It’s very easy to do. If it’s not easy, consider why.

The first thing one can do is to ask how much when reading. Any unquantified comparisons stand out as starting points for fact checking.

The second thing one can do is to ask how much when writing. I try to fact check most claims before clicking the big red send it to the internet button, but it can be difficult to know exactly what needs checking. I don’t need to check the things I’m sure about. Alas, my certainty is also sometimes mistaken.

Which is bigger, Central Park in New York or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco? No spoilers, but I’ve heard both answers stated confidently. However, if I followup by asking how many acres is this park and how many acres is that park, confidence drops precipitously. Somehow these high level derived facts become lodged in our heads long after we’ve forgotten the underlying facts, if we ever knew them. We don’t realize this happens until somebody asks what’s underneath.

Unfortunately these high level facts don’t have a lot of error correction builtin. It’s only a single bit, and if it flops, you’ll never know. A numeric fact is more likely (how much more likely?) to degrade to uncertainty than some other value. A builtin parity check of sorts.

Everybody loves numbers. Include them when you write something. You readers might learn something. You might learn something, too.

Posted 19 Dec 2017 18:09 by tedu Updated: 19 Dec 2017 18:09
Tagged: thoughts