Friday, December 19, 2008

The Value of Checking Primary Sources: A Case in Point

Perhaps you're tired of hearing about Rod Blagojevich. Even if you are, I recommend that you listen to this radio clip ("Impeachment Hearings Raise Legal, Pronounciation [sic] Questions") sent by reader Ed Homonym in Chicago. It gets bizarre and hilarious about three minutes into the clip. If you're interested in as much Blagojevich news as you can get your hands (or ears) on, feel free to listen to the whole thing.


***

I've been away from blogging for a while--life keeps intervening. I expect to post something more substantial some time soon (and of course, you and I may define "soon" differently).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Language Police

I'm probably an ingrate. A publicist sent me an e-mail offering me a free copy of "a new book from The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar." I turned down the offer--I consider it unethical to accept a free copy of a book (a) that I probably won't read and (b) that I assume I'd give a hostile review to if I did read it.

The book is, according to the press release that the e-mail links to, Things That Make Us (Sic) [sic]: The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, The White House, and The World, by Martha Brockenbrough. The cover of the book has "sic" in square brackets, while the press release has it in plain parens. So the square-bracketed "sic" was added by me. It appears from the press release that Brockenbrough is one of those people who make fun of others' spelling and punctuation errors. It would be nice if she were as diligent when vetting a press release that she's responsible for.

According to the press release, this is one of several "interesting grammatical tidbits you'll learn only from Martha Brockenbrough":

Remember that "irregardless" is an irregular word, just as underwear is an irregular hat. Please use "regardless" instead (and keep your underwear under there).

The first thing you might notice about this is that this tidbit has nothing to do with grammar. On closer reading, you'll also notice that it's incoherent. Brockenbrough tells us that "'irregardless' is an irregular word." What does that mean? I think she means it's wrong or unacceptable, but irregular doesn't mean that--it just means not regular. English is full of irregular verbs and nouns with irregular plurals. Irregular seems to be a poorly chosen word here. I can guess why she chose it. We've got regardless and irregardless, so let's use irregular, which is regular with ir- in front. The joke doesn't seem very good, but that's just my taste. And we note that regardless and irregardless are synonyms (if we grant for the sake of the moment's argument that irregardless is a word), while regular and irregular are not.

Not only is irregular a poorly chosen word here, but the analogy seems very poor. I realize (or assume) that Brockenbrough is going for humor, and that different kinds of analogies are used in humor. They can be very strong analogies that make us realize how ridiculous something is, or they can be just silly (I originally wrote "intentionally silly," but there are some humorists who use silly analogies that are intended to be strong). Brockenbrough tells us that "'irregardless' is an irregular word, just as underwear is an irregular hat"; "just as" suggests to me that she thinks she's making a very strong analogy. Underwear is indeed an irregular hat; you can use it as a hat, and people will think it's highly irregular. But underwear isn't useless; it works well as underwear. So if this analogy is any good, irregardless is useful; it just isn't useful as a word. If irregardless is useless, which I suspect is Brockenbrough's point, then the analogy is no good. It strikes me as neither strong nor silly, but just inept.

I don't mean to single Brockenbrough out. The problem is that many of these language-policing would-be humorists seem to care more about spelling, made-up words that they don't like, and the enforcement of made-up rules than they do about logic or accuracy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Nonimplicit Trust in Reference Works

Please join me on the raft down my stream of semiconsciousness. When we disembark, the tour guide--yours truly--will announce that the point of the cruise is that we should read everything critically, even reference works. Even good reference works.


I've been trying to figure out what Bryan Garner, the author of the usage chapter in the fifteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, considers acceptable and what he considers unacceptable as understood or implicit wording--for example, as he is quoted in a previous post, "Although the inflected form of to be is sometimes implicit [in the passive voice], the past participle must always appear." I quoted this because I wanted to discuss his use of "inflected." I neglected to point out that the statement is incorrect. Garner doesn't give an example of a passive-voice sentence with the form of to be implicit, so I'll provide one: "The sentence was parsed, the verb conjugated." If I ask you, "Has the sentence been parsed?" and you reply, "It has," you will have said something passive with both the form of to be and the past participle implicit.


I guess. It depends on what Garner is talking about. I thought I might get some insight from the entry on implicit in his The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style (ODAUS) (available as part of Oxford Reference Online for those lucky enough to have access to it). Here is the entry:


Implicit, meaning "implied" and functioning as a correlative of explicit, has come to be misused in the sense "complete, unmitigated" <I have implicit trust in her> <I trust her implicitly>. The OED labels this usage both erroneous and obsolete. With its resurgence in recent years, one can still call it erroneous but no longer obsolete--e.g.: "Such implicit [read complete or simply delete implicit] trust heralds a new dawn in married life—until we get the next sex poll, and spouses revert to normal" (Ariz. Republic).

(Entire block quote is as in original, including angle-bracketed and square-bracketed material.)


Two thoughts came to mind when reading this. First, all three of Garner's examples--the two hypothetical ones in angle brackets and the one from Arizona Republic--are the same. They're all about implicit trust. So maybe we're dealing with an idiom here, and it doesn't matter much whether Garner or you or I like it. If you don't like it, don't use it. The second thought that occurred to me was wondering why the OED would say such a ridiculous thing.


What does Garner have to say about idiom? If you search the ODAUS for "idiom," you get thirty-six hits. His actual statement on idioms appears in the entry for illogic:


No serious student believes anymore that grammatical distinctions necessarily reflect logical ones. Our language is full of idioms that defy logic, many of them literary and many colloquial. We should not, for example, fret over the synonymy of fat chance and slim chance. Applying "linguistic logic" to established ways of saying things is a misconceived effort.

To which I can only add "Hear hear," "Huzzah," and "Yep." But why does this not apply to "implicit trust"?


And why would the OED make the very strange and un-OED-like statement that "this usage ['implicit trust'] is…erroneous"? Let's confirm that this is actually the case. Here is the OED's definition 3.a of implicit (since the OED uses boldface, italics, and boldface italics, I'm going to use very large letters for emphasis):


3.a.implicit faith (= eccl. L. fides implicita), faith in spiritual matters, not independently arrived at by the individual, but involved in or subordinate to the general belief of the Church; hence, resting on the authority of another without doubt or inquiry; unquestioning, unreserved, absolute. So implicit belief, confidence, obedience, submission, etc.

So it looks like Garner's statement was erroneous. But it isn't so simple. Definition 3.a is followed, reasonably enough, by definition 3.b:


†b. Hence (erroneously): Absolute, unqualified, unmitigated, as in implicit ignorance. Obs.

Since the dagger means that a definition is obsolete, the OED is being a little redundant here, but that's OK--nothing wrong with driving the point home. The actual problem is that the OED seems to be contradicting itself: it is nonerroneous and nonobsolete to define implicit as "unquestioning, unreserved, absolute" and erroneous and obsolete to define it as "absolute, unqualified, unmitigated." The astute reader will note that these definitions are the same. It looks like the OED was a little careless. It also looks like Garner was, given that he didn't notice the inconsistency. At least, I hope he was being careless--I don't want to think that he noticed the inconsistency but chose to go with the entry that conformed to his preference.


The point is that we even need to read reference works critically.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Oops

If my post "Seasonal Absurdity" crossed your desk, what would your main query be? Mine, if I were paying attention, which I can't be relied on to do, would be


The title of this item is "Seasonal Absurdity," and yet you write "the absurdity is timeless." OK?

The lesson is that we need to read critically. Even our own stuff. Or maybe we don't need to, but I sure do.


Maybe I can make an argument that it's OK, but it still needs a query.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Maybe Worth Thinking About

A friend in sunny Arizona sent us this article about some guys who don't like "typos." According to the article,


[Jeff Michael] Deck's diary account of the Grand Canyon incident was submitted as evidence in court. It says the two men climbed Desert View Watchtower while on holiday from their typo-enforcement duties "and discovered a hand-rendered sign inside that, I regret to report, had a few errors. I know today was supposed to be my day off from typo-hunting, but if I may be permitted to quote that most revered of android law enforcers, Inspector Gadget, 'Always on duty!' I can't shut it off....Will we never be free from the shackles of apostrophic misunderstanding, even in a place surrounded by natural beauty?"


After correcting a misplaced apostrophe and comma, Deck reported, he was aghast to discover what he described as a made-up word: "emense."


"I was reluctant to disfigure the sign any further, so we had to let the other typo stand. Still, I think I shall be haunted by that perversity."


While it may be fun to talk about what idiots these guys are, it may be more productive to use this as an occasion to reflect on the behavior of our colleagues--perhaps even on our own behavior. A typo is an error that has to do with, you know, typography. This was a manuscript sign--manuscript in the original sense--and this guy is having vapors about the typos. A manuscript is nontypographic. A manuscript has no typos. This is embarrassing. But we often embarrass ourselves in similar ways, showing off our own ignorance while acting superior (something I've done more than once). Like the person (I'm not making this up) who filled a manuscript (in the modern sense of the word) on the dirty war in Argentina with queries, increasingly snide, asking since when disappear is a transitive verb. And having hissy fits about trivial errors, some of which may not even be errors, when a logical or factual flaw kicks us where it hurts to be kicked and we don't even notice. (Or, arguably, like some doofus who gets all riled up by a supposed misuse of "typo." But I was trying to make a point, what with this guy acting like he's such a precisionist.)


An editor once told me that we're the accuracy department. This, like these guys' vandalism, is emblematic of editorial arrogance at its worst. We take care of the dangling modifiers, and those people who write the stuff, all they care about is getting the Krebs cycle right! I'm saving the public from a misplaced apostrophe, and these people are worried about a unique (in the pedantically acceptable sense of the word) historical marker! O injustice! O apostrophicity!


Some of us sometimes need to get some perspective.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Passive Aggression

Someday--maybe, if I get around to it--I'll explain why the usage guide in the fifteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (chapter 5, "Grammar and Usage," by Bryan A. Garner) was not a good idea. For the moment, though, I'll comment on a part of it that isn't bad at all: section 5:112, on active and passive voice. Garner goes into great detail, and to his credit he doesn't scold. All he says about style is the last sentence: "As a matter of style, passive voice {the matter will be given careful consideration} is typically, though not always, inferior to the active voice {we will consider the matter carefully}" (curly brackets in original).


By the way, there's a problem in Garner's description of the passive. Says he, "The passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb's past participle....Although the inflected form of to be is sometimes implicit, the past participle must always appear." I believe--and I may be incorrect--that the infinitive is considered uninflected. But it's common for a passive to be formed with the infinitive of to be, as in this sentence. If I'm correct about infinitives being uninflected, then restricting the formation of the passive to inflected forms of to be is incorrect. If I'm incorrect about this, then all verb forms are inflected, "inflected form of to be" is synonymous with "form of to be," and "inflected" here is just a wasted word. Since I'm not sure of myself on this, I'd appreciate your comments.


(There are a few other comment-worthy items in this quotation from Garner--"colloquial usage" [redundant according to his definition of usage, but he uses the phrase a lot] and "sometimes implicit" [he seems to be inconsistent in his acceptance of implicit words]--that are off-topic for the moment. I hope to come back to them in later posts.)


The manual itself is full of passive sentences. Opening it at random, I came to sections 9:56 through 9:63. These sections include 10 sentences with passive voice and 15 without--40 percent are passive. This figure includes cross-references--sentences in which the verb is see in the imperative--among the nonpassives. If we omit these from the calculation, we get 10 sentences with passive and 9 without--53 percent passive.


The point here is not to mock either Garner or the manual (which I hold in the highest reverence, and I'm not joking about that). We've all heard (and perhaps participated in? hmmm?) griping about the passive voice, but in some contexts it seems preferable to the active. Among those contexts are statements of how things are done--they're a given, and that's that, and we don't need to say who says so--and fiats from an authority figure. Both of which apply to the manual.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Seasonal Absurdity

I noticed that there seems to be more silliness floating around in the air than usual. Then I looked out the window and figured out why this was happening--we're in a year whose Gregorian number is divisible by four.


(Now, I know that what I'm about to talk about is old news, but I've got other stuff to do than blog, and the absurdity is--I don't know [sigh]--the absurdity is timeless.)


So Wesley Clark says about John McCain, "I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war." And then he says, "He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not." So then Bob Schieffer says neither has Barack Obama, and Obama hasn't "ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down." And then Clark says, he says, "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." So then Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith says [Ed Absurdum at this point in the joke is struggling hard to keep her composure] [update, January 28, 2010: I was still using the pseudonym "Ed Absurdum" when this was originally written], "If Barack Obama wants to question John McCain's service to his country, he should have the guts to do it himself and not hide behind his campaign surrogates."


Hwah hwah hwah hwah [snork snork] heeheeheeheehee.


Excuse me [wipes away tears].


Now, I know the best way to ruin a joke is to explain it, but since this is an educational blog [starting to giggle again], I'm going to explain it anyway.


Where to start? Well, OK, first we note that Clark didn't "question John McCain's service to his country." This is a straw man attack. Perhaps more importantly, Clark's statement--that getting shot down in a fighter plane is not a qualification to be president--is true. Many people other than McCain have had that experience. While we may honor their service, most of us, probably including McCain and Smith, would agree that most of them aren't qualified to be president.


We find arguments like this in scholarly work all the time. Rolling our eyes isn't enough (although it's hard to avoid.) We need to query it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Apparent (But We Know How Appearances Can Be) Inconsistency in the OED

Well, we all remember what happened last time I said I found an inconsistency in a dictionary, don't we? That's right--I ended up issuing an apologetic retraction (although I did come back and belabor the subject).


An ordinary fool would cut her losses and not make any such accusations again. But as my hubster points out, I'm not an ordinary fool--I'm an anonymous fool [update, January 28, 2010: I was still using the pseudonym "Ed Absurdum" when this was originally written; in real life, I don't have a hubster, although the missus does].


But before I start, let me point out that I love the Oxford English Dictionary. I often spend hours with it. I find it irresistible. In fact, I speak of the OED in roman letters, following the advice of the Chicago Manual of Style ver. 15 (also mentioned in roman letters): "Names of scriptures and other highly revered works are capitalized but not italicized" (Chic. Man. Sty. 8:11).


Anyhow, I recently looked a word up in the OED, and it mentioned a "non-standard" usage. Hmm, I said to myself; I didn't think they hyphenated this. So I looked for the entry for non-standard; there was no such entry, but there was an entry for nonstandard. Curious, I searched the definitions in the dictionary for nonstandard and got zero hits. When I searched the definitions for non-standard, I got sixty-one hits. In other words, the form that's entered in the dictionary isn't the form the dictionary actually uses.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More on Syllable Breaks

OK, I just want to finish up this syllabification business. I posted the apologetic retraction as soon as I saw my error, but there's still a little more that needs to be said.


In my first post on syllabification, I wrote, "I propose that we stop worrying about syllabification. If a break is plausible and gives syllables that can be pronounced and isn't absurd, it's fine." On page 11a of Merriam-Webster's eleventh (quoted in the apologetic retraction), it says,

There are acceptable alternative end-of-line divisions just as there are acceptable variant spellings and pronunciations. It is, for example, all but impossible to produce a convincing argument that either of the divisions aus·ter·i·ty, au·ster·i·ty is better than the other. But space cannot be taken for entries like aus·ter·i·ty or au·ster·i·ty, and au·s·ter·i·ty would likely be confusing to many. No more than one division is, therefore, shown for an entry in this dictionary.


Many words have two or more common pronunciation variants, and the same end-of-line division is not always appropriate for each of them. The division fla·gel·lar, for example, best fits the variant \flə‑'je‑lər\ whereas the division flag·el·lar best fits the variant \'fla‑jə‑lər\.


In some ways, my intuitive approach--it's OK if it "is plausible and gives syllables that can be pronounced and isn't absurd"--is actually stricter than Merriam-Webster's approach. At least, it is if I add that the breaks shouldn't be misleading. Merriam-Webster says that "the division flag·el·lar best fits the variant \'fla‑jə‑lər\." Under my approach, flag·el·lar is incorrect. If I see "flag‑" at the end of a line, I'm going to pronounce it \flag\ (MW transcription, as in "you're a grand old flag" etc.)--there's not going to be a \j\ in the pronunciation. In cases like this, Merriam-Webster's syllable breaks are not just disputable, but downright misleading.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Apologetic retraction

May I quote myself? Thank you.


I looked up eschew because I thought I'd heard it mispronounced. The first pronunciation listed (the first among equals) was \e‑'shü\; but--and here comes my point at last--the syllabification is given as es·chew. This makes no sense if the sch is pronounced \sh\, but it's the only break that makes sense if the sch is pronounced \s‑ch\. So Merriam-Webster is contradicting itself. It doesn't take a stand on the pronunciation of the sch, but it does take a stand on the syllabification, which means that it does take a stand on the pronunciation of the sch.

And now I quote page 11a of Merriam-Webster's eleventh, with some added emphasis from yours truly.


There are acceptable alternative end-of-line divisions just as there are acceptable variant spellings and pronunciations. It is, for example, all but impossible to produce a convincing argument that either of the divisions aus·ter·i·ty, au·ster·i·ty is better than the other. But space cannot be taken for entries like aus·ter·i·ty or au·ster·i·ty, and au·s·ter·i·ty would likely be confusing to many. No more than one division is, therefore, shown for an entry in this dictionary.


Many words have two or more common pronunciation variants, and the same end-of-line division is not always appropriate for each of them. The division fla·gel·lar, for example, best fits the variant \flə-'je-lər\ whereas the division flag·el·lar best fits the variant \'fla-jə-lər\. In instances like this, the division falling farther to the left is used, regardless of the order of the pronunciations:


fla·gel·lar \flə-'je-lər, 'fla-jə-lər\

My point is that I sure do wish people would do their research before they publish. Especially me. I apologize to Merriam-Webster. (But boy, did it ever feel cool to think I'd caught a dictionary in a contradiction.)


I do get a little bit of vindication from the fact that M-W seems to more or less share my liberal view on this syllable business, sort of.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Parenthetical Flop

Thank you to Gal Vanicity, who heard this on NPR's Morning Edition and sent it to us:


But otherwise it's mud, sand. You can see tree roots clinging to the bottom of what was the lake. Fish, some of them still alive, flopping around.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Don't Give Me a Break

I recently heard a radio journalist saying that someone had \e‑'shüd\ (Merriam-Webster transcription) something. Certain that the journalist had mispronounced it, I looked eschew up in Merriam-Webster's eleventh, and to my surprise the pronunciation was listed as \e‑'shü, i‑; es‑'chü, is‑; also e‑'skyü\. According to the dictionary's frontmatter (p. 12a), only the one following also is considered a variant pronunciation, and we are to draw no conclusions on the comparative popularities of the pronunciations that precede it. But still! I mean! But still, I mean I'd never even heard \e-'shü\ before, which may mean only that I need to get a life. (The previous sentence strongly suggests that I do in fact need to get a life. A normal person--one who's not in the editing biz--would have put "only" [or "just"] before "mean," not after it. Pitiful.)


(Or maybe "only mean" would have been correct as well as idiomatic. I mean, the fact that I'd never heard \e‑'shü\ before only means I need to get a life; it doesn't build pyramids. On the other hand, I may only need to get a new line of work.)


But seriously now, the reason I'm bringing this up. I looked up eschew because I thought I'd heard it mispronounced. The first pronunciation listed (the first among equals) was \e‑'shü\; but--and here comes my point at last--the syllabification is given as es·chew. This makes no sense if the sch is pronounced \sh\, but it's the only break that makes sense if the sch is pronounced \s‑ch\. [An apologetic retraction for the rest of this paragraph appears here. June 26, 2008.] So Merriam-Webster is contradicting itself. It doesn't take a stand on the pronunciation of the sch, but it does take a stand on the syllabification, which means that it does take a stand on the pronunciation of the sch.


The Oxford English Dictionary takes a different approach to syllabification. In an entry where no pronunciation guide is given, accents appear at the beginning of the stressed syllables in the main entry. If a pronunciation is given, the accents appear in the pronunciation, and the main entry has no syllabification. Thus, the OED has "antidisestablishmen'tarianism with no pronunciation given.* Slicing it down little by little, we find dise'stablishment and finally establishment, with the pronunciation given as (ɪ'stæblɪʃmənt). The main entry lacks an accent mark since one appears in the pronunciation. (The OED uses accent marks at the base line for secondary stress. Since I don't know how to get those, I use double nonsmart quotes for the secondary accent.)


I propose that we stop worrying about syllabification. If a break is plausible and gives syllables that can be pronounced and isn't absurd, it's fine. I realize that this attitude is similar to that of the author who says "Since I don't understand dangling modifiers, they aren't important." This author is only partially correct. Dangling modifiers aren't important (except, God bless them, as part of a full-employment program for manuscript editors). But the author's not understanding them isn't why they're not important. But I'm digressing again. The point is that I realize that my attitude toward syllable breaks is willfully ignorant, but I'm still right. Merriam-Webster and the OED should adopt the practice of putting an accent mark before the stressed vowel, not before what they suppose to be the beginning of the stressed syllable.


None of which tells us how to break eschew.



* I looked antidisestablishmentarianism up in the OED because it presents many an opportunity for syllable breaks. The OED defines it thus:


Properly, opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England (rare): but popularly cited as an example of a long word. So antidisestablishmentarian.

Indeed.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Illegible

The Times Literary Supplement of May 7, 2008, carries a review by Robert Irwin of two books critical of Edward Said, the late author of Orientalism. One of the books under review, Defending the West by the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq, discusses "The Imaginary Orient," a paper by Said ally Linda Nochlin that appeared in Art in America in 1983. Nochlin disapproves of Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting The Snake Charmer (c. 1883). Irwin's review tells us that


according to a note in Nochlin's article, "Edward Said has pointed out to me in conversation that most of the so-called writing on the back wall of the 'Snake Charmer' is in fact unreadable". To which Ibn Warraq responds that the wall bears a clearly legible quotation from the Koran's Sura of the Cow in thuluth script. (Hence, perhaps, doubts about Said's Arabic.)

Since Nochlin's article appeared in a scholarly journal, it's worthwhile for those of us in the scholarly editing racket to pay attention. The claim that some "so-called writing...is in fact unreadable" is an argument from ignorance. An argument from ignorance takes the general form "I don't know that this is true. Therefore, it is untrue." Or vice versa. The case of Said, Nochlin, and the sura isn't just an argument from ignorance--it's an ignorant argument from ignorance. In the standard argument from ignorance, the arguer at least knows that he or she doesn't know. A bit of Rumsfeldspeak might help us here. When most of us see a supposed language that's unfamiliar to us, it's a known unknown--we don't know it, but we know that we don't know. Said thinks it's a known--it's bogus and he knows it. But it isn't a known. What's a known unknown to the rest of us is an unknown unknown to Said--he doesn't know that he doesn't know. This all casts doubt onto much more than Said's knowledge of Arabic.


The scholarly Edward Said says it isn't real since he can't read it, the scholarly Linda Nochlin accepts this, and the scholarly Art in America publishes Nochlin's comment. We who edit scholarly materials need to watch out for stuff like this. We need to query authors on whether they can actually know such statements to be true. Some will plant hedges around the wording; since this blog has no opinions, it will let you draw your own conclusions on those who leave it as it is.


Should we criticize Nochlin for making an argument from authority? Yes and no. If she had reason to think Said was familiar with Arabic and all of its calligraphic styles, it was appropriate for her to take his word for it and to cite him as an authority to the extent that he was claiming that it wasn't legible Arabic. Asserting Said's authority for the claim that it wasn't legible at all does seem to be an inappropriate appeal to authority. Or maybe not. This is not just a known unknown, it's a known unknowable. There is no appropriate authority to appeal to for such a statement.


Let the record show that I'm accepting Ibn Warraq's authority on the writing and therefore am vulnerable to a charge of using an argument from authority. Let it also show that Ibn Warraq's claim is at least verifiable (although I haven't verified it). And how would I verify it? By checking with an authority, of course. There's no getting away from it, and it's often appropriate. Most bibliographies are one big appeal to authority, and you lose credibility if you don't have them.


All statements about Nochlin and her article, Ibn Warraq, and Gérôme and his painting (with the exception of Gérôme's first name) are based on Irwin's review, which I found at the invaluable Arts & Letters Daily.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Comparison That's Probably Not Nonmisleading

Imagine this text (from a pro-Obama site) comes your way. What do you do with it? (Before you go any further, you might want to review the material in the left margin about not endorsing candidates.)


In February alone, more than 94% of our donors gave in amounts of $200 or less. Meanwhile, campaign finance reports show that donations of $200 or less make up just 13% of Senator McCain's total campaign funds, and only 26% of Senator Clinton's....

Meanwhile, Senator McCain has raised more than 70% of his total campaign funds from high-dollar donors giving $1,000 or more. Senator Clinton has raised 60% of her funds from $1,000-and-up donors.

First, note that this gives February figures for Obama and "total campaign funds" for Clinton and McCain. Second, and perhaps more subtly, two different types of things are being compared. The only thing that's being said about donations to Obama has to do with the percentage of donors who gave $200 or more; for Clinton and McCain, the percentage of total funds is given.


In case the difference isn't clear to you, let's cook up some highly improbable hypothetical numbers. All of these are consistent with the numbers in this text. Imagine that Obama had 100 donors in February; 95 of them donated $25 each, and 5 gave $2,300 each. And now I'll repeat myself--these figures are improbable, and they're consistent with the text. At any rate, this would give him a February total of $13,875, of which $11,500 came from donors giving $1,000 or more. In other words, 83 percent of this money comes from "high-dollar donors."


The problem is that the percentage of total money from big donors will always be higher than the percentage of total donors who are big (as it were). That's because they give more money. So the comparison made by the text is inherently misleading, unless the Obama contributors in both categories--$200 or less, and more than $200--all gave approximately $200.


So what do you do if text with a comparison like this crosses your desk? I would query it, pointing out the flaws. Some authors will thank you and make a more appropriate comparison (and it might show that the total percentage of money contributed to the author's candidate by large donors is indeed lower than the percentage for the other candidates). Some won't care and will leave it as it is. The truly cynical ones will realize that it's misleading and want to keep it that way. But it's still our job to try to keep them honest, and to make the decent but careless ones look good.


Thank you to H. Luke O'Cephalus for bringing this material, which was found on Brendan Nyhan's blog, to my attention.