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Jottings 8: of words and numbers

[ by Charles Cameron — nota bene: numbers are my piano, words are my forte ]


The New Scientist in its feature Charting Syria’s civil war http://syria.newscientistapps.com/index.html claims that it “crunched the numbers on violent events in Syria” and then says “the resulting view suggests that the violence has subsided in recent months”.

Jay Ulfelder in Challenges in Measuring Violent Conflict, Syria Edition at Dart Throwing Chimp suggests “That inference is almost certainly wrong” — and proceeds to say why. Here’s the broad strokes short form:

As Deborah Gerner and Phil Schrodt describe in a paper from the late 1990s, press coverage of a sustained and intense conflicts is often high when hostilities first break out but then declines steadily thereafter. That decline can happen because editors and readers get bored, burned out, or distracted. It can also happen because the conflict gets so intense that it becomes, in a sense, too dangerous to cover.

I’m interested in close reading versus sloppy writing, and from my POV the likelihood of that sort of almost axiomatic decline not being factored into New Scientist‘s conclusions slides in when they write that they “crunched the numbers on violent events in Syria”.

If instead they’d written that they’d “crunched the numbers on reports of violent events in Syria” — wouldn’t it have been a little harder to then write, “the resulting view suggests that the violence has subsided in recent months”?

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to write, “the resulting view suggests that the reports of violence have subsided in recent months”?

I’m sorry, but from where I sit it’s not the numbers, it’s the sloppy language that seems problematic.

One Response to “Jottings 8: of words and numbers”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Charles –
    Even before you posted this, it has seemed to me that there is an awful lot of this kind of sloppiness lately. I’ve been wondering if it’s actually worse than before or if I’ve become more conscious of it for some reason.
    Some of it, like this, takes abstractions for realities.
    And some is just sloppy. Here’s one example I ran across today of someone calling out this sloppiness. 

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