Saturday, August 06, 2005

Stopping errors, part deux: The superlative

Today's entry under How To Keep Errors Out Of The Paper is "The Superlative: Enemy of Freedom."

Superlative and absolute -- first-biggest-only -- constructions threaten to introduce errors in two ways. One is the traditional, correctible form: We said X, X is false, time to run a correction. The second is more insidious because, even though it doesn't produce corrections, it tells people a lot about how our judgment processes work.

That's not always a pretty sight. Readers might decide, for example, that we're inept storytellers: We can't tell when an event is important enough to stand on its own without our dressing it up in adjectives. Worse, readers might infer that our commitment to diversity is lacking: Events don't happen unless they happen to white Americans. Or readers might suspect that we can't keep our opinions to ourselves. Or they might simply conclude we're dumb as a six-pack of flatworms.

Needless to say, there are times when we need to recognize a first-biggest-only or progress toward one. We could hardly have sports pages without records, after all. So here are some ways to start thinking about the difference between an opinion and a report: Think "baseball's greatest player" vs. "all-time American League home run leader."

The copy editor who encounters a story declaring some event to be the biggest, worst, greatest, onliest or whatever of its type is justified in requiring three bits of information from the originating desk:

1) A description of the data set involved: Career batting record of everyone who played a game in the American League, or anything done by everybody who ever played organized baseball (step forward, Cool Papa Bell)?

2) A description of the current mark and the scoring method.

3) The three current leading candidates (the ones that will be second, third and fourth in the scoring if the assertion is true).

If these can't be provided, the superlative should be removed from the story. The burden of proof for restoring it is on the writer.

Three events of the past month make clear the dangers of the superlative and the benefits of raising consistent, data-based complaints about them. (Right, this is the sermon part: Copyeds can save the world by following these rules!)

Here's the LATimes, talking about the July 7 bombings in London: By comparison, after the worst terrorist attack ever on British soil, this country's response has been almost preternaturally calm and measured, almost serene.

This is in the it-only-takes-one category, so: Lockerbie. To which the critic might respond: That wasn't on British "soil." To which the copyed responds: It damn sure landed on British soil, didn't it? And on some Britons in the bargain? One of those arguments is distinctly weaker than the other, but there's a bigger point: If readers are arguing about your judgment (or your memory; Lockerbie wasn't even 20 years ago) they aren't paying attention to your story. Bad sign.

A San Francisco Chronicle piece underlines a different sort of problem: The death toll rose to at least 88, with at least 119 wounded, in Egypt's worst terrorist attack. The issue here is measuring best and worst -- or safest and least safe, to name another scale where this crops up frequently -- by the death toll alone. That's a good way of measuring the "deadliest" attack but a bad way of summing up the elements that go into the broader impact of an event. Look at it this way: Which is "worse," an earthquake that kills 200 people or an earthquake that kills 20 people but knocks the water-purification system out for eight months?

Bear that argument in mind whenever you see a report about "safest" and "most dangerous" cities based on homicide rates. Not only is the risk of homicide unevenly distributed in the population (see fallacy of distribution, below), but homicide is only a small part of your overall safety. A ban on large-capacity ammo magazines, in short, doesn't do much for your safety if you live downwind from a nuclear plant with Chernobyl-style operating procedures.

Those cases are pretty clear: Know what you're writing about. Write only about what you're writing about (sounds like journalism, doesn't it?). Now let's look at a couple that show why sticking to measurable stuff, and stuff you have the measurements for, is so important. These are from the same writer, same issue and same topic, but two different stories:

They survived "pikadon," a rhythmic word the Japanese used to describe the "flash-boom" of history's two most cataclysmic acts.

You'd be hard-pressed to find any disagreement from the surviving U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines who in mid-1945 were preparing to take part in what would have been history's greatest battle -- Operation Olympic, code-named Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese homeland.

See what happens when you rely on limitless sets -- the whole of history -- and nonspecific measurements? If Hiroshima is one act, how many actors are involved: Bombardier only? Bombardier and pilot? Whole crew? Truman? FDR? Everybody in the Manhattan Project? Or, as one of the scientists in the chase plane suggested, everybody in the country? If Nagasaki was an act, what was Wannsee? Or Barbarossa? How are we measuring "cataclysmic"?

It's sort of a cheap shot to say "Same way we measure 'great,'" but that's exactly the issue: What would the "greatest" battle be? Longest? Shortest? Deadliest? Least deadly? Unseated most rulers for fewest casualties? Has most namesake geographical features?

These are, in short, profoundly dumb sentences. But "That's a dumb sentence" doesn't tend to win a lot of battles for the copydesk. Put it in a specific, quantifiable way -- "How do we measure greatness, and when are we going to know we're done with 'history'?" -- and you have a better chance of winning.

There are (*ahem*) a few other issues to deal with in these stories too. The copyed's task is never done. Let's see:

* "Pikadon," a rhythmic word the Japanese used ... What particular function does this adjective have? More directly, what's "rhythmic" about this word that isn't rhythmic about any other three-syllable word (gullible, ludicrous, overwrought, lachrymose, saccharine)? Or pretty much any word, for that matter? This is not a call for a ban on adjectives; it's a plea that adjectives be chosen because they mean something, not because the dictionary fell open at that page.

* Operation Olympic, code-named Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese homeland. Did it seem unusual to anybody that a code name would be code-named something else? It should have. "Downfall" was the overall invasion plan; "Olympic" was the part that dealt with Kyushu.

* Japan laid down arms on Aug. 14 -- five days after Nagasaki -- and a peace treaty was signed Sept. 2 on board the aircraft carrier USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The Missouri is a battleship, not a carrier. Which might seem a small point, but if a writer can't tell a battleship from an aircraft carrier, and can't stop short of calling everything in sight the greatest in history, why should we trust anything he says between those extremes?

I was going to go on and on about the Bushido bit too, but I'm tired. Somebody go read John Dower and take that one on.

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